My first real Canadian friend, a self-described “Newfie” though he’d been living in Halifax for more than 20 years, told me shortly after I arrived here from the sudsy shores of central New Jersey, “Jack, one thing you should know; in Canada it is never too cold to do anything.”
So my first New Year’s Eve in Canada was spent standing in a whirling blizzard with several hundred Haligonians watching the band Rawlins Cross ring in the New Year with a dynamic set of high-energy Celtic-fused folk ballads and rock and roll. I’d never heard of them, but my friend said they were Canadian stars. The band, as well as those standing around me, seemed utterly unfazed by the weather. Between numbers they simply brushed away the growing drifts of snow from their keyboards, accordions, tin whistles and drums and kept on playing as though the storm was simply a figment of my imagination.
I, of course, froze, though I tried to keep my whining to myself. By the time I trudged home, peeled off my frozen parka and slush-filled galoshes, drank a hot toddy, and nursed my frostbitten toes back to life, I had serious doubts whether I had what it takes to ever make it as a Canadian.
On the other hand, I already knew I clearly wasn’t cut out to be an American.
A mere 12 months earlier, I was one of a million New Year’s Eve revellers crammed into New York City’s Times Square. My wife and I thought we would play it smart and beat the crowds heading into the city by catching the 1 p.m. New Jersey Transit train out of Princeton Junction, which was roughly about an hour’s ride. That way we could get to Times Square by 2:30 p.m., a good 9.5 hours before the fabled ball dropped.
But, of course, a lot of other people had the same idea and the train was packed. People everywhere; smooshed three to a seat, bunched like bowling pins into aisles, shoved in corners and clustered between train cars. They were decked in frilly Styrofoam head ornaments, feathers, plastic “2008” sunglasses, Dr. Seuss-like party hats, evening dresses and layers of swollen winter outerwear. More than a few surreptitiously passed bottles of whiskey, gin and rum amongst their brethren.
By the time the train pulled into Penn Station, we were nervous wrecks, but we ran the eight blocks up Seventh Avenue determined to get a spot close enough to see the ball drop and catch the main stage performances by such star power as Carrie Underwood, Miley Cyrus (then still in her girl-next-door incarnation) and the Jonas Brothers. I was secretly hoping to catch a glimpse of the iconic New Year’s master of ceremonies, Dick Clark, the ageless one, who was then a grizzled wizard of 78 (and two years back from a serious stroke from which he never quite recovered).
We saw none of those stars, though we did get a peek at the Times Square ball, unilluminated, skewered atop its lonely pole, quivering in the wind, at the One Times Square building. It wasn’t much to look at. This happened to be the last appearance of the tiny ball as it was replaced the following year by the current icosahedral geodesic sphere, twice the size (12 feet or 3.7 metres in diameter) and almost 10 times heavier (11,875 pounds or 5,386 kilogram).
We wound up pushed to the far reaches of Times Square, somewhere near an all-night video store and a leather emporium. I remember the crowd counting down the seconds, the spinning searchlights, the sea of bobbing heads in front of me. But the actual magic moment was lost on me—though in the pandemonium, my wife assures me that she followed tradition and kissed me, as also did a genderless homunculus in a yellow Shriner’s hat wearing cherry-red lipstick.
All I know for sure is that at the stroke of midnight a string of firecrackers shot off in rat-a-tat-tat succession just to my left. (For a moment I flashbacked to a New Year’s Eve in Philadelphia where the local custom is to shoot guns into the sky at the stroke of midnight, forgetting—much to the sorrow of the occasional bystander—that what goes up must come down.)
Next thing I knew I was down on the sidewalk, down for the count, a circle of eyes and an equal number of nostrils all pointing down at me, smoke trickling from my left pant cuff, my wife calling out my name like Rocky Balboa’s Adrian. A kindly man in a uniform of indeterminate nature put a cold pack on my wound and said it was just a little burn.
Later on the train ride home, as I was busy pulling bits of burned filament from my ankle, I noticed a deeply familiar person, evidently intoxicated, stretched across an entire train seat all to himself. Who he was, I did not know. A long lost relative? A friend from my college days?
It was only later that I remembered who he was. A character actor who frequently played bit parts on the TV show Law & Order (a juror one week, a murderer’s accomplice the next, etc.). A last little bit of American star power after all.