Exactly 25 years ago I went into labor. I begged the gods (and they obliged) to give me a one-week respite. The concept of a lifetime of wearing costumes for a themed birthday party was unappealing… and something about Halloween, for the more literal among us, is confusing. Some of us talk to angels every day-- and trolls and devils. We fear painted-on smiles and puppetry, while we see Death among the faces in Times Square, Jesus in a slice of toast, and find our pot of gold in a leathery-faced man with a thrift-shop guitar.
Especially since I have long passed the midpoint of my life, I avoid holidays which celebrate and mock death. I am grateful not to have to commemorate a birthday with masks and pumpkin heads. Coming from the kind of family where you were responsible for your own costume, the experience of listening to strange door-tones and smelling the leafy fall night air were my best childhood souvenirs. Conversely, I wouldn't want to die on Halloween. My best friend was buried in a designer black dress with her dark-henna hair clean and shiny...and her face still and pale in full Goth make-up. All dressed up… the way she used to watch the Rocky Horror film when I wasn't playing a gig. Her image comes to me every October 31st. All dressed up, the way her remains would be if someone dug them up. It's eerie. It seems wrong.
Last weekend they held the pre-Halloween memorial for my beloved adopted stepmother who took her own life in July. She expressly forbade ceremonies, funerals, etc. This gathering was intended to celebrate her brief foray into experimental film-making from the 1960's which won her more hipster-cred than her maybe 1-200,000 hours of dedicated drawing and painting. It was held at a small theatre; I received a hand-written invite. So I took the subway, on a Sunday afternoon, $2.50 out of my daily spending allowance of $4, and was delayed by police activity at 14th Street. I arrive 15 minutes late; the screening has begun, and I am asked for $20 contribution.
Well… backstory---I have sold 40-50 of her drawings over the years, in my former capacity as a gallerist… placed her work in some wonderful collections, never took a cent of commission, since she lived this very frugal lifestyle. I assumed she was poor. I am poor; we tread lightly around others' financial handicaps. So I spent hours taking notes, arranging her books, cleaning her house, organizing her life, mailing letters, bringing her hand-made gifts and cherished visitors. But apparently she had loads of money, and half a townhouse, and had some estranged nieces and sycophants who in the end were 'there'. And somehow, my mother or grandfather had given me this notion that it's not appropriate to take credit cards to a memorial, and I'd come, in my one blue dress and leather jacket, with only keys and a metro card. No cell phone, of course; nor would I have texted any of the guests with my pathetic issue.
Okay…so the smug girl at the booth with the trendy haircut seemed even more composed when the tears began (I am so uncool at times). After a useless attempt at negotiation, I left like a humiliated gatecrasher, and wept all the way home on the bus (free X-fer, small consolation) with wet mascara stains running down my dress. I'm not even sure what the moral here is, because apparently I was the only one who saw the irony in paying admission to celebrate the life or death of someone I had loved, whose films I'd watched umpteen times without the company of the hipster audience who knew little of her soul or her underdressed, no-admission life-- this woman who, outside of her under-fulfilled desire for artistic fame, was my hero, my confidante and mentor for so many years. Except that she might have ignored me, had she been there. She might have preferred these nouveau, well-dressed film-fans to the full but cash-poor heart on my worn-leather sleeve.
There are several blocks in my neighborhood which literally compete for Halloween bling. Private townhouses are swathed in webs and lights and witches on broomsticks suspended above ghosts and monsters and vampires. Some of them even speak and groan and howl. The pumpkins are catered… faces are carved with the finesse of a Kara Walker. I cannot imagine the calibre of candy these people hand out. It is beyond me.
By midnight, the rain had basically chased away the trick-or-treaters; lights were out, the web and fibrous material was soaked and sagging and sad; the vampires and witches looked a little cold and bewildered. On our garbage pails were several discarded pumpkins and some party trash… orange cups and candy wrappers. I took one of the pumpkins upstairs and without thinking, I opened a can of Benjamin Moore and painted it black. There it sat, my pumpkin in disguise, like a punishment-- like a souvenir of failure and mourning and aborted Halloween. Like a giant ridiculous mark of punctuation on my day of shame, day of the dead, but not for me who lacked the price of admission.
We are all ghosts and spirits here… we are walking shadows. When the lights go out we disappear, we are leveled and costume-less and skeletal. We masquerade and we dance, we make films or music and we cry and we blink and we love and we die. My pumpkin and I are alone in the dark; I light a candle and through the night rain I can still hear the looped mocking deep digital laugh track of the mechanical Caped Man with the Skull who is waving his scythe back and forth at the top of the steps on the $10-million townhouse on the next block. Someone forgot to turn him off--- or they cannot, and a lyric is going around in my head, between the laughs… the one Bob Dylan borrowed from the Bible, from the hymnals… and the first one now will later be last.