|Helena Fitzgerald||Nov 2, 2015|
The day after Halloween is its own particular emotion, just as the day after Christmas is a particular emotion. The day after a holiday is never exactly happy, and is necessarily defined by a hangover of one kind of another (in this case: candy; in my specific case; candy corn), but the day after Halloween is perhaps my favorite of these after-the-parade feelings. October’s over, and all the candy’s on sale. There is the first bite of winter in the air, and autumn settles in to something serious, something more about mortality than about pumpkins and the colors of the leaves. This is the time for the real ghosts, this dying season a large lumbering thing in its last blinks before sleep. This is when the morbid feels unspeakably cozy, when the reminder of our fragile skeletons aching close beneath our skin makes us draw tighter together and pull up to the fire, pile up the blankets and hold close beneath them. These are the small precious days at the end of something, slipping through our hands, rushing into the dark. And then there’s the candy. Half-price abundance sings off the shelves. We sit on couches all day long and exuberantly gorge ourselves, refusing to grow out of a childhood that spent the day after Halloween in a sugar coma under a long grey sky.
Halloween is a particularly New York holiday. Visitors to the city around this season will remark bemusedly on how much we get into the holiday here. The most obvious thing to say about that is the costumes and sure, that’s part of it. It’s Halloween in New York 365 days a year. People move here so they can be free of the labored masquerade of wearing something that doesn’t look like a costume, so they can fly their freak flag and wave their colors and run around in body paint and glitter and bright wigs. The clichés hold true that people come to New York to be someone else, the thing they imagine rather than what the world names them. The city still holds the same Gatsby-promise that the internet once did a long time ago. Everybody in their costumes all year long.
But I don’t really mean the costumes when I say that this is our city’s holiday, when I say that that of course New York loves Halloween best. I mean more that Halloween is a holiday about being scared on purpose. It’s about seeking out fear because you find it on some level delicious, or in some way glamorous, because being scared makes you feel important and makes you feel alive. That’s why, I think, people move to New York, far more than to wear costumes. It’s definitely the reason why people stay. We aren’t my parents’ city anymore; this is a relatively safe place now. But it is still an exhausting one, and an impossibly demanding one, a shrieking child’s tantrum of a city where sirens act as our version of the suburb’s cicadas, the white noise hovering under the fabric of the day. It is a very small place with too many people crammed into it and any day can take a sharp turn and feel like the apocalypse if you get on the subway at the wrong moment. The basic condition of living here is that someone is always having a massive public breakdown just out of your peripheral vision and you’re ignoring it. People choose to live here for all kinds of solid unromantic reasons to do with careers and relationships and job markets and school and family, but to survive being here I think you have to convince yourself that in some weird way you love it. It’s too much to take otherwise, too much noise and filth not to float a few feet off the ground, buoyed by a narrative that says you’re doing this out of love, because you understand something that other people don’t understand and isn’t that exactly what love is? Seeing inside the secrets, knowing the passcodes, reading the untranslated signs. You have to love what frightens you here, the difficult, the ugly, the flat-out disgusting. The fear has to be something not in spite of which we love the city, but because of which we love it. There’s that tweet that goes around each year at this time that says “If I pay $40 for a haunted house I better die.” That’s just about how New Yorkers feel. For the preposterously high cost of living, both literal and less so, we better be scared out of our minds all the time.
Halloween is our Mardi Gras, our Carnival. This is a place made of ghosts, too; Manhattan Island is the single largest haunted house in America. A place this small and this populous can’t really be anything else. In Washington Square, now a sweet collegiate hangout thick with pot-smoke and well-mannered street performers , the pavement swells up higher than the surrounding sidewalks. Back before NYU and even before Henry James, the square had been a potter’s field, and a dumping ground for cholera victims, and then each successive generation paved and landscaped over top of the bodies, until now the ground pushes up like the meniscus of a good martini, pulsing with ghosts. People died by the handfuls in the construction of the subway and of the skyscrapers, from spelunking through the subway tunnels or from living there, bodies latticed through the earth in this place that held farms and graveyards and had every square inch paved over for an artificial city. Anywhere this small is a graveyard. When there’s nowhere to build but up, you never travel away from the dead. Our own lives in the city become ghost stories too, and for the same reason. There is only so much real estate, only so many street corners where you can kiss someone, only so many intersections where you can stop in the middle of an important conversation, only so many subway stations in which you can cry. We begin very soon to pile memory on memory, so that our present is haunted by ghosts, so that we are always building our houses on top of graves. My ghosts are the wide avenue uptown where I unpacked a car at age eighteen, the apartment on thirteenth street that has new graffiti on the door every time I pass by it, each street corner where I stopped and kissed someone instead of going home, every bank and furniture store and frozen yogurt place that used to be a bar that mattered to me. I go to buy groceries and pass the church where my parents got married; I stand behind Bloomingdales downtown and look up at the building where my dad bought his first apartment before he knew my mother existed, then walk to the subway past the bars where they went on dates before I was born. All our lives are an accumulation of ghosts, and here in this tiny city we live pressed forever up against them.
Happy Halloween, everybody. I think these things go out on Sunday nights now, because griefbacon is a very Sunday night emotion, in my experience, anyway.