I’m obsessed with Times Square. Some might say it’s controversial for a New Yorker to care so much about a place that wasn’t really built for them, but what can I say, the mythology seduces me. I check in regularly, whether in person, or by way of the public web cameras planted in the area and showcased 24/7 for all the world to see on Earthcam.com. I’m curious about how it functions and whose labor and attention sustains it. During a time when the pandemic has cut off resources to a place that relies on tourism to fulfill its purpose, who does Times Square serve? Who’s holding down the fort? What’s it all for?
On a Saturday afternoon in the middle of February, 2021, I embarked on a new experiment in a familiar stomping ground. I created an anonymous telephone number, printed it on a large sign, and showed up in front of the Times Square Earthcam in the hopes that someone out there, tuning in wistfully from their web browser to the Big Apple, would call. The sign read:
CAN’T VISIT? CALL (FREE!)
SOCIAL SOUVENIR HOTLINE
DIAL 929-274-4029 NOW
I would give whoever called a guided audio tour of my surroundings: an on-the-ground, play by play broadcast of the city’s goings-on from smack dab in the center of it all. I carried my sign up Broadway like an Olympic torch, ready to take my post and let the calls come flooding in.
Leave it to Times Square to thoroughly warp one’s perception of scale. The sign, despite feeling huge and show-stopping on the subway ride uptown (and eliciting a fair amount of inquiries along the way), was far too small to be legible on screen. The scaffolding in front of the Earthcam’s mount made it infeasible to get closer to the camera, and so it read as a blurry, pixelated streak, impossible to make out.
Feeling lost, I walked the sign half-heartedly around the perimeter of the square, racking my brain for how to turn this project around. My advertisement attracted furtive, quizzical glances from passersby; I accidentally locked step with another man carrying his own sign, about Jesus and Armageddon. I felt like an outcast in a way I hadn’t quite prepared for—I had envisioned the switchboard of my social life with strangers lighting up upon arrival!
I grew cold, and scanned the landscape for shelter. Grand Slam New York, I saw in front of me. A massive souvenir shop, bordering on department store-sized. Seemed like the perfect place to defrost and regroup.
The man sitting on a stool to the right of the door greeted me warmly as I entered, and we exchanged hellos. “What’s your sign say?” he asked, cocking his head to try and make out the text, as the sign was upside down. I flipped it upright.
“Social Souvenir Hotline…” he read aloud. “It’s an art experiment,” I explained. “But it didn’t go quite as planned.” I told him all about Earthcam, the public webcam system embedded in Times Square, and, because he was curious, helped him pull up the live feed on his phone. The Earthcam happened to picture the precise blindspot from his post—while he faced inwards toward the store with his back to the Square, the Earthcam faced outwards towards the Square with its back to the store. It was like a second pair of eyes. Which is a pretty good accessory for a security guard protecting the largest souvenir shop in town.
“This is great,” he exclaimed, “Thank you for showing me this! Now I can see what’s going on out there, while I’m in here.”
“Say,” I wondered aloud, “would you be willing to call the Hotline?”
Pre-recorded Operator: This call is now being recorded.
James Blount: Hello?
Becca Kauffman: Times Square Social Souvenir Hotline. Who am I speaking with today?
James: Hi, this is James, the one you left at the store?
Becca: James, nice to hear from you! Thanks for calling.
James: Anytime. I told you I was gonna call you. I was talking to Times Square Security, that’s why I didn’t call you right away.
Becca: So, you’re the security guard at Grand Slam New York.
James: That’s correct.
Becca: Right in the middle of Times Square.
James: Yep, right in the middle.
Becca: How long have you been a security guard at Grand Slam?
James: Twenty years.
Becca: How has the store changed in that time?
James: It changed a whole lot. You know, they remodeled the whole store and everything, it’s very nice.
Becca: Do you like it better now than you did before, or?
James: I liked it before because we had more customers. Since the Corona, we slowed down a lot. It ain’t like it used to be. This is the new Times Square now, it’s not the old. The old was good. You had everybody coming out, you know.
Becca: When you say the old Times Square, you mean before Coronavirus?
James: Right. We had more customers and all that. Now it’s slow, ’cause of Corona.
Becca: How does that affect your job?
James: Well, it really don’t affect my job. It affects the store, not me. I’m good as long as I got a job. I get paid at the end of the day, so I’m good.
Becca: What do you enjoy about your job?
James: Catching crooks [laughs]. That’s my job. [To a customer] Oh, no- excuse me! Come on, you gotta put your mask on, partner, please. I told you before. [To me] He’s trying to give me a hard time. [To customer] Put your mask on, partner, please. That’s all I ask you, nicely. I’m trying to have a good day. [Customer responds. James laughs.] It’s part of the policy. Yeah. [Laughs] You ain’t lying. [Laughs] Take care, have a good one. [To me] Every now and then I get a little ball buster, he wants to break the rules, I have to tell him what’s up.
Becca: You’re good at telling people what they need to do without escalating.
