to: personal storyteller
What I did in Times Square at the Turning of the Millennium
by William McGaughey
I was a self-publisher with a book needing to be promoted. This book represented nothing less than a new and complete history of the world. The book appeared in print in the middle of November - too late to capture Christmas sales. I had 157 cartons containing 3210 books stacked in various places around my Minneapolis apartment, weighing two and a half tons. They needed to be marketed.
The book’s title was Five Epochs of Civilization; its subtitle, World History as Emerging in Five Civilizations. I coined a new word, “Quintepoch”, to denote the “fifth epoch” of world history that came about with computer networks. There was no problem in reserving “Quintepoch.com” as the domain name for a site on the Internet relating to the book and its concepts. A friend who does this kind of work professionally helped me to develop a website with color-coded pages, a splash page and many internal links. Thistlerose Publications, my own enterprise, was the publisher. I reserved the domain name, Thistlerose.org, after discovering that a dog kennel in Wisconsin had the rights to Thistlerose.com.
Since the themes of this book would be hard to convey in a simple message, I decided initially to build a promotion campaign around the single word “Quintepoch”. Even though the word had a musty Latin odor, that seemed not to be such a problem for a book purporting to cover the past five or six thousand years of history. I placed classified ads in several national magazines featuring the name of the website. Readers might guess that this name referred to “five epochs” of something and have a curiosity about the rest.
promoting the book with a sign
I had plans to come to northeastern Pennsylvania at Christmas to visit my elderly parents. The thought occurred to me that one of the world’s largest public gatherings would be taking place on the following weekend in New York City, eighty miles to the east. Perhaps as many as two million persons would be assembled in Times Square on New Year’s Eve to celebrate the coming of the new millennium. What better opportunity could there be to gain publicity for my book?
I thought that if I paraded around Times Square with a sign exhibiting the word “Quintepoch” in large lettering cameras belonging to one or another of the television networks would be sure to pick up its image and perhaps linger there for a few moments. In that brief time, millions of television viewers around the country would see that word. It would make a subliminal impression upon them. The seed of curiosity would be implanted in their minds. If, as marketing experts claim, a commercial product needs to be advertised at least seven times to gain enough attention to produce a sale, such exposure would count toward that end.
Thinking it over, I began to imagine some practical difficulties. For one thing, to hoist a large sign above the crowd to advertise my product would block the view of persons standing behind me. I might have to contend with a crowd of angry people resenting the blocked view. There might even be a New York city ordinance forbidding such exhibitions. To minimize the intrusion, I decided to make the sign of clear plastic so that only the opaque lettering would interfere with people’s view.
Although my sign-carrying scheme involved some element of intruding upon the space of others, I rationalized this by telling myself that I was acting “responsibly” in making my sign out of clear plastic and intending to twist and turn the sign frequently so that no one’s view would be blocked for long. We would be like different forms of plant life competing for a place in the sun - in this case, exposure to the television cameras. If sunflowers could do it, so could I.
Now that these questions were resolved, I considered what the sign should say. I wanted something with a millennial feel to it - perhaps a message that hinted at the approaching end of the world. The word, “Quintepoch”, by itself was incomprehensible. “Quintepoch comes” would better convey the desired element of dread and foreboding. An archaic version of the same, “Quintepoch cometh” or “Cometh the Quintepoch”, might be even better. In the end, I picked “Now comes the Quintepoch” and, as a concession to truth in advertising, tacked on the compound word, “dotcom”, to the end. “Now comes the” would go on the first line of the sign, “Quintepoch” in large lettering on the second, and “dotcom” in smaller lettering on the third.
The message as a whole seemed rather bizarre but - what the heck! - we were talking about words that would only appear for a few seconds on television screens. It was enough for the viewers to see “Quintepoch”, and the line suggesting that this mysterious entity was coming soon. If viewers thought that I was a crackpot, it would actually fit into their expectations of who might attend an end-of-the-millennium celebration. The public would accept that kind of message more readily than an overtly commercial one. I would be, in fact, a commercial huckster masquerading as a religious nut.
Now some serious ethical questionings were starting to well up inside my mind. If I were to carry a sign, “Drink Coca-Cola”, around Times Square on New Year’s Eve, it would come across as overtly commercial. What made my sign different? For one thing, I was advertising a book about world history. Wasn’t world history part of the reason that so many people would be gathered in Times Square on this occasion? Of course it was. Even if my statement was commercial, it had historically redeeming content that “Drink Coca-Cola” would lack. People would actually learn something about world history by reading my book.
