Times Square Red, Times Square Blue

Samuel Delany’s Time Square Red Time Square Blue is a lyrical meditation on the lost land of Times Square; through a decidedly unromantic yet tender and evocative look back, he tells us why contact and conversation make a city.


Behind the Port Authority, on a wedge cut off Forty-first Street at Ninth Avenue, a little darker than Stella’s, a little raunchier, a little funkier, and a bit larger than the Full Moon, sits the Savoy-Ernie’s gay bar. On the floor just inside the entrance, a few weeks back they inlaid a scroll reading: “For a Gay 01′ Time … ” Older customers tend to be white and black. Younger ones are black and Hispanic. When someone in his twenties comes in and greets a friend, often there’s what I guess is a secret handshake. Of Masonic complexity, it involves a hug, taps on the chest, joined fingers, grappled fists, a sweep of the arm.

“This place started off as the Savoy Grill,” explained Bill, an older white customer at the bar. (A moment before, after telling him about this piece, I’d asked him his profession. He gave me a look that said, “You must be crazy, asking me to reveal that in a place like this!” Obviously, though, he’s a gregarious fellow who likes to talk.) “Used to have a hot-plate counter, right along there. The guys from the post office and the Port used to come in. When it went gay, well … the owner decided to go where the bar had already gone. He changed  the name to Hombres for a few years. Now it’s the Savoy again.” What did Bill think of the New Forty-second Street? “For gay men in this city, it’s a disaster! The city says it’ll rezone all the sex-specific businesses to the waterfront. Here because there were so many other kinds of activity around, we were safe. The men who go over there looking for sex will be preyed on by muggers, bashers not to mention all the legal forms of exploitation. Except for what’s running around on the street, they’ve pried pretty much all the ‘undesirables’ out of neighbourhood. Our people are just assuming that, because the big cats have managed to swipe the money-making properties, when the porn houses and peep shows open up on the river-each one at least five hundred feet from the next-the city’ll look the other way and business can go on as usual. But because of the legal changes, the police can still nail anyone and any place they want to.  That means, when they want to, they will!”

Wandering back to the corner of Forty-second and Eighth to catch the 104  bus home, at Ben’s shoeshine stand I stopped again.

“My business? Actually, it’s a little better: I don’t have to keep chasing away the drug dealers. They were so thick on this corner, decent people were afraid stop!” Ben looked across the street at Richard Basciano’s Show World  Center which  opened on Eighth Avenue just above Forty-second Street in 1977, “They should never have put that thing here. They should all be over at the river. They’ve got four thousand guys a day goin’ through that place. The girls who work there basically live off tips. Sure. Who’s the landlord gonna rent to-somebody who can pay couple of thousand a month, or a thousand bucks a day?” (Actually Show World owns its own building- as well as, till a couple of years ago, most of the Strip’s north face) ‘’But that’s what’s brought Times Square down!’’ With its fundamentally heterosexual business, Show World Centre is one of the places that may escape the move- so ther’ll still be a little color left, a few memories of an older Forty- Second Street.

I said good-bye and went to wait for my bus- a black gay man, in my mid-fifties who’s utilized the sexual outlets of this neighbourhood for more than thirty years. What kinds of leaps am I going to have to make now between the acceptable and the unacceptable, between the legal and the illegal, to continue to have a satisfactory sex life?

As my bus came, behind me Ben called out to the woman in a passing couple: ‘’Mmmm! Hey there sweetheart…!’’

We are all aware that landlords and tenants exist in a fundamentally antagonistic relationship. Generally speaking, throughout most of what we might call the middle classes of our society, landlords tend to be somewhat better off financially than their tenants. Certainly the class war is as strong there as between any groups save, perhaps, workers and employers.

