The other day, I heard a tour guide telling a walking tour, “Back in the days before Disney came to New York, Times Square was not so family friendly, but nowadays it’s been cleaned up, more like an urban amusement park.” I sighed. Remembering.
When I was 18, I had a job on 44th Street and 12th Avenue. I lived in Queens, so to get to work, I took a bus to Main Street Flushing and then jumped on a still new-looking 7 Train, which took me to 42nd Street and 7th Avenue, from whence I walked west to the river. My report time was 7:30; so, even in the summer, darkness lingered over most of my journey, and when I emerged from the tunnel into Times Square, the gray steam of early morning still dripped from the building overhangs.
The first time I made that journey, I entered the world hesitantly. Times Square in the crepuscular minutes just before the sun rose was peopled by potentially terrifying characters. I grew up in the granite-guarded isolation of the Adirondack Mountains, after all, and the only place I had encountered people like these was in the books and comics I read, the movies I went to see. City of Night, Manchild in the Promised Land, Batman, Midnight Cowboy. Luckily, they were characters with whom I had an intimacy that promoted a modicum of understanding I did not have for myself. I didn’t know what they might think of me.
There was a small group of prostitutes who congregated together in front of the Lyric Theater, where the Hilton Theater is today, having coffee from a nearby greasy spoon, smoking and talking and giggling, perhaps too wired to go home to sleep or maybe waiting for someone to pick them up; I never knew. I felt like I was in Junior High, having to pass the cool girls, hoping they wouldn’t make fun of me.
They didn’t. “Good morning, Sweetie,” a very large, older woman called to me; the others chimed in, warning me to be alert, to watch out for vagrants hiding in the shadows. By the third or fourth day, they had coffee for me — I couldn’t drink it because I hated the “white Coffee” (extra cream) they drank, but I didn’t want to insult them, so I fake-sipped it as I headed west, thanking them profusely. I lasted in the job (a story unto itself) for eight months, and every day in every kind of weather, the bevy was always there, expecting me when I emerged from the subway.
I finished work at 4, and the streets could be already pretty dark when I made my return trip. I walked briskly East on 42nd Street from the river, one of many, mostly other members of the work force wrapping up their day. I moved in sync with gal Fridays, clerks and typists in too much make-up, too-high spiked heels, too-tight mini-skirts, with office managers in dowdy, cheap suits, sensible flats, hats and gloves. Construction workers stopped packing up their wares to shout their version of compliments at us as we walked or to jeer at the drag queens slinking along the edges of the buildings. Well-dressed family men pulled their hats down over their eyes as they were sucked in by the blaring, undulating light of one of the many peepshow or porn flick theaters that staved off the deepening darkness.
Cleaned up? Times Square may be overrun with families now, but it’s far more tawdry, far less wholesome than the Times Square of my youth.
The Naked Cowboy and his imitators strut around in tightie whities, miming molestation of people’s adolescent daughters while parents laugh and snap photos. A ridiculous-looking middle-aged man, wearing a headdress right out of a ’50’s western, parades his insignificant jewels in a skinny pair of black or white briefs as he drums a come-hither on a child’s tom-tom. A massively wrinkled drag queen in a green bikini, her face and torso too red from an overdose of tanning rays, adjusts the Ms. Liberty crown perched on her head and collects tips in the sagging bottom of the over-packed bathing suit. A vanful of migrant workers, bussed in from Queens and handed costumes in a lobby near the Discovery Museum, walk about as the dramatis personnae from best-known Disney films and television series, encouraging the kids to hug and fondle them. In the center of it all, every Friday, a group of hate-spouting Black men spew ill-disguised racism and anti-semitism while tourists from around the world grab photos to send home on their iphones.
Who would call this wholesome?
Oh, well, even if he did, there’d be another to take his place. It’s simple economics. Just like they did in the late 60’s of my youth, people gotta make a living. Come to think of it, the tour guide was right. Times Square really is just an amusement park, and the revenues are where it’s at.