URBAN ANTHROPOLOGY 5: Six degrees of separation

Thanksgiving is an American holiday which tends towards excess — an abundance of turkey, stuffing, family and shopping. But not all Thanksgivings are created equal. How does this national tradition take on local meaning?

It’s a little past 5 a.m. when I step out onto the deserted city streets. The mist rises from my breath in the night-like air. The sky is virtually pitch black other than from the illumination of the street lamps. The cityscape is empty. For once, Manhattan is practically a blank canvas.

When I emerge from the subway at 72nd and Central Park West, my eyes are greeted by a different sight. Crowds of people are lined along both sides of the street. Bundled in their city black, they sit and chat along the barricades, armed with disposable coffee cups. The sound of helicopters in the distance reaches my ears, I see policemen standing like sentries in the center of the street.


When I had agreed to cater-waiter at a cushy second-story apartment on Central Park West, it didn’t occur to me that the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade would be taking place right outside.

The kids in the gathering were the most enthusiastic, of course. “Here comes Big Bird!” they yelled. Many of the staff I worked with seemed indifferent: “I don’t see why anyone would bother going to the parade when you can just watch it on TV,” commented a fellow cater-waiter from Brooklyn who had commuted well over an hour very early that morning to work this parade-viewing party. I didn’t muster a reply. The bags of ice we were lugging on the crowded streets at the time made me bite my tongue.

People made sense of Thanksgiving in their own ways, on their own terms. The crowd out on the street swelled in the morning cold. Young children stood on the shoulders of their parents for a better vantage point from which they could view their favorite characters — Smurfs and Hello Kitty, Big Bird and pirate ships. Colorful balloons and confetti spruced up the sea of dark winter coats.

Now that I was a veteran of living in New York for nearly three months, it seemed fitting for me to have found myself witness to an iconic part of many New Yorkers’ Thanksgivings.

In a chic apartment that couldn’t be more different than my childhood home, I circulated around, keeping one eye peeled for glasses abandoned on coffee tables and the other on the gigantic balloons floating their way downtown just outside the windows. These Thanksgiving festivities were on a grander scale than anything I had witnessed before.

A hundred or so guests dropped in and out, having their share of champagne and mimosas, fancy coffees from a specially rented coffee cart, filling up on bagels, lox, and customized goodies like Thanksgiving fortune cookies. The hostess seemed a nice woman, as friendly to us caterers as hospitable to her guests.

Fast forward. Several hours and a train ride later, I’m having a more familiar Thanksgiving in Woodstock among family and close friends who are second-homers from New York City. The turkey, stuffing, apple and pumpkin pies are present aplenty, but the excess of scale that had characterized my morning was missing. In the morning there had been trays and trays of untouched pastries which we wrapped up in plastic ziplock baggies or threw out. Here we had just enough leftovers for everyone to enjoy the next day, before people tired of eating Thanksgiving-themed food. And there was not a single giant balloon in the quiet mountainside scenery outside, only a solitary hawk searching in the moonlight for a late holiday dinner My two worlds — upstate and New York City — weren’t quite as unrelated as I had thought. Turns out the woman whose party I catered has a son who goes to school with one of the sons of the family friends with whom we celebrated Thanksgiving.

Six degrees of separation always prevails.

Alex Sveikauskas of Mount Tremper is writing about her first year in New York City.

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