I hailed a cab last night at 10:45pm, after hearing from a friend via Facebook that a speech from Obama was forthcoming. I asked the cabbie to turn on WNYC, the local public radio affiliate, and rolled down the windows.
Times Square was quiet when I arrived around 11pm. Besides crowds leaving comedy clubs, restaurants, ending (or in the middle of) bar-hopping, and couples posing for photographs with the flashing signs, Times Square was no different than usual.
It took a few moments before I could notice anything. Which photographers were here to await the crowds they sensed would be arriving? For some time I could spot no official news crews, just people with cameras who heard the news and wanted to see what New York had to offer up in response to the night's news.
That sense of waiting, an awkward anticipation for something, anything, was what defined last night in New York.
I scanned the hundreds of digital advertisements and scrolling bits of text in Times Square but found little reference to the news I had heard broadcast over the radio. I wasn't foolish enough to expect a V-E day celebration, but heck, even the Metropolitan Opera and the recent royal wedding have been televised live to Times Square.
Inevitably the reporters showed up, and they came before the crowd started to gather in earnest. But the crowds waited. They waited until a television crew turned on their lights and pointed the lens at a man holding a small American flag. Just as quickly a handful of those on hand would rush over, hoist their iPhones and begin photographing the photographers.
I waited for two hours for this pattern to change.
Times Square was a vacuum. So long as you had an American flag, a handmade sign, or were willing to toot a horn or parade around with a Grateful Dead denim sweatshirt with a "God Bless America" patch sewn on the back, you could count on winding up in the national papers today.
What does it say about us?
Probably, that many more New Yorkers think themselves to be photographers or reporters in their own right than merely a spectator, a citizen caught up in a spontaneous eruption of emotion, but I wonder about what else.
A quick survey of opinion pieces today, particularly on liberal aggregators like the Huffington Post, reveals a number of articles condemning any celebration on the part of Americans at last night's news. For practical purposes in the war on terror, the quest for peace, or the long road to being left alone, the death of one man means little. So too, death is hardly a moment for exultation.
What I heard in Time Square last night, however, hardly seemed like celebration in earnest. Instead, I felt an awkward sigh of relief settling in around me, manifested occasionally in cheers, but often in simple conversation between strangers. Like the uncertainty surrounding the long-term impact of bin Laden's death, the hundreds I shared Times Square with last night couldn't decide exactly how to respond. The media captured the yelling and the repeated chants of U-S-A, but the scene was more complex than that.
In time will come answers, and with time the crowds seen last night — their moods shifting between uncertain silence and coarse shouts — will come to reflect the true opinion of this country on what has happened, and likely what the future will bring.