How Do You Top Doctor Octopus?

I love Halloween. Whatever weird compulsion it is to want to dress up in a costume, I had it in a big way for a long time. It was a beast that awakened once a year and took over my consciousness for weeks leading up to the big night. Looking back on my twenties, I have to begrudgingly admit that if I had put the same energy into following a career that I put into assembling my Halloween costumes I would be at least a few points of latitude North of writing a blog with a weekly circulation of about 45. (Thank you, Google analytics?)

I had a lot of good costumes over the years. As an adult (if someone in their 20s can really be called that) I always tended toward funny costumes as opposed to scary costumes. (I suppose one might say that there are two kinds of people.)  The one that really made me feel like I accomplished something was the Krusty the Klown kostume I made in 1998. I really committed to that one: I got the voice down pat, and the laugh, which was a little harder; I got green pants (size 42, to accommodate the fake potbelly I made duct-taping a throw pillow to a t-shirt), a short-sleeved pink shirt, and a blue bowtie from some thrift stores; I created the blue wig with male pattern baldness with a swatch of blue fur from a crafts store and a bald cap; and I got a big red pair of clown shoes, a clown nose, and some white gloves, from a Halloween store. I even smoked a pack of cigarettes that night. At the time, I had just started dating my wife, who started out amused by this effort but ended up creeped out, and begging me to take it all off. (I didn’t want to do that until we got home, because I felt the only thing creepier than Krusty would have been Krusty with the wig off.)

It’s been a few years since I did a Halloween costume. I think I knew it was really over for me when I repeated my Magnum, P.I. costume from a few years before for a costume party at a bar a couple of years ago. Sure, I won the costume contest at that party — tight white short-shorts are always a hit —  but the shame of repeating a Halloween costume drowned out the triumph.

The beast lay dormant for a couple of years, which (coincidentally?) were my first few years as a parent. Halloween means nothing to a kid the first couple of years, so we sat out Henry’s first one entirely and almost sat out the second until our good friends lent us one of their kids’ old costumes, so we went with them on our neighborhood trick-or-treat route.

In our Brooklyn neighborhood, they do Halloween a little different than we used to do it in the suburbs: NYPD closes four streets for three blocks in the historic district, creating a 12-block snaking route of brownstone rowhouses, probably 30 per side per block.  With no cars on the street, the kids — and you can’t believe how many kids there are, they come from other neighborhoods to get in on this — can zigzag all over the place and make out like bandits on the candy. Probably 3 out of 5 houses on the route are participating, and they’re all right next to each other, so the kids theoretically should be able to score and score big, but there are so many kids out there that they’re all in each other’s way so they slow each other down, like a soccer game with 800 kids on the field. Except the kids are in Halloween costumes! It is even more fun than it sounds.

We pushed Henry around in his stroller in his borrowed furry lion costume, and got him a bunch of candy that we ate ourselves and marveled at this scene. The houses on this route that participate in Halloween participate in Halloween. Everybody does up their stoops and gardens with big fake webs and scarecrows and strobelights; everybody handing out the candy is in costume, whole families hanging out outside with “Monster Mash” playing and everybody smiling. It’s great.

For Henry’s third Halloween we bought him a Triceratops costume, because when we asked him what he wanted to be for Halloween, he said “Ceratops.” He was in his dinosaur phase, and “Triceratops” was at the time the only dinosaur he could dependably name.  Two years later he appears to have no memory of that costume. It was cute, and his mom modified it slightly to make it fit better. As for his participation level, he was a little overwhelmed by the scene and shy about going up to the people to get the candy. He was a few months shy of his third birthday, so this is understandable. Once again, we got him a bunch of candy, and once again, we ate most of it ourselves.  

But last year, the beast awakened. I asked Henry what he wanted to be for Halloween and, unlike last year, he actually knew what I was talking about, and he answered “Spider-Man.” He was in the honeymoon part of his Spider-Man phase. I thought about that for a moment, and asked him what his best friend Zeke, with whom we planned to walk the route, was going as and Henry said, “Spider-Man.” Zeke was also in his Spider-Man phase. (I would like to see some true scientific study on the Dinosaur phase (age 2-3) and the Spider-Man phase (age 3-4). What correlation do these phases have with the stages of brain development? Should parents try to prolong the Dinosaur phase if certain benchmarks aren’t met? Is it safe to commence the Spider-Man phase before the child can speak in full sentences?)

Well, everybody knows you don’t go to a Halloween party in the same costume as somebody else if you can help it, particularly not the person you’re going with. It was not easy to explain this to Henry, but eventually he understood that he had to pick a different costume than Spider-Man. “What would be cool is if you could be one of the bad guys,” I told him. “Like the Vulture? Or the Green Goblin?”

