Times Square: The City’s Id, Now and Always

What is your dream and your nightmare of Times Square?
Live Nude Girls
Along with fake Buddhist monks, selfie-taking tourists, aggressive Elmos, and other modern hustlers:
Times Square
in the de Blasio era.
Photograph by Dina Litovsky

In 1981, in an incident that attracted international attention and spurred a citywide existential crisis, a 26-year-old man from Connecticut was set upon, stripped naked, and chased by a jeering, bottle-throwing crowd in Times Square at night — “shadowy figures, drug peddlers, con artists, vagrants,” as the Times would later describe the area’s inhabitants — into a subway station, then onto the tracks, where he died. In 2015, I’m watching the modern-day equivalent of that scenario play out, the only differences being that it’s the middle of the afternoon, no one’s throwing bottles, the victim is not really in mortal danger, and the crowd she’s being set upon by consists of Iron Man, two Minnie Mice, Elsa from Frozen, and Elmo.

I’ve just arrived in Times Square to investigate the seemingly lawless chaos that has, of late, attracted international attention and spurred a citywide — or at least tabloidwide — existential crisis. I’ve been here for exactly one minute. The woman, who made the obvious tactical error of entering Times Square with her phone visibly in hand, now finds herself corralled by costumed cartoon characters looking for tips in exchange for a photo. They encircle her with such familiarity that I honestly wonder for a moment if she’s yet another Minnie, newly arrived and not yet costumed for her shift.

Throughout New York’s history, Times Square has served as a bellwether of the city’s current mood — as well as the perceptions of the city, both for those who live here and those who don’t. Once, Times Square was a high temple of glamour, the glowing heart of a go-go metropolis. Then it, like the city around it, slid into seedy decline. When much of New York was sleazy and dangerous, nowhere seemed sleazier or more dangerous than 42nd Street. And when Times Square came to feel too touristy, it mirrored a parallel worry that New York itself was losing some of its intrinsic grit. Times Square exists less as a crossroads than as a repository for our collective hopes and fears for the city. Now it’s entering a new phase — perhaps the strangest, most inscrutable one yet.

The most commonly voiced description of the New Times Square — the one midwifed into existence in the ’90s by Rudy Giuliani and Michael Eisner; the one that now welcomes more than 39 million tourists a year, roughly equivalent to the population of Poland; the one we associate more with Mickey Mouse than Ratso Rizzo and Carson Daly than Damon Runyon — is “Disneyfied.” This is almost never meant as a compliment. Yet even the area’s most cynical critic could never have envisioned a day when the famously sanitized, corporatized, Disneyfied Times Square would become infamous for a plague of vaguely mangy Disney characters shaking down tourists for money.

And that’s not even to mention the puritan furor over the naked ladies with the painted bosoms.

“I gotta go, I gotta go, guys,” says the woman good-naturedly, still smiling, as she’s pincered between two Minnies. The mute characters paw at her in a kind of creepily adorable pantomime. Iron Man offers to take her picture, as if this were a moment she’d want to cherish. She starts to squirm. “I gotta go,” she says more forcefully, then wriggles free from the scrum. As she hurries north, her eyes turn not to the world-famous gauntlet of towering digital screens overhead but to the five-inch screen clutched in her hand. This is when I realize that this woman must be a native New Yorker. Because as she beetles across the plaza toward her destination, she seems determined to avoid, or at least ignore, whatever it is that Times Square has become.

A crowd gathers to watch a 1932 solar eclipse in Times Square. Photo: Ullstein Bild/Ullstein Bild via Getty Images

What is your dream for Times Square? And what is your nightmare of Times Square?

Back in the spring, as a thought experiment, the Times Square Alliance, a nonprofit organization funded largely by local businesses, put those two questions to its board members and stakeholders, collected their answers, and printed them on fortunes to be inserted in fortune cookies as part of a giveaway. “Go ahead, take some,” Tim Tompkins, the president of the TSA, told me recently. “We have an excessive supply.” For the record, my “dream” cookie read, “A true civic center and real public space,” while my “nightmare” cookie read, “Overrun by costumed characters, solicitors & big sign hawkers” — which, come to think of it, are pretty close to my own dreams and nightmares for Times Square. Though, also for the record, had I been asked those questions directly, I would have answered, “My dream: never to be in Times Square” and “My nightmare: to be in Times Square.”

