I once met a man who claimed that When Harry Met Sally had forever soured him on the notion of New Year’s Eve.
“You see that at the end of the movie, with Billy Crystal running to get to the party and the clock counting down and the music and that wide shot and them kissing right in the middle of the dance floor… and what are you going to do?” he explained. “You’re never gonna top that. You know you’re not. You just can’t.”
“So instead you end up at something with a bunch of people you don’t know, yelling at the television and drinking bad champagne, and maybe if you get lucky making out with some waitress from the Red Lobster. It’s depressing.”
“Going out on New Year’s is the worst,” he said. “I’m never doing it again.”
This was early January a few years back. That particular annum, he told me, he’d rung in at an apartment in Sunnyside, snogging on the couch with an office manager while her boyfriend sat in another room smoking weed. He’d ended the night by getting sick on eggnog and throwing up behind one of his host’s curtains. He didn’t really expect to be asked back.
“Whatever. I’m over it,” he said.
One could hardly blame him.
New Year’s Eve is the Las Vegas of holidays — the night where fun goes, not quite to die, but to mutate into forms so grotesque and shameful that you’re left more or less wishing that it had. It’s the sort of evening where, somehow, it makes perfect sense that a herd of middle-aged Antiques Roadshow devotees would be dancing enthusiastically to K.C. and the Sunshine Band; the rare night when it seems only natural and just that a-million-or-so shirtless dudes from Jersey should take over Times Square to guzzle Andre and shout at a glowing, lighted ball; the sort of celebration where, having spent several hours staring at Ryan Seacrest’s unyieldingly enthralled visage, a person actually begins to think that they just might miss Dick Clark.
It is an ugly, ugly scene. On this one night each year we put fingers to mouths and whistle for our nation’s full complement of hacks, has-beens, and general embarrassments to crawl out from whatever rocks they’ve been hiding under, take up their places onstage or onscreen, and entertain us. Such a spectacle would make for an unpromising proposition just about anywhere, but in a country like ours, which tosses off bad pop culture like the French do sauces, it’s downright terrifying. Happily, by about 8:30 the evening of, most of us are too thoroughly blotto to notice. There’s no defense against the absurd quite so surefire as two-fisting martinis and cheap champagne. Consciousness is all well and good as an abstract notion, but when you flip the channel to find a tuxedo-clad comb-over victim cutting a rug to Hall and Oates, you just might decide you’ve had enough of it for one night.
And despite my aforementioned acquaintance’s best intentions, it can be awfully hard to escape New Year’s Eve when you’re living in New York City. The rest of the country celebrates, sure, but more than any other holiday, New Year’s is a New York thing. In its well-documented provincialism, Gotham has anointed itself the center of any number of universes, but in this case, the claim is hard to dispute. Ever since New Year’s Eve 1904, when Alfred Ochs lured some 200,000 revelers to the recently renamed Times Square for fireworks and an all-day street party, the rest of the country has taken its cues from New York.
Neon signs, smoky bars, hotel ballrooms, taxi-clotted streets — this is the iconography of New Year’s Eve. We’ve no myths of the small town New Year’s or the quiet celebration down on the old family farm. It’s a night for cash, flash and slick looking guys in penguin suits — a lady in one hand and a bottle of hooch in the other. Or, barring that, an evening alone at the saloon, crying into your beer as the bartender watches the ball drop on TV. A New Year’s Eve properly done means Waterford Crystal and Bobby Short; noisemakers crumpled on an Avenue sidewalk; The Plaza, The Apartment; Guy Lombardo embalmed at the Waldorf, playing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ to a crew of wobbly stuffed-shirts. As goes New York, so goes New Year’s.
Which, then, leads to this unhappy thought. To live in New York and not do New Year’s Eve is almost a dereliction of duty — like eschewing the subway or developing an allergy to pastrami. Believe me, I’ve no end of sympathy for the stay-off-the-streets sentiments detailed above, but I’m not sure that, in good conscience, we can. A nation’s holiday rests on our unsteady shoulders. Yes, the night always turns out a great deal more hideous than the myths surrounding it would lead one to believe, but a person ought to give it whirl anyway. Oh, you’ll hate yourself in the morning, no doubt, but sometimes a bit of self-loathing is just the price you have to pay.
As a young child, my family’s New Year’s celebration typically consisted of my parents cracking out the Asti while my sister and I sipped ginger ale and watched the goings-ons in Times Square. It was about as staid an affair as you could imagine.
Most years about this time, though, my great-uncle on my father’s side, himself a lifelong Tri-State resident, would be down for his holiday visit. And each year, just as the famous ball was dropping some 800-miles away, he would throw his greatcoat over his pajamas, grab a spoon and a metal pot and walk out to the garage above our suburban Atlanta cul-de-sac, banging them together and whooping it up for all the neighbors. By that time the man had seen a solid 70-plus New Year’s Eves. There was still something about the night, though, that made him want to make some noise
My point? If he could do it, so can you. Now get out there and carouse, you magnificent bastards.