Saturday, January 31, 2009
The Ghosts of Times Square
It’s 1955. We’re at 45th and Broadway, in the heart of the old Times Square. It’s a chilly Spring evening; women are still bundled up in their furs, men still wearing their overcoats. We’re standing under the great marquee of the venerable old Astor Theater (long gone now), watching a tall skinny young usher, all dressed up like an admiral, marching back and forth under the bright neon lights, spouting off his repetitive spiel to the endless throngs of cold, disinterested passersby:
“Step right this way, folks! Immediate seating in the balcony! Tonight we have ‘East of Eden’, with James Dean, Julie Harris and Raymond Massey! Next show begins in fifteen minutes!”
That’s me. The eighteen-year old version. Living the big life in the Big Apple, and doing my best to live up to those stringent requirements for becoming a full-fledged, legitimate Bohemian (that “free-thinking, anti-establishment” movement that came onto the scene a generation before those infinitely more numerous and infamous Hippies). I was already breaking one of the cardinal rules by working. But you have to eat and pay the rent so you compromise a little. With the exception of those evenings at the Astor, however, the rest of my life was pure unadulterated Bohemian. I was a struggling young art student, living in Greenwich Village in the 1950s. My girlfriend, also an art student, although somewhat less struggling, was the pretty, blond eighteen-year old daughter of a Brazilian embassy official. On those nights when I didn’t have to work at the Astor, we’d visit one of the local coffeehouses or bars, and spend the night engaged in long, passionate discussions with our friends about -- art, or religion, or something like that.
I shared a cramped second floor “studio” on Grove Street with my best buddy, a fellow artist and boxer who earned his money sparring at Stillman’s Gym. All of my friends were (to one degree or another) artists, writers, poets, musicians, or just plain Bohemians. During all this, I was, although I certainly didn’t appreciate it at the time, involved in the subliminal process of constructing a persona, a persona that would, barring a few adjustments, and sometimes lengthy, inadvertent interruptions, last almost a lifetime. Almost.
On those rare occasions when I actually voted, I of course voted Democratic. If you had asked me why I considered myself a Democrat I would have probably answered something to the effect that the Democrats were the “party of the people”, that they were caring and tolerant and “had concern for the little guy”. And most importantly, though I probably wouldn’t have admitted it at the time, that they were the polar opposite of the Republicans who were, to me, the corporate embodiment of my stern, materialistic Main Line stockbroker father -- against whom I would spend the greater part of a lifetime in unnecessary and self-destructive rebellion.
It's 2001. I'm sleeping late, the phone ringing wakes me up. It's my son Geoff, from North Carolina. Geoff is a former Army Ranger, fought in Desert Storm, he seldom gets rattled. He sounded rattled. “Dad!” He said. “Turn on the TV. Some crazy bastard just crashed into the World Trade Center!” I turned on CNN. We watched CNN together, he in North Carolina, me in Massachusetts. We hardly spoke. We just listened to the TV. Then, “Jesus Christ!” He said.
Both towers! All those people! Who did it? And why? Are we at war? Who are we at war with? Who the hell is Osama bin Laden? And who are these fanatical Muslims? What the hell does Islam have to do with the World Trade Center? And, most frightening of all, what’s going to happen next?
What happened next was the Pentagon.
Immediately following the attacks on New York City, the Peace Protesters were out in force, filing into Manhattan’s parks and squares with their obligatory candles and guitars, singing for Peace, and intimating, through their homemade signs and baleful comments that somehow we, the United States, through our purported self-interested imperialist aggressions, had brought all this on ourselves. These inflammatory pronouncements of course generated loud, angry counter-protests from some offended citizens among the surrounding crowd. The painful debate had begun. Like some catastrophic earthquake, the horrific events of that awful day generated a gigantic fault line that stretched across the entire continent, dividing one half of our nation from the other by a seemingly unbridgeable gulf.
It's 2008. Where are we now? Still divided, still conflicted, a nation torn asunder, struggling to find its identity. And where am I now? Who am I now? This old reconstructed Greenwich Village liberal? What's happened? How did I change so much? How did I become this angry old right-winger? this indefatigable alarmist? this anti-Islamist warmonger? Was it those buildings coming down? Was it all of those people jumping out of those windows? Was it reading the Koran? Am I getting wiser with old age, or am I just getting harder? Did America change? Or was it just me?
That old Times Square is long gone now. All of those things are gone now. All gone. Sometimes late at night when I'm lying alone in the darkness they come back, those ghosts of Times Square. That great glowing neon marquee, the venerable old Astor, our doomed hero James Dean and my pretty blond girlfriend, and all of those good friends and all of those long, passionate discussions, and that tall skinny young usher, all dressed up like an admiral, marching back and forth under the bright neon lights, spouting off his repetitive spiel to the endless throngs of cold, disinterested passersby:
“Step right this way, folks! Immediate seating in the balcony! Tonight we have -- "
What do we have tonight, folks? What will we have tomorrow? What, I wonder, would James Dean have to say about all this?