Visiting the old ‘hood—behind a mask

Rush Hour
Rush hour

It was time. After over five months, I needed to face down my anxiety and fears. (Not of Covid-19 germs, surprisingly. We New Yorkers had beat back the curve under the savvy leadership of Governor Andrew Cuomo. We were, and are, “New York Tough.” And smart.)

I took the Metro-North train from my home, an hour and twenty minutes north of NYC, behind a mask for the longest time in my mostly at-home sheltering of the last five months. Reading, what else? The New Yorker. Roz Chast is always my preferred interpreter of generalized-anxiety-disorder, and she covers Covid pretty well, too.

But what would it feel like? I had lamented the changes in my city for years, bashing greedy corporate culprits responsible for the decimation of the unique texture that was once every neighborhood’s rightful claim. Now you need to be very observant to see what once was.

Silver Monuments

My first apartment was a typical tenement, and now is spiffed up with a restaurant and outdoor seating.

156 E. 2nd

I sugar-coated when I described the building and apartment to my friends and family back home, in 1971. But my authentic enthusiasm was that of an 18-year-old who was living her dream:

E. 2nd St. map address

 

Wed. Nov. 10, 1971

Dear D____ ,

     First of all . . . we got an apartment! Hooray! We found it in 1 day, & we’re moving in tomorrow evening. The neighborhood is not too hot—Lower East Side—but the apartment itself is so nice. It’s in a pretty old building, & when the landlord showed it to us it was being completely renovated. It’s only $180/mo., & has loft beds (double size) built into the bedrooms and underneath is a clothes rack & desk built into the wall. The living room has one wall entirely in brick, & the kitchen is big (compared to most NY apt.’s) The bath tub is in the kitchen, but it’ll have a shower attachment & curtain. There’s a new sink, a big refrigerator, & a small stove. We just can’t wait to move in & start making it a home. But before we do anything we have to spray for cockroaches. They’re all over the city, & do they give us the creeps! It’s neat cause Alan [the landlord] is giving us $125 to furnish it (from thrift shops, Salvation Army, etc.) So it’ll be fun buying furniture. And he gave us free (but used) wall-to-wall carpeting. I just can’t wait.Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams

copyright Sharon Watts

So, now—2020—how did I feel? People were out, mostly masked, and street energy was good. But I was disoriented. Not sure if I was mourning the changes of the last 5 months or the last 50 years, or was it all rolled up into one scribbly cloud? I couldn’t wait to get home and take my mask off, and sit in my little yard—my comfort zone. I know my boundaries need to be stretched from time to time, and I’ll be heading back to the city soon. I wonder what that tenement apartment rents for now. Let’s see.  And I wonder if the cockroaches are gone. 

Hot Town, Summer in the City

HOT~HOT~HOT! And add the word SPOT. More than just temperatures are rising in our Covid-19 summer. Just ask folks in Florida, Texas, and Arizona. New Yorkers are sipping a breath of relief, along with that glass of Chardonnay, and wondering if there will ever be another summer—the way it’s supposed to be. 

Well, one fun indoor activity is plowing through the photos and music of your life. Especially if one (like me) is trying to compile a memoir / scrapbook  of a very unique time and place. New York City, the early 1970s. Yep, that tar-pit of a time—after flower power’s petals had drooped, and before we even knew we wanted our MTV. I didn’t become anyone famous. I didn’t hang out at Manhattan “hot spots.” I had a few friends (most are still in my life today), and we somehow navigated the times we were in. Just like we’re doing now.

Nancy & Me__7:72

Rob McCurdy on Bleecker copy

Tony__7:72

Our Bleecker Street apartment was a little social club and the center of our universe: Washington Square Park, the Waverly Theater, and the West Village. With unlimited access to cheap street pizza, we Velcroed together on weekends and shared slices of our art-student lives.

***

17 June 72

Dear Mom,

We bought a kitchen table & 2 chairs—all for only $8. All it needs is a red &white checked tablecloth. We have the candles & wine bottles. Today I had to escape the humidity & went to this movie theatre where all they show is real old musicals. They’re always playing someplace, especially in the Village. Don’t worry, I’m taking it out of my food budget.

***

Our building’s narrow entrance and one-step stoop led right to the pavement. Sandwiched between an Indian restaurant and a hippie accessory shop whose table of pluming incense was set up on the sidewalk, home was a tenement on a very commercial, if mythical, street. The outside door, locked and flush against the elements, led into a dark, narrow hallway with small black-and-white octagonal tiles set into a floor pattern common to these buildings: worn and dirty from a century of foot traffic, missing pieces like the elderly lose teeth. Broken overhead light bulbs added to the rundown ambiance, requiring a braille-like approach for inserting the key to our ground-floor apartment, just past where the ancient bannister ascended.

 One of two railroad flats on the street level, our apartment faced a tenant we rarely saw. He worked nights as a bartender and slept during the day. Besides the built-in mailboxes, the only other feature on the left side of the entry hall was a door to our toilet, once separate from the living quarters and in 1900, accessible only through this now-sealed door. I thought how strange that must have been, to have to pee in the middle of the night by first padding through a public hallway with a view to the street.