The current jam-packed, galleria-fied iteration of Times Square has always reminded me of a place in Alberta, Canada, called Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump: a high cliff where aboriginal hunters once cunningly maneuvered huge herds of bison into a narrow pathway before forcing them off a cliff edge to their death. The famous Times Square “bow tie” — the area between 42nd Street and 47th Street where Broadway and Seventh Avenue intersect — similarly functions as a de facto tourist corral; a canyon, walled in by giant, garish video billboards, into which visitors to the city are hustled and contained. And this Head-Smashed-In version of Times Square, for what it is, has been undeniably successful: It takes up only 0.1 percent of New York’s landmass but represents 11 percent of the city’s economic activity, generating $110 billion annually, which is larger than the amount generated in an entire city like Cincinnati. To a broader degree, Times Square is the geographical and symbolic center of New York’s vaunted tourism boom, which finds the city the most popular destination in the United States for international travelers. The Faustian bargain, of course, has always seemed to be: Yes, you can save the center of your city from civic ruin with an infusion of bright lights and corporate money, but in return, you have to cede that space to people who don’t actually live here.

When the Times Square Alliance commissioned a survey in 2012 and asked respondents for the word that best describes the area, the top three negative answers given by New Yorkers were “touristy,” “crowded,” and “noisy.” (The top three negative words among respondents nationwide: “crowded,” “touristy,” and “commercialized” — even the tourists like to complain about the tourists.) These are the exact sentiments that the Times Square Alliance is hoping to change. Its recent mandate, in part, is to give Times Square back to New Yorkers — or, at least, to reimagine Times Square as something New Yorkers might embrace. “It’s the geographical center of the city and a huge transportation hub,” says Sherry Dobbin, who was hired by the TSA in 2012 as its director of public art. “So the idea is: How do we also make it a cultural hub?” Sure, there’s Broadway, but there’s also no reason why you can’t stage cultural happenings in Times Square that New Yorkers would actively seek out. To that end, Dobbins has instituted events like the Midnight Moment, when most of the billboards are given over for three minutes to a visiting artist. In a larger sense, the mandate is about reinventing Times Square in people’s imaginations as a place to gather in and enjoy, rather than to avoid or endure. “We want to have a larger conversation,” Tompkins says. “What’s the vision for this public space? What can Times Square be?”

The recent conversation about Times Square, of course, has not been quite so lofty. Instead, it’s been focused on those swarms of costumed characters that clog the pedestrian plaza. Or, more sensationally, the so-called desnudas: women who pose for photos topless, wearing star-spangled body paint. They became a particular tabloid fixation this summer: “Too Much to Bare,” “Flesh Pit Pimps,” and “City’s in a Booby Trap” are just a few highlights from what proved to be a fruitful season for headline writers. Not to mention the guys who aggressively press you to purchase their dubious rap CDs and the fake Buddhist monks who wear orange robes and harass people for donations. In a recent TSA report outlining a plan to limit commercial activity to designated zones, one such activity is listed as simply “Fake Buddhist monks,” which is now apparently an official species in the Times Square ecosystem.

In response to the uproar, Police Commissioner William Bratton declared the city should “dig the whole damn thing up” — meaning rip up the newly installed pedestrian plazas and restore Broadway as a thoroughfare for cars. (Because, as all New Yorkers remember, Times Square before the pedestrian plazas was a pastoral oasis of urban civility.) Mayor de Blasio called this apparent epidemic in Times Square “unacceptable” and announced that he’d consider Bratton’s proposal, a statement that was met with almost universal horror. (“That’s not a solution. It’s a surrender,” Tompkins said at the time.) Meanwhile, Governor Cuomo, never one to let his finger be outwagged, warned of a return to the “bad old Times Square.” One thing seemed clear: Times Square, once a famously intractable civic conundrum that, 20 years ago, finally seemed to be solved, is suddenly in the midst of unsolving itself.

The Giuliani Times Square that lives on in mythology is a squeaky-clean, family-friendly, Disneyfied rejuvenation; the Bloomberg Times Square is a stubbornly progressive laboratory of urbanism, street closures, and lawn chairs. De Blasio’s Times Square is, well, a lot like de Blasio’s New York so far: a place ripe with old promise and new challenges, governed by an apparent hodgepodge of reactive measures and plagued by the perception, unfairly or not, that it’s on the verge of spiraling out of control. Which brings us back to those two basic questions: What is your dream and your nightmare of Times Square? Think carefully, because they’re connected to a third, related question: What exactly do you want New York to be?

