Ferry Princess

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy. Unless you are five years old and miss having your daddy around to jump in the ocean or shoot water pistols with. Well, today I got a splash of cold water in my face. My whole life I thought that my first visit to New York City was on a school field trip in 1970, when I was a junior in high school. I discovered evidence to the contrary—an old box of slides taken by my paternal grandfather includes one with me on what appears to be a Circle Line ferry with my “Mammaw.”

Yep, that’s me—pixie cut and plaid dirndl skirt. Why do I have no memories of this? Didn’t I know right then and there that NYC was my destiny?

Mammaw and me NYC

*****

Circle Line schedule copy

 

Meanwhile, I had discovered something of interest right on the boat: a dazzling specimen of a human, Che Guevara only sweeter, with high cheekbones and windswept hair that lifted off and touched down on lithe shoulders enveloped in a dramatic Peruvian-looking cape. Tessa also got wise to his aura, and we nudged each other, giggling. The Brooklyn Bridge, the United Nations, Tudor City, Hell’s Gate, Harlem—all became a backdrop eclipsed by this alluring stranger as we tried to guess who or what he might be—surely a poet!

Or—maybe a drug dealer? Every once in a while, an imposing black man with a bald head and draped in a white shearling maxi-coat strode over and exchanged a few words with him. When the tour ended, the mysterious couple left the boat separately and then met up on the West Side Highway. Like two Nancy Drews, we followed them east. By the third corner, while waiting for the green light, the Isaac Hayes character arranged the cape around Mr. Exotica’s neck and shoulders a little snugger, nuzzling him with an air of possessive intimacy. Tessa and I looked at each other and groaned.

“Oh no! He’s gay!”
The nature of the relationship, previously in our collective hormonal blind spot, was now more obvious, cutting through all the intrigue. What a waste of male beauty was the provincial thought bubble that popped into my growing worldly consciousness.

We stopped in Smiler’s Deli to assuage our sorrows with Drake’s Cakes, and retreated with our bounty to our room at the Y.

Nov. 71
Dear D____ ,
It seems really weird hearing you talk about frats, etc. It’s so far away from my life up here. Tessa & I took a Circle Line Tour of Manhattan 2 Sundays ago. We discovered a beautiful, exotic-looking guy about half way around—dark, long hair, in a long cape, & alone. We physically were in no condition to attract his attention [referring to our fat shame, not our gender] , but we decided to keep our eyes on him. And we saw our first transvestite. He-she was definitely a male in face—complete with wig, make up, mini-skirt, nylons, boots, & pocketbook. Kind of a pity if you’re a “woman” trapped in a man’s body. —Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams

copyright Sharon Watts

More from the Circle Line Tour chapter

Whose Skyline Is It Anyway?

It’s every generation’s lament. When I look at the downtown city skyline, I barely recognize anything. The area—especially around and below Houston Street—is now shimmying with new kids on the block. Ubiquitous glass and chrome high-rises continue to shoulder their way into old neighborhoods like the Lower East Side. I know change is inevitable, I know Manhattan was founded on the bedrock of commerce—but like most aging New Yorkers, I also love to complain about it. New millennial money, faux immigrant hipsters, and corporate chutzpah have made me avoid my old stomping grounds for over a decade. But this past weekend I wanted to take in a block festival in NoHo, see an art exhibit on Eldridge Street, and purchase my favorite plastic summer slippers in Chinatown. Where I finally found a skyline that I could still embrace.

East Broadway

My very first apartment was on 2nd Street between Avenues A and B. In 1971, you made sure you were triple-locked-in at night. But—oh!— during the day, there was nothing more exotic than exploring the Lower East Side.

Avenue A

 

Tessa and I pooled the last of our five dollar bills and moved our meager belongings out of the YWCA—one trip via “Man with Van”—down to 2nd Street between Avenues A and B. Our new home would be a fifth floor walk-up with the prerequisite ornate fire escape, dingy hallway, cooking smells, and marble stairs; each one literally worn down and sloped to the center from a century of treading shoes. The heavy door had a peephole and the old iron police lock—a bar that angled up from a slot in the floor on the interior to brace the back of the door against a break-in. Once inside, we were standing in the small kitchen dominated by a claw-footed bathtub next to the sink. A tiny water closet off to the side was large enough for a toilet, with its pull chain connecting to a wooden box suspended above. I loved the very quaintness of the antique plumbing, every yank of the chain metaphorically flushing away the rube I had been. Exposed brick walls added the kind of charm I could never even imagine in my suburban fantasizing, and a non-working potbellied stove plunked in the central room was altar to our new sanctuary.

2nd Street unpacking
“Wow. I can’t believe we’re here in our own place!” I circled slowly to take it all in. The pièce de résistance was a partitioned area that housed our separate closet-sized bedrooms. Each held a loft bed platform with a built-in desktop and clothing rod below. There was no natural light; the windows faced an air shaft with a foreshortened view of the next building that we could almost touch. A burglar gate was in place over the kitchen window next to the fire escape. Who needed light? We were positively beaming!

 
Our landlord had even given us a modest stipend to furnish the flat. Feeling like kids let loose in a candy store, Tessa and I first bought thick foam cut to order on East Houston Street—two mattresses for our loft beds. That was our first encounter with Hassidic shopkeepers who were ruling over their individual fiefdoms in cramped and dusty storefronts while I had been wheeling a cart in the wide-aisled Weis Market and selecting sheets in Bowman’s department store back home. Next we purchased a used wooden kitchen table and an old rocking chair, precariously hauling them by foot down Avenue A on a mover’s dolly. Home Sweet Tenement! —Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams

chinese slippers
There’s no place like home!

copyright Sharon Watts