Tuesday, January 1, 2008


When I look back I distinctly remember two very different experiences having to do with New Year’s Eve. One of those memorable times was when I had almost reached drinking age and on the brink of manhood. My Brooklyn friends and I had decided to spend New Year’s Eve in Times Square. For us it was a natural rite of passage. That night we joined the multitudes that annually crowd each other for a glimpse of the future from midtown Manhattan, what we then thought was the center of the universe. We were engaged, we thought, in the ultimate New York Experience.

It was hard to believe how many had gathered in that one spot that night. Literally, we were squished body to body, up close and tight. On that cold evening the temperature hovered around freezing, and conscious of the current fashion, we wore earmuffs without hats. From about eleven, we waited on the square, hopping on one foot and then the next as we blew into our hands to stay warm. We were thankful when the clock finally struck midnight. Pandemoniam set in! And it was Happy New Year for everybody. The crowd went wild and the noise level was out of sight. The year would bring, among other things, the opening of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. North Koreans invading South Korea. A minimum wage of 75 cents. And the Yankees sweeping the Phillies in the Series in four straight games. Out with the old and in with the new; it was now 1950, the middle of the century. And although standing in Times Square that night in the freezing cold was exciting and memorable I also remember another very different New Year’s Eve.

This other took place in South Brooklyn, the one where my sister and I were allowed to stay up and wait until midnight for the first time ever. That night we had all congregated in the kitchen, the adults and us kids. We didn’t know what to expect while the adults played a game similar to bingo called tombola. Finally, the time came to go outside the house and wait. There we were: my sister and I, my mother, grandmother, and grandfather, all of us with our coats on, in front of the house, standing in the airyway, waiting. Just waiting. Whatever it was, it was coming soon. And Grandpa, hammer in hand, was ready for it. We stood in the cold not saying a word; every now and then my sister and I would giggle in the silence. Grandpa would take out his watch from his shirt pocket and check the time. Finally, without a word, he opened the gate and quietly, walked slowly, step by step, from our house to the corner. I watched him standing there, almost at attention, directly in front of the metal pole on the corner of Union Street and Sixth Avenue. There he would do his waiting, I thought. Soon, I heard some noises, at first a few firecrackers and then a loud BOOM. Grandpa looked down and checked his pocket watch. It was exactly twelve midnight! Deliberately, he began banging the metal pole with his hammer. Methodically, like a clock. BONG, BONG, BONG! Twelve times. Meanwhile, the noises grew louder as the firecrackers, cherry bombs and roman candles exploded. Above us, the sky was a picture of shooting stars and our entire neighborhood was alive and on fire.

Grandpa quietly and slowly walked back from the corner and immediately all of us entered the house. Once inside, as if we were partaking of high tea, Grandma elegantly poured anisette into the tiniest glasses, and all of us, my sister and I included, sipped the sweet elixir. I remember that it tasted like licorice.

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