Note: this post is from a couple of months ago. I just didn’t get around to putting it up until now.
I went down through Times Square last week. I haven’t been through the Square in a few years and I was curious what it was like now.
I admit that i’ve never been a fan. To me, when it was just down and sleazy, it was, well, down and sleazy. I used to go to a great Brazilian place, gone now, on I think 45th where a plate of more food than you could eat cost 6 or 7$, and a caparinia which would knock you out, cost about 3.I found the place through a friend when I first came to New York in the early 90’s and ten years later, the prices were much the same.
Times Square was very anonymous in those days. A few dive bars, peep shows – even thinking about it now, I can’t remember much. it was just sort of blank, dingy, the haunt of drug dealers, the homeless and kids getting drunk. I knew about it’s storied history of course – I’d read my Buroughs. But perhaps because I’d given up drugs by the time I moved to New York, that part of city life no longer interested me.
I do remember the YBY people, the strange semi-cult led by Yaweh Ben Yaweh, a blue-eyed black guy from Florida who preached extreme hatred of white people. In the evening, they’d set up in front of the Army recruiting station. They looked like Sikhs, with turbans around their heads, fake swords, beards, and long white or black robes, but they claimed to be the real Jews, descended from the Israelistes of the Old Testament. They would put up signs showing the other lost tribes of Israel, a shifting cast that usually included Puerto Ricans, Native Indians, Jamaicans, and sometimes Brazilians (or just plain ‘South Americans’). To reinforce their claims to Jewishness, they’d put up a picture of an old Hasidic man, his face crossed out and a line in big black text underneath reading: ‘This is not a Jew!”
They were a fun bunch. One night, this guy went on: “White people, we’re going to enslave you, we’re going to rape your women . . . ” while a half dozen others stood guard, arms folded, staring straight ahead. I watched, transfixed by their naked hatred, for maybe fifteen minutes then finally broke away. I guess I’d been more unnerved than I thought because when a black guy – a local hustler – gave me that appraising look that was common currency in the New York of the day, I flinched. He laughed and grabbed me on the shoulder “Don’t worry, man, I ain’t gonna hurt you,” and I laughed as well. But almost every time I went down after that for the next couple of years, the YBY people were around, part of the Times Square circus.
After the Guiliani clean-up, I never went down unless I had to. It was just too frenzied, too much of a mall. I used to think of Times Square as the world citadel of global capitalism, a kind of high-neon, over-touristed, capitalist Vatican, replete with the Hardrock Cafes and other chain restaurants that seemed absurd in the context of New York. If I went to the Brazilian place, I made sure to enter around 6th. The YBY people were gone at that point. I guess the authorities cleared them out.
But on that afternoon a few weeks ago, it seemed a little less frenzied, if not less capitalist and geared up for the tourists. Instead of the YBY people. there was the Naked Cowboy, that quixotic figure who is a reminder both of pre-gentrification New York’s quirkiness, and its extreme narcissism. He was a big hit, posing for a stream of lady tourists, hugging them for pictures from the front, then turning around, sticking his butt in the air while each lucky lady put her hand on his derriere and he gave his best sexy Naked Cowboy look. In five minutes, he went through a half-dozen women, keeping up the pose and his character with a sort of jovial stoicism, just as he does, day in, day out, year round. Judging from his press, it’s not a bad living. I guess.
I have to say though I didn’t hate Times Square in it’s present incarnation, not like I did a few years ago. I wouldn’t go out of my way to be there, but with the open spaces, and a very good lady musician playing a half-block down from the Naked Cowboy, it wasn’t a bad place to hang out for half an hour.
Times Square is representative of a basic dilemna New York (and many other cities) faced with de-industrialization – namely, what do you do after you stop making things? I’m no fan of Guiliani, but he did realize one basic thing: if New York was going to have an industry outside of Wall Street, it was going to be tourism, and if New York was going to attract tourists, it was going to have to be safe, in every way. And if that meant diminishing what gave New York it’s distinctive personality, then that, to Guiliani and his heirs, was a price worth paying.