With that in mind, here is a tale:

A black woman born in Nottaway, Virginia, my maternal grandmother came from Petersburg to New York City at age eighteen in 1898 and moved to Harlem in 1902, when it was still a German neighbourhood. With my grandfather, an elevator operator in a downtown office building and later a Grand Central Terminal redcap, she took rooms in the first house in Harlem opened to blacks, on 132ndStreet between Seventh and Lenox. Owned by a black man married to a white woman, the house rented to men and women working as servants in the neighbourhood. My grandmother told of returning to her rooms after work, while the Germans sitting in front of their houses along Seventh Avenue played zithers through the evening.

A number of times in the sixties and seventies, Grandma spoke of the social practice in the twenties, thirties, and, in a few places, into the forties, of the landlord’s annual or sometimes semi-annual visit to her apartment. My sense is that these visits were notably different from the monthly visits to the landlord to pay the rent-in the days before universal banking.

Expected by both tenants and landlords, the visits allowed tenants to point out directly to the building’s owner any breakages or repairs that were needed. The owner got a chance to see how the tenant was treating his or her property. By opening the door for less formal ones, these scheduled visits established an arena for social interchange. From them, landlords gained a sense of the tenants as individuals and tenants took a sense of the landlord as a person.

Yes, there might be a spate of cleaning in the apartment in the days before the land lord came. Certainly there might be a rush of painters and plumbers in that same month- so that during the visit itself everyone might come off at his or her best. But the visits meant that in those situations in which there were problems on either side that could be resolved only by the greater forces of the class war itself (an eviction, a suit against a landlord for a major dereliction of necessary repairs), there was nevertheless a social field in which either side could ask for leniency or at least understanding from the other; and often it could be granted, Similarly, either side could personally entreat the other to straighten up and fly right, and many times this was enough to avert any litigious confrontation.

In no way did the social practice obviate the socioeconomic antagonism between the classes. But it tended to stabilize relationships at the personal level and restrict conflict to the economic level itself-keeping it from spilling over into other, personal situations. What eroded this practice of landlord visits was, first the economic forces of the Depression. Pressures on tenants (from the exhaustion of having two or three jobs to the anomie at having no job at all) became such that tenants began housing extra materials or extra people in their apartment to the point that a good days cleaning could not cover over the evidence. Models for bourgeois living standards became less available, as did the time and the energy to implement them. Landlords found themselves unable to afford keeping the facilities in the first-class condition tenants expected.

Tenants began to see the visits as prying. Landlords began to see the visits  as a formal responsibility empty of content and-finally-an unnecessary nuisance-in which they had to listen to demands they could not afford to meet. Repair work was now delegated to a superintendent whose job was to carry out those repairs as inexpensively as possible. While more stringent rules were instituted to restrict property-damaging wear and tear, in practice tenants were now allowed greater leeway what they might do to the house. Older tenants saw the failure of the land-lord to visit as a dereliction of responsibility. But younger tenants cited the privilege of better-off tenants in more lavish properties, often paying far higher rents, to forgo such visits. Why shouldn’t the privilege of the better-off be a right- the right of privacy-for all?

For the last twenty-one years, I have lived in a five-floor walk-up, rent-stabilised apartment at the corner of Amsterdam and Eighty-Second Street. In that time, owner of the building has never been through my apartment door. Once,  in 1992, he shouted threats of legal action against me  from the landing below- threats that came to nothing when in retaliation, I hired a lawyer.

This past February 1997, when what became a four-alarm fire broke out in the building at five in the morning, he visited his property for a brief half hour at seven-thirty AM. Standing out on the street among the fire engines, he declared how grateful he was that no one had been hurt; then- in his shako and ( the only man in three decades I have ever seen wear one) fur collared overcoat- he left.  But  those are the only two times I have ever seen him in person- or I assume he has seen me.

On the one hand, when repairs have been  needed, and even more so after that brief shouting match in the hall, occasionally I’ve thought that the more personal relations my grandmother maintained with her landlord during the early decades of this century might well l have made things go more easily. Were my  landlord someone with whom, twice a year  I sat over a cup of coffee in my kitchen I might have been able to negotiate speedier, better-quality repairs-repairs for which, often, I would have been willing to share the financial weight, repairs that would have benefited the property itself. And certainly we both might have bypassed the emotional strain of the aforementioned shouting match.

