Long ago, people celebrated New Year's Eve in mid-March to hail the vernal equinox, which I think is a nice idea.
Spring training would be in full swing and, accordingly, the Mets not yet out of contention. Daylight and dark would be available in equal measure and — even if still nasty — winter on its miserable way to Argentina. Six-dollar "Champagne," pointy hats, feathered masks, foam eyeglasses in the shape of 2015, artillery-gauge fireworks, the banging of pot covers and annual TV ordeal of "New Year's Rockin Eve" would be tolerable trade-offs for the promise of decent tomatoes, Coney Island and girls in their summer dresses.
All this was spoiled by the Romans. One of their big shots invented the month of January in 700 B.C. — an exceptionally bad move — but not everyone paid attention. Several centuries later, Julius Caesar took charge, proclaimed Jan. 1 the official start of Novus Annus and left us with the results. Who made this guy emperor is another question, but, in the way history often happens, some Important Person gets a bright idea and everyone else has to fall in line. Now, after New Year's Eve, there is nothing to anticipate but an icy and unforgiving spell followed immediately by a scourge of potholes. Hail Caesar? Forget about it.
My hunch is that most people aren't crazy about New Year's Eve no matter who thought it up. Such a fuss for a night when you trade one calendar for the next. Really, what's to celebrate? Another year older? Oh, great, let's drink to that! Birthdays are bad enough. But New Year's Eve is like a group-therapy session for a world in deep denial. Face it, pals, time's flying.
It is true, at least, that as a tribal elder, I no longer am expected to show up on New Year's Eve with an artichoke pie and enough conversation starters to keep the evening alive until midnight. But that is small comfort. Everywhere, people are buzzing around. Liquor stores are jammed. Nail salons have lines out the door. So many shrimp get sold on Dec. 31 the species could be extinct by February. To buy a few cannoli at the Italian bakery you need to book months in advance. Anticipation is everywhere, avoidance right behind. It makes me dizzy. In rhyme, Ogden Nash hinted decades ago that something spooky was going on:
Tonight's December thirty-first,
Something is about to burst.
The clock is crouching, dark and small,
Like a time bomb in the hall.
Hark, it's midnight, children dear.
Duck! Here comes another year!
Once my wife, Wink, and I attended a New Year's party to which several others had been invited. For reasons never divulged, we were the only guests to attend. Perhaps word had gone out that the host was in his Nehru jacket — it was that long ago — but even a wardrobe miscalculation of such magnitude should not have scared everyone away. Mrs. Nehru did all in her power to make the night a success. Every available surface was occupied by trays of food. The kids had long ago been put to bed. Scented candles filled the air with enough essence of vanilla to bake a cake the size of Suffolk County.
Exceptional about the evening was that our hosts never took note of the empty living room. Nothing stops the intrepid soul determined to make merry. There were hearty toasts and mention of the frosty weather and office politics, and even a stab or two at current events. Wink and I stayed and stayed and ate and ate. At midnight we hugged and kissed and said our thank yous.
"Great time," said our host at the door. "See you next year."
"Thanks a million," we said. "Next year? Let's stay in touch."
When we were kids in Brooklyn, New Year's Eve was not so complicated. One friend, Rich Moller, had a pint-size party room called "Hernando's Hideaway" in Red Hook that was perfect for the occasion, and also terrific was the basement of my grandmother's little apartment house on 69th Street, Bay Ridge. There would be crepe paper streamers and soda and pretzels. Lights would be low. We would slow dance, boys and girls, stuck like Scotch tape. There wasn't much conversation. Why ruin the mood? And besides, what was there to say? Just after midnight, someone would put "Earth Angel" on the record player. A last dreamy dance and we'd bundle up laughing and head for the street, hoping to see a bus before too long. Getting older? Not a chance.
Then arrived adulthood. New Year's Eve wasn't in Hernando's Hideaway or Nana's basement but suburban parlors or classy restaurants, blindingly bedecked. Around the room people were trying so hard to have a good time it looked like they might pass out. For me, the hours dragged. I would get tired. Midnight couldn't come soon enough. By 11 p.m., I was plotting escape.
"We can't," Wink would say.
"I want to go home," I'd reply.
"Nope. Not till the big ball drops."
Finally, it would be over. Times Square, Dick Clark, "Auld Lang Syne." Done.
We don't bother anymore, haven't for years. Now it's pizza, a movie on TV, a smooch at midnight if we're both awake. No friends, no family — just the two of us, blissfully hunkered down, holding tight, waiting for whatever.
Duck! Here comes another year.