Sunday, October 21, 2012


People are always asking me: Hey, Jon Spruce, will you come to my Hallowe’en party?

Thanks for the invitation, ladies, but I always pass.  Hallowe’en?  It’s not for me.  I’m waiting…I’m biding my time until the holiday returns to its true and native harvest roots.

I’m waiting until it becomes horrible once again.

Don’t get me wrong.  I like horror, I really do…which is why I’m patiently sitting out of the festivities until it becomes the kind of party it used to be…All Hallow’s Eve…or, in its original Celtic tongue, Samhain, meaning summer’s end.

It used to really be something…the end of the harvest and the beginning of the dark days of winter…when the cattle and sheep and goats were led from the pastures back to the barns and stables and fenced lots…a time of slaughter…a time of haystack making…when the summer fields were ignited into bonfires…a celebration of the autumn crop of rye and barley, apples, pears, quince, gourds and pumpkins…not this sugar-coated day of plastic spiders and fake cobwebs and mass-produced scarecrows, silly office parties serving candy corn and pumpkin-flavored cupcakes.

Where’s the horror in all that?

And costumes? 

I look the other way.  Seeing people on the bus or behind their desks in costumes?  It used to infuriate me.  Now, it just makes me sad.

Why?  Because back in the Samhain days of Hallowe’en, those costumes didn’t win you a free candy bar or a free round of drinks…those costumes saved your life.

During the good old Samhain days, it was once told, the quickening nightfalls and the early moons triggered the opening of doors…secret portals and foggy gateways that revealed the Otherworld, that sister-universe running parallel to ours.  Drawn by the light of the bonfires and the smell of the slaughter, the population of the Otherworld would pass through these doors and walk amongst us. 

Donning hideous masks?  That was the only way we could assimilate into the ghostly parade of spirits, demons, monsters and boogermans. 

So, thanks for the invitation but I’m out.  I’m waiting.  I guess I just like my horror the old fashioned way…which is why I went down to pay my yearly respects to the master of macabre himself…to the Edgar Allan Poe House located at 8th and Spring Garden.


I like my horror Poe style.

I like crumbling castles, dark basements, secret libraries and mad scientist’s laboratories.  I like ghosts of lost love in the shape of black cats and talking ravens.  Premature burials, torture devices, bottomless maelstroms, murderous ourang-outangs, all-night masquerade balls hosted by the devil himself…now that’s horror…tales meant for the fireside…where the scariest thing possible is a guilty conscience…the unbearable confession ready to burst out of your tell-all tell-tale heart.

Poe.  I wouldn’t have missed his Hallowe’en parties.

He lived here, on Spring Garden Street, for about a year.  He actually lived all over Philadelphia but this is the only one of his former homes still standing.

As far as trees, there is nothing too remarkable, nothing that notable here.  There are some cherry trees and a silver maple and one giant mulberry tree taking over the side yard…

…and that’s about it.

But surrounding the house?  Honey locusts, Gledistia triacanthos.


Now there’s an October tree worth hunting.  Here’s a Hallowe’en tree if there ever was one.


I don’t have the exact numbers but I’m guessing that the honey locust is one of the top five most planted street trees here in Philly…heck, in the entire megalopolis.

It’s a perfect tree for the mean streets.  It’s able to grow and flourish under the worst of conditions, unhindered by smog or pollution, noise or traffic, trash or urine…plus, it’s beautiful, especially in October.

The honey locusts have these large, graceful leaves full of small, delicate leaflets that turn a brilliant, golden-colored yellow right before falling.


Even the sidewalks and the gutters below a row of honey locusts is a lovely scene…

…I even like seeing the fallen yellow leaves on the cars parked next to the trees.

The honey locust is pretty easy to recognize, though it can be confused with the black locust and the yellowwood.  One of its distinct characteristics?  They have a stark black trunk that breaks into large, thick plates…probably why it survives so well in the city. 

A bright black trunk and bright yellow leaves?  That’s the perfect combination for this time of year…a color scheme that immediately evokes late October…the palette of Hallowe’en.