On the other hand, I try to imagine my landlord’s response if he had visited during the first ten months after I had to collapse my Amherst apartment with my New York digs  (when I was under precisely the same sort of socioeconomic pressures that had eroded away the practice of visits in the first place) ;and my apartment’s back three rooms looked more like an overfull Jersey warehouse space than a home with people living in it. What if he had come during the previous five years, when regularly l let friends use the place, two and three times a month as an Upper West Side party space?  (More than half a dozen years after the fact I still meet people who tell me they have been to “great parties” at “my” house, when I wasn’t in attendance. During the same period, I let a succession of friends and acquaintances stay there during the 130-odd days a year I was in Amherst, teaching at the University of Massechusetts. Landlord visits would have curtailed such practices severely, though in neither case, on my side nor on his, was the letter of the law violated.

At the rhetorical level, the trace of the social practice my decade-and-a-half  grandmother spoke about still lingers in the language, as tenants on the Upper West Side speak about our landlords’ “seeing to” certain repairs, even though the landlord will not  and does not intend to set eyes on anything within the front door of the building- just as the term “landlord” is itself a rhetorical holdover from a time and set of social practices  when the important things the owner was ‘’lord’’ over  were indeed ‘’land’’ and the ‘’tenants to the land’’ rather than the buildings erected upon it.

Contact is the conversation that starts in the line at the grocery counter with the person behind you while the clerk is changing the paper roll in the cash register. It is the pleasantries exchanged with a neighbor who has brought her chair out to take some air on the stoop. It is the discussion that begins with the person next to you at a bar. It can be the conversation that starts with any number of semi officials or service persons-mailman, policeman, librarian, store clerk or counter person. As well, it can be two men watching each other masturbating together in adjacent urinals of a public john-an encounter that, later, may or may not become a conversation. Very importantly, contact is also the intercourse-physical and conversational -that blooms in and as “casual sex” in public rest rooms, sex movies, public parks, singles bars, and sex clubs, on street corners with heavy hustling traffic, and in adjoining motels  or the apartments of one or another participant, from which  nonsexual friendships and/or acquaintances lasting for decades or a lifetime may spring, not to mention the conversation of a john with a prostitute or hustler encountered on one or another street corner or in a bar-a relation that, a decade later has evolved into  a smile or a nod, even when (to quote Swinburne) “You have forgotten my kisses, / And I have forgotten your name.” Mostly, these contact encounters are merely pleasant chats, adding a voice to a face now and again encountered in the neighborhood. But I recall one such supermarket line conversation with a woman who turned out to have done graduate work on the Russian poet Zinaida Hippius, just when I happened to be teaching Dmitiri Merezhkovsky’s Christ and Anti-Christ trilogy in a graduate seminar at the University of Massachusetts: Merezhkovsky was Hippius’s husband, and I was able to  get some interesting and pertinent information about the couple’s wanderings the early years of the century.

I have at least one straight male friend who on half a dozen occasions had gotten editorial jobs for women he first met and befriended while they were working as topless dancers in various strip clubs that put them on the fringe of the sex workers’ service profession.

A young street hustler in the Forty-second Street area whom I knew (but w not a client of) introduced me to a new client of his once-a twenty-six-year old lapsed Jesuit priest-for whom I shortly secured a job at a paperback publishing house, in much the same manner.

Another supermarket-line conversation was with a young man who was an aspiring director, looking for some science fiction stories to turn into brief tele-plays. I was able to jot down for him a quick bibliography of young SF writer and short stories that he might pursue. Whether or not it came to anything, I have no way of knowing. But it was easy and fun.

Still another time, it was a young woman casting director who needed someone to play the small part of a fisherman in a film she was working on. She decided I would be perfect for it, and I found myself with a weekend acting job.

