Home Fires Burning: Times Squares Signs
“Ill just go down Broadway,” he said to himself. When he reached 42nd Street, the fire signs were already blazing bright.
Hurstwood, near the end of Sister Carrie
Great signsBigger! Than! Life!blink off and on. And a great hungry sign groping luridly at the darkness screams:
John Rechy, City of Night
All through the century, whenever people have talked about Times Square, they have talked about its giant signs. Those signs were there at the Squares very start, and for its whole life they have been designed and arranged to overwhelm the people on the ground. “A spectacular” is the word for these signs. Over the years they have run fifty, sixty, seventy feet high, sometimes a whole block long. They have been extravagantly lit with whatever the state of advertising art allows: with thousands of bulbs, with lovely neon calligraphy, with tremendous spotlights, with throbbing and exploding computer graphics; any style, any technology will do if it can knock us out. I dont mean to say that all Times Square signs are giants bent on knockout blows. Most are not; most are likely to be much smaller and more nuanced. But the Squares ecology is such that the smaller signs are experienced in relation to the big ones. The manager of the Arrow Shirts shop said, “Were just below the waterfall.” They make limited claims on the universe, but “Side by side, theyre glorified” by the unlimited claims being made just above and around them.
In its effusion of signs, New York has never been alone. Early in the twentieth century, every city had its “Great White Way.”1 Most of these went dark after World War Two, when the Federal Highway System engineered the destruction of downtowns all over the country; New York alone survived to tell the tale. Many American cities, especially in the Sun Belt, developed prosperity based on highways and cars, and created spaces with signs as big and bold as Times Squares. But those spaces tend to be strips (Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Mexico City) where people come in cars and drive straight through. Their signs are laid out in straight lines, meant to be seen one or at most two at a time by drivers or passengers on the road. The deployment of signs in Times Square is far more complex. Here people are on their feet, enveloped by crowds of walkers in a hundred directions, impeded from moving straight ahead even if they want to. The signs come at us from many directions; they color the people next to us in complex blends, and we become colored, too, all of us overlaid with the moving lights and shadows. We metamorphose as we turn around, and we have to turn around to make any headway in this crowd. The development of Cubism in the early twentieth century was made for spaces like this, where we occupy many different points of view while standing nearly still. Times Square is a place where Cubism is realism. Being there is like being inside a 1920s Cubist experimental film: “The Man with the Movie Camera” as a home movie. Signs are the essential landmark, yet generally what grips our hearts is less any one sign than the complex, the totality, the superabundance of signs, too many signs, a perfect complement for the Squares too many people. Since the 1890s, being attuned to Times Squares overfullness has been one of the basic ways of being at home in New York. Even the most wretched people can feel at home with the Squares signs. “ ‘Ill just go down Broadway, ” Hurstwood says. “When he reached 42nd Street, the fire signs were already blazing bright.” This man is starving, freezing, dressed in rags, delirious, one foot in the grave. But he cant stay away from the “fire signs.” He is drawn to their warmth and light like a moth to a flame.
Times Squares allure springs from the totality, the superabundance of signs, rather than from any one. But it makes sense for a book on the Square to contain at least a brief historical sweep of the Squares memorable signs, which will also be a sweep through modern commercial mass culture. There is another reason. One important way in which people have always experienced Times Square, and still do, has been to adopt a favorite sign, to be alone with it, to make it part of their inner lives. This means uncoupling the sign from whatever commodity it was meant to promote and placing it in a different system of meaning all our own. If the sign is a human figure, we can talk: “Whats a sweetheart like you doing in a place like this?” The human capacity to give things new names is a capacity not to be swept away by floods of commodities, not to be reduced to passive acquiescence, keeping ourselves inwardly, imaginatively alive. (Yet often, just when we feel at home with our special signs, we come and they are gone. “All that is solid melts into air.”)
