Selling New Year's Eve
Math question: If there are 1.5 million people waiting to watch the ball drop in person, what percentage of those actually know where to enter Times Square?
When I decided to go to New York City for New Year’s Eve, I imagined there would be at least one sign directing people which way to go. My research beforehand led me to resources about packing snacks, when to get there and how many bathrooms were available (answer: 0). Though plenty of people on the Internet advised me to wear a diaper, none revealed where to actually enter the event.
I was with my partner, Ty, who overheard some police officers directing people to 49th Street. We joined people in line and asked if we were in the right place. They all said they hoped so. I had a feeling we were in the wrong spot — Americans are prone to getting into lines that they don’t know where they lead to, and I feared we’d fallen into the same trap.
Vendors set up carts full of overpriced “2020” glasses and hats to sell while we were stuck in line. With nowhere to go, we were the perfect consumer targets. “You need this!” they would say and blow a noisemaker in someone’s face.
Suddenly, the NYPD closed the entrance and everyone began jumping over the barricade. Ty and I followed them, sprinting alongside the thousand-or-so people also trying to get a better view of the ball than the person next to them.
This was America, after all — the land of stepping on others to get ahead.
Despite the chaos and disorganization, this was the 114th New Year’s celebration in Times Square. It began as an inauguration for The New York Times headquarters in 1904, effectively replacing the previous tradition of ringing in the new year with church bells at Trinity Church.
It’s ironic that a celebration that once began at a church could turn into something with such disregard for other humans.
As we edged closer to the front of the crowd, I felt more like an animal. We were packed like fish in the net at the end of “Finding Nemo” — but instead of working together to get out, everyone pushed forward in hopes of getting an inch closer.
The man next to me was pinned up against the brick wall and begged for space to breathe. A shorter person next to Ty was nearly levitating off the ground. People began screaming from the front of the line but we couldn’t see what was happening, nor run if there was any danger. We could only wait.
We finally passed the checkpoint and reached the barricade at 50th Street, which is at the far back of Times Square next to Applebee’s. People would knock on the glass and wave at the crowd from inside the restaurant, holding up their drinks either in solidarity or to make us envious. Perhaps both.
As Ty and I ate our snacks, we listened as people next to us blasted music on a speaker and people in front of us complained loudly. I resented the fact that we didn’t get up earlier to get a closer spot — the people on the block in front of us were sitting down, dancing and laughing. I imagined partying with them under the light of the Times Square screens or in the warmth of Applebee’s, or even with my friends in Detroit.
It began to rain and I sat on the ground facing hundreds of legs behind us. In a sort of torturous meditation, I stared at them and wondered why I had wanted to come.
Someone came over and passed out giant hats sponsored by Planet Fitness. The hats were “free,” but only in the way a phone app is free — there’s always a cost, collateral waiting in the shadows. You don’t pay with your credit card, but rather with your attention.
I suppose that’s why I was at the ball drop in the first place; if enough people pay attention to something, we’re convinced it has value. That is marketing. I’ve watched the event on TV for years and always loved seeing the confetti, hearing the music, imagining the New Year’s kiss. I wanted it not because of an inherent desire, but because the entire world thought it was valuable. I figured waiting 10 hours for it would be worth it.
That’s just the myth of meritocracy. Working for something doesn’t mean it’ll pay off, especially if a million others want the same thing. This also goes for fame; society still thinks the models lining Times Square or the New Year’s Rockin’ Eve performers are the ones who deserve the attention. Maybe they’re just the ones willing to shove harder on their way to the front of the line.
Consumerism naturally leads to competition, which extends past buying things. We get into lines even if we don’t know where they lead, fight for a better spot even if it means suffocating and compare our view to those in front of us, even if they’re the ones wearing adult diapers. We’re supposed to constantly be optimizing, competing and ultimately winning.
In a time of resolutions, the new year is a perfect time to be reminded of that.
The Times Square screens seemed to flash brighter the longer I stared, wearing out my eyes. I almost preferred the vendors blowing noisemakers earlier — at least they weren’t faceless brands. I positioned myself behind one woman’s Planet Fitness hat to block the lights.
I wondered how much money Planet Fitness makes from New Year’s resolutions alone. Maybe the people around me will purchase a gym membership and train for next year’s ball drop, trying to outrun the people on the treadmill next to them.
As I listened to the faint echoes of performances by Post Malone and BTS, whose concert tickets would have otherwise cost hundreds of dollars, I realized why I didn’t have to pay for this event. Advertisers got what they wanted the moment I bought my plane ticket. They made me think I wanted to spend New Year’s Eve in Times Square, a consumer’s fever dream, surrounded by ads, because it was better than what everyone else was doing.
And I believed them.
I figured after waiting for 10 hours, there would be some climactic payoff to the night. But instead of a fireworks show, underwhelming sparks shot from the tower as the ball slowly dropped down the flagpole. We were too far back to even see the confetti or hear Auld Lang Syne. The whole event felt like an "As Seen on TV" ad.
Still, I got my New Year’s kiss. I crossed it off my bucket list so I never have to do it again. And on the subway ride back, I made my New Year’s resolution: Don’t look at people in front of you, in a crowd or on TV, and wish you were them.
Chances are, it’s better on your side of the screen anyways.