Unlikely fate finds this small town scrivener in a hotel room fourteen floors above and behind Times Square, New York City. I’ve tramped round midtown Manhattan for several days now with my wallet held upside down and open, diligently shaking its meager contents into a frenzied, insatiable stream of commerce. Three days in Times Square has driven every familiar thought from my mind. The purposeful chaos of the Square distracts me even as I gaze out a back-alley window at hundreds of other windows that look back blankly at hundreds more.
New York’s Mayor Gugliani cleaned up Times Square. That is to say, his cops rousted the legions of pickpockets, purse-snatchers, junkies, pimps and flesh peddlers who preyed on those tourists bold enough to enter the square. Times Square is once again a fit destination for slack-jawed, overweight tourists in Mickey Mouse T-shirts. The middle class visitors now provide a reliable income for the more reputable locals who voted for Mr. Gugliani.
As one of the slack-jawed, I can testify that Times Square applies itself to all five senses like a jackhammer. It’s a daily Mardi Gras in street clothes. Wall-to-wall 50-foot video screens stacked 200 feet high surround a constant, crushing stream of humanity. Ten lanes of traffic alternately race and crawl past crowds 20 deep on every sidewalk.
A three-man break-dance troupe draws a crowd in the middle of the square. A shirtless black guy built like an iron fence dances like a dervish, does handsprings and back flips, stands on his head, unaided by hands or feet, on the concrete sidewalk. His first back-up dancer, in basketball caftan and sideways cap three sizes too big, wows the crowd with a spastic Egyptian automaton routine. The token white guy flails around gamely to polite applause. His more talented companions have put him in charge of the boom box. I am edified to see Christian charity among street performers. It’s either charity or the white guy owns the boom box. I give them a few well-earned bucks.
The square is a microcosm of the human condition, a roiling bazaar for every earthly and spiritual desire. You can have your portrait drawn or your name rendered in pastel flowers and fish. You can buy designer clothes, handbags, t-shirts, DVD’s, trading cards, jewelry or books and never leave the street. Food, shelter, clothing, transport, art, music, religion, politics and designer watches, two for $10, can all be had without leaving Times Square.
The latest news and stock prices flash by on the surrounding buildings. I see the word Iraq pretty often. I keep watching for the word quagmire. Stop-the-war pamphlets are available from earnest young people. So are brass or glass mementos to the fallen heroes of 9-11.
Food for the spirit is in ample supply. Believers appear to hold a majority. A group of black preachers dominates one spacious corner. A dozen men in brightly colored, brocaded cassocks equipped with audio amplifying equipment, a stage, and mystical props blare out their message to the crowd. Their message is understandable and irrefutable. We are all sinners. The country is decadent. Jesus was a black man. They have a good-sized audience. I wonder what color skin Jesus had. I wonder what possible difference it could make.
I like to think the crowd would stop and listen if the Prince of Peace were on the stage with the preachers. I wonder if He would wear one of the brocade cassocks. As I look around the square I think of the Nazarene’s masterpiece, the Sermon on the Mount. Those He spoke of are everywhere around us. The poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who hunger and thirst after righteousness move through Times Square in a dizzying throng. They are selling or eating soft pretzels and hot dogs, sitting for portraits or drawing them, reading pamphlets or handing them out, and getting the news from the sides of tall buildings, accosted in turn by the faithful, the faithless and the spiritually indifferent.
A proselytizing atheist pamphleteer completes the circle of belief. Is there anything more ironic than stumping for atheism? Is the news that something found only in the human heart doesn’t exist worth spreading? The irony is lost on the earnest atheist who hands me a flyer inviting me to a meeting of nonbelievers. Surely atheists must need one another as much as believers need God. I imagine they discuss religion more than the religious. I wonder if the purpose of an atheist life is ever a topic.
On Sunday afternoon my family and I see The Man of La Mancha at the Al Hershfield Theater. For an hour and a half we chase the impossible dream with Don Quixote, “hunger and thirst after righteousness,” dream the dream of Dulcinea, her name “a prayer the angels whisper.” When the Lord of La Mancha rises from his deathbed, calls for his lance and cries “Woe to the Wicked” there are no atheists in the audience, at least until the lights come up.