Confetti Virgin (I Tossed It Away in Times Square)



Times Square, NY, NY 10036

Neighborhood: Times Square

I had watched it dozens of times on TV. At midnight, on New Year’s Eve, the buildings spew out tons of confetti, littering the streets and crowds below, as if by magic, with no human interference, celebration spontaneously erupting from the city itself.

Unbeknownst to me, there were people who chose to spend the night hanging around in empty office buildings waiting for approximately fifteen seconds of fame, if fame was actually an anonymous thing. Fifteen precious seconds in which they pelt the masses with armfuls of multicolored shredded bits of tissue paper. “It’s essentially a violent act,” says Treb Heining, Confetti Master of the Times Square Business Improvement District. “You cannot throw confetti gently and be effective.”

I was initiated into this society by Edward, my boyfriend at the time. He suggested, casually, we spend the holiday flinging things at people from rooftops.

“Can’t you get arrested for that?” I asked.

“Arrested? No, you get paid.”

“Then sign me up!”

I didn’t think about it again for several weeks, until the morning of December 31, a morning absurdly cold, wind chill factor -6, radio predicting 15 measly degrees for the big moment. As the sun was setting on New Year’s Eve, Edward and I spent extensive time outfitting ourselves for the chill, which is to say, he handed over layers and gear and anything designed for arctic conditions, to me.

Edward was not a confetti virgin, deflowered by a friend two years before. It works like that: involvement in this Great Confetti Caper is mostly a word-of-mouth affair, one might even call it viral, although one woman I met had responded to a newspaper ad. How quaint. Signing up involved Edward calling his friend, telling him to sign us up, and being signed up. All to create the impression that this was a rather laissez-faire event. But The Times Square Business Improvement District (BID)—host and financier of the New Year’s Eve Project—is not a laissez-faire outfit.

At 7 pm, wearing five layers of insulation, we arrived at the BID offices, in the Actors’ Equity Building on 46th Street. We were greeted by enormous trashcans full of streamers, leis, and generic things to wave around in the air, all to be distributed to the crowd at 10:30. A little bit of everything littered the monochrome carpet with a dizzying mosaic effect. Ushered into a conference room, Official People checked us in and gave us Official Passes. These were employees of the BID, whose entire raison d’etre was New Year’s Eve, checking lists, checking them twice, volunteers organized into teams, teams assigned to buildings. Altogether, we made about fifty: shoved into a room with no ventilation and dressed for a winter night atop many storied buildings, we soon began to shed. Minus layers, the crowd is shown to be mostly white, balanced in gender, and ranging in age from 15 to 70.

Confetti Master Treb Heining called the meeting to order and gave us a lecture slash demonstration on the correct approach to confetti. To effectively drop confetti, you grab as much as you can between two widespread palms and chuck it sideways—not overhand, not underhand—but away from you, over the side of the building. Heining learned to heave confetti at Disneyland. Heining is an artist.

A few other things we needed to know. We were not allowed to drink, or otherwise party, until after the confetti had been dropped. We were not to wander off without letting our Team Leader know where we were going. We were to remember that our access to these buildings was tethered to the confetti task at hand. As for the big moment itself, we would begin to throw confetti at twenty seconds before midnight. Tissue paper takes twenty seconds to reach the ground. If any confetti fell from our amateurish grasp, we were not to pick these scraps up again, for dirt or pebbles from the rooftops could mingle about, and dirt and pebbles are not good things to throw upon unsuspecting visitors from six floors above.

Our Team Leader was Michael, a veteran of seven years, an affable guy who worked for a PR firm when not doing sordid things with confetti. Eight of us were on his team. We suited up, strung ourselves with CONFETTI CREW passes, and headed for our station: the Bertelsmann Building, otherwise known as the Virgin Megastore. Michael was delighted. Bertelsmann was directly across 46th Street from us! No battling through the crows. No battling through crowd-control. Not one barricade did we pass. In case you wondered after the 7 pm arrival time, for some teams, it took that long to reach their designated building by 11:30.

At the service garage of Bertelsmann, the Chief of Security made a fuss. VIPs were in the building and we needed to be issued special Bertelsmann Building Passes in addition to our CONFETTI CREW passes. The collecting of badges was fun, like Girl Scouts, and we were ushered into the nice warm cafeteria like good Scouts about to unleash Thin Mints upon the world. Almost eerie in its placid emptiness, the cafeteria gave view to the barricaded 45th Street, empty and unlit, and the intersection segment of Broadway, illuminated and overpopulated already at just before 8 pm.

The Chief of Security followed us. He would prefer we loitered in a nasty cold empty garage a few floors down because the VIPs would soon be passing nearby and we, Confetti Crew, practically Girl Scouts with Samoas, posed a security risk, badges or not.

“It’s the mayor, isn’t it?” Michael asked, grinning with anticipation.

The Chief of Security could neither affirm nor deny this.

Michael charmed the Chief of Security into letting us stay in the cafeteria. Under no circumstances were we to mingle with the VIPs who were having a party on the 24th floor penthouse. In fact, we had no knowledge of a penthouse, on the 24th floor, or otherwise.

Then we waited.

For about four hours.

Michael slipped me ten bucks to get snacks, if we could find a place open. Three of us headed outside together, as various beautiful people in fur coats entered the building. Even trying to leave the building made the security chief nervous.

