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My salvaged loot.

My salvaged loot. And a pumpkin.

In many ways, Central Pennsylvania is much like the rest of the United States. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, dogs chase cats, birds perch on telephone wires, and human adults feed their young by regurgitating half-digested food directly into their mouths.

Oops. Sorry. That last one is birds, too. Except in some neighborhoods near Three Mile Island.

But there’s one we do differently here. And that’s Halloween.

In the rest of the United States, kids put on costumes and go trick or treating on Halloween night, which is October 31. We don’t do that here. For reasons that are lost to history, kids here go door to door and beg for candy on the Thursday before Halloween.

Why? Nobody seems to know. One theory I’ve heard is that the Powers That Be worried that when Halloween fell on Friday, trick or treating would interfere with the region’s secular religion, high school football. I’m not quite clear on the reasoning, since few high school kids still trick or treat. Maybe the feeling was, given the choice between candy or concussions, most adults would turn off their porch lights and head to a game, leaving children throughout the region sweet-deprived. It’s as good a theory as any.

To make things worse, there’s also an officially mandated time to trick or treat—6:00 to 8:00 p.m. No earlier, no later. Talk about government overreach!

In any event, even though today is the day before Halloween, here in Central PA it’s the day after trick or treating. When I went walking this morning, I found the evidence of last night’s activities scattered all over the sidewalks. Not just candy wrappers—by the time I got home, the pouch of my official Red Sox hoodie was bulging with a load of candy I had picked up along the way. I found Snickers, Butterfingers, Reese’s, Kit Kats, Jolly Ranchers, and even a packet of pretzels from some do-gooder’s house. (Seriously, dude. Next year buy some candy.)

When I was a kid, there was no way I would have been so careless with my sugary loot. Getting the maximum amount of candy possible was job one. My friends and I headed out with a clearly defined strategy so we could cover as much territory as humanly possible on Halloween night, and then we established base camp so we could resume our quest for candy at first light in the morning. Trick or treating was serious business, and we operated under the policy of “no candy left behind.” There was just no way we would leave a Snickers bar on the sidewalk. It was unthinkable.

This was also back when some people still handed out apples or even home-cooked desserts, like cupcakes. Imagine that! Then we started hearing stories about kids finding pins and razor blades in their apples, and people lacing cupcakes with drugs. Such stories soon reached the point of mass hysteria. Some local police stations offered to let people screen their candy through X-ray machines or metal detectors. I think anyone handing out apples today would soon find a SWAT team at the door.

Well, times change.

Nonetheless, I was amazed by the amount of abandoned candy this morning. There was one stretch of sidewalk where I recovered a goodie every 50 feet or so. It was strange. It made me think that something must have happened, something like this:

It’s 8:00. “Let’s keep going!” Johnny insists to his chums.

“Gee, Johnny, my parents said I had to come back at eight.”

“Yeah, Johnny. I have homework. Besides, I don’t need any more candy.”

“What? You don’t need more candy! What are you talking about? Come on, you sissies! I’m not quitting at 8:00! I’m going to trick or treat until I drop! Even if I have to do it alone!”

And so he does, stubbornly ringing doorbells, even at houses where the porch lights have been switched off. “Trick or treat, you idiots!” he sneers. As time passes, Johnny begins to see faces peering fearfully from around drawn curtains. “Go home!” people shriek from behind closed doors. “Go home before it’s too late!”

“Jerks!” Johnny hisses from behind his Jason hockey mask. “I’ll trick or treat as long as I want! Nothing’s going to stop me! Not even the devil himself!”

And then, after he leaves the porch of one darkened house and begins dragging his candy-laden pillowcase down the sidewalk, Johnny senses . . . something . . . behind him. He feels the hairs rise on the back of his neck. He wheels around, trying to peer through the eyeholes in his hockey mask. Was that a movement in the shadows? Something not quite . . . human? He walks a little faster. Maybe it’s time to head home, he thinks. I’ll tell the sissies I stayed out until 10!

What was that? Johnny wheels around again. “Who’s there?” he demands, unable to keep the fear out of his voice. He’s pretty sure he sees a form lurking in the darkness—something tall and—he doesn’t want to think of the word—slender. He reaches into his bag with shaking hands and pulls out a Butterfinger, which he hurls into the darkness. “Take that!” he yells. “And leave me alone!” He thinks he sees the shadowy figure pause by the piece of candy. He reaches into his bag and pulls out some peanut M&Ms. He pauses. No, not that. No need to waste peanut M&Ms. He grabs a bag of pretzels instead. Better. He throws that into the darkness and then he begins to run, pulling out pieces of candy from the bag and tossing them one by one over his shoulder to slow his pursuer. He hears soft footpads behind him, getting closer and closer, and the harsh panting breath of something that doesn’t sound quite human . . .

That’s what I imagined must have happened, anyway. Whatever it was, it provided me with a little motherlode of candy. I followed the trail of sweets down the sidewalk until I had to step around a big puddle of what appeared to be cherry Kool Aid. After that I didn’t find any more candy. Weird.


New Phil WoodsThe news hit me hard. Alto sax great Phil Woods had died at the age of 83. I learned about it as I listened to WXPN while driving to work. Then the DJ played Steely Dan’s “Dr. Wu.”

That’s the song that introduced me to Phil Woods, as I’ve written about before. It was my gateway drug, so to speak. Slowly but surely, I began to accumulate his records, although I still have only a fraction of his entire output. The first album I bought was Floresta Canto, a collection of Brazilian-flavored songs done with an orchestra. But here’s the thing: I didn’t like it. With all those strings, it was too flowery for my tastes. I felt, truth be told, a little embarrassed when I listened to it. I was a teenager, and, like most teenagers, was very self-conscious about what was cool and what was not. An album of string-infused bossa nova songs was not cool.

