Ring in the loser

What you do on New Year's Eve 1999 says more about your economic -- and social -- status than anything else.

Published March 26, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

On a summer day in 1996, an executive I know boasted about his plans for Dec. 31, 1999. He, his wife and his friends had reserved a luxurious alpine chalet in Switzerland. It was a toss-up between that and Fiji, he said, but Switzerland won because the wine would be better and it would be "easier with the kids."

I pictured the party in Switzerland, the executive muttering, "10 ... 9 ... 8" with a plastic smile on his face, holding a bottle of champagne in one arm and his wailing daughter in the other, his son clutching the right pant leg of his tuxedo, and his wife in another room dancing with a wealthier executive, trying to execute the same disco moves she couldn't get the hang of 20 years ago.

Then it occurred to me: What the hell am I going to do for the millennium? I dismissed the question. I told myself that only an idiot would organize a party four years in advance. I was confident that by sheer smoothness of character, I would be found waist-deep in bubbles in a rented Paladian villa on the big night, slugging Veuve Cliquot from the bottle and fending off the groping advances of various supermodels.

But it dawned on me. I lack the two key elements necessary to make it into such a party: money and status. And the question about what to do that night hasn't gone away either. No, it has taunted me, beckoned me, demanded I do something extraordinary. For all the millennium's drummed-up significance, it's going to be impossible to stay in and shun the frivolity, mainly because people keep asking, "So what are you doing for the millennium?" And, no doubt, the first words to greet my hungover ears on Jan. 1, 2000 will be, "So what did you do for the millennium?" Other years it's been acceptable, even desirable, to flee the quaffing masses and sit contemplatively under a rural canopy of stars with someone you love and ponder the deeper questions of existence. This year such a cowardly act will only signal a stinging lack of popularity.

There is a reciprocal problem afoot, however. While I've spent months considering various grand possibilities, it's becoming clear now that my millennium New Year's Eve may have already been killed by overblown expectations. Few of us, in fact, will succeed in meditating with Tibetan monks at the stroke of midnight because the swelling demand for flights and hotel rooms has put prices through the roof.

Those of us lucky enough to make it to Ibiza or Hawaii will, therefore, be rich. That does not bode well for the festivities. As the first cocktails are sipped and dinner orders taken, table conversation will steer irreversibly toward interest rates, the merits of stocks over bonds, not to mention the skyrocketing prices of golf condos on South Carolina.

As wealthy revelers the world over take in the spectacles and delights of the millennium, I'll likely find myself here in England, where I'm living. On this island known for elegant restraint and legendary understatement, I thought I might be spared from such millennial excess.

Not so.

England stands out as perhaps the sharpest example of how a gargantuan
millennial effort is producing few good options come New Year's Eve. The
have become uncharacteristically giddy over the year 2000. A digital millennium
countdown clock stands over the Thames; the BBC has budgeted $35.4 million (all money figures in this story are U.S. dollars) for television coverage of the event; and Tony Blair's government
is erecting a gigantic Millennium Dome to house the festivities and give
the BBC
something to film. No matter what anyone tells you, this is the worst of all
possible options. Government-run parties are never good. And even though the
people at the "New Millennium Experience Company" have assured me that booze
will be flowing, the night is billed as an all-ages event, a sure sign that it
will be fun for the whole family excluding yourself.

There are other options, though. The Café de Paris, a glittery 1930s-style
nightclub tarted up for the '90s, is Piccadilly circus' home to faux oil barons
and wannabe models. For the millennium, the cafe's management is only
considering rental bids in the region of $1.61 million. If there
are no takers, they'll probably auction off a Porsche, putting individual
tickets somewhere around $1,932 per person. So, if whoever's renting
it is even thinking of permitting a pauper like me to clink glasses
with the
Pernod 'n' Prada crowd, there's no hope that I'll be able to afford it.

