“You Can’t Go Home Again” . . . (but we always try)

The holiday season is upon us. My knee jerk reaction to the first jarring jangle of a Christmas carol is always a groan, usually while running an errand in a dollar store, buying toilet paper or hydrogen peroxide.

I know I’ll eventually get with the program, even though I’ve strayed from my suburban shopping roots. I just like to keep things simple, stay out of malls, and no, I do not need to make a trek to Rockefeller Plaza to see the tree. (But I might, if the spirit moves me.)

I have no childhood memory of Black Friday, now with all its stampeding, guns-in-Walmart-parking-lots notoriety that we’ve come to expect. We bought Christmas gifts, but it wasn’t out of control. ( I feel every tipping point has been reached in my lifetime, for the worse, and so I’ve become more of a Gregorian chanting grinch this time of year. And I like it.)

So I look back on my first holiday after moving to New York City, in 1971. And I wish I could beam myself back there. One whiff of Lebanon “baloney” would do just that, but you can’t find Seltzers outside Pennsylvania, and ordering it online would defeat the purpose. Besides, by now I am nearly vegan.

mammaw-at-the-stove
Mammaw Watts at her stove top

The Thomas Wolfe quote “You can’t go home again” was starting to resonate when I returned to my hometown. It was the holiday season, and I brought exotic treats back for my family and friends to taste, wanting to share my world that had expanded beyond Sunbeam Bread and Lebanon “baloney,” Charles Chips and sticky buns.

I opened the fresh halvah divided into chunks—plain, with pistachios, and chocolate-covered—bought from the international food market vendor on Ninth Avenue. (“How much you want?” he asked with a vague accent. I held up my thumb and index finger to indicate how thick to slice, and savored a free sample melting on my tongue while my purchase was wrapped in opaque waxed paper.)

Eagerly awaiting their swoons, I received instead: “What exactly is it? It tastes like cold potatoes.” Middle Eastern candy made from sesame seeds? Our family tree didn’t extend to that neck of the woods; its taste buds apparently were quite comfortable squatting where they had been for several centuries, adjacent to Pennsylvania Dutch farmland and connected at the hip to the home of Hershey’s chocolate.

I pulled a chair up to my grandparents’ Formica table. Before me was a smorgasbord of beets and pickled eggs, coleslaw, apple butter, bread, lunch meat, sliced American cheese, and Pappaw’s homemade condiments: mayonnaise and ketchup. This was the part that I always could go home to again. Or so it felt.

Nov. 3rd, 1971
Dear Sharon,
You must be very busy with your work, keep it up. We are so glad you like it there, it’s a busy town. The goodies you were telling me about sound great.
We had a nice time on Sunday, I had your Mom and Dianne down for dinner. I had smoked pork chops, baked potatoes, aramatic vegetables, Jello that I made with the orange juice and pineapple juice, and one tablespoon of plain jelletin. I make my own that way there is nothing but the plain fruit juice, I also put carrots and pineapple in it.
I just made myself some Honey Tea, a tsp. of Honey and a cup of hot water. It’s good for your kidney’s.
I will write soon, be careful.
LOVE
Mammaw & Pappaw

—Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams

copyright Sharon Watts

This memoir is finished. I will still post here while I work on a query letter and try to find an agent in 2017. The scrap-booking aspect continues, and that is the fun part for me. The writing was all cathartic, as well as my sincere effort to share New York City at a particular time. Meanwhile, I am entering a free memoir contest here: http://tinyurl.com/j4d3kqz, with Jennifer Wills of the Seymour Agency as judge. Wish me luck!

“Fasten Your Seat Belts . . .”

Two days after the presidential election, I was in the city—my emotional touchstone. All day long I had done my walking meditation, hobbling in new (but sturdy) shoes, from Grand Central to the Upper East Side, through Central Park and over to Riverside Drive. I sometimes forgot that this was a new world. A lunch date with a friend I had reconnected with after a thirty-year hiatus had us lamenting the “good old bad old days” in Hell’s Kitchen. With what we’d been through in our lives, we could deal with this looming apocalypse, right?

