The first time my sister Linda and I went trick-or-treating without adult supervision I was 9. It was 1980 and we lived in Walnut Creek, in the Bay Area, which was like a neighborhood in a Steven Spielberg movie. Kids on bikes raced around under the streetlights, teens with feathered hair and puka shells committed light acts of vandalism. This time of year, that meant everyone’s pumpkins were kicked in or filled with shaving cream by the end of Halloween night.
Linda and I crossed the street and found ourselves on a cul-de-sac we’d never visited in previous years, when we were constrained by the strict margins of how far our mom wanted to walk. But now we could venture farther with our pillowcases filled with Pixy Stix and SweeTarts, the nickels and toothbrushes the Hutchinsons gave away, and the lie that is “fun-size” candy bars.
We walked up to a house with a single un-smashed pumpkin on the front porch and I rang the doorbell. My memory might be slightly hazy, since this sounds like a scene from “Love, American Style,” but a tall man with a congressman’s haircut wearing a fitted turtleneck opened the door. Beside him was a woman in a perfect black dress. I’m sure either my sister or I said, “Trick-or-treat,” but that’s lost to me now. All I can see is the deep wooden bowl the woman held, the kind that usually served large salads.
It was filled with full-size candy bars.
“Take as many as you like,” the man said. “It’s been pretty quiet over here.”
I’d heard talk of a house that gave away full-size candy, but it never seemed like it could be real. And while it had been ingrained in my sister and me to be well-mannered, when you are a child presented with a bowl filled with a massive assortment of full-size candy bars, upbringing means nothing. I grabbed two handfuls of Rocky Roads. Linda went for a fistful of Nestle Crunch bars. The couple laughed.
I figured they must be oil barons. Who else could afford this kind of extravagance? Our own home was no-frills, strictly tiny Hershey bars. Then I said the words that would come to rule my recent adult life, at least as it relates to Halloween.
“You’re the full-size house,” I said. “You’re really the full-size house.”
“We are,” the woman said. She leaned close. “Now don’t tell everyone.”
We told every living soul we encountered.
Where I live now is the exact opposite of the neighborhood where I grew up: a gated golf-course community where a third of the homes are vacation or Airbnb rentals, a third could easily be occupied by people in witness protection and a third house families. The other 1%, judging from NextDoor, are conspiracy theorists and coyote trackers. I don’t know any of my neighbors personally.
It’s for that reason, I suspect, that for a long time I treated Halloween as a minor annoyance. But then a few years ago, I noticed that the rare infants in strollers that peopled our Indio neighborhood were now about the age I was when I was allowed to roam on my own. I came to my wife, Wendy, with The Question.
“How much would it cost us to be the Full-Size House?” Thinking of that home in the cul-de-sac in Walnut Creek, the man’s perfect hair, the woman’s Audrey Hepburn dress, the amount I had in mind was solidly in the three figures.
Wendy said, “Forty or 50 bucks, if we account for shrinkage? We only get about 20 kids.”
The truth is that I’d always wanted to be the full-size house to re-create that moment of wonder I’d had. And, yes, I wanted to become a legend of the neighborhood, remembered for my great benevolence and the plentiful number of real Reese’s I handed out, not those ersatz gold-wrapped nuggets.
But I also realized that the mere act of being the full-size house had a larger social purpose: It was a protection plan. One day, those 20 adorable kids would become teenagers with friends, and teenagers with friends like to do things like egg houses and smash pumpkins.
We’ve invested about $400 in full-size candy in the years since. And while the neighborhood message boards are filled with stories of car windows getting broken — probably the work of bored teenagers — I could probably leave my car unlocked and running on Halloween night and no one would take it.
Because now, every year as soon as the sun goes down on the big night, the kids show up at our house first, often a youngster being walked by an older sibling. Instead of getting 20 kids we see a solid 50. And I listen through the door when they walk up, hoping to hear the older kid say, “Be cool. They’re the full-size house.”
Tod Goldberg is the author of more than a dozen books, most recently “The Low Desert: Gangster Stories.” He directs the Low Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts at UC Riverside. @todgoldberg