Ah, Halloween. The one day of the year when one gets social license to dress as their innermost desire.
Max and I were sophomores at Libertyville High School. LHS was one of the best schools in Illinois, maybe the United States. That wasn’t bragging – the stats bore it out. Year after year we were ranked near the top. Folks in our district paid outrageous tax bills to send their kids to our great school.
Not that Max and I contributed to the ranking.
Rather, we spent as much time as we could watching VHS tapes of Sanford and Son until we had the lines down pat.
Grady’s, “Good goobly goo!”
Fred’s, “How’d you like one across the lip?”
And Aunt Esther’s, “Watch it, sucka!”
We founded the Sanford and Son Fan Club. Max and I were the self-appointed presidents and sole members.
Halloween 1989 would be our last for trick-or-treating. The previous year we had gotten many, “Aren’t you a bit old to be trick-or-treating?” comments.
Max rode my bus after school and had brought a police outfit to dress as Officer Howard “Hoppy” Hopkins, the clueless white officer on the show who tried to fit in with the Watts residents by butchering jive talk, such as:
“Looks like you guys have been torn off.”
“Ripped off,” his streetwise partner corrected.
Rummaging through my dad’s clothes, I assembled my Fred Sanford outfit. A red and white flannel shirt, with a wadded-up T-shirt for my paunch, suspenders, gray pants, and black boots, which were two sizes too small.
I approximated Fred’s bushy white hair by stuffing cotton balls to the sides of a fedora. My plan of using Elmer’s glue to stick cotton to my chin for a goatee didn’t work.
The one item I did spend money on was a tube of brown makeup. I smeared it all over my face. Using a Kleenex, I wiped enough away to keep it off my lips.
I exited the bathroom. Max’s eyes widened. “You’re not going out like that,” he said.
“Well sure, I’m Fred Sanford.”
“You don’t think that looks racist?”
“I’m not racist.”
“I didn’t say you’re racist,” Max argued. “People aren’t going to think you’re Fred Sanford. Can’t you just put on a denim shirt, draw on some sideburns, and go as Julio?”
“As president of the Sanford and Son Fan Club, it is my duty to dress like Fred.”
Max shook his head. “Whatever.”
“If anyone gets offended,” I asserted, “that’s their problem.”
Through years of trick-or-treating, I had picked up a few strategies:
- Focus on the condos, rather than the single-family houses, as their doors are just a few feet apart.
- Start early. People give out their best candy first, then give out the candy their kids brought home and don’t want.
- On the other hand, by the end of the night, people just want to get rid of their candy so they’ll dump everything they’ve got into your bag.
- Don’t bother with houses without a light on.
- Avoid getting behind packs of little kids at a house. They’ll slow you down.
We created comedy routines. After receiving candy, Max would say, “Snickers? Gravy!”
“That’s groovy, you big dummy!” I’d respond in a gravelly voice, shaking my fist.
“Skittles? Right up!”
“That’s right on, fool!”
“Three Musketeers? Cold!”
“That’s cool, chump!”
After 20 houses the jokes wore off.
“Look at me,” Max said, popping one Rolo into his mouth and throwing the remainder on the ground. “I’m so rich, I eat one piece and throw the rest away!”
The sun had set and the streetlights came on. I saw Ruby, one of the few black students at our school, who was glowingly friendly and sported a perpetual, contagious smile.
She was dressed as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. In a blue outfit with red shoes and her hair in braids, she escorted her brother, roughly five, dressed as the Scarecrow.
“Oh crap,” Max said. “Here comes Ruby. Hide!”
Ruby spotted and walked toward me, offered a high-five, and laughed. “We’re two of a kind!” she said, crinkling her eyes, as she gave me a side hug.
Ruby led her brother away by the hand. I turned to Max. “See? Ruby didn’t think it was racist.”
Max’s tolerance for sugar had no ceiling. We walked to 7-11, which smelled like the inside of a Halloween bag, combined with stale coffee.
Max approached the long blond-haired clerk at the counter. “Trick-or-treat.”
He pulled a plastic orange pumpkin from under the counter and pointed the opening toward Max, who took a full-sized Whatchamacallit.
I reached for the opening of the pumpkin.
The clerk pulled it away. “What do you say?”
He offered it to me. I pulled out a Charleston Chew.
“What are you supposed to be, anyway?” he asked.
“Fred Sanford. You know, from Sanford and Son.”
“If you say so,” he shrugged.
Max grabbed a Slurpee cup. I walked past the Mortal Kombat arcade game and took a water bottle from the cooler.
I walked toward the counter, where a middle-aged black woman stood. She wore a trench coat, had gray roots at the base of her ebony hair, and held a coffee in her left hand.
She stared a hole through me.
“Here’s your change,” the clerk said to her.
Without taking her eyes off me, she held out her right hand. The clerk put the coins in her hand and she put them into her coat pocket.
I looked straight ahead at the clerk and handed him my dollar. Through my periphery I saw the woman, unmoving, continue to stare at me.
She was probably getting a coffee after a long day of work – or before a long night shift – and was taken aback by someone in blackface.
My face became hot – so hot I worried my makeup would run. I braced for a verbal assault. In my mind, I whipped up a defense. I’m not a minstrel! I’m not racist! I’m dressing as Fred Sanford because I like black TV shows!
She didn’t say a word. She remained at the counter as we left the store.
“Let’s hit Deerpath next,” Max said, referring to the neighborhood of tract housing we hadn’t yet visited.
“I’m done for the night,” I said.
“We still have like an hour left.”
“I just want to go home.”
“You all right?”
“I just want to go home.”
We returned to my house. I dropped my bag on the floor and walked toward the bathroom.
“I’m going to eat your candy,” Max said, laughing.
“Go ahead,” I said.
In the bathroom, I took a washcloth out of the linen closet and turned on the sink faucet. I wetted the washcloth and I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed until, at last, the makeup was gone.
That night in bed my legs ached and my stomach felt like it was corroding. I saw the woman’s rigid, unblinking face. Unlike Ruby, she was old enough to have seen church bombings, colored fountains, mobs screaming at the Little Rock Nine, water cannons, the assassination of Dr. King, and everything else that happened before overt racism went underground and became subtle. I wondered why she remained in the store after we left. Was she afraid for her safety should she meet us in the parking lot?
What were her thoughts?
I thought we were past this.
It never will end, will it?
And this is the youth?!
I woke up Wednesday morning, stomach aching from the combination of sugar and shame. I realized that racism isn’t limited to caricatures of people in white sheets and hoods, Confederate flags, and the n-word.
It’s also when I lauded my “great” school without acknowledging the racial and socioeconomic self-segregation on which its reputation had been built.
Or when I believed Ruby represented her entire ethnicity.
Or when I looked into a mirror and could not see the obvious.
It had been so easy to blend in before, to not have the uncomfortable self-examination I needed to identify my personal biases.
I suppose when I had put the makeup on, I had simultaneously removed my mask.