trick or treat*It was one of two days in my young life  that  I  simply couldn’t wait for nightfall, the other being Christmas eve.

Because after sundown and after dinner,   my younger brother Tony, my best friend Donnie and I would   take to the streets,  knock on doors in our Oklahoma City neighborhood  and gleefully declare the phrase that, to us, was more like one word:  “Trickatreat!”

Einstein?  Ray Charles?  In my fertile,  11 year-old mind,  the true genius was whoever came up with the idea  that called on kids to annually don costumes and  go out and  collect candy.

Not that there were many honest to goodness costumes in my neighborhood.  Unlike today’s elaborate, Instagram-ready, over-the-top outfits, the   costumes being sold during my youth in the ‘60s seemed fairly hokey to me.  Mama would not have spent the money on them, anyway.

Instead, a few days before the big night,  she gave us a dollar and we walked  around the corner to TG&Y   and chose from a selection of  plastic mold masks—time honored monsters and popular cartoon characters— that covered  only  your face and was kept there by a rubber band that would irritate your skin  if you wore it  long enough.   A couple of Trick or Treat bags each, and we were ready to go.

On Trick-or-Treat,  soon as the sun went down, we were out there.  We hooked up with Donnie, wearing a Frankenstein mask, who lived next door.  Mama  stayed home and passed out candy with our youngest brother, Kevin.

While dime store masks were the extent of our outfits—Tony was an astronaut—the  costumes of other kids in the neighborhood  were  often a zany mélange of frugality and ingenuity.  Take a white bed sheet, cut two holes in it to see where you’re going, and you’ve got a ghost.   Likewise,  holes in a large brown Safeway grocery bag with a Magic Marker-drawn face created a robot. The head of a robot, at least.   A pillow case would serve as Trick or Treat bag.

Back then, I couldn’t appreciate their inventiveness.  I remember standing on a doorstep  trying to separate myself  from a group of  roguish, ghetto  ghouls,  when the lady of the  house opened the door and noticed a kid whose meager disguise was  a  black Lone Ranger-styled mask  and a white bath towel  for a cape.

“And who are you?” she cheerfully inquired.  “Zorro?… Robin, the Boy Wonder?”
“Yes, ma’am.”

“Which one?” I blurted, having the  gall  to be annoyed at his lack of detail. “If you’re Zorro, where’s your hat and sword?  And  Robin wears green gloves.”

The boy  shrugged.  “I’m both,” he  sheepishly said, addressing  the woman.
“You can’t be both,” I said.  “Who ever heard of one man bein’ Zorro AND Robin?”
“Robin is a boy and Zorro is a man,” Donnie chimed nonchalantly.
“And he has a mustache,” Tony said.

The woman smiled at our childish conjecture, dropped  miniature Tootsie Rolls into everyone’s bags and closed her door.  As soon as she did,  “Zorobin,”  examining my own half-baked costume effort,  laid into me.  “Oh–and like Fred Flintstone (my mask that year) wears PF Flyers.  Get  outta here.”
We finished hitting all the houses on Sixth Street, where we lived, and walked home,  ready to   take  our hustle  to the  other side of town.

What Daddy would do is drive us to Nichols Hills, a suburb where wealthy white folk lived, and drop us off on a corner.   We’d walk up one side of  a well-heeled street and down the other for several blocks, systematically going to houses collecting candy and rendezvousing with Daddy where he initially  left us.  Then he would drive us to the next block.  It was a  scorched earth operation  conducted street by street, until Donnie, Tony and I had each filled   two large Trick or Treat bags.

Nichols Hills was another world.  The kids were white,  many of them  decked out in costumes they’d either bought or spent serious time creating.  The only Negro kids we saw were the  few whose parents or guardians were enterprising enough to  do as we’d done.  We got a few curious looks–mostly from white parents accompanying their kids–but everyone was cool.

People would answer  the door looking like  Andy Griffith in a cardigan or Dinah Shore in pearls and peddle pushers, holding a bowl of something and wearing that requisite  White People Smile—the one I’d see on the faces of some whites when Mama would take us downtown shopping on the bus on Saturdays.  White people, I thought, smile for no reason.

While holding my bag open for goodies,  discreetly I’d peer past the man or woman doing the honors and into their home, glimpsing  a scene out of a Norman Rockwell painting:  roaring fireplaces, furniture that matched, massive throw rugs. Cozy, homey settings.  Sometimes,  there were other adults, holding cocktail glasses and chatting, as if having a party.  Or there’d be a big floor model color TV blaring a movie or TV show.   These people were living.

You had to watch white people, though, for every few houses, one of them would casually do something that should be illegal on Trick-or-Treat: into your bag,  they’d graciously  drop some fruit.  Like an apple.  Or an orange.  A banana.  FRUIT.  Or some damn peanuts.

Trick or treat is about CANDY.  Back in the day, that meant orange slices, candy corn, tiny boxes of Milk Duds and Boston Baked Beans and Red Hots;  pink and yellow taffy wrapped in wax paper and Bit O’ Honey and   Kraft caramels (or the chocolate ones);  Mike & Ike and Lemonheads  and Sugar Babies and Now & Later,  Pixy Stix, and  big, red Wax Lips and Jaw Breakers—you know, CANDY.   None of us kids appreciated their ode to health.

However, it was at one of the last houses  we  solicited  that  I truly got a surprise.  We rang the bell and in a couple seconds,   smiling  and holding a pan of homemade fudge squares, there appeared…a Negro woman.  When you’re a child, everyone  is old.  In retrospect, I’d say she was in her mid-thirties.  She opened the “storm” door, greeted everyone warmly, dropping candy into the bags.

The other kids were leaving the porch  when she got around to serving us.  “Y’all be good, now,” she said, offering a knowing wink. She appeared amused—empathetic?—with my bewildered expression.    Even at  11, I knew  it  was unusual for her  to be living here.

Back in the car, I couldn’t wait to tell what I’d seen.  “Daddy, colored people live out here, too!” I said, worn out from all the Trick-or-Treating.


“Back there,” I said, pointing to the house in the middle of the block.

Daddy did a U-turn, headed back down the street, and saw the woman out on the porch, passing out more fudge. “Huh,” he grunted  to himself and kept driving.

Back on Sixth Street, Donnie made a beeline for his place.   Tony and I followed Daddy into the house, took off our shoes in the living room and proudly assessed our riches, during which I overheard Daddy in the kitchen, talking to Mama about the  woman we’d seen in the ritzy neighborhood.

“Stevie saw a colored girl at one of the places,” he said, mischief in his tone. “I wanted to tell him, ‘Boy, she don’t live there; look at what she’s wearing.  She’s the maid.’”

But of course, I thought.  That woman does what my Grandmother does for a living out in California–she cleans up after those people. Naivety gave way to reality.

Oh well.  At least there was equality in the treats. I bit into a miniature Baby Ruth and got ready for bed, knowing that sugar is no sweeter on the white side of town than it is where I live.   Candy is candy.

Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love  (Simon & Schuster),  has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected]

steven ivory

Steven Ivory