After Saturday's attempted car bombing in New York's Times Square, investigators announced that they were hunting for a man who was shown on a surveillance tape taking off his shirt immediately after the incident. This was deemed suspicious activity by the police, though Mayor Michael Bloomberg didn't necessarily agree: "It was a hot day," he said. "Maybe he was just changing his shirt? And this is Times Square, where you have the Naked Cowboy."
The Naked Cowboy is one of Times Square's higher-profile kooks, but there are plenty of other people hanging out there who might raise eyebrows at the Des Moines Rotary Club. How do you know when activity in Times Square is suspicious? Don't people act suspiciously there all the time? I set out to see how much disturbing behavior I could encounter in Times Square during an hour and a half around lunchtime on a Tuesday. New York City's transit authority has popularized the slogan "If You See Something, Say Something" and asks the city's subway riders to "Be alert to unattended packages; Be wary of suspicious behavior; Take notice of people in bulky or inappropriate clothing; Report exposed wiring or other irregularities." I took these as my marching orders.
Times Square is filled with men trying to sell tickets for bus tours of the city to tourists. Fresh off the subway, I proceeded uptown, peering left and right, soaking in everything, and stopping to snap the occasional photo. Several guys, reasonably, tried to sell me a ride, including Abdullah Ghazi, a bearded young man in a yellow City Sights polo. I brushed him off with a wave. Half an hour later, I wandered back downtown, now with a notebook tucked under my arm. He flagged me down again, this time to ask whether I was a reporter. One tiny change, and he knew exactly what my place was in the ecosystem.
I asked Ghazi what sort of "unusual" behavior might grab his attention. "Someone panicky or paranoid," he said. "You make a logical assumption that he's off his meds." And how often does he see that? "Oh! Every day."
Indeed. During my lunchtime stroll, I saw a clean-cut white guy with darting eyes, talking loudly to himself. An older black gentleman with darting eyes dragging a duffle bag on the ground behind him, talking loudly to himself. A nervous-looking guy of indeterminate ethnic origin with darting eyes and a Mets ski cap on a sunny, 80-degree day, talking to himself … but quietly, which struck me as rather polite.
I should probably pause here to note that on a normal day, this sort of thing doesn't really register. Like most New Yorkers, I've learned to ignore such poor souls unless they really seem aggressive. But once you make yourself alert to every minor abnormality, start sizing people up visually for threat level, and start profiling, you begin to see some scary stuff.
I met a Brazilian tourist who had way too many shabby bags in tow, and an off-duty Indian pilot who was carrying a grocery bag around his neck like a cape, food stains running down his shirtfront. I sidled up to a guy scalping Broadway tickets because he was wearing a sweatshirt in the heat. I eyed vendors covering their knockoff (or stolen) sunglasses display with a cloth—what if they weren't worried about copyright law? What if they had a bomb under that cloth? And what about that polka-playing musician set up near the subway exit, the one with an American-soldier bobblehead set up on his keyboard? Was he announcing his patriotism a bit too strenuously?
I walked into the W hotel, effortlessly bypassing the "security check-point", and waited in the lobby for a few minutes, constructing Bourne Identity back stories for the well-heeled Euro guys sitting by themselves, staring into their laptops. I peered into a small orange dumpster in front of a Swarovski store under renovation. It was filled with discarded wires and old smashed drywall. It looked, in other words, just like the bombs in The Hurt Locker.
I struck up a conversation with two guys unloading mysterious cargo from a nondescript truck. They sold purses, and had been doing so for 25 years. They told me that they've alerted cops to plenty of things before—fights, thefts, things they thought could have been bombs. After a quarter-century, what did it take to spook them? Dave Schulter, clad in a Hawaiian shirt, said, "A guy in a dress—you see that every day. Somebody standing by the table with a bookbag for a long time, or leaves something by a garbage can, that's suspicious." But I saw packages everywhere. Every tourist stands around looking lost, a big bag slung over their shoulder. How do you know what is truly dangerous?
Click here for a slide show of the suspicious activity I saw on a Tuesday afternoon in Times Square.
Suspicious or Just Everyday Behavior in Times Square