"Oh, smell the people!" yelled Dean with his face out the window, sniffling. "Ah, God! Life!" - Jack Kerouac, On The Road
It’s our last night in New York, and when we ask Greg what he’d like to see, he doesn’t hesitate: "Times Square."
As I’ve never actually been there myself, I’m more than willing to go along with the plan. Jack, toting his new digital camera, is all for going anyplace offering a photo op. We get on the subway down in Chinatown and head north
It’s dusk when we emerge at Times Square. The subway station spits us out into a heaving wall of humanity, and we use elbows and shoulders to make our way to a patch of pavement offering a bit more breathing room. Even before dark, the barrage of lights is impressive. Looking around me, I see that virtually everyone is looking up, like would-be extras from the final scene of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Ever the realist, I think to myself, "What a great place for pickpockets." I check the snap on my purse, then allow myself to take it all in. So this is Times Square.
To my generation, Times Square is synonymous with sleaze- porno shops, down-and-out types, and all the flotsam and jetsam that surface in a big city. But that was before the great clean-up of the 1990s, before Giuliani’s campaign to clamp down on crime and make the place presentable.
I knew this, but somehow I’d still been expecting something out of a William S. Burroughs novel. Frankly, I’d been looking forward to having my middle-class sensibilities rubbed the wrong way.
Instead, Times Square has been given the Disney treatment. It feels more like the Electric Parade at Anaheim than it does anything else. Immense neon signs pay homage to dozens of corporations, but above all, they promote of the Latest Big Thing in entertainment. "Cinderella Man" is the sensation du jour, so there's Russell Crowe hulking over us, larger than life.
What, I wonder, would Marshall McLuhan make of it all?
Aw, what the hey. I kill the analysis and give myself over to the moment. Times Square is like some great cosmic porch light, and we’re all moths to the flame. All around us, people from 100 nations are taking in the immense marquees, the stories-high neon signs, and the sheer thrill of being swept up in the parade of humanity.
"Can you take our picture?" Sure. No problem. None of these people (save the cops) seem to be New Yorkers, but it makes no difference. We’re all tourists here, in a strangely democratic leveling of the playing field. Everyone's an Out-of-Towner.
"Where do they drop the ball?" Greg wants to know. I haven’t a clue; it’s been years since I stayed awake to watch the New Year’s Eve ritual, but soon he spots it on his own. That, I realize, epitomizes the glamour of Times Square for him. My version would probably seem laughably quaint to him, encompassing the end of World War II and V-Day, with service men tossing their hats in the air and couples – complete strangers moments before – exchanging passionate kisses. I see ticker-tape parades, top hats, and actors such as Yul Bryner starring in "The King and I" on opening night on "The Great White Way."
They say it’s the "Crossroads of the World," and perhaps it's true. Whether you buy that or not, it’s certainly the epicenter of corporate promotion. MTV, Disney, Virgin Records, Coca-Cola, JVC, Morgan Stanley, CNN, Heineken, and Sanyo mark out territory from on high. Perhaps the seedier, rough-around-the-edges (if not just plain old rough) Times Square is gone, but to look at the expressions on the faces around me, no one seems to care.
We walk up 42nd Street, the neon lights serving as a plausible substitute for broad daylight. After a spell ogling the billboards, we set out toward Rockefeller Center. I’m still looking for a bit of romance from yesteryear, and I find it when we round a corner, and there’s Radio City Music Hall.
Trouble is, Greg hasn’t the foggiest idea what a "Rockette" is. He looks perplexed as I try to explain. "There are these women, see, and they can kick real high in a chorus line, all at once… Everything they do is in unison, and they all look alike."
He’s similarly unimpressed by the Art Deco extravagance of Rockefeller Center. "In the winter, this area is all an ice rink," I say, gesturing at the sunken plaza before us. "There’s a huge Christmas tree." This doesn’t elicit any reaction from him, so I try again.
"You know that scene from ‘Home Alone 2?’"
Finally, I think to myself. We’ve shared a New York Moment, courtesy of Macaulay Culkin.
I’ll settle for it.