One of Times Squares most arresting early spectaculars was the fifty-foot-tall Miss Heatherbloom, promoting “Heatherbloom Petticoats, Silks Only Rival.” The product seems to have been a typical garment-center knockoff of a high-fashion item, marketed to millions of young women of the sort who passed through the Square every day: typists and switchboard operators, schoolteachers and young wives. The sign was built in the 1900s (different sources give different dates) by O. J. Gude, the Squares first great commercial artist, who painted in bursts and undulations of electric power. It had an elaborately programmed sequence where the heroine walked through a driving rain “depicted by slashing diagonal lines of lamps.” The wind whipped at her dress, lifted her skirt, and revealed the petticoat clinging to her legs and her hips and her thighs. The gale receded, her clothes fell into place, she resumed her high-heeled, mincing walkonly to be swept up in the wind and rain again, and again and again.2
This sign attracted big crowds, and the crowds included plenty of women. Not the most affluent women, who would surely have stuck with silk, a warm and voluptuous material that has been a symbol of class since ancient times. But imagine seamstresses and switchboard operators on their way to work, or schoolteachers and stenographers going to plays. What the ad promised is something that the New York garment industry, just a few blocks south, knew how (and still knows how) to deliver: cheap knockoffs of expensive fabrics and designs; aristocratic fantasies that a plebeian mass public can afford. It was structurally similar to the electrified mass culture embodied in its sign. It sought and found a large body of respectable women who would respond to a public, flamboyant sexual display, and would buy a garment that they hoped would help them change.
One thing that petticoat could mean: womens disgust with the multiple layers of clothing that then defined womens wear. In those clothes, nobody would ever see what a womans body looked like. (In those days, too, from what we can tell, sex happened in the dark: Touch but dont look.) Feminism in the early twentieth century demanded “dress reform” from clothes that treated women like prisoners. But not much changed till World War One, when suddenly there was a lot less cloth around, and then things changed fast. Since then, the visibility of womens bodies has become a primary hallmark of the twentieth century, of the West, of the big city, of modern times. Anyone who doubts this should note the rage against womens visibility in all the aggressively anti-modern movements around the world. The Heatherbloom product, although marketed to youth, stays firmly within the traditional layered wardrobe. But the Heatherbloom sign performs a leap into the open. It is a curtain-raiser for the century-long drama of womens exposure and display. This is “legitimate” theater because the girl cant help it. She does not take her clothes off; she is not stripped by a lustful husband or boyfriend; she is undressed by the primal force of nature itself. But in Times Square it is also comic theater. Its comic irony is defined by the program of the sign: In Act One the heroine is swept up and stripped by the storm; in Act Two the storm abates and her clothes cover her up; in Act Three she is out in the storm again.
Smoke, Water, and America
The discourse of nostalgia in Times Square often gravitates toward the 1940s, the age of World War Two and its prosperous aftermath. Survivors and memoirists of these years portray a New York that may have been physically distinct from the rest of America, but that culturally blended in with it, and that had the capacity to incarnate it. In Alfred Eisenstadts Life photograph of the sailor and the nurse embracing in the Square as the Japanese surrender, we see a historical moment free of the tension between “New York” and “America” that marked American culture in the 1960s and 1970s, when I was growing up, and that was nourished by the GOP. (It peaked in President Fords “Drop Dead” speech of 1976.) People who yearn for the Square of the 1940s are often, in Paul Simons poignant words, “looking for America.” They still feel vast distance between New York and America today, and they yearn for a fusion between them that they think existed yesterday. They often focus on the Squares spectacular signs, which they feel performed feats of spiritual integration.
On the “looking for America” nostalgia trip, the great BOND Clothes waterfall and the Camel smoke ring sign are favorite stops. Both signs made their debuts shortly before the war. They were imagined and planned by one of Times Squares unsung heroes, the artist, engineer, landlord, and promoter Douglas Leigh, and assembled by Artkraft Strauss.3 The BOND sign opened in 1940, just above the companys main showroom. It proclaimed “The Cathedral of Clothing.” This was where my father got his suits, cheap but “smart.” The Camel sign, just a block below, opened in 1941. All through my childhood, these two dominated the Square. They didnt look much alike, yet everybody agreed they belonged together. I think I know why people blended the signs into a single whole: Both signs were dramatizations of danger and deliverance from danger.
