At 10:00 p.m., I decide to wheel it up to Seattle Central Community College to check up on what is supposed to be Seattle's rowdiest party of New Year's Eve. A group of about 70 people have gathered. A man dressed as a riot cop, calling himself Mark: 17, says he's with the Infernal Noise Marching Band. The mood is pure WTO: people gathering in defiance of the law (Mayor Paul Schell seems to want everyone to stay home), semi-political, more about the preservation and use of the public sphere than any particular issue. Some Communists (carrying red flags) are circulating "Free Mumia" flyers. A real cop on a bike comes by and delivers a wisecrack: "That's WTO stuff, man! You're like three weeks late!" More people show up, carrying a model of a suspension bridge that looks like a six-poster bed. They are followed immediately by a ladder truck and seven firemen, who had "received a call about a bed on fire." Apprehension about the authorities is a WTO leftover: "They're just trying to intimidate us," one woman says bitterly. But as the crowd swells to a few hundred, dancing and banging drums, the police only briefly close the street before following the group to the clock at Pike Place Market.
I sit at Broadway and Pine for 10 minutes with no passengers in sight. This is supposed to be a cabby's best shift of the year, but it's slower than a Monday night. The mayor's cancellation of the Space Needle celebration has kept everyone home. I pick up two teenaged boys from Bremerton whose friends have ditched them. "Hey, we've got each other!" one says, with astonishingly frank affection. Another teenager stands alone on the corner of First and Marion, wearing rabbit ears and watching a helicopter circling overhead.
A car full of partiers from Capitol Hill tell me the Belltown bash they're headed to will get interesting as soon as the hallucinogens they've taken kick in. Not long after, an affluent-looking, heavyset, middle-aged woman gives me a commemorative champagne flute from the Cloud Room as a tip. "You can't have the cake," she deadpans, looking down at her belly. "I need the cake." The whole cab busts out in riotous laughter.
At midnight, the street party in front of Pike Place Market burns its bridge to the 21st century, setting off skyrockets and firecrackers. The police have vanished. Strangers kiss; the lights stay on. Young men dance in the flames, setting fire to their shoes and pantcuffs. A woman beats out one man's flaming sneaker with her handbag. A few minutes after midnight, the streetlights blink out, but come back on. A couple in formal evening dress stand, immaculate, in the rowdy circle closest to the fire.
"Terrorism, shmerrorism," says Robin Denberg, who last month worked as a coordinator for the anti-WTO Direct Action Network.
"Free speech isn't always political. We have the right to a public celebration," adds a young man named Ben, standing nearby. This is like the good part of WTO, minus the delegates and the cops -- just a group of different kinds of people sharing something monumental. And indeed, it felt like while the rest of the populace stayed in bars or at home at parties or in front of the TV, here was the actual city.
It's after 2:00 a.m., and the last passenger of the night is a handsome, 30-ish guy who says he's been "all over," to eight different clubs and parties, and has had "many shots." He is the ideal rider: smart, drunk enough to be sad and philosophical, self-aware enough not to babble. "It's funny, this is kind of a special time for me; I mean, I'm starting all over. I'm newly single; I've got a new place; things are different. The future is just what it's going to be, and it's beautiful."