Mickey Mouse in Times Square

Note: this post is from a couple of months ago. I just didn’t get around to putting it up until now.

I went down through Times Square last week. I haven’t been through the Square in a few years and I was curious what it was like now.
I admit that i’ve never been a fan. To me, when it was just down and sleazy, it was, well, down and sleazy. I used to go to a great Brazilian place, gone now, on I think 45th where a plate of more food than you could eat cost 6 or 7$, and a caparinia which would knock you out, cost about 3.I found the place through a friend when I first came to New York in the early 90’s and ten years later, the prices were much the same.

Times Square was very anonymous in those days. A few dive bars, peep shows – even thinking about it now, I can’t remember much. it was just sort of blank, dingy, the haunt of drug dealers, the homeless and kids getting drunk. I knew about it’s storied history of course – I’d read my Buroughs. But perhaps because I’d  given up drugs by the time I moved to New York, that part of city life no longer interested me.

Roxy Sign on Times Square

I do remember the YBY people, the strange semi-cult led by Yaweh Ben Yaweh, a blue-eyed black guy from Florida who preached extreme hatred of white people. In the evening, they’d set up in front of the Army recruiting station. They looked like Sikhs, with turbans around their heads, fake swords, beards, and long white or black robes, but they claimed to be the real Jews, descended from the Israelistes of the Old Testament. They would put up signs showing the other lost tribes of Israel, a shifting cast that usually included Puerto Ricans, Native Indians, Jamaicans, and sometimes Brazilians (or just plain ‘South Americans’). To reinforce their claims to Jewishness, they’d put up a picture of an old Hasidic man, his face crossed out and a line in big black text underneath reading: ‘This is not a Jew!”
They were a fun bunch. One night, this guy went on: “White people, we’re going to enslave you, we’re going to rape your women . . . ” while a half dozen others stood guard, arms folded, staring straight ahead. I watched, transfixed by their naked hatred, for maybe fifteen minutes then finally broke away. I guess I’d been more unnerved than I thought because when a black guy – a local hustler – gave me that appraising look that was common currency in the New York of the day, I flinched. He laughed and grabbed me on the shoulder “Don’t worry, man, I ain’t gonna hurt you,” and I laughed as well. But almost every time I went down after that for the next couple of years, the YBY people were around, part of the Times Square circus.

American Apparel Ad on Times Square
After the Guiliani clean-up, I never went down unless I had to. It was just too frenzied, too much of a mall. I used to think of Times Square as the world citadel of global capitalism, a kind of high-neon, over-touristed, capitalist Vatican, replete with the Hardrock Cafes and other chain restaurants that seemed absurd in the context of New York.  If I went to the Brazilian place, I made sure to enter around 6th. The YBY people were gone at that point. I guess the authorities cleared them out.
But on that afternoon a few weeks ago, it seemed a little less frenzied, if not less capitalist and geared up for the tourists. Instead of the YBY people. there was the Naked Cowboy, that quixotic figure who is a reminder both of pre-gentrification New York’s quirkiness, and its extreme narcissism. He was a big hit, posing for a stream of lady tourists, hugging them for pictures from the front, then turning around, sticking his butt in the air while each lucky lady put her hand on his derriere and he gave his best sexy Naked Cowboy look. In five minutes, he went through a half-dozen women, keeping up the pose and his character with a sort of jovial stoicism, just as he does, day in, day out, year round. Judging from his press, it’s not a bad living. I guess.
I have to say though I didn’t hate  Times Square in it’s present incarnation, not like I did a few years ago. I wouldn’t go out of my way to be there, but with the open spaces, and a very good lady musician playing a half-block down from the Naked Cowboy, it wasn’t a bad place to hang out for half an hour.
Times Square is representative of a basic dilemna New York (and many other cities) faced with de-industrialization – namely, what do you do after you stop making things? I’m no fan of Guiliani, but he did realize one basic thing: if New York was going to have an industry outside of Wall Street, it was going to be tourism, and if New York was going to attract tourists, it was going to have to be safe, in every way. And if that meant diminishing what gave New York it’s distinctive personality, then that, to Guiliani and his heirs, was a price worth paying.

Naked Cowboy with friends on Times Square


  1. Pretty sweet shots. Looking good. Isn’t this the most awesome city on the face of Mars?!

    Oh and I took your advise. I changed the theme. Easier on the eyes?

    • Ha! ‘Tis the most awesome city on the face of Mars indeed. Sometimes, whenever I”m in a shopping mall (a real one, not the Times Square version), I think malls and even suburbs are training for life on Mars. All those created environments. Canned air, canned music, the car as shuttle between living space, consuming space and dwelling space.

      I”ll check out your blog today, haven’t been able to stay inside with the weather . . .


  2. It’s nice to read an article from someone who experienced the area through it’s change, and doesn’t knock it flat out. It’s so convenient for people to say ‘Times Square sucks, it was better when it was sleazy, NY lost it’s edge, blah, blah.’ Half of those accounts are based on what people ‘perceived’ NY to have been, not based on experiencing them first hand. NY is what it evolves into. If you love it, you’ll love it through all of these reinventions.

    • Jay,

      Thanks for the comment. Yeah, I do get a little tired of the lionization of NY – or anywhere – in its good old bad old days. I mean they were fun, if you were a certain age, or a certain kind of person. I was just thinking yesterday of the NY I first came to in the late 80’s, which was exciting, much more accessible than now, diverse, delirious, fascinating – and totally exhausting. People did drugs for a reason in those days. I wonder how many people in the neighborhood where I live now (Bed-Stuy) look back with nostalgia on that period.
      NY can’t be separated from the culture around it. And Times Square, for better or worse, is a bellwether of that culture. And you’re right, if you love a place, you love it through all its manifestations.
      My only quibble is that NY, or any city like it, has become so unaffordable for the kind of person I was twenty years ago (or now for that matter!).


  3. I remember the YBY dudes. They would yell at a white families passing by stuff like “YOUR WIFE IS A LESBIAN! YOUR CHILDREN ARE DEVILS!” Last time i saw (couple years at least) them they were around union square.

    • Thanks for the comment – Man, that’s too funny. They were a fun bunch. I didn’t know they were still around – I haven’t seen them for years. Funnily enough, I used to see them on Fulton street around the same time as in Times Square – they’d tone down the message quite a bit. They were still crazy, but they didn’t threaten rape or anything like that . . . I guess they saved it all for the tourists.


    • David – thanks for the kind words. I’ve actually been trying to be LESS literary – but I guess you is what you is.


  4. Two links from my doc “The Urban Eye” a pop and trash culture tour of the disappearing landmarks. Shot in the early 90’s. Let me know if you want to put up or trade links. I also have a web site. Lots of Times Square footage.



    Two links from my doc “The Urban Eye” a pop and trash culture tour of the disappearing landmarks. Shot in the early 90’s. Let me know if you want to put up or trade links. I also have a web site. Check out all 3 parts.


  5. Here is part one in HD of my doc about the trash culture landmarks from the 90’s that have disappeared. Good voice over and narration.


    Let me know if you want to post links or I would love to write some articles for you. Long time NY ker with stories from the 70’s CBGB/Maxs music scene. In some popular bands then.
    Big interest in the Sleazy 70’s-80’s times square. Many articles about that.

    Jerry Rio


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