Lights still on

September 8-9, 2017

It was almost midnight and the air was freezing due to some sporadic showers during the night. I was seated on a black concrete bench in front of an empty spot undergoing remodeling between the pedestrianized Broadway Avenue and W. 47th Street. After midnight, when the area is less transited, a group of workers begins their shift. Their job consists of adapting and restyling this bare commercial place for a new branch of Swarovski.

During the day, the construction site remains closed. However, at night, despite the fact that the work is mainly carried out inside, one can see the lights and sparks from the welding machine from the sidewalk as well as some men doing their handiwork. Despite the noise this activity produces and aside from the continuous transit of workers and materials, this labor seems not to be perceived by most of the tourists who are still walking around Times Square at that time.

This is not an atypical situation around this location. Other activities and spaces of maintenance and repair, even those that are carried out in the middle of the day —when the Square is full of people— such as cleaning the area, moving the street furniture, or just adjusting and setting up the screens, are frequently overshadowed by the prevailing spectacle and the constant illumination of the zone.

That area which is undergoing remodeling, for example, is a non-existent area for tourists. Although the crowds of tourists share the same location as this place, it gives the impression that both multiplicities, despite their closeness, are part of different realities. The group of tourism,  composed —among other things— by tourists, open stores, digital devices, screens, shows and free time, does not share more than geographic coincidence with the group around the area under renovation.

Also, people usually go to Times Square to allow the screens to trap them, to be abducted by the lights, by the stores and by the street performances. Tourists visit Times Square to take pictures, to buy and consume as much as they can. New Yorkers, on the other hand, go there to work. Nobody is in the Square —well, almost nobody— to look at an empty store being redesigned or to follow a sanitation worker doing their duty.

Near where I was (a few centimeters from me, on the same concrete bench), a group of eight guys were talking in Spanish, with a strong Caribbean accent, about a kind of “celebrity hunting” they carried out during the night. They were collectively and loudly counting off the celebrities they said they had seen around Broadway. Despite the fact that everyone was talking simultaneously, they were all following the improvised enumeration without any problem.

The dynamic was simple: a recitation of names and locations. Nobody was writing it down and each one of them was throwing information into the air. Suddenly, after checking his phone, one of them told the rest that due to the conversation they were having right now, they had just lost the possibility of meeting another celebrity some blocks away—one whose last name was Rodriguez. Unfortunately, I could not hear its first name. 

The conversation continued. They were discussing what to do right now, where to go. Suddenly, I was distracted from my observations by a man who arrived at the place I was. “Excuse me,” he said, “can I ask you something? Why are you here?” “Here where?, in Times Square?” I replied. “Yes, the thing is that I just arrived today in New York for an internship, and everyone told me I should come here.”

I did not answer him directly about my reasons for being in the Square. For me, it was more interesting to hear what he had to say. So, I just asked him whether he liked being Times Square or not. “Sure, it is like being in a movie.” “You should come back here early tomorrow and see the crowds”, I told him. “Of course, I will be here again tomorrow afternoon, I just hope to find again the lights still on.”