As soon as it is dark, the fireworks begin. Pop! Pop! Pop! Neighbors run to their windows, their porches, to see. Several come out and add their own contributions, pyrotechnic or conversational. Eventually the groups move toward one of the larger houses, It is covered with colored lights, the lawn decked with lighted reindeer and a twelve foot inflated Santa. The smell of carne asada and the sound of punta fills the street.
It is a simple meal, thin pieces of beef, seasoned with secrets to melt in the mouth, tortillas, arroz, frijoles, chicken legs for those who don’t eat beef, hot dogs, said to be for the kids, but the kids are obliged to launch a rescue operation as so many of them are disappearing into the laughing mouths of the men at the grill. Neighbors bring their own contributions, the table fills up. Ladies, someone says, are always served first in this household, and indeed it is the ladies who are called first to “attack” the feast, but there is an element of polite fiction, as the men perform most of their attack under the pretense of “testing” the meat as it comes off the grill. We must make sure it is good enough for the ladies to eat, they explain. Looking in at the rainbow of ladies making quick work of batch after batch, it passes the test with flying colors.
When no one can eat or test another bite, it is time to prepare the toasts. Glasses are filled with twelve grapes each, which must be eaten in the first minute of the new year. Champagne is poured over them, just a splash for the youngsters, and there is sparkling grape juice for those who prefer no alcohol at all.
Just in time, the last glass is ready, and midnight is ushered in with a burst of activity. In addition to the toasts, to health, money, love, peace, and every country represented, everyone must be hugged and kissed, all done with mouths frantically disposing of grapes. Every glass must touch every glass. Someone informs me that they hope I remembered to wear red underpants. It is such an informal occasion that I was unaware of this interesting dress requirement, but I am informed that it is a custom, and those of us who were ignorant of it need not worry, we will have good luck anyway.
Before I can inquire further, the music comes up, and the room explodes into a frenzy of dancing, shouting, and tribal chants. Circles are formed, and individuals pulled into the center, to demonstrate their best steps. From youngest to oldest, everyone must dance! Punta, merengue, bhangra, dangdut, salsa, genres I don’t recognize but must be African as they take the center of the room. Then more punta, and even little girls and boys engage in dance moves that would give some school administrators apoplexy, but there is no lewdness about it, as they join their cousins and grandparents in a dance that has not changed for millennia. Rolandizate!
A tall man from Nigeria, dressed in a long robe resplendent with gold braid, informs me proudly, Garifuna people came from my country. He continues his explanation of the history, warring tribes on St. Vincente, Nigerians who escape the horrors of a slave ship, but the music is so loud I cannot quite make out the words. But I can see the present, and the future, as elders in African dress teach their Maya-mix grandchildren some of the more intricate (and to a rather staid English lady, shocking) movements.
Relax, Auntie, a young man from Pakistan gives her a jaleebi. They will teach us, too. Come on! And jaleebi, elegant handbag and all, she is swept off! Pleading my feet, I escape, but only temporarily, and as at Christmastime, my fumblings and stumblings inspire great mirth. The English matron, on the other hand, is becoming quite adept, and also developing a taste for jaleebis.
Through it all, the fireworks continue. In the street, in the yard ,BooM! Whiiiiiii-BANG! The youngsters wave sparklers and toss down little “cuetes” but the evening’s only burn injury involving fat little fingers is the result of grasping a hot dog too soon off the grill, even though his mother told him to wait. I plunge the singed digits into a small tomato and the howls cease, though whether that is due to the tomato or the sight of his sister with a large slice of chocolate cake will never be known. As he uses his good hand to apply it generously to his face and shirtfront, possibly consuming some of it, I notice that the CD controls have been seized by the New Orleans 9th Ward.
Wild Tchoupitoulas gonna stomp some romp!