I'm sitting inside Fortunato's After Dark, facing the door. The downtown St. Pete tavern is almost empty, and I have an unobstructed view of the foyer and beyond. Mostly, it looks like a typical Saturday night. To the right of the open doorway, Tampa bard Mark McManus sits on an extremely tall stool, strumming an acoustic guitar and singing through a spotty (read: shitty) P.A. To the left, gear used by the band that hosts the Wednesday-night open mic is stacked neatly. Outside, a couple of young guys lounge at one of the al fresco tables, laughing and beating on another acoustic.Then Elvis walks by, the unmistakable white jumpsuit and cape obscuring my view of the young guys. His big gold shades swing our way; The King gives us the high sign without breaking stride, and exits stage left.
A bit later, Annie Oakley struts into view, heading in the other direction. I assume she's going to get her gun.
Before long, a short, elaborately costumed witch glides by, headed in the same direction as Annie.
Every time I start to forget, something wonderfully weird moves across my field of vision, reminding me it's the night before All Hallows Eve, and not everyone went to Guavaween.
Most of them go down to the corner, hook a left, then left again into Jannus Landing, where enduring industrial-music freak-show Ministry is busy damaging a courtyard full of willing eardrums. Onstage, singer Al Jourgensen repeatedly assaults a roadie in a latex Bush mask. In the crowd, defrocked priests and naughty Catholic school girls crush against men and women clad in the same leather pants, black mesh tops and distressed cowboy hats they've been wearing to shows like this for more than a decade — it's the biggest, most challenging game of "Costume or Evening Wear?" ever staged. Out in front of Jannus' wrought-iron gates, those without tickets scream at one another and launch into spastic fits of what is apparently dancing, and those dressed as homeless people are actually homeless people.
The Ministry show is Guavaween in miniature: asphalt awash in beer, air superheated by sheer body-mass, the pedestrian and the willfully unhinged jostling for breathing room and trying not to stare at each other for too long. The rest of downtown is, well, pretty much engaged in business as usual, albeit in a less crowded and far more colorful sort of way. It's a hyperbolic example of what business owners probably feared would happen when they first conceived "casual Friday" — most of the people are wearing what they would normally, while a considerable minority appears to have taken the liberty to nutzoid extremes.
The night before, at a particular annual party some St. Pete scenesters await all year, everybody went to nutzoid extremes. You know those Halloween parties where the host fervently encourages partiers to wear costumes, but almost nobody does? Yeah, this wasn't one of those parties. This was one of those parties where the one (yes, one) guy not wearing some sort of get-up was the guy who looked the most like a tool. When your editor's cruising a massive backyard, unrecognizable in a Frankenstein outfit that kind of looks like Mister Bean would after being dosed with massive levels of radiation, you know you don't have to worry much about the usual cool-protocol bullshit.
And tonight, Saturday night, is much the same for those interested in taking advantage of the opportunity. Outside Fortunato's, the Bee Girl from that now-ancient Blind Melon video hurries past, trying to keep up with a group in indeterminate garb. Farther up Central, at the Uptown Café, a Krispy Kreme employee who got shot in the head during a robbery (and apparently fell facedown into a pile of powdered sugar when it happened) shares bar space with the world's most scantily clad female police officer. They're served by a cat. These aren't kids who can wear the ballerina outfit all week if they want. They're adults who've got bills and responsibilities, and who probably need Halloween even more than the kids do, because they didn't luck into the jobs with the fun wardrobe, like Astronaut or Drag Queen or Roadie For Ministry.
Later on, I'll catch the tail end of a party at a skatepark out in Clearwater, where several dangerously inebriated young men are having just the best time spraying caulk on each other and passersby. And tomorrow night, I'll give away exactly four Blow Pops — out of the three bags I bought — to the only two kids to knock on our door; both of them are at least 16 years old, and wearing the bare minimum finery to qualify as trick-or-treaters and not as a coed home-invasion team. Getting stupid-ass drunk at a party and trying to get somebody to give you candy long after you've passed the appropriate age are both probably valid Halloween rites of passage in their own right.
But if there's something so simultaneously hokey and heartwarming as The Spirit of Halloween — as opposed to the multiple lower-case spirits of the holiday — it doesn't reside in shitfaced young adults, or in bored teenagers looking for something to get away with, or even in the approximately 35 horror movies I recorded over the last week. It does reside in the younger kids who hit the haunted houses and roam their neighborhoods for candy, of course it does, we all know that. But it's also in the hearts of all the grownups I saw in costume last night and tonight. It's nurtured by the raucous kids-at-heart who refuse to secede the holiday completely. Who wait, and painstakingly prepare for the one night (or, as with this year, a whole weekend!) a year when we are wholeheartedly encouraged to make even bigger asses of ourselves than we usually do.