I bet I would like Floresta Canto now, if I still had it. But I don’t, because I went back to the record store and exchanged it for another Phil Woods album they had in stock. This one was titled The New Phil Woods Album. I liked it much better, with the exception of the cover of Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen,” that maudlin ode to self-pity. Even without lyrics, I still don’t like it much, although Woods does a nice enough job. But I loved the album’s opener, an 11-minute opus called “The Sun Suite.” It kicked off with Woods’ soaring, full-bore saxophone and then worked through various movements. Sure, there were a lot of strings and stuff in the middle, but in the final portion Woods and the band really started to swing, and it ended with some great saxophone honks. The album also had a superb medley of “Chelsea Bridge/Johnny Hodges” on side 2, with Woods playing some of it on soprano sax. This is still one of my favorite pieces of music, ever. I always thought this piece sounded so incredibly sophisticated, with some really tricky passages that Woods and his band navigated with ease. When I made tapes to play at my wedding reception, I put the medley at the end of one cassette, thinking it would provide a nice, classy break from the dance music so people could visit the buffet tables. It still sounds great.

I am not a very knowledgeable jazz aficionado, but there’s something about the Phil Woods saxophone sound that I find incredibly appealing. He had his own sound, his own voice. Although Woods was often compared to Charlie Parker (and the fact that he was once married to Parker’s widow, Chan, made those comparisons even easier to make), I preferred Woods. I thought his sax playing was more vibrant, more human. Hearing Phil Woods appear on a recording—like Thelonious Monks’s “Friday the 13th” from The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall—was like walking into a party of strangers and suddenly hearing a familiar voice from across the room.

ShowboatSo, as I said, I picked up a few Phil Woods albums over the years. I remember my joy when I found two of them—Song for Sisyphus and I Remember—in a cutout bin at a store on Hollywood Boulevard. I couldn’t believe my luck when I discovered the two-disk Live from the Showboat at the big Goodwill book and record sale at the Convention Center in Washington, D.C. I had wanted that one for years. I had seen it at the record store where I got my first Woods fix, but it was a double album and a little out of my price range then.

Once I made the move from vinyl to CDs, I added a few of his disks to the collection. I even have one of his albums—Evolution—on cassette. It has liner notes by Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, who recalled the time when he first heard Woods, on Monk’s At Town Hall. “About halfway through a particularly wry Monk tuned called ‘Friday the 13th,’ there was a solo by what had to be the toughest alto player I’d ever heard, a real gunner, but smart and funny, too,” wrote Fagen. “The basic style was out of Bird and Cannonball, but this was a true original.” Fagen called Woods “the greatest living alto player.”

I was fortunate enough to see Woods live a few times. I saw him in Washington at One Step Down, a tiny jazz club on the outskirts of Georgetown. It was literally below street level, with low ceilings and booths lining the wall opposite the stage. As I recall, we had the booth right in front of the stage. I saw him a few years ago in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in a gig at the Hilton hotel’s ballroom. At intermission, Woods sat in an easy chair in the hallway outside the ballroom, just hanging out. I tried to nerve myself up to say hello—he certainly seemed approachable enough—but I just couldn’t figure out what to say. I mean, I’m sure he’s heard it all before. So I let him alone and spared us both from the potential awkwardness.

Beth Ann and me in Paris, ready to find Phil Woods.

Beth Ann and me in Paris, ready to find Phil Woods.

My most memorable Phil Woods gig happened in the suburbs of Paris. Beth Ann, my then-girlfriend (and now my lovely wife) had won airline tickets to Amsterdam at a work event. We figured we’d fly to Amsterdam, hang out for a few days, and then take a train to Paris. Which we did. And at some point, as we were sitting on a train at a Métro station, I looked out the window and saw a huge poster advertising what seemed to be a city-wide jazz festival. One of the names listed jumped out at me. Phil Woods! But the train pulled out of the station before I could get any more information.

Somehow we figured out that the Woods show would take place while we were in town, and that we could get tickets at Tower Records. It was funny, but when we went to buy the tickets, guitarist Elliot Randall—who plays the solo on Steely Dan’s “Reeling in the Years”—was doing an in-store performance. All roads lead to Steely Dan, I guess. Then we had to figure out how to get to the show. It was way outside of town, but reachable by Métro. So we dressed up in our finest duds and got on the train.

Woods ticketAfter a long train ride, we reached our stop and figured we would just follow the crowd to find the venue. It turned out to be in a school gymnasium not far from the station. Outside in the lobby, a stand was selling bread and cheese and, of course, wine. We listened to the show while eating our bread and cheese, drinking our wine, and feeling very Parisian. Keep in mind that, even though I had taken French all through high school, my knowledge of the language was pretty much restricted to the lyrics of LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade.” Getting there felt like something of a triumph.

Watching Woods play, I was always amazed by how easy he made it seem. He may have been tossing of these great flurries of notes, but he made it seem as natural as breathing, as fluid as quicksilver. The music just seemed to flow out of the saxophone. The guy was phenomenal.

There’s a video on YouTube of a master class that Woods taught in 2012. He mentions what is probably his most famous piece of recorded music, the sax solo on Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are.” Woods says a kid once came up to him and asked, “Are you the guy on the Billy Joel record?” Woods told him he was. The kid said, “Have you ever done anything on your own?” Woods says he keeps that statement on his “humble wall.” Not that he had reason to be humble. Phil Woods was one of the greats.


October 2015
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