Yogis celebrating the summer solstice this year. Photo: Li Muzi Xinhua/Eyevine/Redux

Jesse and Yasmin are an attractive young couple who look way too cool to be in Times Square, and, as it turns out, they are. They’re from Queens, and they’re currently entertaining Jesse’s parents, Dan and Bonnie, who are visiting from San Francisco. The four of them are standing in the pedestrian plaza at 44th and Broadway, looking a little bewildered. There’s five of them, actually, including Jesse and Yasmin’s 9-week-old son, Ajax, who’s currently asleep in his stroller, blissfully immune to the cacophony. Dan, who has a large camera hanging around his neck, is studiously scanning the plaza. “I was hoping to get a picture of the baby with the naked lady,” he explains. “We thought that would be a good souvenir.”

They’re a little too early for the desnudas — it’s only 2 p.m. — but by five, the plaza is teeming with picturesque nudity. If your knowledge of the desnudas is through glancing at the Post or Daily News, you might expect that Times Square currently feels like a cross between a Dutch red-light district, a Wild West town, and a Caligulan orgy. “An out-of-control influx of near-naked women jockeying for tips has turned Times Square into the XXX-Roads of the World — shocking children and incensing legions of tourists and New Yorkers alike” is how one Daily News story in August described it. It was hard to discern any genuine outrage in these stories, but they provided a perfect summertime distraction for scandal-­hungry readers who love to hate Times Square, as well as feeding one of two compelling metanarratives, depending on your view: de Blasio’s continued fumbling or the tabloids’ incessant war on de Blasio.

In reality, while there have been a few notable incidents — a fight between an unstable female passerby and one of the performers; the arrest of another performer for alleged prostitution and drug possession — the atmosphere around the women seems friendly, even festive. They circulate around the plaza, smiling with the pleasantly distracted air of flight attendants, their outfits no more titillating than those of Vegas showgirls. (In winter, they add fur caps and warm leggings but keep the bare-chested patriotism visible, each looking like a one-woman American-Soviet summit.) They flirt. They tickle passing men with long red feathers. These women, nearly all of them Latina, from Colombia or Peru or, in a few cases, the Bronx, don’t love the slang term desnudas, preferring “painted performer.” Some wear bikini tops or pasties, and as for the ones who go topless — as women are legally entitled to do in New York — their nudity is so obscured by body paint that you typically have to glance twice to confirm it. In fact, Sports Illustrated features the same brand of body-painted licentiousness nearly every year in its fairly chaste swimsuit issue.

Amanda Roman, who’s 23 and from the Bronx, has been out in Times Square, topless, since last September. She comes with Chris Olivieri, who’s 25 and has been working with women in Times Square — holding their belongings, watching their backs, sharing their tips — for the past four years. “My uncle was the one that came up with the idea,” he says. “We used to go to parties in the Domino Sugar Factory and they’d have body-painted girls handing out drinks and taking pictures with people. It was exciting. So we were like, ‘We could try this. The Naked Cowboy’s out there.’ So we tried it one day, and it was a big success.” I ask him why they chose Times Square, and he says plainly, “It’s the crossroads of the world.” Over four years, he’s never had a problem. But this summer, everything changed. Olivieri is disappointed in de Blasio’s scolding — “I voted for him,” he says — but he blames the discord on newcomers: women, many of them visiting New York from outside the country, who saw what he and his women were doing and copied it. “Instead of knowing the concept, they carried themselves a different way,” he says. 

As for Amanda, she heard about the job from Chris’s uncle; you can average about $300 a day, but at first she was apprehensive. “It’s something you have to experience for yourself,” she says. “It can sound kind of scary. But it’s actually fun. I like it best when people are looking at the picture and smiling and laughing with their family about it.” She’s found a way to cope with the long hours working topless at the crossroads of the world: “I meditate. I do a standing meditation.” Amanda and Chris met in Times Square, and now they’re dating — a modern Times Square love story. Frankly, they seem like obvious candidates for a reality show. “I would love that!” Amanda says.

It’s funny watching the desnudas and the costumed characters cluster together in the plaza, and not just for the obvious comic juxtaposition of topless women alongside Minions. These twin phenomena almost cartoonishly personify two very different incarnations of Times Square — they’re like the ghosts of Times Square Past and Times Square Present, risen to hustle side by side. The desnudas, with their feathered fans and demure come-ons, recall less the sleazy, triple-X-porn days of Times Square than an earlier era of vaudeville theaters and bawdy burlesque — an era when, as James Traub writes in The Devil’s Playground, his definitive history of Times Square, “the burlesque theater spilled out into the street in the form of barkers and steerers who tried to whip the customers inside; giant posters of half-naked girls blared from under the marquees.” This was in 1932.

