Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Mischief Night Fun

One of the rituals of growing up in South Philly was participating in the fun of Mischief Night.  Just about every kid who hung out on the streets at some time or another took the time to make the lives of neighbors and strangers alike miserable on the night of October 30th.  We all looked forward to it, some talked more about this night that they did about Halloween. 

Come sundown, so many of us were out on the street and ready to pounce, armed with an arsenal of soap, shaving cream, and eggs.  If anyone used anything else, they didn't hang around with us.  I wouldn't doubt that some more-sinister characters took to using rocks or nails, or as they did in Camden or Detroit, use fire to create much more than mischief.  In those cities, the appropriate name for their actions was called Devil's Night.  During the worst years, these cities suffered terribly, losing many homes and other structures to the flames of arsonists.  But that's Camden and Detroit.  We were in South Philly, where no such things took place.

Some were so eager, they made shopping trips ahead of time so that they had everything they needed.  You could go into any supermarket and buy dozens of eggs at any age, no questions asked.  In later years, you could only purchase a dozen or two or they'd flag you at the checkout line.  No excuses that you were preparing ahead of time to dye eggs for the annual Easter Egg hunt.  You'd think shaving cream would raise the red flag, especially for the youngest of miscreants.  Not too many 12-year olds take a razor to their faces, but even as stores got more vigilant, that wasn't an issue. 

The police stepped up patrol from late afternoon on Mischief Night, making sure that they had a handle on things.  Or so they thought.  Anyone who had got caught one year found ways to prevent getting nailed the next time around.  One of the tactics cops used to foil egg throwers was pat them down, ensuring a mess in their pockets.  I remember a cop questioning me on where my eggs were, with me telling me I had none.  With a big grin, he said, "No eggs?  You don't have any on you right now?", and proceeded to smack my jacket and pants pockets.  His grin faded as he heard no crackling or felt anything as he slapped his hands down.  Little did he know that they were sitting in the alley just a few feet away, waiting to be lobbed at windows or cars.  Of course he circled the block and came back around.  When he was convinced we were just hanging around, he left us alone, and we set off on doing the things stupid kids do when they think it's cool to aggravate those around them.

Not everyone just sat and took it.  Once in a while, you'd find someone who made you pay for your actions.  One of our neighbors, a man named Joe - we called him Chick, a shortened version of his last name - heard them coming.  A group of teens maybe 12 or 15 in all came running up Chadwick Street lobbing eggs at every window through the middle of the block, where Chick lived.  He sprung out the door just as the last few guys ran by and grabbed one of the last of them.  He told another neighbor to grab a ladder and had his wife grab a bucket and mop and other supplies and had the one unfortunate egg-thrower clean up every window that they egged.  That boy was literally crying his eyes out, but Chick told him he wasn't leaving until he was done.  A number of other neighbors stood with him, arms crossed, making sure he didn't bolt.  The rest of us stood around for a while and gawked as some of the men mocked "Where's your friends now?" or "Some friends you have, letting you clean up while they on and hit others."  I don't know what was worse for that boy, having to clean up alone, or having to hear the guys in school the next day rib him about being the slowpoke who couldn't get away.  We never got snagged, and no one ever saw us and told our parents of our mischief, at least not on these nights. 

It seems Mischief Night is just a memory now.  That's a good thing.  What seems fun as a kid is seen as foolish as you get older, especially if your property is marred by the nastiness.  I'd be angry if some idiot kid ran by and chucked an orb at my house, or scrawled with soap on my car window.  I think the supermarket crackdowns were the beginning of the end of mischief night.  The first few years, kids would buy well-ahead.  But you can't stack dozens of eggs in the fridge without arousing your parents' suspicions.  And you can't hide lots of cartons in your room without it being too cold in there.  What to do?  Well, not much.  So the tradition dies out.  A number of men would sit outside our church on this night to prevent damage, and we would see kids pass by with a look that said they were up to something.  Today, no one even thinks about it, it's a non-issue.  I suppose it wouldn't be wise for parents to tll their kids about their exploits, tempting them to take up the tradition, at least with just a dozen or two.  But for those of us who took part in the mischief, we had a lot of laughs, or at least it was funny at the time.  How those times have changed!