Times Square: The Sleazy Years

I grew up in the suburbs of New York and had only one goal: get to The City. As a teenager I took the train in whenever possible and soaked up as much '70s atmosphere as I could. And believe me, in the '70s the place was thick with atmosphere--a stew of graffiti, beggars, X-rated movie theaters with "greeters," Diane Arbus subjects, and an overarching sense of menace and inflation. It was not a place for children, and I was thrilled no longer to be a child.

In the 1970s Times Square was the epicenter of New York atmosphere. The place had not yet been Disneyfied and my friend Gaynor and I spent a wet and sleazy New Year's Eve there getting kissed by strangers as 1974 turned to '75. Up by the ball in One Times Square, Dick Clark was challenging Waldorf-Astoria-based Guy Lombardo for the network TV title of Mr. New Year's Eve, and it gives me a stark sense of the passage of time to realize that Dick was then a newbie at the job. But Gaynor and I cared nothing for either of them.

We had gone to see a Mountain concert at the Felt Forum, the smaller stage attached to Madison Square Garden. (These days it's called, depressingly enough, the WaMu Theater.) Gaynor and I had been forbidden to see each other by her mother, who inexplicably thought I was a bad influence. Who, me? I had graduated high school at 16 and was already halfway through my freshman year of college while Gaynor was cutting the bulk of her 11th grade classes. Somehow I only seemed to get in trouble when I was with Gaynor, and my own mother had given up her ineffective efforts to keep us apart once she realized I probably wouldn't end up in jail.

At any rate, that December 31st Gaynor and I took the commuter train into Grand Central and walked to Madison Square Garden for the early show, about which I remember absolutely nothing except that it got out around 11:00p.m. There was a light rain and of course we were too cool to carry umbrellas, so by the time we walked the 10 blocks to Times Square we were cold and clammy.

Like everyone else on earth we'd heard that this was the place to be on New Year's Eve. And like everyone else on earth, we had gone there that night. The streets were packed, and the moistness gave the scene the feel of a giant, chaotic, open-air locker room during some twisted championship game.

In this case, the game seemed to be to see how many strangers you could kiss before the ball dropped. We were grabbed and buffetted about the closed-off streets, our faces slobbered on by men tall and short, fat and thin. They spoke to us in foreign languages and, occasionally, English. It felt frenzied and lawless and somewhat thrilling. We veered between wanting to run for the train and to play the kissing game to win.

Finally, just as we'd had about enough, I was grabbed by a ringer for the Marlboro Man. He enveloped me in his damp arms, tilted me back and kissed me deeply. For the first and only time that night, I kissed back. I had visions of '40s movies and a tingle that I could have easily believed was true love. I wanted it to go on forever but in a matter of moments he raised me back up and strode off. "Wait!" I wanted to yell after him. "Let me give you my phone number!" If only I could have squeaked out a sound at that point, or remembered my phone number.

To this day when the talk turns to memorable kisses I am transported to the recruiting station just under the ball-drop and the arms of a beautiful stranger.

The rest of the night was anticlimatic. Gaynor and I got our sodden bodies on the train, which was delayed for more than an hour when a man dropped dead in one of the front cars. Gaynor had no patience for tragedy and took his death as a personal affront. She knew that there would be no explaining her lateness to her mother. Indeed, my diary from January 1, 1975 notes that I dropped her home at 3:15a.m. and when I got home at 3:30 my mother was sitting in the kitchen. She said that Gaynor's mother had called and would I please refrain from doing things that would bring on those calls.

A postscript: I worked in Times Square in the 1980s, still pre-Disney, and occasionally would marvel that "normal" life went on amid this circus. When I stepped outside my office I could watch Olympic-quality breakdancers perform on a flattened box used earlier in the day for three-card monte games. I'd be offered whips and wrench sets for sale--whatever had fallen off the truck that day. I loved those streets, even if I had to hold on extra tightly to my purse while trying to focus on the warm glow. I might point out that I was never mugged until I foolishly took a trip to Philadelphia.

As a New Yorker of a certain age (and I still consider myself a New Yorker even though I've been gone for two decades), I feel nostalgic for the freakish and dangerous that used to thrive in Manhattan and was especially concentrated in Times Square. It's hard to find a good whip salesman or breakdancer these days, ironically harder around 42nd Street than in small-town USA. But if you're looking for an accomplished kiss from a hot stranger, I suggest you hop a plane to New York for Monday night's festivities. Even cleaned up, there's still nothing like Times Square on New Year's Eve. At least once.

