When I was a kid, nothing except opening Christmas presents held more excitement for me than the Highlandtown Halloween Parade. An endless procession marched, crept or slithered up Eastern Avenue from what was then called City Hospitals to what is still called Patterson Park. There, on a high wooden platform, four masked men passed judgment on the weird gathering below, handing out 10-dollar bills to the kids wearing the most unusual costumes.
If those costume parades held a few thrills for me, they held much more for Tony Jacobs. Each November he started thinking about his outfit for the next Halloween.
I met Tony when I was 12 and he was 15. I was in my usual bum costume. Tony was wearing a black cape, black makeup, white fangs, and had a fine line of dried blood under his lower lip. He looked great but there was a problem: There were dozens of Draculas in the parade. Tony had been culled along with the rest. What he needed (and I was the first to tell him so) was a costume that didn't look like anybody else's.
That Halloween night, when I first met Tony, he had sighed and said, "What could I be that nobody else would think of?"
The first answer that came to my mind was a character in a horror comic. He was called the Heap -- a World War II German pilot whose plane had crashed into an American swamp. He had somehow survived the crash and lived in the marshy earth until the war was over, when he took on a new form as part swamp and part man.
When the Heap rose from the ooze of decaying vegetation he was an enormous humanoid mound of mud, algae, vines, branches, rotted flesh and two bulging eyeballs. Really neat!
What about "the Heap"? I asked.
"Read the comic," I said. "The Heap is you."
The next weekend I was with some older kids, pitching pennies in front of the Takoma Restaurant on Eastern Avenue when Tony walked up and started watching. He waited until I lost my pennies before he said anything. Then, while everybody else was still tossing coins at the wall, Tony said, "I read the comic."
"What do you think?"
"I think I'll be the only one in that costume."
Tony talked about nothing but that costume until a month before Halloween. Then his mother made him a monks-cloth body suit that was padded with foam rubber inside to make him look big and shapeless. It covered everything but his eyes.
I'd sit on the living room floor sifting through a pile of comic books while Tony's mother, mouth full of pins, sewed vines and branches onto the suit. All the while, Tony stood statue-still to avoid getting jabbed.
Two days before Halloween, the suit was almost finished. Tony stood before me, a vast brown leafy hump, and said, "Ouch, Mom! Whaddaya think?"
While Tony's mother smiled at the costume, I looked up and said, "It needs something."
"You need something," Tony's mother said, "to fill that hole in your head. I work like a horse and you tell me it needs something!"
"No horse could ever make such a great costume," I said, "but it still needs something. It's just not the Heap."
Tony walked to the mirror, shook his head and sighed, "You're right!"
The three of us looked into the mirror and frowned.
The day before Halloween, my mother and I were shopping for the first time at the Food Fair on Fleet Street, Highlandtown's first supermarket. The store featured ultramodern products, like chlorophyll toothpaste. Toothpaste had always been white, but this stuff was a slime green. I talked my mother into buying a tube.
Later that day, back at Tony's house, I said, "Take a look at this," squeezing a ribbon onto my hand. Tony and his mother looked at me as though I'd lost a few marbles.
"That's disgusting!" she said.
Then the light bulb appeared above Tony's head. "Right!" he said.
The Heap suit was hanging on the clothes tree in the living room. Tony smeared some toothpaste over it before his mother could stop him.
"That's beautiful!" he said.
"It's repulsive," his mother said. "Who could ask for anything more?"
Tony's mother figured we'd need six more tubes to slime the whole costume. She handed Tony a five-dollar bill and we ran the six blocks to the store and bought the last eight tubes of chlorophyll toothpaste.
I had gotten so wound up with Tony's costume problem that I hadn't made anything for myself. So, on Halloween I smeared some charcoal on my face, pinned a couple of patches on some ZTC oversized hand-me-downs and joined the river of bums.
But Tony's costume was something to see. He literally oozed up Eastern Avenue. It was almost enough to make you gag.
Dressed as a Gypsy, prissy little Gladys Polides banged her tambourine on my head as she passed and laughed. She knew me, but she didn't recognize the mound of mold beside me. When Tony hugged her, she looked at the green muck on her arms and let out a series of shrieks that could have curdled milk.
We were having a great time.
As we approached the judging stand, I came across one of the best Frankenstein's monsters I'd ever seen, dragging along on those stiltlike boots. Next to him was somebody with a silver bucket on his head. A line of painted eyes and mouths circled the buckethead and when he rotated the bucket it moved in a blur while the painted eyes and mouth appeared to stay in place. Weird! I hadn't thought the competition would be so stiff.
Suddenly one of the judges put a megaphone to his mouth, and I held my breath as the 12 winners were announced. One of the judges pointed to Tony, but then he turned away. I sighed.
Tony didn't say anything. He just started to walk away. I didn't say anything either. Then the judge who had pointed at him earlier shouted, "Hey, whatever you are, get up here!"
The huge, green blob turned and leaped up the steps to the stand.
The judge said, "We don't know what you're supposed to be, but we created a whole new category for you: Most Disgusting Costume!" I imagine Tony was smiling, but in that costume, who could tell?
After we met up again, there was no doubt about how he felt. "We did it, Willie! We did it!" he shouted, and managed, in that awkward get-up, to leap into the air.
Later, while I paused under the street light below Tony's house, I saw his mother come out to meet him at the door. They both waved goodnight, and I waved back.
Straining to make out her words, I heard her ask, "How'd you do?"
"Not bad," he said. "Not bad."
BILL MESSENGER is a free-lance writer living in Monkton.