Most of my New Year’s Eves have been spent at parties. But my most memorable celebration involved running down Fifth Avenue, to hear what the time lady had to say.
I was a college sophomore and was home for winter break. My city friends were away for the holidays, so I was stuck celebrating New Year’s with my 13-year-old brother, Spencer. Before leaving for a party, my parents placed a champagne bottle in the refrigerator. “Only a sip for Spencer,” my mother instructed.
College had made me a champion beer drinker (back then the drinking age was 18), so I was disappointed to be spending the biggest party night of the year shackled to a minor. While jealously imagining that my friends were standing three-deep at a bar getting drunk on watered-down drinks (yes, this was my idea of a good time), I became resigned to watching Dick Clark on the television in my parents’ Upper East Side apartment.
My brother and I ate dinner at a local diner. I had a tasteless veal parmesan, while my brother ate an especially greasy chicken souvlaki, washed down by a strawberry milkshake, that he insisted was really Bisquick and milk. Afterward, we retreated to my parents’ apartment to plan the evening.
My brother wanted to watch the ball drop live, but I saw a trip to Times Square ending with my having to fill out a missing person’s report (13-year-old Caucasian male, last seen disappearing into a frenzied crowd of pickpockets and drunken tourists).
“Does the operator say happy New Year, when you call time at midnight?”
Spencer asked. He was referring to the telephone time service, with the monotone female voice that would say, “at the tone eastern daylight time will be…”
“What a great question!” I said. “Let’s find out.”
We decided to make the crucial call from a telephone booth outside the Plaza Hotel. The Plaza was a favorite spot for us, because our parents would take us to the hotel’s Trader Vic’s restaurant for special occasions. The location would also allow us a glimpse of the Central Park fireworks display that would begin at midnight.
At 11:30 we set out on foot for the Plaza, which was 20 blocks away. As midnight approached we began running. With a few blocks to go Spencer had fallen far behind. Looking over my shoulder, I saw him standing over a garbage can regurgitating his dinner.
Panicked, I sprinted over to him. “Are you all right?” I asked.
He looked up from the garbage can, laughing hysterically.
“C’mon!” I urged. We ran to the telephone booth, both of us laughing all the way.
As I reached into my pocket for change, the fireworks went off. We were too late.
In the 30 years since then, my New Year’s Eves have mostly been unremarkable: a black-tie party, or a casual affair; a kiss at midnight, or a lonely sip of champagne; a drunken walk home, or a search for a taxi, with a freezing wind slapping me into sobriety. I have sometimes thought about calling the time lady at midnight but never got around to doing so.
Spencer moved to Los Angeles after he graduated college. Every Dec. 31 we talk over the phone, with one of us always noting that for a three-hour window we will be living in different years; this observation—much like our quest to hear the New Year’s Eve telephone recording—being a joke about the significance we place on marking time.
Unfortunately, Spencer and I will never find out if the time lady acknowledged the New Year. Telephone companies discontinued the time service years ago.
Trade Vic’s and the Plaza Hotel (converted into condos) are also gone. But the lousy diner where Spencer and I ate our greasy New Year’s meal is still around.
Ben Krull is an Upper East Sider and essayist.
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