AN ORTHODOX MARXIST HISTORIAN would say that the story of Times Square is not the story of sex, or of theater, or of changing mores, but of real estate. Times Square, that is, was forged by investors making judgments about the profits to be realized from various potential uses of real estate. Oscar Hammerstein built his Olympia Theatre on 45th Street because land there was cheap. A few years later, the Shuberts began amassing theaters in Times Square because the great mass of citizens arriving there through the new modes of transportation made entertainment the most valuable use to which local real estate could be put. The theaters were converted to movie houses as movies became a more profitable use of space than plays. Those movie houses, in turn, became “grinders,” and then porn houses, and the trinket shops along 42nd Street became massage parlors and peep shows, for the same reason. And today’s office tower, and retail-tainment complex, represents only the latest turn in the great evolutionary wheel of real estate usage. Who can guess what tomorrow holds?
And yet, until the new age of massive redevelopment, Times Square held very little appeal for the great clans that have dominated New York real estate for close to a century. The buildings were too small, and thus the stakes too low. What’s more, the old clans tend to be extremely conventional and painfully respectable, Donald Trump notwithstanding. The culture of Times Square was just too raffish for the Rudins and the Tishmans and the other titans of development. Times Square real estate has instead been controlled largely by theater families, including the Shuberts and the Nederlanders. The only real exception to that rule has been the one real estate family eccentric enough to feel at home in Times Square: the Dursts.
On one wall of the conference room in the Durst family headquarters, which is located in a nondescript office tower on Sixth Avenue and 44th Street, is a “Contract-Partnership” drawn up between Joseph Durst and one Hyman Rubin, and dated October 20, 1905. Like most of the other patriarchs of the real estate clans, Joseph Durst was a Jewish immigrant who began buying a building or two in the early years of the century. Joseph focused almost exclusively on commercial real estate in the booming neighborhoods of midtown Manhattan, abjuring his sons to stay away from rental properties. In the 1940s, Joseph anointed one of his sons, Seymour, as his successor.
Seymour Durst was probably the most far-seeing developer of his generation, and one of the wealthiest and most successful. He had two enormous gifts: he saw the potential of underdeveloped neighborhoods before others did, and he had the massive patience required to assemble plots one by one until he had a parcel large enough to build on. In the forties and fifties, Seymour built along Third Avenue, then a commercial wilderness but soon to be one of the city’s great axes of commercial development. During the ensuing decade, he shifted to Sixth Avenue in the low Forties, another neglected area. And in the late sixties, he began buying the property between his Sixth Avenue holdings and Broadway. Seymour was a gentlemanly figure, soft-spoken and even withdrawn; but he was also a gambler. Not a single new building had been built in Times Square since the early thirties, and the area was beginning to take on its famously pathological character; but in the midst of the boom market of the sixties, Seymour was convinced that Times Square’s moment had come.
Times Square was Seymour’s greatest achievement in the field of assemblage. In a real-world version of Monopoly, he swapped his East Side properties for the West Side properties of Sol Goldman, a famous real estate troglodyte who still considered Times Square a wasteland. Seymour traded a Third Avenue building for fifteen or sixteen properties in the area owned by the real estate arm of Lazard Frères. It is hard to imagine, today, just how unprepossessing most of these parcels were; the Goldman property, especially, consisted mostly of empty storefronts, junk shops, rundown hotels, and the like. One of the properties, on 47th Street, was the Luxor Baths, a decrepit local landmark where Jack Dempsey and Walter Winchell used to soak their carcasses. By 1975, it was being used as a whorehouse. Seymour first tried to evict the operators, but then, when he failed, inexplicably decided to sell them the place instead. The new owners began chopping up the old baths into cubicles; the Luxor was well on its way to becoming the largest, and perhaps best-appointed, brothel in the city, if not the country. At the time, Seymour was serving, with no particular distinction, on a clean-up-Times-Square body called the Mayor’s Office of Midtown Enforcement. Mayor Abraham Beame was so outraged at Seymour’s laissez-faire attitude toward Times Square’s image that he had him kicked off the committee.
