MAXWELL:  NYC _ Dec. 31, 1999: It was one magical night

1/16/2000 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



If I live to become a grizzled centenarian with pate de foie gras and Merlot in my beard, I always will remember the stroke of midnight on Jan. 1, 2000. I was here in Times Square _ the fabled “Crossroads of the World” _ with more than 2-million other Y2K revelers to see the crystal ball drop, to experience the countdown to what millions worldwide believed would be the annihilation of Planet Earth.

If the world were going to sing Auld Lang Syne for the final time, I wanted to be in NYC when the eternal silence fell.

When the US Airways 737 approached New York Harbor and I saw the Statue of Liberty, my journalistic instincts instructed me to keep a journal of my experiences as the millennium clock ticked down. For me, Lady Liberty, one of the most majestic monuments anywhere, was a good omen. I felt like an immigrant seeing her for the first time.

Fittingly, the woman next to me _ on her first trip to the United States _ had flown from Mendoza, Argentina, for the celebration.

Dec. 30, 11:50 a.m.: I arrive at my hotel, the La Samana at 25 West 24th St., whose business card reads: “NYC’s 1 Jacuzzi-Room Hotel: Art Deco Steam Room.” The card also says, “Spoil Yourself!”

Actually, my room is 12 feet long by 7 feet wide. The bed frame is some kind of plastic box, and the mattress is a 3-inch-thick square of foam rubber. The cableless television is from a bygone era. The closet is the size of a full-sized refrigerator. I have a sink and a medicine cabinet-mirror. The ancient steam heater is no bigger than a carry-on suitcase, and pipes and sundry wires and lines crisscross the walls and ceiling.

The 10 or more guests on my floor share three bathrooms. One has a commode, another has a commode and sink and the largest has a commode, a sink and a shower.

1:21 p.m.: I walk to Times Square along Sixth Avenue. Already, thousands of people mill at 1 Times Square, ground zero of the ball drop. The Dick Clark stage has been erected. The temperature must be in the lower 30s.

3:06 p.m.: I walk along Broadway and pass dozens of portable toilets that seem out of place among the upscale shops and banks. A wedding is in front of Macy’s. Hundreds of people stand in line to go inside the world’s largest store. I go inside a restaurant to thaw and spend 30 minutes nursing a straight Jim Beam. Leaving the building, I have a nice buzz. The sidewalks are a mosaic of lovers walking arm-in-arm, locals doing their thing and visitors trying to internalize forever the feel of Midtown as the 21st century approaches.

4:51 p.m.: I buy Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley at Barnes & Noble on Sixth Avenue. I walk to a restaurant near my hotel. Waiting for the main course, I nearly burn down the place when I flip the napkin covering my bread onto the candle on the table. Luckily, I extinguish the fire before too many other diners see it. The odor of burning cloth lingers.

6:15 p.m.: Back at the hotel, I shower, read the New York Times, the Daily News and the Post. Then I watch ABC News. I pour a glass of Jim Beam and curl up in bed with Tom Ripley. In no time, I am a willing participant in his web of deceit and murder. I fall asleep before Tom kills Dickie Greenleaf.

Dec. 31, 3:30 a.m.: Doors slam. Feet troop up and down the hall. Women and men laugh. Commodes flush. The shower runs. Minutes later, the unmistakable sounds of lovemaking echo all around. Now, I am wide awake and return to Ripley.

6:30 a.m.: I walk to Times Square. The temperature is in the low 20s. I wear thermal underwear and snow mobile mittens. Incredibly, thousands of revelers _ some in sleeping bags, others on cardboard pallets _ sleep on the sidewalks. One young man is clad in a tuxedo. A couple snuggle beneath Old Glory. The wacky screech of noisemakers is already erupting. Midtown has come to life, and celebration has begun in earnest.

8:39 a.m.: Cops are everywhere and I feel safe. I buy a cup of coffee and talk with a couple from Madrid, Spain. “I can’t believe I’m actually here,” the man said. “New York on New Year’s Eve.” A band plays on the Dick Clark stage, and, on a giant screen, dancers from an Asian country strut their stuff. Next to me, a man wearing a silly hat blows a noisemaker and pinches his girlfriend’s fanny.

1:15 p.m.: At 47th Street and Broadway, giant balloon puppets float in a sea of confetti. People shout for joy. In the background, the Coca-Cola sign and Jumbotron TVs compete for attention. New Age music fills the air. A roar of voices goes up north of Broadway, causing dozens of cops to run in that direction. The subway rumbles beneath me.

3:30 p.m.: Two guys push a cardboard box in front of the McGraw Hill building on Sixth Avenue. A cop stops them and inspects the box. “Can’t take any chances,” the cop says. “Hey, we’re Americans,” one of the men says.

7 p.m.: As darkness falls and the neons twinkle, the crowd swells to more than 1.5-million. Cops are blocking off the streets with greater regularity. As each section is barricaded, I move farther south, not wanting to be trapped in the throng at midnight. I walk to Madison Square Garden, where the Knicks are playing and Billy Joel is singing. The night is taking on a sense of spirituality. The weather is a nice 38 degrees. I walk back toward Macy’s and can see the ball clearly.

10:30 p.m.: The entire area is sealed. No one else can enter. Enough people _ more than 2-million standing shoulder to shoulder. The energy builds. Suddenly, I feel that someone is staring at me. I move to a new spot, but the feeling persists. I turn to see a white woman about my age looking at me. She wants to speak to me. She assesses me. Approaching, she asks if I will sign her millennium book. She has the signatures of people from around the world. What a great idea. I sign the book, and we introduce ourselves. She is a high school guidance counselor from Chapel Hill, N.C. We are instant friends.

11:02 p.m.: She asks if I believe in angels. “I don’t know,” I say. She hands me a quarter-sized silver medallion of an angel. Now, I realize that I came to New York for this one experience. I give her my business card. She turns to a group of black girls behind us. She and they sing Auld Lang Syne. I sing, too.

11:59 p.m.: Using my cellular telephone, I call friends back home. A young man in front of me proposes to his girlfriend. Minutes later, the revelers chant, “Ten, nine … three, two, one!”

Midnight: The noise is deafening. The girlfriend says, “Yes, I’ll marry you” and locks lips with her man. The ball slides down the flagpole. Fireworks explode against the skyline. Blasts can be heard in New York Harbor. The year 2000 has come. The newly engaged couple pop an expensive bottle of champagne and hand out plastic glasses. I take one, of course, and drink. Two cops walk past and smile. Strangers kiss and hug strangers, shouting “Happy new year.”

Walking back to my hotel along Fashion Avenue, I am swept up in the general euphoria. How could anyone have missed the best international party over the millennia? In my room, I pour a Jim Beam and read up to where Tom finally murders Dickie.

Again, the lovers on my floor wake me before daylight.