UNLIKE THE STRIP in Las Vegas, or the E-Walk in Los Angeles, or the countless malls and festival markets and converted train stations all across this great nation, Times Square is full of old places—and, especially, of old places that do the same thing they did when they were new. Indeed, the building of all the new stuff, the office towers and the megastores, was justified in no small part as a way of preserving the old: that is, the Broadway theaters. The theaters evoke powerful feelings, and not only because of the shows mounted inside but because of the sense of antiquity, of unbroken tradition, provided by the buildings themselves. Disney bought itself immeasurable goodwill, perhaps especially among those otherwise inclined to deplore its presence in Times Square, by its meticulous and loving renovation of the New Amsterdam Theatre, even though the city footed the bill.
There are other places in Times Square famous for being old, beloved spots that bear the fossil traces of an all-but-vanished civilization. Most of these places are restaurants, like Sardi’s, on 44th Street, where tourists have been coming for decades to ogle show folk, or what they suppose must be show folk. These sites have a special status as living proof that the indwelling spirit of the place hasn’t died out. Perhaps the granddaddy of all such nostalgia magnets is the Edison Coffee Shop, universally known as the Polish Tea Room (a joke on the grandiose and self-important, and now late and lamented, Russian Tea Room). The playwright Neil Simon, a habitué, even wrote a play about the place, Forty-five Seconds from Broadway (the title a spoof of one of George M. Cohan’s, Forty-five Minutes from Broadway). Located on 47th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, the coffee shop was originally a salon of the posh Edison Hotel and is decorated like a giant Wedgwood tea set—blue for the ceilings, pink for the walls and columns that march incongruously down the middle of the coffee shop. The truncated remains of a grilled balcony look out over the luncheon counter, where a sign lists the featured specials of a bygone age of Jewish heartburn-producing cuisine—kasha varnishkes, blintzes, whitefish, gefilte fish, and so on. The cast of ancient regulars sipping tea at the counter looks like a lineup of George Segal sculptures. The actual Broadway folk sit in front, near the windows. You might be able to get a better pastrami on rye elsewhere, but the Edison is less an eatery than a tableau vivant, a show where lucky tourists are invited to mingle, as at audience-participation plays like Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding. Stubborn archaism and a kind of slapdash gemütlichkeit turn out to exert a tremendous atavistic appeal. The Edison is, in its way, a terribly fashionable place, and the tables are often filled with editors from The New York Times and masters of the universe from Morgan Stanley.
The Edison Coffee Shop teeters on some ontological knife-edge between the unself-conscious and the italicized, and thus between the lovable and the quaint. What is lovable—what you are willing to attach your emotions to—is not simply the old, but the unrenovated, the thoughtlessly preserved, the effortlessly itself. This, of course, is what no theme park can achieve. And the persistence of the unrenovated is the source of such charm as Times Square still has. This is especially true in what might be called Times Square’s private spaces: the cross streets and the northern reaches, where the great crowds peter out. These are the places still patronized principally by actual New Yorkers. Irish bars still line both sides of Eighth Avenue. McHale’s, a dark little pub on the northeast corner of 46th and Eighth, opened up in 1935 as the Gaiety Café, and in 1953 passed into the hands of the McHales, who ever since have been serving large hamburgers, modestly priced beer, and televised ball games. Upper Times Square still bears strong marks of the jazz and popular music culture that radiated from there half a century ago. Colony Music, at 49th and Broadway, opened up a few blocks to the north in 1948, at the site of the old Alvin Hotel, where Billie Holiday used to perform. The owner, Richard Turk, grew up in the store, where his father worked as the accountant. Irving Berlin, aged ninety, once accosted him to ask, “How’s ‘White Christmas’ doing?” To which Turk said, “It’s doing fine, and ‘Easter Parade’ isn’t doing so bad, either.” Today the Colony offers an immense library of “music-minus-one” arrangements; what Turk calls the largest selection of karaoke machines in New York; and an odd assortment of rock-and-roll schlockabilia—e.g., Monkees lunchboxes—that appears to be only nominally for sale.
The Edison, McHale’s, the Colony, and other such places, which together constitute the surviving vestiges of the indigenous, all occupy peripheral locations in the global crossroads that is Times Square. Within the four corners of the crossroads itself—which is to say, 42nd Street between Broadway and Seventh to the south, and 47th between Broadway and Seventh to the north—Times Square is almost as uniform, as gigantic, as “totalized,” as Disneyland or the Strip: it is one pulsating global media–financial services–information–entertainment zone. All traces of an older, more localized, more organic life have been obliterated.