Now on a roll, I considered how this event would celebrate the 2,000th birthday of Jesus . The message of my sign was thematically close to what Jesus preached during his ministry. The words, “Now comes the Quintepoch”, resembled Jesus’ proclamation “The Kingdom of God is at hand”, in suggesting that a major break point would soon appear in world history. In both cases, one historical epoch would give way to another.
With respect to the Kingdom of God, the transition would be abrupt. The wicked times of human history would suddenly end. Introduced by the arrival of the Messiah, God’s realm of eternal perfection would begin. In the case of my sign, the “Quintepoch” - the fifth epoch of history, based on computer technology - would be replacing the fourth epoch, which was the age of news and entertainment. Here the change was less earthshaking.
Of course, Jesus followed up his earthly career by rising from the dead. Nothing of the sort was contemplated with my activities in Times Square. Nevertheless, the superficial imitation of at least one facet of Jesus’ ministry added to my sense of pursuing a more appropriate kind of demonstration for a millennial celebration than if I were plugging Coca-Cola or another mundane product.
I swing into action
Enough intellectualizing - it was time to act. Budget Sign of St. Paul, Minnesota, had previously produced a sign for me . When I called their office, a sales representative quoted a price for printing my message in color on an 18 inch-by- 24 inch, quarter inch-thick sheet of acrylic. I drove over to St. Paul ten days before my planned departure to place an order.
A woman at the reception desk pointed out a problem. The ten letters of “Quintepoch” would not fit horizontally on a two-foot-wide sheet of plastic unless the letters were reduced in height to around three inches. Then the letters would be too small to be seen by distant television cameras. Obviously, the plastic sheet had to be wider. I asked the receptionist to suggest a scheme that could accommodate lettering in the range of six to eight inches. She said that she would have a designer work up something and fax it to me for my approval.
Five days later, I began to grow nervous that Budget Sign had not yet faxed over the design. When I called, the receptionist apologized for the fact that the designers had been busy on other work; however, she promised that my design would be ready by the following day. She was as good as her word. The design arrived by fax less than an hour later. I proposed several alterations in coloring and font size and gave my approval. The product was done later that day. The price - about $60 - was reasonable, I thought, considering that it included the plastic, three drilled holes, and a superior, two-color design. This was an attractive, professional-looking piece of work that made me feel good about the adventure upon which I was about to embark.
I still needed to find an inexpensive means of hoisting the sign above the Times Square crowd. At Menard’s, a building-supplies store, I spotted a three-foot wide push broom priced at around $24. Its five-foot handle fit into the end piece at a right angle and was supported by two metal brackets. However, the whitish bristles projected downwards (or upwards) about three inches, which would encroach upon the lettering and start to look tacky.
Being too cheap to cut off the bristles and ruin a perfectly good broom, I decided instead to tie the unwanted bristles down with string. This would reduce their extension to less than an inch. I bought a packet of wood screws and of washers to attach the sign to the end of the broom and drilled four more holes at the bottom to provide additional strength.
off to the east coast
Wednesday, December 22, 1999, was the date of my departure from Minnesota. I drove alone in a 1992 Ford Escort from Minneapolis, through Wisconsin and around the southern end of Lake Michigan, across northern Indiana and Ohio, and then across Pennsylvania east on Interstate 80. The entire trip took about 29 hours including time for short cat naps along the highway. I had perfected this routine in previous trips between Minneapolis and Pennsylvania where my parents lived. Numerous cups of coffee were a secret to my success in not running off the road.
A favorite place to buy gas on those trips was the Conoco station in Gary, Indiana, just south of Interstate 94 at the Grant Street exit. This station doubles as a convenience store known as the “Flying J Travel Plaza”; it caters to truckers and other long-distance travelers. On this particular trip, I spotted a rack of black leather coats near the check-out counter marked down from $69 to $39. Since I was saving that amount by sleeping in the car rather than at a motel, I felt justified in indulging myself in a bit of impulse shopping. After all, it might be cold waiting for hours in Times Square for the ball to drop at midnight. Having a large fur hat and thick gloves but only a cotton shirt and wool sweater to keep the upper part of my body warm, I thought this jacket would complement my wardrobe nicely. It looked like something that Marlon Brando might wear on the New York waterfront.
