The 2004 Critical Mass New Year Party

Every year, Critical Mass holds its annual holiday party. For the first two years of my employ, they were Christmas parties; the two since then have both been New Year parties. I assume this is because scheduling things before Christmas is far more difficult. And really, it’s nice to have party that’s not heavily influenced by a holiday.

Last year, we hung out at the Destination: Africa pavillion at the Zoo. A neat place, to be sure, but you can’t go to the same place twice in a row (if at all). So this year (and last night, to be specific), we opted for something different. It was a little more downplayed than last year — the Palomino Room at the Roundup Centre. Not exactly the Fairmont Palliser, but the venue wasn’t going to be the central point.

Kristen and I arrived just as the event was beginning. We could have gone for the slightly more fashionably-late, but considering there was a hockey game and the motorcycle show both on that evening (not to mention other parties), I wanted to take advantage of the nearby parking at the office. Thankfully, we were not the first to show.

It’s hard to say exactly what the theme of the evening was, but the focal point was money. As each person arrived, they were given an envelope that contained the ubiquitous drink tickets, and $20,000 in funny money for each person. (Kristen and I had a total of $40,000 between the two of us.) The funny money was for use at the gaming tables.

The Lions Club provided the entertainment — several blackjack tables, a roulette table, and two other games that I really don’t know the name of, but generally don’t see outside of carnival midways. The idea of these tables was to turn your $20,000 into much more. This money would be used after the tables closed to bid on a wide range of prizes, including a carpet steamer, camera, kid’s play easel, coffee maker, power saw, and a monstrous George Foreman grill.

We mingled near the door, getting a feel for the near-empty room. James bounded up from out of nowhere, already quite giddy. He, Scott, and Tyler were providing the music that evening, taking turns DJing. (I would believe their task to be wholly successful, but in discussing the aftermath with James earlier today, found that there were those who were less than impressed. To them, I can only feel pity, for not appreciating that these gentlemen volunteered their time. They sacrified their party time so that the rest would not suffer the consequences of the DJ we had last year.)

James proceeded to note my demure behaviour, which while I did not take offense in, could not understand how he noticed so quickly, having only just arrived. We were then taken for a quick tour to the stage to view the setup for the evening. Most of what James said registered somewhere in the recesses of my mind, but only superficially — he was talking so fast I could barely understand him.

Amy and Jen arrived soon thereafter, so the four of us (James remained on stage) took Table 15. We would be accompanied by Angie and Tyler, and Luke and Allison. With our things “stashed”, we proceeded to find out if we were lucky in cards.

Neither Kristen or I had played blackjack before. And we were at a table with a dealer whose accent, unfortunately, was difficult to hear at times (over the music and other people). But we began to get the basics down. The principle is easy enough (closest to 21 without going over, and it’s the dealer vs. everyone else). For a while, we were up and down like yo-yos, before Kristen hit a big winning streak, which recovered all our lost funds, plus $1,000 … which was the smallest bill, by the way, so don’t think we were *that* successful.

Dinner was called around 6:30 or so, which was an excuse to hit the lines. Of our table, we were the last to arrive. But at least the food was good. (Terri had warned me that Stampede Catering was not the best, so we apparently had tried to get another caterer. But only Stampede Catering will cater an event on the Stampede grounds.) Roast vegetables, potatoes, chicken, and a wonderful roast beef (with a wild mushroom gravy that I thought was wonderful). Hard to eat everything, though. Especially since we needed to save room for dessert.

And were we glad we did. Now the chocolate wasn’t Bernard Callebaut (at least, I don’t believe it was), but it was still very tasty. The shocker for the night, however, was the baklava. Until last night, I wasn’t really a baklava fan. I’d had it before, but it hadn’t done anything for me. Kristen, however, could not get over how good it was. So I had to try. I was beside myself.

I love chocolate. I mean, I really love chocolate. It’s one of my weaknesses. But this simple Greek pastry was like having someone open the door into a new world of taste experiences. I think the main ingredient was pure crack cocaine, because it was enough for Kristen and I to go back for seconds, thus eliminating the remainder of baklava from the table. (Yes, we were greedy. So sue me.)

Following dinner, the gaming tables resumed with frenzy. Kristen and I tried our hands again at 21, only to find that our luck wasn’t as good as we’d thought. Finally, Kristen convinced me to try roulette — something Tamara would have loved, had she been able to come. I’d never played it before, though I knew the rules from having watched Tamara and Adrian on a couple of occassions.

Like blackjack, roulette does involve some strategy, and you can do quite well, depending on how you place bets. Placing directly on the numbers the most risky, but has the highest payoff. Playing on the variations (colours, odd/even, number ranges) tends to reduce the risk. It took me a while to listen to my instinct and hope that we did well.

I don’t know how much we were down when we started (we’d both had our clocks cleaned at the last blackjack table), but in the last spin of the roulette table before it closed, earned back enough money to have the original $40,000 restored. I couldn’t stop laughing. Several others did much better, going into the hundreds of thousands. But even that would not be enough for the bidding wars that were about to break out.

With the gaming complete, the silent auction went into overdrive. The first table closed 30 minutes after gaming ended, so the bidding was fierce. The top price was $325,000 for the carpet cleaner. I was impressed — I didn’t think anyone could win so much. It was then that it dawned on us … not all the winnings were from one person.

Pooling had begun. Deals were struck, begging was in full force. Eyes were locked on certain items, and the bids were rising fast. It was like watching an episode of “Survivor”. Soon, it was just the second table. Minimum bid? Somewhere around $200,000. Rumours of someone walking around with $5 million began to spread. False values were thrown around like rice at a wedding. Our paltry $40,000 was donated to the cause, so Luke could acquire the coffee maker of his dreams.

Oddly enough, it would be the coffee maker that acquired the most attention, though for reasons I may never fully understand. In the waning seconds of the bidding, the war went to extremes, with people turning over huge sums of cash to a select few still engaged in the fight. When the ball dropped and the bidding closed, the final values were unbelievable. The coffee maker drew the biggest bid of the night, almost doubling that of the professional-looking George Foreman grill.

Final bid: $1 million.

All I can say is, that had better be one damn fine cup of coffee.

The wars over and the dust settled, there were a few announcements, and James began his run at the turntables. Some people stayed at danced, some headed out. We stuck around for about 45 minutes or so, before we, too, headed out. Normally, I would shut the party down. For once, I wasn’t really upset about leaving early.

It’ll be interesting to see what they can plan for next year.