And yet Seymour had a vision for Times Square—and not just a Third Avenue–type vision but a great and sweeping plan worthy of the great dreamers of the past. He planned to amass all the land from 42nd to 47th Streets, and from Sixth to Broadway, and then build a single complex, just as the Rockefellers had, half a century before, in the area between Fifth and Sixth Avenues a few blocks farther north. Seymour even called his proposal “Rockefeller Center South.” But for once, he was too far ahead of his time: when the real estate market collapsed in the mid-1970s, Seymour lost several of his properties to the banks and was forced to abandon his plans. One of the parcels he had to surrender was the site of the decrepit New Criterion Theatre, which then made its way back to the Moss family. Seymour did, however, hold on to most of his properties, and the Durst organization later built a headquarters for U.S. Trust on West 47th Street, not far from the site of the Luxor Baths.
The model for Rockefeller Center South now sits on top of filing cabinets in an office in the Durst Organization: eight or nine black glass skyscrapers in two columns. Seymour never had much interest in fine architecture, and plainly he was thinking along the same lines that George Klein would pursue a few years later, though the Luxor Baths episode suggests that he lacked something of Klein’s high seriousness. If he had had his way, Seymour would have turned Times Square into a western annex of the city’s expanding corporate culture. “Maybe,” says Douglas Durst, who has a parched version of his father’s famously dry wit, “it’s just as well it never happened.”
Seymour was a character, a gaunt and gray-haired figure who walked everywhere, cut his own hair, wore his clothes until they were threadbare, and generally lived like an anchorite. He was a kind of homespun philosopher who kept his pockets stuffed with folded-up papers upon which he had scribbled his thoughts on the great issues of the day, and which he would withdraw with a flourish as the conversation turned to the relevant topic. He sent an endless stream of letters to The New York Times, often on the subject of rent control, which he considered the root of all housing evils. Seymour often purchased tiny advertisements at the bottom of the front page—“bottom lines,” the family called them—in order to ensure that his views got the airing they deserved. Seymour could be extraordinarily creative in finding venues in which to ride his various hobbyhorses: in 1989 he mounted what he called the Debt Clock, on a building he owned just east of Times Square, in order to tick off the growing federal debt. He churned out immense “studies” and “reports” on housing problems that never saw the light of day, but toward the end of his life, in the mid-nineties, he found editorial fulfillment as the housing columnist of Street News, a newspaper distributed by the homeless.
Seymour knew the city, and perhaps even understood the city, as few men did. He had spent decades walking New York’s streets and studying its buildings and its history; he was a beguiling and encyclopedic source of New York lore. He had begun to collect books about New York in the 1960s, and the collection had swiftly turned into an all-consuming mania. In 1985, he moved out of a brownstone whose supports were about to collapse from the weight of his books, and into a nineteen-room mansion on East 61st Street. One room after another was incorporated into this ever-expanding, Borgesian library. There were books in the fridge and books in the bathroom. There were filing cabinets bulging with articles about New York he had clipped from the papers. Each room of the library was devoted to a theme, with a décor arranged by Seymour to evoke the subject: the Infrastructure Room, the Biography Room, the Press Room, the Fiction Room (which also served as the Duplicate Books Room). Seymour kept the rare books in his own room, which was across from the Times Square Room—the collection of Playbills starting at the turn of the century, the books on theater, the nickelodeon with the nudie pictures, the posters for the live sex shows. Seymour devoted much of his life to amassing and cataloguing the collection; after his death, in 1995, it was moved to the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. It is now a matchless public resource, where the curious scholar may find The Cries of New York, a children’s book from 1830 rendering the songs of street vendors as four-line poems, or Odell’s epic fifteen-volume Annals of the New York Stage, detailing virtually every play mounted in New York up to 1894.
