“You knew Jack Brennan, didn’t you?” Dick Cosgrove said, bringing over a newspaper folded to the obituary page. “He was almost your neighbor.”
I knew Mr. Brennan lived on Butler Street where I did, I told Dick. I knew the exact house. But I didn’t really know him. We never saw him in the neighborhood, I went on, but we always looked forward to knocking on his door on Halloween. I assumed he might be an old bachelor because he was always there alone in his living room, but as kids we didn’t think about such things. We were more interested in the big bowl of shiny dimes on his coffee table.
“Mr. Brennan always invited us in,” I told Dick, “and he’d point to the bowl of dimes and tell us to take a handful.”
I told Dick I remembered winding up with six or eight dimes, which was a lot of money back when a double-dip ice cream cone at Grablick’s was only 10 cents. I never quite hit the 10-dime mark, I said, always wishing my hands were as big as my dad’s.
“Once I got too old for Halloweening, I never saw Mr. Brennan again,” I said. “But I never forgot his kind, smiling face as we reached for those dimes.”
“Then you did know him,” Dick Cosgrove said. “You knew everything about him.”
He went on to explain that the warm, caring gentleman I encountered once a year when I was 10 or 11 years old was the very same person every day of his life.
It was more than 30 years ago, perhaps even 40, that Dick Cosgrove and I had that conversation about Jack Brennan on the day after his death, but I recall it every time I drive past Mr. Brennan’s house on Butler Street, which can be several times a month.
When I typed the word “Halloweening” above, the spell-check device on my computer immediately underlined it in red. I knew it would. I suspect “Halloweening,” as with many others, is a word used only here in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Still, that is the term we used for dressing up in costume and going door to door every October 31. We never went “trick-or-treating,” as did kids in the rest of the country. We never knocked on a door and asked, “Trick or Treat?” We asked, “Want any Halloweeners?”
Most of the time, though, we said nothing. If the door opened, we Halloweeners knew we were welcome. And we’d be invited inside and expected to perform.
That’s something else that may be unique to this area. When I was a junior in high school, my dad was hospitalized. The guy in the bed next to him had recently moved here from out of town. I recall how appalled his wife sounded when she told him the kids had gone trick-or-treating and were invited in and asked to sing a song or something.
We were appalled that she was appalled. To us, performing for our Halloween treats was a way of life. They’d even teach us a little song in school.
The witches are calling, yoo hoo, yoo hoo. The broomsticks are waiting for me and you. So join in the play, For this is the day,
That all of your wishes come true. Boo!
I hated that song. But it wasn’t the song’s fault. I couldn’t carry a tune, even as simple as that one. Singing terrified me. If I was with my big sisters, it wasn’t so bad, because I’d just mouth the words. If I was alone, I’d tell a lame Halloween joke. “What do you call a witch at the beach? A sandwich.”
I was not proud of myself. But, hey, a Tootsie Pop was a Tootsie Pop.
Speaking of lame, most boys back then went Halloweening dressed as one of two things — a cowboy, or a bum.
Most of us had a cowboy hat and a holster with a pair of six-shooters from a previous Christmas, so that was a no-brainer. So was a bum. It usually involved one of our dad’s flannel shirts, all stuffed up with pillows, his old fedora, and dust from the coal bin rubbed on our cheeks. Dad’s handkerchief, filled with crumpled paper and tied to the end of a stick, completed the look.
The “take” back then was a different story, too. That Tootsie Pop I mentioned would have been a big deal. A Snickers or a Hershey bar was practically out of the question. Penny candy was a real thing and we might get one Mary Jane or one Squirrel Nut Zipper. There might be an apple, believe it or not. Or a handful of candy corn. Right out of someone’s hand! And if there was any cash at all, it was typically a few pennies.
That’s what made Mr. Brennan so memorable.
And, come to think of it, he never made us sing either.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.