One Saturday morning in January ’98, my vacuum cleaner shorted out , an an hour later I set it on the street by the gate before the garbage cans for my building, after making a mental note to shop for a replacement that weekend. Forty minutes on, at my local copy center, I was getting a set of photocopies for an earlier draft of this very piece, when a broad-faced, gray-eyed Italian American in  his thirties, wearing a shiny red and blue jacket, wandered in: “Anyone wanna buy  wet-dry vacuum cleaner? Ten bucks.” My first suspicion was that he was reselling the one I’d just abandoned. My second was that the one he was selling didn’t work. A look disproved the first. Plugging his machine into an outlet in the shop’s baseboard for a minute disproved the second. So I went home once more with a vacuum cleaner:

Contact.

Contact encounters so dramatic are rare-but real. The more ordinary sorts of contact yield their payoff in moments of crisis: When there is a fire in your building (of the sort I mentioned above), it may be the people who have been exchanging pleasantries with you for years who take you into their home for  an hour or a  day, or even overnight. Contact includes the good Samaritans at traffic accidents (the two women who picked me up and got me a cab when my cane gave way and I fell on the street, dislocating a finger), or even the neighbor who when  you’ve forgotten your keys at the office and are locked out of your apartment , invites you in for coffee and lets you use her phone to call a locksmith;  or as once happened to me in the mid-sixties when my then-neighborhood,  the Lower East Side, was at its most neighborly and under the influence of the counter culture, a London guest arrived on Wednesday when I was out of town , expecting him on Thursday. Someone living across the street, who didn’t know me at all, saw a stranger with two suitcases on my apartment stoop looking bewildered, invited him in to wait for me, then eventually put him up for a night until I returned.

A final example: My current lover of eight years and I first met when he was homeless and selling books from a blanket spread out on Seventy-second Street. Our two best friends for many years now are a male couple, one of whom I first met in an encounter, perhaps a decade ago, at the back of the now closed-down Variety Photoplays Movie Theater on Third Avenue just below Fourteenth Street. Outside my family, these are among the two most rewarding relationships I have: both began as cross-class contacts in a public space.

Visitors to New York might be surprised that such occurrences are central to my vision of the city at its healthiest.

Lifetime residents won’t be.

Watching the metamorphosis of such vigil and concern into considered and helpful action is what gives one a faithful and loving attitude toward one’s neighborhood, one’s city, one nation, the world.

The sexual activity in the Times Square area (and by that I mean both commercial and noncommercial) has been hugely decried, called awful and appalling by many, including architect Robert Stern. We do not want a red-light district there, is the general cry of planners and organizers. People who utilized or worked in it, however, are sometimes a bit more analytical than those blanket dismissals. A good deal of what made the situation awful, when it was awful, was not the sex work per se but the illegal drug traffic that accompanied it, that worked its way all through it, and that, from time to time, controlled much of it. The mid-eighties saw an explosion of drug activity, focusing particularly around crack, that produced some of the most astonishing and appalling human behavior I personally have ever seen. Its extent, form, and general human face have yet to be chronicled.

In 1987 I had a conversation with an eighteen-year-old Dominican, who was indeed hustling on the strip. He was worried because he was living with a seven teen-year-old friend-another young crack head-in a project further uptown.

The younger boy had been regularly selling all the furniture in the apartment and, when his mother had objected, he had killed her.

Her body, the other boy told me, was still in the closet. The older boy did not know what to do.

I suggested that he tell his younger friend-whom I did not know and had not met-to go to the police.

Some days later, when I ran into the older boy, he told me that is indeed what his friend had done. The older boy I had talked to was now homeless.

One would have to be a moral imbecile to be in any way nostalgic for this situation.

