Things that go 'yuck!' in the night

[Editor's note: The original version of this story had an incorrect byline.]

My annual Halloween treat is a feeling of ironic amusement that comes from watching other Americans happily spending large amounts of money and time on a wide range of sophisticated props that are intended to make their homes appear ominous, forbidding, and spooky.

I know it's all good fun, but my lack of enthusiasm for fright-night decor is a direct result of growing up in a household that was constantly striving to accomplish exactly the opposite result. Our goal was to keep the place from looking like a venue where Halloween never ended.

This is a very sensitive subject. All of us organize our personal living space in different ways, and lack of order and neatness in a home is often seen as a warning sign of some personality defect or family dysfunction. A classic example is the Collyer Brothers, a reclusive New York City duo who lived in a 12-room brownstone in Harlem from 1909 to 1947.

Junk was said to be piled up neck-deep through the entire dwelling, and played a key role in the deaths of both men. A full account of their strange, flotsam-packed lifestyle can be found in a new book entitled "Ghosty Men" by Franz Lidz. Unlike the Collyers, my parents did not hoard excessively, but they did have a tendency to look at common everyday items as historical artifacts or potential heirlooms.

Their circle of friends was small, and few nonfamily members ever came into the house. Left to ourselves, nobody worried much about keeping up appearances in case unexpected visitors dropped by. In this situation, it's easy to slide into a behavior pattern I call "too casual by half."

Newspapers, old schoolwork, magazines, and discarded mail accumulated on the dining room table. Dirty dishes took over the sink. We'd clear away some of the clutter, and the cycle would begin again. I ran the vacuum cleaner occasionally, but our little Electrolux was no match for a big dusty house. It was like sending a PT boat out to sink the Bismarck.

We had three showers but all were nonfunctional. My parents weren't home-repair enthusiasts and couldn't afford to pay a plumber, so the unused stalls became storage space. Making do with one bathtub never seemed unusual to me. I liked the rubber hose attachment that stuck onto the faucet and had a shower head on one end.

Space doesn't allow me to go into other haunting memories like the basement or the upstairs closets, and some details are better left unrevealed. Suffice to say, I didn't grow up deranged, and I feel sympathetic whenever I visit a home showing hints of "Collyer-ization."

So when the trick-or-treaters have all gone home and the jack-o'-lanterns are dark, I don't consider Halloween to be completely over. It's always lurking in remote corners, cramped crawl spaces, and every other spot where I wage my ongoing private war against the specters of dirt, grime, and things that go "yuck!" in the night.

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