As I sat on a cold, hard bench in my prison’s dayroom, I looked up at the battered television showing the ball drop in New York City’s Times Square, and I tried to picture where I would have been standing.
I was in Times Square for that ball drop 10 years earlier — before my divorce, my addiction, my rock bottom, my long prison sentence.
On that first New Year’s Eve back in prison, in 2015, I looked around the room at the four guys who had also stayed awake to watch the celebration. New Year’s Eve is supposed to signify the beginning of a prosperous new year, but I didn’t feel prosperous. I felt numb.
New Year’s Eve has been my favorite holiday since I was 8 years old, when I banged away on pots and pans with my effervescent mother and three younger siblings while dad watched from the kitchen. We’d stand at the back door and scream outside in the neighbor’s direction, wishing them well, feeling like we were getting away with something, our bedtimes long since past.
Into adulthood, I continued celebrating the last night of the year with family and friends, always making the night special in some way: a house party, dinner at a fancy hotel, a vacation getaway, fireworks on the river.
I craved the energy of a midnight revival. I was drawn to the feeling of freshness, a new start to something good, and an opportunity to let go of anything bad from the last 12 months. Jobs I didn’t get. Breakups. Poor decisions. It felt like standing in the rain and letting all the dirt wash away: a revitalization of the mind, body and soul.
It was disheartening, to say the least, sitting in the tiled dayroom each New Year’s Eve for seven consecutive years. But in some ways it was an appropriate act of self-mortification. A penance for my sins.
New Year’s Eve is lingua franca for people all over the world; I watched the ball drop in Sydney during the day, and then NYC at night, followed by New Orleans, then Los Angeles. Streamers popped, music pumped, faces smiled and lovers kissed. Confetti dropped all over the cheering spectators as they drunkenly botched the words to “Auld Lang Syne.”
During New Year’s Eve inside, I would wear my headphones all day long and listen to Frank Sinatra or Billy Joel, folding into a melancholy mood as I thought about past mistakes and replayed sublime memories from that special night. Even though I was in the Florida Department of Corrections, the temperature usually dropped just enough for me to imagine I was back near my hometown of Philadelphia, where I dressed up for a night out on the town. I remember snow drifting slowly to the ground, the wind swirling around our legs, the streetlights shimmering on the wet sidewalks as laughter echoed through the alleys.
Over the years, as Ryan Seacrest counted down the hours, minutes and seconds until the famous ball drop, I would count how many more years I’d be locked up for my favorite night: four, three, two, one. But watching the Times Square party the night before 2022, I suddenly realized that I would never be inside prison for another New Year’s Eve again — and I shed a tear.
I had reached a monumental point in my sentence, and in my life. I’d made so many personal changes during my incarceration and become a new man, ready to leave for a second chance at success and happiness. My freedom was finally within reach, and I walked around my cellblock that midnight hour, shaking hands with friends and acquaintances while wishing them a Happy New Year. I had that old feeling once again: renewal.
This year, I will celebrate New Year’s Eve with friends and family, and I will be free.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.