Times Square was awash in hopeful sentiments as it began to welcome hordes of New Year's Eve revelers looking to cast off a rough year and cheer their way to something better in 2012.
For all of the holiday's bittersweet potential, New York City always treats it like a big party — albeit one that, for a decade now, has taken place under the watchful eye of a massive security force.
Pessimism has no place on Broadway. Not this week, anyway. The masses of tourists streaming through the square for a glimpse of the crystal-paneled ball that drops at midnight were there to kiss, pose for silly snapshots and gawk at the stages being prepared for performers like Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber.
Some revelers, wearing party hats and “2012” glasses, had already begun to camp out Saturday morning, even as workers readied bags stuffed with hundreds of balloons and technicians put colored filters on klieg lights.
Houston tourist Megan Martin, 22, staked out her space with her boyfriend at 10:30 a.m. She said the party ahead would be worth sitting on cold asphalt all day in a spectator pen ringed by metal barricades.
“I told him the pain only lasts tonight, but the memories last forever,” she said.
Many Americans will usher in the new year thinking that 2011 is a year they would rather forget. But as the country prepared for the celebration, glum wasn't on the agenda for many, even for those whose 2011 ended on a sour note.
“2012 is going to be a better year. It has to be,” said Fred Franke, 53, as he visited the square with his family on Friday, less than a month after losing his job in military logistics at a Honeywell International division in Jacksonville, Fla.
And here at the “Crossroads of the World,” reminders of a trying 2011 around the globe could be seen in the multi-national faces of awe-struck visitors.
Asked how his 2011 went, a Japanese tourist who gave his name as Nari didn't know enough English to put it into words, so he whipped open his phone and displayed pictures he had taken of damage wrought by the earthquake and tsunami that ravaged the island nation and his home city of Sendai.
“Not a good year,” he said. Then he smiled and added that things are now much better.
Moments after he spoke on Friday afternoon, the crowd oohed and cheered as workers lit the ball and put it through a test run, 400 feet above the street. The sphere, now decorated with 3,000 Waterford crystal triangles, has been dropping to mark the new year since 1907, long before television made it a national tradition.
“Not to be corny, but I think the American ideal is to be optimistic. It's in our character,” said Sajari Hume, 22, of New York, whose own 2011 wasn't all that bad. He joined the Army National Guard, found a sense of purpose he hadn't had before, and is now planning on going to school and feeling pretty good about the future.
“I think we're at a turning point. People want something to look forward to. And what better place to celebrate that possibility than right here,” he said, pausing to accept the well wishes of a group of visiting tourists from London, who stopped to shake his hand after seeing his fatigues.
Other tourists posed with police officers, of which there were many. Port Authority police officers beefed up security checkpoints at the city's bridges and tunnels in anticipation of the celebration. The New York Police Department's plans for protecting the city from any terrorist attack included sending 1,500 rookie officers to Times Square, where hundreds of thousands of revelers pack into closely watched pens, ringed by barricades, stretched over 17 blocks. Officers, some heavily armed, others wearing radiation detectors and some blending into the crowd in street clothes, will also watch from rooftops and helicopters.
Cautious hope was the watchword elsewhere, too.
In New Orleans, crowds in the French Quarter were starting to build Friday, with New Year's visitors rubbing elbows with college football fans flocking here for Tuesday's Sugar Bowl matchup between Michigan and Virginia Tech.
“People are tired of being stressed and poor,” said David Kittrell, a glass gallery owner from Dallas visiting the Crescent City for its New Year's celebrations with his wife, Barbara. The couple has endured a rough few years, as the recession cut into their sales. But they said business had been getting better.
Amber Nimocks, 40, of Raleigh, N.C., says she'll be glad to see the end of 2011 for a host of reasons, including that she recently learned her temporary job at a public radio station would not become permanent.
The deadly tornadoes that struck North Carolina in April went through her backyard the same week that her 4-year-old son, Sam, was hospitalized because he had pneumonia. A few days, she and her husband learned a friend had died in Libya.
“I felt like I was gasping for air all year,” said Nimocks.
Still, she saw hope in the revolutions in the Middle East and the Occupy movement in the United States. Her hope for her own 2012 is to spend more time with the people important to her, including family members and friends, the people who “shine in the midst of all the chaos.”
Several people preparing to celebrate the holiday told the AP that they would usher in the New Year hoping the U.S. Congress would become a more cooperative place. Some talked about their hopes for the presidential election. Others said they hoped to hold on to their job, or find a new one to replace one they'd lost.
An Associated Press-GfK poll conducted Dec. 8-12 found that 62 percent of Americans are optimistic that the nation's fortunes would improve in 2012, and 78 percent hopeful that their own family would have a better year. Most wrote off 2011 as a dud.
Gina Aragones, of suburban Chicago, says she has a simple reason for being optimistic about 2012: It can't be any worse. In 2011, complications from gallbladder surgery kept her from working. That led to her being laid off from her job as a clerk. The cascade chased her from her Chicago home to less expensive accommodations more than an hour northwest of the city.
“I'm excited to do away with 2011, I'll tell you that,” Aragones said as she readied to spend New Year's Eve at home with her husband and two children, ages 13 and 9, dining on a seafood feast.
“I could cry every day,” she said. “But I don't think that's going to help my children, help the mood in the home every day. I try to stay positive.”
Associated Press writers Chris Hawley in New York, Michael Kunzelman in New Orleans, Nomaan Merchant in Chicago and Martha Waggoner in Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this report.