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Times Up

Times Square’s sin and vice and squalor helped define the New York experience. They still do. In our minds.

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THE STREETS 1980

In 1980, Carl Weisbrod, then head of the fledgling Times Square cleanup, peered out his office window in the old McGraw-Hill Building. Below were the usual Forty-Deuce Street hookers, junkies smoking Kools in front of Al Shark’s bodega, a row of blinking XXX signs. “I’m not against local color. But look at this crap,” said Weisbrod. “We can’t leave it like this: It’s Times Square, the center of the city.”

That was the beginning of the end for Times Square as a self-determining, sleazological biosphere. Gone are the grind runs of Scream, Blacula, Scream!, pushers selling bogus “smoke,” “T’s and V’s” (Tuinals and Valiums), “ ’ludes,” and “dust” (Q: If a dope pusher pushes dope with no dope in it, what’s he guilty of?), and the mid-operation transsexuals hitting no-account boyfriends with pocketbooks outside Church’s Chicken.

It is debatable whether the current Vegasization model, with the Toys ’R’ Us Ferris wheel and theme restaurants (the Condé Nast Frank Gehry lunchroom fits right in with the WWE and ESPN Zone), is really an improvement. But really, what was supposed to happen? As Carl Weisbrod said, you couldn’t “leave it like that.” Not every package-deal tourist sees the charm in having his feet stick to the floor at the old Selwyn (or Harris, or Lyric) during the eye-gouge scene from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly as some balcony denizen shouts, “You’re sorry? You piss on my date and you say you’re sorry?”

Still, I retain a prurient wistfulness for the Deuce of my youth. It was at the long-gone Hubert’s Museum and Flea Circus that I saw my first naked breast. Upstairs, Hubert’s was a pinball parlor, but down the wide flight of linoleum-covered stairs, “the museum” was another world. Along with the fleas pulling tiny covered wagons was the Atomic Man—radiation grew a crêpe-paper nose on the back of his head. Here, also, were the ancient flip-card machines. You put a nickel in a slot, pressed your eyes to the rubber cup, and turned the crank.

Inside was a woman by the seashore. She smiled and took off her blouse. Turn the handle backward, she put it back on again.

Hubert’s disappeared, and I didn’t think much about it until the early eighties, in the time of Koch, when the Deuce was at its foulest. It was one of those little encounters that happen in the Big City. I was riding on the RR, and a woman in her early twenties, pretty but weary-looking, sat across from me holding a book. Every once in a while she’d doze off. Her book, an astrological tome called Making the Future Your Friend, fell out of her hand. I picked it up and gave it back. Her smile was sweet, if ravaged. Thanks, she said.

That seemed to be that, except that we both got off at Times Square, and there she was again, walking west on 42nd Street. Halfway down the block, she turned and went into Peepworld. I knew about Peepworld. My cousin Irv, the family smutmeister, once ran the XXX Peeps down the street. Bragging that he’d had his arm personally broken by reputed porn mobster Matty “the Horse” Ianello, Irv once offered to teach me the business.

So I knew Peepworld. I knew the video booths were upstairs, and below, as the barkers put it, were “the Live Girls.” The woman on the subway was a “Live Girl.” For a quarter, you could look through a window and see her naked; for a dollar, you could touch her breasts.

As I walked down the steps, it dawned on me: I’d been here before. This was the same linoleum staircase I once strode with my horny junior-high-school buddies. Peepworld was Hubert’s Museum, home of the Atomic Man, where I’d seen my first-ever naked breast. The realization stopped me; in this place of however misremembered innocence, I didn’t feel like shoving a sweaty dollar through a slot to touch the breast of woman who read a book about making a friend of the future.

In the new Times Square, the former Hubert’s/Peepworld is occupied by Easy Everything, the Internet café where tourists come to send e-mail home. In keeping with the Deuce’s full circle, firewalls block out the porn. Next door is Madame Tussaud’s, which, like Hubert’s, bills itself as a museum. Recently, I came here with my family, something you never did in the Travis Bickle days. In the new Times Square, New Yorkers can be dim tourists for a day. In addition to a waxy Hitler and Elton John, Tussaud’s has got Rudy, screwed down to the floor, the way he should be. Still, it’s eerie being around those dummies, and for a moment, you can almost hear the ghosts of Times Square past. “Smoke . . . smoke,” they say.


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