Sometime around 2,000 BC a group of intuitive and fun loving Babylonians decided to create a holiday to celebrate the first New Moon after the Vernal Equinox. This celebration of the coming of spring was also a logical time to bring in a New Year. The long dark days of winter had passed; and life was renewing itself all around them. The Babylonians then spent the next two weeks dancing, feasting and planting new crops. They had chosen the perfect season to celebrate a New Year, one that we still acknowledge as the first day of spring.
Nineteen hundred years latter the Romans, and their incestuous, wicked Emperors began to do nasty and nefarious things with the calendar. They tampered with it so much that in 46 BC Julius Caesar decided something very radical needed to be done in order to bring the calendar back in synch the sun. So Mr. Caesar decreed that the previous year go on for 445 days and he then named the first month of the New Year after Janus, the Roman deity who was able to look forwards and backwards at the same time.
The entire concept of having a New Year start in the middle of winter is in essence a very incongruous and distorted idea. Yet by 1600 or so it stuck, and most of the occupants of the earth soon adopted the concept of starting a New Year when absolutely nothing new was happening.
However if there were one place on earth to celebrate an incongruous and distorted idea created by the decadent old Emperors of Rome, it would certainly be New York City, The Big Apple, and my hometown.
In keeping with perhaps some of the original Babylonian celebrations I rode the roads of Gotham in my own special chariot. Instead of horses and wheels I commanded a moving yellow vehicle which rolled along on four hard circular pieces of rubber and was propelled by an engine, one which consumed a magic liquid composed of ancient pieces of giant monsters which once roamed the earth long before the Babylonians discovered Spring or the Romans conquered Carthage.
I loved to drive on New Years Eve for this was the night all the residents joyfully reached back into their collective ancestral memories and remembered some of their primal reasons for being on the Earth. Especially the ones that included alcohol, pot, various controlled substances, dancing, laughing, being loud, and enjoying food and sex though not in any particular order.
This was the one night of the year that the entire city seemed to let its collective hair and allow party angel of Gotham to sprinkle them all with urban pixie party dust. Which to a man behind the wheel of a Taxi meant that the clientele was constant and the tips were great. I’d get invited to a dozen or so parties but I would never desert my cab. For my goal was to return home with at least $200.00 in cash in my pocket and if that meant staying out until 3 AM well so be it.
This New Years the Gods of weather were not being favorable to the residents of the great steel canyon. New York had a week of some incredibly harsh ice storms and by 2 AM the streets were deserted. By 2:30 I found myself uptown with only $160.00 on the clock and made the decision to beat the retreat and call it a night. I rolled down Second Avenue hoping to get that last magic fare back to Brooklyn. Just above 60th street a very shivering older couple were waving their collective arms in a frenzied and very bird like fashion to hail me/
The man stumbled up to my window, and as he was approaching the cab I realized he had enough alcohol in his system to pickle each of his organs in a most generous fashion. He smiled a very frozen and potted smile and said “hey listen, you take a nice Greek man and his wife to Queens and I give you thirty bucks, hey you don’t throw the clock just make it for yourself, that’s good eh, that’s good. I’m Nicky and this is Sophia, we’ve just come from great Greek party but we very cold and have to go home now.”
“I smiled at Nicky and replied “that sounds great but I know where your going and it’s miles from Northern Boulevard and your neighborhood is going to be one giant sheet of ice and I’d really like to get back to Brooklyn one piece.”
He tilts his head and says “oh come take Nicky and Sophia to Steinway Street, were three blocks from the B.Q.E, you drop us off and boom you be back in the city or in Brooklyn in no time, hey I still have a half a bottle of Ouzo we could sip it all they way there, thirty dollars we give you thirty dollars that’s good…no”?
He then dips his inebriated head into my cab and looks at my hack license and say’s “hey you nice Jewish boy you know I’m Greek you know we have connection, you know, Jews and Greeks love music and food and dancing, yes I am right yes?”
