Wandering the shopworn aisles of a post-holiday mall, Andy Fundeneanu was sure he would eventually find a funky banner, an irreverent T-shirt, something, anything, to commemorate the "true millennium," the true dawn of the new century that chimes to a start at midnight tonight.
So Fundeneanu strolled the poster stores, the T-shirt stands, even those many science/new age earth stores inside Tysons Corner Center that hawk telescopes, World War II model bombers and glossy illustrated books about the sea turtle and Siberian tiger. But not one keepsake could be found that told the truth about this New Year's Eve.
"I look everywhere, and there are no 2001 T-shirts, no buttons, no ornaments or even sunglasses shaped like 2001," said Fundeneanu, who lives in Fairfax City and studies photography at Northern Virginia Community College. "But it's the real millennium. And no one cares!"
Apparently, numerical purists don't mass-market New Year's Eve merchandise. Maybe because the true believers are such a small and lonely band this year.
Those few who will celebrate the new millennium this year fall into two main categories: astronomers and science types who tend to be particular about things such as accuracy, the nature of the universe and time, and those who had to work during the big hoopla, all-out New Year's Eve, "new millennium 2000," last year.
"I will raise my glass to the new millennium this year, for sure," said Peter LaPorte, who worked "round-the-clock" last year directing the District's millennium celebration and working to keep the city safe from, um, those Y2K woes that never really materialized. "I guess most people realize the new millennium starts this year. Just not everyone cares."
Geoffrey Dawson, owner of a string of restaurants that includes Mackey's and Buffalo Billiards, plans to usher in the new year in style. "I will certainly enjoy it. I was very busy last year with year 2000 . . . millennium parties. I keep telling people that we should celebrate it this year, but I haven't been able to raise a lot of consciousness."
Also jumping on the small but steady let's-celebrate-the-true- millennium-this-year bandwagon is the man who made 2001 famous ahead of its time with his science fiction work, "2001: A Space Odyssey."
"The intelligent minority of this world will mark 1 January 2001 as the real beginning of the 21st century and the third millennium," British-born author Arthur C. Clarke said in a statement from his home in Sri Lanka. "Those who celebrated the twin events a year too soon are also invited to join in the celebrations."
The simplest explanation for all the confusion is this:
The 6th-century monk Dionysius Exigus forgot the year zero when he was working on what would become the modern calendar 1,500 years ago. He started counting at one, which lead to the present situation. It's like saying your new baby is a year old the minute she is born.
Undeniably, most of the country is taking a pass on celebrating the fact that this New Year's Eve is the start of an epoch. What with last year's grand celebration, complete with monumental fireworks and upscale parties, many say it just seems, well, too repetitive, too boring. They didn't let the facts stand in the way of a good party. They've moved on.
"We already celebrated the millennium last year," said Trish Jeffers, a volunteer at Montgomery County's First Night celebration.
The giant party will have a laser show, 12 adult music bands, a teen bands "jam out" session, 15 heated tents, dozens of food vendors, jugglers, clowns, ice sculptures and free parking.
But wait. Nothing for the new millennium?
"Nope," said Jeffers. "It's just not going to happen."
There won't be any special events to welcome the new century at First Night celebrations in Annapolis, either.
And Alexandria, which held a vibrant, well-attended First Night party last year, isn't planning anything for New Year's Eve. Nothing at all.
So the new millennium is like, chopped liver this year? It's just not important?
"It's true. It's not that important," said Geoff Chester, spokesman for the U.S. Naval Observatory, which is apparently the only place in town hosting a celebration for the new millennium with a ball drop. "Most of us up here are living and breathing this because we are hosting an event, but if you ask anyone on the street, it's just another New Year's Eve."
Even the White House Millennium Council, which has several events running throughout the year, has nothing going on tonight.
"We had some great events last year, when the whole world celebrated," said Jennifer Ballen, White House spokeswoman. "It's so hard to figure out when the real millennium begins."
From his desk at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, astrophysicist Jim Lochner chuckles at the muddle about when the millennium truly begins.
"This was something I learned from my high school Latin teacher. It's something that I knew for a long time," said Lochner.
So what happened last year? Why didn't anyone listen to all those cries of "Wrong year"?
One reason was capitalism. Remember all those cruise ships and hotels with those "millennium specials"?
"It's a cynical view, but I am afraid it's true," said Fred Espenak, an astronomer at Goddard. He will spend the evening photographing the sky as the "real start of the millennium comes." It won't look any different from any other night. He just wants to have a commemorative photograph to send to friends and nonbelievers.
Last year, Espenak wore a T-shirt his girlfriend bought him warning that the "New Millennium" had not yet begun. He also attempted to explain to people often and with patience and enthusiasm that they had the year wrong.
"But people really wanted the millennium last year," Espenak said. "So we will enjoy it this year. But it's a lonely venture."