It has stood for a half-century as the ultimate eye-of-the-beholder symbol, a Times Square magnet for patriots, protesters, pigeons: the U.S. Armed Forces Recruiting Station.
"The Booth," as it's known among the "Be all that you can be" brigade, gets the boot this summer after serving Uncle Sam through three wars as the military's most prominent Manhattan outpost.The military isn't abandoning seamy old Times Square; it's simply surrendering to the Disneyfication that is transforming the neighborhood. It's exchanging its squat, cramped steel and glass box for a $1.5 million, high-tech, neon-encrusted "recruiting center" that seems more in line with "Star Wars" than real wars.
But as the vintage booth marks its last July 4 at the "Crossroads of the World," not everyone is saluting this changing of the guard.
The old station "is a part of Times Square," said Fred Hakim, the area's unofficial mayor until social Darwinism claimed his 58-year-old family luncheonette last year. "I always took for granted that it belonged there."
For the past 52 years, it did.
Bolted onto the steel grates of a triangular Broadway traffic island, the humble booth evolved over the years into a powerful icon of . . . well, just about everything.
"A symbol of service and sacrifice," said Michael Handy, head of the mayor's office of veterans' affairs.
"A symbol for war crimes and atrocities," offered radical lawyer Ronald Kuby, law partner of the late William Kunstler.
"A piece of Americana," said Peter Shugert of the Army Corps of Engineers, which will dismantle the structure.
"The Booth" was all that and more since the Truman administration, an unlikely bastion of military spit and polish amid Times Square's peep shows, hookers and games of (little) chance.
Gay activists, accusing the armed forces of homophobia, recently demanded its shutdown. Developers, upset by its deterioration, longed for its destruction (and potentially lucrative location).
Yet now, even its detractors sound nostalgic about the landmark where the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines informed millions that "Uncle Sam wants you!"
"I demonstrated against the Gulf War there," the pony-tailed Kuby reflected. "I spoke to protesters there. And I represented the people who dragged the American flag off the roof and burned it."
Ah, the good old days.
The station opened in May 1946, the U.S. military's first walk-in recruiting center. Others followed; none surpassed it for traffic - 10,000 soldiers, sailors, pilots and leathernecks a year.
The booth is also the pickiest of all such centers, dismissing 90 percent of hopefuls for an assortment of reasons: age, mental illness, criminal records, obesity, illiteracy.
Not all came to enlist. Tourists would stop by for directions to the theater or midtown attractions. "We always try to help 'em out," said Staff Sgt. Lary Ruiz, the Army's on-site recruiter.
Other visitors would ask to use the bathroom, which was a problem - there wasn't one. Booth personnel relied on the kindness of neighboring businesses for relief and directed tourists to them.
The center also provided a ceaseless stream of directions on its electronic message board - although they were designed to lead people inside: "Aim High." "A Great Way of Life." "Let the Journey Begin."
The station stood opposite the Paramount Theater, now demolished, where Frank Sinatra sent bobby-soxers swooning back when visiting military men came to sample the pleasures of Times Square's past.
Times Square's present reflects the changes instigated by Mickey Mouse and the area's other new denizens: Disney's $34 million store and theater, the MTV studios, the Virgin Megastore. The only vaguely menacing sight these days is a 61/2-foot Daffy Duck statue outside the Warner Bros. Studio Store.
The new recruiting station, like much of the new Times Square, will have little in common with its predecessor. It will feature red, white and blue laser lights and a pair of 35-foot neon American flags.
An 18-foot, nine-screen video wall will pump up the volume on the military's message.
It's unclear what will become of the old booth - "Hey, it's really just a box," said Ray Aalbue, spokesman for U.S. Army recruiting. Perhaps an auction? "Good thought," said Shugert.
But the wrecking ball will arrive soon. The new and improved station is to be completed in time for New Year's Eve 1998.
It just won't be the same.