It's New Year's Eve," the sergeant said. "Those of you wanting to go out to New York tonight can get a pass. But we sail to Germany tomorrow, so you had better make awfully certain you're in the barracks by 5 tomorrow morning, or you'll be counted AWOL, and you'll spend the next six months in the slammer."
I was about as much a soldier as I was a pastry chef. But this was 1955, or would be the next day. The Korean War was heating up, and I'd been drafted out of graduate school to serve two years in the United States Army. New Year's Eve won a zero in my pantheon of great holiday memories, but who wanted to spend it in Camp Kilmer, New Jersey's oldest barracks for temporary troops bound overseas? I took my pass and found a train into New York City.
I telephoned everyone I could think of, reaching farther and farther with each call, to see if anyone happened to know someone in New York I could dine with or even just visit. No one was home. Everyone was celebrating.
I walked the streets - watching couples walk by, laughing and talking to each other - and felt like a million lonely soldiers before me must have felt in the Big Apple. I looked into windows of restaurants where parties of friends were celebrating, and I longed to be included.
Somehow, I found myself in front of a restaurant whose name I'd heard of for many years. I've no idea how I got there. It was called Sardi's. On impulse I walked in - in my military uniform - alone and very hesitant. No one snarled at me, so I kept walking around until someone came up and asked if he could help me.
"Sure," I thought. "Cheer me up." But this was the dining-room captain, Italian to the core and seemingly tough as nails. I stammered that I wanted to eat dinner, had no reservation, and, as an afterthought, mentioned I was being shipped overseas the next day and this was my last night in America for a long time. I think my face did it. I just couldn't hide my emotions successfully. It was all there for anyone to read.
The tough man in the tuxedo said, "Stand there! Don't move, ya hear me?" I nodded as if responding to my sergeant. I became immobile, mute. He ran up some steps and then ran down, and said, "C'mere." He took me upstairs to a table. "Look, buddy, we're fully booked. You gotta be outta here in one hour, OK? Table's reserved for a party." Then he vanished.
What then took place could only have happened at Rick's, in the film "Casablanca." The word had been passed around, that's all I can figure. A total of five waiters served me. Some of them brought out things I hadn't ordered and said, "Eat!" They wanted me to taste specialties and were taking them off orders in the kitchen, I found out later. Some of them were delicacies I could never have afforded. Still, the command from my Italian brigade was, "Eat!" or "Never mind, just enjoy it."
Soon I saw the dining-room manager cruising by my table; then more waiters came around. Busboys kept whisking away used dishes, scraping the tablecloth for nonexistent crumbs, and rushing more water to my glass. "Y'like ice?" they'd ask. Glaciers of ice cubes arrived in silver bowls.
I couldn't move. I surreptitiously unbuckled my belt under the tablecloth. "That was wonderful," I gasped. "But I can't handle anymore. Can I just have a cup of tea?"
"Kuppatee," one waiter yelled at someone else, who raced into the kitchen. I glanced around. All the diners, whose own levels of service were clearly below par now, were staring at me, many with admiring eyes, and trying to guess who the celebrity, in his New Year's Eve costume as an Army private, could possibly be.
I asked for the check and kept looking at my watch. My hour was up. Bring on the pumpkin and let me make my getaway, I kept thinking. Suddenly, the kitchen doors banged open, and everyone in the room jumped at the sound. Out came the Italian five and a huge cake on a table, which they wheeled right over to me. Will they take an expired credit card, I wondered. Will I end up in the civilian slammer instead of the military one?
The cake wished me a Happy New Year. My name was in the center of it, skillfully extracted by the captain when he seated me. Everyone stood around the table singing something about old acquaintances never being forgotten. I was hardly an old acquaintance, but I sang too. And I ate the cake. So did the captain, the waiters, the busboys, and half the kitchen staff, including a chef who came out to sing second tenor and try his cake, murmuring how fast it had been created. I nodded gratefully and had another piece. He beamed.
I asked for my check once again. "No check!" the captain huffed, with a "How dare you ask for a check!" tone of voice, rich in Italian dialect. He walked me down to the front door. So did half the waiters. Patrons coming in stepped aside, as if the governor was leaving. I tried to shake hands.
"Get outta here," one of the waiters yelled.
"Yeah, you bum," said another. "Give our love to Joimany."
"Happy New Year!" they all shouted as my cab - the one the captain had ordered for me - pulled away from the curb.
Thus, my evening in the unfeeling arms of cold, aloof New York City began the first day of nearly two years in which my Italian brigade's wish for me came true. I proceeded to have the happiest New Year I'd known - almost all of it unplanned, unexpected, and unprepared for. Just like my dinner at Sardi's. Just like most of the best events of our lives.