My parents’ house in Milford, Pennsylvania (near the tri-state border with New Jersey and New York) was to be my home for the next week. I was alone in this house except for a two-day period when a younger brother visited for Christmas. My parents were both in nursing facilities near Milford. I checked the local newspapers and television newscasts for reports of preparations for the Times Square celebration, paying particular attention to probable location of the television cameras.
Estimates of expected crowd size ranged between 1.5 million and 2 million persons. MTV was hosting a party in Times Square that would last most of the day on December 31st. The New York police were preparing for a possible terrorist attack on New Years Eve in the aftermath of the arrest of an Algerian national along the Canadian border with Washington state two weeks earlier. The city administration was taking steps to counter the terrorist threat by banning automobile traffic in a large section of mid-Manhattan, removing garbage containers and post-office boxes where bombs might be hidden, and welding shut man-hole covers.
All this, plus a telephone conversation with a friend who lived in Manhattan, should have tipped me off to the fact that I was stepping into a situation much larger and more difficult than what I had imagined. Danger was in the air, whether from terrorists, crowd size, or the long-awaited Y2K catastrophe. What else might one expect with the end of the millennium?
But I had come too far to turn back now. Since New York City was a mere eighty miles from Milford, I had to attend this celebration, which might well attract the largest crowd ever assembled in the United States. Just to say I was there would make the effort worthwhile. But I also had an ulterior motive and a few loose ends to take care of before setting off for New York. After some procrastination, I completed work on the sign.
At last the fateful day arrived - December 31, 1999. That morning, I turned on the television set and was disheartened to see that a large crowd had already gathered in Times Square. This was troubling. When I first conceived the project, I had imagined that I might arrive on the scene around 7 p.m., stroll around Times Square looking for the best positions to be seen on television, and then camp out in a preferred spot until midnight when I could hoist the sign and be seen by millions. Now it appeared that my timetable would need to be revised.
Would it be good enough to arrive in Times Square by 6 p.m., or 5 p.m., or 4 p.m.? Maybe it was already too late? If there were too long a wait, I would need to consider the limitations of my bladder. The television reports did not reveal any port-a-potties lined up along Times Square. The thought of standing there in a large crowd for eight or ten hours or more waiting for the clock to strike midnight without any opportunity to relieve myself gave me a sinking feeling that this project might, after all, be unworkable.
Now in a panic, I hurried to complete arrangements for the trip. A neighbor in Milford had urged me to consider the danger from pickpockets. She suggested that I buy a small pouch for my wallet, keys, and other valuables that could be worn inside a sweater or shirt. At the local Wal-Mart, I purchased this along with a Fuji disposable camera, two VHS-C videotapes for my miniature camcorder, and a bag full of bite-sized Hershey chocolate bars to provide extra energy and warmth for the long wait until midnight. I also had in the car a box of King Edward cigars and book of matches.
The prospective bladder problem was more difficult. Lacking other ideas, I placed four or five cellophane sacks inside each other which I thought I might slip into my trousers when the time to urinate came. That was the best I could do given time constraints.
Just as I was ready to leave the house for New York, the telephone rang. The manager of Meyer Florists was on the line, delivering both bad and good news. The bad news was that I had incurred an obligation which would further delay my departure for New York City. The good news was that I had just won a Panasonic combination 25-inch television set and VCR as a result of having been entered in a drawing when I purchased flowers for my mother in the previous week. The rules stated that I needed to pick up the prize personally or it would be awarded to someone else.
Bowing to the inevitable, I drove over to Meyer Florist to pick up the prize and, when it appeared that this would not easily fit into my car, drove back again to my house to await the florist’s delivery van. Since the last time that I could remember having won anything in a drawing was in the spring of 1965, this unexpected development triggered a rash of thoughts about luck, which could only bode well for the adventure to come later in the day.
off to Manhattan
At last, around 1:30 p.m., I set off for New York City in the Ford Escort. There was a last-minute scare when I discovered that the 44-inch-wide plastic sign attached to the five-foot broom handle would not fit inside the car. That problem was easily solved by unscrewing the handle and removing it from the hole in the end backwards through the metal brackets. I also discovered that I did not really need that pouch bought at Wal-Mart. The black leather jacket from the Flying-J Travel Plaza had a zippered pocket on my right shoulder where I might place the wallet and keys beneath a package of VHS-C videotapes.
