To travel back in time to 1999, you have to start by shedding a few things, as though you’re going through airport security. No iPod. No smartphone. No YouTube. No Facebook. No Twitter. In 1999, the Internet was shiny-new and just out of the box, and we still believed that its greatest utility was to deliver dog food to our door and packs of gum and cigarettes to us by hand. We were just starting to figure out that the new search site Google, which had launched in 1998, might prove useful for something. We couldn’t yet peek 24/7 through our neighbor’s digital windows. We knew the word friend but not the word unfriend.
We were excited about the new century, but also anxious. On April 20, 1999, Columbine happened, a small-town tragedy that became shorthand for everyone’s particular millennial fear: guns, bullies, godlessness, video games. Across the country, in Washington, Bill Clinton presided over the final days of what The Onion later called “our long national nightmare of peace and prosperity,” even as Zippergate or Monicagate—we never did settle on a name—dragged on toward its first anniversary. Like any 1-year-old, it was proving to be equal parts tiresome and transfixing. On March 3, 1999, 70 million Americans watched Monica Lewinsky interviewed by Barbara Walters, almost exactly the same number that watched the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. Twenty-six days later, on March 29, the Dow closed above 10,000 for the first time in history. On May 3, the Dow closed above 11,000 for the first time in history. In terms of markets, and money, everything was expanding and hopeful. We could see our bloated reflections in the golden skin of the dot-com bubble.
Culturally, though, the decade that started in a bang of guitar fuzz and feedback was ending in a whimper of boy-band harmonies. Nirvana gave way to Candlebox gave way to Britney Spears; Public Enemy was usurped by Puff Daddy. 1999 was both the year that Ricky Martin sang “Livin’ La Vida Loca” and the year that Napster launched, so it was the last time it felt like everyone was listening to the exact same song at the exact same time. In fact, 1999 can be pinpointed as Precisely the Last Year of How Things Used to Be. We listened to music on stereos. We watched TV on TVs. We read books in books and newspapers on newspaper. We didn’t yet suspect that our desktops and laptops, lurking innocently in our workspaces and spoon-feeding us e-mail, were exerting a black-hole tug on our lives.
At the movies, it was a good year. It was a great year. In 1999 alone, you could have seen: Being John Malkovich, Three Kings, Magnolia, Fight Club, The Limey, The Matrix, American Beauty, or South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. In his year-end review, David Edelstein—then at Slate, now at New York—wrote, “I think of this past year—the last year of cinema’s first whole century—as the most hopeful since the 1970s.” And it was true: It was the best, most innovative year for American movies in recent memory. Sadly, ten years later, you can still say the same thing.
And in New York? In 1999, crime had fallen for the ninth straight year. If you’d lived your entire life in the city, you were likely just getting over the trauma of the seventies and eighties, and not yet pining for them nostalgically. Yet in year five of Giuliani’s tenure, there was a rising, unshakable sense that justice, not crime, was now out of control. On February 4, 1999, police shot the unarmed Amadou Diallo nineteen times. Giuliani barricaded himself in City Hall, beset by protestors. Elsewhere, though, the new city he helped to midwife, one broken window and exiled squeegee guy at a time, was starting to crown. In 1999, Keith McNally opened Pastis in the meatpacking district. Tina Brown and Harvey Weinstein launched Talk magazine with a lavish party on Liberty Island. Friends was the country’s favorite comedy, a weekly infomercial for a whitewashed Manhattan. On HBO, Sex and the City celebrated the end of a successful first season. And the most popular TV show, and question, in America was Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.
Then, on New Year’s Eve 1999, a record number of revelers gathered in Times Square to wear funny glasses, peering through the zeros in 2000, and wait anxiously for the apple to drop, the world’s computers to fail, and jets to start falling from the sky. But the new year—the Future—arrived time zone by time zone, encircling the globe, without incident or apocalypse. The apple dropped. The millennium started. We’d all worried, What’s going to happen next? And the answer, it turned out, was, nothing, yet.
It took nearly two more years for the Twin Towers to fall. The bookends of decades rarely conform to calendars, and the nineties didn’t truly end until September 11, 2001. We’d been wondering what was coming, and then we found out. We saw clearly what it was that we didn’t yet know and couldn’t possibly anticipate.