Sunday, March 20, 2011

Times Square, Pompeii, and Japan

 (Please click on the photos to enlarge them)

Every time I return to Manhattan I’m reminded of why it’s my favorite city in the world.  Nowhere else can you find such a mix of faces, languages, rituals, talents, and incredible sights.  This past weekend, as the weather turned spring-like, I was constantly reminded of a P.R. slogan from the 1970’s, (when Manhattan was so much scarier, dirtier and less friendly),  that we single working-girls would toss around with heavy sarcasm during the  sweltering, foul-smelling hot months:  “New York is a Summer Festival.”  This past weekend, the city was indeed a spring festival with crowds on every corner in a party mood.

On Friday, we walked from the hotel at 56th and Seventh Avenue.  It was the first time I had seen Broadway and Times Square since they turned it onto a pedestrian walkway.

In the olden days, the only moving sign on Times Square was the Camel-smoking man on a billboard who blew real smoke rings into the air.  Now, all the billboards seem to move with mind-blowing activity and color. 

One huge billboard projects the actual crowd of pedestrians on the sidewalk below, who are frantically waving at the camera.  There is a pretty woman on the billboard with a magnifying glass who periodically magnifies some of the eager wavers.  In other words:  go down to Times Square and you can be on a billboard like all the models and actors.  After some searching, I decided that the pretty girl a with magnifying glass does not actually exist—she is virtual, but the waving tourists are real.

Of course I photographed the statue of George M. Cohan. (For you youngsters, he was the guy who wrote “Give my regards to Broadway”—a song that inevitably gets stuck in my brain and drives me crazy.  He was a songwriter, playwright, actor, singer, dancer and producer who lived from 1878 to 1942.)

Crowds of eager tourists surrounded the sight-seeing-bus stops and watched an artist who seemed to be creating his paintings out of spray paint and selling them on the spot.

Times Square is a photographers dream.  

The reason we were going to Times Square was that I wanted to see the Pompeii exhibit which had gotten a good review in the New York Times.  I realized that, even though it was tourist-y, that was probably the closest I’d ever get to the real Pompeii, which has always fascinated me. 

At the climax of the exhibit,you are herded into a closed room where a vista of the city of Pompeii and the volcano Vesuvius are projected on one wall. Thanks to special effects, you see the slow pattern of destruction as the volcano smoked, then erupted over a period of about 36 hours.  The floor shakes and the sound intensifies as the roofs collapse. There is smoke, fire, lava, and then at the climax, a giant wave of hot ash and intense heat overwhelms everything including the audience.  The winds whips by you and then the wall in front of you opens and you see the white plaster casts of the dead bodies (including a dog and a pig curled in their last agonies.)  You can walk among them--the family of four including two children and the man who died trying to crawl up a staircase, the couple reaching out to each other and a room full of 12 skeletons including nine children. These casts were made by pouring plaster into the hollow impressions left by the bodies that were encased by the ash as they died.)

Although I had planned weeks ago to visit the Pompeii exhibit, the drama was made so much more real and poignant by the tragedy in Japan. It was impossible to watch the tsunami of ash coming at you without thinking of the thousands of innocent people there who suffered a death much like those who died in Pompeii, but they were swept out to sea without  even the memorial left  by those who died in 79 A.D., who were preserved in solidified ash so that we can share their agony two thousand years later.

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