I hastily stuffed other small items in the remaining pockets. The miniature camcorder, also a target for pickpockets, could be held inside my sweater and be secured with a strap around my neck. I also thought it might be useful to carry a copy of my paperback book, Five Epochs of Civilization, inside the sweater as well in case a wandering journalist might question me about my mission and doubt that the book existed.
My other big worry, apart from lack of toilet facilities, was that it might be difficult to find a place to park in New York City. The Giuliani administration had closed off many streets to automobile traffic. Garage parking was always expensive in this city. With such a large crowd expected on New Year’s Eve, all available spaces would be taken. The solution would be not to park in New York City.
From previous visits to this city, I knew that the PATH connected several places in Manhattan by subway with locations across the river in New Jersey. My best bet, I thought, was to park near one of three PATH stations - Newark, Jersey City, or Hoboken - and then ride the train to the New York subway station at 33rd Street and Broadway, which was less than ten blocks from Times Square.
I picked Jersey City as the most promising option. I had never set foot in that city before but did remember that a PATH station was located at Journal Square. A map of the New York metropolitan area in my Rand McNally book of travel maps showed the approximate street location of Journal Square. I now had enough information to reach its vicinity. There I could ask for further directions to the PATH station.
I set out from Milford at 1:30 p.m. with a vague sense of foreboding . After crossing the bridge over the Delaware river, I followed route 206 through New Jersey past Montague and Hainesville to the juncture with highway 15. That led east to Interstate 80 near Dover and the Picatinny Arsenal. Interstate 80 later joined with Interstate 280 ten miles farther down the line. This took me into the New Jersey portion of the New York City metropolitan area. I passed East Orange and Newark and across the Passaic River to Harrison. My exit from Interstate 280, the last before the New Jersey Turnpike, was at Harrison Avenue. That took me past a series of stop lights and stops in downtown Harrison and then along a freeway for five miles or so until I crossed the Hackensack river and entered Jersey City.
From here, the route to Journal Square was less clear. US highways 1 and 9 detoured to the right for several blocks. Puzzled, I pulled off the highway at a service station. There a foreign-born man, perhaps from the Middle East, pointed to a road leading off to the left at a traffic light. This, he said, would intersect with another street, whose name sounded like “Candy boulevard”, about four stop lights later. There I should turn left to approach Journal Square.
The man’s English was difficult for me to follow, but his directions were impeccable. The first leg of the journey was along Sip Avenue. Then, as predicted, the highway intersected with “J.F. Kennedy Boulevard”, where I remembered to turn to the left. It was beginning to look more like a downtown area. I stopped again to ask directions of a young Hispanic couple. Where was Journal Square? “This whole area is Journal Square,” the man said. That was enough assurance for me to seek an immediate place to park. I U-turned back to Sip Avenue where I had seen open parking spaces on the street.
Unfortunately, signs along most streets in this area informed motorists that parking between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays was limited to two hours and violators would be subject to towing. As an extra precaution, I asked a Jersey City police officer if it would be safe to park there after 3 p.m. Yes, he said, this was considered a holiday and normal parking regulations did not apply; just be sure not to park near a yellow line or fire hydrant.
Bingo, my parking worries were over. I soon found a suitable place on Sip Avenue near van Waggenen street. I hastily assembled my belongings and locked the car door. (Hopefully, big-city car thieves would not go after a mud-caked, eight-year-old car with Minnesota plates.) With the disconnected sign in my hands and many other items (including camcorder and book) stuffed in the pockets of my black leather jacket or beneath the sweater, I walked swiftly up Sip Avenue and across Kennedy Boulevard for several blocks to Bergen Street where the PATH station was located. Fortunately, this station had a public lavatory, which I used before boarding the train.
arriving at the scene
The PATH system provides a direct connection between Journal Square and 33rd and Broadway in Manhattan. I sat in a seat near the door holding the plastic sign in front of me. It did not seem to attract unusual attention. After a 25-minute ride, I disembarked at 33rd and Broadway and walked as far as I could inside the subway station toward Times Square. The scene outside on the street was festive though not overcrowded.
Around 38th or 39th street, I looked east to see more than a hundred police officers in what appeared to be a staging area. Some were gathered together in circles as if in a football huddle or prayer meeting. Other tourists were photographing this unusual scene so I pulled my camcorder out of my sweater and prepared to shoot.