Originally published 12/30/07.

Good Riddance to the Holidays

It's all finished and I couldn't be happier. No more parties or baking, no more shopping, wrapping or Christmas TV programming. No pressure to write cards. No more decorating, and no more putting decorations away. Can I get a "turn, turn, turn" and an amen?

It's been two days since anyone wished me "Happy New Year." I'm sure there will still be a few stragglers--last year I even got one in February! But the holidays have officially ended and happy days are here again. (Except for the 2008 election hysteria that makes my hellish holidays look brief and functional. But let's not get into politics.)

Yesterday I got the fake tree and all of the ornaments, linens, home decorations and serving pieces put away. I stripped the tree over the weekend, so I only had a few days with a naked tree and a pile of ornaments on the floor--and my holiday bar has been lowered sufficiently that I can feel good about that! I was thrilled to close the garage door with all the Christmas boxes inside while we were still in the single digits of January. It's easy to exceed expectations when you don't set them too high. In fact, there's even a low-expectations song about resolutions that I like a lot.

Now my living room looks really empty. I'm thinking of holding an aerobics class in there. Except I was so careful about not losing control over the holidays that I'm doing a reverse resolution now. I've cut back on exercise and I'm gorging myself. Oh well, at least I looked good in the Christmas photos. Valentine's Day could be another story, however.

I was pleasantly surprised to find a few fake needles on the floor around my new fake tree. It gave me a warm reminder of the bad old days when those needles would be plentiful, and accompanied by a big old dead tree that needed to be dumped somewhere. This year, no problem. Just break it down, fold it up and put it back in its box. Of course, that box is so heavy that it takes two people to heave it into storage, but if you live right there's always a Santa's Helper around when you need one. Oh, and I put the needles in a snack-sized Ziploc bag for next year.

I'm also happy there is no more Christmas music blasting through the streets and stores. My beloved XM Radio has stopped pushing its dedicated holiday music stations and is back to its highly targeted and diverse offerings. Now most of its promotions seem to involve Led Zeppelin, which is fine with me.

This year I didn't get anything for Christmas that I needed to return, which was a pleasant surprise. My son, however, rethought everything on his wish list and even exchanged gifts he had specifically requested. I didn't mind too much, except the part where I had to look the Gamestop salesman, who is probably half my age, right in the eye and confirm that I was allowing my child to bring home a game that promotes killing and cursing. Everyone in the store listened in as he read me the definition of the M rating on the new selection. Yep, that's the one we wanted. Now put it in a bag so I can skulk out the door.

I braved the day-after-Christmas sales this season for the first time in years. They were as horrible as I remembered, but I still managed to do quite a bit of damage. I saved hundreds of dollars, but of course that kind of bragging doesn't come cheap.

So for this year, it's all over but the bill-paying. Oh, and the thank you notes.

Originally posted January 10, 2008

Hellish Holidays from Around the Web

Today's New York Times has an article on those who feel "this is the year of the anti-Christmas." Whether the economy, the environment, or just plain burnout, these grinches are finding excuses for skipping the tree and the gifts.

What are your memories of sitting on Santa's lap? As these photos indicate, sometimes it looked like there was something else going on!

And a couple of videos to keep the mood going!

Christmas Confessional

A great if hellish song by the Hives and Cyndi Lauper.

It Couldn't Have Been Worse?

Dad yelling, sister running away from home - it does sound pretty bad. But there's always hope!

Getting Emotional at Christmastime

Are anxiety and depression - the flip sides of peace and joy - inevitable at the holidays? It sure feels like it. For every positive, heart-warming aspect of Christmas, there's something infuriating or just plain annoying to rise up and attempt to blot it out - a Joe Lieberman blocking the very health care reform he once proposed, for example. I try to be positive, to see the silver lining and ignore the cloud, but the holidays don't make it easy.

The tree is up and makes me smile every time I see it - until I notice the block of lights out at its bottom. This is only the third Christmas since I bought my fake-but-expensive Martha Stewart Mount Sterling and the thing is already breaking down. Needless to say, no one answers the customer service line.

I love the delicious holiday food - so much that I've gained three pounds and there's still two weeks left until New Year's and its repetitive resolutions.

I plan and shop for months to get just the right presents for everyone and pride myself on completing shopping and shipping well before deadline. Then, despite assurances from a vendor that the gift is in the mail, it's not. It may yet show up, but even if it does it's already missed my cross-country shipment to my sister and her family.

See what I mean? I want to have goodwill toward men (and Martha) but there are just so many obstacles.