The cartoon characters, of course, seem more like weird mutant offspring of the modern, Disneyfied Times Square; as a visual metaphor for cheery commercialism run amok, they could not be more poignant, like a George Saunders story come to life. They hover with eerily implacable smiles, much like the official versions you’d encounter at Disney World. Yet, as a friend, a lifelong New Yorker, remarks: “They always take the mask off when they ask you for tips — to remind you that there’s a human inside.”

Francisco Lopez, 40, is a Mickey. He’s originally from Mexico, but he’s lived in the U.S. for 25 years, in California, then New York, now New Jersey. He lists many of the same factors most of the characters will give you if you ask them about the work: It’s fun. He likes making children smile. The costume is very hot. “Then the ladies came, and problems started,” he says. He’s not offended by the topless women. They just tend to siphon his tips. He’s lucky to get one or two dollars from a family, whereas the women, he claims, can get $20 per photo. “One time, a man said to me, ‘I have no money!’ ” Lopez says. “I say, ‘Fine, no problem, I take the picture with your kids.’ Then I see that same man take a picture with a woman and give her $20! Then she asked for $20 more. He gave her $40!”

The costumed characters tend to work in concert; when someone stops to pose for a picture with one of them, the other characters quickly cluster, so your snapshot with Smurfette turns into a group shot with seven or eight characters, all of whom expect to be tipped. Some people pay up happily. Some pay up less than happily. Some just walk away. “I’m Mickey Mouse, and Mickey Mouse is America,” says Lopez. “So that’s what I say when I ask for tips.” He points to himself and his iconic costume, then says in his heavy accent: “I say ‘America!’ ”

An installation by the artist Spencer Tunick in 1997. Photo: Spencer Tunick

At the end of the 19th century, before there was a Times Square, the muddy intersection at Broadway and 42nd Street was known as Longacre Square, a locus of literal horse-trading. A few Broadway theaters had already risen along the stretch north of 42nd Street, including the elder Oscar Hammerstein’s fabled Olympia Theatre. The area was a burgeoning entertainment district, but it did not yet have an identity. All of that changed on April 8, 1904, when it was rechristened Times Square by mayoral decree, on the occasion of the arrival on 42nd Street of a building that would house the New York Times. Times Square enjoyed a few decades of glamour as part of “The Great White Way,” then was felled by a string of events: Prohibition (which replaced fancy dining establishments with mob-run speakeasies), the rise of cinema (which converted grand old theaters to populist movie halls), and the Depression (which suffocated upscale entertainment and ushered in the age of burlesque).

“Times Square has been a place of illusion and fantasy, where the view backward conveniently benchmarked the present and not infrequently appeared better,” writes scholar Lynne Sagalyn in Times Square Roulette. She identifies several types of Times Square nostalgist, including “skeptics,” who view all change with suspicion; “retrogrades,” who long for the seedier past because they feel that it’s intrinsically authentic; “wistfuls,” who recognize that change is inevitable, even beneficial; and “resilients,” whose “optimism comes from faith in the city’s unpredictable ways.” Where you fall on that spectrum will largely determine how you view any sort of change in Times Square, and which previous era you find yourself most in love with. “For me, that moment is the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s — what I think of as A. J. Liebling New York,” says Traub, in reference to the famed New Yorker writer who chronicled the area’s more colorful denizens. “That’s when Times Square was no longer glamorous but it wasn’t yet dangerous. It was seedy — in a wonderful kind of way.”

By the 1950s, the raffish, romantic underworld was subsumed by a more malevolent air. Its proximity to Penn Station, plus the opening of the Port Authority Bus Terminal in 1950, ensured a stream of faceless thrill-seekers that Times Square and 42nd Street were all too eager to accommodate. In 1960, a Times story headlined “Life on W. 42d St. a Study in Decay” announced that the area had become “an enigma to New Yorkers concerned with the deterioration of the midway of Manhattan.” By the ’70s, the area’s most notorious chronicler was Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, muttering about how “all the animals come out at night — whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain’ll come and wash all this scum off the streets.”