One of the curiosities of Seymour’s career is that it seems never to have occurred to him that his development plans, especially in Times Square, might be laying waste to the culture whose artifacts he had spent his life lovingly preserving. One has to wonder about the nature of this remote, scholarly, quietly calculating, sharp-trading man. As his daughter, Wendy Krieger, observes, “He never said, ‘I love New York.’ He said, ‘I have an interest in New York.’”
Seymour and his wife, Bernice, had four children. In 1950, when all of them were still quite young, Bernice jumped or fell to her death from the roof of the family house in Scarsdale, New York. Seymour never remarried, and he raised the children himself. He could be extremely charming, but in most settings he was cryptic and watchful, a sphinx in a world of backslapping bonhomie. His children absorbed a good deal of his social discomfort and his eccentricity. The oldest boy, Robert, grew up as a very confused rich kid in the sixties. He tried primal scream therapy; he studied with the Beatles’ guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Robert went to work for Seymour, quit, opened a health food store in Vermont, married, and ultimately returned to New York and to the family business. Robert had the classic family makeup in a more extreme form; he would later be described as “sullen” and “reluctant to enter into conversation.” In 1982, his wife, who allegedly had warned friends that he might do her harm, disappeared, and was never found. Robert remained with the family business until 1994, when Seymour, who had never chosen a successor as his father had with him, finally put Douglas, a younger brother, unequivocally in charge.
Robert then began to drift away into a life of wandering. He moved to Galveston, Texas, where his behavior became increasingly strange and perhaps psychotic. He posed as a mute woman whose name he lifted from a high school classmate. One journalistic account later described him as wearing “large-frame glasses that were completely covered with tape except for a small triangular opening over one lens.” In late September 2001, several bags containing a human torso and a set of limbs, very professionally severed, washed up in Galveston Bay. The body belonged to Morris Black, a drifter who had lived next door to Durst. Evidence pointed to Durst, who had disappeared. After a nationwide manhunt, he was picked up when he stole a chicken salad sandwich from a supermarket in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Amid intense publicity, excruciatingly painful for this retiring family, Robert Durst was indicted for murder. In the trial, held in the fall of 2003, Durst admitted the killing but pled self-defense. To the amazement of many court experts and observers, he was acquitted. However, the investigation into his wife’s disappearance twenty years earlier was reopened, and Durst remained under a very dark cloud.
Douglas, by contrast, is entirely sane, and yet one can see in him something of the same hesitancy, the same self-discomfort, that pathologically afflicted his older brother. He is a famously taciturn and private figure, uncomfortable in conversation, much given to pauses, which seem to begin in reflection and end in melancholy silence. Though unfailingly polite, like his father, he is prone to answer lengthy questions with a single word, often yes or no. He seems not to enjoy the company of his peers. He does not socialize, attend galas or, with a few exceptions, join the boards to which his money would give him access.
As a young man, Douglas had no intention of following his father into the family business. “I was in trouble in school, and I had problems dealing with authority,” he says. Douglas enrolled at Berkeley in 1962, at the very moment when the cultural revolution of the sixties was getting under way. By the time he graduated, he looked like Jerry Garcia, with a great curly beard; he planned to work as a developmental economist in the Third World. It is hard to imagine any profession that would have been further from his aspirations than real estate. Then Douglas got married and had children, and suddenly he found his horizons closing in. He agreed to work for his father, and made an utter hash of the building he was given to manage. And so he lit out for the territory: with his wife and baby daughter, Anita, he moved up to Newfoundland, where he hoped to make a new life in a setting where he felt more comfortable. But this second attempt to escape the family orbit ended as suddenly and ineffectually as the first. Douglas had a serious accident when a wood-fired water heater blew up; he was dramatically rescued by Seymour and flown back to a hospital in New York. “I decided that New York was the safest place for me to be,” Douglas says ruefully. And so he rejoined the family business, this time for good. It was, all in all, a rather sad story—a story of poor decisions, thwarted hopes, and a reluctant acceptance of an unavoidable destiny. It was Robert’s story, without the catastrophic trajectory.