Indeed, the major change in the area over the period between 1984 and 1987 was that professional prostitutes and hustlers-women generally averaging between, say, twenty-three and forty-five, and men somewhat younger, asking ( the women among them) thirty-five to seventy-five dollars per encounter (and the men ten or fifteen dollars less)-were driven out of the area by a new breed of  five dollar whore” or “hustler,” often fifteen-, sixteen-, and seventeen-year-(girls and boys who would go into a doorway and do anything with anyone for I to eight dollars needed for the next bottle of crack. Some of that situation is reflected in the scream that ends Spike Lee’s film Jungle Fever.

It was that appalling.

It was that scary.

I hope we can look even on that period of human atrocity, however with a  clear enough vision to see (as was evident to anyone who walked through the neighborhood during those years, who lingered and spoke to and developed any concern for any of these youngsters) that this activity clotted in the area, that it grew and spread from there to other neighborhoods, that it reached such appalling dimensions as a direct result of the economic attack on their neighborhood by the developers, Robert Stern’s employers, in their attempt to destroy  the place as a vital and self-policing site, as a necessary prelude to their sanitized site.

The old Times Square and Forty-second Street was an entertainment areas catering largely to the working classes who lived in the city. The middle class and/or tourists were invited to come along and watch or participate if that indeed was their thing.

The New Times Square is envisioned as predominantly a middle-class area for entertainment, to which the working classes are welcome to come along, observe and take part in, if they can pay and are willing to blend in.

What controls the success (or failure) of this change are the changes in the city population itself-and changes in the working-(and middle-) class self- image. Sociologists will have to look at this aspect and analyze what is actually going on.

 The nature of the social practices I am interrogating is such that specific benefits and losses cannot be systematized, operationalized, standardized, or predicted. I can no more promise you a vacuum cleaner than I can an in-training marathon runner to return your pocketbook  or a relevant volume for your research in the mail out of the blue. Even less can I say that no one will ever do anything nice for you at a professional gathering! What I am saying, however, is that most people-especially those who live in cities-if they look over important occurrences in their lives over a substantial period of time, will likely notice that a substantial number of the important or dramatic ones, material or psychological, first arrived through strangers encountered in public spaces. This tendency is not an accident It is a factor of the relative concentration of specific needs suppliers in various social venues.

Networking situations start by gathering a population all with the same or relatively similar needs. While this concentration creates a social field that promotes the rapid spread of information among the members about those needs, the  high concentration of need itself militates against those needs being materially met within the networking situation-indeed, militates against their being met until the members physically abandon the network group and disperse into other venues.

Without in any way disparaging the excellences, pleasures, and rewards of small-town life, one must still acknowledge: The greater population and subsequently greater variety of needs and beneficial excesses to be found in cities make public contact venues, from the social to the sexual, a particularly important factor for social movement, change, and a generally pleasant life in a positive and pleasant democratic urban atmosphere.

When I say I hope Times Square will work, my major fear is that the developers themselves do not know that they are lying. It is only the very young (who have seen too many mob movies) who believe criminals make better business men than fools. The fact is, there is just as large a percentage of foolish criminals as there is of foolish businessmen. Those who have seen criminals in business usually don’t like it any more than they like to see fools running things.

Theoreticians like Jacobs have given us some conceptual tools to understand the workings of certain city functions that, before her books, were largely invisible. It may be warming to think that the developers might use those principles to produce profitable and vigorous  urban spaces. What I am afraid may happen is, however, that they are willing to gamble on the very high possibility that after the immediate profits of the  sweetheart deals that have allowed them to build their brave New Mall, they will take their money and run, having bamboozled us into letting them build another artificial, overextended downtown graveyard. The reason the famous four office towers were temporarily condensed to one (a fact that seems to warm Marshal Berman’s heart)- with an ‘’interim ten year plan to promote theatre and entertainment’’ that is pure Orwellian Newspeak- was that they would be impossible to rent. In the seventies the fact was given enough media play to discourage investors. The Times Square renovations have already demolished some thirty separate buildings in the area- and refurbished two: plans are to replace the destroyed spaces with two multiplex theater buildings. And at the end of the ten years? The four towers will be built.

 

Excerpted from Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (New York University Press, 1999)

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