Postcard from New York: Strangers in the night

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Because of their bottomless yearning for newness, New Yorkers have always assumed that the answer to the question "Should auld acquaintance be forgot?" was meant to be "Yes". And that is why, for as long as anyone can remember, the goal of New Yorkers on New Year's Eve has been to keep out of the sight of as many of their relations, colleagues and dear friends as possible.

This is achieved in two distinct ways. If they are extremely grand (or think they are), they will hold an intimate New Year's dinner, preferably with duck and kumquats, to which they will invite such an insultingly small portion of their relevant acquaintance that everyone who did not make the A-list will pale and leave town. This move secures the hosts a smaller pond to be big fish in come Epiphany. If they are less grand (most others), they will seek to lose themselves in the company of strangers in the most expensive and elaborate way they can think of, so that no one from their own circle will witness them sinking listlessly into the bubbly eddy of the old year's wake. That way, they can either brag about the splendour of their end-of-year revels without fear of being gainsaid, or else they can tactfully hint, without precisely saying it, that they formed part of the slim roster that made it to that society couple's duckfeed on Park - not that they would want to rub it in.

For 90 years, the city has aided its citizens in this quest for splendid isolation by throwing a jamboree and glitterball-lowering in Times Square for crowds of half a million - a throng so faceless, so huge, that even the most visible New Yorkers can mill among it without sunglasses. The celebration is duly broadcast across the world to foster insecurity among foreigners, who watch it and worry that they're not having nearly as good a time (this, at least, is the intention). This year, however, when Mayor Giuliani drops the ball and the clock strikes 12, New York City will celebrate its 100th birthday - the one remaining perk this town had been waiting for before it declared itself once and for all un-Gothamed and reborn as America's new, urban Disneyland.

The rehabilitation, spit-polishing and refurbishment that New York City has undergone in the past year has happened so quickly that many New Yorkers find themselves in an unrecognisable landscape, forced to ask directions of tourists. Luckily, there are a lot of them about. But this New Year's, as helpful as the tourists are, it is anticipated that there will be so many of them that New York's locals will no longer have room to hide from each other.

In the past weeks, residents who heard the news realised they would have to take instant action to learn how to mix with each other politely to avoid incident come 31 December. They bought etiquette books and white gloves, began to say please and thank you and signed up for crash courses in bridge and ballroom dancing. As a result, more than ever before will inaugurate their foxtrots at the Grand Central Terminal, which annually throws open its floor to quadrilling types, and, for a fee of $25, as part of something called First Night New York '98, they can dance their way downtown, from the escalatored malls of Herald Square to the skyscrapers at the World Financial Center.

Most, however, will prefer to pay more and head to one of the multitude of restaurants and clubs that have thrown their portals open lately and have raced to roll out enticing New Year's gatherings to pull in street- shy revellers, promising party hats, crustacea and timbales of endangered species. Near Times Square searchers of swank will sashay into the Supper Club, a swing-era temple on 47th Street, where, for only $500, a couple can swallow a few oyster crackers and a magnum of champagne while dancing to an 18-piece big band. Uptown, moguls will skirt the park, squabbing it up at Daniel, JG and Vong.

Downtown, scenesters will memorise their favourite lines from All About Eve, then head for Life!, Rialto, or the Blue Note, spilling bons mots and C-notes everywhere they go; while college students will roll into divey blues clubs like Arthur's Tavern for some free fizz in plastic-stemmed glasses, husky piano-bar blues, and noisemakers galore. The misanthropes who still can't stomach the notion of running into their pals will head for the river, to stow away on the Circle Line cruise for only $75 (panoramic view of Times Square fireworks thrown in for free), or drop a few hundred on love boats like Midnight Magic, 1998.

But most New Yorkers who can't overcome the impulse to run from each other on this most self-conscious of holidays will take refuge on solid ground, in the one place the tourists still fear to tread; Central Park after dark. There they will listen to Debbie Harry at the Boathouse, lie on the grass by Tavern on the Green, look up at the fireworks, and then, hopefully in time, get up and run for their lives - in the annual 5km midnight jog around the park. (Should anyone spot them mid-sprint, they'll just wave and call out a cheery, "Auld Lang Syne!" which, as every New Yorker knows, means, "Out with the old, in with the new!"/ "Happy New Year, whoever you are.")

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