Douglas ultimately carved out a life for himself, satisfying his counter-cultural impulses by buying a farm in upstate New York that ultimately became the largest organic farm in the state. By the eighties, he was very much Seymour’s partner. The Dursts had never built on their Times Square properties, and when the 42nd Street Development Project came along, they did everything they could to stifle it. Seymour had a longstanding philosophical objection to publicly subsidized and guided projects, and to the politicking that goes with them, though he and Douglas also had every reason to fear that the four heavily subsidized office towers George Klein proposed to build would swamp the market and thus depress the value of their own property in the neighborhood. And so, starting in 1988, when Klein looked as if he might be ready to build, Seymour, who was then head of something called the Real Estate Board of New York, regularly blistered the project in public as a shameless boondoggle, while the family mounted lawsuits against it and quietly funded a “grass-roots” campaign. In 1989, the Dursts even purchased long-term leases to the derelict theaters on 42nd Street and commissioned a plan designed to prove that the private marketplace could bring them back to life more effectively and cheaply than the city could. It was widely believed that their actual motive was to sell the properties back to the city in the condemnation proceedings, and thus to net a huge profit.
The Dursts embarked on a conscious policy of delaying the project to death. In a furious 1990 op-ed article in The New York Times, Carl Weisbrod, the public official in charge of the project, alleged that the Dursts, acting in concert with the owners of the block’s porno theaters, had forged “a litigation conspiracy trap aimed at preventing the reclamation of what was—and should be again—New York’s most glorious street.” Of course, the trap worked. But while the small fry who owned the theaters disappeared from Times Square, Douglas Durst returned in glory: when Prudential, George Klein’s financial backer, forced him to sell in 1995, it was Durst, acting with the family gift for adroit timing and the well-calculated gamble, who bought the choicest of all the office parcels, at the southeast corner of Broadway and 42nd Street.
If there was any single moment that marked the emergence of the shining new Times Square of global media and entertainment firms, it was Durst’s announcement that he had secured Condé Nast as the anchor tenant of 4 Times Square. And he had been able to do so by exploiting the enormous subsidies that the family professed to despise. Whether this constituted gross hypocrisy, or merely a very high order of gamesmanship, was perhaps simply a matter of perspective. Douglas, while protesting rather feebly that the family never really tried to impede the project, concedes, in his laconic way, that the outcome was “ironic.” Lawrence Silverstein, a fellow mogul and old friend of the family, says, “Seymour, God bless him, as he looks down, what must he be thinking?” Of course, one should not entirely dismiss the possibility that Seymour is thinking, “Excellent deal.”
Douglas had vindicated his father’s faith in Times Square and paid for a twenty-five-year-old investment many times over. At the same time, he didn’t seem to feel at home in the new Times Square he had wrought: he didn’t eat in the fancy new restaurants or meet friends for a drink in the chic hotels. I persuaded Douglas, against the force of his habits, to have lunch with me one day by suggesting that we meet at the irredeemably unchic Howard Johnson’s, where he could be certain of meeting no one who recognized him, much less knew him. As we sat in an orange booth on a blazingly hot day, Douglas pointed across the street and said, “I used to go to the Ripley’s between Forty-fifth and Forty-sixth after school.” He was, he said, a great aficionado of the arcades in the late fifties. When the kids were young, he would leave them to play pinball with Jimmy Glen, the owner of Jimmy’s Corner, an old Times Square bar on 44th just east of Broadway, while he and his wife went out to dinner. That was the Times Square he cared about; and none of it, he said, was left (except Jimmy’s). I asked Douglas how he felt about the new Times Square, which he had done so much to bring into being. There was a long, long pause. “I think,” he finally said, “it could do without all the development—except, of course, Four Times Square.” And he smiled ever so slightly at this shaft of Durstian wit.
