I got to thinking about how New Year's Eve has changed since the days when I was still a party animal. The crowd last night numbered in the millions, and the Times Square event has become a carefully orchestrated, world-renowned celebration. Back in the early Sixties I made a couple of pilgrimages to a very different Times Square. Groups of us went in on the subway carrying pints of the cheapest booze we could buy. My favorite was Old Mr. Boston Blackberry Brandy. Today alcohol is not allowed but back then it was our misguided way of dealing with the cold.
The crowds were minuscule then, maybe 10,000 people, mostly locals. There were no funny hats or goofy goggles sold at extravagant tourist prices. There were no armies of police concerned with terrorist attacks; the biggest problem the cops dealt with stemmed directly from over-consumption of Blackberry Brandy. We just kind of hung out, arriving around 10 pm. Today people show up 24 hours in advance to get anywhere near the spot where the ball drops. There was no lavish entertainment except gawking at the storefronts housing the porn palaces that made Times Square infamous before Disney and the big box stores moved in to clean up the neighborhood.
New Year's Eve parties were far more numerous and raucous in the Sixties before the big crackdown on drunk driving. People got dressed and went to restaurants and night clubs that typically featured a one-price package for dinner, drinks and dancing. And drink we did. Leaving those parties and driving home was a real adventure; the road was full of weaving cars and people behind the wheel who were in no condition to drive. The designated driver was the guy who could find his car keys. Pretty irresponsible...that's one aspect of New Year's Eve I don't miss. Parties today tend to be more sedate, family-oriented affairs and I like it much better that way.
The next day we would crawl out of bed and head somewhere for a big New Year's Day dinner. My mother-in-law was the hands-down champ of serving up multi-course, pants-open at-the-top meals that left you in a semi-comatose state. Dinner would start with an antipasto that in itself would pass for a holiday dinner in non-Italian families. Then came steaming bowls of chicken soup with tiny meatballs (an homage to our food-loving Jewish brethren), a fancy pasta like manicotti, lasagne or ravioli, "gravy meat" which consisted of meatballs, hot and sweet sausage, bracciole, pork meat, (no, we're not done), then came a roast or a turkey with accompanying side dishes like potato croquettes, crumbled up sausage with mushrooms, spinach or escarole pie, and sometimes a calamari pie. About now people were nodding off so the whistle blew for half-time.
After the break came salad (typically a last course in Italian households) roasted chestnuts, assorted mixed nuts, wedges of fennel cut up, and fruit. Then came dessert: Italian pastries, homemade pies, Ebingers cakes and coffee, both espresso and "American" coffee. Finally, for anyone who was still awake came the candy. My wife's Aunt Lu worked as a buyer in the A&S department store's candy shop, and we had enough candy to make a dentist weep. Boxes of assorted chocolates, marzipan, colored jelly slices and others that I always made room for, candy being a serious weakness of mine.
These traditions were ours and I loved them. We try to keep them alive for our children, and they are surprisingly willing, even excited about carrying them on. Let's pray that in 2010, people everywhere get to carry on their traditions in peace.
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