As it happened, I had just finished tearing out and rebuilding the frame for my back door, as the old frame appeared to have been opened with a battering ram at some point before we bought the house. (As I mentioned, this story takes place in Brooklyn.) I solved the problem of how to insulate the gap between the wooden frame and the brick rough opening by stuffing in pipe insulation — skinny, 6-foot-long foam tubes with a slit along one side, meant to be put around water and heat pipes. I had a lot left over, and had left it in the back yard, where Henry had played with it a little bit.

“How about Doctor Octopus?” I said, and before he even answered, I knew that he was going to be Doctor Octopus. The beast was up and out of its coffin, ready to feed. I Googled a few pictures of the villain, and Henry soon agreed, so I fashioned a set of arms with that pipe insulation, a belt made of cardboard, four wire hangers, and a roll of duct tape. I knew we had a pair of kiddie-sized 3d glasses that looked like old Wayfarers, so I figured all we needed was a green shirt and green pants and we were in business.

Here’s a dimension that a lot of people miss on Halloween: you have to make concessions to the weather. The temperature on Halloween ranges from “not that cold for the first half hour” to “freezing,” and there’s no bigger bummer than having a great Halloween costume and having to put a coat on over it, especially if you’re a kid. This, to me, is the primary problem with store-bought Halloween costumes: you freeze to death in them. So I’m thinking, I need warm green pants and a warm green shirt, preferably the exact same green. A quick trip to the kids’ department at Old Navy scores fleece pants and matching sweatshirt, and my little Doctor Octopus is ready to wreak havoc on the city. We brought along his little fake-leather Fonzie jacket just in case, and even though it didn’t match the all-green, comic-book Doctor Octopus I was going for, it evoked the trenchcoat the Alfred Molina wore in Spider-Man 2.

Without any coaching from me or his mom, Henry immediately embraced the role of villain, which even more than the costume itself was what made this such a memorable evening. As you could probably have guessed, in addition to Zeke, there were about 640 other Spider-Mans out trick-or-treating, and Henry attacked every one of them on sight, starting with Zeke. Actually, Henry attacked Zeke before and after attacking every other Spider-Man he saw. (Henry and Zeke’s whole relationship is built on attacking each other.) The awesome quotient of a three-foot-tall Doc Ock taking on a horde of three-foot Spider-Mans, in front of a NYPD cruiser and a roadblock, no less, while bellowing in his best monster voice, “I’m Doctor Octopus!!” was lost on none of the parents. It was at this moment that all the getting puked on and the changing messy diapers and the lost sleep and my brutal treatment as a second-class parent by this kid in favor of his admittedly excellent mother melted away. This is what I was put here to do: to make this kid awesome Halloween costumes. Krusty the Klown and Magnum P.I. and Steve Martin and Reed Richards were all just warmups for fatherhood.

Which brings us to this year. I set the bar pretty high for myself with Doctor Octopus, and I have probably eight more Halloweens to go before Henry starts spending Halloween in search of beers and adventure. It’s daunting.

Making matters worse, when I first asked Henry what he wants to be this year, he said “The Vulture.” I wouldn’t have any problem with re-enacting last year as a different Spider-Man villain, but The Vulture presents some challenges: he wears all green, which as we learned last year is no problem, but putting giant feathered wings on each of Henry’s arms would be time-consuming, and making him bald doesn’t seem feasible. Do they even make bald caps for 4-year-olds?

So I steered him away from The Vulture, but his next idea, a two-headed dragon, was even tougher. I toyed momentarily with the idea of papier-macheing a pair of heads with Henry’s real face in its chest or something, but it seemed overwhelming. “How about a skull?”

Henry is really into skulls right now. Partly that’s because people (read: his mom and I) keep buying him clothes with the skull-and-crossbones on them. (This is what happens when the metal generation starts reproducing.) He has a fleece hoodie with a skull-and-crossbones. He has four or five t-shirts with some version of it on them. And over the summer, on a canoe trip, I picked up a skull-and-crossbones flag at the gift shop to put below the orange safety flag on his trailer bike.

Riding him around on that trailer bike, I started to feel a little conscious of his bike helmet, which had crudely drawn dinosaurs in primary colors on it. It’s very toddlerish, and Henry at this point can ride a bike without training wheels and is unfazed riding through traffic on Flatbush Avenue on the trailer bike. He needs a cooler helmet. So if I get him one, I can use this old one for something. A skull, perhaps?

Henry agreed to be a skull right away, and at first I promised to turn him into a skull-and-crossbones by putting a couple of crossed bones on his chest, just below his head. But then I started thinking about the weather, and realized he’ll be cold if we send him out in just a black sweatshirt. I started thinking about his jackets and how they could work with a skull, and zeroed in on another fake-leather jacket he got a few months ago, that everyone keeps calling a motorcycle jacket.

A skull and a motorcycle jacket? Sounds like Ghost Rider!

Once I Googled a couple of Ghost Rider images, Henry was completely on board. I spent three nights turning his old bike helmet into a skull, and I have to say I am pretty excited about the results. Henry, for his part, has never been so excited about anything in his life. My only worry is whether he’ll be able to see out of it well enough to ride his bike.

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