James: Exactly. I’m a people person. I try to have a good day. I don’t try to have no bad day. I come in [with] a good day, I want to go home with a good day. I have a bad day, guess what, my whole day’ll be bad. Ignore them. That’s about it. They try to play with people’s minds. […] One guy, looked like he was about to light a cigarette in the store! I told him, Come on. And he’s got his mask off. Do it outside! I’m like this: I try to look out for everybody’s safety. Just wear your mask, what’s the problem? We got the sign here. It’s the rule. If you don’t wear it, guess what? You can get a $50 fine. From the police! But they could buy something in the store with that fifty, instead of giving it to the city. ’Cause the city’s gonna make their money.
Every now and then I get a ballbuster, wants to play with my intelligence. I’m a little sharp. They think I’m slow or something. I’m past slow. I’m past go. I don’t play that. Let me do my job, they do their job. They want to play games, go out there and play games. ’Cause tricks are for kids, silly rabbit. I didn’t make it all the way to 60 from being no dummy, neither. I learned a lot over the sixty years.
Becca: Hey, James, I’m gonna come in now, can we continue this interview in person? It’s a little hard to hear you.
James: Okay, yeah, cause I’m in the store. I can’t leave.
Becca: I’ll come in in just a second.
James: Okay, I’ll see you in a little bit.
Becca: [Enters store. The rest of the conversation is recorded as a voice memo]
How do you not let people rile you up when they give you a hard time?
James: I’m very sensible. I just do what I gotta do and that’s it. I try to be calm, cool. I know what I do, as far as my job is concerned. It’s not putting hands on people, or cuss[ing] them out. Talk to them with a little diplomacy, you know? If they can’t accept it, Bye, have a nice day. Let’s go. Throw ’em out the store. That’s the title of my job, throw you out. Instead of beating and arguing with you. I don’t do that. It’s unprofessional when you do that. Let’s get them out, let them get some air. See, the air might clear their minds and wake them up.
Becca: You’re taking care of them in a way.
James: Right! They don’t see that part. And in the end, as they’re leaving, This guy is right. Then they tell me, Thank you. I had an argument with a lady in here one time—little short story: she was drinking coffee and you can’t drink coffee, the sign’s up there. I told her, You got to put your coffee down, or you have to go outside and drink. You know what she told me? N—- leave me alone, you harassing me. She said that word. And you know, I’m back in that time and era. So that was very unprofessional what she said to me. That’s a slavery name. I don’t use that against people. I don’t discriminate. So why would you say n—–? I got really upset, so I threw her out of the store.
Then she came back. The air cleared her up. She came back with an apology. You know what I told her, since she said that to me? I said, I don’t accept your apology. Bye, have a nice day and get the hell out of here. That was it. I never saw that lady after that. Because she knew she was wrong. She wanted to apologize, but the apology wasn’t accepted because she already said it. You see what I’m saying? We’re not slaves no more, slavery’s over with. My forefathers and mothers and brothers and sisters went through the slavery. We don’t use that.
Becca: Way to go telling her like it is. What are the rules that it’s your job to enforce?
James: If we catch them, sometimes we let them go. Depends if they want to be harassing and act like they don’t want to give it up. You can call PP, that’s the police, and they come in and arrest them. I could make a citizen’s arrest. That’s part of my job as security. They say, Don’t try to handle it too much because it can get out of hand. Just give us a call, we right here. I got the Times Square sargeant’s number. He was just in here talking to me. They all check on me. I got them on my side and I got Times Square Security on my side. I’m not really looking for them, but if things get out of hand, they should give us a call. Because they know it can get hectic sometimes.
Becca: And what are the other rules?
James: No food or drinks. And wear your mask at all times in the store. It’s mandated by Cuomo. We gotta respect that. A lot of people don’t like wearing masks in here. I had a guy come in one day, he said, You can’t force me to wear a mask. I say, You’re right, I can’t. But I can do this: you can’t come in this store. That’s my job. So you got your rule, I got my rule. So whose rules gonna be right, mine or yours? If you don’t want to come in, that’s on you. Have a nice day. I’m making sure I’m brief, I ain’t gotta be beating around the bush talking to him all day about if it’s mandatory or not. He knows it’s mandatory, if he could read. If he couldn’t read it, I’d read it for him.
Becca: Is your home chock full of New York City souvenirs from the last 20 years?
James: Oh yeah. My house is full of all of that. I’ve got so many hats and masks, you name it.
Becca: Key chains, magnets, shot glasses, snow globes?
James: I’ve got all of that. Trust me. You don’t see it accumulating, but it accumulates. You start off with one. One seems like, it might be forty or fifty or sixty. Then you end up doing more, and then it seems like a hundred or two hundred.
Becca: You have two hundred souvenirs at home?
James: Yeah! Did you go downstairs?
Becca: The 99 cent bins?
James: You go down there, you see everything you need. From kids’ cars, and all that. When the kids were younger, and the grandkids, I used to buy them stuff from down there.
Becca: So you have a whole set of family heirlooms from this store.
