I have an irrational love of Times Square. It is irrational because Times Square is an amalgam of just about everything that I (and everyone else) loathe — traffic, overcrowding, tourists, garbage, commercialism, pushy people, rude people, odd smells, noise, gaudy advertising, ripoff artists, construction, jackhammers and the biggest Olive Garden you ever saw. I sometimes stop in front of that Olive Garden just to take in its perplexing immensity. I’m not an Olive Garden hater as so many are, but here in New York, with 783 spectacular and independent Italian restaurants run by actual Italian people less than a Giancarlo Stanton homer away, the gargantuan Olive Garden seems to stand for something irrepressibly sad. B.B. King could have played a song about it.
Still, I love Times Square, now more than ever, and if I had to explain why, well, I don’t know that I could. Let me just tell you about this walk I took with our youngest daughter, Katie through Times Square.
We were walking along Broadway, and the evening was perfect. You know that perfect temperature? I suppose it’s different for everyone. For me, it is that precise degree where, jacket or no jacket, you feel exactly right. How does a temperature work with or without a jacket? I don’t know. It’s magic, I suppose. And it was that magical temperature that evening, just enough to feel neither hot nor cold, and we started to walk through Times Square.
The Square was crowded, of course. More so than usual. Craziness was in full bloom. Naked painted people. Tourism ninjas trying to force you on one of those busses. Mercenaries trying to push you into a comedy club. As I held Katie’s hand, someone dressed like a minion raced toward us, sensing an opportunity for a photo and a buck. But then someone else dressed like Minnie Mouse tried to cut off the minion and get to us first. It was a race for our attention. We somehow slipped by both, not unlike Gale Sayers, but we could not avoid a young woman with a black hat and tights. She did a little dance and tried to hand us a card that I can only assume was for “Chicago” on Broadway.
“No thank you,” Katie said. The young woman smiled.
“I love your dress,” Katie said.
We walked passed a homeless man who held up a sign that read “Give me a dollar or I’ll vote for Trump.” We walked past someone trying to get us to stand still so he could draw a caricature of us. We walked past a Japanese family, with the mother and father trying to somehow arrange a family photo in the middle of all this chaos and the daughter, who was probably about the age of our 15-year-old Elizabeth, had this priceless “Would you please stop embarrassing me,” teenager look on her face.
You could smell the pizza coming out of Ray’s. You could see the steam coming out of the grates in the ground. “Where does that smoke come from?” Katie asked because she is always asking questions, nonstop, every waking hour.
“It’s steam,” I said, and then, “look, there’s a frozen yogurt place.” With Katie it’s often about misdirection or else the questions will keep coming in an endless stream.
There were five or six languages flying around us, some I vaguely recognized, some utter mysteries. We saw a man wearing a yarmulke. We saw another wearing a turban. Earlier in the day, we had a cab driver who was wearing a turban. He explained to us how you play Pokemon Go.
We passed a newspaper stand, like something from another century, and there was the Daily News and the Post and the Times, along with a glorious assortment of magazines and gum and candy and odd items like paperclips. Katie was halfway-knocked over by a man carrying a briefcase; he seemed to be late for something important, like his wedding. As far as I can tell, he did not look back.
It was, as Times Square always is, overwhelming. I better understand why people despise Times Square than I understand my own love for it. We weren’t really moving. People were rudely cutting us off. After the man semi-knocked over Katie (I held her up before she fell), I started to feel just a touch of that malaise that has lingered in the air this year. You know that malaise, right? Maybe it’s the election. Maybe it’s the rapid way everything is changing. Maybe it is the division — people seem so repelled by each other that they don’t even try to talk. Maybe it’s that snarkiness so often eclipses wonder.
Maybe it’s that snarkiness and cynicism and weariness often eclipses wonder.
I try to avoid the malaise, of course, because I’m not built to be pessimistic. Katie helps. I just glazed over that scene with the Chicago young woman because I see that exact scene every single day. Whenever Katie meets someone new — and I mean every single time — she cannot help but shout out in full glee, “I love your earrings/scarf/shoes/glasses/necklace/tie.”
Elizabeth helps. Almost every day, even at 15, she breaks away momentarily from her teenage wasteland and gives me a hug and tells me about her day and about the stuff she loves, which very often is the stuff I love too, like The Godfather or chocolate or terrible puns or a perfect 1980s song I introduced to her like “The Promise” by When In Rome.
Margo helps. She sent this to me the other day. It makes me boundlessly happy when I see it.
I’m sorry: You can’t watch that without feeling at least five percent better about the world.
Great new songs help — it’s probably overplayed but I have fallen in love with “Death of a Bachelor.”
Friends help. Great writing helps. Baseball helps.
But there in Times Square I could feel the malaise coming anyway.
And then I saw them.
They were beaming with joy. They were probably in college. Maybe high school. Maybe older. I don’t know, the older Elizabeth gets, the worse I get at estimating age. The other day, my barber (do you still call them barbers?) struck up a conversation with me, and I would have sworn — I mean SWORN — that she was in college. It would not have shocked me if she was a senior in high school. And then, in the flow of conversation, she told me that she had been married for 10 years and had a nine-year-old son. So, I’m probably better off not guessing ages. They’re all kids to me now.
Anyway, these two girls came through the crowd, and they were happily singing a song.
“Daddy said to be home by sundown,” one sang.
“Daddy doesn’t need to know,” the other replied.
“Daddy said not to go downtown,” one sang.
“Like I said you’re free to go,” the other replied.
The song is “The Schuyler Sisters” from Hamilton.
It’s a wonderful song, so joyful, so full of curiosity and hope and awe.
“Look around! Look around!” Katie sang because she has heard her sister sing Hamilton song for the last year and sort of knows the words. “The everything is happening in New York! The greatest city in the world! Work!”
That’s not exactly how it goes. But it’s close enough. I looked out to find those two girls. See, there’s a particular part of that song I love most. It is the part where the sisters introduce themselves.
“Angelica!” the oldest sings.
“Eliza!” Alexander Hamilton’s future wife sings.
“And Peggy,” sings Peggy.
It’s that “And Peggy,” that gets me. Peggy throws it in there with force, with sass, it’ the ultimate “Don’t forget about me,” interruption. Our girls do it around the house all the time, full of cheekiness and nerve, and it cracks me up. I wanted to hear those two happy girls sing the “And Peggy” part of the song, but they had disappeared into the crowd. Even so, just seeing them there, singing without any qualms, enjoying this perfect evening in New York, well, it made whatever I was worried about before disappear. I squeezed Katie’s hand a little tighter.
“You ready?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Angelica!”
“Eliza!” I sang.
She let go of my hand, and put it on her hip. She pursed her lips and sang in the loudest voice she could muster, “And Peggy!” And then she laughed and grabbed my hand again and we were walking again,and the everything is happening in New York … in the greatest city in the world … the greatest city in the world. Work!