When Ginger and I first moved to Massachusetts in 1990, we settled in Charlestown, one of the neighborhoods of Boston and home to the USS Constitution and the Bunker Hill Monument. We lived first in a small apartment on Pleasant Street, in the shadow of the Monument, and then in a row house, circa 1840, at 14 Hill Street, looking down over the Mystic River.
I had never known what it was like to live in a neighborhood until I moved to Charlestown.
Boston residents, for the most part, don’t have air-conditioning in their homes. Summertime means the windows are open. Moving from Texas, where I drove into the garage, closing the door behind me, and then entered my sealed home, I never knew much at all about what was happening next door. Three days in Charlestown and we could tell you what our neighbors were cooking, what TV shows they watched, and what they called each other when they were mad. Ginger said the day she felt like a real Bostonian was when our friend Marilyn yelled up from the street, “Hey, Ginga! Open the dowah!” (Translation: “Hey Ginger! Open the door!”)
We moved in around Labor Day, so Halloween was our first holiday without boxes. Our new friend, Rosemary, told us about a tradition we worked hard never to miss: at five o’clock (because this time of year it’s dark by six), all the children gather at the Bunker Hill Monument – in costume of course – and are led in a Halloween Parade, complete with band, to walk around the Monument and chase away the evil spirits. The good people who live in the surrounding houses reward their efforts with candy.
Each of the Halloweens since we moved south, we have tried to get back to Charlestown. Tonight we finally made it. I didn’t have to work, Ginger left work early, and we drove into the city and the neighborhood we called home for so many years. About 5:15 the crowd began to gather, and by the time the band got there (a little late), there were between three and four hundred children and parents, dressed as pumpkins, puppies, princesses, Power Rangers, super heroes, Chicken Littles, lady bugs, bunnies, pirates, and flowers. Since we’re in Boston, there were also a couple of lobsters. The gathering worked its magic once again: there were only good spirits on the wind as they circled on a perfect autumn evening.
People in New England celebrate Halloween with a great deal of gusto. Garrison Kellior points out that Irish immigrants brought Halloween to America in the 1840s, when the immigrated because of the Potato Famine. He goes on to say:
Halloween no longer has any real connection to the festival it came from. Unlike most major holidays in this country, it is not a religious holiday, it does not celebrate an event in our nation’s past, it does not involve traveling to visit family, it doesn’t even give us a day off work. But it gives us the chance to try out other identities. For one day, people can feel free to dress as the opposite gender, as criminals, as superheroes, celebrities, animals, or even inanimate objects.
Some see cities as troubled, if not evil, much the same as some see Halloween as a holiday. But what I miss about living in the city is the same creative energy that swirled around the Monument tonight. You see people who don’t look like you, who come from other places, who ask different questions, who cause you to think about who you are. Pressed up against each other, you have to figure out how to live together in a way that chases away the evil spirits and makes room for the good to thrive.
It’s not easy; it’s not always pretty — but, damn, it’s fun.