AS I WALKED ALONG 42nd Street in the early months of 2002, I often looked at a shabby little structure huddled in the lee of the mighty Condé Nast building. On top of the storefront was a big billboard that featured a rendering of the American flag, an outline of a hand clutching a can of spray paint, and the slogan, “Declare Independence from Corporate Rule.” Here, apparently, was a refreshing howl of protest at all that Times Square had become, and all that was embodied in that great glass tower occupied by the world’s most glamorous media company. The storefront housed some kind of alternative arts complex called Chashama. It was Aaron Beall who told me that the founder and director of Chashama was Anita Durst—Douglas’s older daughter. It seemed that the family predisposition to the peculiar had been passed on to yet another generation.
When I went to meet Anita, in a cubbyhole office on the second floor of Chashama, she was bouncing lightly on one of those big blue balls said to be therapeutic. She was, when she stood up, tall and slender, with a ferociously cropped skullcap of black hair and the almond eyes of a Modigliani—Douglas’s eyes, actually—set in a narrow, triangular face. She was the kind of young woman (she was then thirty-two) who could war with her beauty and still look beautiful. We proceeded to have an oddly disjointed conversation; only later did I realize that Anita was so uncomfortable that she made me feel uncomfortable. She was terribly shy, as her father and grandfather were, but she also seemed to struggle in the medium of language; she would pull up short before fairly ordinary words. As a child, she had been severely dyslexic, and she still had trouble memorizing lines for a part; reading took real effort. Though trained as an actress, Anita was drawn to the kind of avant-garde work that often didn’t require much in the way of speech. A few years before, she had played a mute and sullen secretary in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant; a critic in the Times had described her as “spectacularly creepy.”
Anita was the oldest of Douglas’s three children. She had been precociously ungovernable, appropriating a family car and driving it into trees at age thirteen—a story that Douglas told with some combination of awe and bewilderment, for she had set standards of willfulness that Douglas himself had never approached. School had been a nightmare: shipped off to prep school in ninth grade after proving a hopeless failure in public school, she was kicked out for smoking pot, took a one-year sabbatical to shack up with a biker, and was then enrolled by her obviously desperate parents in the kind of vocational school that was meant to be the last stop before the streets. “The classes were like ten minutes long,” Anita said, “and then in the afternoon you worked.” Anita earned her high school diploma by tending bar at a pizzeria. College was out of the question. She had no clear idea what to do with herself; her parents, having at least shepherded her through high school, asked her to move out. And then Seymour, of all people, invited her to move in.
Seymour was the kind of charming oddball who can seem highly appealing to a rebellious teenager. He passed no judgments, asked no probing questions, and wanted nothing more than a faithful listener, which Anita was formed by nature to be. She moved into the Fiction Room, way up on the fifth floor, and came and went as she pleased. After a few years, she was ready to leave, but Seymour couldn’t bear to be parted from her. “He said, ‘Bring all your friends here,’” Anita said. “At one point, I had four or five people living with me.” And so Anita lived, very happily, in the midst of a commune. She browsed through the giant leather-bound two-volume set of Mr. Vanderbilt’s House and Collection, and through the six volumes of I. N. Phelps Stokes’s Iconography of Manhattan Island. She listened to Seymour’s stories and crotchets, and she had breakfast with him every morning at the Burger Heaven down the street. Seymour recruited his librarians from among the waitresses there, since he claimed that professional librarians kept trying to improve on his “quintessimal” cataloguing system.
