Signs of the Times

Michael Wayne
(Australian Associated Press)

My friend said she’d meet me at a cafe in Times Square in 20 minutes.

“Meet me under the big sign,” she said.

Thanks, that really narrows it down.

And so I find a spot by one of Times Square’s many big signs, and I quickly drift into observation mode as life in New York City passes by in a non-stop parade.

The streets that feed into the square are like arteries from hell, doomed to pump the lifeblood of the city into its big, black heart for all eternity.

That plasma is all around me, swearing, laughing, screaming, sweating, consuming and yapping away into phones. Just standing here is a sensory rush, and it doesn’t take long for my overwhelmed mind to retreat into the past.

Back in the day, this was Longacre Square. It wouldn’t become “Times Square” until the New York Times newspaper moved into No.1 Times Square in 1907. They didn’t stay long, but like so much gum on the footpaths here, the name stuck.

Years of glamour and unashamed commercialism preceded the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Art deco hotels and innovative advertising techniques thrust Times Square into the spotlight of the world.

Since then the square has endured depressions, recessions, world wars and the age of terror, reinventing itself every few years. People fondly remember the sleazy years of the 1960s and ’70s, when porn theatres and drug dealers provided the entertainment.

Times Square is the face of New York City: if it’s dirty, chances are the city itself has been playing in the mud. At the height of the square’s destitution, NYC was widely regarded as one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

So when NYC began to clean up its image in the early 1990s, the work began in Times Square. There’s rising opposition to what’s been called the Disneyfication of the square since 9/11. How could they say that about this place, which is home to the world’s largest Disney Store?

It’s not actually that different: yesterday’s hookers are today’s street hawkers. Much more G-rated, but just as sleazy. A back pocket full of unwanted leaflets is a naturally occurring side effect of a visit to Times Square. One almost has to wear a “no junk mail” sign to avoid the onslaught.

I came here five years ago to eat at Planet Hollywood. Take a moment and think about that: I’m the first person ever to admit to wanting to go there.

A friend and I had been dying to check out the movie memorabilia we’d heard so much about for so long, and we weren’t disappointed. Most of the props are from the films of the restaurant’s founders: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone. It’s cliche to say, but until you’ve eaten middling chicken and broccoli pasta underneath a full-size rendering of a nude Sly Stallone frozen in ice (as seen in 1993’s Demolition Man), you haven’t lived.

Sadly, you can never live again. The restaurant has since had more facelifts than its founders, so both Stallone and his scrotum are long gone.

Walking the streets of Times Square is an exercise in frustration, hilarity and pure amazement. We’ve all heard of the Naked Cowboy, the Hello Kitty woman and the endless parade of Marvel Comics characters, but it’s the everyday people who are the most fascinating.

It’s easy to lose a few hours to people watching. Couples perpetually arguing in fluent Noo Yawk-speak, sightseers taking a hundred photos of the same Coke sign, cops eating pizza. So many walking cliches, but they’re so indelible that it’s clear why they became cliches in the first place.

They’re all here in this astonishing place every day. It’s nothing to them. The bombardment of advertising, the overkill, the massive power bills … it’s just their city.

It’s in Times Square where you learn one of life’s harsh truths: nobody cares. You’ve got problems? Nobody cares. Trying to sell something? No one’s interested. Trying to propose to your significant other? Tell your story walking. As befits a heart, there can be no clots.

Here more than anywhere on the planet, you’re not special; you’re just another grain of sand on the beach of life.

And year after year, the tide is coming in. Perversely, it’s something that’s celebrated here.

Every New Year’s Eve, a bunch of B-grade celebrities stand around and narrate the dropping of a ball on the top of One Times Square to ring in the new year. The ball then stays up there all year, neglectfully signifying that time doesn’t really pass here; it stops. The ball drops, but it never goes away. Time stands still, even while nobody else here can.

Nobody but me. Where is she?

A tap on my shoulder pulls me out of the past. There’s my friend, sitting at the table behind me. “How long have you been here?” I ask.

Twenty minutes is the answer. Amid all the blood and thunder, we’d missed each other.

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