Here I received my first disappointment of the afternoon: I had forgotten to pack the battery for the camera. So my camcorder and the two VHS-C tapes were useless to me for the rest of the day. A Radio Shack across the street, where conceivably I might buy another battery, was closed on New Year’s Eve. Well, I thought, there was still the main event: carrying the sign in Times Square.
The New York police had installed metal barricades in the middle of the streets. As I approached 42nd Street (Times Square) from the south, the crowds grew thicker. The police were now screening individuals as they walked from one block to the next through openings in the barricades. One question was about to be answered as I passed through my first checkpoint. No, it did not appear that carrying signs at the New Year’s Eve celebration was illegal. In fact, the police seemed to pay no particular attention to me; they just waved me through.
I pushed forward through the crowd as far as 41st street before realizing that it was hopeless to advance further. My best bet, I thought, would be to leave this area, walk over a block to the east, and then try to enter Times Square from the north. After all, the main festivities would take place between 42nd and 46th streets. The ball falling at midnight would also be visible from this direction.
Easier said than done. I walked up 6th Avenue, a block over, intending to enter Times Square from the east around 44th or 45th street. But the New York police had erected barricades here as well and were not allowing anyone to enter. I asked an officer where entrance was permitted. He said: at 53rd street.
My heart sinking, I walked as quickly as possible up 6th Avenue to the Rockefeller Center area. Yes, it was possible here to walk back to 7th Avenue and even down a block or two to 51st street. But conditions quickly became difficult. A large crowd had already gathered around 51st street behind a police barricade - and it was only 5 o’clock.
stalled for the next seven hours
I had no alternative at this point but to join the crowd and try to press forward as the opportunity arose. An officer was installing a barricade to hold the crowd back. He let several people through the opening and then closed it just before it was my turn to pass through. This opening to the next area would remain closed, he said, until he received instructions to reopen it. When this happened a few minutes later, I was among the fortunate few to advance into the next section ahead. I pressed forward as quickly as possible but was soon stalled in the middle of the crowd, nowhere near the next barricade. There, basically, I spent the next seven hours, advancing only as far as to the intersection of 50th and 7th Avenue.
Well, that was it: there appeared to be no television cameras in the area. Far from being able to scout the best locations, I was trapped inside a large crowd of people, unable to walk even a few feet. My camcorder, lacking a battery, was inoperable. There was nothing to do but wait.
A large clock on a hotel to our right along 7th Avenue showed minute to minute how long we had to wait for midnight. It was just after 5 o’clock in the afternoon when I arrived. The minutes advanced slowly to 5:20, 5:30, 5:35 - we were obviously in this for the long haul.
I was standing on 7th Avenue a bit toward the left as we faced the building on Times Square where the ball would drop. Small groups of police officers were supervising the barricade between us and the empty spaces on 50th street. When someone tried to hop over the barricade, the police aggressively pushed them back into the 7th Avenue crowd. It was not allowed, apparently, to leave this “cattle pen” through the side barricades; you had to go all the way to the back.
Holiday revelers were enjoying themselves at a TGI Friday restaurant at the corner of 50th and 7th Avenue. We could watch them come and go through the side door. We could even see the large-screen television sets through the window of the restaurant that showed familiar newscasters and events taking place a few blocks ahead of us in Times Square. That was fine with me - anything to pass the time.
I was not feeling sociable. It was clear by now that I had been a fool in expecting to be seen by millions while parading with my sign in Times Square. There was no point in even putting the sign together. I held the 44-inch-by 24-inch sheet of plastic in one hand at my feet and the disconnected broom handle in the other hand. Others seemed to be enjoying themselves; I just stood there.
I gradually became aware of individuals in the crowd. There was a tall young man with a British accent who struck up conversations with several people. He asked me about the sign held on the ground. I responded in a matter-of-fact manner and left it at that. Another tall young man from Canada, who also noticed the sign, encouraged me to assemble it. So I lifted the plastic piece up to the top of the five-foot broom handle and began to force the handle through the metal brackets in the wooden end to which the plastic sign was attached. Hard as I tried, the broom handle would not slip through. The friendly Canadian held up the sign for me as I fiddled with the attachment.
A minute or so later, there were cries from behind us “Put that sign down”. Another nail was being pounded into the coffin of my dream. Even if I did attach the handle to the sign, the hundreds of spectators standing behind me would not tolerate any attempt by me to lift the sign above the crowd. I muttered to the Canadian: “This does not seem to be working out. Maybe I had better abandon my plans to carry the sign.” He responded: “Yes, I think that would be best.”
