It’s my birthday today, so I decided to take a 3-hour break from reading about esoterica and take a walk. I wandered through Central Park and snickered at the faux-hawked tourists and then ended up in Times Square somehow. I always avoid Times Square because it’s packed from left to right with Texans with too much make-up on who are trying to blend in by dressing like they’re in an episode of Friends and with those weird Midtown office workers, but I fucked up and wandered too far down Seventh Avenue before I noticed what I was doing. Maybe I was distracted by the Drive Like Jehu (or was it Scandal?) I was listening to. Anyway, I noticed a few things along the way that have made me question the general public’s appraisal of today’s Times Square.
Even people who don’t live here have heard the story of what Rudy Giuliani “did for” Times Square. He’s supposed to be a big hero because he “cleaned up” 42nd Street and made the area safe for people who wear buttpacks with no hint of sarcasm to hang around in. I cannot count the number of times I’ve read self-indulgent little bits of doggerel about the former glory of the Deuce in local publications in which some (invariably old, white, boring, male) writer will pine away for the glory days of 42nd Street when the entire area consisted of nothing but peep shows, strip clubs, massage parlors, and random crime. You can almost hear the tiny violins playing when you read these guys’ lamentations over the “Disnification” of the area that has taken place over the last decade or so.
Now, I’m just as bummed as anyone when an area with its own character and style turns into yet another Starbucks-American Apparel-T Mobile-Chase Bank-Jamba Juice-Chipotle-Gap strip mall, but I don’t know that 42nd Street’s past is anything to mourn, or that it’s even changed all that much. Only a maudlin, entitled weenie could whine about the loss of a bunch of shithole exploitation emporiums, but we all know there is no shortage of those, especially in the New York print media.
As of now, Times Square is dominated by chain restaurants that are basically souped-up, double-priced incarnations of the kinds of places people eat at on Friday nights in Marietta, Georgia: Outback Steakhouse, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Chevy’s, TGI Friday’s, Chili’s, Applebee’s, and Hooters. (I don’t know that they’re all represented, but you get the point.) It’s basically a giant mall, billed as “family-friendly” because it’s got an MTV store, a Disney store, and a Hurley outlet (ugh).
Things have changed. One really has to make ten seconds’-worth of an effort these days to find, tucked away between the t-shirt shops and gray-market electronics outlets, the little doorways that lead to second-floor strip clubs and massage parlors (AKA sex-trafficking depots, AKA rape rooms). It’s just such a shame to see the area lose its gloriously exploitive past.
Or has it? I don’t see the recent history of Times Square as a story of seediness’s supplantation by generic middle-American consumer culture, but rather one of generic middle-American consumer culture incorporating, co-opting, and corporatizing phenomena that were formerly deemed unfit for women, children, and “good” family men. Times Square has gone from a shitheap of independently owned sex trade establishments to a shitheap of corporate exploitation and objectification depots. The sleaze has gone mainstream in the form of two Hooters franchises, a Hawaiian Tropic restaurant (where the waitstaff wears bikinis, even in January — in New York), and Club Jenna, a nightclub owned by porn indsutry poster-girl Jenna Jameson (equipped with a 40-foot billboard with Jenna’s face and boobs on it, with a little nipple exposed on each), and who knows what else (I couldn’t stand to wander around there for too long).
So yeah, Times Square does suck more now than it used to, but these windbag writers (who ought to be sent out to pasture so I can take over their jobs and tell the public what’s really up) have no clue as to why. Times Square sucks now more than it used to not because its bordellos have lost their uniqueness, not because it’s safe to walk around in at 4 AM, not because it’s full of places that sell drinks with names like the Wallaby Darned and the El Nino Margarita, but because it’s a glaringly obvious manifestation of the mainstreaming of porn culture.
A family vacation in New York now includes a look at a 20-foot wide close-up of a porn star’s tits, a good look at a few waitresses’ tits, and a souvenir t-shirt based on the Hello Kitty brand that (oh, so cleverly) says “Hello Titty” on it and turns the former kid’s toy brand logo into — that’s right — a pair of tits.