2005-01-06 - 2:39 p.m.
Rumor is there were a few establishments that actually had peek-a-boo boxes: little wooden projectors with a crank on the side, so you could make Betty Paige slip her robe off and then back onto her shoulder. Apparently even the porn industry has its nostalgics.
I never got to see any of them. My trips to the Times Square of old, littered with drug addicts, hookers and packed to the gills with strip clubs, and electronic store fronts for meth labs, were all conducted when I was at the ripe age of fourteen.
My mother was always uncomfortable walking by, her head firmly staring forward, plowing her way to the Stage Deli, and a semblance of decorum. To hear her tell it, just looking at the front windows of one of these saucy establishments would guarantee that you’d be mailing Christ his birthday cards, cause you sure as shit weren’t going to see him.
Just on the cusp of teenagedom, and now flirty with rebellion – I occasionally said damn – I couldn’t help but peek as I walked by, so long as mumsy wasn’t hawk eyeing me. Each little show room we wandered past, was door manned by some of the snazziest dressers I’ve seen. Even today, walking by Park Avenue apartments where the maintenance on a quaint little studio could pay for a Brooklyn Block, the doormen seem drab, simple black, compared to bright red with yellow tassels and epaulets, like Sergeant Pepper feeling sassy.
They’d smile and tip their hats at me, enjoying the simple scene of a young teenage who’d never even read a Playboy trying to catch a glimpse into a purple neon lit world of lasciviousness, while his mother drags him up the block. By the time I was sixteen and trusted to make a trip alone to the scary city, I’d share a nod with each and every one of them, but I never thought to go in.
There’s only one left, and they have a bouncer.
It’s tucked uncomfortably between an upstanding Electronics store and a McDonalds the size of a football field with a Broadway-style blinking marquee. From six o’clock on a large imposing man wearing all black stares down anyone who dares to walk near-by, creating an ebbing crease in the increasingly happy family foot traffic that bends around the one store front in Times Square with dark windows.
Only this summer Swatch put up a new billboard over their store front just below Forty-sixth Street. The billboard simply showed their newest watch. On the face a collection of cute happy cartoon bunnies frolicked about, a guy and a girl bunny, the girl cleverly off by having a little pink bow. They have little twitchy whiskers and cute little tails, and on every hour, they’re fucking in a different position. Named the bunny Sutra, instead of numbers you pass the time with a little bunny love. It’s not my cup of tea, but this does allow one to say such things as, “Man, I’m late, it’s half past doggie style.” And, “Hey, hon., you want to try seven o’clock today?” The papers ran stories as the visiting families prancing between the Ferris wheel in Toys r’Us, and the MTV store, raised an uproar, sitting the fact that the idea of explaining the Flying Dutchman to their children wasn’t exactly what they had planned for the Big Apple.
For a year, I worked on Times Square passing out fliers for a piano bar turned comedy club on Restaurant row. Barking out bold proclamations from underneath the awning of T.G.I. Fridays, hiding from the rain, I filled my nights people watching, and occasionally being abused by rumbling drunks, happy to abuse the modern era rendition of the New York newsboy.
“Extra! Extra! Read all about it! It’s ladies night at Chuckles Comedy Club!”
The sights and sounds passing by as the street signs turn were always entertaining, but entertaining in the way watching an episode of Charmed is. Sure there’s eye candy, but if you actually listen to the plot and the dialogue the sarcastic armchair critic can’t help but snap into action.
Thirteen different languages, all converging on the Chinese puzzle box of the Subway, belly packs littering the fields, the occasional church group in matching T-shirts, young kids from Alabama trying to look cool, but unable to resist the pull of an I heart New York T-shirt. Making the scene even more delicious for sardonic shot gunning was the placement of a free web cam just ten feet from where I stood most nights. Giggling forty year olds would wave newly bought Statue of Liberty Foam fingers at slightly disgusted collegiate children glowering while their roommates tried not to giggle from the top bunk.
All lovely, and none of it seeming to stem from any part of this glorious metropolis. Everyone has an accent, everyone wants to know where to catch the C train, and many of them end up eating at the Olive Garden.
I’m terribly amused by the fact that a grown man would don sequined Speedos and stand on the median of a busy New York intersection, strumming a guitar and singing “I’m a Naked Cowboy!!!” I’m terribly frightened, though, that people from all around pay five dollars to have a picture taken with him, instead taking logical action: mace, kick, run.
Without warning or reason, a bellow that sounds like a forty-foot canary whips through the square, the sound bounding off the skyscrapers and bouncing like a pinball into everyone’s ears at a decibel level that threatens to not only bust eardrums, but munch on them as well.
Eyes shoot everywhere, heads turn, people jump. Not a single person can tell where the sound came from. I never move. My eyes falling on a chuckling gentleman shoulder rolling his way down the pavement in a Michelin Man jacket.
This is the Birdman of Times Square.
My first few months, I jumped when the whistle pieced through the din of hundreds of happy consumers. My eyes ran around the streets like anyone else, until the day I caught him. That squeal hits every aural receiver within ten blocks, but he picks his targets. A couple being far too happy, a group of school kids dressed to the nines on their way to see Phantom, or a corporate getaway with matching leather jackets. The scope beaded directly on someone’s lobes, he always grins just before he puts his fingers in his mouth and decimates the droning small talk of Midtown.
Nuts for nuts and Snapple after along day of plying comedy on the public, I made regular visits to the little stands on the corners, and that’s where I found him, leaning against the end of the cart.
For years he worked as a pimp’s middleman, delivering Johns to their purchases, and keeping an eye from outside. He tells me about all the women he met doing this, some his confidants, some his conquests. There were stories; cigarettes passed. Escape from a home country, escape from a home, escape came up a lot. He works the streets, happily giving directions and suggestions to the people who ask. Women get more info. He knows all the dealers, be they peddling falafel or otherwise, knows all the street barkers, and all New York show-offs who insist every visitor see a man in a tutu and plaid cape before they leave. Find access to his storyteller and every detail will be painted in thick runs and deep cackling laughter. He’s happy to tell you just about everything. He’s just happy to tell.
I get a dollar off Snapple now if he’s around.
Times Square is still worth a visit, even if the dance halls have been re-zoned so they need an expensive Cabaret license to get the hoofers back on their cordoned off dance floors, even if the clubs that had personality and flair have been replaced with a Bennigans.
Don’t look at the neon, or the well-dressed hipsters peddling “Rent.” Do your best to ignore the Disney store and the free ears they’re handing out. Don’t buy coffee at any of the three Starbucks around.
Chat up the woman behind the table asking for donations for the homeless. She doesn’t know the woman selling flowers on the street for three dollars a pop, but every time she passes, she throws out a “Please show some love for this woman. She has three kids at home and she is raising them all by herself. You’re a strong a beautiful woman, honey!”
Instead of the naked cowboy, wait for the Lil’ one. An elder gentleman, short in stature, who dons a cowboy hat no matter the weather and swaggers down the strip not saying a word. Just smiling.
If you need directions, ask one of the kids barking for a Comedy Club. They know where to eat, where to drink, and if you ask nicely they might not tell you to get a fake ID at the chophouse he knows the cops have been watching for weeks.
Most of all look out for the Birdman. He’ll see you coming, but you’ll just hear him.
As a side note, the Beekman Theater, the gorgeous single screen movie house I've described in a few entries is scheduled to be torn down this summer. I'm not usually one to call to arms, but for those reading this in New York, if you've ever been to a movie in this theater you know what an experience it can be. Please keep your ears out as I will to find the means to keep it open, and keep this personable theater with character in our city. I don't want to see another Bennigan's.
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