Three, two, one...happier new year!

By Hank Stuever

Originally published Dec. 31, 2001, in The Washington Post

It recedes now. You'll feel the year start to slip off this afternoon like some frayed comforter. There'll be that washed-out-blue melancholy light as you head home, against the cold air, and the day will feel like a picture hung slightly crooked. The year was distracting like that  you want to fix it. You'll sit in traffic for a minute staring through everything like you have X-ray eyes; every song on the radio seems to be deliberately taunting you from other years, already so long ago: 1994, 1978, 1981, 1963, 1989.

Later you'll be getting ready for a party you don't really want to go to, and you'll take that three seconds to look in the mirror, suspicious of something.

Before you go, you'll take the dog out, and you'll hear footsteps on the sidewalk behind you. The dog will stop and you will stop and you'll both breathe in, and that's it. There weren't other footsteps besides your own. That's how 2001 ends, a few hours before it really ends, and you go back inside, and get ready to step a little bit more into the future.

Did we ever want a year to be over worse than this one?

The money shot plays over and over on TV.

Secretly, it's our new porn.

We're not supposed to watch it anymore but we still do, especially on shows that look back at 2001, which ought to call themselves "Let's Look at the Buildings Fall Down One More Time and Talk About It Some More."

Plane inserts itself into skyscraper, like a quarter into a Coke machine. It was this, but now it's that. We were asking for definition in our lives, some other kind of meaning, a way to know that we'd amount to something besides our things, our cars, our witty dialogue. We got it, and are still figuring out what to do with it.

The national loathing for New Year's Eve seems even more pronounced this year (the amateurish kissing and drinking, the weightiness of expectation), but still and all, New Year's Eve is a good thing. It's a fascinating invention, time.

We are those ancient nomads, hash-marking on the side of the hut how long it takes the big white ball to go across the night sky, and then come all the way back again, telling stories about it, measuring it against the coming and going of flowers and the seas and babies. So 15,000 years later, tonight, you stand around someone's house in your tight jeans and sip merlot, and wish you were somebody else, and wait for midnight. Worse things have happened.

Worse things have happened than your own private definition of the human condition.

The good news in 2001 was the brief subsiding of pointless ennui. Initially, we withstood the planes hitting the buildings, digested our grief and misdiagnosed it as the death of irony (or humor, luxury, selfishness).

When really all that happened is that we were finally given something to think about other than ourselves -- and sustained this feeling for weeks on end  which surprised us. We were asked to stay alive, stay frosty, stay aware.

How stupid to think you were going to die of boredom.

Because up to a point, in 2001, it felt like our world might die of boredom, that the 1990s would simply never be over. The pop singer Mariah Carey sent up a warning flare in late summer, from various undisclosed rehabilitation hospitals: The end is near. Secretly, perhaps she envied J. Lo to the point where it drove her to madness, exhaustion, candy bars. But maybe Mariah was also a bodily vehicle for the larger message that nobody deciphered, a prophet in our midst.

Many, many New Year's Eves from now we'll think back on the beedy-beedy sound of everyone's musical Nokia phones, and the idea that the meeting would be in New York unless it was in Chicago or Seattle (and the constantly advertised notion that everyone lived this way, everyone but you), the easy amassing of frequent-flier miles, the French blue dress shirts and squared-off Prada loafers and shag haircuts with blond highlights. The whiny 27-year-olds who apparently knew nothing of economic cycles or Newtonian physics, that what goes up must go down, including their ability to switch jobs every six months because they didn't like the flavor of the job they had. (Did all of life bore you? The Onion wasn't funny anymore. Rock was dead. Hip-hop was dead. Politics was dead. We seemed to be pronouncing everything as out, as So Five Minutes Ago, as belly-up, and in most cases all of it sadly was.)

The Beyonces, the Xboxes, the Planets of Apes, the Harry Potters, the sexy Moulin Rouges, the hope we hung on Brad and Jennifer's happiness, the Zone diets, the fringe. The endless freaks to get on.

Now you know that none of this was supposed to matter.

(You already knew it. Okay.)

(Let us agree that now you really know it.)

