The first time I ever set foot in Times Square was during one of its lowest ebbs. It was home to downmarket strip clubs, drug dealers and grindhouse movie theaters. There were so many deserted theater marquees that artist Jenny Holzer was dispatched to put her aphorisms on them as a way of distracting people from the seedy surroundings. Here’s a photo of one of her creations: Deviants are sacrificed to ensure group solidarity. And another one: Any surplus is immoral.
I’m glad that photographic proof of those marquees exists online, or else I may have thought I imagined them. Now, I have no nostalgia for the run-down New York of the past; I love being able to walk around, even after dark, and feel perfectly safe, and I am glad the subway stairwells no longer reek of urine. However, if it weren’t for the Broadway theaters, I would be very happy to avoid Times Square entirely, the way I stay far away from Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. But when I’m visiting NYC, I usually have to go to Times Square at least once or twice a day. And that brings me to the two most perplexing things in the Square, if not the country–nay, the world. I refer, of course, to the M&M Store and the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company.
I have actually been inside the M&M Store, a couple of years ago, when my sister-in-law was up here with us. This is a store devoted to selling M&Ms–a product, I hasten to add, that you can purchase much cheaper at any Target in the country–and M&M-themed stuff, from mugs to keychains to T-shirts. Joe figured that it appeals mainly to foreign tourists, but I don’t believe it; sometimes, it seems like half of everybody in Times Square is carrying an M&M Store bag and they’re not all speaking foreign languages. M&Ms are not an exotic commodity! You don’t need to buy them in a special store while you’re on vacation! It makes no sense!!!
But, hey, candy, everybody loves candy, right? And I guess most people love shrimp, since the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company chain has been around since 1996, and averages $7.2 million per domestic unit, according to Food Industry News. Times Square isn’t exactly a hub of adventurous dining–there’s a Ruby Tuesday’s, an Olive Garden, an Applebee’s, and that Guy Fieri restaurant that was famously trashed in the New York Times–but the thing that confounds me about Bubba Gump’s is that it has an entire “Forrest Gump”-themed souvenir business attached to it. Who even cares about “Forrest Gump” after nearly 20 years? Why would you buy, much less wear, a “Life is like a box of chocolates” T-shirt in 2013? Would anybody try to sell “The Santa Clause” or “True Lies” (other top-5 grossing flicks of 1994) stuff nowadays? Granted, “Dumb and Dumber” is getting another sequel, so perhaps mid-90s nostalgia is in full swing.
Prior to New York, I spent a couple of days in Baltimore, returning to the city I lived in for 12+ years for the first time since 1998. One of the first things I noticed was that the “Baltimore: The City That Reads” bus benches I remembered from the 90s had been replaced by benches with a new slogan (I am not making this up): “Baltimore: The Greatest City in America.” Somebody told me a possibly-apocryphal tale that the “Greatest City” slogan was put in as a placeholder for a mocked-up draft of the new city web site, the mayor liked it, and it stuck.
In any case, I hate to break it to you, Baltimore, but you’re not even the greatest city in the mid-Atlantic region (that would be Washington, despite its problems–at least it has the Smithsonian and the 9:30 Club). Despite Times Square, the noise, the crowds, it’s always been clear to me that New York is truly the greatest city in America. Love it or hate it, you can’t deny it is the biggest and the best. Case in point: there is a place a few blocks away from where we’re staying called Insomnia Cookies, which serves hot, delicious cookies until 3 AM. It’s 11:30 PM as I write this, and I could go out and spend $1.50 and get a freshly baked cookie right now. I mean, I’m not going to–I’m planning to brush my teeth and go to bed–but I could. And I would probably have to wait in line for it.
R.I.P. to one of the true poets of New York, Lou Reed. His song “Dirty Blvd.” sums up the good, the bad & the ugly of this place.