By Robert Tate Miller JANUARY 20, 2000
The seconds ticked down, and I felt the surging energy of the crowd rise to the moment. I couldn't help but wonder: What would I remember most about this night? Would it be the hail of confetti, the shouts of jubilant revelers, the shower of fireworks arcing high above the throng? What would, in years to come, stand out foremost about this single instant in my life?
I had dreamed of this night since I was 14 - back when I used to slip out the back door of the family home on balmy summer evenings. I'd gaze up at the heavens through the Carolina pines - stretched out on the soft wood of the backyard picnic table. It seemed such a distant event then. Nearly a quarter century in the future - so many starry skies in between, so much life to be lived first. Back then, I couldn't help pondering what the world might be like. Where would I be? What would I be doing? Would I be rich? Successful? Happy?
I decided to make a pact with the future. I'd be there that night. Somehow, someway, I'd make it to Times Square to bear witness to the celebration. It seemed a reasonable dream, then. It was one I could tuck away on a shelf until the far-off day arrived.
"Are you crazy?" concerned friends asked me when I told them of my New Year's plans. Nearly 2-1/2 decades had passed since I'd made my picnic-table promise. It was Dec. 31, 1999, my date with destiny. Anything could happen, they warned me. A bomb might explode. Riots could break out. The world might end.
I thanked them for their concern, assured them that I would be all right, and boarded a northbound train in Atlanta. Destination: New York City.
There's simply no place like Manhattan at Christmastime. The lighted tree at Rockefeller Center towers majestically over the ice where skaters crowd the rink. Hordes of tourists press against the railing with cameras flashing. The shop windows on Fifth Avenue are a carnival of red and green, decorated with lights, miniature trees, and pine-coned wreaths. I strolled along and breathed it all in: the electricity, the anticipation of what was soon to transpire. The moment was at hand.
The temperature hovered near 38 degrees F. as I walked up 86th street to catch a subway to Times Square early the morning of New Year's Eve. I arrived just before 9 a.m. and, in a steady cold drizzle, staked out my position with a $10 lawn chair I'd snatched up at a 7th Avenue hardware store. Fifteen hours to go.
People had already gathered by the thousands, jockeying for the best spots, settling in for a long, cold day of waiting and waiting and more waiting. Who were these strangers sharing my corner of Times Square, I wondered. Where did they come from? What had possessed them that they would willingly stand side by side, like human trees in an overgrown forest, to await with bated breath the passage of a single second in time?
"Where are you from?" I finally asked the two young women directly in front of me. "Germany," they responded with smiles.
"Where in Germany?" an eavesdropping Australian man asked.
"Just north of Berlin," they answered in unison.
"I was just there a month ago," another man chimed in. Soon, three rugged-looking characters from Philadelphia joined the conversation, and then a couple from Florida asked if I'd take their picture. It wasn't long before this group of shivering strangers had formed our own Times Square neighborhood, a borough rich with diversity, one that was destined to live only for a day and then disband.
"We need a name," one of the young toughs from Philly announced.
"How about 'Sbarro Eastside Posse'?" his friend offered, referring to the fact that we were just east of a chain restaurant of that name on Broadway.
"It suits us," said a young woman from San Francisco.
As the day rolled past, the group of strangers barricaded in an overcrowded section of pavement at the northwest corner of 44th and Broadway forged a New Year's bond. We played cards, laughed at one another's jokes, shared chairs, food, blankets, and stories from our dissimilar lives. Each hour we'd stand together and count down the seconds along with a giant digital clock, as another time zone rang in the new year somewhere far away.
The German women, Astrid and Claudia, wept when they realized their homeland had slipped into 2000 without them, halfway around the world. We gave them hugs, took their picture, and shared their mixed emotions.
At 10 minutes to midnight, I stood up on my tiptoes and looked over a sea of shining faces on all sides as far as I could see. Millions of eyes, all gazing up in joyous anticipation at a sparkling silver ball waiting to fall on the year 2000.
"Remember these next 10 minutes," I shouted over the din to my smiling new friend, Ian from Melbourne. "The memory will have to last you the rest of your life."
Five minutes to go, and I thought again about my question: What would I remember most about New Year's Eve 1999? After a long, cold day of waiting, I finally knew. The answer was all around me in the luminous eyes of these adventurous people. They had come from the four corners of the earth - from big cities and small villages, jungles and beaches, mountains and valleys and plains. They'd traveled here, just like me, to experience a tiny, crowded piece of history.
In a few minutes, we'd all turn and walk away. We'd return to our separate lives. But, before we did, we would stand together one last time and, in a unified act, step onto the threshold of a new millennium.