Times Square on New Year’s Eve may actually be the center of the universe. Hundreds of millions watch it on television, as I have most years, trying to catch just a smidge of the electricity surging through the massive crowd as the ball descends towards a new year.
When the opportunity arose to actually go to Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve in 2011 with my brother Matt, I was all in. No parents, no rules, just a few days in the Big Apple living the dream.
I had never been to New York and couldn’t be more excited.
We crammed the first two days full of classic New York experiences. Shopping at fashionable multiplexes and the backrooms of shacks in Chinatown. Eating at all the restaurants our friends had suggested. Questioning the sanity of cab drivers. Taking pictures of the Christmas tree in Rockefeller center and dancing with the Naked Cowboy.
We did it all, but our primary purpose was to plant ourselves in the middle of Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Front and center.
So we devised a game plan and set alarms for 4 A.M. on December 31st.
4 in the forsaken morning.
And I promise you—aside from a lone man sweeping the street outside of a storefront—we were the first people in Times Square. The City That Never Sleeps had apparently hit the snooze button that morning. An eerie calm before the chaotic mass of champagne-filled partyers packed every corner of the street. An estimated 1 million of them, actually.
We set up base camp and waited. And waited. And waited.
A family of 4 joined us later in the morning, the Dad was the St. Louis Cardinals’ team dentist. Nice guy. He let Matt try on his World Series ring.
Thousands more had moved into our neighborhood by noon.
To pass time, I dreamt of slapping hands with Justin Bieber as he belted into the headset mic that night. We theorized over who the surprise guests would be and what to do if a camera panned our way during the show. Anticipation increased with each passing hour.
Our dreams, however, would not last all night. In fact, they were soon to be shredded into confetti-sized pieces.
6pm: The NYPD arrive.
Everyone in Times Square needs to pass a security checkpoint before the show, they said. The plan was to walk the crowd in an orderly line up one block, over another block, and down a block back towards the main stage. In theory, it kept everyone in generally the same location.
In reality, the moment we stepped away everyone else jumped the fences into this new “secure” area. It was too late for us to turn back.
We walked to the officer a block down, who told us to go back to the officer we first talked to, who told us we needed to head down another block. At that block, there was an officer who told us his section was also full and we’d need to continue another block. And so on, and so forth.
It seemed like ninety nine blocks later when we arrived at a legal opening. The ball was but a speck on the horizon, the performance stage completely out of sight. We were crushed.
Instead of accept this demise, we did what any beyond frustrated, very mad and slightly depressed humans would do. We went to Applebee’s.
Around 10pm we emerged from Applebee’s (located behind, but just within view of, the ball) and packed into a smaller crowd of native New Yorkers from the Bronx. Locals who know better than to wait all day for a glorified light bulb to crawl down a pole.
I specifically remember reminiscing with our new friends about everyone’s favorite childhood cartoons. We chanted “Stoop Kid’s afraid to leave his stoop!” together when someone mentioned Hey Arnold.
(Anyone remember that episode? It was great.)
When the time came for the ball to drop we chanted and hooted and hollered as if we were on stage with the Biebs himself. It was nothing like we had planned it, but it was good. I’ll never forget it.
I find myself writing about failure a lot lately, and I think it’s because failure is so intrinsically human. I build up expectations and anticipate outcomes but most the time nothing ends up exactly as I planned it. Which in reality is probably best.
The question then is whether to ride the wave of failure and make the best of the outcome or drown in a sea of regret, frustration and shame.
On New Year’s Eve 2011, choosing the first one made all the difference.