Uneven Halloween in East Harlem

Articles and photos by Rebecca Ungarino

East Harlem Halloween 1
“We would be down at the parade right now, but it was canceled because of the storm,” said Little Red Riding Hood, with Velma and Alice in Wonderland on Madison Avenue.

After Hurricane Sandy clobbered the New York metropolitan area, the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade, which some years attracted more than 50,000 celebrants, was canceled for the first time since its 1974 inception, taking a lot of energy out of Halloween for many people.

Both those in search of candy and their parents looked long and hard for Halloween spirit in Manhattan and the surrounding boroughs. (New Jersey took a different approach; by gubernatorial proclamation, Halloween was shifted to Monday, Nov. 5.)

In East Harlem, like many other neighborhoods, the range of reactions was broad.

Walking along Third Avenue above 100th Street was at first disheartening. Handmade “No Candy” signs – no doubt scrawled with haste to deter children from infiltrating stores — were hung in windows and on doors, and even on a manikin outside a thrift shop. One man was carefully shooing trick-or-treaters and accompanying parents out of a Dunkin’ Donuts between 108th and 109th Street, calling, “No candy, no candy!” Discouraged faces were everywhere.

At some stores, it was business as usual. From a narrow electronics store between 101st and 102nd Streets, the Ghostbusters theme song streamed out, mingling with the puffs of frosty breath of pedestrians going by.

Small clusters of four-foot-tall Batmen and Princess Jasmines appeared from inside storefronts and apartment steps. Three young girls were on the sidewalk, eager to describe their costumes to me. Alice in Wonderland said she lived near the FDR Drive. “We would be down at the parade right now, but it was canceled because of the storm,” Alice said wistfully. “We go every year.”

Her friend, in a bright orange bob wig and a brown sweater, was adjusting her drawstring backpack half full of candy. Referring to the Scooby Doo cartoon characters, she said: “I am Velma. I tried to be Daphne, but I ran out of money, so I’m Velma with my clothes.”

East Harlem Halloween 3
Bah, humbug (Halloween style).

Alongside was Little Red Riding Hood, with hooded red nylon cape, who explained: “I didn’t want to wear makeup for my costume. I never wear makeup. But sometimes my father says I should.”

On the northeast corner of 103rd Street and Third Avenue, a long table of goods was for sale — leather cellphone casings, pins with Mother Theresa’s face engraved, bags of candy bags, pairs of gloves. Alongside were rubber masks of grossly deformed men. Behind the table sat Johnny, who traveled from the Bronx to work the table with his uncle.

“It don’t even feel like Halloween ’cause of the storm,” he said. “We’re selling masks for less than the store. It’s been slow. People are buying the gloves, but not the masks.”

On a corner of 108th Street is Marketa 108, a deli visited by two ninja turtles, a witch and a small Barack Obama— all lined up to get candy from an elderly Asian man standing next to the fruit for sale. When I asked his name, he gave me a handful of suck-on candies out of a plastic bag and a huge smile, adding, “My name is Chan!”

On East 111th Street between Third and Lexington Avenues sits Lizabeth Tailoring, and Lizabeth was inside tending to a customer. A few customers, she said, had brought in costume dresses for her to hem.

Inside the Madison Avenue Methodist Church between 114th and 115th Streets, it was quiet, save for quiet conversation in the office to the left of the entry. Arthur McLean, the church treasurer, said: “If there were a younger congregation, there would be more programs. There is a Korean program this Saturday, and I’m sure if there were more young people in the congregation we would have a youth Halloween program, most likely.”

When I asked whether Halloween is a celebrated holiday at the church, he responded, “It’s really up to the individual.”

Farther north, the M. Futterman Corp. Wholesale Candy, was in full swing. Small Halloween-themed signs adorned the entrance. Inside were cotton spider webs hanging from the shelves and garlands hanging from the counter. The bustling employees behind the counter were all teenagers working at the family business. Oversized bags of assorted candy were displayed in the window.

“Three twenty-five for one bag,” the girl with the devil ears at the register said, noticing my eyes glued to the Tootsie Rolls. They even had candy cigarettes. “Everything in the window is three twenty-five.”

East Harlem Halloween 2
Luigi and Mario, who are real-life twins, on the prowl for lollipops.

“We were open at seven this morning,” said the manager, who declined to provide his name. “It wasn’t very busy until around one. It is especially cold this year. We weren’t open on Monday or Tuesday because of the storm. It would have been much busier. We know a lot of people who didn’t want to come out, so we made deliveries, by bicycle and by truck.”

Several blocks away, young twins dressed as Mario and Luigi searched for lollipops, undeterred by the cold weather. Beyond the two toddlers and their mother a tall man doled out candy from a wastebasket lined with a black plastic bag.

The self-declared Wizard of Oz of East 111th Street wished me a happy Halloween. Six feet tall with a wizard’s hat making him look even taller, he appeared to have sat outside his brownstone all day with his wife. A golden Halloween gong sat in front of his stoop, with a wrench on hand to bang it.

“I am just out here to entertain the neighbors,” the Wizard said.

Not such a dull Halloween after all.