Every New Year’s Eve, no matter who I was with, we’d ask each other the same question. “Would you ever go to Times Square to watch the ball drop?” And every New Year’s Eve, no matter who I was with, the answer was always a resounding no.
Until one year, I found myself standing on Seventh Avenue in a crowd of millions of people from all over the world, counting down the last ten seconds of the year in New York City – on a whim.
Surprisingly, it was actually pretty fun. It turned out to be one of my best New Year’s Eves yet. Never say never, folks.
Here’s the most unbelievable part: I walked into the crowd somewhere around 40th Street at 11:30pm. As I discovered, it’s possible to join in one of the world’s biggest New Year’s celebrations half an hour before midnight.
People put themselves through a lot to get a good viewing spot for New Year’s Eve. I’ve always felt sorry for those poor people who stand around Times Square all day on the 31st, with only their blinding enthusiasm to keep them warm. The police set up a huge perimeter around the area for safety reasons, cordoning off entire blocks of the city. Once you’re in, you’re in. If you’re out, you’re out. You can’t leave your spot all day (not even for bathroom breaks) and you can’t bring in any outside food or drinks. And more often than not, it’s freezing. I’m usually up for anything, but the negatives in this whole scenario are where I draw the line.
I’ve watched these determined revelers year after year. I’d pass them in real life, while walking through Manhattan during the day, and then I’d see them again on the television later that night from the warmth of the great indoors. I spent a couple of New Year’s Eves at a party in a bar on 23rd Street, which is only a few blocks from one of the barricades. It was like standing outside of a stadium. We were watching the event live on TV with the sound off because we could hear all of the cheers and music flowing down through midtown. We told ourselves it was practically like being there, because none of us were dedicated enough to actually go.
Then one year, a friend invited Alan and I to his midtown restaurant for New Year’s Eve with the promise of “a good view of the event.” I figured that meant we’d be looking out a window, so imagine my surprise when he told us we should head outside sometime around 11:30 if we wanted to join the crowd and see the ball drop.
He sent us a note a few days before dinner to show the police guarding the barricades. We spent the evening eating, drinking, and making a variety of new friends – like the Italian tourists at the next table, who very kindly (but a bit strangely) ordered us chocolate strawberries for dessert “per amore.” In return, we ushered them outside as close to midnight as possible (because Italian women do not wait around in their stilettos in the cold, people).
We walked outside, not really understanding where to go or what to do. Suddenly we were in the middle of millions of cold, excited people. We walked up a side street that had been left open for traffic, but no one dared drive towards Times Square right before midnight on New Year’s Eve. In a way, we had our own unintentional VIP area in between barricades.
As I stood in the street surrounded by people who had been waiting there for almost half a day, I suddenly felt really guilty. How much did they hate me? Should I duck? Should I offer to take their photos? Should I be happy the police check bags for weapons? But a funny thing happened – it was so close to midnight that everyone was too excited to care about a handful of new people joining the group. When I asked if I was in anyone’s way, I was met with a bunch of “Happy New Year” exclamations and some hugs.
At almost 12,000 pounds and covered by more than 2,500 Waterford Crystals, the ball is spectacular. (The photos here don’t do it justice – mainly because after half an hour, my fingers were already too frozen to push the button.) Even in a place as lit up as Times Square, it stands out for blocks. But the real draw, strangely, was the thing I had originally thought would make this horrible: waiting around in the crowd. The people around us were so happy. Unnaturally happy. It was more than just stir-craziness or the promise of thawing out shortly (and it certainly wasn’t alcohol because they don’t allow any within the barricades). It was pure giddiness at seeing an iconic event. I finally understood the draw of this whole affair: That kind of excitement is contagious, and there’s no better way to feel while starting off the new year.