The front door to our apartment opened into the kitchen, tenement-typical with its old cast-iron tub right next to the kitchen sink. The wainscoting trim was rounded by decades of paint, currently a coat of dried-blood red—a misguided attempt to match the exposed brick in the main room, which served as both living room and my bedroom. The rabbit ears of our small black-and-white TV separated the two windows opening to a neglected urban jungle of a courtyard.

We had inherited the apartment “as is,” including a mold-encrusted old refrigerator with leftover remains from the former tenant. Our exultation at landing this dream pad soared above any squeamish disgust as we began to transform it. I taped up a poster by Henri Rousseau, whose naif approach to his subject ironically echoed our courtyard sauvage. My roommate hung one of her large abstract paintings in the kitchen, its turquoise and turmeric-colored drips melting down the canvas as curry fumes snuck through the window open to the air shaft that housed the neighboring restaurant’s cooking vents.

Droogie, our nearly-grown kitten, made herself at home, nestling on Great Aunt Lenore’s knitted quilt that I was hauling around like a security blanket. Not yet spayed, she would perk up at the sound of the neighborhood feral cats fighting and mating outside the windows. Every so often a beer bottle, soda can, or pizza box would sail down into the courtyard. But our burglar gates remained broken and unlocked, and our paranoia unstoked. Like cats, we roamed the neighborhood, and then returned home with not so much as a scratch.    

Droog__5:72

copyright Sharon Watts

video courtesy YouTube

March Madness

The term refers to college basketball, but I’m going to play it fast and loose here. I have snow in my driveway that tops my mukluks, dumped by a lion of a nor’easter that had the nerve to roar in after Daylight Savings Time arrived. Ignoring that, I plow through scrapbook memorabilia on my dining room table, as I add visuals to my memoir (after all, it is being labeled as a scrapbook-memoir).

I am hoping for solar power to kick in outdoors, as cabin fever propels this project forward.

scrapbook

When I was in high school I had virtually no interest in sports. I got laid up with a bout of mononucleosis in 1970 and ended up on the sofa, becoming mesmerized by  “Pistol” Pete Maravich.

My sister wrote me a letter after I moved to New York that I saved in my scrapbook. Pete had gone professional, my interest had faded, but seeing this made me recall that moment where basketball, and not fashion (or cold water flats), claimed all of my attention:

Dianne letter

26 Jan 72
Dear Mom,
The heat & hot water came back yesterday . . . And our rug is finally drying. There’s still one more little leak . . .We don’t have an ironing board yet—not too much to iron but we do it on the living room rug.

me & pipe copy

After five months of broken faucets, flooding pipes, and stints of no heat or hot water in the dead of winter, Tessa and I were no longer so enamored of the Lower East Side. And those were just the plumbing issues. Another indoor assault—cockroaches! Having never seen one until I arrived, the little antennae poking out of a hole in the wall one day were kind of cute—who could this be? Apparently a scout, who then deemed our humble abode to be ripe for pillaging. The toxic spray and boric acid we bought in the local hardware store were no match for these seasoned veterans. When the apocalypse comes, both water and cockroaches will prevail.

Outside was a more dangerous war zone. It started with a quality of life issue—within a week, our newly installed downstairs buzzer had its wires clipped and the buzzer stolen. Then an upstairs neighbor was robbed, and we were informed by a septuagenarian Slavic tenant that he shooed away someone trying to break into our apartment through the front door. We had witnessed a mugging on the street, and on Avenue B, two police officers were gunned down by a splinter group of the Black Panthers. Hopefully not Ace.

Our only new friend was our downstairs neighbor. A recent Baltimore transplant and Dylan fanatic, Jim had hair past his shoulders and managed to be more of a movie nut than I was. He had seen Midnight Cowboy sixteen times to my three, and conversed in exclamation points:

“Watts!! You gotta see the John Ford triple bill playing at the St. Marks! Red River! Best film ever made! John Wayne and Montgomery Clift!”

Soon he would almost convince me that a macrobiotic diet was the way to go, and lent me his bible: You Are All Sanpaku by George Ohsawa, who introduced the west to eating according to yin and yang. And what is “sanpaku”?

Jim was only too happy to explain. “It’s when the whites of the eye can be seen below the iris! Look at our unhealthy western diet—all that over-processed white flour and white sugar! Look at JFK—he had sanpaku really bad!”

According to my new friend, this condition had something to do with the demise of the president, and so for weeks I couldn’t help but stare into the mirror to see if my irises were floating up into my head, precipitating some horrible lurking fate.

Bypassing the brown rice and broccoli for our last supper in our first apartment, we invited Jim and our old HoJo’s pal Julio to a tuna noodle casserole followed by my latest food obsession, Häagen-Dazs rum raisin. —Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams

copyright Sharon Watts