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The Costume Crowd At the Door

`I'M not going to be a witch this Halloween,'' the little girl in the corner house across the street said this June. ``I'm five now and I'm going to be a princess.'' ``I don't know if I'll recognize you all dressed up like that, Alison,'' I said as she giggled and skipped off.

On Halloween night, I do recognize most of the couple dozen kids who live on our block in residential Boston. If I'm not sure, I step out on the porch and wave at the young parents waiting by the curb.

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My wife and I feel good about becoming the ``Old Neighbors.'' Our son's in graduate school, but we have a Halloween snapshot of him as a robot in a box covered with foil. We enjoy watching kids grow.

From one Halloween to the next, the change can show in confidence, possibility, strength, and new activities. Meaghan, the girl who lives on the corner to our left, went from being a nurse to being a rangy football player in shoulder pads.

When the annual costume parade hits our porch, the drugstore masks and capes are never as interesting as the homemade costumes - even if they're boys dressed as hoboes and girls with rouged cheeks.

We invite the five kids from our corner into our front hall and take their pictures. We got the only photo of five-year-old Justin the Mouse Detective, and his parents were glad to put that picture of their only child in sequence, just as we had done.

Most of the kids are polite and patient. They don't grab handfuls and they say thank you. But they're all moving pretty fast. The little ones get guided home before it's dark; the older ones have homework.

When the footsteps stop clomping onto the porch and the doorbell's quiet, I step out and look at the porch lights. The kids have gone in to count and sort their loot.

If the autumn sky is clear, I look up at the Big Dipper and Orion and think back to those years before Star Wars and spy satellites. My favorite Halloween house wasn't haunted or even scary.

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On my corner at 10th and Madison Streets in Denver, we had trolley tracks. Sometimes we'd put new pennies from the Denver mint on the rails to be flattened. But on Halloween night we rang the Old Neighbors' bell - without saying ``trick or treat'' - and they would ask about a dozen kids to come in and wait.

When a small audience was gathered, we stopped fidgeting and each of us did something. We sang, danced, played their upright piano. There was even a cartwheel or a handstand in those days before kids were programmed into gymnastics, swimming, skating, or junior football.

I probably recited a poem. I was taking ``electrocution lessons,'' as I called my weekly elocution training with embarrassment. I'm sure it wasn't one that I wrote, but the kids listened and that kept me interested in doing things with words.

I don't remember whether I was ever one of the three ``winners'' in our group, but I do recall that the kids looked forward to the Halloween performance at the Old Neighbors. It showed us what we could do, not how fast we could dump stuff in a sack.

The prizes were homemade: popcorn balls, candied apples, and old-fashioned sugar cookies. I suppose we also got store-bought stuff, but I don't remember what.

Today no kid or parent will take anything that isn't individually wrapped. Maybe the little candy bars we spend about $20 for are just one more sign of inflation. Maybe now that we're the Old Neighbors they symbolize how much smaller life's treats have gotten.

When I start thinking like that, I dip into the bowl of leftovers and unwrap one of those little candy bars. Then I wonder what the neighborhood kids might perform - if we could slow them down long enough to bring them inside our living room by the upright piano.

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