A thug stabs a teenager to death outside the Catholic school on our block. We stay. Gunshot to the face kills a handsome drug dealer on our stoop. We stay. A junkie O.D.’s in our basement. We stay. On the 14th street A-train subway platform, during rush hour on a Friday, a man who will never be caught shoots and kills our wacky, beloved upstairs neighbor. We stay.
Shortly after we become parents, we watch the Trade Towers fall. For many Manhattan families, this horror is the last straw leading them to seek safer homes. Perhaps this should be the case for us. Especially considering 2001 is already the worst year of our married life. Pre-9/11, both my in-laws have passed away within weeks of each other, my wife has parted ways with her longtime employer, and, due to a lost eviction case with our landlord, we must find a new home. 9/11 is actually the cherry on top.
You’d think we’d get the hint, but no. We perversely cling to New Yorker-hood, tighter than ever. We’re still looking at apartments, living off hope, dwindling savings, and cash from the one bartending shift I kept when I became a stay-at-home dad.
For weeks, black plumes rise from the financial district, but we cleave ever tighter to the crucible of punk rock and possibility where, over the course of almost two decades, both my wife and I have become our current selves. We’ve suffered, but also, through skill, luck, and stubbornness, each of us has beat mythical odds, and experienced some dreams actually coming true; at different times, we’ve both made good money, or I should say, acquired remuneration doing what we love. We’re like compulsive gamblers refusing to leave the crumbling, squalid casino, because once in awhile, we’ve hit the jackpot. If that doesn’t root you to a place, what will?
Speaking of jackpot: one realized dream we share is our Manhattan parenthood. I love toting our son in a backpack in the russet-tinged light of the East Village. I love the immigrant women baffled by my stay-at-home dadhood: “Where’s the baby’s mama?!?” the Ukrainian woman yells from her stoop. (And/or the Indian woman, or the Ecuadorian woman. They cannot wrap their heads around a man doing what I’m doing.) I love foreseeing our boy coming of age in multicultural neighborhoods, where Farsi, Arabic, and Urdu pepper the air, where Richard Hell, Lou Reed, Allen Ginsberg, and Phillip Glass still walk the earth. This will be our son’s stomping ground.
We’ll find some way to explain to him the violence that haunts the sidewalks where he learns to walk. We vow he will experience the wonders of Manhattan, his bedazzlement overshadowing the horrors. We picture him becoming a city teen, meeting pals at CBGB, hanging out with his girlfriend on the tar beach of our roof. We are not easily dissuaded from these dreams. We are, in fact, professional dreamers.
The shock of 9/11 morphs into deep sadness; we decide to take a break from the collective grief of our town, and leave the acrid odor still wafting up from Ground Zero. We will spend Halloween in a secluded cabin near Woodstock. Our three-year-old will experience his first trick-or-treating in the famed Woodstock Halloween Parade, not the East Village storefronts and stoops.
I’ve not thought about pagan Halloween history in a while, but on the 31st, when we drive to Woodstock and see the crowds, I remember delicious details of this odd fete, details I learned at Enchantments, the occult store near our apartment, where I’d spent a little time buying essential oils, getting my cards read, and talking to the witches.
The urban witches at Enchantments told me the reason people began dressing up at harvest time was to disguise themselves from malevolent forces that run amuck in mid-Autumn, when omnipresent death of crops weakens the barriers between the world of the living and the spirit realm. Trick-or-treating would come later, but in the beginning, we donned costumes so these ill-meaning entities would mistake us for their own kind, and move on. Move on, at last. Christianity tried to squelch these powerful rites, and failed.
Anne Beattie said, “People forget years but remember moments.” I remember this: Woodstock Halloween Parade, 2001, air scented with apples and fresh donuts; my son, in a homemade ghost outfit, walks fearlessly among strangers guised as vampires, werewolves, zombies, all manner of pretend evil; in my mind, they are joyously keeping the real evil of the world at bay. This clear moment is, quite unexpectedly, the last straw: I see the promise of a new life, protected from wickedness by mischievous, benevolent spirits of the wood. An illusion, yes, but a powerful one. It bears me up.
Soon after, we leave our beloved, broken New York for good, and head for the Catskills, feeling blessed for the first time in a long while. The final straw is steadfast, pagan, Halloween grace.