Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Can You Solve The Mystery of the Union Square Numbers?

In the Union Square area of New York City - on 14th Street between Broadway and 4th Avenue, to be exact - there is a building with a row of fifteen huge numbers brightly illuminated and always on display. The digits on the left and right sides remain relatively constant, but as the eye moves toward the middle of the row, the digits are seen to be moving more and more rapidly from zero to nine in endless repetition.
There is no explanation given for what these numbers mean.
For many years I didn't know what they meant, if anything, and I finally decided out of frustration that it was merely "pretentious art". I thought it was just somebody's idea of a joke - how to drive everyone crazy by putting up randomly moving numbers that meant nothing.
Now it just so happens that if you're driving down Broadway you will inevitably hit red lights at both 17th Street, where Broadway and Union Square East melt into each other, and then again one block further down the road at 16th Street. From both of these vantage points you can easily see the numbers and, if you're a taxi driver, that will mean as years pass by that there will be a significant amount of time spent at both these places with nothing better to do than to look at the numbers until the light turns green.
And I guess that is why I eventually understood what the numbers meant. I wasn't trying to figure it out. It just hit me one day, as if by osmosis, after about ten years. I suddenly saw it and once I saw it there was no denying what it meant. It was indisputable, and it turns out it wasn't pretentious art after all.
Being armed with this revelation, I naturally wondered when stopped at these intersections with passengers in the cab if they knew what the numbers meant. I found that, even with passengers who lived in the general vicinity, that only about one in twenty knew it. And some of the others had completely incorrect assumptions, such as:
--the "national debt". This was a confusion with a different set of numbers that once flashed on a different sign on 6th Avenue around 44th Street. It showed the accumulating total of the national debt (and no one seemed to know exactly what that meant) and, if that didn't depress you enough, it also displayed "your family's share".
--the amount of time that has passed since the beginning of the millenium.
--the number of people in the world who have died of AIDS (not bothering to notice that the number on the building would be higher than the actual number of people in existence in the world).
--and, my favorite, the "amount of records sold in Virgin Records" (which until recently had occupied one of the stores beneath the numbers).
I noticed that passengers I enlightened were often quite grateful to learn the truth about the numbers as this turned out to be something they, too, had wondered about for years. This gratitude often translates into bigger tips, so I've probably made hundreds of dollars from this revelation.
So, you wanna try your luck?
Step right up, take a look at what we've got here. I took a two-minute video of the numbers. It's a little blurry at the beginning, but then it goes into focus and you can observe what the numbers are doing. Hopefully it won't take you ten years to figure it out!
If you give up, click on the "comments" at the bottom of this post. The answer is there.

And while you're wracking your brain, why not take a break to click here for Pictures From A Taxi?


G.S. said...

Okay, here it is. It's an ascending and descending, 24-hour (military style) clock. From the left it starts with the hour (it's 3 a.m. in the video), then minutes, seconds, tenths of a second, and hundredths of a second. Starting from the right, you have to look at it two digits at a time and it's the reverse, a countdown to midnight. The best way to see it is to focus in on the seconds and watch it change to the next minute, either forward or backward.

John said...

Imagine a forwards backwards clock.
Thats like something from Alice in re you the cab driver in the new TEXICO AD ON TV ?

NYC taxi photo said...

looks like that last two numbers are the hours and then its minutes, then seconds and so on in groups of two, counting down the time until the next day?

I've heard that it was the time until the next millennium, and the different paces of rotating numbers and the counting backwards always kept me and my friends guessing.

but that's my guess now, it is counting down the hours starting with 24, until the next day.

NYC taxi photo said...

oh darn, that's strange that I would only comprehend it backwards before I got it forwards, I think that might say something about me.

NYCabbie said...

One of my passenger told me it is the budget deficit, and I said does we have this big budget?
And some one else said, it is counting to end days of world :-D

ksd said...

Wow! Thanks for the explanation. I just happened across your blog and it's fantastic! As a former New Yorker who moved back to the midwest a couple years ago, your blog is such a trip dowm memory lane! Your observations and writings are spectacular! Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

This is some bizarre variation on the proverb of the wine glass being either half empty or half full.

Thank god watches are not designed this way.


Summer said...

I wondered what these numbers meant when we went to Chocolate by the Bald Man for dinner. I wish I'd known then so I could impress my friends!

Lauren said...

YES! YES! Ooohhh, THANK you! That was driving me nucking futs. - Lauren

Wendell said...

I presume that at the start of day, that is, at twelve o'clock midnight, all the numbers goes to zero!

G.S. said...

I've never witnessed it, but I believe that they do - for the tiniest fraction of a second.

Joanna Jenkins said...

Ha! Who knew. I've seen that sign a ton of time and always thought it had something to do with the rainforest. Show's you what I know.

I'm stopping by from The Kind Of NY Hacks (Edward)'s blog. So glad I did.

Cheers, jj

Johnny Dedwolf said...

I had a moment of realization similar to yours while.waiting in union square for some friends before a concert. I looked at my watch to check the time because we were running late and by chance happened to look up at the numbers. It was round about that time that it hit me.

Ms. said...

I just found you. What a charming and useful blog! I've been here since 1969 and have long wondered what those numbers were. You have solved the mystery and I thank you and wish you a prosperous and happy New Year.