In the New York Times, Nicolai Ouroussoff examined the new Times Square pedestrian mall, noting that those "apparently nostalgic for the seediness of the 1970s version of the square, denounced it as another step in New York’s transformation from the world’s greatest metropolis to a generic tourist trap." However, he reported, "the soul of Times Square remains intact," if soul only means neon, tourists, and the smell of junk food.
Meanwhile, at the Post, Andrea Peyser worries Times Square will now suffocate in a fart-cloud of tourists all gassed up on "Starbucks venti chocolate mint frappuccinos."
The fact is: Times Square is already too dead to die. Remarkably, however, in the middle of the new mall, I encountered some life in the old corpse.
Talking with a couple of tourists, he wore a worn-out leather biker's jacket and hat, with a pair of gold Elvis sunglasses. His jacket was covered with buttons and pins, including one that said: The Devil Made Me Do It. He was regaling, as only a true New York character can regale, so I went by to listen and he invited me to sit down. The tourists took this opportunity to make their escape.
I told the man, "You're the last interesting-looking person left in Times Square."
"You got that right," the man said and launched into tales of his 80 years. From his pocket, he took out a weary stack of photographs, each in a plastic casing wrapped in rubber bands, and showed me pictures of himself when he was a young man, handsome and muscular, posing shirtless in the Korean War.
"Look at that hair! I was a hair model," he said, "I was something."
With humor and warmth, he told me about the war and his youth in Brooklyn. As his stories went on, they became more fantastical and far-flung. They included millions of dollars lost to Bernie Madoff, a 6'4"-tall female CIA agent with size 11 shoes, mafia soldiers, and the secrets of freakology. He said, "I'm a freakologist. That's someone who takes care of a woman's most secret needs, the stuff she doesn't even tell her husband." There then followed details (and Polaroids) too obscene to chronicle here.
Feeling close to the un-touristy soul of old Times Square--crazy, dirty, a bit unnerving--I wanted to sit longer with the man, but I had somewhere to go and was already late. I asked him how long he's been hanging out in Times Square (61 years) and what he thought of the changes there.
He took his boisterous voice down to a whisper, touched my arm confidentially, and said, "You know, sometimes, not all change is for the better."