NEW YORK - Not so long ago, a skinny kid who used to be me would walk these neon-soaked streets at 3 a.m. - mind racing, heart thumping, eyes darting, pointed finger jammed into coat pocket, as if packing more than a pen.
And muttering, to no one in particular.
Maybe, I reasoned then, if the psychos at the crossroads of depravity sized me up as one of them, they would leave me alone.
When in New York, especially Times Square . . .
On good nights, the journey lasted just long enough for me to scamper from the West 43rd Street newspaper building, where I interned, to a cab on Seventh Avenue. On bad nights, when I couldn't afford a $20 ride to a basement in Queens, a purgatory of Dantesque proportions awaited.
Prostitutes propositioned me on Seventh Avenue, every night, four or five of them in a block's stretch. Barkers, straining to drown out their competing neighbors, shouted invitations to peeps and live shows starring nude women, nude men and dancers in the process of becoming one or the other, with help of surgery and chemicals.
A new form of cocaine, dubbed crack after its debut just off Broadway, enslaved and enraged addicts. Hoodlums lurked in the shadows of the Great White Way. One night, a few dozen of them clearly relished ripping purses from women's shoulders and earrings from their ears.
Witnessing this daily parade of lost souls, I gave thanks each time I made it underground to catch the No. 7. There, just across the tracks in the deserted subway station, lived the biggest, fattest rat I'd ever encountered.
Ah, for indelible postcard memories like these, you've got to be a part of it - New York, New York. Or get the hell out, with your sanity in check. I chose the latter, with no regrets, after a long 15 months.
Still, in the decade since, I've revisited Times Square every year or two to satisfy the wandering spirit in me, to count blessings upon leaving, to remember the place as much as the time - two weeks out of college, wide-eyed, at once terrified and mesmerized by this surreal spectacle.
This year, though, I went back for an altogether different reason: to see whether Times Square has been Disney-fied, sanitized, suburbanized and homogenized, as suggested by the headlines, "Goodbye, Damon Runyon, Hello, Mickey Mouse," "Mickey Mouse and Friends Take on Times Square," "Disney, Tussaud Give More Than Their Regards to 42nd Street," etc.
Even Broadway theater gets in on the act. "Yeah, they cleaned up the neighborhood," announces Jojo, the pimp-turned-pornographer, opening a recent play called "The Life." "About time, too. Have to have it squeaky clean for Mickey Mouse."
I brace for the worst. Mickey Mouse selling hot knishes from a pushcart? Goofy waving me in to sit in a booth and watch "Donald Duck" reruns for a quarter? Maybe, for nostalgia's sake, Cruella DeVil posing seductively on Seventh Avenue?
Check it out, check it out, check it out!
No, not the bruiser in a tank top calling from the door of the Triple-X. Or the "novelty shops" with whips and swords and switchblades in the windows. Or the curbside prostitutes in leather, fishnet and garters. Or the male-hooker haven off 42nd. Or the pickpockets and the dealers muttering, "Smoke, smoke, crack, smack, whatcha need?"
They're nowhere to be seen in the heart of Times Square.
At midnight - yes, I decide once more, it's true, it really is brighter at midnight than at noon - Times Square teems with life of a different sort.
Beneath gigantic faces of Wayne Gretzky and Joe Montana, 40 people wait to get inside the Official All-Star Cafe, a multimedia sports fantasy/restaurant where memorabilia order forms arrive at tables before menus. Other new competitors serve food with other concepts: Comedy Nation, Times Square Brewery, Stardust Dine-O-Mat, its staff clad in World War II-era costumes and the inside dressed up to look like the old Automats.
Gen Xers jam at the Virgin Megastore, the world's biggest music shop, and hang out at its hip cafe downstairs. Thrill-seekers head for the XS Virtual Game Arena - "TOO MUCH IS NOT ENOUGH," says the sign that never stops flashing - or the CinemaRide simulating galactic flight, submarine races and roller-coaster rides.
Former porn and karate movie theaters have gone legit. Perhaps most astounding, families - with children, on Times Square - window-shop at the Disney superstore or just amble, in no hurry to get someplace else.
But not everybody's so enamored of the "New Times Square," as omnipresent street banners in yellow, purple and orange proclaim it. Some scoff at the redevelopment: It's too corporate, capitalism and greed gone berserk. It's destroying the urban character and charm. It's turning Times Square into something disturbingly akin to a suburban shopping mall, with all these chain stores and theme restaurants and such.
Time Square's about as suburban as Tokyo, and its street theater, not to mention the 39 Broadway theaters, remain unparalleled.