Fifty Years Ago—1971

Here I sit, pondering where my story fits. Where I fit. When I started this memoir, in 2010, the time-gap didn’t seem all that huge. Now 1971 feels like centuries ago, and without knowing what will happen even tomorrow, I wonder. Will I be able to finish this? Does the world need one one more coming-of-age-in-NYC story? Maybe not, but this feels like an organic way to fill my days at this strange time. Looking back at the path taken, because there really was no other.

It’s hard to believe that I was preparing my portfolio to apply to Parsons School of Design fifty years ago. I decided to share some of my earlier art and influences that led to my wanting to become a fashion designer/illustrator.

1971 – Harrisburg Art Exhibit
1970 – Ali MacGraw
1970 – Girl In Striped Dress
1970 – Al Hirschfeld – The New York Times
1968 – Franco Zefferelli’s “Romeo and Juliet” (used on an envelope sent from NYC, 1971)
1967 – Cher
My library card – 1965, Age 12
1966 – Conservative Mod

And, to enter “The Way-Back Machine”! . . .

And let’s not forget the influence of my mother. She’s the one who encouraged me with that very first ruffle.

*****

 In the beginning was a pink mushroom cloud. The obligatory childhood Crayola scribble of girlish self-expression on a sheet of construction paper documented the efforts of my three-year-old brain and eye and hand. Looking back, it was as if I were trying to mesh gears and get on with the business of growing up in the slipstream of postwar America. 

     And becoming a fashion artist.

     It all started, according to family folklore, with an appliance. To anyone (i.e., my “Mammaw”) who questioned the subject matter of my first recognizable creative masterpiece, my father (her son) would boom, “It’s an iron!” And then point to the other drawing on the paper that further emphasized my genius: a two-prong wall outlet. My iron had a dangling cord and plug—even then I knew the importance of detail and accessorizing properly. 

     Luckily for me, my mother put down the Sunbeam Steam/Dry as often as she could and picked up a graphite pencil, encouraging me to follow. My dad continued to beam his pride like a beacon, into my future. —Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams 

copyright Sharon Watts

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. 

I Am My Mother’s Daughter, Kinda

At least when it comes to letter-writing and archiving. A few years ago I helped my mom and stepfather downsize, and was re-gifted every handmade card, every letter I ever sent to her when I was young. As eager as I was to leave the nest, I still wanted my mom to know all about my exciting new life in New York City. It was 1971.

Letters I wrote to one of my best friends from high school were also returned to me, a few years before I started this memoir. These sat in my basement collecting mildew until I curled up on the couch with a glass of wine, opened the shoe box, and discovered a girl I had forgotten all about. Me.

I was mesmerized. And a bit appalled. Who was that girl?

My friend D. and I wrote several times a week, describing every little factoid of our emotional lives. Long distance phone calls were expensive, and letter-writing was not the lost art it is now. It simply was how we communicated.

With my old letters, I am able to flesh out long dormant memories. I vaguely remember that I once was escorted by “Ace,” a member of the Black Panthers, past the Hell’s Angels headquarters in the East Village as I checked out the neighborhood. Now I can not only write about the experience from my current vantage point, but also add the contents of a letter that I wrote in “real time,” with all the feelings I had as I eagerly shared my life.

Tizzy and letters(This is just a small sampling!)

Joel Grey Eat Honey copy

romeo & juliet envelopeE. 2nd sealing wax