Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Like Blood Through a Great Asphalt Heart

I BEGAN WORKING IN New York City for the first time in Midtown. After I was there for over five years, the company decided to quit its digs there and decamp for Chelsea. The change in scenery was striking and continues to fascinate me.

Here on the Web, I am writing for an audience global in scope albeit minuscule in size. But nobody — anywhere — needs a long introduction to Times Square, the Crossroads of the World. Between June 1999 and December 2004, I traversed this lively intersection at least once a day. I took the bus to work from New Jersey, into the Truman-era vault that is the Port Authority Bus Terminal. The bus-station district, once called Hell's Kitchen but now increasingly being referred to as "Clinton" (what's next, renaming the Jersey Devil "Flappy, Your Winged Half-Goat Pal"?), was undergoing a spasm of redevelopment during that stretch. Aging parking garages and three-story rows of seedy hat shops and porn parlors were kissing the wrecking ball, to yield up pricey land for office complexes and high-rise hotels. If I chose to walk east on 42nd Street, I could see the results of Mayor Giuliani and his various police paladins on either side: rejuvenated multi-screen, movie palaces, restaurants, above-board tourist shops (i.e., not constantly "GOING OUT OF BUSINESS"), and various maws by which visitors could feed the throbbing Disney monster.

Then, the expanse of Times Square. Always active, swarming with life, except for early in the morning, when I had to come in before 6:00 a.m. to work on my tight-deadline twice-monthly newsletter. I would pass the Nasdaq Marketsite when they were broadcasting live on CNBC. I often fancied that one of my bosses, scarfing bran or chugging coffee by TV light, might see me over Brad Goode or Liz Claman's shoulder as I trudged along to the office.

But most of the time, I crossed Times Square in morning light or early evening. Early in the day, commuters flowed through this storied intersection like blood through a great asphalt heart. They emerged from subway entrances, reoriented themselves without looking up from the pavement, and continued onward. Some clustered around the coffee carts stationed on corners, clutching dollars and eyeballing sticky sweetness behind the Plexiglas, or lined up outside Starbucks when the queue snaked out the door. But aside from these folks, everyone was in rapid motion, ever conscious of the desk, the chair, the overstuffed inbox, the balky computer, the dreaded meeting, or even the nerve-wracking interview that awaited them at the end of all those rapidfire steps.

For the return trip, the steel-and-stone arena was far more chaotic. True, commuters were streaming back through Times Square, slower, weary, thinking of home or dinner or family. But they were joined by many thousands of tourists, all proceeding at their own pace, gawking, photographing, chattering among themselves in any number of foreign tongues, clutching retail bags and wearing NYC garb. You could always tell a tourist during rush hour, because he or she was the only one who wasn't heading toward a mass-transit terminal at high velocity or who was stopping you to ask a question.

Sometimes I did need to evade them. On some occasions, I chose to transit between my office and the bus station along Sixth Avenue, cutting across 41st Street around the block-wide footprint of the Verizon tower. It was still Bell Atlantic when I began working in the city, a year away from the colossal rebranding that erased another piece of historical communications nomenclature. I took this route most often on Wednesdays, traditionally matinee day in Manhattan, when buses of tourists would render the cross streets impassable with dazzled theatergoers. I wasn't ungrateful for the money they brought in, especially after 9/11, when many struggling shows and even restaurants in the Theater District died for want of patrons. So although I sometimes needed to get through their masses more swiftly, I didn't hate them.

I crossed this great nexus for half of a decade until my company moved us 30 blocks south to Chelsea. The differences, which I will cover in my next post, were like night and day.

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