By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 3, 2010; A08
NEW YORK -- Times Square is America's town square, the place where New Yorkers and visitors from around the country, and indeed the world, gather at times of triumph and tragedy. On election night 2008, people gathered here. They gathered, too, when Michael Jackson died. And, of course, they gather every New Year's Eve for the perennial ball drop.
The symbolism of Times Square -- the reason it draws people at history's memorable moments -- is also what has long made it a potential target for those who would do harm. "If you're going to make a terrorist statement, you want to do it on Broadway, you want to do it on the world stage," said Marc Eliot, a longtime area resident and author of a book on Times Square.
The explosives-laden vehicle parked at 45th Street and Broadway, on the first balmy night of the year, was aimed directly at America's pulsating heart, when the area was at its most packed, with restaurant-goers and theater-goers mingling with street musicians, panhandlers and tourists from around the globe.
And it was a testament to the national resilience that Times Square was packed again Sunday morning, just a few hours after the vehicle was disarmed and removed. The only visible signs of the close call the night before were the scores of police officers on the scene, including the white Technical Assistance Response Unit vans surveying the hours of video surveillance recordings from the cameras that are a ubiquitous staple of New York's post-Sept. 11 life.
Many knew they were coming to an area that was now considered a crime scene as well as the target of an aborted terrorist strike. But the response was a resolve not to easily surrender America's town square to an enemy unseen.
"This is what I do, and I'm going to try to keep on doing it," said Duane M. Jackson, one of the street vendors who first spotted the suspicious Nissan Pathfinder and alerted police nearby. He didn't make it home until 5 a.m. but was back on his corner by 8:30 a.m. "This is kind of the belly of the beast or whatever," he said. "But I'm just out here showing my colors.
"We dodged a bullet big time," he added, speaking as New Yorkers and tourists lined up to shake his hand, hug him and have their children pose for pictures with him.
Jackson knows a thing about dodging bullets. He was working as a vendor on Wall Street in Lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, and recalls vividly the planes hitting the World Trade Center towers. The photographs he snapped at the time show a chronology of that disaster -- people gathered around his car listening to news on the radio, the second plane hitting, people running for cover, then the ash debris covering the entire area, including Jackson's car.
Bertie Trager from Queens came up, threw her arms around Jackson and gave him a kiss. "This would have been an amazing atrocity," Trager said. "You saw it, you smelled it, and you immediately took action. You're a good New Yorker!"
Trager, a retired British Airways worker, was on Broadway with friends to catch a play and said they never considered canceling their plans, even with the latest incident. She said that bravado -- continuing a routine even knowing that this city is a prime terrorist target -- is what makes New Yorkers special.
"I'm a native New Yorker," she said with a shrug, as if that statement alone should explain it all. "What are you gonna do?" she said. "When you're a native New Yorker, we live our lives like this."
Mark Wolkoff, a native New Yorker transplanted to southern New Jersey, was on a weekend visit with his wife when they were caught on the wrong side of the barricades after dinner. They made it back to their 49th-floor hotel room to look down on the emptied Times Square.
"I've never seen Times Square closed," Wolkoff said. "It had a kind of end-of-the-world kind of feel."
But Wolkoff was out again Sunday, undeterred, and sanguine about how Times Square will possibly always remain a magnet and a target. "It's the center of everything -- good and bad," Wolkoff said. "If it's good, it's going to happen here. If it's bad, it's going to happen here."
Another regular visitor, Suzanne Behmke, a retired homemaker from outside Philadelphia, took the Bolt Bus up with her husband to catch "The Addams Family" musical on Broadway. The only difference in her routine was to arrive earlier in case there was extra security.
"I don't fear coming to New York," she said, recalling how she came up to show solidarity as soon as the theaters reopened after the Sept. 11. terrorist attacks. "I've never even had a bad experience in New York."
One worry is whether this attempt is the sign of something bigger, Eliot, the author said. In the case of the World Trade Center, a smaller attack in 1993 was a prelude to the more devastating attack of 2001.
"Because of what happened at the World Trade Center, a lot of this could be first-run, off-Broadway, to try to see if it works," Eliot said. For the terrorists, he said, the attitude is: "Hey, let's not play Podunk. You do it here, you're on a world stage."