Count on preparing for Times Square

The Baltimore Sun

Dick Clark, Ryan Seacrest and the rest of the people hollering, smiling, dancing and kissing on New Year's Eve in Times Square are liars.

Unless you have a V.I.P. badge around your neck, the experience is nothing like it appears on TV. Misery is a word that comes to mind.

You stand in below-freezing temperatures for more than seven hours with no access to bathrooms, rations or chairs. And, more likely than not, confetti will never cascade onto your head.

For those not deterred - who want nothing more than to say they've been there, done that - here are "The 10 Things I Wish I'd Known Before I Paid $5 to Stand in an Hourlong Line to Use the Bathroom at Tad's Broiled Steaks in Times Square."

No. 10: Despite how it looks on TV, confetti does not fall from the sky.

If you want nothing more than to feel a shower of thin paper on your head, expect an eight-hour wait. The confetti only falls in the primest parts of the "prime viewing area," called the "bow tie," between 42nd and 47th streets on Broadway and Seventh Avenue.

The best views, which are on the north end of the bow tie and face the ball, fill up by 4 p.m.

No. 9: The ball is small.

So small that upon seeing it, you might give up.

If that happens, at least watch the Waterford Crystal globe slowly travel up the 77-foot-tall flagpole at 6 p.m. - before returning to your hotel and watching the party on TV.

No. 8: Expect to learn a lot about life as a pig.

The system the New York City Police Department uses to herd 1 million people into Times Square and up Seventh Avenue is bizarre.

Visitors funnel into the viewing areas, called "pens," from entrances on the Avenue of the Americas (Sixth Avenue) and Eighth Avenue. If it's early in the evening, start on one of these streets in the 40s and head north toward Central Park until you find an opening.

As you approach each cross street - 47th Street, 48th Street, 49th Street, etc. - you'll know that the corresponding "pen" on Seventh Avenue is full if police refuse to let you through the barricade. Ask a police officer to direct you to the nearest opening.

Once there, you'll go through security, walk one block to Seventh Avenue and turn south, funneling into a pen.

After that, you're pretty much stuck. Once a pen is full, police will gate it from behind and block off the entrance at three locations.

The "pens" only enclose Seventh Avenue's traffic lanes. You won't have access to the sidewalks, restaurants, businesses and bathrooms.

As revelers give up and go home, police intermittently open up the pens, allowing people in the 52nd Street pen, for instance, to move forward to the 51st Street pen. Aggressive revelers can move up several blocks during the course of the evening.

No. 7: Dress as if you're traveling to Antarctica.

Under normal conditions - with temperatures at or below freezing - visitors should wear several layers of clothing, including long underwear and an outer shell that is wind-resistant and water-repellent. Comfortable shoes are required.

No. 6: Don't go hungry.

Bags, backpacks and alcohol are not permitted in pens. Food vendors do not roam the sidewalks, and if you leave a pen to get food, you risk not being able to get back.

Make dinner reservations now, eat early and take snacks with you for later - anything lightweight that fits into your coat pockets or purse. I recommend 4 p.m. reservations at Zona Rosa, a wonderful and casual Mexican restaurant on West 56th Street.

If you make reservations for later in the evening and in the immediate vicinity of Times Square, you will not be able to walk outside and watch the ball drop at midnight. The pen in front of you will be blocked off, and the police will keep you off the sidewalk.

However, there are a few restaurants and hotels with views of the drop. To find them, go to timessquarenyc.org and click on "New Years Eve" and then "Frequently Asked Questions." The interactive map on the left side of the page also is helpful.

No. 5: Take extra batteries for your camera.

If this event is on your "Things to Do Before I Die" list, having proof of the feat is important. Batteries run down quickly in cold weather, so take extra.

No. 4: Make friends with people who live in Manhattan. Or spend a lot of money.

The best place to stay is with a friend or relative. Otherwise, room prices start at four times the normal rate and might be sold out by now.

If you're looking for affordable and convenient - "affordable" being a relative term - stay at the Wellington Hotel on Seventh Avenue between West 55th and West 56th streets.

I stayed at the Muse, a stunning and contemporary boutique hotel right around the corner from Times Square on West 46th Street.

And to really pamper yourself - and experience the ultimate in convenience - stay at Times Square's flagship hotel, the Marriott Marquis.

Unless your accommodations are free, it's worth staying in the neighborhood. After seven or eight hours on your feet, the last thing you'll want to do at 12:01 a.m. is walk dozens of blocks to your hotel or wait for the subway.

Also, check in to your hotel as early as possible. The concierge will give you the necessary paperwork to get through police checkpoints and to your hotel after the streets close later in the evening. Those papers, however, will not get you into a closed pen.

No. 3: Ladies, take cash for the bathroom.

Having to pay $10 for myself and my boyfriend's mother to use the bathroom is something I don't want to repeat.

First, we had to beg two police officers - one at the back of the pen and one at the corner of Seventh Avenue and 50th Street - to let us use the restroom and return.

The officers said that if they were still standing at the same post when we returned, they would let us back into the pen, but they warned us that they could be reassigned elsewhere. We took the risk and luckily were able to return.

The next challenge was finding a bathroom. The closest was at a diner, which was charging $40, the cost to get into its New Year's Eve party. The T.G.I. Friday's across the street was charging $30.

We resorted to Tad's Broiled Steaks at Seventh Avenue and 50th Street, next to a combined KFC, Pizza Hut and Dunkin' Donuts. The conglomerate's bathrooms had flooded, while Tad's offered one unisex stall.

Tad's "bouncer" charged us $5 per person, and we had to wait in line for an hour.

The men had it much easier.

While waiting for the ball to drop, we met two guys from Alabama who needed to go. So, my boyfriend, his parents and I stood in a circle with our backs to them while they "did their business" in empty water bottles.

Terribly unattractive, I know.

No. 2: The best part is the people.

If the restroom price gouging doesn't deter you, then you should go for it. The people we met were friendly, shared fascinating stories and lived all over the world.

My boyfriend's mother and I met a wonderful mother and daughter from Ireland in line for the bathroom. The four of us led efforts to boo and taunt people cutting in line.

Contrary to rumors, we didn't encounter widespread drunkenness. The drunk people, I'm convinced, either gave up hours earlier or arrived well after us - and thus were "penned" several blocks back.

No. 1: At the end of the night, all you'll have is a full bladder and bragging rights.

In hindsight, the latter was worth the trouble. But I refuse to repeat the achievement. Ever.

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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