TEN . . .
Here we are again. In another noisy, jam-packed restaurant on triple price night, wondering where that waiter could possibly be. Or at the neighbors, making yack, yet again, with the Hendersons, the Pendersons and the Schmendersons. Or sprawled on the sofa before the tube -- and not a wide HDTV tube either -- with Ethel. Again. Puzzling where Dick Clark went or -- if one is a certain age -- where Guy Lombardo went. Weren't they just here? It's both routine and a shock. A regular surprise.
NINE . . .
New Year's Eve. It gets to be like those old movies where the calendar pages flutter off the wall, like falling autumn leaves. One minute, they're playing David Bowie's "1984" and you're thinking, "Golly, it really is 1984, almost," and the next it's Prince singing "1999" and the next it's, well, whatever clatter they're playing on the radio now, assuming anybody listens to radio anymore.
EIGHT . . .
Still, we rouse ourselves, as midnight approaches. Stand up. Square the shoulders. Refill the drink. Run our fingers through whatever hair time has left us. Direct our attention to the Big Ball at Times Square. New Year's is all about joining the crowd, getting with the program, digging out the good suit, facing the Hendersons (and Pendersons and Schmendersons). Observing the customs -- the champagne, the hot dogs in dough, the tiny party hats.
SEVEN . . .
It's all a lie, of course, this New Year's business. It's the New Improved Product that really is the same old product, but smaller. Two ounces less at the same price. The Happy New Year is the Rotten Old Year with tinsel draped around it.
There is no 2004, not in any objective sense. The universe spins its clockwork machinations in the same unimaginably vast, indifferent fashion. We can't grasp it, so we pretend the "3" snaps to "4" at midnight, and frankly even that scrap of symbolism is troubling if you ponder it.
SIX . . .
New Year's Eve doesn't begin at midnight, it ends. Soon after, the party changes gears and guests get their coats. One other special day of the year has a midnight deadline; yes, April 15. Maybe the IRS needs to wed taxes to champagne -- you file, pop the bubbly. They wouldn't even need tax laws then; I mean, do you know anybody who shrugs off New Year's? Hard to imagine. A scientist in his lab, a poet hunched over the page, looks up at the muted roar from distant crowds and thinks, "Oh? What? New Year's? I suppose they do that sort of thing" and then plunging back into work.
FIVE . . .
Put that way, neglect sounds ideal. Not that I could ever do it. I swallow New Year's. Or did, because of the social barometer factor -- where you are on New Year's gauges how well you are doing in life. Thus parties. Fancy restaurants. Hit plays.
FOUR . . .
The Millennium cured me of that. First, I had to work -- the whole newspaper did, ready for the disaster that never came. Work was humbling; I felt like Cinderella missing the ball. Second, the entire Millennium hoopla was so overblown and unseemly. Such a huge honking deal: the 21st century! The worries! The geegaws! (They were supposed to be worth something someday. Check out eBay. I saw a $6.99 stuffed "Y2K Bug" selling for a dollar).
THREE . . .
Now I do it for the kids. We eat hot dogs wrapped in dough, watch movies, play music, dance around. I like to wear a little party hat. I always have, particularly because most men shun them. Too uptight, even guys who don't mind painting blue C's on their bellies and taking off their shirts on TV at Bears games.
TWO . . .
Party hats are the one part of New Year's that isn't a lie. They remind us to slip into silliness -- to shelve dignity, shelve the weary awareness that is, in the end, as futile as giddy celebration. Ignore the grinding gears of ceaseless time. Grab fun when you can. I was musing how party hats are the last festive item untouched by fashion; always cheap cardboard, stapled together. Thinking how we should each get our own lovely, hand-tooled party hat -- a little fireman's hat, enamel over metal, or a miniature top hat -- we would wear as children to our cherished kiddie birthdays and then keep, in a little satin box, to bring out on grand occasions as adults in need of youthful uplift.
ONE . . .
As I was having this thought, as if to remind me of the regular falsity of my opinions, I noticed a Tiffany & Co. ad for their $225 sterling silver party hat. A dear little thing, created for the Millennium along with a horn and a noisemaker. The trio proved so popular Tiffany kept selling them. I'm modeling a loaner hat above, and believe me, if I didn't have two kids, a house and a stay-at-home wife locked lamprey-like on my finances and sucking hungrily away, I'd snap one up. I could sure use it. But I do, so back it goes.
Tonight is a good time to set aside your grim self, don a party hat and join the chanting crowd. Reality will be here tomorrow, waiting.
HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!
—Originally published in the Sun-Time, Dec. 31, 2003