And yet not quite all. There is one holdout, one irrelevancy, one outpost not so much of nostalgia as of pathos: the Howard Johnson’s on the northwest corner of Broadway and 46th Street. The Howard Johnson’s is Times Square’s very own “Night Café.” When I sat down one day on one of the orange Naugahyde swivel chairs at the lunch counter, I had two other customers for company; another half dozen or so were scattered around the orange banquettes that ran back toward the bar—also empty. “Shake, Shake, Shake” was blaring out over the tables with their little hooked coat stands; over the silent, lingering waiters; and over the little wooden cubicle toward the front where the cashier sat, with the boxes of saltwater taffy displayed in the shelving above. I had never seen such a lifeless place in Times Square.
The counterman was a roly-poly man with a soft face and a black mustache. Irfan Anwar had been born in Kashmir, raised in Lahore, and then immigrated to this country; fourteen years earlier, he had landed a job at Howard Johnson’s. Irfan moved with great deliberation, and not only because of his bulk: it had been many years since haste served any purpose. When he had first started working, Irfan said, “Every day we would be serving lunch to five hundred people, six hundred people. If you came here at lunchtime, you would see the people lined up four deep. And then came the war in the Middle East.” Irfan maintained, not altogether logically, that the 1991 Gulf War had destroyed the restaurant’s fortunes, and indeed had wreaked havoc on the block. “There was a Burger King just up the street. I think it was maybe a hundred years old,” he explained. “And soon after that, it closed up.” Irfan felt that everyone was hurting. I asked about the Edison Coffee Shop, just around the corner on 47th Street. The Edison, I pointed out, was usually jammed. “I do not know this place,” Irfan said. This was after fourteen years.
There was something almost uncanny about the Howard Johnson’s, so profoundly removed did it feel from the roaring world outside. Just up the block, at the 47th Street corner, fabulous-looking young people with money to burn were flocking to the Blue Fin, a glassed-in bar and restaurant affiliated with the new W hotel. Here was the new Times Square consuming class—the fashionistas from Condé Nast, the editors at Random House, the bankers from Morgan Stanley and Lehman Brothers. They might have enjoyed the retro warmth of the matzoh ball soup at the Polish Tea Room, but you wouldn’t catch them at Howard Johnson’s even on a lark. While the Blue Fin was hopping, a few old ladies sat at the Howard Johnson’s counter delicately drinking ice cream sodas. Even the ice cream flavors bore the stamp of the retrograde: maple walnut, butter pecan, mocha chip. One day I ordered a turkey burger for lunch, and I received an article that bore no discernible relation to the austere, low-fat item that now graces coffee shop menus—a defrosted patty so thickly slicked with grease that even the pita bread in which it came was hard to hold on to.
The most exotic thing about Howard Johnson’s was the waitstaff, which had been drawn from all corners of the globe. There was Ivan Pinto, a bald, coffee-colored, bespectacled gentleman in his mid-sixties whose name and accent were so unplaceable that he dared visitors to guess his origins. Trinidad? No. Guyana? No. “I come from Bombay,” said Ivan, “but I am a Christian. We tend to live apart, and so do not pick up the Indian accent.” There was a very black man with his hair shaved high above his temple on one side: Michel Valmont. “Like Liaisons Dangereuses?” “C’est ça,” he said delightedly. Michel was a linguist. Born in Martinique, he spoke French as a mother tongue, but he had also picked up some Danish and German. One afternoon I heard Michel saying something guttural to a Nordic-looking tourist he was escorting to the bar. “What was that?” I asked. Michel said that he had been speaking Dutch, and the young man confirmed that Michel had been speaking identifiable Dutch to him.
There was always time to talk to the waiters, who were pretty much the only denizens of Howard Johnson’s in the long, lassitudinous period between lunch and dinner. By three-thirty, the place was virtually lifeless. Even happy hour, which started at four and lasted until seven, and featured mixed drinks for $3.25, only marginally enlarged the crowd. One afternoon, I sat at the U-shaped bar in the back talking with Victor, the bartender, who had spent the previous twenty-eight years working, first, at the Chock full o’Nuts on 50th and Eighth, and then here at the Howard Johnson’s, which had opened up in 1959. I asked Victor why the bar didn’t have a television set. “I been asking Mr. Rubinstein for years if we could put in cable,” he said. Kenny Rubinstein owned both the franchise and the real estate it sat on. “He hasn’t got to it yet.” A few minutes later, two men in suits walked out of the kitchen, and Victor, pointing to one on the left, said, “That’s Kenny.”
Kenny Rubinstein was in his late forties, with curly brown hair and a solid build. I walked over, introduced myself, and congratulated him on having preserved this last little shard of old Times Square. It was the wrong thing to say: Rubinstein assumed that I was being sarcastic, for what real estate man would feel proud of having the last unimproved property in the core of Times Square? “I don’t know how much you paid for that jacket you’re wearing,” Rubinstein said testily, “but I’m sure whoever sold it to you could make a pretty good profit if he sold one every week. But you can’t sell one every week.” I wasn’t sure where Rubinstein was going with this conceit, but then he said, “People think that if you own a property here, it’s easy to make a fortune, but they have no idea. They think IBM comes along every week; but I’m still waiting for IBM.”