But perhaps I should be looking for something more traditional, something with
history. Like the Savoy, that legendary bastion of cultivated style, the hotel
where actor Richard Harris keeps a room, where Sir Laurence Olivier first laid
eyes on Vivien Leigh. The Savoy's first millennium inquiry came in 1977, and
they've been tumbling in at an alarming rate ever since. So great is the
need to
attend this event that a ballot was held to separate the lucky from the merely rich.
Tickets start at $11,270 per couple and the Savoy is describing the
party as the greatest it has ever thrown. Which means it's supposed to top the
number it threw in the summer of 1905, the one that featured a baby elephant,
a five-foot cake, arias sung by Caruso and a silk-lined gondola filled with 12,000 carnations.

This year, the hotel is promising, among other distractions, a Dom Perignon
party, a seven-course meal, gambling in the Princess Ida room and a surprise
cabaret at midnight. I imagine the night will go something like this: The main
floor will be filled with a selection of authors, actors, politicians and
acquaintances of the queen. Men are in dinner jackets, lounging in the
wood-paneled Pinafore Room, dipping the ends of their cigars in cognac. The
women, ubiquitous Dom in hand, form an archipelago of clusters across the main
hall, their slinky dresses clinging to their massaged bodies, their heels
high over freshly polished floor. Newcomers are met by the mirthful buzz of
gentlemanly banter with a counterpoint of female chirps and giggles.

I'm in my flat while this is happening, of course, dreaming of chef Anton's
seven-course meal. The lights are off and I've wrapped a duvet around me. I
stare out the window at the pub across the street where a band of soccer
hooligans embrace each other in a bout of tribal unity as I feel the first
seconds of the next thousand years settle upon this cruel Earth.

Perhaps I can avoid this kind of millennial misery by aiming for something
well, within my means. I could rent a Thames riverboat. Maybe there truly is
nothing more glamorous than chugging down a river as old as it is murky. It
be dark and cold, it likely will be raining, and if the waves are bad, the
liquor that goes down might easily come back up. I suppose I could hope for the
boat to strike a navigation buoy and send the evening to a Titanic ending,
to be documented in a low budget made-for-TV romance/thriller.

I phoned a company and was quoted a rental fee of $258 per hour for a
boat that holds 50 people, although there would be additional charges for
food and entertainment. It seemed reasonable enough. When I asked if this price
would stay the same for the millennium, the man on the phone laughed. On
Dec. 31 the same boat will be going for somewhere between $32,200 and $48,300 for the night, but they are all booked
anyway. The
price is so exorbitant because he has to pay each staff member $2,415. Staffing millennium parties is so expensive, he explained, that most
clubs and bars in London would simply be closing their doors for the night. I'd
be lucky to find anything, he warned, and then said it didn't matter for him
because he was going to Sydney. Then he hung up.

Going abroad isn't an option either. Millennial airfare is predictably
expensive. But the financial demands of a trip pale in comparison to the
Herculean effort that would be involved in organizing my disorganized
friends to
make it the kind of event that will leave me savoring the transcendent
warmth of
human friendship as the new millennium's first dawn lights its virgin skies.
Instead, I'll probably pluck some well worded last-chance offer and find myself
on a beach in Tunisia, seated next to an athletic couple from Utah who
steer the
conversation toward God and then tell the waiter not to bring any more wine.

The more I think about it, the more it becomes apparent that there is a mad
to bring in the next thousand years and I'm getting trampled at the rear of
the pack. It's a race in which those near the pole position are most likely to
win. Others, like me, who haven't qualified might as well pack a lunch, get
a good seat and think about the millennium that might have been, the bragging
that might have been done. I dream of the bubbles, the dancing, the kissing
of beautiful strangers. I imagine the next day's journey home, on horseback
a society devastated by mass computer failure -- bank accounts erased,
transportation networks thrown into chaos, the landscape littered with the
carcasses of fallen satellites. I think of the stories I will tell my
grandchildren and settle deeper into the reliable unreality of anticipation.
Because, as Julian Barnes said, "Who needs to burst into fulfillment's desolate

Not me.

By Mark Schatzker

Mark Schatzker is a freelance writer living in Toronto.

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