Imagine trying to card a zombie. Now, imagine the line is out the door. And imagine the entire street is jammed full of revelers, in various states of merriment and inebriation, some impatient to get their drink on.
At least the ones in Chewbacca masks or Master Chief helmets tend to be willing to take them off to get in, former Sixth Street bartender Megan McMillan recalls. But there was that time, a few Halloweens ago, when a pair of people dressed as zombies ambled up, faces hidden beneath layers of latex and makeup so thick that McMillan could not tell what they really looked like. They were drunk. They did not appreciate the difficulty matching the faces on their IDs to those beneath the layers of makeup.
It was not, McMillan said, the most surreal experience of Halloween night. That came later.
“Working Halloween on Sixth Street,” she said, “is one of the most challenging nights I’ve ever encountered.”
Next weekend one of the nation’s most vivid Halloween observances will happen on East Sixth Street. It will double as a microcosm for the larger social tensions at work in a city that celebrates its reputation as Neverland’s boozy cousin even as some residents worry the festival aspect of the city has gotten out of hand.
The Sixth Street revelry is also an obvious example of how Halloween has become a holiday as much for adults as children. It often ranks as the third most popular American holiday, and an informal survey by internet chat provider ooVoo found that Halloween is the favorite of millennials.
Two out of every three adults think Halloween is a holiday for them, according to DDB Worldwide, a marketing research firm whose DDB Life Style Study has measured American attitudes since 1975. Its 2012 study found that among the 13 percent of adults age 18 to 44 who ranked Halloween as their favorite holiday, more than half did not even have children.
WEIRDNESS ON PARADE
There is no scientifically valid study comparing the likelihood of people in different cities to don a Boba Fett helmet or chainmail bikini and seek out a game of beer pong. But last year, on Halloween night, as the cavalcade of costumes passed by his perch beside the floor-to-ceiling open windows of Darwin’s Pub on East Sixth Street, Rod Riley said that if there were national ranking for Halloween revelry, Austin would surely be near the top.
“This is great,” Riley said, sipping on a gin and tonic. He and his wife, Laura Molinario, are from North Carolina and were in Austin for the annual Formula One race, which was happening that weekend. It was a 50th birthday present for him. They decided to check out the downtown, where Austin Police say the seven blocks between Congress Avenue and Interstate 35 attract as many as 80,000 people to the bars and ad hoc street parade. In the stream of Reno 911 Guys, Sexy Bubble Gum Machines, Duff Men and Mario/Luigi couples, they saw a concept that Austinites tend to say is among the most important: diversity.
“Generic is an evil word,” said Riley, a freelance writer who spent time that night chatting with various festival goers including a Batman/Catwoman duo in set-quality getup and a pair of 10-year-old girls dressed as conjoined twins.
Creativity is a key skill in a range of professions, and creative types tend to favor places that value a bohemian aesthetic, according to researchers such as economist Richard Florida. On a related note: The “Keep Austin Weird” slogan was originally adopted by the Austin Small Business Alliance to promote the city’s economy. Another related note: the Austin area has the best economy in the nation, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution.
“That’s weird,” Riley said, nodding to a Spy Versus Spy pair. Later, as a cluster of Where’s Waldos pass by, Riley added: “It renews my faith in humanity there’s something like this. There are so many people here rubbing elbows who are from different walks of life.”
Next Sunday morning, Facebook feeds will be filled with pictures of the bizarre, the exciting, the borderline offensive and the regrettable.
Halloween is a time when those kinds of photos are, if not encouraged, at least more likely to be greeted with a grin. It is a holiday that comes without the religious overtones of Christmas, the hassles of getting home to family at Thanksgiving or the romantic expectations of New Year’s Eve, Denise Delahorne of DDB Worldwide told Forbes in the 2012 article, “How Adults Have Hijacked Halloween From Kids.” By donning a costume, adults can borrow aspects of another identity and express themselves in ways that otherwise run afoul of social taboos.
McMillan, the former bartender, has seen a few things that tend not to make the feeds. She remembers one in particular.
“A group of dudes come in wearing the basic, last minute … it’s-Halloween-and-let’s-go-get-wasted costumes, except for the one guy who was just dressed regularly.” That guy, McMillan said, took such a ribbing from his friends, and got so drunk in the process, that when Riley had time for a bathroom break (“when it wasn’t crammed with 100 Sarah Palins”) she found that guy in the bathroom. The women’s bathroom. Twirling as he rolled himself in a roll of toilet paper. Yelling, “I’m a mummy, I’m a mummy!”
That is not the part that angers McMillan. It’s how, when she kicked him out of the bathroom, he complained that he “had been falsely accused,” a cause his friends took up. One of them threw a beer mug. They left no tips – which often happens on Halloween, McMillan said. Rule of thumb: Every third customer will complain about his or her tab.
“I’m talking about the crying girls, the hammered dude-bros, the vomiting, the accusations of overcharging, the lost credit card/wallet/sparkly high heels that you shouldn’t have taken off in the first place,” McMillan said.
But for all that, McMillan and others see Halloween not as an uncharacteristically crazy night, but as a vivid distillation of the broader culture on East Sixth Street. On a typical weekend with good weather, that stretch of bars will still attract 40,000 people. What comes out on Halloween, McMillan said, is part of “the general (chicanery) that happens every weekend.”