The waterfall, a city block long, had a tremendous seething flow. At night, everything in the Square seemed to flow toward it. If you stood there and looked at it for a while, it could put you in a kind of trance, you could lose track of everything around you. The falls were high off the ground, but was there a way you could fall in? Could kids fall in? Was there something there that we couldnt see but that could pull us in? On the northern and southern fringes of the waterfall, there were giant bronze statues of a man and a woman. Looking at photos today, I see I was right about them: They were naked! No clothes at all! And yet they were totally unsexy. Not that my cousins and my friends and I knew much about sex, but still we could feel its absence. The compelling thing about these statues was their solemnity. There was a Longfellow poem we read in school, beginning “This is the forest primeval,” where the great trees
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic. . . .
Were the bronze statues so solemn because they were guarding us from the edge, from falling in, from fatal currents and hidden rocks that we couldnt see or even imagine, but that they knew all too well? Did the danger come, in some weird way, from the smart clothes themselves and from the BOND?
The Camel sign just below the waterfall was something else. Here was another giant adult, and a man in uniform,4 toowhich meant, in the 1940s, somebody who was risking his life to protect us all from Hitler. Who was Hitler? Somebody who had magic powers to raise fabulous armies that killed so many Jews (my grandmas whole extended family was trapped in Lithuania; they were all killed), and so many other people. But this Camel smoker was ready to take Hitler on. How did he fight? He blew smoke rings in the dictators face. I thought, Wow! The smoke rings were collected from the buildings heating system; they signified not only American bravery, but American cool. I loved standing beneath the sign, where I couldnt see the man at all, but I could see his rings; as long as they kept coming, I felt protected. My parents both were chain-smokers: They brushed each others lips as they lit each others cigs. I asked if they could blow rings like the sign did. My mother scoffed at it as a silly guy thing, but my father could do it, and he swore that someday so would I.
How signs change their meanings as time goes by! When I was thirteen, my fathers doctor said he was seriously Under Stress, and hed have to quit smoking right away. He did quit, with what struck me as remarkably little fuss. But before we knew it, he was dead anyway. After he died, I turned bitter and cynical and angry. I never became a smoker, and that Camel sign became gall and wormwood to me. When our family went to Times Square and took our baths of light, I would start to rant when we got near the sign. I would say it was really an ad for American imperialism. All around the world we promise to protect people, but were spreading more death than life; as for that kid, the soldier-smoker, he is an addict and he doesnt even know it; we kill our own kids along with all the others for the tobacco companies sake. My mothers overall political sense was fairly close to mine, but she couldnt translate it into rage against the sign. For her, the signs basic truth was the playful young man who had won her heart in the Square all those years ago. The act of smoking became a kind of séance that could bring that young man back to her. I thought the Surgeon Generals Report would give her pause; but she said the fact that the smoker put himself in danger only made him nobler. When I went to Columbia and read King Lear, she read along with me. As we read together, it felt like smoke was coming out of her ears. She said, “Its how I defy the foul fiend.”
Coppola: The Square or the Library
Lets leap to my Aunt Idies Times Square, in the 1960s: the place that removed the need for drugs because it was a psychedelic trip in itself. One film from those days shows very vividly how people personalize and internalize Times Squares signs: Francis Ford Coppolas commercial debut, Youre a Big Boy Now (1966). Coppolas hero, Bernard (Peter Kastner), is the son of an executive at the New York Public Library. While he works at an entry-level job in the NYPL, rushing through the stacks on roller skates, his parents subsidize an apartment for him, enabling him to discover New York City on his own. The movie is framed as a Bildungsroman, a story of a boy becoming a man. The library is right down the street from Times Square, and Bernard is happy to explore the scene. The features that engage him most are the great fire signs around the bowtie and the pornographic book shops along the deuce.* Quite early in the movie, he uses his imagination to rewrite the signs. His first rewrite job is simple. From inside a porn shop he contemplates 42nd Streets long-lived arcade, “Playland,” and retitles it “Layland.” He is putting his stamp on the Square.