New Year's Eve 1989 in Vancouver, B.C. Canada was to be a city-wide affair, a civicly organized party that took up all of downtown. You could buy a pass for $20 and get into any of the many entertainment and drinking venues that opened their doors for the festivities. There was also free live entertainment in various places, the largest and most central being the rock stage built infront of the courthouse. This location was also going to be the source of the final countdown.
Brian and Jason and myself planned to definitely partake of the festivities. A medium-size party was going on at Jason's house, but it was mostly initiated by his roommates. We planned to go downtown and come back and join the party later. We spent the early evening drinking at Jason's place. At about nine or so, when inebriation was nearly achieved we headed out for the streets. All the buses were free, to discourage drinking and driving.
The bus was crowded and most people seemed in a festive mood. Although in typical Western Canadian fashion, they weren't too open about sharing this mood with the others around them. We lurched to the back of the bus where four headbangers sprawled. These individuals, mean mediocre products of a large middle class and semi-effective social welfare system and a source of so much anxiety in my youth, seemed constrained now and socially awkward. I tried to make friendly conversation with them, but it didn't go far.
We got off the bus a couple of stops before the main throng. Already, there were lines and groups of people all heading in the same direction. You could sense the energy coming from the center. Brian and Jason and I detoured off this route and found one of Vancouver's many convenient and beautiful alleys. Behind some dumpster, inset into one of the buildings, we smoked one of Jason's expertly rolled joints. This ritual had been done so many times between us and others like us, it's not even worth explaining.
The next thing we're basically walking tall, striding up the alley. Jason is leading the pack with a big smile and I have the utterly satisfied realization that the onset of the pot into my system has gelled perfectly with all the alchohol I had been drinking and now I was pretty fucked up. I'm sure this fact was discussed by all three of us. We were all basically in agreement on this point, actually.
We got onto one of the main streets. People were everywhere, converging towards downtown. Now the atmosphere seemed much friendlier. People at least acknowledging other's existence. We had already had a plan. We were going to end up at the back of the area facing the mainstage for the countdown. We were approaching the courthouse from the back, one block to the right of the actual street that passed it. Somewhere around 3 or 4 blocks from the courthouse, it started to get very crowded. We debated whether we should circle around farther, or just cut straight through. It was around 10:20 and we figured, although there might be a lot of jostling, it would be quicker to cut straight through. We were after all, an entire city block to the side of the main crowd and that crowd had a completely empty city block to inhabit.
We forged ahead, with the determination of experienced walkers who were also drunk and stoned. The trip started with efficiency. We were polite but forceful, maintaining our straight path, making quick cuts to the left and right to avoid blockers. This rhythm flowed nicely for a time, but things started to get denser. We had to slow down our speed a couple notches and then a couple more. We remarked we were just going to have to start weaving through any openings we could find. At some point we found ourselves deeply mired in a serious crowd. There never had been a conscious decision to enter it. When we had first decided to cut straight through, we had unknowingly stepped into the quicksand already.
It was deceptive. One moment we were flowing through people, finding openings and maintaining our basic course. The next moment there was no more space. People were moving, but they were always touching other people, flowing around each other like different currents in a stream.
In motion, we reworked our strategy. I took the lead, knowing Jason could fend for himself, but that Brian, otherwise a very good fellow, sometimes lacked guidance after a certain amount of inebriation. We were going to stay as a tight unit and just forge ahead. There would be no dodging or avoiding. We would maintain our path, no matter what. It would be straight and slow.
We were still paying lip service to courtesy, but at this point it had no meaning. We were like a slow motion halfback, driving straight through defenders. One Christmas in San Francisco I had seen a bum working his way through a street packed with shoppers. He was the classic 'hobo' with an unlit cigar jammed into the corner of his mouth. He was hunched over and in a gravelly voice, was repeating "Pardon me, scuze me, scuze me, pardon me" as he worked his way through the crowd. I adopted his technique here, leaning forward and pushing straight through, all the while mumbling pardons under my breath.
I can't remember if we ever discussed the issue of separation, but we were all definitely thinking about it. At some point, Brian just grabbed the back of my mac jacket (thick cotton plaid shirts common to people who worked outdoors in B.C.) with both hands and clung on. He had given up all mental effort. The crowd got tighter and tighter. My hands, which had been at my side, had become pinned to them by the density of people. It took significant effort to squeeze them up and get them infront of me, palms forward.
