On New Year's Eve and Morn from 1970 to 1974, I was never home before dawn. Those years are well known for having been wild across the Western world, so nothing unusual there, other than that I was less than eleven years old at the time. This precocity in regard to New Year's revels came about because, during school holidays and over every other weekend, I was in the custody, if it may be so called, of my dad who, since his punch-card mainframe computer time-sharing business had gone bankrupt in 1967, had begun transforming himself from a 1950s executive on the rise into a hybrid hippie-beatnik. His metamorphosis had been catalyzed by his marriage, in 1969, to my first stepmom, five years his junior, who was then supporting herself by selling flowers from a barrow painted in the style of Pepperland from The Beatles Yellow Submarine outside the Lexington Avenue entrance to Bloomingdales.
The subway journey to those five New Year's Eve parties was always the same. Downtown a dozen stops on the One Train from 86th and Broadway to Christopher Street-Sheridan Square. Maybe there'd be a favorite ad above the seats opposite, like the series that showed Black, or Asian, or Nordic, or Native American kids tucking into a hearty sandwich on rye bread with a caption next to them that read, “You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's.” Then walk a few blocks, or maybe many, wrapped up in a nylon snorkel jacket with a quilted lining, feet cold inside Kicker boots and breath making evanescent swirls in the winter air. Always looking out on the way up from the tunnel to the street for the little triangular mosaic set into the sidewalk in front of Village Cigars that read: “Property of the Hess Estate which has never been dedicated for public purposes.” Up one, two, three, maybe four flights of steel stairs with well worn stone steps, down a scuffed up hallway with a geometric tile floor, to a door with a high-up peephole set in a brass plate and the apartment number written on a snippet of card in a small slot at the bottom.
Now ring the bell and the door opens to what might as well have been the same apartment every year. There stands a bushy bearded, bespectacled man going for a look like Allen Ginsburg, or maybe it is a more macho beatnik type, stubble on his square jaw and unkempt, not quite long hair more in the mold of Gregory Corso. With that a blast of steam radiator warmth and the smell of marijuana and tobacco smoke, with a hint of pepperoni pizza from John's on Bleecker, or maybe the actual original Ray's on Prince, or perhaps of pastrami finger sandwiches, miniatures of the examples in the Levy's Rye posters. And with that, some pained ballad by the likes of Joan Baez or Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen or Dylan, none of the wild, psychedelic stuff here where acoustic instruments and serious lyrics rule. The women, mainly standing, talking in smaller groups in bell bottom jeans with big buckle belts and tight tee-shirts bearing political slogans, or maybe in flowing, floor-length, floral-print dresses. No gold or gemstones to be seen on them, only colorful ceramic and glass beads on knotted strings or leather laces, or turquoise and tiger's eye in chunky silver settings.
Children in this milieu are to be heard and not seen. Plant them, give them water and food, plenty of sunlight and fresh air and they'll eventually flower and bear fruit of their own accord. Occasionally, an adult will squat down to little kid level and ask something like, “So man, anything cool go down lately at school? Something whimsically wise is what's wanted in response. You're used to the drill and don't disappoint: “Umm, a wolf named Jethro from Alaska came to visit our class. Anyone who wanted to was allowed to pet him but you had to move slowly and let him smell you first.”
At one of those five parties, it was as if every adult present had brought a kid with them so many of us were there. We spent the night tearing up and down the hallways and stairwell of the building in a morphing game of hide and seek and freeze tag, punctuated by intervals of reenacting action scenes from episodes of Star Trek. Outside there was snow and slush on the ground and eventually the inevitable happened when one of our prolific number slipped and smacked into the banister. The blood was profuse with shrieking to match. A dignified old lady with white hair in braids pinned to her scalp emerged from an apartment on the floor where the accident occurred, told us we needed to calm down and notified the erstwhile grown-ups, a couple of whom carried the injured party off to the emergency room at St. Vincent's Hospital.
Another year the host's child was a pre-teen girl with a mane of red hair, a personality as commanding as that of Pippi Longstocking and a fat ginger cat which was constantly circling her knees and which she kept picking up and carrying like a baby. The girl had what must've been the largest room in the apartment from which she assiduously barred any adults from entering, which was complicated since the coats of everyone attending the party were piled up on her bed. She made good use of these, and what had to have been the most extensive and antique dressing up collection I encountered in the entirety of my childhood, which she deployed to direct the rest of us in a pantomime of A Christmas Carol, dramatically narrated in abridged form by herself.
