Monday, October 30, 2006

The Pimpin' Pumpkin PA

When I was a young boy (as opposed to the old boy I am now), Halloween in my neighborhood was always a surreal experience. That's because it was probably the least scary night of the year.

The neighborhood in which I grew up was (and largely remains) a mix of bohemian college kids, African-Americans and bohemian white professionals. The neighborhood, known unofficially as Freetown, is one of Lafayette's very first settlements. My house in that neighborhood was so historic (and old) that a photo of it made the cover of a local newspaper supplement in 1984. The picture was from 1919.

Today, Freetown remains a hub of downtown cultural activity, housing arts venues such as Cite des Arts, the Blue Moon Saloon and ArtWalk. Additionally, it also houses such long-standing traditions such as Mardi Gras, Downtown Alive! and Festival International de Louisiane. Over the past decade, the area has been the recipient of considerable renovation, from the Streetscape project to a totally re-energized central business district. Robert Duvall filmed part of his 1997 movie The Apostle two streets from my house, and Ani DiFranco called the neighborhood home for a time after Hurricane Katrina. Freetown is often considered to be one of the best places to be at any time of day or night in Lafayette.

I lived there for 19 years. And I spent much of that time wondering how I would get out of that dump.

Sure, we had all of the festivals, and in my younger years it seemed like paradise. But we also witnessed fights, drugs, stuff stolen from our cars, drunks, hookers and even a guy who unapologetically pissed in our backyard during Mardi Gras one year. When I was 13, I got robbed of my bicycle while I was riding it, from an older kid who was ready to clock me in the head with a blunt object if I didn't jump off. I was 18 before I regained the courage to ride off my street again.

Still, my brother and I made lots of friends in the neighborhood. I never understood why my wealthier friends at school all lived so far away; but for the most part, I liked our little slice of history. My mom's parents lived next door to us, and my great aunt lived two houses down, on a strip of houses that had been in our family since the 1920s. Only with the deaths of both of my maternal grandparents in 1999 did my family leave Freetown for good.

That year also brought the passing of a proud tradition among my grandparents: the Talking Halloween PA Pumpkin! My grandfather, who we affectionately called "Pop," was a locally venerated TV and radio repairman. He also liked to create odd gadgets from things lying around, a trait firmly embedded into my own DNA.

Sometime well before my cerebral reach, Pop had the idea to install a woofer into a plastic Jack O'Lantern. He attached a light to the speaker, and wired the whole setup into a voltmeter-ish gadget and a Realistic-brand PA console. He would hang the pumpkin off the middle of his front awning, where it would greet unsuspecting trick-or-treaters. He then discreetly passed the wires through his side window, plugged in a microphone and let the creepy karaoke begin!

The best way to describe the effect is this: the Jack O'Lantern would hang, its light casting an orange glow over the shotgun house. That in itself was cool enough. But when Pop saw the trick-or-treaters through the window, he'd grab the microphone. Then the pumpkin would suddenly dim in rhythm with his booming baritone:

"HAAAAPPY HALLLOWEEEEEN! HOOHOO-WHO-AH!!"

I always loved the sight of the neighborhood kids (some of whom had little more than their city-league football jerseys as costumes) literally having their minds blown by this awesome thing. We'd open the door, by which time we'd still be talking to them, and they'd keep their wide eyes and big grins staring upward. Sometimes they'd even remember to ask for candy.

Halloween in Freetown could be a varied experience. Some years would yield a bountiful candy harvest, while others would grant you literally three items. As fewer residents opened their homes to their spooky guests year after year, the amount of local kids coming around diminished. But they would always stop by Pop's. In later years, my grandfather's house was literally a shining beacon at the end of a dark street. And all because of the PA Pumpkin.

Pop's invention was such a hit that he used it straight through my senior year of high school, the first time in countless years I was not around to speak into it (I played in my Homecoming football game, but I was still sad to miss the kids). By Halloween 1998, he and my grandmother were taking turns in the hospital. By the time we sold their home in 2000, the PA Pumpkin was nowhere to be found. I like to think that Pop took it with him to the Great Beyond, and is scaring the hell out of Satan with it. No doubt Vincent Price clamors for a turn on the mic as well.

In any event, I will never forget the legacy that one small clever gadget had on the children of a depressed, century-old neighborhood. For me, Pop's PA Pumpkin defines Halloween. Processed sugar can't even begin to compare.

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