Darkness fell, and I continued down upper Broadway past the Trump Tower on Columbus Circle that replaced the Gulf & Western Building (which housed an underground movie theater in 1970, where I first saw Midnight Cowboy). Finally, heading down Eight Avenue somewhere in the 40s, I realized I was desperately seeking comfort, looking for familiar landmarks to pin me to a map in my head (and heart) that went back over forty years.

Entire blocks are now eviscerated. Blarney Stones have yielded to video game streetscapes, a Trump-visioned hell. I didn’t expect such physical disorientation that had me second- and third-guessing my sanity as I tried to locate a cross street sign. Passing the neon reminder that Smith’s Bar still existed, I briefly considered ducking into the neighborhood hangout that I had never hung out in. Spiffed up by new owners, it teemed with pre-theater goers—something that definitely was not part of the Runyonesque clientele that reflected the neighborhood back in 1972. I wasn’t looking for a yuppified Times Square institution. I was looking for a place that felt timeless. All I wanted was something even peripherally from my past, that predated Disney’s porn-ification of Times Square.

Swinging a left onto a stretch of 44th Street layered like a pastrami sandwich with tourists lined up for their 7 p.m. curtain times, I saw the sign.

sardis

Of course.

In 1971, when I lived within spitting distance of the legendary landmark

—famous for its celebrity caricatures marla-maples and frequented by Broadway stars and theater critics—

I was too intimidated to enter. Now I was ready. I was fastening my seat belt for a bumpy four years.

With my modest monthly allowance, I somehow managed to see almost every play that came to life within the neon trapezoid that encompassed the theater district. Balcony seats in 1971 cost $7, yet I had another, still more frugal ploy. I would arrive at intermission break, mingle with the crowd outside, then enter with them for the second act. Making my way up to the rear balcony, I discreetly nestled on the aisle steps, unreported by the paying seat holders and unnoticed by the usherettes in their prim white collars and black cardigans. By now their flashlights were off and they were clustered in the ladies’ lounge puffing on cigarettes or catching up on gossip. By now, they were far too jaded to the magic happening on stage.

Fri. Sept. 17th, 1971
Dear D____ ,
It’s now 11:30, & Penny & I just got back from a walk around town. First we had ice cream at Howard Johnson’s, where we’re pretty good friends with this guy that works at the counter. He always gives us extra and 1/2 off. Then we felt so full we had to walk around (it was dark) & it was really nice—everyone dressed up to go to the theatre. But we decided to walk through the lobbies of the big hotels. First the Taft (to go to the bathroom), then the NY Hilton. We glanced in the Kismet Room at the Hilton, & these guys (def. between 25-60) invited us in & we said we didn’t have any money but they said they’d buy, so they were smashed & we had 2 sloe gin fizzes a piece, plus the musician came by to play the accordian & sing. They spent $3 on each of us & invited us to see Englebert Humperdink right up the street, but we declined & got out. Then we hit the Warwick, the Park Lane (Central Park South—very ritzy) & the Plaza—just hitting the newsstands & gawking at the classy lobbies. Then we went past Thursday’s, a night-clubbish bar/restaurant for “young singles,” & ended up talking to the doorman who wanted Penny’s number. It was about 10:15, so we headed home. . . . Did I tell you about the Hare Krishna guy who got us in his apartment? — Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams

copyright Sharon Watts

Meet Me on MacDougal Street ~ Part 2

On my second hot day in the city, I was finally visiting the Whitney Museum in its new location, next to the High Line. I had heard lots of good things about it, and other than sticker shock at the admission price ($25!—I can’t wait to become an official senior citizen!) I sucked it up and headed toward the Stuart Davis exhibit. stuart davis S&P

This image was an immediate favorite. But it also triggered some hunger pangs. Ever since the day before, when I sat with an iced cappuccino, right next door to Mamoun’s, I knew I couldn’t leave the city without downing one of their falafels. My wallet, nearly emptied after the Whitney admission, still could cover the best food bargain in town. I walked with blistered feet from West 14th Street to MacDougal, pausing briefly to chat with these two gentlemen on the corner of Perry Street, reminiscing about their nightclub days and working with Barbra Streisand when she was young and hungry.

