A Neighborly Happy New Year

Derby Street
Derby Street

“What are you doing New Year’s, New Year’s Eve?” That lyric by Frank Loesser probably evokes many sentiments and memories among all of us who have heardnit over the years performed by many of America’s great singers—Nancy Wilson, Ella Fitzgerald, Dean Martin, and the inimitable Frank Sinatra. For me, it brings back a quietnNew Year’s Eve in the late 1940s, possibly just slipping into the new decade of the fifties.

Like most families then when television sets were scarce, we were gathered close to the radio tuned in to a Guy Lombardo New Year’s Eve broadcast from the Grand Ballroom in the world-renowned Waldorf Astoria Hotel on fashionable Park Avenue in Manhattan where New York City’s high society was celebrating the annual transition from the old year to the new. Guy Lombardo and his orchestra, the Royal Canadians—with their distinct mellow sound of lots of saxophones—performed their New Year’s Eve broadcast for 48 consecutive years, the last being 1976-77. In fact, the maestro himself was known as Mr. New Year’s Eve.

So, there we were—my dad probably having a high ball as a conservative celebratory drink and maybe egg nog for my mother and us two kids—when there was a knock on the door and our neighbor from across the street, Ang Galati, asked if we would like to join them on their way to the Ciancio’s celebration just a few houses down on Derby Street. Ang’s two brothers, Busty and Tony, owned the corner grocery, Ciancio Bros., and lived in the two-family house that was home to their store. It was kind of spur of the moment, and Ang and her husband Sam were rounding up neighbors who lived close by, including Eva Hennas who shared the duplex they lived in near the corner of Derby and S. Main.

After some hesitation, my father, who was a very sociable and congenial man,
decided we should take Ang up on her invitation. Why not? New Year’s Eve was meant to be shared, so we threw on our winter coats over whatever we were wearing and walked the short distance, undoubtedly on packed snow, to the upstairs apartment of Tony and Anne Ciancio, except for my brother John who decided to remain home.

What met us was a house full of people, most of whom we knew, warm, Christmasy, fragrant with the smell of food that was being freshly prepared—sausage and peppers, Sicilian deep-dish pizza. The Ciancio and Galati women were excellent cooks, and by the time the count down was in progress in Times Square, the ball was dropped, “Auld Lang Syne” was being played and kisses all around, we were ready for a traditional Italian celebration. But before we dove in, the Galatis had brought their reel to reel tape recorder with them so that we could all speak our piece on it and have it recorded for future listening. It was the first reel to reel recorder I had ever seen, and I think it was very forward looking for the Galatis to have such a machine when no one else I knew had one. Oh, yes, radios and phonographs, but a recorder where voices and music (the Ciancios and Galatis were great accordion players) could be recorded at the twist of a knob! Unheard of in that neighborhood.

By that time, someone was sent to fetch my brother, who arrived in jeans, flannel shirt, and slippers, which were knitted tops and flimsy leather bottoms! How he navigated the snow I’ll never know, but he was soon drawn into the celebration and probably given a glass of wine or beer at about age 16 or 17 (under age or not!) because he ended up dancing linked arms with Ang Galati!

But the best time came when all of us had to say something that could be recorded—and we ALL had to take turns. Much of that is lost now in my memory—perhaps my dad, who loved to sing, regaled us with an old favorite. I think my brother mumbled through something ending in, “Ah, yeah”! I mentioned getting kissed a lot on New Year’s Eve and chances are Sandy Galati played “Lady of Spain” on his accordion—a song he had made his own. And his mother Ang, who was always full of smiles as I recall, was a little shy about talking on the recorder, but said when urged “I’m just cooking “sau-sitz” with the girls in the kitchen!” Memorable moments, to the point, that years later we still talked about that night and wondered if that tape was still around.

One of my friends once said “Possess the past.” So here I am, a purveyor of the past, who remembers a neighborhood that is no more, no longer on the map of Jamestown. Derby Street is gone forever, swallowed up in the demise of Brooklyn Square, only to remain a fond memory in the minds and hearts of all her neighbors, many of whom are now gone. But that night, that spontaneity of a New Year’s Eve celebration, remains vividly with me because of the real neighborliness of its people who wrapped you up in their lives. Everyone should be so lucky.

May I gently urge you to be a practitioner of memory, especially this new year 2021 because, without question, we all could use a journey into another time, one we hold dear, that keeps our spirits up, that wraps us in love. Happy New Year. Stay safe and well, for we shall surely see another new year as Rilke reminds us “full of things that have never been.”