But there are other features to the honey locust that make it a good tree for an October hunt.

Like the way its branches grow in twisted patterns…crooked silhouettes against the blue and gray skies…

…and, at each little bend, those weird and gnarled knobs of wood marking every zig and zag of its wormy branching pattern.

Another October feature…the way its petioles remain on the tree after the little leaflets fall…

…skeletal claws scratching at the wintering skies…or a witch’s broom.

But let’s face facts here.  These honey locusts – the ones that dominate the streets of the megalopolis – they’re not the real honey locusts.   Like most of the Hallowe’en traditions and costumes, they’ve been made safe, harmless and kid-friendly.

The real honey locusts have a certain feature to them, a characteristic trait that would make them the perfect Hallowe’en tree…the kind of tree that belongs in a Poe story.

I know where such a honey locust stand exists…and it’s not far at all from the Poe house on 8th and Spring Garden.

I decided to walk there…and, while I was headed there anyway, I decided to wend my way through the surrounding neighborhood….this neighborhood between 8th Street and Broad Street, between Spring Garden and the Vine Street Expressway.

What’s this neighborhood called?  It’s sometimes called the Loft District.  Sometimes you’ll see it called North Chinatown.  Most of the time, it’s just called Callowhill, named after Callowhill Street, which itself is named after William Penn’s second wife, Hannah Callowhill.

But I prefer its new name.

Thanks to its burgeoning community of hip artists and history-loving residents, this neighborhood has recently been christened with the name Eraserhood…so named because it was the inspiration for the granddaddy of all midnight movies…David Lynch’s 1977 horror masterpiece, Eraserhead.


Eraserhead is not kid-friendly.  It’s not safe and, ask just about any horror fan, it’s far from harmless. 

It’s a surrealistic nightmare…in the words of critic Nathan Lee of the Village Voice: an ingenious assemblage of damp, dust, rock, wood, hair, flesh, metal, ooze… and its industrial soundtrack of cranky machines and screeching engines is like an intergalactic seashell cocked to the ears of an acid-tripping gargantuan.

Its cast of characters is a menagerie of weirdos and monsters…including the Eraserhead himself, the Man in the Planet, the Lady in the Radiator and, most famous of all, the Baby.

And, to think, it was all inspired by the freight train and iron work neighborhood of the Loft District, the warehouse and factory lined streets of Callowhill.

Writer and director David Lynch used to live in an apartment right in this neighborhood, at 13th and Wood, the present location of a U-Haul storage warehouse. 

I saw so many things in Philadelphia I couldn’t believe, Lynch once said, I saw a grown woman grab her breasts and speak like a child…This kind of thing will set you back…Philadelphia is the sickest, most corrupt, decaying city filled with fear I ever set foot in…I saw horrible things…It was truly inspiring.

Hey, Lynch, watch your words...or we’ll take down the mural on the old Finney & Sons mausoleum.

Eraserhood isn’t that bad of a place.  It is dominated by warehouses and factories and the tracks of an old freight train route…

…and, as far as trees go, it’s dominated by the unholy trifecta of tenacious weed trees: the paulownia, the catalpa and the ailanthus.

Every once in a while, I also ran into small groves of tenacious bamboo.

This is the natural urban landscape for weed trees like the paulownia and the catalpa and the ailanthus.  This is the kind of environment where these weed trees flourish and take command…vacant lots next to chop shops…

…under the stone arches and metal trestles of old railroad tracks…

…or even on the railroad tracks themselves.

It’s not like other trees would flourish here.  Most trees aren’t tenacious enough to survive this kind of urban landscape.  And it’s not like the city planners are spending a lot of time or energy or money on planting new trees here. 

Even the trees on the highway islands on Spring Garden don’t look very successful…cherry trees stunted in growth by four lanes of heavy traffic…

…or this, a gingko tree so bare and leafless that I wonder if it even had any leaves at all this year.

I did see a lot of honey locusts on my walk, especially in the big and almost empty parking lots in between the high-walled factories and warehouses.