James: Right. They got everything here. It’s convenient for me. And I pay discount.
Becca: Are you from New York?
James: Yeah, I’m from New York. I was born through the five boroughs. But I was born in Brooklyn. When I was like 17, 18, I graduated, got out and just moved on and went into the service. I was in the Marine Corps. That’s why I’m set in my ways. I don’t take no junk. I’ve played in mud, crawled in mud. You name it, I did it all.
Becca: Did you like that kind of discipline?
James: I didn’t like it, but it was an adventure and something I’d wanted to experience. And I liked the uniform for some reason. It made me feel spiffy. And you know, a lot of girls were checking me out. I felt good. I did five years and got out. I can kill you with my bare hands.
Becca: Do you practice to keep in shape?
James: Yes. I do it on my terrace. I lift weights. I do 500 push ups a day. And sometimes I get out and I run about five miles. My heart’s still going strong at my age. I’m 60 but I still feel like I’m in my forties. I take a lot of vitamins. Fish oil, D3, Vitamin C. You need that Vitamin C. Sometimes I feel too active with the vitamins. Makes me feel real active. Hyped up.
Becca: The people who have been coming in here lately, are they actual tourists?
James: No, not really. You might get a few tourists, but tourists come from out of state, like flying. Most of these people that come here are from the five boroughs. Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island. That’s the five boroughs.
Becca: So they’re all New Yorkers. But they come in and buy souvenirs?
James: They buy mad souvenirs. Some people just go crazy. And they buy a lot of clothes too.
Becca: What do you think that is, a New York City patriotism or something?
James: ’Cause they love the store. They’ve been buying here for years.
Becca: So you have regulars that come in? Tell me about the regulars.
James: The regulars, there’s a guy, he goes upstairs, he always gets a jersey every year. He likes buying jerseys. And then downstairs, the gift shop, they come and get one of the big buckets, and they come up with a whole bucket full of souvenirs.
Becca: The regulars do?
Becca: What are they gonna do with them?
James: They take them home. They’re probably giving it to their families and loved ones, whatever. They show the love, they spread it. I don’t think they’re keeping all that stuff at home. It’s too much. If you’ve got a basket full of souvenirs, they have to be giving some of the other family members some.
Becca: This store is one of the only independent retail stores around, at this point.
James: It is.
Becca: How do the owners manage to hang on to it?
James: I don’t know. They’re not going anywhere, though, I’ll tell you that. I think I got a job. To keep me busy. I hate staying home, even though I’m retired. I still have my [security] license, so I use it. I didn’t tell you that part—I haven’t had that grand slam yet. Like I had to really slam someone, I haven’t done that.
Becca: Is that why you’re still here, you haven’t gotten the grand slam in yet?
James: That’s why I’m here.
Becca: So you’re looking for trouble.
James: No! Not looking. Trouble comes to you. You don’t have to look for anything. It comes to you. You never know what’s going to happen at the end of the day. So I gotta be on point at all times. Cause this is a big store! You got three levels here. Old women steal, young women steal, old men steal, young men steal. You don’t know what’s in people’s hearts and what’s in their mind. We deal with all different types of people. You could be white, Black, Chinese—all nationalities steal. You got a lot of honest people in the world, but for some reason, all the crooks are dishonest. It’s always been like that in America. Even overseas it’s the same way. Even the guys in uniform, in the marines. Some are honest, some are dishonest. You don’t know until you really find out. That’s the crazy part… Some people don’t like to be told what to do. But that’s my job. I’ll tell you in a minute what to do if you don’t know.
Becca: If you were to write a job description for your position as security guard, up to your standards, how would you describe it? What’s your philosophy?
James: It’s beautiful. Just sit back, watch people. At the end of the day I go home with money, get paid. I don’t argue with customers. I’m happy that I had a peaceful day, that I didn’t have to beat anybody up.
You could be here today, and gone tomorrow. That’s how short life is. So you have to make the best of it. And that’s what I do, I try to make the best of it every day. Every day is like an open fruit to me. And the world expands. Just live life.
I always ask people, Are you enjoying your life?
Are you enjoying your life?
Becca: You’re asking me?
Becca: I do.
James: Me too, I enjoy life. Age is nothing but a number, and it’s the beauty and understanding and communication that’s one of the best policies that we have. And we have to utilize it.
As a token of appreciation for his participation, James was gifted a one of a kind Social Souvenir T-Shirt of his choosing. Tag made in collaboration with Kim Mullis. Photos courtesy of Becca Kauffman.
The definition of “Social Souvenir” is constantly changing, but the hotline number stays the same.
Call today: 929-274-4029.
Becca Kauffman (she/they) is a first year student in the Art and Social Practice program at Portland State University powered by their inexhaustible fascination with Times Square.
James Blount (he/him) has been a security guard at Grand Slam New York in Times Square for twenty years. He is a veteran, a father of four, and a happy person.
The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.
Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.
Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.
Sponsored by the Portland State University Art and Social Practice MFA Program