TEMPERING THE CRAZINESS
Bob Woody paused a moment, searching for the appropriate way to convey the scope of East Sixth Street on Halloween.
Woody opened his first downtown business, the Pecan Street Cafe, in the early 1980s. He has owned so many restaurants, bars and music venues since that he earned the nickname “The Mayor of East Sixth Street.” He is probably as qualified as anyone to assess the Halloween celebration.
“It’s as big as any home football game” at the University of Texas, he said. (The maximum capacity of Royal-Memorial Stadium is just more than 100,000, but the Halloween crowd exceeds that if the rest of downtown is counted, according to city officials.) To Woody, that crowd is a good thing. People voting with their feet, and wallets.
Meredith Powell gives a more circumspect assessment. She graduated from college in 1999. She might have descended into the fray as late as, say, 2001. But she now runs Public City. It is not her scene. She would prefer if East Sixth Street’s sidewalks were wider, as the city has proposed, as well as more establishments geared toward food, retail and the hours before the shots start flowing.
“We would all like to see a more diverse” range of activities on East Sixth Street, said Powell, president of the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association. “That would temper some of the craziness.”
The visions are not mutually exclusive. But they are suggestive of an ongoing tension. City policy calls for 25,000 people living downtown by 2020, up from the fairly rapid growth that has brought the 11,000 or so living downtown now. The closer Austin gets to its downtown-population goals, the more compromises the city will probably have to broker between residents who want calm and businesses that specialize in stimulation.Even the merchants along East Sixth Street disagree about whether to tamp down on the shot-bar atmosphere and restore some of the family friendly feel to what was once Pecan Street.
Powell said Austin’s businesses and downtown population have just not lived together long enough to iron out the inevitable tensions. She hopes time will lead to more establishments such as Easy Tiger that cater to the more mature end of the adult spectrum —and that downtown residents may also have to adjust some expectations.
“We all know it’s East Sixth Street,” Powell said. “It’s been what it’s been for a while.”
MORE COPS, STRONGER BARRICADES
Call it the rare Sixth Street Horny Toad.
In the early evening last Halloween, while the sidewalks of East Sixth Street were still easily navigable, a person wearing a giant toad’s head roved up and down. If someone noticed the creature, it froze, crouched in ball. If someone made a sudden move, the human toad bounded off, leaping from the crouch into a bipedal stroll.
It vanished some time after sunset. The children, however, did not. As late as 10 p.m., they could be seen in Spider-Man and Strawberry Shortcake and Optimus Prime outfits. The crowd thickened as the night lengthened. By midnight, the street was so packed that only the exceptionally nimble and skinny could slither through without jostling others.
As 2 a.m. approached, there was occasional shouting and much muttering in the streets about what would have happened to the other guy, if stuff had gone down.
The number of arrests at Halloween on East Sixth Street is not staggering, considering the tens of thousands of people milling about, Woody said. Austin police made 15 arrests on Halloween in 2011; 49 in 2012; 25 in 2013; and 37 in 2014. Lt. Tom Sweeney of the Austin Police Department said that on a typical weekend, police make about a dozen arrests on East Sixth Street.
The police department has added a few more officers to monitor Halloween each year. Last year the department also erected a parallel set of barricades down the middle of East Sixth, essentially creating a tunnel that allowed officers to move up and down the street without wading into a crowd that could be flowing the other direction.
But the barricades were simply an idea that had been used a few years earlier, said Sweeney, who oversees the department’s mounted patrol. The barricades were pushed inward by the press of people as the night progressed, turning what started as a 15-foot-plus-wide swath that could accommodate ambulances into a corridor less than 5 feet wide. Sweeney also said last year’s arrest totals probably would have been higher, but the size of the crowd kept some officers from getting to fights quickly enough to break them up.
This year, he said, Austin police will be using heavier, water-filled barriers. They are also upping the staffing from around 45 officers to around 70, partly because of what seems to be a crowd that has become more belligerent over the last six months or so, Sweeney said.
But for all that, he said, nearly all of belligerence happens after midnight, whether it’s Halloween or a typical weekend.
“Any time you’re on Sixth Street after midnight, you’re gambling,” Sweeney said. “But if you leave before the time when people turn into pumpkins, you’ll be fine.”
For the six horse-mounted officers standing vigil on Neches Street, just off the most crowded stretch of East Sixth, most of last Halloween was a relatively quiet night.
Finally, around 2:15 a.m., there was a major disturbance. A quarter-block ahead people were shouting, the crowd undulating in a way that suggested shoving. The officers rode into the crowd, whistles piercing the cacophony, and pushed everyone back, allowing officers on foot to step in and tend to the man face-down in the street. A few minutes later officers led him away.
That done, the contingent resumed its post. A few minutes passed, and a big guy stepped off Sixth Street. His shoulders were tight and his fists were balled as he scanned the crowd. A few of the horse cops shifted their attention to him. An even bigger guy spotted him and stepped between him and the crowd.
“Hey what are you doing?” the even bigger guy yelled. “There are like 60 horse cops right behind (you)! Let’s go!”
They did. The horse cadre looked on. A Catwoman took a selfie with them.