Perhaps, a friend suggests, there should be legislation against New Year's Eve. Some people would vote in favor. It would take off the pressure, the forced staring at the passage of time, the needless logistics of dinner and parties, the drunk driving.

But it's that terrible mix of the sad and the possible, of the year slipping away, that will always keep us coming back for more. Nobody really pays attention to the words to "Auld Lang Syne," but everyone knows what it means. It means goodbye, right? It means goodbye and it means forever.

A bad year? The picture is crooked, and maybe it looks good that way.

Let someone else decide.

Let a few more New Year's Eves go by  some of them spent on the couch, flipping channels; some of them spent on beaches, gazing at stars. Let them blur together. Let there be pictures that end up collected in shoe boxes in spare closets, pictures of unfortunate hairstyles and strange clothes, and yes, here's one of those buildings collapsing in 2001. That was part of it all, too. That's why we have New Year's Eve, so that there will be shoe boxes of photos we never look at and someone will say, no, I think that was later.

I think this picture comes after 2001.

I think that was 2002.

Yes, because, look, it's different.

You won't be sure how you can tell the difference, but the point is that you can.

'We will all live in Washington, D.C.'

My colleague Hank Stuever loaned me Richard Rodriguez's essay collection "Darling." I'm glad he did. The whole thing is excerptable, which means the whole thing is dang good, so read it. Below is one passage from a 2009 piece called "Final Edition" that laments the death of newspapers (I know, I know) and finds God's architecture in a paperboy's route. Though Rodriguez is guilty of tweaking a pet peeve of mine  conflating Washington the city of people and Washington the political morass  he somehow makes curmudgeonliness and antiquarianism seem vanguard and, more importantly, correct.

Something funny I have noticed  perhaps you have noticed it, too. You know what futurists and online-ists and cut-out-the-middle-man-ists and Davos-ists and deconstructionists of every stripe want for themselves? They want exactly what they tell you you no longer need, you pathetic, overweight, disembodied Kindle reader. They want white linen tablecloths on trestle tables in the middle of vineyards on soft blowy afternoons. (You can click your bottle of wine online. Cheaper.) They want to go shopping on Saturday afternoons on the Avenue Victor Hugo; they want the pages of their New York Times all kind of greasy from croissant crumbs and butter at a café table in Aspen; they want to see their names in hard copy in the "New Establishment" issue of Vanity Fair; they want a nineteenth-century bookshop; they want to see the plays in London; they want to float down the Nile in a felucca; they want five-star bricks and mortar and Do Not Disturb signs and views of the park. And in order to reserve these things for themselves they will plug up your eyes and your ears and your mouth, and if they can figure out a way to pump episodes of "The Simpsons" through the darkening corridors of your brain as you expire (ADD TO SHOPPING CART), they will do it.

We will end up with one and a half cities in America. Washington, D.C., and "American Idol." We will all live in Washington, D.C., where the conversation is a droning, never advancing debate between "conservatives" and "progressives." We will not read about newlyweds. We will not read about the death of salesmen. We will not read about prize Holsteins or new novels. We are a nation dismantling the structures of intellectual property and all critical apparatus. We are a nation of Amazon reader responses ("Moby Dick" is "not a really good piece of fiction" — Feb. 14, 2009, by Donald J. Bingle, Saint Charles, IL, USA — two stars out of five). We are without obituaries, but the famous will achieve immortality by a Wikipedia entry.

National newspapers will try to impersonate local newspapers that are dying or dead. (The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal publish San Francisco editions.) We live in the America of USA Today, which appears, unsolicited, in a plastic chrysalis suspended from your doorknob at the Nebraska Holiday Inn or the Maine Marriott. We check the airport weather. We fly from one CNN Headline News monitor to another. We end up where we started.

An obituary does not propose a solution.