Like many shy people, Anita fell in love with acting. Unlike most of the others, she had a father who owned Broadway theaters. In 1990, Douglas agreed to let En Garde Arts, a “site-specific” theater company with which Anita was associated, put on a play in the wreckage of the majestic Victory Theatre. Douglas quickly became Anita’s chief patron. He allowed her to use the semi-defunct Diplomat Hotel, on West 43rd Street, for a play called The Law of Remains, in which, Anita says, “Andy Warhol and Jeffrey Dahmer meet in Heaven.” The play was apparently based on The Egyptian Book of the Dead. The hotel had a series of splendid, haunted-looking ballrooms. “The big ballroom was Heaven,” Anita says, “and God was a Puerto Rican drag queen with an erection.” Douglas says that Seymour would leave after the first few scenes of these shows and report, “I didn’t understand it, but Anita was very good.”
The Law of Remains had been mounted by Reza Abdoh, a celebrated Iranian multimedia artist who was Anita’s mentor and collaborator. Later she played “a black wench slave” in an Abdoh production called Tight, Right, White. “It was very in-your-face,” she recalls. Abdoh was an enfant terrible who infused Anita with a radical politics that goes rather oddly with her gentle nature and her very real fear of giving offense. Her actual politics seem to consist mostly of an abiding sympathy for all forms of disaffection or discomfort. Anita was proud to play host to the four-day Intergalactic Convention of Anarchists, though after the anarchists left she said that most of them had been peace-loving high school students who entertained themselves making puppets at another studio she ran. In Anita’s utopia, everybody would make puppets and eat breakfast at Burger Heaven.
Reza Abdoh died of AIDS in 1995, and Anita then formed a company to carry on his work. After combing through books in her grandfather’s library, she named the company “Chashama,” a combination of the Persian words for “spring” and “eye,” more or less. In 1997, as he had begun building 4 Times Square, Douglas gave Chashama the adjacent building, which had housed Herman’s Sporting Goods. And as the leases of neighboring storefronts expired, he gave those to Chashama as well, though doing so cost him close to $2 million a year in forgone revenue. Chashama theaters and studios alternated with a Peep-O-Rama, Tad’s Steaks, and a drugstore. The billboard had come courtesy of Adbusters, a radical antiglobalization magazine to which Anita’s younger sister Helena was particularly devoted. Some members of the Chashama staff worried that Douglas might take the motto as a very public rebuke to himself and to all his building represented, as well he might have. But Douglas would not dishonor his inner Jerry Garcia. The billboard stayed, until Anita and her colleagues tired of it.
Anita was more or less the Mabel Dodge Luhan or Peggy Guggenheim of her particular early-millennial fringe artistic moment, though since even the most difficult artists can now gain the backing of powerful mainstream institutions, she was left with a fairly shaggy fringe. Anita faithfully maintained Abdoh’s commitment to confrontational art, though it was often hard to say what end she had in view. She herself directed The World of the P-Cult, a production featuring a group of dominatrixes and neo-go-go girls she had rounded up from downtown as well as a young man with a terrible deformity that left his arms looking like flippers. The show had an atmosphere of portent, menace, and unleashed sexuality, with antlered S&M queens vaulting down from a catwalk to swagger through the audience. It was slightly reminiscent of the unfortunate climactic scene of Eyes Wide Shut. A pyromaniac named Flambeau kept columns of flame lit on the stage. And few who were fortunate enough to be there will soon forget the climactic scene, in which the naked flipper-boy, his genitals in a little bag, was borne onto the stage in preparation for ritual sacrifice, singing in his unearthly, androgynous voice a tune that mixed the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with Madonna’s “Material Girl.”
Though Douglas was utterly baffled that his daughter, whom he considered an incorrigible space cadet, was able to run an organization of any kind, he backed her to the hilt in all things. If a movie production company wanted to shoot a scene in the Condé Nast Building, the answer was always the same: “Only if you give Anita a part.” When Anita, in turn, had the ingenious idea of staging a series of tableaux vivants in the empty windows of 1 Times Square, the building at 42nd between Broadway and Seventh Avenue, she called her father, who in turn talked to the real estate broker. (No dice.) She once contemplated asking her father if she could broadcast a clandestine radio station from an antenna on top of the Condé Nast Building.
