His face looks like crushed gravel. Tall, thin and concave as a question mark, the man stands silently beside a cart upon which is piled a leaning tower of crap: blow-up figures on sticks—Batman, Superman, SpongeBob Squarepants—toy guns and swords, tasseled wands, and police kits replete with badges, nightsticks and handcuffs. This fellow, or others like him, is a fixture in my childhood memories of First Night Virginia (www.firstnightva.org), which began in 1982. Twenty-five years later, I stand before the same environment-wrecking chemical toys and try to remember a single happy New Year’s Eve. Stuffed dogs on leashes, multi-hued fur top hats that take gaudy to new lengths, light sabers, party string, stink bombs, confetti and noisemakers. I have spent New Year’s Eve in strange places all over the country, with old acquaintances now mostly forgotten. Many years I have been alone. An array of hats in different styles that say “Happy New Year” (and one that says “Marijuana”), the classic big glasses shaped in the numbers 2007, horns, snappers, Confederate flag necklaces and fake cigarettes—everything in every color of the pastel, neon, plastic, light-up-the-night, exploding rainbow. As a child, New Year’s Eve meant walking down the Mall at twilight with my family, carrying a plastic sword from a cart like this one and a bag of goodies from a now-defunct bakery. As 2006 comes to an end, I am once again on the Mall, sans goodies and sword, trying to discern what the ultimate party is all about.
Outside it is raining lightly at a few minutes before 5pm. Inside the atrium of the Omni, the “headquarters” for First Night, a crowd is gathering for the Kid Parade. Teenagers with drums form the head and behind them swells a mass of people in homemade hats and masks, the kids beating pie tins with paint stirrers and waving twisted balloon laser guns. The doors open and we advance, the drums in front, Boom, Boom, Boom, Boomboom, Boom, like Sherman’s army. Strollers bump and push against my heels. The crowd on the Mall parts. Really, what choice do they have? “What’s with the hats?” a bystander asks. The kids blast her with their laser guns. Our destination is Central Place (Boom, Boom, Boom, Boomboom, Boom) where the Mall has been carpeted with bubble wrap. “Everybody who wants to stomp on bubble wrap, here are the rules.” For those about to stomp, we salute you.
The army is let loose; the noise is deafening. Cracking lightning and rolling thunder, the joy of the children is palpable. Underfoot the bubbles feel alive, like a rug of insects. Kids dive bomb off of wooden stands, leaping up both feet at a time, fists clenched, NOISE! NOISE! CRACK, POW, NOISE! Flying kicks and air splits, kids running and sliding on their knees. BANG!
In the chaos and madness an incredulous adult wonders, “How can there still be more bubbles to pop?” The parents stand on the sidelines, fingers in ears, yelling into phones. A few are overtaken with the madness and join in, but most just gape. I genuinely fear for all of us over 12.
But 30 minutes later, the war is over. Four thousand square feet of defeated bubble wrap is gathered into three huge garbage bags, and everyone retires into the Paramount for juggling and a magic show. I peek inside as the show starts, glowing necklaces and glasses illuminating the darkness. Alas, I am childless and no longer a child, and so I back out slowly to seek my New Year elsewhere.
It’s 8pm when I pull up to the gates of Keswick Hall (www.keswick.com). I step from my car into a waiting van, whose driver will spend the evening driving guests the 20 yards between the parking lot and the front door. In the entrance foyer of the stately club, the ceiling is covered with black and gold balloons. Front and center, a large table is covered with bottles of Perrier Jouet in all sizes, from tiny splits to huge six-liter Methuselahs. Without comment, a white-gloved man hands me a glass. Down the hall, tiny candles float in water, shining their light on marble busts.
At the end of the hall, attendants in silk jackets staff a room suffused with a red glow from paper lanterns that seem to bob midair. A table at the rear of the room is groaning with every kind of sushi imaginable. Off to the side in an intimate library, the warm light reflects in the glass of the bookshelves and a woman’s back is visible, a lacework of sharp bones pressed against smooth skin above an elegant white dress.
