In the days before the world collapsed, Quentin Jennings peered mesmerized at the stranger across the bar - long chocolate hair, blue eyes, a warm smile, comforting like a best friend's.
The din of basketball games blaring from plasma TVs at the 810 Zone faded to white noise. Jennings nudged a buddy.
"I'm going to marry that girl," he said, loud, piercing the racket.
He stepped her way.
The date: Jan. 19, 2008, early in a year many will remember as the one everyone aches to forget.
Flood, fire, foreclosure, war, cyclones, political ads, earthquakes and even pirates — both on the high seas and on Wall Street — were just a few brands of the year's misery. Yet even in the midst of global uncertainty, people's tendency to look back with gratitude and forward with hope, experts said, may be as hard-wired as survival.
"Hi," Jennings, then 31, said to the girl with the brown hair.
"Hi," replied Melissa Hewitt, then 27, to the young lawyer.
So, yes, history will record 2008 as the year when 401(k)s were riddled and the housing market fell to shambles. The famous, the infamous and the familiar died.
But Hewitt will remember it as the year she fell in love. In a couple of weeks, she'll say "I will" amid bridesmaids, groomsmen and 370 wedding guests.
"Oh, definitely," said Hewitt, who decided to leave her fundraising job and go back to school. "2009 is going be an exciting year.
"You're always going to be a little afraid of the future," she said. "But it's a new year. It's a good time to take a chance."
"It is human nature. We have a natural bent toward optimism," said psychologist David G. Meyers of Michigan's Hope College and author of The Pursuit of Happiness: Who is Happy, and Why?
"I don't want to minimize the consequences or seriousness of the economic recession," he said. "But when times are bad — and not just economic times, but when we face the death of loved ones or other losses — it has a way of helping us think about all we have and about what's positive and important in our lives."
Jahmel McGautha, 20, thinks of 2008 as life — her healthy baby girl — and near death.
At home recently in Kansas City, McGautha cradled Ke'sha in her arms. A scar runs like a zipper down the length of the 20-year-old mom's chest.
Born in August, the baby was healthy.
"I went through my pregnancy. Everything was normal," McGautha said.
But after her release from Truman Medical Center, McGautha noticed she was exhausted, and breathing felt like suffocating. She vomited daily. Her body stayed swollen.
"I couldn't climb a hill. I was crawling up the stairs of my house."
She checked into the emergency room at Truman Medical Center, but was rushed to St. Luke's Hospital. Her heart was dying. Without a transplant, she would, too.
"I just was scared, so scared," she said.
Kenneth Ross, her boyfriend and her baby's father, sat waiting with her every day at the hospital. McGautha grew weaker knowing that a donated heart could only come from someone else's tragedy.
More than 2,700 people need heart transplants. Many die waiting.
"The further and further it was going, I was like, I don't know how this is going to end," McGautha said.
On Nov. 29, it did.
"I'm blessed with a new heart and a new baby and I'm just glad to be back home," McGautha said. "It's something I think about every day."
Sunday, she turns 21, a gift in itself, she said.
Science increasingly is finding that optimism, resilience and happiness have a genetic component, said Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside and author of The How of Happiness.
"It's a way of coping. People know how to look at the positive side of life or stay focused on the little things."
Taylor Forster, 18, a top student at Oak Park High School, looks to 2009 as the year she'll become the first in her family to attend college.
"The top of my list is Yale," she said, followed by Columbia, Amherst and Oberlin.
In her mind's eye, she pictures trundling into a dormitory, meeting a roommate, making lifelong friends. Fluent in French, deep into poetry, she imagines discussions she’ll have about literature and music and ideas.
It will be different from 2008.
Forster now lives alone with her father's mother, her Grandma Betty, who's increasingly lost to Alzheimer's.
Amid the divorce of parents and the struggle for funds, she has been caring for ailing grandparents since she was 13.
"My grandma had cancer. My grandpa had leukemia," Forster said of those who died under her eyes.
Now she's helping yet another of her frail family members.
"I’m kind of like her companion," Forster said. "I’m here to make sure she takes her pills. We watch TV together. We talk."
Forster's father, Alex Forster, who lives nearby, told his daughter: 2009 is her time.
"I want her to go out and see the world," he said. Go to college. Don't worry about the grandmother: She'll be cared for.
She confesses some anxiety with her excitement.
"I've never really been away from Kansas City," Forster said.
"It's like I've been an athlete training for the Olympics. I've been struggling for so long. Now I'm actually going to do it next year. Wow."
A new president, a war winding down, disease rates — and, for now, gasoline prices — dropping.
As 2009 begins, historian Josh Brown, executive director of New York's American Social History Project, said the cheeriest gift people can give each other is perspective.
America has weathered far worse, including civil war, cholera and financial crashes.
"We just have short memories."
Brian Lasley, 36, of Lee's Summit, blames no one other than himself for his rotten '08.
He and his wife, with their five children, were living far beyond their means by the time in July when he lost his $21-an-hour job assembling car seats for one of Ford's subcontractors. When Ford cut back, so did its subs.
"If I wanted to know why I was in debt and in trouble, all I have to do is look in the mirror," Lasley said. "I'm my own worst enemy. We had done stupid stuff."
Stuff like buying a $4,000 English bulldog and a new Chevy Avalanche.
"Just our lifestyle," Lasley said. "We'd eat out three or four times, five times a week. When you're eating with five kids, it's not like you're spending 20 bucks. We'd go on vacations and put them on credit cards — load them up. Me and my wife went on a cruise to the west Caribbean for our 10th anniversary. We took the kids to Florida, to Universal Studios, two years in a row, and stayed like a week or two."
The Lasleys lost their home soon after the layoff and moved into a rental. They lost their car. But it could have been much worse: as a member of the United Auto Workers, he was able to receive 90 percent of his salary for six months. But their finances were disastrous.
"I knew when the six months was over, I would do whatever I had to do," Lasley said. "If I had to get two jobs making seven or eight dollars an hour, I would do it."
But in October, he got work at the Bayer CropScience plant. "I’m very satisfied," he said. "I'm expecting to get completely out of debt, except for the house I'm renting."
The new year?
"I think the outlook is going to be great."