The 2015 office holiday party passed peacefully last week at the Edison Ballroom in Manhattan. I had some sushi, talked to colleagues, sipped a Diet Coke and skipped the desserts that always tempt me. The DJ played the immortal 1981 dance favorite, “Don’t You Want Me” by the Human League. The song, freighted with hooks and the mysteries of past relationships, sent my mind spinning back over the ghosts of holiday parties past.
Working in New York for most of the past 35 years, I’ve had my share of holiday parties at swanky locations, among them Tavern on the Green, the Marriott Marquee in Times Square, the Waldorf=Astoria, and surely other places. At one of the first ones, 1981 or 1982, I imbibed the screwdrivers a little too much and found myself green around the gills when I returned to my studio apartment in Brooklyn. As soon as I walked in the door the phone rang. The caller was Rena, an elderly German-Jewish friend, a woman I knew through Project Dorot, which connects young New Yorkers to elderly Jews. She wanted to know if I had a nice time at the office party of my then-employer, Quick Frozen Foods magazine.
“I’m sorry, Rena, I can’t talk right now,” I said before reaching for a trash can.
“Oh dear, oh dear!” she said with alarm in her heavy Berlin accent. But I slept it off and put her mind at ease.
If that was the low of holiday parties, the high, in several senses of the word, came in December 1996. After a gruesome year of unemployment after being laid off from my last job in journalism, I had landed a position in the firmwide communications department of Price Waterhouse, then the smallest but best known of the Big Six accounting firms.
PW lived up to its quality reputation with the 1996 holiday party held at the Rainbow Room at the top of 30 Rockefeller Center. As a fan of art deco, I found the building breath-taking, and the event itself marked a graceful return to employment, if not life stability. I wore a suit (which PW employees did as a matter of policy in what I now recall as days of high formality in corporate attire) and felt I had slipped into a 1930s high-society film.
I strolled around the Rainbow Room and looked at New York on a snowy night. That’s what I recall most clearly — the snow falling and blurring the lights spread before me. After the family-wracking challenges of unemployment, that 1996 holiday party marked a new beginning, the end of a year of chaos and the start of another of hope and stability. From high above New York, I stood, I hoped, at the end of a rainbow.
The rainbow receded, its colors slipping beyond my grasp for more years. The family and the job changed in ways I couldn’t imagine. Oddly enough I eventually worked for a law firm right there in 30 Rock, and I walked through that art deco lobby every day. Over the past 20 years of holiday parties, I’ve smoothed out the wretching lows and the snow-dome highs to find a pleasant balance that matches a life lived moderately. That’s a positive place to be.
And I’ll always have the memory the snow pelting down beyond the windows of the Rainbow Room, suggesting magic.