January 2, 2015: Farewell Feast

While most New Yorkers spent their New Year’s Eve freezing among millions of strangers, waiting for that iconic ball to drop at midnight, I spent my night up in Harlem in the back of a little bodega on West 135th Street.

The music started around 11:30pm – a steady beat of drums and clapping.
All around there were tables piled with liquor and cakes, candles and cookies, all forms of sweets.
I arrived and presented my gifts to Mama Francesca, the hostess and priestess of the night.
A bottle of spiced rum, as cheap as I could find, and a loaf of sweet cake.

Mama Francesca always makes you feel welcome. The feast isn’t open to everyone, though. It’s open to those that can find it, and those that bring gifts.

The music sped up and people began dancing. Rum was passed around, sipped, poured onto the ground, sprinkled into flames.
People became to whirl around, dancing, hopping from one foot to the other. Some stuffed their faces with cake, others lit candles and hummed prayers.

I lit one of the black candles and sprinkled rum into the wax.

Ah, my little Guede-vi has come back! It’s been a few years, no?

Mama Francesca, dressed all in white with a big smile, welcomes people with hugs and kisses.

My little Guede-vi is all grown up now, yes? Grew out of the gods he was so eager to learn about and please. It’s okay, they forgive you. Mama forgives you. Now, eat and dance! It’s the end of the world!

It grew hot. Sweat dripped down my back. The dancers were taking their shirts of as they spun around faster.

Can you feel it, Guede-vi? It’s growing heavy. Deep down in your lungs, in your stomach, in your heart…Death is coming.

In Times Square the countdown to midnight had begun. More than a million people cheering, screaming the numbers in a mantra.
The dancers spun and spun, spitting rum and laughing.

Midnight. The dancers fell to the ground.

Everything, everyone, was quiet except for Mama Francesca. She began chanting the names of Guede. Guede Brave, Guede Nimbo, the barons and Brigitte.

One of the dancers stood up and began to laugh. Slowly, the rest followed.
Mama Francesca handed out the smoked glasses and cigars.

Death had come to Harlem.

Well, hello children! Daddy’s here! Kekeke.

They crowded around the table, pouring drinks, stuffing cakes and cookies into their mouths and pockets. One woman sat to the side and was handed a cup of tea with some digestives.

Come, Guede-vi, come. Sit by Mama Brigitte. I’ve missed you.

I pulled up a chair next to her and she held my hand. She was young, maybe a few years younger than I am, but she talked and moved with the grace of a woman in her late seventies.

It’s good to see you again. We’ve had our eyes on you, especially lately. But, I’m glad you came back.

Welcome to the womb, my dear. This time, midnight, it’s where things are birthed. It’s a new year now. 2014 is dead and gone. Bury it and move on.

I smiled and offered a nod, she rocked back and forth in her chair, humming softly as she sipped her tea.

Yes, the world as you know it is over. Time to start over. Fresh. Do things differently this year, yes, Guede-vi? Do something that matters.

The possessed dancers are at it again, twirling and yelling dirty jokes back and forth to each other, their pockets full of food.

The Guede feast began to wind down. The revelers dispersed and began to head home.
Times Square would be empty by now, just confetti to dance around the ghosts of 2014.

I kissed Brigitte on the cheek and wished Mama Francesca a happy new year.

Out on the street it was cold and dark.
It didn’t feel like a new year, then again, it never really does.

I hung out under a street light, waiting for a taxi, watching the clouds drift over the last moon of 2014.


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