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Dropping the Ball in New York

The huddled masses of Times Square wish you a Happy New Year, and show the true spirit of Christmas.

by James Leroy Wilson
January 3, 2008

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Dropping the Ball in New York
I think I'm better-than-average at world geography compared to my fellow Americans, but even I didn't know that Chile, on the west coast of South America, was two times zones east of New York. It seems like South America could just as easily be called East America, and North America could be called West America.

That's something I didn't know until New Year's Eve.

If you are like me, New Year's Eve is not normally spent in front of the television, except for the final couple of minutes. Usually, I'm at a party, or a gathering of friends, and a few minutes before midnight the set is turned on, and everyone gathers round to count down the final seconds as the crystal ball slides down the flagpole at One Times Square in New York City. At zero, the party erupts with cheers, hugs and kisses, while on tv the masses at Times Square roar and fireworks go off.

This past New Year's Eve was different. I had an opportunity to go to New York and be at Times Square on the 100th anniversary of the first ball drop,  part of the crowd you see on TV. Why not be at the center of all the excitement?

We arrived eight hours early, but only managed a spot at 48th Street and Seventh Avenue, some five blocks away from the the crystal ball. The street was closed all the way to 59th Street, however, so among the one million attendees, we got a better-than-average view.

During those eight hours, there wasn't much to do. There were no vendors amidst the crowds selling food or souveniers; late in the evening, some guys approached the barricades selling pizzas, but that was it. .No alcohol was allowed. No port-o-potties. No feed of the front-stage entertainment on the three giant, visible Jumbotrons standing vertically on each other on the side of the building, save for some footage on the bottom screen; most of the time, they just ran ads. No additional speakers down the block so people could hear the music better. We could barely hear the musical performances, and could barely see them on the one Jumbotron that was part of the stage.

For the most part, we had to entertain ourselves, through conversations with the strangers next to us, or through spontaneous eruptions of The Wave or some other cheers. There was never a better opportunity to get a crowd involved in a spontaneous, real-life musical number, but I chickened out because I didn't really know the words to appropriate songs like "New York, New York." After midnight and on the way back to the bus station, I heard some people sing the "Olay" soccer song, and I thought, why couldn't they have done that before? If ever a crowd could have used music and cheerleading, it was us. Then again, too much of it and people would have become hoarse and thirsty, which wouldn't have been good as nobody was selling water or any other beverage.

It is apparent that New York City's government has no interest in attracting residents and tourists to this event. If anything, the lack of amenities is designed to discourage attendance, and the city is wise to keep it relatively low-key. One million people in one spot is quite enough for New York's transit system. If people knew they could come, drink, eat, party, use a toilet, watch on the Jumbotrons, listen on giant speakers, etc., this might attract three million. At some point, more is definitely not merrier. Better to provide no food than run out of food. Better to warn people to ration and pace their fluid intake, wear a diaper, or don't come, rather than provide toilets with unbearably long lines. (Personally, I was careful with my fluid intake.) New Year's at Times Square is not for everyone, only for people who really want to be there.

But why would anyone want to be there? Why did we walk some two miles, and then stand for eight hours, in chilly weather? And why were there people from all over the world in the crowd?

It's hard to say - a matter of taste I guess. Some people dread crowds, but I love them. I love being on the same page with complete strangers. That's why being at the game, or watching it in a crowded sports bar with fans of the same team, is more fun than watching at home. It's why being at the rock concert is more fun than watching the DVD or listening to the CD of the same concert. And in the case of New Year's Eve, it's why being part of the crowd is more fun than being completely rational and self-conscious. I was surrounded by Indians, Japanese, Texans, and Europeans, but we were all united. We had the common bond that we were there, waiting to wish each other and all of the United States a Happy New Year.  I don't know why foreigners would even know about the ball drop, let alone endure the chilly weather, leg and back strain, and disruption of their normal consumption and waste processes. But I loved it how we got revved up, counting down the New Year in Johannesburg, South Africa! Woo hoo! Next hour, Paris! Then, London! Cape Verde! Brazil! Chile! Then (at the half-hour) Newfoundland! (Don't ask me why - I don't know.) Next up, Bermuda! And then, at 11:59pm, the ball began its descent, and we welcome the United States - and Canadians with cable in the same time zones, I suppose - our fondest wishes for a Happy New Year.

It is often perceived that a desire to "join the crowd" reflects low-self-esteem and a longing for acceptance. There are also theories about how crowds have their own psychology, which can be dangerous when placed under the hypnotic sway of a demagogue. But on a night like New Year's Eve, in a place like Times Square, something beautiful is going on. It is here that everyone can come as they are, and no one else judges them. Their religion doesn't matter. Their political opinions don't matter. Their "sins" and regrets don't matter to anyone else in the crowd.

What do you call a place where nationality, religion, politics, and sex don't matter, where no one judges you for what you've done or where you've been, but just welcomes you anyhow? Where people smile at you and cheer with you? Where it isn't about you, and it isn't about me, but it's about us, about humanity, about "peace on earth, good will toward men?"

That sounds a little bit like heaven.

In some ways, the "true spirit of Christmas" is more apparent on New Year's Eve than on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. There's no "ill will toward men" as revealed in, for example, the identity politics of the "Merry Christmas" vs. "Happy Holidays" controversy. On New Year's Eve there's no Jew or Greek, male or female, gay or straight, native-born or immigrant (or tourist). New Year's Eve is not about "us" against "them," and it isn't about getting, and it isn't even about giving, because it's not about you at all. It is about celebrating together.

And that's why New Year's Eve at Times Square is so special.

Comments (1)

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Rita from Fairhope, AL writes:
January 3, 2008
Thank you for this. It was so well written and touching; you made me feel as though I were there, and I know I never will be, as I am your exact opposite when it comes to being in a crowd.

I also enjoyed seeing a softer side of JLW. Thanks for letting us all inside for a bit... and Happy New Year!

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