My only hope of salvaging this event, I thought now, would be to work my way toward the left barricade and hold the sign sideways so that it would not block the view of anyone standing behind in the crowd. On the other side of the barricade were only a few police officers and, far behind them, individuals wandering in and out of TGI Friday or moving up and down 50th Street.
events to keep me occupied
I eyed positions along the barricade, ready to move in when someone left. It never happened. There was a middle-aged black woman with a Jamaican accent who kept her young son close at hand. There was a German family standing behind her. The wife was in a partying mood and would occasionally make risque remarks.
Meanwhile, on the right side, the Canadian and the gentleman from the UK were carrying on an amiable conversation about various subjects including work regulations for immigrants to the United States, the unrealistically high prices of Internet stocks and how previous stock-market booms had turned to bust. The Canadian was an attorney in Toronto while the British national worked for the U.S. subsidiary of a European company in a high-tech field. Farther off to the right, a spirited young man suddenly appeared on someone’s shoulders. He led the crowd in rousing cheers, snapping pictures of the crowd from this vantage point. Human resourcefulness was beginning to assert itself in difficult circumstances.
We all stared ahead at the giant sign, or series of signs, stacked vertically on the building at the other end of Times Square. Discover Card had a sign at the top, which was the most lively and creative. Beneath it was a sign for a food company - I wasn’t sure which product was being advertised. At the bottom was a sign advertising Budweiser beer. The Discover Card sign flashed messages as the evening wore on. Some urged the crowd to say, “Hi, mom and dad”, in unison. Some asked people to cheer when the name of their state appeared; four or five names would be flashed at a time with promises that other names would come later.
The most meaningful messages were those which appeared on the hour and half-hour. At 6 p.m., for instance, the Discover Card sign announced that people in Great Britain were then celebrating the arrival of the new millennium, they being six times zones ahead. A stream of luminescent green confetti floated above Times Square at that moment. At 7 p.m., the crowd learned that the new millennium had reached people living in the Azores and the Canary Islands. Which would come next, we wondered, Greenland or Iceland perhaps? No, the next place to greet the new millennium, at 8 p.m., was Brazil. Then, at 9 p.m. - or was it 10 - a long list of countries appeared on the sign, many of them in the Caribbean, some in South America to the west of Brazil. As the earth turned, the changed millennium would soon be arriving in the United States Our time would come.
Someone called my attention to another spectacle. I looked down at my feet to see a small stream of urine running down the pavement just in front of me. I remarked pleasantly that the cold temperatures would take care of any smell, once the liquid froze. At another point, New York City police officers patrolling the barricades were yelling at an unknown person deep inside the crowd. “Come here, “ shouted a 30-ish officer in a parka identifying him as a member of the narcotics squad. “Don’t you understand English?” A young man eventually came over to the barricade and was ejected from the area.
The officers made it clear that any unlawful activity would not be tolerated. Evidently, they had detected the smell of marijuana wafting from our area. Remembering how strenuously the police had opposed attempts to leave the area just an hour or two earlier, I thought to myself that this was the short way to gain permission to leave the area - just pretend to have marijuana and the police will evict you. Even though the public had been made aware of city ordinances against drinking alcoholic beverages from an open container, I saw several people with small bottles of liquor hidden beneath their coats. There seemed to be a certain tolerance of such infractions provided that the behavior did not get out of hand.
The crowd found new ways to defeat boredom. From a window on the fifth or sixth floor of the hotel above TGI Friday, a middle-aged man was leading the crowd in cheers, gesturing with both hands. We were appreciative of anything like this to keep our minds off the hours that remained until midnight. Then there was a loud cheer from the crowd on the street. People were looking at two young women who appeared through a window on the eighth floor. I was puzzled by the commotion.
Then someone yelled, “Show your teats”. Remarks of this sort continued. Again, at a moment when my attention was directed elsewhere, another roar came from the crowd. Making a greater effort to learn what was happening, I stared at the eighth floor window. Suddenly, one of the women, a blonde, appeared at the window, lifted up her blouse quickly, and did, indeed, show her teats. You could see two small white saucers through the window for just a moment. The crowd again roared. Someone else shouted, “Do it again. I didn’t see you.” This went on for half an hour or so. The blonde woman appeared several more times at the window to lift her blouse and expose herself to the crowd below in the street.