I found some honey locusts with their bean pod fruits dangling from the branches.

This is, supposedly, where the tree earns its name.  These oily, leather-skinned, dark bean pods contain brown seeds.  The pulp of those seeds, according to tradition, is very sweet and succulent…

…but I always thought the name of honey locust was more attached to their honey-colored autumn color…and because it can be confused so easily with the black locust tree.

Of course, no one would confuse the two trees if they had never commercialized the honey locust in the first place…if they hadn’t turned the honey locust into some kid-friendly imitation of its true self…if they had just let the honey locust keep the meaning of its Latin name…the triacanthos.

And that’s why my favorite honey locust stand in the entire city, including all the wild woods where it grows naturally, is located right on the border of Eraserhood…a rare chance to see the real honey locusts right on the mean streets themselves.

Just be careful.

You think Eraserhood was scary, David Lynch?  How about these trees at Broad and Spring Garden?   

Now here’s a real horror show.


The honey locusts at Broad and Spring Garden, for some reason, still maintain its Latin namesake, the triacanthos, those three-pronged spiky branches that grow in clusters up and down its black bark.

What happened?

I find it hard to believe that this was done on purpose.  Considering that you cannot go five blocks in this city without finding a thornless honey locust tree, there must be some story behind this stand…there’s no way this was part of the plan.

Maybe there was some mix-up in the tree catalog…maybe there was some snafu at the tree warehouse…I’d like to someday find out because there’s no way these honey locusts were planted here knowing that this would happen.

And, in case you think these thorns are not that dangerous, then just reach out and grab a few.  These are not the kinds of thorns you find on roses or blackberry vines. 

These are hardy.  They’re actually branches.  They’re woody and sharp and hazardous, despite the feeble metal guards that were built around them.

No, somewhere there’s a great story behind these trees and the cynic in me says that it involves some disgruntled city planner or some incompetent comptroller…either way, somebody got the axe for this, I’ll bet my bottom dollar on it.

And why haven’t they been chopped down and replaced?  The street vendors there told me that the city comes by, on occasion, to trim the spikes down…but it doesn’t look like that’s happening very often.

The bigger question is why does the honey locust even have these spikes.

The answer to that lies in the distant past, when the honey locusts first appeared on the tree scene, about two million years ago during the Pleistocene, when the tribes of primitive humans first started exploring the lands beyond Africa and Asia, when North America was dominated by the megafauna of large and scary land mammals…creatures right out of a monster movie.

What a world that must have been…roaming packs of saber-toothed cats and thundering herds of wooly mammoths…

…short-faced bears and giant beavers, camelids and dire wolves, giant condors and primitive ostriches…

…giant sloths and stag moose…

…a whole menagerie of weird and wonderful mammals filling in the niches left empty by the dinosaurs…unknowingly on the brink of extinction as two-footed man learned how make tools, build fires and sharpen stones.

The honey locusts needed some defense against the behemoth, hungry beasts wandering the windy and glacial environment of the Pleistocene.

You can’t make this up…Philadelphia was once populated by the kinds of monsters that are beyond the imagination of even Edgar Allan Poe and David Lynch…and the honey locust and their clusters of defensive spikes give us a small window into that not-so-distant past, that very real Otherworld when our ancestors really did battle monsters.

The honey locust thorns are a relic of that past.  Too bad we’re so determined to breed it out of the tree.  We’re so determined to leave it all behind.

We do it all the time.  Empty warehouses and abandoned factories…old train tracks rusting in the sun…and if we don’t leave these relics vacant and empty, then we convert it and we commercialize it…we uproot it…we take something very real like Samhain and we turn it into some kid-friendly, sugar-coated, candy-colored, plastic-covered holiday.

It’s not my party.   Jon Spruce is waiting it out.  I’m biding my time until things return to the same old used-to-be.

It’s going to happen.

History and monsters have a tenacious comeback streak.

1 comment:

  1. Correction:
    Triacanthos is derived from the Greek, treis, for three, and canthos, thorn, having reference to the disposition of the spines. Thanks for your post.