Faces and conversations streamed by me. The atmosphere was still fun, but with a shrill edge. Suddenly a familiar face was right in front of me. It was Ken Ang, an aquaintance from boarding school. He and I had never been particularily close, but we always got along okay. (Not counting the time he had tried to stab me with his butterfly knife from his bunk bed for messing with his mirror. He ended up cutting himself in the hand, forever memorialising the phrase, "Fuh man, I cut myself" among our collection of high school aphorisms.) We hadn't scene each other in three years. We exchanged pleasantries and I introduced him to Jason. Ken was at a bit of an angle to us, wearing a long overcoat. He turned towards us and opened his coat and introduced us to his petite girlfriend who was underneath it. Then he kind of continued to turn and we had to move on due to the force of the crowd. The whole moment seemed surreal and I kept expressing this to Brian, who maintained a consistent posture with his head buried into my back.
The tension started to pick up among the crowd. I was pretty stoned so rather than actually feel scared, my brain kept questioning whether I should be worried or not. Was this one of those situations where normal people now feel fear? We passed a woman mewling, "stop pushing. Will everyone stop pushing!" She was near desperation. I realized that if there was any kind of panic or stampede my situation would be one of sheer survival. I saw myself abandoning Brian to the crush, clambering over bodies. I realized I would have to sacrifice others to stay alive. I imagined myself stepping on mothers and their children in order to avoid being trampled myself. Would I be able to do it? Could I trample that whining, frightened woman we had just passed?
Suddenly, Jason was gone! This real emergency situation tore me from my musings. I looked everywhere. There were so many heads and faces, I realized that once Jason was more then 10 feet from us, he was lost. "Brian, Jason's gone!" I cried out. "Oh, no." Brian groaned into the back of my shirt, with real anguish. Jason, usually so competent and solid had been seperated from us, separated from the plan. Now, I got focused. Realizing that Brian would be of no use in the decision-making process and that I was suddenly the sole leader in this near-aborted operation, I put my head down and drove to our objective with a renewed intensity.
I explained to Brian, really to codify it for myself, that we were going to get to the meeting place as soon as we could and hope that Jason would have sense enough to meet us there. "I think that's a good idea," came Brian's muffled voice. Corners of my brain knew this to be unrealistically optimistic. But I pressed on, no longer thinking of anything but the straight line I had to make to continue to part the people in front of me. For a timeless period it was nothing but body after body, bumping into me, flowing by me and my caboose that was Brian. At some point, the pressure began to let up Gaps of air between me and the crowd occurred briefly and then disappeared. Soon I could bring my hands down. We moved quickly from being a single mass of humanity, flowing and rubbing amongst one another, to individual units again, dodging and weaving.
We came out of the crowd in line with the back of the main stage viewing area, but an entire city block to the right! And it was 11:42. It had taken us nearly an hour and a half to cross two city blocks. Taking no chances, we walked another block up and then one to the left to double back to our original meeting place.
Here we were right at the periphery of the crowd. We could see the top of the stage and the clock. There was one of those wooden police barriers here. Seeing the size and density of the crowd, we both realized that we were not going to see Jason until tomorrow. We settled in for the count.
People started counting down early. At around 50 seconds Jason's head suddenly rolled into view. Tall and smiling, with his chin out, he came straight out of the middle of the crowd. We yelled and he came running over. We were so psyched. There was much hugging and laughing and then we counted down the end of the last seconds of the '80's and cheered and high-fived with everyone else.
I don't know what else happened downtown, but we eventually returned to Jason's, where a small but decent party was going on. Brian and I didn't last long. We decided to go down to Jason's room, where we smoked more pot. I ended up on Jason's bed, with my shoes still on. Brian was seated at Jason's small desk, where he had been drawing. The party had moved into the pure dancing phase and I could see the floor thumping above my head. I told Brian that I was worried about the ceiling caving in. It was one of those badly made row houses from the 60's with the vinyl siding on the outside and that snowy plaster on the ceiling.
I made the comment about the ceiling half out of a paranoid fantasy and half to mess with Brian. As often was the case with Brian, the results were spectacular. He said, "Oh, really?" in a worried voice and shook himself up from the desk where he had been laying his head He got under the desk, which was about three feet long and two feet deep, with support rails connecting the legs about 4 inches off the ground. Brian curled up into the fetal position and squeezed himself between the rails. He lay there until the morning.