Visions of Yahweh and Apollo playing shuffleboard were dancing through my mind as I dipped into my history major background to honestly try to remember some great Greco-Judaic connection and indeed I found one. In 1492 when Spain expelled all their Jews, it was the Greeks that offered them sanctuary, many Jews did indeed settle in the Greek city of Thessaloniki. So as loaded, as Nicky was, his inebriated historical pitch did indeed have a whiff of some historical accuracy. Anyhow, they were about to freeze to death and $30.00 for what really is a $7.00 ride sounded just too tempting to me. The other benefit was that $30.00 would make it almost a $200.00 night. I could drop them off, head back in to the city get two more rides and my night would be golden.
“Ok Nicky it’s a deal” I replied with confidence and as much enthusiasm as one could muster at 2:30 am. He once again stuck his head into my cab and tried to kiss me on the cheek. I leaned hard to the right to avoid his Athenian advances but assured him that his friendship was well appreciated. With his head still inside of the cab he said, “ok I go kiss Sofia instead.”
I crossed over the 59th Bridge and traveled up Northern Boulevard. Nicky and Sophia were laughing and drinking the last of the Ouzo and then commenced to enjoy what only can be described as some colorful and creative form of mating behavior. At this point in the evening I was extremely thankful that they only Greek I knew was Spanakopita, Moussaka and the names of a few islands of the coast of Greece.
Well, I thought this is indeed in keeping with the original Babylonian celebration of the New Year. I was very thankful that they were far too drunk to take their clothes off as my cab wobbled and skidded its way through the icy streets. I made sure the partition was closed and I turned up my radio, but I could still hear an unusual form of Hellenistic cooing from the rear seat of my now rolling chariot of love. A feeling of relief came over me as we arrived at their requested destination. I turn my radio down and said in a somewhat high volume, “It’s time for Nicky and Sophia to go to their little castle in Queens.” My request was met with silence.
I then rapped my fist hard on the partition a few times and eventually there was some grunting and movement in the back seat. Nicky stumbled his way out of the back of the cab and shut the door. He weaved his way to my window and shoved $30.00 in my breast pocket and lifted the empty bottle of Ouzo over his head and started to sing a song in his native tongue. He danced and sang loudly out of tune but I was sure Nicky was greatly enjoying himself as he carried on.
Observing Nicky chanting and dancing in the frozen early morning darkness made me wonder if he was truly part of the same culture that created democracy, modern science, the Olympics, philosophy, fooled the Trojans with a wooden horse and bravely defeated the Persian fleet at Thermopylae in the fifth century BC.
I smiled and nodded, rolled up my window, waved goodbye and ever so carefully started my way back through the icy streets of Queens, Nicky smiled as well and waved goodbye to me with an empty bottle of Ouzo.
It’s now starting to sleet, I could barely see out my window but I knew in just a few more blocks I’d be back on Northern Boulevard and then the bridge and soon I’d be rolling back into midtown.
Three bocks latter as I was stopped for a light I heard a voice one that seemed to be coming from the darkened street in back of my cab. I looked through the rear view and noticed that someone was trying to hail me. I quickly turned on my off duty light as I did not want to venture through any more ice covered back roads in one of New York City’s lesser boroughs.
He didn’t give up hailing me. He’s began to run and as he ran he was shouting and waving his arms up and down like some one drowning in the sea. He then began to scream: “stop, you stop, you stop now.” He was starting to catch up to me. Oh God I thought, he’s not slowing down. He’s probably on speed or cocaine and he doesn’t feel a thing. I ran a few red lights but had to keep my speed down to prevent a skid.
There was a full moon that night and as he ran he cast this giant a forbidding shadow on the many red brick apartment buildings that lined Steinway Street. I couldn’t see his face but my in mind all I kept hoping for was that he was unarmed and basically just some loony running around the streets on New Years Eve.
Just three more blocks (I thought) to Northern Boulevard and it’s a straight shot to the bridge. He was just thirty feet behind me when he took the fall. Although relieved I did feel a small sense of remorse when his head hit the ice. I actually thought of stopping my cab and at least drag him off the street. My compassionate side voted for that but my survival side just kept pushing down on that gas pedal and heading for Northern Boulevard.
