A New York State of line
Published: Sunday, January 5, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 5, 2003 at 12:14 a.m.
I saw the ball go down. (Drum roll for dramatic effect, please.)
And then I saw it go back up again.
It was deja vu all over again.
It was ... it was. Oh, how shall I describe it? Words fail me at a moment like this.
It was like watching a tiny Styrofoam ball bob up and down on a toothpick.
OK, so it wasn't the "Big Show," the official, 99th annual lowering of The Ball in Times Square to usher in the New Year before an electrified audience of 750,000 revelers.
It was, rather, the "little dry run," the test lowering on the cold, damp afternoon of the day before the night of the Big Show.
And, yes, I know that the celebrated contraption isn't really Styrofoam. It is, rather, an impressive 6-foot-in-diameter aluminum sphere covered in customed designed Waterford crystal panels and spectacularly lit up by dozens, mayhaps even hundreds, of strategically located illuminations.
Awaiting the moment when it would begin its stately Year's Eve descent from atop a 77-foot pole mounted on the roof of the oddly-shaped edifice known as One Times Square - formerly The New York Times building (might as well get a pitch in for the parent company while I'm at it) but now enjoying a spectacular second career as the world's gaudiest billboard.
What can I tell you? I was cold, and my feet hurt and my back ached and my knees felt like overcooked pasta after three days of trudging over concrete in hot pursuit of the fabled holiday magic that only the Big Apple can promise. I was a hard sell.
And of course, at the time I happened to witness the historic 99th annual test lowering of The Ball, I was dutifully engaged in that most New Yorkish of all New York activities.
No, with all apologies to Billy Joel, I wasn't exactly in "a New York State of mind."
I was in a New York State of line.
To be more precise, I was in the quadruple-serpentined line of would-be theater-goers; the people who gather at about 2 p.m. or so every afternoon on the tip of a concrete island in the middle of Times Square hoping to snag same-day, discount tickets to the Broadway hit show of their dreams.
And to be fair about it, as New York lines go, this one was relatively short; just about 21/2 hours' duration.
I had been stationed there with instructions to try to score four tickets to "The Lion King." The three young German women in front of me were hoping for "The Vagina Monologues." The Tennessee couple immediately behind me didn't really care what they got to see, since they were only killing time until New Year's Eve, when they eagerly anticipated retiring to their hotel bar to watch the Vols slaughter Maryland in the Peach Bowl on television.
We were all to be bitterly disappointed.
By the time we got to the front, recycled versions of "Oklahoma" and "Man of La Mancha" were about all that was left. But like the song says, "New York has no time for your tears."
Several blocks away, as the subway flies, my wife and kids were in the third hour of their quest to ascend to the top of the Empire State Building. That they had decided to stick it out rather surprised me since, just the day before, we eschewed the 3 1/2-hour wait to get on the ferry that would deposit us on both Liberty and Ellis islands. Instead, we opted for the much shorter wait for the ferry that only promised to get us close enough to the Statue of Liberty and the historic Ellis immigration center to snap a few photos in passing.
Listen, New York could teach the folks at Disney a thing or two about the art and science of lining up.
Next to our hotel, on 54th Street, the line waiting to get into "Chicago" (the movie, not the nearby Broadway play) was stretched halfway down the block, around the corner, up the Avenue of The Americas and back up 55th Street.
Down the street, at Radio City Music Hall, ushers patiently bellowed out instructions to an unruly mob of folks who had apparently not been in town long enough to learn the etiquette of queuing up.
The line to go ice skating in Central Park was only slightly shorter than the line to go ice skating in Rockefeller Plaza. And although we never actually had to stand in line to get on a subway, we did line up to hastily flee the R train after a brawny fellow sporting a fatigue jacket and a thousand-yard stare began to harangue us in an alien language that, I am convinced, he was making up on the spot.
And, listen, I don't know what in the world that long line outside Saks Fifth Avenue was all about. Didn't those people know about the bargain basement at Macy's?
But I digress.
I really wanted to tell you about New Year's Eve in Times Square. The world's biggest line (if you can technically call the police-assisted jamming of masses of people into an endless series of barricaded cattle-chutes "lining up").
First, it is a documented fact that nobody you talk to in New York will ever admit to actually being in Times Square on New Year's Eve. Although one New Yorker did confide in me that "those people" mostly snuck over from Jersey.
Nor had we any intention of being cattle-chuted for the requisite five- or six-hour wait for the lowering of The Ball. We had already done our time in line purgatory, having spent the previous New Year's Eve in Epcot.
No, we would do it the New York Way.
As a local magazine columnist described it, the New York Way is celebrating in a nearby apartment until just before the midnight hour: "At 11:55 p.m., everyone ran downstairs and watched the ball drop in the distance down Seventh Avenue. It was cold, crowded and the air was 100 proof ..."
And so, at 11:50 p.m., we intrepid band of out-of-towners bravely left the sanctuary of our guarded hotel and ventured half a block to the intersection of 54th Street and 7th Avenue, some 10 blocks distant the party epicenter of the world.
My idea was to stop at the end of 54th and observe the goings-on from the relative safety of the seething crowd's edge. But my kids, being teenagers and having no sense, had an altogether different plan. They simply disappeared into the mob, worming their way out toward the center of 7th.
"Jenny, Andrew," I shouted in vain, drowned out by the rising pre-midnight chorus. "Get back here!"
Like that was going to happen.
And so, at the stroke of midnight, The Ball descended somewhere down the street. The crowd roared. The confetti fell like rain. Fireworks lit up a sky fairly dotted with police helicopters. And I made a fervent New Year's wish to see my kids again in 2003.
New Year's Day dawned cold and wet in New York City. And there was just one more line standing between us and Florida.
It was the first day of mandatory screening of luggage for explosives in airports all over America.
It just keeps getting better and better.
Ron Cunningham is The Sun's editorial page editor. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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