Anita, herself such a wounded creature, had no wish to wound anyone, least of all her own family. She was horrified at the suggestion that her plutocratic father might in any sense be the target of Chashama’s radically anticorporate posture. “As a businessman,” she said earnestly, “he’s known for being very generous and very kind.” In fact, Anita saw Chashama as a fulfillment of Seymour’s crotchety worldview. “My grandfather hated Disney,” she said. “He always said Times Square was meant to be built up by the community. That was one of his bottom lines.” It would have been heartless to point out that Seymour had tried to create a Rockefeller Center Times Square, and that the Condé Nast Building played a starring role in the global entertainment-finance-media nexus of the new Times Square.
Like Aaron Beall, Anita wanted to offer something raw and unfiltered in a Times Square increasingly given over to “corporate rule.” It was very important to her that Chashama have a presence on the street, so she had installed odd and often cryptic artworks in each of the storefront windows. These installations were often interactive, and thus offered a series of small-scale engagements between performer and spectator, animating Times Square’s street life in a way quite different from, say, the transaction between spray painters and customers farther west on 42nd Street. There was the Deli Dance, which brought dancers out onto the sidewalk in front of a delicatessen. The Seder Installation, mounted during Passover, began as a window display of matzoh surrounding a chair, and then evolved into an actual seder on the crowded sidewalk.
I always made a point of walking by to see what was new. One afternoon, I noticed a young woman with a microphone sitting in the window, with a big bag of fortune cookies next to her. “Would you like to know your fortune?” she said into the microphone. I said that I would, and she broke open a cookie and read, “Kindness is the highest form of wisdom.” When I asked whether it was a “real” fortune, she pointed a finger at me and said, “You mean if I wrote them, they’re not real?” This was a pretty good point, and by the time I had formulated an answer I had a little audience of passersby, which made for a very odd and uncomfortable conversation. I realized that public engagement, and my discomfort with it, was part of the point; or perhaps it was an inadvertent by-product. Chashama productions often made me doubt whether having a point was the point.
What was plain, though, is that there was a wish, both in the window installations and in many of Anita’s terribly of-the-moment productions, to bring back to life an old, knockabout, spontaneous Times Square, a Times Square devoted to the marginal and the odd—the Times Square of her grandfather’s collection. Many of Chashama’s productions dabbled in the forgotten forms of Times Square, like cabaret or vaudeville, and for all their rather mannered weirdness had something good-natured and fun-loving at heart. Chashama’s hardiest production, which ran from July through December 2002, was a kind of neo-vaudeville production known as the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus. The circus consisted principally of two characters, neither of them actually named Bindlestiff, and was organized as a variety act, with old-fashioned rope tricks, sword swallowing, a bed of nails, and the like performed on a tiny stage before a tiny audience. Alex and I went one Saturday afternoon and found that most of the dozen or so people sitting with us were either wheelchair bound or mildly disturbed. The overall impression that we had wandered into the Twilight Zone was very much enhanced by the Museum of Times Square, located in the theater’s lobby—a collection of old programs from Hubert’s Museum, a carousel with odd little mechanical animals, and, in the back, behind a curtain, a collection of “frozen fetuses” in bell jars.
Anita had, perhaps unintentionally, created a kind of italicized, spoofy, self-conscious version of the Times Square that had been obliterated beneath the office towers. It wasn’t “the real thing”; but, of course, if Chashama had been the real thing, it would have been a preposterous exercise in nostalgia. The old Times Square was not a thing you could bring back; but you could restore its spirit in an entirely new key. Chashama’s marginalness, its pluckiness, even its amateurishness, was an antidote to the glittering Times Square of the office tower. It was a delicious, and very Times Square, irony that the man who made it possible owned the biggest office tower of them all.