The circus is either in town, or it isn't

Elaine Stritch tore off her black vest and white dress shirt in front of me, then fumbled around in only a bra and black stockings. She had just barreled off the tiny stage at the Café Carlyle, chased by wild applause, and was now at my elbow, cursing and thrashing and jiggling through a costume change for her encore. A gentleman would’ve averted his eyes, but I am not one. I am an admirer of Broadway divas, a wannabe broad myself, and here was the grande dame, nearly naked in front of me in her 80-year-old splendor, reeking of Max Factor and Gold Bond, demonstrating quite literally how a true performer must be vulnerable, always, even when projecting strength. I almost offered to help her, but then thought about the consequences if such an advance was unwelcome. When clothed, she squirmed her way back to the stage, through upper crusties scrunched shoulder to shoulder, and caterwauled through “You Gotta Have Heart” like her life depended on it. Which I think it did.

 From the documentary "Just Shoot Me," with accompanist Rob Bowman in the background. (Isotope Films)

From the documentary "Just Shoot Me," with accompanist Rob Bowman in the background. (Isotope Films)

Stritch was a visceral performer. Her artistry came from the guts. It was intestinal. And without a stage she would’ve starved. Her talent was one thing; her need was another. Her need to perform was just a little bit greater than her ability to perform. I adore her for that intransigence.

I swear to Sondheim: I was listening to her one-woman show “Elaine Stritch at Liberty” for the hundredth time this very morning. A couple hours later, Twitter said she was dead at 89.

The smaller show at the Carlyle, where she lived for a time, came after “At Liberty.” I saw it with friends on Oct. 18, 2005, and I took notes, because I knew it would be special. She entered beside me too. As the audience was applauding her imminent move to the stage, she chanted a mantra I couldn’t decipher, did a couple stretches and lunges, and then ran out into the audience toward the stage, where she jumped into “Yes I Can” with the volcanic testosterone of a football coach marshaling his losing team at halftime.

She then put the audience in her pocket by saying that it was “you and me against the world.” She gave out her room number at the Carlyle (309) and its phone number (which I still have written down). She threw out anecdotes like confetti — about old flames (“Here lies Kenny Reardon — about everything”), her friend Noël Coward (“'Good show, Stritchy, but I asked you to behave, not behave like a fucking geography teacher'”), glamorous parties on yachts (“I vaguely remember falling up the gangplank), rivals like Barbara Cook ("Oh please don't sigh") and a chaperoned date with Sinatra:

Sinatra: “People in the theatre are goin’ nowhere.”

Stritch: “It’d like to know where you are going, Mr. Sinatra.”

Sinatra: “Get her outta here.”

Elaine Stritch had balls, brass, brass balls, whatever you want to call it. She sank into alcoholism but surfaced. She aged publicly because her vanity was detached from her body (though thankfully not from her wardrobe). In the recent documentary "Just Shoot Me," she is rattled by the growing prospect of her death. Her terror is there on-screen, 30 feet high. Who would allow an audience into such a performance, as death waits in the wings? Stritch would. It was the only way to stay alive.

At the Carlyle show nine years ago, she did not sing her two signature Sondheim songs, “I’m Still Here” and “The Ladies Who Lunch,” but they weren’t necessary. She’d already done them definitively, for posterity:

The songs she did sing were choice and revealing. When she sang “I Want to Get Married," 60 years seemed to melt off her face. When she sang “That’s Him” and “I’ve Been Alone a Long Time,” it was clear that her audience was the only lover she had left. Greater than the songs, though, was her patter in between them. She said two things in particular that guide me to this day, in some way.

At the end of a rambling anecdote: "The circus is either in town, or it isn't." This is one of the truest, simplest statements about life, right up there with Gilda Radner's "It's always something."

And: “Live expectantly. Expect better things. Right up to the end of your life, and beyond that. Widen your horizons. Get an ever-greater circle of friends in your life, if you’re lucky. And create for yourself every-day usefulness."

She said this because she'd lived it. Her gruffness masked an excitement over What Comes Next. Life, for Stritch, was a free-for-all. I loved how she accepted awards. I love how she said "fuck" on the "Today" show five months ago. I loved that she got good work on network television in her 80s. And I loved that she could be counted on for something like this Letterman bit in 1996. Who else could've pulled it off?

What else to say? Need something bad enough and you can stay good at it until you die. Everybody rise.