Ten minutes and on bridge latter I was cruising down Second Avenue looking for that last fare to make my $200 night. There he was pointing downtown, yes he was going to the west village an easy $5.00 fare, and my $200 night was about to be consummated. He opened the door and freezes. With his eyes wide open he yells “there’s a women’s body in your back seat, there’s a women’s body in your back seat.”
Funny it all made sense as I thought that voice screaming behind me sounded a little like Nicky’s. Yes (I thought) Nicky stumbled out of the cab, and closed the door so the sleet storm wouldn’t hit his highly inebriated and now sleeping wife. He then stood there in his own private comatose as I took off. Though this was a somewhat challenging situation I knew I could deal with it.
“Hey listen man” I said to my fare “just jump in the front seat, I’ll take care of her latter.” With a wind chill factor of 10 below zero and no other cabs in sight he saw no other option but to obey my request and hopped in the front seat. All the way downtown he kept turning around and staring at her saying: “maybe she’s dead, do you think she’s dead? What are you going to do with her?”
“No” I replied, “her name is Sophia and she’s just taking a little nap due to her consumption of too much Ouzo, I promise you won’t hear a peep out of her, this I can say with unbridled confidence.”
Being in a playful mood I then said: “when we get to the village help me lift her out of the cab and we can put her on one of those heating grates. You know the ones you see on the sidewalks where smoke seems to be coming out of nowhere. That’ll keep her warm until the Sun comes up and perhaps a nice NYC policeman can help her out. My passenger was shocked at this suggestion.
“Well what if she freezes to death, how would you feel then?”
“Hey listen man” I replied, it’s not my fault her husband and her drank a bottle of booze and now she’s all forgotten in the back seat, hey what would you do?” I was just kidding but apparently failed to see the humor in my statement. He paid his $5.00 gave me a small tip and disappeared into the icy darkness of Horatio Street.
I just sat there for a minute and thought. It was very quiet in the cab though I could hear Sophia snoring in Greek in the back seat. My major ethical question confronting me was whether I should throw the clock again for the ride back to Queens. Figuring that Nicky might not be in the best of moods after his headfirst bounce on the frozen streets of Queens I decided Sophia’s ride back home would be on me.
As I journeyed back over the 59th Street Bridge I felt a sense of elation and purpose for I was bringing Sophia back to the loving arms of her Nicolas I soon found myself humming the theme from Black Orpheus as I was once again navigated the icy streets of Steinway Avenue.
I was fortunate, that I had the presence of mind to write their address down on my log sheet before I started my first journey to Queens. However, upon my arrival there was bit of a logistical problem. There were at least four large red brick apartment houses at this corner and I had no idea which one was hers.
Then I heard him; it was the voice of a post bump on the head Nicky. He runs up to the cab weeping and shouting, “oh thank you God you have brought her back,” and quickly heads for the passenger door.
Sensing her lover’s arrival Sophia awakens from her dance with Morpheus as Nicky ambles helps her out of the cab. They start kissing and hugging and it’s now four AM and I’m witnessing this intense reunion in a wind chill of -30 degrees. Nicky puts another twenty in my pocket, I hug them both, jumped back in my cab and started my way back home to Brooklyn.
As I traveled along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway I reflected. I wondered if there was some old Babylonian New Year’s myth about two lovers renewing their vows and drinking from the sweet nectar while they made love. And suddenly for no reason the trickster Gods separated theses two sweet hearts. Morpheus enchanted the woman to sleep and to dream while her lover was held captive by Dionysus and was forced to dance and sing.
Sensing this injustice the Goddess Aphrodite looked into a golden apple and found her hero. She conjured the heart of a young mortal with long yellow hair and a scruffy beard who traveled the roads of the Metropolis in a golden-checkered vehicle Our hero soon found himself crossing frozen roads and bridges in his yellow chariot to deliver the lost maiden to her lover.
Truly I whispered to myself as I rolled down Flatbush Avenue, tonight I was part of a grand drama, one of both mythical and historical proportions.