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 I am known by my friends, among other things, as someone who places far too much importance on New Year’s Eve. It has always been my favorite day of the year, the day in which my natural inclinations toward drippy nostalgia are not only rewarded, but also expected.

On what other day are you guaranteed, no matter what, to remember what you were doing exactly one year ago? Christmas, maybe; Thanksgiving, probably. But you do the same things on those holidays every year, usually spending time with family and gossiping about that uncle who’s been married four times.

By contrast, New Year’s Eve is a social animal, and your plans change every year. Since there is no real tradition around New Year’s Eve, other than that you’re supposed to do something, it’s a new experience every time.

That we make New Year’s resolutions is one of the most charming traits human beings have. For no other reason than our dogged earnestness and naiveté, we actually believe that we get a new start. We believe that somehow - this time, this year - things are going to be different. They never are, of course, but for one night, we believe. That’s the beauty of New Year’s; it’s not a clean slate, exactly, but it’s close enough for us.

I hear people complain about New Year’s Eve, that it’s always made into a big event that ultimately disappoints, that they feel pressured to have some kind of momentously fun time. These people are sad, really, incredible dullards and whiners. Pressured to have fun? Hey, I’ll take that kind of pressure every time, no problem. I wish I was pressured to have fun every day, rather than pressured to pay the bills, pressured to hold onto my job, pressured to keep my head above water.

If you can’t relax and have fun on New Year’s Eve, well, you’ve got more problems than this column can solve, so there is no hope for you here.

Needless to say, this past New Year’s Eve was supposed to be the big one, the celebration to end them all, the “party’s over, oops out of time” one. I began putting together plans for December 31, 1999, back in, oh, 1996, and by March of this year, I had settled on a destination. I was going to jump in a car with my cousin Denny, my companion on various unsettling yet breathlessly documented cross-country journeys, and head to Times Square. I figured if craziness was going to ensue, there would be no more likely place than there. And considering that, as of March, I had never been to New York City before, the stimuli would likely be so much that either I’d have enough material for four books and an opera, or my head would just explode as my body burst into flames. Either way, it would be quite a story.

I was pumped for the trip. It seemed both insane and historic, and it seemed like something I’d certainly never forget, whether I wanted to or not. Denny was the first person I asked to come along, and the only one to accept. In July, we were already trying to figure out our plans.

Then two things happened: First, I went to New York to interview for the New York Times job - this is my last column before I start there, by the way, but one of my resolutions is not to bore you in 2000 with corporate patter, so I won’t get into too much detail about that here - and eventually accepted their offer to start on January 8, a mere week after the big day. This made my New Year’s excursion financially inconvenient - or in my dad’s more efficient terminology, “goddamned stupid” - and somewhat irresponsible. Still, that wasn’t enough to stop me, especially since, unlike when I’d originally planned the trip, I actually had some friends in New York who might accompany me, or at least give me a place to stay.

What was enough to stop me was Denny. I won’t get into too much detail about Denny, since he always gets mad at me when I bring him up in these columns, but let’s just say he’s kind of, well, a paranoid recluse with tendencies toward mania (that shouldn’t offend him).

He called one evening and shared his growing feeling that something horrible was going to happen in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Namely, “Will, someone’s going to release anthrax or something. We’re all going to die.” Denny was a Y2K Chicken Little, suffering through an ailment that was infecting many of my associates by mid-December. (Cast no aspersions and draw no conclusions on Denny here, but I’d like make an observation: Anybody else notice the amount of alarm someone had concerning Y2K was directly proportional to the amount of pot they smoked? Just a thought.)

Denny said he didn’t want to go. I attempted to talk him into it - I mean, it was the middle of December, and time was a-wastin’ - but he wouldn’t cave, so eventually, I did. I thanked him for his persistence in making me believe he was going to go and, with a sigh, began to fucking freak out about what I was going to do on New Year’s.

Matt? Going to New Orleans with college buddies. Tim? In Los Angeles with girlfriend. Andy? Married, no chance for fun. Mike? Working in Aurora, Illinois. Chris? Working in Minneapolis. Jami? Living it up in New York, ending that idea. Ironminds editor? Going on one of those Y2K cruises, a financial Hindenberg that makes me think he’s not just selling boring confessional humor columns to the public, but also heroin.

Complicating matters even further, my lease ran out on December 31. That meant I actually had to be in St. Louis that day to turn in my keys, pay my final rent and make sure the cat had someplace else to urinate on the furniture. My window for fun had shrunk considerably.

So I talked to Mandie. My relationship with Mandie is one I haven’t gotten into much here, since it’s a fairly recent development, kind of complicated and, well, she doesn’t want me to write about her. Mandie is a nurse in St. Louis, and we met through mutual friends. She’s a wonderful person, kind-hearted, innocent and loving toward her fellow human being - I’m curious why she hangs out with me. She was going to be working until 11 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, but we nevertheless made plans for me to pick her up after work and head to a bash at a local casino we had commandeered free tickets for.

It is a matter of great poetic irony - or at least something that kind of sucked - that Will, Mr. New Year’s Eve, wouldn’t even start his celebration of the biggest New Year’s of all until 11 p.m. But those were the circumstances, and I had to roll with them.

