I am writing this from the couch. With a glass of wine. While sitting on an ice pack. After having already taken two Tylenol. All because we tried to covertly spread a little joy to the neighborhood.
Note to self: we need more ice packs.
You see, it all began in October 2007, only a few months after we moved here. We’d come from a perfectly nice area about an hour outside of New York City, just a stone’s throw from the Metro North line, a lovely spot, really, except we didn’t have a neighborhood, per se. We had neighbors, and they were friendly and welcoming, but only a few houses nearby had young families. There were almost never any children ringing doorbells, nor roaming the sidewalks, nor leaving their scooters for you to trip over on the sidewalk, nor shouting joyfully from their backyards – not because it was a bad place, but because there just weren’t many young families. We had no idea what a true “neighborhood” felt like.
And then we moved here.
When we first met the neighbors in our cul-de-sac, we were told three things: that there was an annual block party coming up in a month, that our neighbors across the circle put on a really impressive Christmas display (with lights so bright, the next-door neighbors’ son actually switched bedrooms during the holiday season), and that, because our front yard has a slight upward slope to it, our driveway was home plate. Which meant that, not only were there boatloads of kids near the area, they were actually using our yard to play baseball. ROCK. ON.
When the doorbell rang that fateful October evening, I was a bit perplexed (despite living in a super kid-friendly neighborhood, we weren’t exactly in the habit of receiving after-dinner guests), but didn’t think much of it. When I opened the door to discover no one there, nor any hooligans cackling in the distance, I was officially stymied (ding dong ditch is infinitely funnier when you have to run, giggling, for your lives, y’all). Then, I noticed the two little plastic pumpkins on the doormat – each filled with Halloween trinkets that were perfect for toddler Ella and baby Annie – along with a drawing of a ghost and a note.
We’d officially been Ghosted.
You bet your sweet patootie we put that ghost on our door.
Okay. I know that for some of you – many of you? – this would be akin to having the mark of the plague drawn on your door. Having to actually participate in neighborhood tomfoolery – and within a specific time frame, no less! Plus spending money! And going all covert-op-crazy! – is asking waaaaay too much. Black Death would officially have descended.
But for me? Being Ghosted felt like having someone drop off steaming mugs of Starbucks on my doorstep, alongside puppies and unicorns, and then asking me which I’d like more right now, the massage or the pedicure. Given by Johnny Depp.
In other words, being Ghosted was like meeting Jesus (or what I imagine that would be like), and I could not wait to share the good news. As I drove to Target the next day (for the Halloween loot! The Ghosting loot!! Stickers and candy and pencils, oh my!), I noticed – for the first time – just how many houses in our neighboring streets had Phantom Ghosts attached to their doors. The Ghosting had spread so far and wide, it was actually difficult to find a house full of children who had yet to hear the good news. Happiness was being passed out around the neighborhood, one secret mission at a time. A little Halloween pay it forward.
And to think we’d moved here without me even having seen the house (true story). Hot damn, how we lucked out! I was giddy.
As the next few Halloweens passed and the girls grew older, they began to anticipate the Phantom Ghost’s arrival with ever-increasing glee. I began to gather goodies preemptively so that we could sneak about the neighborhood as soon as the buck had been passed our way. Each Ghosting night was filled with a mixture of wicked delight and abject terror, lest our honorees spy us dropping off the bounty. On one such occasion, as we crouched behind a large pine tree after ringing the bell and running like heck, the neighbors’ large and extremely exuberant Golden Retriever slipped out of the door as soon as they’d opened it. Not only can bees and dogs smell fear, they can also smell cowering Ghosters, and I had to swiftly pick up both Annie and Ella and kick at the panting, jubilant hound who was all too happy to tell his owners that here they are! I’ve found them! before I limped with the girls back to the car. Another year, Annie neglected to inform me that she had to use the bathroom before we left, and between her Ghosting anxiety and her desire to not miss a minute of the action, she opted to pee right on her carseat. Ah, well. That’s why they invented washing machines. There was only one more house, anyway. The Ghost must go on.
The Phantom Ghost graced our doorstep for four delicious years… until two years ago, mere days before Halloween, when we realized that he’d yet to appear. Cruising the neighborhood, I discovered that no houses bore the tell-tale Ghost on their doors, and it finally became clear: whoever had been the Ghost starter had opted out. Whether they moved away or simply outgrew the antics (or got tired of buying random crap from the Target dollar bins), I don’t know, but the end result was the same: the Phantom Ghost didn’t show.
And so I made the only sensible move I could: I Ghosted us. Having saved the little poem from previous years (okay, let’s be honest: I’d long ago re-typed it, because there were a couple of small grammatical errors in the original), it was easy enough to drop trinkets off at our door and feign ignorance when the girls heard the doorbell. From there, we went Ghosting as usual, and as the Phantoms appeared throughout the neighborhood. And children’s choirs sang and Johnny Depp smiled and all was well with the world.
