Auld Lang Sigh

16 minute read
James Poniewozik

People would pay good money–people are paying good money–to be in Richard Wiley’s shoes come Dec. 31, 1999. Living in Las Vegas, the novelist and English professor has a front-row seat for what aims to be the ultimate New Year’s bash. Vegas, riding a wave of momentum as a rejuvenated, all-purpose vacation hot spot, set out years ago to own this holiday–and, after all, whether you’re staging a thousand-year bash or the apocalypse, Babylon-by-Hoover-Dam is a pretty natural choice. Can you think of a better place to be for the millennium?

“I can’t think of a worse place to be for the millennium,” says Wiley, “because of all the Strip nonsense. There’s that false sense of camaraderie with strangers… The idea of the millennium is so overwhelming it makes me catatonic.” Wiley will spend the holiday in Vegas, all right–but quietly, within the four walls of his house.

And in that he’s not alone. Early this year and before, prognosticators and entrepreneurs predicted millennial revelers would party and spend as if it was their last night on earth, traveling to exotic locales, blowing enormous wads and filling up premium locations fast. (Back in 1992, a TIME millennium preview declared, “You might need a reservation–now.”) But a funny thing has happened on the way to the fin de siecle: a lot of us are deciding to pass on the big bash. According to a Yankelovich poll for TIME and CNN, 72% of Americans say they are not planning to do “something special” on New Year’s Eve, up from 63% who responded the same way in January. Only 21% now say they plan to travel away from home to celebrate. Instead, many will be Y2Kocooning, holding more subdued, intimate observances with family and friends. People like Diane Pollock and her husband Harold Goldberg, of San Rafael, Calif., who decided to stay home with their two-year-old daughter Sarah, so she won’t have to tell people someday that she spent the millennium with the baby sitter. “We would rather she say she was at a party with her mom and dad,” says Pollock.

For Pollock and others, the what-did-you-do question has forced the issue of what they most value. Overwhelmed by the enormity of the moment but underwhelmed by Dionysian blowouts, many are “opting not to go to the big party,” in the words of trend watcher Faith Popcorn. “They’re staying at home hiding under their beds, playing with their dogs, playing with their babies and wishing it were 1954.” Even Bill Howard, marketing vice president for the Atlanta Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, says that counter to his industry’s expectations, “There is more of a spiritual mood than one of celebration.” Howard plans to spend the night with his wife at a house in the Smoky Mountains.

The downsizing of new year’s Eve is a logical reaction to that conspicuous, late-second-millennium phenomenon: runaway hype. We’ve seen years of countdowns, retrospectives and magazine special issues. One entrepreneur went as far as to trademark and license the date 01-01-00 for New Year’s gewgaws. No sooner did the milestone begin looming than advertisers began trying to persuade us to, say, associate the Roman numeral 2000–MM–with a certain candy-coated chocolate. Even the Y2K problem has morphed from potential cataclysm to commercial punch line: a Nike ad shows a man going for a jog New Year’s morning as the lights flicker out around town, money shoots out of ATMs, people panic in the streets, and an errant missile zooms by overhead. On the one hand, the passing of a thousand years is staggering for a mortal of perhaps 80 years’ life-span to apprehend; on the other, its commercialization renders it trivial. No wonder some people are stepping back to mark the occasion in a small-scale, personal way–to take a time-out at this ultimate juncture of time.

Make no mistake, New Year’s Eve will be a big deal in places like Vegas, where you can still, if you are so inclined, taste a bottle of 1800 Madeira from Thomas Jefferson’s collection at the Rio Suites Hotel and Casino wine party for $2,050 or lease the half-size Eiffel Tower at the Paris for a party of 40 to 50–including chef, butler and host’s suite–for a mere $200,000. The stock-option challenged can find Strip accommodations for a (relatively) less exorbitant $400 a night, and those are selling more briskly. But hotel rooms, which the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority predicted would sell out by fall, are still going begging, and major resorts are slashing their inflated rates by hundreds of dollars a night.

