One item on my "things-to-do-before-I-die" list was to spend a New Year's Eve in New York's Times Square. I wanted to see the ball drop and shout "Happy New Year!" amid the flashing lights, glitz and excitement.
Three years ago, I made it. Kind of.
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I embarked on my journey with a half-dozen members of my extended family.
My first premonition of doom came before we'd even left home.
My sister-in-law, Genean, said she'd booked us all an extra-large room on 43rd Street, less than a block from Times Square, for a mere $150. It had a king-size bed and two double beds, she said.
I figured we were in trouble. Either Genean had fallen for a scam — there would be no room at the inn — or we were staying in a crack house.
Our group drove to Hoboken, N.J., then took the subway into the city. It was still daylight on Dec. 31 when we ascended from the Times Square station. We discovered that the police had blocked off the entire area with iron crowd-control gates.
Genean and her husband, Rex, had brought their two small children. We had strollers. We had luggage. We were freezing. We couldn't get to our hotel.
After trying one route and then another, we explained our plight to an NYPD officer, who escorted us through the maze of barricades.
As we hurried along, the cop asked me the name of our hotel. I told him.
He grimaced, then glanced at the children. "Really?"
"Is it that bad?" I said.
"Good luck," is all he said.
The police officer was an optimist. The hotel was beyond bad — it was filthy, broken down, a rat trap. Our room, including the bedsheets, appeared not to have been changed since the 1950s.
That evening, we emerged from the hotel and turned toward Times Square, only to encounter those barricades again. Police told us we'd have to walk several blocks north. When we reached the street where they'd told us to go, we found it blocked, too. We went even further north. And then further.
The longer we trudged, the more the throng around us — there were an estimated 2 million people on the streets — grew bigger and wilder.
We ended up at Central Park, smack out of streets to go north on, light years from any glimpse of Times Square.
Suddenly, we got caught behind a final iron barrier. People surged from all directions. We were wedged in, could barely breathe. Rex and Genean's children were about to be crushed. Rex and I tried to shield them.
Genean, crying and frantic, somehow squeezed through the jostling drunks toward a police lieutenant who took mercy on us. He momentarily opened the iron barricade and with two other cops, plucked us from the crowd.
"Take those children back to your hotel," he said. "Get away from this mess."
Shivering, scared, exhausted, we headed west until the crowd thinned out, then finally turned south. We stopped on our retreat at a fast-food Chinese restaurant. A TV blared from a stand over the counter.
As we wolfed down soggy sweet-and-sour chicken, we saw the ball drop in Times Square — on television.
This past New Year's Eve, I was cozy in my den in Kentucky. My girlfriend, Liz, sat beside me. We watched the festivities in Manhattan.
As the sparkling ball dropped in Times Square, Liz and I kissed, then joined hands and said an impromptu prayer. At 12:03, my phone rang. It was my son, John, and daughter-in-law, Cassie, wishing us a Happy New Year.
I thought about how full my heart felt.
I thought about how grateful I was not to be in New York City. I still like the Big Apple and will visit again, but for me, its New Year's Eves have lost their glamour.
I thought about how often the things we want, once we get them, aren't what we'd expected.
We've just finished a year in which we've witnessed the myriad dangers of pursuing all manner of big-time glitz. We've seen ambitious financiers let their lust for riches and prestige outstrip their honesty and common sense. We've seen them humiliated. Now we're all paying a dreadful price for their errors.
Whether we yearn for a trip to Times Square on New Year's Eve or a billion-dollar fortune, what we tend to discover is that our prizes rarely live up to their hype.
What satisfies us most are the quiet, daily blessings we may already possess: a safe home, a comforting kiss, a call from a loved one, a prayer to a merciful God.