The Rubinsteins, it turned out, were another Times Square real estate family, like the Mosses, the Brandts, and the Dursts but not quite so successful. Kenny’s father, Morris, had bought the parcel that included Howard Johnson’s, as well as another right across the street, on the east side of Seventh, some time in the fifties or so—Kenny was hazy on the history, and Morris was dead. Morris had held the franchise for several of the Howard Johnson’s in Times Square, as well as for the Chock full o’Nuts where Victor had worked, back when they were profitable entities. Now the land underneath the Howard Johnson’s was worth immensely more than the restaurant, but Kenny’s ship hadn’t yet come in. He said, “I can count on one hand the number of serious discussions I’ve had.” Kenny had fond memories of Times Square when he was a boy, but he would have unloaded the Howard Johnson’s in a second; the only thing stopping him was that he was asking a very large number for a fairly shallow, and thus not altogether desirable, site.
Howard Johnson’s was not, strictly speaking, an indigenous institution. Howard Johnson himself was a restaurateur from Quincy, Massachusetts, who made a better grade of ice cream and began building a local chain of restaurants in the late twenties. Johnson appears to have invented the idea of restaurant franchising, and in the thirties local entrepreneurs opened franchises up and down the East Coast and along the rapidly expanding network of thruways and turnpikes. Times Square, with its great mass of tourists, was a natural site for the new chain, famous not only for its ice cream but—a reminder of its eastern seaboard origins—for its fried clams. The first Howard Johnson’s in Times Square opened on Broadway and 49th Street, across the street from Jack Dempsey’s bar and just east of Madison Square Garden, in the late 1940s. It was a tiny place that sat no more than seventy-five people. Joseph Sherry, the manager of the current Howard Johnson’s at 46th Street and the self-appointed custodian of the restaurant’s Times Square history and cultural status, says that, as he understands it, the comic Lily Tomlin perfected her gum-popping wiseacre coffee-shop waitress routine behind the counter at 49th Street, while Gene Hackman, decked out in white gloves, worked as the doorman, for in those glorious days patrons of Howard Johnson’s were greeted at the door.
Sherry himself began working straight out of high school, in 1966, at yet another Howard Johnson’s, on the other side of Broadway at 46th Street. Sherry is a Jewish immigrant from a Middle Eastern nation where he was so ill-treated that he does not wish to dignify the country in question by allowing its name to be printed next to his. He is, by now, a worldly, well-traveled man, but he speaks with a more or less equal sense of pride of the United States, New York City, and Howard Johnson’s, which took him to its great orange bosom and raised him over the years from waiter to manager. He avoided talking to me for weeks, possibly out of a sense that a person of his station need not stoop to press interviews, but once we sat down in a banquette, with the little placemats advertising A-1 Steak Sauce, he opened the spigot of reminiscence and a veritable geyser rushed forth.
“We opened at seven and we closed at three or four in the morning,” Sherry said of the sixties. “And we were jam-packed. People raved about Howard Johnson’s. They would come just for the fried clams. And the Howard Johnson’s hot dog and hot dog bun was the talk of the town. Times Square was tremendously glamorous in those days. People were well dressed. They would come to eat at Howard Johnson’s like they would come to eat at the Club 21. Remember, in those days the theater opened at nine, and people would come for dinner beforehand. Then the break was at eleven-thirty, and inevitably everybody would want to go to Howard Johnson’s for a sundae or an ice cream soda. I would have two hosts that would only handle the overflow from the theater. The night manager would be back behind the counter helping the counterman make sundaes. Later on, the Latin Quarter down the street would close, and those people would come for ice cream.” A waiter came over and whispered that a supplier had been waiting to talk to him for close to half an hour. “Make him wait,” said Mr. Sherry imperiously, and he turned back to me. “This is to my knowledge the oldest restaurant left on Broadway,” he went on. “There used to be an Automat right on this block, and a Schrafft’s across the street, and the Nathan’s where the Disney Studio is now. We had a stand across the street where we sold coconut champagne and nonalcoholic piña coladas. We used to sell hot dogs like hot potatoes.”
Sherry dates the decline of Howard Johnson’s, and of the neighborhood, not to the Gulf War but to the administration of Mayor David Dinkins, from 1989 to 1993, whom he blames for a crime wave which, to be fair to Dinkins, actually started three or four mayors earlier. In any case, Sherry understands that he is now the captain of a ghost ship. But he takes his job with the utmost seriousness, for he feels that Howard Johnson’s offers the balm of the past to visitors dizzied by the spinning vortex of the present. “We’ve kept the décor of the eighties, we’ve kept the sense of nostalgia,” he says—as if his boss, Mr. Rubinstein, had committed his fortune to keeping the restaurant just as it was. “You get tourists who come in—the older tourists, of course—and they’re so excited to see a Howard Johnson’s they can hardly believe it. They say, ‘Is the ice cream the same? You still have the same clams?’ We assure them it’s the same. You have no idea how excited they become.” It may be that you have to spend more time at Howard Johnson’s than I have in order to witness such an episode.