The three main rooms are themed, and inside the “C BAR,” which is designated with huge chrome Mylar balloon letters and appointed in white fur and alabaster balloons, a bed of ice holds farm-raised Iranian caviar, oysters and Grey Goose vodka. A fur-trimmed attendant instructs us on how to layer the caviar and crème fraiche onto small buckwheat pancakes.
About 300 people have reservations for the evening. Gentlemen wear black tie, women, ball gowns, furs and embroidered shawls. At the bar I overhear talk about the Italian villa the speaker recently had built. My dinner jacket is feeling like a costume. I don’t know anyone here, and I probably never will. Worlds are not exactly colliding.
At 10pm, dinner is served, a buffet of roast beef, salmon, lamb chops, green beans, steak tartar and mashed potatoes. The color scheme is black, white and gold, and each satiny table is equipped with color-coordinated party hats and horns. At a dance floor set up at the far end of the ballroom a band, “all the way from Richmond,” gets the party started with “Pick Up The Pieces” by AWB. From the back of the ballroom the dancers are silhouetted, and the candles wrap the room in a golden glow that is thrown back at us by the white slipcovers and absorbed gently into the black tablecloths. I turn and leave, perhaps to find a celebration closer to Earth.
I’m back in town in line at Club 216 (www.club216.com) at 11:20pm, and the beat radiates insistently from inside. On the green metal stairs people are on their phones. “Happy New Year!” Behind me a man asks his drunk and cursing girlfriend if she is going to behave herself, and she says no. “You better straighten up” the security guy says, “or you’re not coming in.” “Why are you crying?” another voice says into a phone. “Why are you crying?”
The music is loud, immediately filling my head and my chest as I step inside. The lights are frantic. Though the buffet (deviled eggs, potato salad) is largely ignored, the featured drink, Champagne mixed with Red Bull, is not. I feel certain the so-called Champagne is not Perrier Jouet.
Here is a strange and diverse mix of people, fashions and purposes. Rednecks, thugs and towering drag queens. College girls, men in ties and skinny boys in eyeliner and baby tees. Glowsticks and sunglasses. Two little girls in matching Tech hoodies and identical ponytails lean against a wall all night making out. Christina Aguilera dances on TV. Paris Hilton sings “Stars Are Blind” over the speakers. I have never been here before, and the shabby interior surprises me. I have always understood that the crowd was never limited to just Charlottesville’s gays. As a private club, it is the only place in town to drink past 2am. As a gay bar, it’s one of the few good places to dance. Well, I don’t like to dance. Empty and feeling invisible, I am convinced that, as so often happens on this night, I will stand in a crowd of happy people and, as they celebrate, I will slowly disappear.
The countdown. Cut the music, cue the TV, live in Times Square. The ball drops. There is cheering, kissing. Horns are being blown, texts are being messaged. Should old acquaintance, BOOMP, BOOMP, be forgot, BOOMP, BOOMP! A girl next to me is staring with black-lashed eyes that are splayed open. Her red lips shine. Am I supposed to kiss her? She leans in and says, “Are you Ray?” I’m not. She continues to stare at me. I smile. I shrug. I introduce myself. “You’re cute,” she says. She stares at me like an Ecstasy casualty caught in neon headlights. Her staring is making me nervous. “Sorry,” she says. I turn to leave. “Wait a minute,” she says. “Do you want my number?” Something wet glistens under her nostril. “How old are you?” I ask. “18.”
I step outside where the rain is falling steadily. It is now 2007. Something has ended, I suppose, and something else has begun, but what? I feel hollow, but no more so than this holiday, I figure. After all, come tomorrow what will be different? Clocks, calendars, the state of your head. So much work, so much anticipation and build-up, and up, and up, so that, like the fabled ball, when the zero hour hits, we can do nothing but come down. Behind me the music goes on, the dancers go on, all of it goes on, but for how long I cannot say. This is how the year ends. Not with a bang, but with a bright and shiny whimper.