Friday, June 5, 2009

Freakologist

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."

20 comments:

EV Grieve said...

You know, I DO NOT think details (and Polaroids) are too obscene to chronicle here.

So please post them!

Seriously, though — great slice of life...

Anonymous said...

The Midnight Cowboy grows old.

Bowery Boogie said...

Ha. That is awesome. Those tourists were probably wondering why in hell you would sit with him. Their loss.

james said...

This is great. I had a similar experience with a guy around Coney Island last summer.

shnayl said...

I moved here a little over 2 years ago, and I check this site almost daily because it details the New York I thought I was going to be getting when I got here. I got to see Times Square during the 80's... when I was on a 6th grade field trip. Needless to say, it left an impression.

BaHa said...

How long before the Bloomberg Keep It Bland for the Tourists Squad has him hauled away as an unwholesome nuisance? Great stuff.

Anonymous said...

Hey guys, what a great story, but really, as much as I love this blog all I ever get out of it is nostalgia stories, and for a native new yorker, those are starting to make me increasingly mad as opposed to "nostalgic"

I think I'm past all the nostalgia and crying about all the changes and am more amped on actually doing something to remedy our situation in this dying city.

Whatever that may be, and as stupid as it sounds, I challenge this blog and every local blog to create a contest for the #1 Young Community Leader in this city with the brightest most progressive ideas to improve the city for it's local inhabitants.

We need to prepare our younger generation to clean up the mess that has been created in this town. They will be open to new ideas and will be able to continue in the "DIY" tradition that us gen x'ers have continued to lay down.

We need to foster the new generation of doers to replace the old guard at city hall that have succummed once again to the all mighty dollar. Until then, the steamroller will continue to pave all in it's way.

Ken Mac said...

why is the bold thinker anonymous?

BaHa said...

Because the bold generation of doers is too busy eating cupcakes.

Jeremiah Moss said...

hey anon, i hear you. the idea of putting together this contest, though, feels exhausting. tell you what, you create the contest and i'll be happy to help spread the word.

hntrnyc said...

Bravo Jeremiah for this increasingly rare "New York Moment". There are now 10 million stories in the naked city but most of them are sadly the same.....

In regards to "Anon with a plan", I don't really know how much of the younger generation of community leaders really exists.

If there is anything that I would like to see is all of us who come to this site everyday to commiserate and lament the New York of old to actually interact like people did in the pre-internet New York of old.
Face to face, sans PDA's, drinks or coffee in hand, discussing and laughing instead of alone in front of keyboards waiting for comments to be approved or perhaps never seeing reactions at all. Jeremiah would have never met this character on a blog. We are missing a chance here folks to perhaps improve all of our lives in the short term......there is no substitute for human contact.

Am I the only one that would actually like to meet some of the people whose words I read every day?

Stepping off my soapbox now.......

Jeremiah Moss said...

face-to-face interaction? but i'm just a brain in a jar hooked up to some electrodes!

Anonymous said...

I'd be all for it! even if J is a brain in a jar. :)

hntrnyc said...

I'll organize it, if anyone's down. It might actually be pleasant. Just think, having a night out with a number of your like minded neighbors...I dare you!
If you are serious, email me at hntrnyc@gmail.com and I'll get started. Jeremiah, I will reach out to your cyborg man servant and arrange to have your jar and communicator transported for the evening.

Jeremiah Moss said...

:)

let me know how it goes!

mike said...

Can a love for this city be greater then ours?

Centers and Squares said...

Loved this story! He looks pretty sharp for 80. I went to school in New York in the mid-80s and still remember fondly all the coffee shops and diners and other funky little places. I had heard a lot of it was gone and after browsing here I'm getting completely bummed out. I had figured if independent, interesting, or old-fashioned businesses could survive anywhere it would be NYC. What a country. I'm with the guy in Times Square as far as change goes.

Ed said...

A meeting sounds great.

About the "bold new plan", I used to think along those lines, but stopped for two reasons:

1) Alot of the negative changes in New York are do to things created outside New York. For example, easy financing for real estate both started driving commercial and residential rents to the point where alot of interesting people and businesses could no longer afford to live in the city, plus upper middle class people from Middle America could cash in on owning their homes and move here. If this thing gets reinflated, there is really no hope for this city regardless of what "the next generation of community organizers" do. Plus there is a definite loss of creativity in American culture in general that will always get reflected in America's largest city.

2) To the extent the problem is the city government, watch as we go into an essentially uncontested mayoral election. City government is sewn up as tight as its been in memory.

Right now, I recommend wallowing in nostalgia.

pwlsax said...

@ Anon, 6/5/09, 10:14a:
"I challenge this blog and every local blog to create a contest for the #1 Young Community Leader in this city with the brightest most progressive ideas to improve the city for it's local inhabitants."

A noble sentiment, but part of caring about New York, really caring, is that sense of weary resignation.

I think it would take a genius, probably the once-in-500 years kind of genius, to know when to be resigned and when to be brightly progressive, and what about.

laura said...

everyone should get out & talk w/people. i had the idea to do videos & put them on youtube. never got to do that. then it was too late as i couldnt return to new york. but everytime i would visit my home town, i would meet amazing people all kinds of people. only in new york do you see a bizarre character sitting across from you @ a lunch counter on e. 57th st. yes, @ a health food resturant near trump towers across from bergdorf goodman. an eccentric black man dressed as a 1920s jazz musician, kibbitzing w/the people. then guess what? that night i saw him when i was waiting for the bus on ave B! surreal, like the film "i love new york" characters appear & re appear. the chinese lantern salesman who would not take the lamp back. he kept saying why? why? why must you return? after a long time of arguing, i screamed " ITS BAD LUCK, its BAD LUCK" he said "badluck??? no problem"! i got to exchange the item. the muslim taxi driver chasing me on astor place, w/robe & beard, while koran is playing in taxi. the expressive dramas i can always do in new york. theres always an audience, always someone on my side. any other place im banned, shunned, kicked out, ignored. all of you, get outside. write your stories on this blog. before its too late. new york is losing its personality. "J" thankyou, i live for these stories.