“Spend a Day with Clint Eastwood” the marquee of the Victoria suggested. And I did.
Four- count them, four of Clint’s films: A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good the Bad and the Ugly and Hang Em High – Whoa! Talk about Heaven! The theater was of course, a shadow of what it had been in the forties, and you didn’t want to touch too much; it was bad enough that you had to sit in the cloth seats and feel your feet stick to the floor, not at all wanting to know what was making them do so. But hey it was four Clint Eastwood films so who cared? I brought my own snacks as I would be in the darkness for hours on end. Plus, I stayed to watch them all a second time. I got home late.
One of the best days of my life, hands down.
The Victoria was one of the few remaining theaters on 42nd street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue that still showed films that were not pornography, and they specialized in these all day marathons of stars of the day. They did the same thing a few years later with Charles Bronson (and yes I sat through those too). And yes I did partake of a few of the other films offered nearby; a favorite I think was called Beyond (or Behind-I can’t remember) the Green Door or some such dramatic thing. It wasn’t as good as Clint, but I can’t say that I left the theater before the end of the film either (the star was Marilyn Chambers after she was the Ivory Soap girl). Times Square was indeed a Playland, which was the name incidentally of the arcade on Broadway; it had once been called the Great White Way, I think because of all the incandescent bulbs that burned each night advertising the plays and movies that were shown there. It wasn’t so clean in the Seventies, but I liked it anyway. It was dirty, and gritty and obscene and it was oh so New York, kind of like the punk scene about to happen downtown at the Mud Club and CBGBs; not to every ones taste, but if you were into it, there was no better place to be.
I remember going with the family to see a film (can’t remember that title either) around the holidays and to get back to the subway, Dad took us through that one block of lovely debauchery. Mom of course was almost strangling me with her arms to keep me from straying and every once in a while would put her gloved hand over my eyes so I couldn’t see a particular poster advertising the feature film of a theater we passed. But at one point, she had to let go, as the crowds were thick with Holiday visitors and we had to navigate around to get to the corner. And in that one moment when she let go, a tall girl (at least I think it was a girl) with long black hair and red lipstick emerged from the shadows of a doorway and asked me if I wanted a date! Taking one look at her (I guess it was a her) I decided boy did I!! Now I was pretty young and obviously not “of age”, still being in Junior High, but I got the idea and I had no problem with it at all. Of course before things could progress Mom and Dad played linebacker and I was shielded from getting what I imagined would have been a damn good education in something even if I wasn’t too sure of what it was.
That was Times Square back in the day.
Later in college, still the Seventies, I used to love to walk those streets, joint in hand, and hear the invitations, the innuendos, even the hollow threats. I would ignore the innuendos and threats and smile my thanks at the invitations. I’d stop to offer a cigarette to the young and not so young girls (at least I thought they were girls), and say “maybe next time but thank you. You need a light for that love?” They were real people in a real city and I adored being a part of it.
I will leave you to judge what that said about me then or what it says about me now, and honestly I don’t really care – I loved it. It was quintessentially New York. And it was everything my sheltered life wasn’t.
Years later, after leaving the city, I came back one Holiday season and walked the area again. Gone were the black and white movie stills; gone were the crowds of women (if they were women) vying for your attention, gone was the dirt, the grime, the very essence of the place. What was there was something out of an urban Disney park, with chain stores, and people getting their pictures taken (for twenty bucks a hit) with some loser dressed up like Spiderman or the Incredible Hulk. Hmmm, I thought, and this was better? Institutionalized extortion? As I passed a Hershey’s Chocolate World, a Red Lobster and an Olive Garden , I thought aren’t those places supposed to be in the bland suburbs? Why would a great city like New York, a city of ethnicity and neighborhoods and fine dining need places like that? Who the hell would eat in one of those places when you were in Manhattan for Gods sake? Surely they belonged in New Jersey, not the so-called Crossroads of the World? But of course each one of them was packed with tourists who wanted familiarity and an all-you-can-eat salad bar. The more I walked the more I missed the Times Square of my youth, as dangerous and as dirty as it was.
Sadly, the place had been transformed. It was safer for sure; cleaner no doubt; it had become a family destination and boy did it suck. I could look up and still recognize the buildings…the old Victoria, The Harris, The Deuce, but they were unrecognizable at ground level and they are probably totally gone by now. I got it that crime had dramatically decreased since then; you couldn’t score drugs on the corner of 8th and 43rd anymore, and if you desired the company of some female (or otherwise) companion for a few hours, you were out of luck. The homeless had all been rounded up and hidden from view, and even the guys who used to clean your windshield for a buck were nowhere to be seen. All cleaned up. It felt very surreal and not in a good way.
My Times Square was gone.
I went back that once and never went back again.
And I won’t, at least until things deteriorate a bit, and I can feel at home again.
“A date? Hmm..well maybe so.. you look like a nice girl; you know they’re playing four Eastwood films down the block…interested? Here, let me light that for you, love. Grab hold…here we go..”
Ah, sweet dreams are made of this.