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Conspiracy theorists aren’t hearing anything from their pet noires, government specialists, or the media to contravene their fears about the millennium. Come Y2K, say the soothing nerds in their best Let’s-not-panic-people tone, prepare as if for a weeklong storm. Uh-huh. That’s the government practically admitting that bands of ravenous neighbors will be clawing at the shelter doors of level-headed survivalists as if in a nationwide episode of The Twilight Zone. A sack of dried beans and a Caldor generator may buy you a week, but, come February, you’ll be eyeing your own children the way Elmer Fudd eyed Bugs Bunny.

The trouble with gauging the extent of the 2K mess is that its specific bugaboos shift shape depending on which social level they’re spooking. Whereas fears of nuclear annihilation used to be the province of the idle, liberal upper middle class, who had time to chain themselves to reactor fences along with the odd celebrity, the more amorphous doomsday panic occupies a lower socioeconomic tier, whose partisans are more likely to be driven by suspicion of the government and numerical fetishism. For survivalists, hoarding and hiding aren’t direct reactions to the specter of worldwide computer meltdown—if airplanes might, as is so often said, “drop out of the sky,” the wisest course is to not be on one—but, rather, are born of class resentment and outsider pride, a century’s accumulation of skepticism in the concrete and credulity in the immaterial. Moving up a class rung or two, back to the anti-nuke crowd that is now too comfortable to bother with protests, millennial fears manifest themselves in peculiarly specific and dreadful form: a possible champagne shortage.

This delectable idea is an image of fin de siècle frenzy made happily lurid and harmless—the possibility of socialites cat-fighting over the last case of Roederer Estate while Total Beverage clerks hit the security button is priceless—but skepticism has rightly seeped into the nation’s bones. Who, after all, is spreading these claims? Our allies at Veuve Clicquot? Insistence that the night of Dec. 31, 1999, is a Big Thing of some kind is universal; every American of every class is being subjected to a version of gearing up for the event. The prospect of just existing when the numbers roll over has given us all a sense of vague cachet—we’ve hit the historical jackpot. Call it Millennium Chic. And consumer culture has swooped in to bestrew our heads and homes with appropriate trinkets. Call that Millennium Kitsch.

For those who have heeded the sparkling wine manufacturers’ call, the makers of fine crystal are rolling out their Millennial Collections. Waterford offers flute champagne glasses by the pair—toast to “Happiness,” “Love,” “Health,” or “Prosperity” (the last, ominously, “not shown” in Nat Schwartz & Co.’s winter catalogue). At this time, there are at least four editions of each, all limited, the molds to be smashed in fine peasant style by the manufacturer as, presumably, the glasses should be—it’s your last chance this century to play Marie Antoinette slumming daintily in shepherdess clothes.

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The audience for Rhino’s 20 Centuries of Hits is less discernible—two millennia worth of tunes squished onto one confusing CD, it will sway no Bing Crosby fans (“Star Dust,” along with “Louie Louie” the choices of the 20th century) to the delights of Gregorian chants (“Pange Lingua Gloriosi Praelium Certaminis,” sixth century). Aficionados of early music or Aretha Franklin surely have all the Deller Consort and Queen of Soul recordings they need. The premise is impossibly specious; lacking any but the scantiest records of true popular music, the CD offers up a sludgelike slab of Christian liturgical dronings for centuries, bracketed by two historically interesting but unlistenable Greek songs on one end and Western folk music—”Greensleeves” and Pete Seeger—on the other. The liner notes are tangled by disclaimers, pre-empting such arguments, but really—no Elvis?

If the changeover to the year 2000 isn’t the onset of the true second millennium, and if our own Christian calendar (not everyone’s Christian calendar, at that) relies on an arbitrary numerical system (not to mention one that renders the first point moot; to party like it’s 1999, you’ll have to wait until 2000), then the specialness of this event is merely something we as a culture have agreed upon. Travel corporations and the foreign parts they shill for take it as read that everyone will want to be somewhere else when the ball drops; restaurants, lounges, hotels, cruise ships, and Disney World all began booking ages ago.

The travel industry is toying with the year-end dateline continuum with capriciousness—acknowledging that the idea has been imposed arbitrarily on time’s elastic infinity while still exploiting it for its frisson of exclusivity. There are round-the-world jaunts that speed ahead of the dateline so that exhausted travelers may pop corks in each time zone as midnight crashes into them like a wave. New Zealand and its dreary island neighbors claim that the first rays of dawn of 2000 will fall on them. Even scorning the worldwide party for more intimate pleasures is a reaction to it—don’t try getting a room at any Ritz-Carlton, anywhere. In Paris, the Eiffel Tower has been besmirched for the last two years by an odious lit sign counting down the days—it was “Jour 297 avant l’an 2000” on the day last month when I took a picture of it from the esplanade at Trocadero; it was “Jour 662” during last year’s boat trip down the Seine. In Matt Groening’s new animated series, Futurama, Paris’ countdown to 3000 is shouted in English, in a quick little scherzo on America’s continuing domination of Western culture, both optimistic and depressing.

Then again, Futurama ensures that we witness the countdown as the global phenomenon it is: “Char!” they cry at the Taj Mahal; “Ni!” in Japan. The end of the first millennium may not harbor any inherent meaning, but celebrating it fulfills deeply felt needs. It organizes existence, shuffling into place the human scramble of history, circumstance, and experience. The nebulous quality of the occasion allows virtually everyone to descry shapes in the millennial clouds—2000 years of Christianity for Christians, the end of the world for apocalypts, the biggest party ever for the champers crowd. For all of us, it imparts a ceremonial cast to mere endurance and, like a red herring in detective fiction, generates suspense. But if the millennium in general is a Hitchcockian MacGuffin, the Y2K bug is Agatha Christie’s sly parallel plotting—the obvious suspect, ruled out by the keen-eyed gumshoe for tiny inconsistencies, turns out to have been the ultra-clever culprit all along—because something will happen that night, we just don’t know what.

Perhaps more importantly, it is the end of something that matters for those who lived through the bulk of it—the 20th century. Never mind that the souls of centuries, like those of decades, have sliding boundaries; all those zeroes will put paid to the last mad, exhilarating, propulsive, and horrific 100 years of which everyone now living is a part. By Jan. 15, computer geeks willing and the Dow don’t fall, the crystal will have been smashed, our biggest problem will be getting the date right on our checks, and the keening awareness of living in a new century will have faded. But for those of us who will be letting go of the 1900s with a little regret, the notion that we may be doomed to repeat history is nothing less than auspicious. —Arion Berger