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A CENTURY WITH 99 YEARS

Somewhere, someone has plans tonight to stand up at the stroke of midnight and shout, "IT'S NOT THE NEW MILLENNIUM!"

He or she will be right. It won't matter. Almost nobody cares.

What we're celebrating this evening, if the Y2K bug doesn't short-circuit the party, is the rolling over of a set of numbers on the calendrical equivalent of an odometer. Today, the year starts with a 19; tonight, we turn 20.

It didn't seem to matter so much when we turned 19.

"To the Citizens of Buffalo," an official proclamation began back when this city ranked among the nation's 10 largest metropolises. "The special committee, consisting of the Mayor and the representatives of the Board of Councilmen and the Board of Aldermen and representatives of the city at large, at a meeting held Thursday, determined upon a fitting and elaborate celebration of the close of the present and the beginning of the new century to be held at the midnight hour on New Year's Eve."

And they did, too. Cannons roared, brass bands played downtown, tugs and steamboats in the harbor "whistled with all their might," Main Street was closed to horse traffic for a midnight parade and the Council ruled that if people came out with tin horns "they should not be restrained."

Trouble is, they did all this at the advent of Jan. 1 -- 1901. So did other cities across the nation, and the world. At the stroke of midnight ushering in 1900, most folks simply wished each other a Happy New Year and went home.

Please, spare us the arguments. We know there was no year "zero," so that every century and every millennium technically starts with a year one. We also know that a monk named Dionysius Exiguus (or Dennis the Short) screwed up his calculations on the year of Christ's birth, so the 2,000th anniversary of that epochal event actually occurred four or five years ago.

Truly, and despite the Catholic Church's declaration of a Jubilee Year, "Thou shalt not know the day nor the hour in which the Lord cometh."

We know all that, but as a society we still plan to party. Some of us, of course, will be keeping an eye on computer systems, power grids, air traffic control networks, Russian missiles and anything else that might still be vulnerable to the shortsightedness of an early generation of computer programmers that apparently thought their machines and programs would never have to face the year 2000. But most of us have iced the champagne.

Buffalo's civic celebration won't involve a midnight parade this year. It would be more fitting to plan such activities for 2001, anyway, to mark the centennial of the Pan-American Exposition that figures so prominently in the city's history and memory.

Millenarians, eschatologists and chiliasts may expect the Apocalypse, End Times or the Second Coming. We expect Saturday. We hope you will have partied safely and with moderation so you can enjoy it.

And we wish you a happy and prosperous new year.