IT IS FOR HIMSELF, I imagine, more than for those phantom tourists, that Joseph Sherry preserves Howard Johnson’s in Naugahyde splendor. He’s the nostalgic one—for those bygone days of Lily Tomlin and Jack Dempsey’s and the Latin Quarter. For him, the old and the worn have special claims that the new can never challenge. But of course, that’s his life. Why should we join him? Why celebrate a spot whose sole virtue is persistence in the face of change? Nostalgia is, of course, the easiest, and maybe the laziest, way of discrediting all that is new. Even the most ardent lovers of the Times Square perdu recognize the dangers of surrendering to this syndrome. Marshall Berman, the author of All That Is Solid Melts into Air, a fine history of modernism, and himself a famous celebrant of the literature and history of Times Square, once noted that “Times Square has the capacity to engender a ‘discourse of nostalgia’ that floats freely and unites people with radically different views of the Square and the world.” Berman observed that even the WPA Guide of 1939 was nostalgic for the Times Square of 1920. One might add that the essayist Benjamin de Casseres was already shedding tears in 1925 over the collapse of the old booze forts of 1915.
In Times Square Roulette, the definitive account of the redevelopment of Times Square, Lynn Sagalyn, a professor of real estate at Columbia University, even provides a declension of the “varied voices of nostalgia,” which include the “wistfuls,” the “skeptics,” the “retrogrades,” the “reminders” (low-grade wistfuls), and the “resilients,” who are actually a species of enthusiast about the new Times Square. It is, as Sagalyn writes, precisely because Times Square is a “touchstone” that choosing your orientation toward its redevelopment becomes a means of expressing an attitude toward mass culture, toward corporate monopolization of that culture, toward the role of the past and of memory in a world dominated by the idea of progress and constant change. Wistfulness about the oldest restaurant on Broadway is thus a means of expressing regret; and that regret, Sagalyn would say, is a kind of soft-core critique of the booming new Times Square which has obliterated the past—or rather, many pasts.
But wistfulness does not necessarily, or even usually, express a wish for things to be other than they are (as Sagalyn herself recognizes). It is more like an intuitive reaction to the inhospitality of a world that bears no traces of its own past, or of your own past in it. In its most blissed-out form, wistfulness is the delighted incredulity of those codgers who find that a Howard Johnson’s chocolate sundae with coffee and butter pecan ice cream tastes exactly the way it did in 1962. Joseph Sherry says that Lily Tomlin came back for a plate of fried clams while she was starring on Broadway; it must have been, for her, a madeleine sort of moment (though others have, to tell the truth, found the fried clams distinctly vulcanized).
I am not, myself, a genuine specimen of a “wistful.” I do not really wish that I lived in the era of Rector’s, or of Hubert’s Flea Circus, or that either of those places could somehow be teleported into our own time. Unlike Joseph Sherry, I do not have passionate memories of Times Square when it was swell, and though during my boyhood I must have eaten any number of grilled cheese sandwiches and even ice cream sundaes at various Howard Johnson’s on various thruways, it would never have occurred to me to sentimentalize the place. (In fact, on the basis of a magazine article of mine, Sagalyn cites me as an instance of the optimistic variant of the “resilient.”) And yet I will be very sorry when Kenny Rubinstein finally sells that plot of land to IBM. I will be sorry because the new Times Square is so smoothly engineered, and Howard Johnson’s is so artless. I would go even further and say that Howard Johnson’s appeal has to do with its haplessness: the appeal of Howard Johnson’s is the appeal of genteel failure in the face of the brutally successful.
The truth is that the gentrification of Times Square over the last decade has done wonders for the food, and promises to do still more as the restaurant culture catches up with the new corporate presence. The cuisine at the Blue Fin is infinitely better than it was at Schrafft’s or the Automat, if immensely more expensive as well. I like the Blue Fin, and I even like the almost comically chic bar in the W’s eighth-floor lobby around the corner on 47th Street. I don’t want everything to be Howard Johnson’s, but I don’t want everything to be the Blue Fin, either. I don’t want Times Square to become a totalized, thematically unified place, like the Strip. It seems that I need some atavism; I’m inclined to think that we all do.
But the arrow of time is pointing unmistakably forward, and there can be no two ways about the destiny of that corner plot on Broadway and 46th Street. When I told Kenny Rubinstein that I planned to include the Howard Johnson’s in my book on Times Square, he said, “I wouldn’t wait too long if I were you.”