Adrian and Tisch

At Mamoun’s, I sat on a stool near the window, tahini sauce dribbling down my chin as pulsing Arabic music saturated the humid air in the shoe box-sized space. Each bite anchored me to the moment. There was nowhere else I’d rather have been.

mamoun millennial
Another millennial who told me his mother used to come here during the early 70s.

falafel

But I did get off on MacDougal. The two-block stretch between Bleecker and Washington Square Park was the compressed concrete and clay equivalent of a swirling Moroccan marketplace. Each old brick building had a shop in the basement under the stoop plus one on the sidewalk level. Every hippie-era necessity was here—bangles, baubles and beads, hand-tooled leather goods, embroidered and tie-dyed tops, Tibetan silk scarves, Turkish incense and bongs, cannabis bumper stickers, peace symbol decals, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix posters—the whole counterculture cornucopia. And that was just the legal stuff. For sustenance, culinary pit stops in the form of pizza joints and Greek sandwich stands were every twenty feet, the entire street scene fueled by the cafes that were still the beating heart of the neighborhood.
“A souvlaki, please.”
I loved the way it rolled off my tongue, and immediately wanted to try it. Visible to the street and ordered through a large open window, souvlaki was something I had never heard of. The pressed slab of ground, spicy lamb revolved on a spindle and was hacked off with a knife, folded into warm pita bread, then anointed with an aromatic tahini sauce that oozed down my chin with every bite. It was delicious, yet subconsciously my eating habits were a-changin’. Although the hot meat seduced my senses every time I walked down the street, I couldn’t help but notice the flies buzzing around, and the fat riddled in.

*****

 “You’re not getting up until you finish your food.”
This was my mom’s mantra when I was a kid. An hour later I’d still be seated at the Formica table, sullenly pushing the cold, mystery meat around my Melmac dinner plate while my sister was back outside playing before it turned dark. Long before I came to believe that eating animals was wrong, I simply had a very low “gross-out” point, gagging and spitting out anything gooey or gristly into my napkin when my mother wasn’t looking. Often I would hide entire chunks of meat in my apron pocket, to be mixed into the Maytag casserole of dirty laundry.

*****

I switched my allegiance from souvlaki to falafel; each of those perfect little balls of spicy ground chickpeas was a stepping stone to my eventual vegetarianism. Joining the line at Mamoun’s Falafel on my way to anywhere, I happily parted with my dollar bill.

Unlike the neighborhood we had just vacated a few blocks east, here I could leave our ground floor apartment at almost any hour of the day or night and be greeted by a street full of life: NYU students, leftover hippie vagrants, average people going about their business, children on their way to the Little Red School House, and only a few tourists. Real life. Just down the street was the Atrium, a block-long seedy hotel that would eventually become luxury housing. For now, its notoriety was limited to a chair being tossed out a window, killing a pedestrian.

Directly across the corner was the Village Gate, a former jazz club that had showcased everyone from Duke Ellington to Aretha Franklin. Now it was a venue for National Lampoon’s Lemmings, which starred unknowns John Belushi, Chevy Chase, and Christopher Guest. The off-Broadway show spoofed Woodstock, and I managed to miss both. Too young and provincial for the history-making event and too jejune for its current incarnation, I was caught in that hangover period before Nixon resigned, the Vietnam War was abandoned, and Saturday Night Live satire replaced the sincerity of Ed Sullivan and Flower Power. I had my rose-colored granny glasses with me at all times, seeing what I wanted to see amidst what was actually there — Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams

copyright Sharon Watts