The most effective licensing procedure is self-licensing, so I am granting myself permission to indulge in an unapologetic essay in paedolatry — a neologism conveniently covered by the same license. It means “kiddie-worship”, of course. Given the number and adorability of my grandchildren, and in light of the remarkable restraint I have exercised in slobbering over them in public, I have commissioned myself to write a little essay about Ruby Dixon Fleming’s first active Hallowe’en at the age of one year and eleven months.
Ruby appareled herself — one could hardly use the word disguise — as Ms. Liberty, the “mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles.” Ruby is on intimate terms with the real Ms. Liberty, a near neighbor who brazenly rises next that part of the “golden shore” of New York harbor a scant distance from the Dixon Fleming household on Coffey Street, Red Hook, Brooklyn. Ruby had set out with a splendid torch of “imprisoned lightning” crafted of tissue paper and a flashlight by her cunning mother; but she set it aside in the excitement of her first candy-grab. This was her initiation to Hallowe’en, and she may not have fully grasped the finer points of theory, such as that one gathers one’s treats from the house-residents rather than from the paper sacks of the other kids.
Your average gray, straight, male Episcopalian geriatric who owns two suits and speaks in, like, complete sentences may at first feel a little self-conscious when dropped among the young and the hip of waterfront Brooklyn. I have the impression some of these people may not have voted for Mitt Romney. But Hallowe’en on Coffey Street dissipated my secretly held worries that they constitute a potentially revolutionary force intent on undermining the Establishment. The thing is, if you own or are buying a house in Brooklyn today, you are the Establishment. Once one moves beyond the first impression born of possibly odd attire, a more family-friendly, community minded set of real estate stake-holders would be hard to find in the dullest suburb of Houston.
Indeed they probably would not be found there at all, because Red Hook has preserved (or created anew) a vital sense of neighborhood from the rapidly vanishing American past. The anodyne anonymity of suburbia is definitely not the vibe. Still, nobody seems to know just who organized the Trick-or-Treating. Photocopied notices simply appeared announcing that traditional Hollowe’en activities for very young Red Hookers would concentrate on three blocks of one of the neighborhood’s longest unbroken residential stretches (including by chance Ruby’s own house) between five and five-thirty. If you build it, they will come. I haven’t seen a critical mass of trick-or-treaters at my house in Princeton in about twenty years. We’re lucky to get a pitiable trickle, but there in Brooklyn a tide of kids in the toddler to pre-teen range, together with at least an equal number of parents and other supervisory adults, ebbed and flowed along the street in carnivalesque spirit. The costumes, including those of many of the elders, were great. There were sidewalk highjinks galore. Mikhail Bakhtine would have approved, but so would T. S. Eliot. Here was a richly imaginative event exhibiting the union of “tradition and the individual talent,” skillfully orchestrated chaos riotously fun and at the same time comfortably safe and wholesome. And to think that the star of the whole show was our own blond-haired, blue-eyed, torchless Lady Liberty!
I was not present to see another recent manifestation of the Red Hook spirit. But Rich and Katie provided me with some photos. Two years ago the neighbors would have been able to celebrate Hallowe’en only in rowboats or diving bells. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy (29 October 2012) the whole place was prime “Section A”, among the hardest-hit sections of the city — under water and actually under order of evacuation by Mayor Bloomberg. This year, to mark the second anniversary of their spunky civic comeback, the locals mounted a spirited allegorical pageant, the Barnacle Parade, in which the grimacing villain Sandi was once again bested by the super-hero Sanito, as I would name the personification of the New York Sanitation Department, the city’s unexpected saviors two years ago. I don’t know whether there were any literary scholars on the Parade’s planning committee, but there may well have been. Perhaps Red Hook will be the cradle of the Next Big Thing in Theater. It was exactly such secularized “morality plays” in the late Renaissance that ended up giving us Shakespeare!
For dear Ruby and the other youngsters of her neighborhood the Hallowe’en highjinks on Coffey Street in 2014 may become a part of that substratum of childhood memory that, depending upon its positive or negative thrust, goes so far to vindicate Wordsworth's claim that “the Child is the Father to the Man”. Surely these will be memories of delight. But even happy memories come in different shades and tones. So long as our English language and its literature live on, genuine glimpses of the old Christian culture will not be entirely expunged. What does the word “Hallowe’en” mean? It means “All Hallows Eve.” Hallowe’en is the vigil of the Feast of All the Saints (Old English Hallows, as in “hallowed halls” or “this hallowed ground”), a day of reverent remembrance. All Saints’ day is November 1st, and it is followed by All Souls’ Day on November 2nd — a generalized memorial of all the dead. In several European cultures, including the Castilian imported to the Hispanic New World, All Souls’ Day (Día de los muertos) became the more prominent of the two. I just saw a newspaper article about the complicating influence of Hallowe’en on the traditional Mexican customs of the Día de los muertos. Sitting there on a Brooklyn stoop, passing out Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups from a rapidly depleting basket in my lap, I missed none of the fun. Yet my mind did turn intermittently to some of the faithful departed, and especially my grandparents James and Cora Louise, Samuel and Dell, as I hope that Ruby’s, seventy years hence, might turn for a moment to memories of her grandparents.