I was amused to see some of the other occupants of the hotel looking out the windows on several floors, who might have been wondering why the crowd was responding so enthusiastically to stimuli from another window. What clever gesture would it take to bring the crowd up to that level of excitement, they might have been asking themselves? In the window immediately below the blonde exhibitionist’s window, an older woman with dark hair was looking out at the crowd. “Show your teats, “ someone shouted at her and then, as an afterthought: “Show your 60-year-old teats.”
Just as suddenly, this crazy spectacle took another turn of events. A uniformed police officer appeared in the window immediately beneath the blonde woman’s window. There were boos and hisses from the crowd. “Don’t the police have anything better to do?,” someone asked. Another person compared New York’s finest with the Keystone cops since they had failed to come to the right window.
Such conclusions were premature. Five minutes later, the officer appeared, a floor above, in the window where the crowd-pleasing activity had taken place. The room went dark. Was our benefactress being hauled away in handcuffs to be booked on an indecent-exposure charge? I never heard. The crowd stopped watching these windows and became more intent in waiting for midnight.
As I stood waiting, I became more aware of personalities in the crowd. Right in front of me was a group of hippies who wore earrings and chains and had their tongues pierced. Their ringleader seemed to be a blond-headed man in his early twenties with a soft round face and short scrawny beard which gave him a dissipated appearance. I thought I had seen him taken away by the police an hour or two ago; yet somehow he was back among us. His buddy was a dark-haired man with square glasses and chains on his jacket. Both wore eye shadow and earrings. They were with two attractive young women, one Asian-American and one who might have been of Italian ancestry, who were from Queens or Brooklyn.
The male ringleader, whose name might have been Jeremy, kept up a stream of chatter on topics of interest to young people. From him I learned, for instance, that, if you have your tongue pierced, the detachable, pearl-shaped half should go on the bottom. Otherwise, you are apt to swallow this piece if it should come loose in your mouth. The Asian-American girl, in her polite way, seemed to be especially taken by these two hippies. From time to time, they would sit down together on the pavement and talk. I later learned that the two men were from Rockford, Michigan, near Grand Rapids - not the Rockford in Illinois, they pointed out - and had driven to New York on the spur of the moment to participate in this event.
Lost in solitude, I was approached by a young, dark-haired woman with glasses who asked about my sign. I explained that I was intending to promote a book but had given up on plans to do that. We discussed what the message meant. This woman and her female companion, also with dark hair and a pierced tongue, were from Morgantown, West Virginia. They, too, had driven straight through to New York and were planning to return right after the midnight celebration.
The second woman, who was quite attractive, had earlier been in the company of a young man from Egypt who I had assumed was her boy friend. They assured me that this wasn’t the case; the man had attached himself to this woman and she had only recently managed to break loose. At any rate, I was thankful to have someone to talk with for the next hour and a half.
We naturally hooked up with Jeremy and his friends, now joined by several young men from Akron, Ohio, one of whom kidded the West Virginian women about being hillbillies. He himself was more the biker type. Jeremy’s suggestion that it might be fun to do some streaking went nowhere, perhaps because people were shivering in the cold. Most of us were running out of energy, too, as the fifth hour spent at this location dragged on into the sixth hour and then into the seventh.
We spectators were kept continuously apprised of the time by the large hotel clock several blocks ahead and to the right. Every hour, the Discover Card sign on the Times Square building would flash the number of seconds until the hour. The crowd would call out each second beginning with ten and give a loud cheer when the even point in the hour was reached. Each hour, we would learn, like clockwork, which part of the earth had reached midnight.
Around 10 p.m. - or was it 11? - an unexpected event happened. The sign repeated the same group of countries that had been mentioned in the previous hour: Barbados, St. Croix, Venezuela. A-ha, I thought , we were experiencing the first symptoms of a massive computer glitch. Y2K is real!! Others might have had the same thought as brief murmurings passed through the crowd. But this diversion, like others, soon passed away, and we were again left with waiting for midnight.
the new millennium arrives - time to go home
Midnight came almost anticlimactically. We had done some previous whooping and singing (mostly off key) in our section of the crowd. Then we watched the countdown of seconds, and, far away, a sign came on with “2000” in bright lights on a building far away. Sky rockets burst over Times Square. Confetti was thrown from above. We could see brightly colored signs or balloons bobbing up and down in the square four or five blocks ahead. This was for us the beginning of the new millennium. Back on 50th street, we stood silently watching the spectacle from a distance.