Every one of these gatherings culminated in everyone present going out onto the roof of the building where the party was being held and watching midnight fireworks being set off from innumerable neighboring roofs or gardens, and on a grander scale in the distance from the fireworks barge laid on by the City in New York Harbor. All of them seem to have ended with my falling asleep in some corner and being carried down to the street by my Dad and and sleepwalking back to the subway, where I'd fall asleep again leaned up against him, before being carried back up to the street along which I'd proceed in a trance of tiredness back to his apartment. The tradition came to an abrupt end when, having entered double digit age, I took to asking my stepmom provoking questions like: “So if you've been working undercover at Bellevue Animal Lab for a year but the monkeys aren't free yet, then aren't you really just helping the scientists who do the evil experiments there to torture them?” This soon led to my being labelled a pain-in-the-neck little know-it-all and banned from being in her presence.
Consequently, from 1975 through '79, I remained at home with my mom and stepdad on Upper East Side, where I assisted with their annual New Year's black-tie dinner party, the first and principal stay-at-home-event on their annual social calendar. In apartment B-209 it was if the social revolution of the 1960s in which I was swept up on the handful of previous New Year celebrations that I could recall had never even happened, the only changes from the 1950s visible there being to the width of the men's tuxedo lapels and the style of the women's evening gowns, as well as to the extent of the underclothing beneath them of which, as yet, I had but limited awareness.
My mother started preparing for her New Year's party some twelve hours before it began, in other words as soon as she got up and ate her small breakfast of toast and coffee at eight. She was particular about wares, whether glass, china or silver and the party was her prime opportunity to show this stuff off. We'd affix the beautiful walnut extension leaves to her glass and brushed steel Vladimir Kagan dining table and she'd proceed to conceal these under a linen tablecloth over a no-slip or scratch mat. We'd open the bar cabinet of her rosewood Danish wall unit and polish her contemporary Baccarat crystal drinks glasses. She'd get up on the rarely used step ladder and bring down from the kitchen's upper storage cupboards the floral Herend dessert and coffee china inherited from her father's mother, which we'd wipe down and place in readiness on a side table in the living room. I'd lay the table with one of her two silver sets, always under her tutelage so that she could be sure that cake forks, butter knives, soup spoons and so on were correctly placed and the napkins properly folded in her preferred rosebud or lotus styles. Each guest had a wine glass and another for water but sufficient space was to be left between these for them to set down their champagne glasses, which had to be coupes, never flutes...I can't recall why and given that she has been dead five years and lost all memory of such things five years before that, I guess I'll never know.
The cooking for the party was always out of Julia Child or Craig Claiborne; the main course invariably oven roasted and rolled or trussed in some manner: Duck a la orange, rack of lamb, braciola, chicken kievs; the first course, without fail, seafood… stuffed crab, lobster thermidor, seared scallops on pasta carbonara, all of which was rather ironic in that the New Year china was also the alternative set used at Passover, which anything non-kosher was meant never to have touched; the desserts chocolatey without fail: chocolate mousse, cream puffs with raspberries and dark chocolate sauce, a chocolate cake so chocolatey it collapsed in the middle and remained gooey like a brownie. This she would serve on her prize Bjorn Windblad designed and signed Royal Copenhagen serving plate showing a whimsically animated genie-lady, whose face and figure bore an uncanny resemblance to her own, reclining upon a flying horse.
The guest list was as stereotypically Seventies yet fundamentally Fifties as the menus. Every year my stepdad's former lawyer turned only close friend, Steve, would drive in from Short Hills, New Jersey to the west with his wife, Maddy, a one time cheerleader. Steve had been a college basketball star in the days when this was still within the reach of white Jewish, Irish and Italian guys. With his own college sports career behind him, he now divided his leisure time between watching college basketball on cable TV and discussing this, with an emphasis on the NBA draft. From White Plains in the north came my mom's college roommate, Frances, from Mary Washington College. Heiress to one of the few Jewish tobacco and cotton fortunes in the South, she had an accent like the cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn, in which she favored dispensing acerbic comments about feminists and liberal politicians. She was accompanied by her husband, a spherical bon vivant named Lester Frank, who loved introducing himself as “Les Frank, who could be more so?” He had a factory outside Port au Prince where he made custom embroidered fezzes for Shriners. From Long Island to the east there would travel, like the Magi, my stepdad's sister, Aunt Terri, and her husband, Harvey, who made his fortune providing reliable year round supplies of potatoes to supermarket chains. Finally, from five and fifteen blocks to the south respectively, we received 'The Two Grandmas', my mom's and stepdad's mothers who, before and after the meal, kept company together, mainly in my room with me, joined on a few occasions by Jonathan, my closest friend in those years and, like me, a somewhat lonely only child, whose single mother never entertained and was rarely entertaining.
