Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Searching for Real Times Square

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.


john said...

For a real throwback to the olden days of the Times Square area check out Jimmy's Corner at 140 west 44th street, I am so amazed that it is still there.

Mod Betty / said...

Thank you for this. Not only for your determination to root out these few places, but for documenting for generations to come. Sadly, I think this will be a historic document in a handful of years versus decades.

Bowery Boogie said...

whenever i'm in times square, i walk elbows up and steamroll tourists. and photo-bomb all the photos with the characters as possible.

it's gratifying.

Anonymous said...

Walking thru the other day, I discovered there is still a TAD's Steaks on 50th St & 7th Ave. I was shocked to say the least. Yeah it was next to a Ruby Tuesday's but still, felt like an Old New York eatery. Jimmy's Corner on 44th is still hanging around, as is Junior's on 45th? I think. Times Square still had that semi-seedy, if not, downright dilapidated feel into the late 90s. I remember seeing the Sixth Sense in that old movie theatre that is now home to GMA. And that was in 1999. Once the HoJo's was gone in '06? that was it. ALL tourists now.

j said...

I bet that dude at the end could tell you some stories

Bergen Beach B*tch said...

I'll be DAMNED if I let one these morinic looking, bumblef*ck gentripr*cks elbow me!

Sad how all the rust belt's rejects wound up here to become "hip".

Absolutely nauseating.

Anonymous said...

The expression in the dude's face is priceless. Times Square used to be a unique place. Now it is a lesser mall of America. Multiple Duane Reades, McDonalds, and Starbucks. It us not a destination. There is no there there. I like theater, that works. And it is now completely safe and pleasant. But really really boring.

Walter said...

I lived in an SRO at 120 West 44th Street from late 1970 to late '71. There was a Woolworth's on the corner with a cafeteria, where I ate dinner most every night. (I did not have a kitchen) I think the place called Jimmy's Corner was a titty bar, where dancers would prance stark naked around the horse-shoe bar, picking up tips without using their hands.

onemorefoldedsunset said...

Ditto Jimmy's Corner. The best.

Anonymous said...

If you ever get a chance, check out the basement of Show World. Racks and stacks of mid- and late-1990's, Giuliani-era non-adult magazines: word search, People, soap opera magazines, etc., etc. Nothing else. An amazing throwback to the beginning of the end of Times Square.

Unknown said...

Thank you, Jeremiah. Pass through Times Square almost daily, find myself performing a similar search. Always nice to pass the entrance of the old Sage Theater.

Unknown said...

Hey, Jeremiah, you just might be my kindred spirit! I used to do this same thing in the 1980's Times Square when you could find evidence of the old Huberts Museum in Peepland! Back then the layers of history from a more wholesome and mainstream Time Square were always peering through walls or hidden away in the backrooms of the tawdry grindhouses that replaced them.

You could easily find throwbacks to the 30's 40's and 50's with just a little curious snooping,either by looking behind doors or walking through less traveled areas of the subway. Even some of the arcades had old machines that were made with wooden parts right next to video games like Pac-man and Donkey Kong! You could test your strength and arm wrestle with a mechanicle arcade machine from WWII for a quarter! Now, where Chevy's, Five guys, and a Starbucks stand, there was just such an arcade! Next to this gameroom was an old barbershop that looked like it was from a Norman Rockwell painting. Now the whole place is unrecognizable, in fact I remember this location to be part of a downstairs subway entrance. I think the subway station has now been moved across the street.

I remember Times Square to be a living time capsule of past era's! Even gag shop window displays had been unchanged for what appeared to be 20 years! Today it is almost impossible to find even the little that you presented from the early/mid 90's era as the encroaching tide of the inevitable corporate wave forcefully and arrogantly swept in and gutted everything!