Now and then, with camera in hand, I will brave the touristic, Olive-Gardenian horrors of Times Square to hunt for elusive remnants of the old neighborhood. It's not unlike hiking through the bush in search of endangered species, the last northern white rhino, the last passenger pigeon, the last Tasmanian tiger.
There are dangers, of course, in this kind of exploration. The tourists aren't friendly. They own the place now, and they will take you down if you even try to walk like a New Yorker. All their blushing out-of-towner shame is gone, replaced by steely entitlement. Bump them and they bump back. It is best to keep your camera visible and meander with a slow, zombie-like gait so as to move among them undetected.
You need patience for this work. It might require standing on a street corner for long stretches of time, waiting for something real to happen. Generally, if you wait long enough and watch closely enough, you will encounter the Real. Pushed out, stomped and crushed, the Real can't help itself. It keeps trying to come back to Times Square.
Here's a brief survey of my most recent entries to the proverbial field guide. It is not exhaustive.
Bare Elegance is an adult video peep joint on West 50th Street. The girls upstairs are gone, but their photos remain in the second-story windows, sun-bleached behind glass pimpled with moisture. "LIVE BEAUTIFUL MODELS," it reads above their faces, a style of advertising adult entertainment that goes back to at least the days of the Parisian Dance Land.
While the instrument repair shops have been almost completely driven off of what had long been known as Music Row, if you walk other side streets and look up, you might find a window full of battered saxophones -- as you do outside Jon Baltimore's shop, relocated to West 46th.
In the early 1990s, especially, Times Square hit a sweet spot where vice and edgy art commingled to create something thrilling. Generally, the only street performers you see today are those "Show Time" guys and the like. The stuff tourists go for. But then there's "Looping."
From what I can gather, it's Matthew Silver, Fritz Donnelly, and other performance artists rolling around in their underwear on the dirty sidewalk, making animal sounds that create unease in the tourists. One snarky child of the Midwest turned to her mother and exclaimed, "These people need help!" But the loopers are keeping Times Square weird. And you know they're doing something valuable when the police chase them away.
Street preachers were once plentiful in Times Square (as beautifully documented in Richard Sandler's "Gods of Times Square"). But I guess they were more interested in shaming those who indulged in the sin of lust, and not so much the sins of greed and gluttony.
Still, here and there, you can find a few. Most just sit around listlessly carrying a "Jesus Loves You" sign, while others put on a real Bible-thumping show of it.
Finally, there are the old Times Square denizens. They emerge from the last remaining SROs or tenements nearby to make their way to McDonald's or to sit in the sun and watch the people. I once encountered a fascinating man who called himself the Freakologist. But that was 2009, and I haven't seen him since.
Even when they're not tricked out like the Freakologist, these people are easy to spot. They look like they don't belong there, and yet they belong more than anyone.
Just as I was getting ready to give up and go home, this little man walked into view.
He shambled along 42nd Street, going slow, waving hello to the newsstand man, steady on, easy going. The crowds didn't trouble him. In his Zen-like state of mind, he created an empty space around himself, moving through the throngs as if they weren't even there.
Maybe that's how you survive it, the heartbreaking, breakneck-pace of change happening all around you. You put your head down, move your feet, and pretend it isn't happening.