Although I earned my keep at the party by serving as mom's waiter, busboy and dishwasher, my stepdad nevertheless expected me-- as a boy unable, or in latter years unwilling, to hold my own among the assembled company-- to contribute to the evening's events with light entertainment. When I was of middle school age this took the form of a magic show, using tricks my stepdad generously bought for me from Tannen's, New York's oldest magic shop in Herald Square, or one of a handful of other old time novelty and practical joke shops that lingered on among the porno movie houses that then dominated the Times Square area near which he worked. For half an hour or so, I would amaze-- so they lead me to believe-- everyone present by means of minor feats of prestidigitation with the linking rings, the cups and balls, the finger guillotine, colored silk scarves, the disappearing egg in the bag and a handful of standard coin and card tricks.
During my high school years, however, I moved on from magic to joke-telling and then to poetry recitations of works by myself and my predecessor, Shakespeare. I can still recall the old Borscht Belt resort joke about Schmuel, the Mohel who, with retirement approaching, brings the collected souvenirs of his forty year long career to his buddy, Leroy, the leather worker. Schmuel keeps dropping by Leroy's workshop only to be told that “It's a complicated job” and his friend is still working on it. Finally, the big day arrives and Leroy presents Schmuel with a wallet. Indignant, Schmuel complains, “I give my friend the tokens of my life's work, he makes me wait quarter of a year, and now all he gives me is a wallet?”
To which Leroy's punchline reply is, “Yeah man, but rub it the right way and it turns into a suitcase.”
As for the poetic recitations, these carried on until the Eve of 1980, when I accusingly stood and delivered the mad Lear's monologue to the blinded Gloucester, pointing in succession at my parents' well-heeled social circle as I declaimed: “Through tattered clothes great vices do appear./Robes and furred gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold/And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks./Arm it in rags and a pygmy's straw does pierce it.”
This I followed up with some adolescent doggerel of my own in which I concluded about the lot of them: “And I saw that I was rapidly growing old/Amidst the bogus package deal I'd bought and sold./O' mediocrity had known me all too well! It had rendered my life a superficial hell/And left me with nothing but an empty shell!”
While everyone else sat squirming not knowing what to say in response to my patronizing teenage rudeness, Les Frank, living up to his name, offered me several loud, widely spaced applause, nodded meaningfully while turning down his mouth in good old New York style and announcing: “Thank you, Jamie, for opening my eyes to the worthlessness of my existence.”
By New Year's Eve of 1981, the year in which I would, legally anyway, become an adult, I went out with my girlfriend, two years my junior and a sophomore at the High School for Performing Arts, of Fame fame. As it happened, this took me back downtown, but further south and east to the loft home in SoHo of her best friend, named Kachina like the Hopi dolls, whose mother was an artist and maker of bespoke jewelry for Manhattan's new generation of trendy rich people who would, soon enough, price her out of the neighborhood, same as happened to all my stepmom's Boho West Village friends. As for my mother, stepfather and their suburban coterie, she kept on holding her New Year's dinner parties for another quarter of a century until she could manage the feat no longer. It seems to me now that the age of the home black tie dinner party, other than for the very wealthy who have servants to do all the work for them, has passed into oblivion with the passing of her silent generation. In memory of them and of that time, I keep her Windblad plate, with its figure that so resembled her then, hanging on my porch in Spain, where, despite the bleaching sun of summer and the torrential rains of winter, it does not fade with the years.
James Bloom grew up on the upper east side of Manhattan, which he left at the age of 22 in order to escape the inexorable fate of pursuing a career befitting his station. Following this, he worked his way around the world as a beekeeper, an extra in a karate film, a microfiche assistant, a water baliff and, repeatedly, a waiter. Eventually he settled into a career teaching literature, history and philosophy, along with being a college admissions advisor. His memoir about his round the world trip in his twenties, In Search of the Blue Duck. He is currently working on the sequel in addition to practising as a philosophical counselor. His website is https://www.jamesbloom.org/