The conundrum of what to do with Times Square plagued six consecutive mayoral administrations, starting in the 1960s. Ideas to save the area were forwarded and rejected in turn, including one fanciful rejuvenation called “The City at 42nd Street” in 1978, with a proposal that included tearing down most of the existing buildings and replacing them with two city blocks’ worth of theme park, enclosed under glass and circled by a monorail. Mayor Ed Koch squelched the idea, in part because, as he said, “New York cannot and should not compete with Disneyland … People do not come to midtown Manhattan to take a ride on some machine.” New Yorkers, he declared, want “seltzer instead of orange juice,” in reference to Disney’s Florida locale. Then, in July 1995, this long-standing problem was finally addressed. Mayor Giuliani signed a deal that would close the remaining porn establishments on 42nd Street and cement a new partnership with Disney, which had agreed to revitalize one of the area’s derelict live theaters. A new, family-friendly Times Square was born in a great, cleansing flood of orange juice.

A llama in Times Square in 1957. Photo: Inge Morath/The Inge Morath Foundation/Magnum Photos

Twenty years later, it’s been easy for New Yorkers to assume that Times Square is no longer an issue, largely because many people think of it as no longer part of New York. It’s more like Checkpoint Charlie: a cordoned-off chunk of enemy territory in the middle of the city. “A college roommate of mine once said that Middle America thinks that Times Square is all about New York, and New Yorkers think it’s all about Middle America,” Tompkins told me.

Around 2008, however, this started to change. First, the new TKTS booth opened, with its inviting tier of red steps offering one of the more spectacular views of the city. Then, in 2009, Mayor Bloomberg installed the first of the proposed pedestrian plazas on Broadway, a move that was applauded by progressive urbanists and opened the possibility that Times Square could once again become a kind of civic stage; a place where people, including New Yorkers, might gather to see wondrous things. From Hubert’s Flea Circus in the ’20s to its sleaziest ’70s porn-palace days — when shops like Peepland advertised films with straightforward descriptions like “Man fucks a hen” — the enticement of Times Square has always been the same: Come see something you can’t see anywhere else. The story of Times Square’s recent decline — or, at least, the rise of a set of circumstances that’s led to this summer’s dig-the-damn-thing-up panic — is connected to a loss of that allure, which has been replaced by a citywide sense of neglect. New Yorkers who don’t have to be there for work more or less have turned their backs on the area. And by most accounts, Times Square has never been a priority for Mayor de Blasio, who is driven by the determination that Bloomberg, his predecessor, focused too squarely on Manhattan’s amenities (true), and a less valiant notion that the plazas are part of Bloomberg’s legacy and thus not worth championing (questionable).

The tourists, meanwhile — all 39 million of them — are having no trouble figuring out what Times Square is for. To them, it still exists as a stage, but one on which they are the main attraction. The TKTS booth, as New York critic Justin Davidson has written, puts the whole sparkling city on display yet also “gratifies the narcissistic sense that each of us is starring in a real-time biopic.” Once, what was offered in Times Square was New York in all its glamour or all its vice; now what you’re watching onstage is yourself, with New York as the backdrop. “You haven’t been to New York until you’ve been to Times Square!” declares Cat W, who visited last year from Austria, to her fellow travelers on the website TripAdvisor. “Standing here feels like you are starring in a blockbuster movie, starring YOU!”

Which is why it’s impossible to talk about the Elmos, or the desnudas, or Times Square, without talking about all the cameras — specifically, the fact that nearly every single person is now armed with a personal camera and is looking for something interesting to photograph. In 2014, Times Square was the most-Instagrammed site in New York City and the third-most-Instagrammed place on Earth. A major selling point for the enormous billboards, in fact, is that they deliver “multiple impressions,” because they’re photographed so frequently and those photos are shared on social media. One popular billboard allows you to gather below as part of a crowd, watch yourself onscreen, pose for a picture, then see that photo on the billboard, so you can snap a photo of that photo.

And so the costumed characters and desnudas are a distinctly modern addition to the same storied lineage of the three-card-monte hustlers and con artists in the Times Square of yore. The one thing that Amanda Roman and Elmo inarguably have in common is that (a) they’re both interesting to look at and (b) they both exist primarily for you to take a picture of. The new Times Square hustle isn’t offering you sex or the promise of riches — it’s offering you something cool or funny that you can Instagram.