So I was bound and determined to have a good time. I moved out of my apartment at 3:30, and the cat and I headed over to Matt’s vacant place to watch CNN’s coverage of all the celebrations and wait until I could head to a bar near Mandie’s hospital to see the ball drop - and the anthrax released - in Times Square, one hour before clock struck midnight in St. Louis. I saw the waste of taxpayers’ money in Paris, London, Moscow, tons of fireworks to remind each city’s homeless why they’re so darned poor, and then at 9:45, I went looking for a bar. The goal was to find a place, quietly have a couple of beers by myself, then, as the ball dropped, hop in the car and fly to the hospital. We simply had to get to the party by midnight because I’d be damned if I was going to ring in the new millennium while stuck in traffic.

The first three bars I attempted to duck into all had expensive pre-planned celebrations going on, so I grumbled to myself as I walked away from the presumably riotous jubilation inside. Finally, in desperation, I pulled into the parking lot of a Lone Star restaurant. For those cultured people who don’t have Lone Stars in their cities, it’s a chain of Texas-themed steak saloons where the beer mugs are three sizes too large and the employees are forced to slap on a smile and do a country line dance on the tables every hour, on the hour. It was, to say the very least, not where I had anticipated spending New Year’s Eve, but it was open, and at this point in the night, that was more than enough to suffice.

I walked in - I always feel like I should say I “sauntered” in when I visit places like Lone Star - and found immediately that, surprisingly enough, there was nobody at Lone Star at 10 p.m. on New Year’s Eve 1999 but me and three employees who looked very angry that a customer had just arrived. I ordered a bottomless mug of Bud Light and watched Peter Jennings desperately attempt to mimic Dick Clark, and fail spectacularly. A very friendly manager came out to chat, and we discussed how we were both stuck until 11 p.m. with nothing to do, but it would all be worthwhile come midnight. If we weren’t in a car, that is.

I won’t complain too much about Lone Star, since the manager was very nice - she even gave me free New Year’s party hats Lone Star inexplicably had lying around - and the straggler employees and I counted down the last 10 seconds in New York together. But once that ball dropped, it was time to go, and fast. The night wasn’t what it could have been, but there was plenty of time left to salvage matters. I just had to hurry.

I hopped in my Camry and sped down the deserted streets toward St. John’s Mercy Hospital. 11:05 ... 11:10 ... look out there, drunk pedestrian ... 11:15 ... we’re here. I sprinted out the car door - at first forgetting to unbuckle my seat belt, causing a bit of unnecessary strain - and screamed toward the admitting doors at the hospital. I peeled through the hallway to the elevator, knocking a guy with a walker into the unrelenting path of an oncoming wheelchair, and pushed the up button about 35 times, bang, bang, bang, pounding my first into the wall for it to reach the fucking first floor already, Christ. Ding. Push the button for the third floor, bang, bang, bang. Door closes, bang, bang, bang. Door opens. Third floor.

Scrambling, I feverishly asked a receptionist if Mandie was ready, my eyes full of fire and determination. Thirty-five minutes to go.

“She’s down in room 315. You can go down there if you want.”

Not even pausing to thank the receptionist, I left skid marks as I flew past the desk. I looked in the room, and there was Mandie, talking to a patient’s daughter. Mandie had a look of calm and empathy, as if the frickin’ millennium didn’t have just 30 minutes left in it, but the daughter was more distraught. I noticed tears in her eyes, and she released a choked-off “thank you” to Mandie as she left the room. Mandie had been as worried as I was about missing the clock turning 12, but when she exited the room and noticed me, a symbol of her life away from the ill, she was as placid as could be.

“Oh, hi, Will. Listen, I’ve got a couple more patients to check on, so just go ahead and wait in the lobby. I’ll be out as soon as I can.” She then walked down the hall, to room 317, or 321, or 325, or something, someone.

And just like that, my tension was gone. Making it to some silly casino for some silly song that no one understands the words to, it all seemed, well, it all seemed as stupid as it actually was.

The millennium is a big deal for most of us, who have the choice of heading to Times Square for chaos, looking for wild orgies in New Orleans, or just having a quiet night at home. But for these people - our sick, our dying - spending New Year’s Eve in the neurological ward of a hospital, December 31, 1999 is just another night, a night you pray for resilience and search for any remaining strands of hope. The residents of room 317, or 321, or 325, didn’t have disappointing New Years Eve’s; they had no chance at such luck. All they could do, with fluid draining into their bloodstream, as they breathed through a tube in their neck, was gather a small amount of family members to circle around a smelly cot in an antiseptic room and celebrate the fact that they even had this moment.

Only the healthy, the spoiled, the fortunate get to decide which fun place they’ll ring in the millennium at. Not here, not in room 317.

I know this would be a better story if we never made it out of the hospital, if I rang in 2000 by holding the hand of a crippled child and singing hymns. Well, sorry, but we eventually made it to the casino, with 10 minutes to spare. We counted down the last 10 seconds with some band called Stir, we all rocked to an unoriginal but still fun speed-metal version of Auld Lang Syne, and I even had somebody to kiss. But if you ask me how my New Year’s Eve was, the biggest New Year’s Eve of them all, I’ll tell you it was the most fulfilling and most memorable New Year’s I’ve had in years.

Spent in a hospital, musing about room 317, thankful I had the freedom to celebrate at all, thankful I have friends and family to celebrate it with.

And I didn’t even have to avoid any anthrax to do it.



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