I was 20 years old and only two years removed from my U.P. hometown when I visited Times Square for the first time. I’d driven from Yellow Springs with several Antioch College friends who were also starting coop jobs in New York City. As we approached New York on the New Jersey turnpike I panicked about driving in such dense traffic. One of my more cosmopolitan passengers took the wheel, and it was just as well because I was able to lean back and take in the sights at 42nd Street and Broadway. For a kid from Menominee, it was overwhelming. The size of the buildings, the flashing bright lights, the immense bustling crowds, the traffic noise – the whole scene was so hyper-stimulating that I vowed that, once I finished college, Manhattan would be the only place I would ever live.
I found a rental room on 163rd St. near Broadway in Washington Heights, a few blocks away from where two of my college acquaintances lived. On weekends we would walk down to Times Square and look around, then continue on to Greenwich Village or the Bowery. I’d sometimes add to my wardrobe by buying a necktie at the $1 tie store at Broadway and 44th, perhaps pick up a bargain book at a midtown discount bookstore, or have a twenty-five cent shot of whiskey at an Eighth Avenue bar. When my friend John N got me evicted from my rented room one evening, we spent an entire night riding back and forth on the Times Square shuttle train between Broadway and Grand Central Station, probably 100 trips or more. After Katja and I married, we would drive East every year to visit her parents in Philadelphia, then stay with her sister Ami and brother-in-law Bruce in New York. Katja was pretty much a Fifth Avenue and Soho sort of person and had little or no interest in Times Square. Ami would simply frown and say that no real New Yorker would ever want to go there voluntarily. I, though, made it my #1 destination. It got sleazier in the seventies with the influx of drugs, porn shops, and more overt prostitution, but the grunginess just added to its appeal. When our son J reached middle childhood we would regularly go to Times Square when in the city, and I’d finally found a companion who enjoyed the bright lights and bizarre sights as much as I did. J and I went there on New Years Eve one year, along with roughly a million other celebrants. A teenage gang started doing a weaving, snake-like conga line through the crowd, then picked up speed and started snatching purses. When a male tourist tried to intervene, the teens knocked him down and kicked him in the ribs. That was our first and last New Years excursion. On our most recent trip Katja was thrilled to see the Naked Cowboy once again, and I was excited to spot Spiderman and Batman conversing with one another. A group of attractive young people were giving away free hugs to tourists, though there were surprisingly few takers. All in all, Times Square, as the saying goes, is the world’s crossroad. You see every nationality, members of every ethnic and religious group, can watch Japanese or Australian tourists, hear Swahili or Hungarian. There are sidewalk preachers, radical politicos with bullhorns, panhandlers, tough kids from the Bronx, nuns, transvestites, con artists, violinists, hip hop dancers, and crazy people talking to themselves.. Sidewalk vendors offer honey roasted peanuts, caramel corn, and hummus, and you can buy plastic Statues of Liberty or Obama bobble-heads in the Broadway gift shops. It’s a far cry from midtown Cincinnati.
I gave up the idea of living forever in New York quite a while ago, but the city remains our favorite vacation place. When we were there last August, I went off by myself several times to check up on Times Square while Katja and Ami were out shopping or spending a quiet evening at home. It’s been cleaned up a lot in the last fifteen years and has become almost too wholesome. But it’s still a wild, crazy place. Here are some more pics that help tell the story.
-Phyllis S-S (12-20): Hi, Neat story. I remember the first time I went to Times Square, in 1964 I saw a guy wearing a tiger loincloth, wearing black sandals and walking a cheetah on a leash. It's true. Loved the photo of the guy in the cowboy hat, guitar.... Best, Phyllis-