The city would close off the entire block, starting in the mid-afternoon. From Duboce Park all the way to the heart of the Castro District, Noe Street was bookended by foreboding police gates. My parents had finished hanging up the lights, dollying the speakers down the front steps and hauling up our boxes of costumes, facepaints and accessories from the basement. It was a routine they had honed during their seventeen years in our flat, seven of which were spent before my younger brother and I were born. Helping Mom and Dad rave-proof our bedrooms, Angelo and I could hardly wait for the sun to set.
In my San Francisco neighborhood, Halloween wasn’t just the best holiday but the only one. Certainly, the only that has ever felt real to me. With my small family and urban home, Christmas, Thanksgiving and all the rest didn’t really do it. It wasn’t that my nonreligious mom and dad (having abandoned their Catholic and Muslim upbringings, respectively) rejected more sacred holidays, but that nothing could ever come close to our neighborhood during the last week of October.
Growing up in a pregentrified Castro from the late 90s to the early 2000s, I never realized how unique it was to live in America’s foremost gay district. As it stood, my brother and I were the only children in a four-block radius — our straight, two-parent household an absolute oddity. I am told, and can unabashedly confirm, that we were beloved by the neighborhood. I am sure I never received as much attention as I did in a tot’s pumpkin costume. And Halloween was when the Castro, welcoming the masses, lived up to its revelling reputation.
Trick-or-treating began at 7:30 p.m., an hour after sunset, with the parties just beginning. Of course, no one expected trick-or-treaters in a childless neighborhood.
This problem became clearer after the first few empty houses. Knocking on a door, rattling from the music behind it, we were greeted by a tall, sweaty cheerleader with a five o’clock shadow and a miniskirt.
“Fuck!” he said.
“Are those kids?” remarked the angel standing behind him, graced with rippled pecs, magnificent wings and a Heineken. “Huh. Do we even have candy?”
“Gimme a sec.” Our cheerleader returned a few minutes later to toss some crumpled dollar bills into our candy buckets. “Happy Halloween, kids!”
And so it went. Over the years, I received, in no particular order: cash, fruit, a few pens, an issue of GQ, sparklers and exactly one can of Vienna sausages, which were swapped with my little brother’s instant noodles after some careful persuasion.
Some residences actually had prepared; but being on the third or fourth floor of a stack of flats, they had to improvise. After ringing the metal gate’s doorbell, a candy basket descended via pulley from the dark heavens above, and cries of “Happy Halloween!” fell upon us.
But it was after candy collecting that the night truly began. After 9:00 p.m., the party was ready to begin. Every ten minutes, the N-Judah let off a trainload of costumed pilgrims at Duboce Park, and they would parade right by our house on their way to the Castro’s center. My parents invited nearly everyone they knew, and our speakers began to blast my dad’s Halloween playlist (on cassette). Angelo and I sat on the stoop to watch the show.
Horrifying demons, murdered brides, regal pharaohs and willowy, stilt-aided creatures would pass by, many opting to stay and party before our front door. Celebrity parodies, ranging from “Pregnant Beyoncé” to “Freshly-mauled Siegfried and Roy.” Draculas frenching with shell-brassiere’d Ariels. Costumes showing so much skin they left us guessing how they stayed on (strange magics known as ‘Spirit Gum’), and more Dorothys and Scarecrows than you could count. The revelry was real, and our house, inside and out, was the epicenter of a Venetian Carnival.
Sometimes, it’s hard to tell when a party is over. That wasn’t the case for these ones, which ended promptly at 3:30 with the arrival of the police, a tradition I legitimately believed was universal for American children until the third grade. It occurred with such yearly consistency, I thought that it must have been a thing for everyone. With the music shut down and the crowds getting too drunk to be safe, my brother and I would find our way to our bedroom, which faced the street, and fall asleep to the dimming sounds of our own neighborhood insanities.
Following a shooting and a few nasty bar fights, San Francisco has attempted to temper Halloween in the Castro significantly. They advertise sponsored parties in other parts of the city and stopped blocking off the Castro streets, limiting partiers to the sidewalks. As my neighborhood became more gentrified, with soaring rent prices that forced my family out of our flat, young families began to move in, making it no longer so strange to see trick-or-treaters on my old block. It’s hard to kill a reputation, and thousands of people still show up to show off their well-crafted costumes and better-crafted bodies. It’s not the same. No more kegs in the middle of the street. No more parades of Thriller-dancing zombies. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve only appreciated these childhood Halloweens more, and late October, like my lovely City by the Bay, will never fail to enchant me.