Neighborhood togetherness, one Halloween pencil at a time.
Last year, rather than wait until it was nearly Halloween to see if the original Phantom Ghost starters would get the ball rolling, I decided to take it upon myself to be the official Ghosting initiator. The girls were all too keen to oblige, and we took off through the blackened streets, approaching each house like the SEALS from Zero Dark Thirty.
See, Ghosting is not for the faint of heart. First, you have to sneak up to the doorstep like a ninja, careful not to alert the occupants of your approach. Secondly, you have to drop off the bags with the agility of a Stealth Bomber, making sure not to make a sound and set a dog barking before you’ve had a chance to make your escape. Third, you have to ring the doorbell… and wait to be sure it’s actually gone off (because, unless you’re a traveling salesman or selling popcorn or on your Mission trip, you might be unaware that loads of people have for-show-only doorbells). If the doorbell fails to emit any sound, you then have to summon your courage and knock on the door hard enough to let them know you’re there – which basically means banging with enough force to karate-chop a block of wood – but with lightning speed, so you can zip out of there before anyone actually comes to the door. And finally, you have to make your getaway, running to the pre-determined safe zone with speeds usually reserved for Usain Bolt or people being chased by knife-weilding murderers.
Like I said: Navy SEALS. Just like that.
Ella and Annie had chosen tonight to start the annual Ghosting ritual, but they’d decided to change one detail: instead of driving from house to house, we’d bike around the neighborhood. I was game because, while faster, driving hadn’t exactly worked in our favor. A) We had to drive with the lights off, so as not to draw attention to ourselves, B) driving without lights is a bit like driving blindfolded [not that I’d know], C) we had to turn off the inside car lights so as not to give ourselves away when we opened the doors and climbed inside, which always resulted in frantic, hissed admonishments that no one could find their seat belts, and D) it was kind of a losing effort anyway because our neighbors recognized our car. Plus also, see above, E) Annie peeing in her carseat. So we happily strapped head-lamps to the handlebars and were on our way.
Stealth. Silent. Deadly.
Except… turns out, I must have skimped on the SEAL training this year. Without a car to hide behind, we chose to park the bikes a few houses down the street from our targets and find another spot to conceal us. Most of the time, our bikes were the chosen spot, with us figuring that no one would be on the lookout for marauding hooligans on bikes at 8 p.m. on a Tuesday. At one house, however, I failed to make it to the bikes on time – the door had opened and the owners were looking out – so the only possible solution was to throw myself to the ground. And by “throw myself to the ground,” I mean instantly and violently throw my entire body flat onto the ground. Like avoiding a land mine. Or sliding into third. ‘Cept that there was no third, there was only ground, and I’ve still got dirt on my palms three hours later.
The girls found this particularly hilarious. I hope they find it equally hilarious when I short-sheet their beds tomorrow.
Also, there’s the running. Evading detection requires fleeing like banshees from the doorsteps to the safe spot, and then collapsing in a heaving, out-of-breath heap until the door has been safely closed again. Because the bikes were parked a considerable distance from our intended recipients, tonight’s missions required a ridiculous amount of not only running, but flat-out sprinting.
There’s a reason I was terrible at track in high school, and it wasn’t just because the shorts gave me a wedgie. I don’t sprint. Or, at least, I shouldn’t sprint… because this body just isn’t meant to move like that. Not even to avoid being spotted by the enemy.
Bike helmets make awesome disguises.
Once we’d Ghosted our final house, I managed to ride home, but the moment I stepped off the bike, I knew that the sprinting had been a terrible mistake. (Okay, I already knew that sprinting had been a terrible mistake, but the dismount confirmed it. The throwing myself to the ground probably didn’t help, either.) I have pulled not one but both hamstrings, tweaked something in my lower back, and can’t feel my legs from my knees up.
Was it worth it? You bet your (sore, sprained, aching) butt, it was. WE WILL NEVER QUIT* IN SPREADING HALLOWEEN JOY, PEOPLE. Pay it forward. RIGHT NOW.
The Tylenol seems to be doing some good; the wine, even more good. The ice pack has made me numb, but I already couldn’t feel anything, so the verdict’s out on that one. Tomorrow, I’m going to be paying a visit to my chiropractor to see if there’s anything he can do about this little sprinting mishap of mine.
Good thing the reason for my visit isn’t completely and utterly embarrassing or anything.
I’ll just tell him it was a combat injury. But I’ll keep it vague; when you’ve got a covert op going on, it’s better not to share too many details.
* for the record, I think SEALS are some of the most awesome, bad-ass, incredible, awe-inspiring, strong, and inspiring individuals, anywhere, ever. I am profoundly grateful for all they do for our country, and could not admire them more. Not even if they looked like Johnny Depp.