If nothing else, these street performers have served to finally win back the city’s attention — of both the residents and the current administration. Since the backlash to his comments, Commissioner Bratton has claimed that his outburst — “dig the whole damn thing up” — was a calculated effort to “smoke people out” on their positions regarding the plaza. The mayor, in turn, announced the formation of a task force, headed by Bratton and Carl Weisbrod, chairman of the City Planning Commission, to determine a course of action; the task force recommended creating specific zones with new rules that will regulate desnudas, Elmos, and, yes, fake Buddhist monks. “Many of the challenges today are a product of the success of Times Square,” Weisbrod told me. The task force estimates, though, that it may take another year to determine the regulations.

In the meantime, the post-Giuliani, post-Bloomberg, de Blasian Times Square, with its TKTS stairs and partially completed pedestrian plazas, has been languishing as a half-built stage. In an office high above the square, the TSA has been brainstorming one bunch of possibilities: They have a wall covered with yellow stickies of ideas, including pop-up bookstores, Broadway karaoke, and virtual-reality tours. Down below, a different show has bubbled up, hoping to draw your camera lens and wrest a few bucks from your wallet. If history has taught us anything, it’s that the Times Square stage is going to be filled by something, one way or the other. Right now, the city — both the administration and the residents who long ago wrote the area off — just needs to step up and reclaim it.

Something is happening in Times Square. Someone’s painting a naked black man in white paint and a naked white woman in black paint. Nearby, two more naked people are holding a frame around themselves; they’re painted, rather expertly, to look like The Persistence of Memory, by Salvador Dalí. They’re part of a demonstration called #ArtTranscends, organized by the artist Dani Fonseca, who’s worked at Fashion Week and with Lady Gaga. She organized a few body-paint-artist friends to protest the negative press that body painting has gotten thanks to the desnudas. One of the artists, Yvonne MacInnis, is responsible for the Dalí painting. “We thought that people who’ve come to Times Square should see something really cool,” she says. I ask about her connection to the naked people being painted a few feet away, and she says, “Oh, that’s not us. That’s something else.”

“I inadvertently started the desnudas thing!” announces Andy Golub, the other, unrelated body-paint artist. Golub says he painted two naked models in Times Square back in 2011, got arrested, fought the charges, and won, on grounds that public nudity is legal as part of artistic display. As he sees it, this was the inspiration for Chris Olivieri and all the feathered women who followed. “But I’ve come back to clarify that it’s not just boobs but penises and vaginas that are allowed as well, in the name of art,” Golub says.

I’m going to stop and say something heretical: Times Square is kind of fun. Especially when you’re not rushing through it but actually have some time to linger. I don’t mean in the Olive Garden or the Hard Rock Cafe; I mean in the streets, in the plaza, in the public square. In the past few weeks, I spent more time loitering in Times Square than in all my previous years in New York — including three years spent working on its periphery — and I assure you, there’s always something happening in Times Square. Sometimes it’s something annoying. Often it is something weird. Occasionally it’s something delightful. It might be guerrilla surrealist body art, or a Japanese singer who brings out an amp for a few ballads before disappearing, or two guys shooting a video for Clint Black, featuring Times Square denizens holding signs like Bob Dylan in “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” The best part about watching the desnudas at work is seeing tourists stroll past, glance over, then do a double-take: Wait, am I seeing what I think I’m seeing? They’re experiencing something legitimately unexpected and memorable — which is to say, perhaps the most authentically New York–ian thing they may encounter during their entire visit here.

A few more expertly painted naked models arrive to join the Dalí painting: a steampunk couple, a kind of demonic mermaid, and a futuristic pair painted blue and gold with disco-ball helmets. Watching them, it occurs to me that, from Andy Golub to the desnudas to the disco-helmeted blue-and-gold protesters, a mini-epic of New York is being enacted, right here in Times Square, sketched out in body paint. A brazen act of public protest has somehow inspired some opportunistic capitalist hustling, which in turn has spurred this outpouring of genuine artistic showmanship. It’s like a tiny Times Square fable — a reminder that, like a patch of grass breaking through concrete, the spirit of New York can pop up anywhere.

Spider-Man runs over to take a photo of two naked people painted as Persistence of Memory; this is something even he hasn’t seen before. As a bigger crowd gathers, I realize that, just a few blocks away, there’s a whole bunch of other people who are missing this but probably gawking in wonder at something equally remarkable. I’m reminded of what Shannon, a genial liaison who watches the action from his perch in a Times Square info booth, told me about a young lady he spotted one day. “She was walking by, just looking up and smiling,” he says, “and I was like, ‘What are you smiling about?’ And she looked around at Times Square and was like: ‘This. Everything.’ ”

*This article appears in the October 5, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.