“We’re not unique,” convention-bureau spokesman Rob Powers emphasizes. “The travel industry is seeing this across the board.” And reports worldwide bear him out. In Aspen, Colo., tony resorts that would normally have sold out for New Year’s week by early November are still unfilled. On Thailand’s balmy beaches it’s been “the anticlimax of the millennium,” says Imtiaz Muqbil, executive editor of Travel Impact Newswire. In London there’s a prospect of empty seats greeting the Queen and the Prime Minister as they open the much vaunted Millennium Dome on New Year’s Eve, while all six suites in the New York City Palace’s $25,000 “Splurge of the Century” are yours for the taking.

There are economic reasons for some of these millennial disappointments. Predictions of widespread, money’s-no-object revels were just that–predictions, of an event that hasn’t occurred since the airplane was invented, the Crusades gave way to package tours and Dick Clark was soldered together in a top-secret government warehouse. So proprietors aimed for the stratosphere and whiffed. Hotels supersized their room rates; tour operators assessed $1,000 cancellation fees; property owners in New York City and Miami put up their pads for sublet at five-figure rates (few takers, so far); British star chef Marco Pierre White tried and failed to auction off private parties at his restaurants at Sotheby’s in London. Even in this boom time, the millennium is, like Yogi Berra’s fabled night spot, so crowded nobody goes there.

New Year’s Eve, of course, is known for disappointment, freighted with the pressure to be the wildest night of the year but often ending in ennui, regret and beer stains. Is this one simply shaping up to be a letdown on a millennial scale? Not necessarily. Party planners and business people predict that customers will start filling hotels, parties and restaurants in the next few weeks–especially if prices drop enough.

But more important, an underbooked New Year’s is a letdown only by a fairly consumerist measure, one that assumes you can divine enthusiasm and millennial spirit in terms of buzz and box office, units moved and luxury suites occupied. People are not so much dismissing the event as trying to determine how to mark it in a way that’s meaningful to them. So a lot of people are making low-key, local plans, like neighbors and single dads Bruce Rave and Charlie O’Dowd of Albuquerque, N.M., who are planning a minimalist block party. “We’ll set up a tent with a kerosene heater for the old people and probably me too,” says Rave, 45. There will be meat cooking on propane grills–no electricity at this Y2K-themed party–and plenty of soccer, football, basketball and Hula Hoops. “Kids and adults playing together in the street–a family day,” says O’Dowd, 48. “We had this type of party constantly when I was growing up, and I want it to be memorable, you know, turn of the century and family and community.”

That’s a heavy burden for one little weenie roast. But across the country and the world, people are finding as many reasons to stay in this New Year’s Eve as to go out. Most boil down to one thing: other people. With no basis in nature, the passage of a thousand years is a man-made phenomenon, and so are its attendant worries. The question of how you mark this millennium is partly a question of faith–not religious faith so much as faith in humankind. Faith that people can throng by the hundreds of thousands in the world’s metropolises without havoc. Faith that one’s fellow humans will not–out of their own faith or some twisted private purpose–seek to put a bloody exclamation point on the millennium or precipitate the apocalypse. The most basic kind of human faith, really: the faith that the sun will rise tomorrow on a world more or less like the one it set on.

Still hedging their bets on that last question were the crowds at the Preparedness Expo at the Denver Merchandise Mart earlier this month, where several thousand attendants watched merchants demonstrate how to load a blowgun, use dryer lint to start a fire and cook an egg on a stick. Even survivalist stalwarts at the event were beginning to downplay fears that the Y2K computer bug will cause chaos come Jan. 1. “I don’t think that the world is coming to a screeching halt,” says renowned survivalist Bo Gritz. But in Paonia, Colo., Joy MacNulty, 69, isn’t taking chances. Not only is she laying in food, water, a woodstove and a greenhouse at home, but she’s also become her town’s volunteer Y2K coordinator, assembling a $1,000 emergency pantry in the community center–though, to her chagrin, almost none of her neighbors see the need to prepare. On the big night, she will have a party with 10 friends to watch TV…and wait: “Maybe we’ll try out the photovoltaic stuff and use the Porta Potti.”