We stepped outside into a bitter chill, and an unexpected roar: there were so many people standing around Times Square that voices combined for a constant and loud hum, the voice of humankind. But 45th Street was barricaded, unlit, dark, and deserted but for a few cops, leading us to a corner deli, where we stockpiled on snacks. Leaving only the issue of how to pass time. Back in the Bertelsmann cafeteria, the Confetti Team peeled off several layers and got to know each other. Michael brought a board game. Around the circle were a professional clown, a Rutgers student, a sound designer, two writers, an associate producer for Disney, an interior decorator and a graphic designer. Edward and I were coupled, and two guys were old friends, but otherwise everyone else elected to do this with a bunch of strangers. It was very chummy, almost collegiate, with a slightly perverse twist: we are contentedly passing several hours playing a party game while just outside thousands of people were freezing their asses off and wishing they had had less to drink. We were warm. We had nice clean toilets. The effect of being in Times Square, inside, dry, and above the crowds, is like a sci-fi flick, a dream, something fuzzy.

By 10:30, the crowd noise escalated. Sanitation workers, in orange jumpsuits, distributed the leis, streamers, and generic things to wave. We peered down to look. Tens of thousands of people were waving what appeared to be soft-sculpture fluorescent phalluses above their heads, a veritable sea of Marge Simpson hairdos. Occasionally, people from high up in the surrounding buildings lobbed homemade confetti out the windows, sometimes entire reams of paper. Michael smugly shrugged this off, calling it “one drip from a faucet compared to our Niagara Falls” (by the end of the evening, fully 2000 pounds of official confetti will land on the streets of Times Square). There was also the intermittent roll of toilet paper, caught in the strong updraft created by the canyons of buildings. These rolls snaked and pirouetted along with a gracefulness that was almost breathtaking.

We began to prepare. Once we all laboriously zipped ourselves back into our arctic gear, Michael led us down to the fifth-floor maintenance area, where there were a dozen boxes, each weighing about 45 pounds and filled with pieces of tissue paper in many colors, shapes and sizes. We lugged them outside onto the terrace above the Virgin sign. We placed them in piles of three, at four different places along the roof. This was the sum total of preparation.

We returned to the warm cafeteria, peeled out of our layers yet again, and started up the board game again. After an hour, we suited up for the last time, this time with a sense of purpose, of destiny. Once on the terrace, we had about twenty minutes to wait, and finally our cold weather gear came into use. Two confetti throwers were assigned to each station, with Michael floating between. The mob below was mesmerizing, serene and electric; the roar was deafening; everyone seemed innocent and hopeful, and not drunk and frozen. It was a marvelous place to embrace humanity. It was also a marvelous place to entertain paranoid fantasies about terrorists bombing half a million people at one go.

Looking up and to the south, we could see the ball—which, to everyone’s surprise, was puny. Looking down, we could just make out the mayor’s head on a police-barricaded dais, as he introduced the girl who would drop the ball by remote. We could see the other teams, at our height or a little higher, poised all around the Square on rooftop terraces, at the ready.

The TV screen over the southern end of the Square told us: only four minutes left, then two minutes, then one minute. As the roar grew louder and louder and the collective tension of the mob below us welled up into the stratosphere, we grabbed armfuls of confetti. And waited. Nobody noticed us; more than 500,000 pairs of eyes are focused on that little ball. Just as I realized that I really wanted to watch the ball drop, Michael hollered, jumping up and down, “Start throwing! Start throwing!” We could barely hear him above the din but his gestures, frantic, sufficed.

Edward and I hurled armfuls over the edge and bent down to grab more. We hurled a second armful, grabbed some more. The confetti was in a plastic bag within the box, and the bag made it hard to get a satisfying armful, but we tugged away. I lacked the artful form Confetti Master Treb demonstrated so many hours ago, but I was definitely effective—and I was definitely violent (I would wake up the next morning completely stiff). I missed the countdown, I missed the ball drop, but it didn’t matter, because as I pitched armfuls of confetti off the building, I saw the work of my teammates, all laboring upwind of me: the world was a blurry, furry, mostly-orange-but-vibrantly-multi-colored whorl. The brilliant lights of a nearby billboard caught certain individual pieces; they stood out like snapshots tossed onto a swimming pool. Nothing fell down, it fell across. A lot of it fell up.

“Don’t stop!” Michael screamed, running up and down the terrace with glee. “Don’t stop, but don’t forget to look at what you’re doing!”

We looked up. The height of the buildings, and the tremendous space between them, was magnified through the colorful, wild, gentle snow of confetti. We kept throwing. For almost five solid minutes, we did nothing but reach, grab, and shove, pausing only as a box was emptied. Finally, finished and gasping for breath, we paused to survey our handiwork.

The updraft was so strong that a lot of confetti floated ten floors up into the air or more before beginning a slow, teasing descent. It wasn’t as dense once we stopped throwing, but it was unlike anything I’d ever seen. Finished with our duty, we ran around congratulating and hugging each other, taking snapshots, and breaking down the boxes for recycling. By ten past midnight, the crowd had thinned considerably. By twenty after, it is diminished by half. Michael hooked up a leaf-blower to blow the rest of the confetti off the roof. We took the broken-down boxes to the recycling corner of the garage, and the security guard released us from the building.

After a sentimental moment of realizing most of us would never meet again, we dispersed into the dispersing crowd. We weren’t quite like the rest of the celebrants, however: we weren’t drunk, we weren’t cold, and we didn’t have a desperate need to relieve ourselves. And, oh yes, we had very cool badges.

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