It is a truth universally acknowledged that Times Square is the Unhappiest Place on Earth. The chain restaurants, the traffic, the wandering tourists, the creepy people in crusty Elmo suits—it’s a cliché at this point for New Yorkers to talk about how much they despise the neighborhood. We get it. Times Square blows. It’s the city’s armpit. The capital of artifice. Nothing about it is real. And if there is one time of year when New Yorkers would especially rather be caught dead than visit Times Square, it is New Year’s Eve.
On December 31st of each year, an estimated one million people from everywhere except New York City file into the streets of New York City to freeze their butts off while standing in literal cattle pens for 12 hours, without bathrooms or reprieve, all for the chance of catching a glimpse of Ryan Seacrest or Mariah Carey forgetting the lyrics to her own songs for the second consecutive year. Sound fun yet?
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The whole fiasco is produced by the Times Square Alliance, an organization that, for this reason, seems intent on causing impossible traffic jams, subway delays, and destroying us all. While its website alleges that Times Square is “the only place to spend NYE in the world!” I can think of many other places I would rather be, such as my couch or a beach anywhere. (And frankly, I see no reason to watch any Times Square NYE telecast since Kathy Griffin was fired from CNN's Times Square NYE program in the wake of her Donald Trump scandal.)
So naturally, in 2013, when my boyfriend at the time asked if I wanted to go to Times Square on New Year’s, I immediately agreed.
Allow me to explain. He was an NYPD cop who had voluntarily chosen to work the Times Square detail on New Year’s Eve instead of spending it with me. Which should have been a red flag—as should have been the anger issues, the money issues, the body-shaming, the psychological abuse, and the raging infidelity—but, hey, I was young and in love.
Not only was I blinded by love and perhaps a bit of Stockholm Syndrome, but I am also usually down to try anything once. I’m the one in my friend group who always gets too loud at brunch and makes non-sequitur Sex and the City references, like, “Well you guys, clearly I’m the Samantha, and I’m a try-sexual: I’ll try anything once.” So when my policeman boyfriend offered me the chance to experience NYE in Times Square without waiting in line, my curiosity piqued.
I remember meeting my boyfriend on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 46th Street, where he helped me climb over a barrier before we started to walk toward the madness. There were people as far as the eye could see—it felt like the earth itself pulsed with energy, and a multitude of screams made talking to a person an arm’s length away nearly impossible. He leaned in to my ear and shouted, “Stay close!” Then he grabbed my arm and brought me into the fray.
What followed was something that surprised me, something that went against the years Pavlovian training that living in New York had drilled into my mind. I had been bred to believe that New Year’s in Times Square was the worst place on earth. But as my boyfriend escorted me down the lanes of Jersey barriers toward the heart of it all, I couldn’t help but feel the rush. A million people stood on just a couple of blocks. A million people—and a billion more watching at home—believed in this moment. They were throwing beads and holding hands and screaming and dancing and singing a thousand different songs. There were people of all ages and races who had come from all over, and they were together. In that moment, Times Square was the center of the universe. In that moment, it felt like the right place to be.
We stopped for a few minutes and stood right under the stage where none other than Ryan Seacrest was filming. We were so close I could have reached out and grabbed his pant leg. (Though I felt like my presence was already skirting enough rules that taking in the fantasy and thrill of this moment without pantsing a media mogul on live TV would have to be enough—this time.)
“Thanks for coming. I love you,” my boyfriend said to me.
“I love you, too,” I said in return, the air so thick with confetti that I could hardly see his face standing right in front of me.
It was a sweet gesture for him to risk discipline and sneak me in that night, but he would continue to cheat on me until our breakup six months later. And every time I remember the ecstatic joy of standing in that Times Square confetti, I flash-forward through the infidelity, the lies, and the fights.
I suppose what I am trying to say—without turning this into a diatribe against my ex (Oops! Too late!)—is that New Year’s Eve in Times Square is what you make of it. Maybe you don’t have an NYPD boyfriend who can help you cut the line. Maybe you’ll have to stand in a cattle pen for 12 hours until the ball drops. But the whole affair is not that different from a poorly planned vacation or getting stuck in a Williamsburg bar during Santacon: The people you are with will shape your experience. And if you have an open mind and even just one or two people you really love, it could very well turn out to be a magical night. Even if it is in Times Square.