New Yorkers Laughed at Y2K Hype, But Now They’re Finally Scared

Over the past year New Yorkers have heard dire predictions about the millennium-from computer meltdowns, to power outages, to economic collapse-and they were blasé. They figured it was all hype. Let the rubes spend New Year’s Eve in a bomb shelter with their canned goods and transistor radios. We’ll be just fine, thank you. If the computers want to make like it’s 1900, we can play along. We’ll just listen to Scott Joplin and wear boaters and spats and go for a stroll in the park.

And yet … and yet … well, there is the small matter of the American Red Cross-not known as a particularly alarmist organization-telling people to make preparations. “Stock disaster supplies to last several days to a week,” goes the advice on the http://www.redcross.org Web site. The disaster relief experts at the Red Cross also ask citizens to keep extra cash and traveler’s checks on hand. And there’s more: “Have extra blankets, coats, hats and gloves to use to keep warm.” Anything else? “Be prepared to relocate to a shelter for warmth and protection during a prolonged power outage.”

While some citizens remain less than impressed by the possibility of some Y2K-related disaster, the city is taking the matter seriously, fearing that something could go wrong when those estimate one million people celebrate in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

According to Brendan Sexton, the president of the Times Square Business improvement District, there will be about 5,000 police officers on duty that night, when the crystal ball drops which-2,000 more than last year. Each cop in Times Square will be equipped with an extra duty flash light. You know, just in case the power goes out. “Even if the lights go out, 5,000 flashlights is a lot of light,” Mr. Sexton said. “It would be the brightest block in the city.”

The city will also equip the Times Square blocks with extra power generators, in addition to the ones normally in place for a New Year’s celebration. You know, just in case the power goes out.

Mr. Sexton said the blocks around Times Square could be emptied in 90 seconds or less. You know, just in case.

“But what could go wrong?” Mr. Sexton asked.

The city’s cautious approach seems silly to some citizens and not safe enough for others.

“I made the plans of not doing anything,” said poet and translator Richard Howard, a resident of Waverly Place whose translation of Stendahl’s The Charterhouse of Parma has just been released by the Modern Library. “I would never go Times Square anyway, but I certainly wouldn’t go this year and I wouldn’t go to Europe either. It seems very wise to remain at home. I’m perfectly prepared to remain in the dark. I have food here and champagne and that’s about it. It seems foolish to invite difficulties when it’s very pleasant to be here.”

Publicist Bobby Zarem has said no thanks to clients wanting his services for New Year’s Eve events. “I’m going to be in my house with my sheets pulled over my head,” he said. “I think a person’s got to be insane to be out in New York on that night, in that scene, with all those people. I’ve been offered to name my fee to handle events in New York and you couldn’t pay me a million dollars to be there that night.”

Mr. Zarem said he was inclined to believe in the Red Cross’ advisory, because he has promoted some of their events. “I found them to be very smart,” he said. “So there must be some rhyme and reason to what they’re saying, there must be some reason they think something can happen.” Accordingly, he’ll spend New Year’s Eve in Savannah, Georgia.

To review, the Y2K bug, if it proves to be a bug at all, seems to have been caused unwittingly by computer programmers back in the dark days of computer technology, when memory to run programs was scarce. The programmers needed every bit of memory they could find. So they used two digit codes to record four digit dates, a practice that persisted long after the need to save space had disappeared. When the year 2000 comes, these outdated computers will not be able to distinguish between the years 2000 and 1900. Time-sensitive programs could miscalculate or shut down altogether. Even the computer that have been fixed may still malfunction. No one knows for sure.

Poet Ron Kolm is looking forward to Y2K, because he believes a catastrophe might “delegitimize late capitalism,” he said. “Sure, I’m going stock up on stuff like cat food and water, just a couple days worth,” he said. “Then I’ll watch the news to see what happens in New Zealand.”