The bug still casts a shadow over foreign travel, particularly where travelers have doubts about regional preparedness; U.S. diplomatic personnel are leaving some countries, including Russia. A Cambodian tour operator blames fears of “being stuck at the airport” for open rooms at the luxury Grand Hotel D’Angkor, near the temple of Angkor Wat (it had claimed to be booked for months). Major airlines dismiss suggestions of millennial danger, though most are cutting back flights on Dec. 31 and Jan. 1 because of low demand; Virgin Atlantic will suspend flights altogether for about 24 hours.

The Y2K bug may turn out to be less of a problem than Y2K nuts. To alert local law-enforcement officials about the potential for terrorism, the FBI started the Megiddo Project (from the word Armageddon, which in Hebrew means Hill of Megiddo). Attempting to draw on lessons from the Oklahoma City and Africa bombings, the Megiddo report warns that political extremism, religious millenarianism and new-world-order paranoia could merge disastrously–abetted by Y2K computer hysteria, concerning as it does the ultimate worldwide system. (As any good conspiracy theorist knows, the U.N. will use the Y2K crisis as a pretext to conquer the world.) In Israel, the stage set for Revelation, officials are on the alert for Christians seeking to precipitate doomsday by staging attacks or mass suicides; three groups have been deported or barred from the country.

For many folks, the party of the millennium will be pooped not because they will be heading for the hills but because they will be punching the clock. Not only caterers and musicians but also cops, doctors, bankers, engineers, FBI agents and others are being tapped for Y2K OT.

If you’re a software professional, chances are your Auld Lang Syne was stifled long ago. Technical-support staff and engineers in Microsoft’s product-support services, for instance, get no vacation in December or January. The unfortunate Microserfs will be allowed to make a modicum of whoopee, bringing their families to an on-the-job party with a disk jockey. (No chance of a midnight smooch from Bill Gates, though. He’s spending the night at home with his family.) And while tech companies say they’re generally confident that they have resolved serious problems in their products, they may not be the only geeks who have been writing code in anticipation of New Year’s. “There are people out there who are looking for publicity, and they know they’re going to get publicity with a virus,” says Vincent Weafer, director of the Symantec Antivirus Research Center in Santa Monica, Calif., which will be fully staffed on New Year’s Eve.

No wonder a growing number of people just want to hide out. Louis Rittmaster of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is no stranger to Champagne celebrations; each year he heads to an apartment he owns in New York City to toast the ball drop. But this time, the 59-year-old retiree is instead heading to Yogaville, Va., for a two-day silent retreat. “This year had to be different,” Rittmaster says. “It was either this or be in the ocean for a swim at midnight.” Meanwhile, at midnight, south of downtown Los Angeles, LaRonda Calloway, 45, of Culver City, Calif., will attend a “watch service” at New Commandment Missionary Baptist Church–safely indoors in a city where partyers are known to fire guns in the air to start the year. “You’re there to thank the Lord for bringing you through the old year,” she says, “and ask him to keep blessing you through the new year.”

Introspection, contemplation–of what, exactly? That may be beside the point; the common refrain here is the chance to reflect simply on this raucous, wildly overpromoted night. When Minneapolis, Minn., public relations executive David Feider thinks about this New Year’s Eve, for instance, he fantasizes about absconding to a hideaway along Lake Superior to “stare at the moon, as far away from the rabble as possible”–to escape not Y2K-prompted food riots or the Four Horsemen but rather the omnipresent buzz over the event. “I can’t really identify with it anymore,” he says. “People are getting so numbed by all the pregame coverage on so many things, they can hardly hold on for the game.”