Then it was time to go. My two friends from West Virginia turned around to bid farewell. I reached into my sweater and pulled out the book that I had hoped a journalist would want to see and gave it to one of them as a souvenir of the evening. The police began motioning that it was time to leave the area. The crowd complied, some people thanking the officers for the fine job they had done that evening. I was not so appreciative, but held my tongue.
It was time to try to salvage something of my original plan. Though I had not been able to enter Times Square to be present at the midnight celebration, I realized that midnight would be coming to my friends in Minneapolis an hour later, at 1:00 a.m. New York time; and to the Rocky Mountain area, two hours later; and to the West Coast states, three hours later. Perhaps if I walked around the now-empty streets of Times Square carrying my sign, a few television cameras would still be there to record the scene.
I could imagine that television coverage in other parts of the country might show the moment when the new millennium arrived at midnight in New York but also Times Square as it looked now, when it was midnight in those other time zones. Television viewers would then see the solitary figure of someone walking around through the litter and debris of Times Square with a bizarre sign that said “Quintepoch”. Belatedly, then, I would have one of my seven advertising impressions needed to sell copies of the book.
As if to add extra encouragement, I finally figured out how to attach the sign to the broomstick. Somewhere on the sidewalk near Rockefeller Center, where there was more space to maneuver, I remembered that when I had disassembled the broom I had slid the narrow end out while pushing the brackets out of position. Of course, my attempt to force the other, thicker end into the hole was destined to fail. That is not how I had disassembled the broom and sign to fit its pieces into the car.
First, I had to return to Times Square or, more accurately, enter Times Square for the first time that evening. The event was over, the police would no longer be concerned with a terrorist disruption, and I ought simply to walk into the once-restricted area and fulfill my destiny. I had not counted on the thoroughness of the Giuliani administration. Police continued to be everywhere.
As I walked south on 6th Avenue, I ran into a police roadblock on 46th street. We seemed to be cut off from locations south of that cross street. I asked an officer what we should do. He suggested walking two blocks farther to the east but would not guarantee that we would find passage there through the roadblock.
Fortunately, 5th Avenue was open. I walked down a few blocks and then tried walking several blocks west towards Times Square. Again, police road blocks prevented me from entering ground zero. An officer who was arguing with several people about the likelihood of terrorist attacks guessed that the Times Square area might be reopened around 1:30 a.m.
Meanwhile, though the entrance was blocked, individuals continued to straggle out of the area. I saw a woman exiting the area with a badge that said: “confetti thrower”. Perhaps, I thought, the idea that the New Year’s Eve celebration was open to the public was a fiction. Maybe the official celebration in Times Square consisted of persons hand-picked by the Giuliani administration, each with roles to perform, like this woman’s.
I thought I had just seen the face of society in this “new millennium”: it was a police state. Had I been a resident of New York State, I might then have considered voting for Hillary Clinton for U.S. Senator, someone for whom I had previously not had much sympathy, if she ran against Giuliani.
An hour or more after midnight, the New York police were still out in force tying up traffic to combat terrorism. I had walked from 33rd street to 53rd street to participate in the New Year’s Eve event, and now was walking back from 50th street to 32nd street just to go around the extensive police roadblock, not counting several more trips back and forth between 5th and 6th avenues in hopes of penetrating Times Square.
Now, at 1:30 a.m., I was standing at 32nd and Broadway. Would I catch my second wind, walk up to the Port Authority Bus Terminal on 42nd Street and 8th Avenue, use the toilet facilities, and then walk a block over to Times Square, just in time for the remaining television cameras to catch an image of my sign and beam this image to viewers in the Rocky Mountain states; or would I call it an evening?
While neither Richard Nixon nor I are quitters, we both had to bow to reality. I found the entrance to the PATH station and was back on the train to Jersey City via Hoboken a short time later. My car had not been vandalized. The engine started without any problems. I had nearly a full tank of gas. Relieved, I drove back to Milford that evening, arriving at 4:30 a.m., just in time to watch a recording of the midnight celebration in Times Square on MTV. I could see then what I might have experienced had I stayed home.
to: main page to: personal storyteller
Click for a translation into:
French - Spanish - German - Portuguese - Italian