Kurt Andersen, author of the novel Turn of the Century , said, “This kind of elaborate, advanced Y2K disaster planning, New Yorkers consider themselves too busy or too cool to care about it. Whether they’re now getting concerned or not, I don’t know.” For his part Mr. Anderson said he was not concerned. “I guess I could imagine taking out a few extra dollars a few days before, but nothing of the magnitude of Beef Jerky and Uzis,” he said. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

Mr. Andersen will be spending this New Year’s Eve in Dutchess County.

Rabbi Andrew Bachman at Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at New York University said: “I wouldn’t go to Times Square. But it’s on Friday night, so I would be at home anyway. We’ll be eating and singing songs. Besides, it’s always best to err on the side of caution.”

In the same office, Bronfman Center administrator Randi Jaffe has made extensive preparations for Y2K. Ms. Jaffe, who holds a Masters Degree in English from Columbia University said, “Any small thing that goes wrong is magnified the way these computers work. We’ve got one gallon of water per person, per day, enough to last a few days. We’ve also got a tremendous supply of double A batteries.” She and her husband have also collected two thousand dollars in cash just in case.

Lucianne Goldberg, who tried to bring down President Clinton and lives on the Upper West Side, believes that it’s all going to be a big nothing. “Y2K is caca,” she said. “I think it’s all hype. I’m gong to buy to buy two bottles of champagne and a two lobsters and stay home.”

Ms. Goldberg would not go to Times Square but not for computer-related reasons. “The only reason I’m afraid of Times Square,” she said, “is that I’m terrified of Bridge and Tunnel people.” She won’t stock up on water either. “I’m just going to turn on the faucet,” she said.

What about the Red Cross’s warning?

“I don’t think they have anything better to do.”

Author Benjamin Cheever, a Westchester County guy, said, “There is this theory put out in the boonies, that the cities are going to go and we’ll return to some sort of rural community. I think if New York goes, we all go. I think after the invention of the Bomb, the idea of an individual personal destiny is questionable. If some big catastrophe occurs, we’re all going to be doomed.”

Father Joseph O’Hare, president of Fordham University, is taking Y2K seriously: “There’s been a lot of talk from some religious people who believe there’s going to be some divine punishment. But I don’t believe that God works in round numbers. I am concerned about computers and computer specialists, which is why I’m not flying, and I advise everybody to stay home. I’m a Jesuit. I depend on Providence.”

Larry King Jr.’s Two Cents’ Worth

I feel a nice buzz after one beer, but nothing after two … How many “one-day sales” can Macy’s have? … Why isn’t anybody a wise-ass anymore? … Steve Martin was a better actor before he learned how to act … Funniest animal? The lemur …

Life is fun, overall … Everybody mocks him now, but Somerset Maugham knew how to give readers their dollar’s worth … Teddy Roosevelt would disapprove of most of us living today … Coffee has to be the most frequently spilled beverage …

Kids love trophies … I’m fat … Dogma blows … November’s afternoon sunlight makes me melancholy … Prediction: me, you and everybody else, fighting for our lives, right here in the U.S.A., against invading Chinese armies in 2015 … These new guys can’t be better than L.L. Cool J …

College kids are selfish; high school kids are nice … Sorry, but Dame Edna doesn’t tickle my funny bone … Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies ( Boogie Nights , Hard Eight ) are slow and fast at the same time … George W. Bush is just a likable guy, end of story … Lots of people are going to be sad when Stevie Wonder dies …

No one has ever stopped reading my dad’s USA Today column in the middle … Lunch makes me sleepy … I’d do Meredith Viera … Does anybody really believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ? … Saturday Night Live is having its worst year in a long, long time … Who doesn’t like fresh school supplies? … If you’re against Christopher Columbus, you should be against space exploration … War and Peace is a good read …

Sure, it’s a great exhibit, but those Bronx Zoo gorillas look miserable in the cold New York weather … It’s amazing, that we’re all really going to die … When it’s all said and done, Chinese food is better than Indian food … For getting in shape, you still can’t beat push-ups and sit-ups … And that’s my two cents’ worth.

-Larry King Jr.