Twas the night before Thanksgiving, and all through the city, parents were schlepping their toddlers to see the Macy's parade balloons get blown up across from the Museum of Natural History. But there were quite a lot of other people making the migration uptown as well this evening -- for recent college graduates who grew up in Manhattan, balloon night is an occasion for a different sort of parade. The meeting place is a certain Chinese restaurant on Columbus Avenue long known for serving white wine to the city's high-school sophomores. From there, groups of graduates from each school fan out to designated bars. "I can't believe I'm still doing this," says a 28-year-old Riverdale graduate who now works as a talent agent. "But you see every single person you knew in high school at the balloons -- it's like going to the Meadow on a warm spring day senior year."
The tradition starts with freshmen in college, who are eager to see friends from home when they return to the city for Thanksgiving break, but it's not uncommon to see 30-year-old prep-school grads crowding the banquettes at Raccoon Lodge on 83rd Street until 3 a.m. on balloon night -- perhaps hitting on the latest batch of new freshmen. "Nobody actually goes to see the balloons," says Zack, a 26-year-old TV reporter and Fieldston graduate. "Let me reiterate this. Nobody actually goes to see the balloons. Never ever. That's for dorks."
Graduates of each high school revert to their traditional stomping grounds: Boxers (previously the Mad Hatter) on Second Avenue is for York Prep and the former Anglo-American and the Lenox School; Dorian's attracts the highest number of female postgrads from schools like Spence and Chapin; the Amsterdam Avenue Hi Life is the place for graduates of Fieldston and other "hill schools" (Riverdale and Horace Mann), particularly those who went on to Brown.
On balloon night, Hi Life conveniently moves the tables out of the main dining room so patrons have optimum mixability. Girls drink Amstels and sling their arms around each other; they go out on the street to smoke bowls and flirt with that guy they played Truth or Dare with in eighth grade and always thought was cute. Duffels and backpacks are always piled near the door. "I usually pack a bag so that I don't have to go back downtown; I just sleep at my parents' on Central Park West," says one Fieldston graduate from the class of 1991 who now lives in the East Village. She looks around the room mischievously. "Or wherever else I end up."