Feider, who doesn’t have definite plans yet, might consider heading to London, where the Four Seasons hotel is auctioning off an antimillennium getaway. The lucky winner will spend the night in a soundproof suite, sans clocks and calendars, watching black-and-white movies and eating dinner from a pre-1950s menu. The anachronistic evening fits the disposition of Britons, most of whom plan to stay home on New Year’s Eve, according to a survey of 100,000 by the department store Selfridges. “It reflects the mood of the ’90s,” says Selfridges marketing manager Nicola Lloyd. “People don’t need to go mad. They just want a night to remember with family and friends.”

Indeed, for the organizers of some of the millennium’s most ambitious bacchanals, Dec. 31, 1999, may just have come a decade or so too late. There’s something a bit retro, a shade Dynasty-esque, about such gilded offerings as the Chicago Fairmont Hotel’s two-night suite package for two at $306,426–which includes a party for 10 with Dom Perignon and beluga caviar, as well as a 2000 Lamborghini Roadster. (“We’ll even throw in a tank of gas,” says public relations director Susan Ellefson.) The late-1990s boom is a time of less conspicuous, if no less expensive, consumption, when Donald Trump has morphed from poster boy for ostentation to tax-the-rich political populist, when the wealthy want to have their Valrhona chocolate cake and feel karmically good about it too. Many of the well-heeled are thus laying out the lobster medallions in opulent but low-key celebrations at home. That’s been a boon for upscale catering services like Ridgewells in Washington. Says owner Susan Lacz: “We’re seeing a lot more bookings for small, elegant home parties this year.”

Likewise, the Millenni-Om party in Bali, planned by New York event organizer Mark Baker, was conceived as a gathering for the young and hip, and organizers secured confirmations from such celebrities as Sean Penn, the band Oasis, Johnny Depp and Kate Moss. But faced with slow sales of the 700 tickets (at $500 apiece), organizers shifted gears. “We’re now promoting the event as a trip for those wanting a New Year’s with a spiritual and family orientation,” says coordinator Karina Suwandi. Houston socialite Lynn Wyatt canceled a trip to the Pyramids, planned four years ago, in favor of a get-together at the family ranch in South Texas. “Four years ago, going to the cradle of civilization seemed like the right thing to do,” Wyatt says. “Now we want more tranquillity.”

Granted that most of us don’t have such options to begin with, there’s still a universal theme in Wyatt’s choice: the yearning for home in a helter-skelter era. This has been a millennium spent on the road. Colonizations and immigrations. Expeditions to the ocean floor, the earth’s roof, the poles and the moon. Forced diasporas for populations in Africa, North America, Europe and elsewhere. Journeys across oceans for wars and police actions, and trips home in body bags. Forays around southern capes in tall ships and across Eurasia in caravans. And just as this millennium is a Western conceit, the story of the past thousand years is largely the story of the tourism of Western peoples over the span of the earth, to encroach on and economically dominate the rest of the world. If fewer representatives of the wealthiest peoples scatter to the shrines and monuments of the cultures they superseded to chant and toast one another, one doubts the ghost of Montezuma will take offense.

Like so many other aspects of this enigmatic end of the millennium–enticing and sinister, like a ticking package wrapped with a golden ribbon–the size and scope of the world’s party refuses to resolve itself before the last minute. There’s ample time for a backlash against the backlash as M-day draws closer and people start feeling millennial peer pressure to make impressive plans. (Even Wyatt is now thinking about adding a “big boom” to her family retreat in Texas.) But if more of us than expected end up passing the moment quietly, toasting our family and friends by the fire or the tube, does this mean we will in some way have changed, embraced the simple life, ushered in the Us millennium? More likely, we’ll return in January to trade stocks, work overtime, buy DVD toasters at postholiday sales, having taken a breather between a turbulent millennium past and an uncertain one ahead. After a season of Y2K anxiety and millenarian doomsaying, condensed history and holiday hype, we should all be so lucky as to have another boring New Year’s.

–Reported by Nancy Harbert/Albuquerque, David S. Jackson/Los Angeles, Elaine Marshall/Las Vegas, Mark Shuman/Chicago and Jake Sullivan/London, with other bureaus

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