This is what it feels like in New York in the middle of the night, just hours after reports that Osama bin Laden is dead. Times Square is a victory party -- the atmosphere of a tailgate, or a mini New Year’s Eve tinged with anger, and so thick with cameras and reporters the man-on-the-street cannot sneeze off the record.
The scene changes everywhere one looks. The characters change, too. But, taken together, it is frenzy of smiling, howling and chanting. Times Square is a glittering American triumph tonight -- and those three or so miles between here and Ground Zero may make some difference in mood.
First of all there are flags. Everyone seems to have little ones, the size of notebook paper, purchased right here on the street. Some have huge ones, carried as if to a World Cup match.
“USA! USA!” Chanting swells across a mob of young people, from Broadway to Seventh Avenue, from 43rd Street to 45th.
Above the Times Square Studios, ABC news headlines crawl across the ticker. AL QAEDA’S OSAMA BIN LADEN IS DEAD. People take cellphone photos and cheer, and the faces of those below glow red and blue in its light.
Just past 1:30 a.m., a couple locked in embrace dips slightly as their lips connect and reproduce the famous kiss between sailor and nurse. Journalists and iPhoners pause to shoot their picture. Everywhere, everyone seems to be interviewing everyone else. It takes a moment to discern who is here for history and who for just a story.
There is a wheeze and a squeal of bagpipes from across 44th Street. Red-kilted pipers take to the crowd, which engulfs them, as people being to sing The Star-Spangled Banner. Then pipers let out their low drone. A NY1 reporter holds a mic to one of them while jubilant young men scramble into shot.
Close by, a flag around 20 feet long is unrolled and lifted overhead by many hands. A photographer stands astride the rim of a garbage can to get the scene from above, while behind him a sanitation truck driving south down Seventh Avenue lets out a honk and is met with a wild cheer.
The fire trucks honk in celebration; so does a locksmith’s truck, a dairy truck, cabs with passengers hanging halfway out the window, their arms wide open out as they pass through Times Square.
The "USA! USA!" chanting swells up again, and a panhandler with a scar running from his ear to his chin shakes his cup and chants along in own mantra: “Help a brother out! Help a brother out!”
“I was in bed and I read the news,” a middle-aged woman tells a reporter with a camera on her shoulder. “And -- I’m just so proud!”
High above the whole scene, and all around it, Times Square, like every other night, celebrates itself. A Nuts 4 Nuts cart makes a half-block smell of sugar; high up on a cherry picker two men, cast in silhouette, do work on a huge, moving LED screen.
Jubilant twenty-somethings yell, chant and pal around, as if their team just won a pennant. Some have candles. A tall, skinny boy in his 20s screams into a camera: “Osama, kiss my American ass with your dead lips!”
“USA” chant becomes “Four more years!” Two men, singing Bob Marley songs, try to get a conga line started. One woman near by is nine months pregnant.
Some people use candles to set fire to photos of Bin Laden, which they hold up high.
Most stores have closed now, but always a beacon, Times Square stays awake. At one end of the block, through the bright window of Sephora, employees sit on stools disinfecting sample lipstick containers one at a time. Outside the crowds cheer as cabdrivers honk, and the new marquee ponders: WILL DEATH OF OSAMA BIN LADEN TRIGGER TERROR ATTACKS?
The mood becomes jubilant, rowdy, and rude.
A huge, remarkable creature makes her way through the crowd. “Damn girl!” Men whisper, reach out to touch her. Of ambiguous gender, she towers around seven feet tall in platformed shoes, sparkling silver corset, and tight black leggings. People ask to have their photo taken beside her, and she says yes. A man who reaches barely to her elbow, hops up on a barricade and rests his head on her breast.
“Our lady of liberty!” Cries one male voice in the crowd.
One tall, gray-bearded man with a rugged frame and features seems to linger besides a reporter he sees taking notes. He tells her he lives in Queens and came out here when he heard that Osama was killed. His name is “Dave Andersen, write that down. That’s Andersen ‘s-e-n.’” He is a former marine, as is Nick, his son. Nick is 21, and has been in Afghanistan for just three weeks. He must be proud of him. “Proud? Yeah. Proud,” he says. “And scared.” He wears his son’s dog tags around his neck.
“It seems to be a little too much of a party atmosphere here,” he says. What had he hoped when he’d set out from Queens? He must think about that for a moment. “Celebratory reverence,” he says. “I think I’ll go to Ground Zero.”