Hair (Yesterday and) Today, Gone Tomorrow

Losing Astor Hair is a deep puncture in a wounded cityscape.

When I started writing about my time spent in New York City as a young art student (1971-1974), I was no longer living there. Like many ex-pats, I lamented the changes from afar (well, not too far afar, but with enough perspective to know that the unrecognizable now outweighs the recognizable). I’ve only visited twice this past year, bombarded with tentative uncertainty, undying street energy, joy of meeting friends—and ghosts. A certain numbness overtakes me—and I realize I have already mourned. I started on September 11, 2001 and never stopped. (Do I now have antibodies against more mourning?)

Covid continues to crush—on top of hyper-gentrification (the Blob that ate New York). The most recent fatality is the beloved Astor Hair. I only went there a few times in the ’80s (always calling it Astor Barber), but they were not my favorite cuts and I never cultivated a regular hairdresser. Still, just knowing the shop was there soothed me as I rounded the corner, all the way up through last year. Those steps, the charmingly painted barber pole, and the poster with more styles than Baskin-Robbins had flavors—if I were in a dangerously spontaneous mood I might come out with a three-inch pixie, just like 1984. Then I’d shake off the urge and venture down St. Mark’s Place. Which, coincidentally, was the scene of the crime in 1972—my very first NYC haircut.

May 1972 — Bleecker St. with Droogie

What good is sitting alone in your room?

Come hear the music play

 I squirmed excitedly in my Ziegfeld movie theater seat. Bob Fosse had done it again. All my previous style icons (mostly Mod mid-Sixties British models and actresses), were being vaporized by a blazing comet: the real-life daughter of a girl who once had a feeling she wasn’t in Kansas anymore. Twenty-six-year-old Liza Minnelli was belting her way into her own rightful place in the galaxy as the film version of Cabaret’s Fraulein Sally Bowles. 

Exiting the theater, I made a beeline to Block drugstore. I couldn’t wait to apply iridescent green nail polish to my fingertips, anteing up my own “divine decadence.” Like Sally Bowles, however, this femme was also about as fatale as an after-dinner mint.     

My once low-maintenance shag haircut was now a flat, shapeless sprawl, so I decided it was time for the full Minnelli. Next stop: Paul McGregor’s salon on St. Mark’s Place, armed with Liza’s Time magazine cover shot. 

  

“Can you give me something like this?”

I wasn’t completely sold on her quirky bangs that pointed down to a V between penciled eyebrows arcing over spiky-lashed eyes as big as a Keane painting waif’s. My own brows were a bland line that marked the start of a too-wide forehead, and did not warrant extra attention. I got the basic cut, paid my $15, and waltzed out to the street, wondering why my hairdresser was shooting daggers at me the whole way. Much later I realized that it was customary to tip, something that was never done in the basement shop of my mother’s friend Mary. Where I came from, a cut was $5, plain and simple. Throughout my teens, I stretched scotch tape across my bangs, and with my sewing scissors, carefully snipped just below those same straight eyebrows. The rest of my hair—shoulder length or longer! Here baby, there, momma! Everywhere, daddy, daddy—kept on growing. 

Liberated by my sassy, sophisticated bob, I bounced down St. Marks Place as if life truly were a Cabaret. — Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams

copyright Sharon Watts

“It Should Happen To You”

Covid-fears have been nudged aside in the news cycle, as “Black Lives Matter” has asserted its place on the country’s center stage, and rightfully so. We’re all mad as hell and we’re not gonna take this anymore. Of course, opportunists have jumped into the orderly demonstrations to whip things up and blur the boundaries, creating more divisiveness (and making off with some high-ticket items).

Macy’s was looted last week. It had already been gutted, along with so much retail in the last decade, but the brick and mortar giant on 34th Street limped on. I find myself longing for images of a younger New York—it doesn’t matter if it’s from the tawdry ’70s when I first arrived, or the seemingly innocent 1950s, when I was being taught to be a good little girl. They peacefully co-exist in me. Just—New York, hang tough! 

This is one of my all-time favorite films, with one of my all-time favorite cinema couples—Judy Holliday and Jack Lemmon. (Was I a little like Gladys Glover? Weren’t we all?)

 

 

Stepping outside the slightly threadbare art deco hotel lobby—which I refused to perceive as anything but Busby Berkeley-glamorous—I melded into the midtown throng. While no one looked like Holly Golightly, I was not going to be disappointed on my first day in New York City. Not if I had any say in the matter. Our high school Tri-Hi-Y club, the Katrells, had sold enough cupcakes and cookies at our junior year bake sale to buy Broadway theater tickets and charter a bus. It was 1970—a new decade for adventure and adulthood.

Across Eighth Avenue, finishing touches were being added to the block-long construction site of a relocated Madison Square Garden, and a bit farther east was Macy’s. I split from my coterie of classmates who were making a beeline toward the landmark store we all knew from Miracle on 34th Street. My plan was to bond in private with the city I had chosen as my future home.

A bit tentative, I decided to walk around the block. That way I wouldn’t get lost. Once I turned down 35th Street I was in another world, not of tourists and shoppers, but garment workers pushing huge clothing racks to clatter over the sidewalk cracks and somehow successfully navigate intersections pulsing with turning cars, honking horns, and swarming pedestrians. I was merging my pace into this strange ballet on a narrow one-way street with no sunny side, eager to blend in, when he entered my peripheral vision.

     “Comin’ through!”

“He” was a torso. Literally half a mana black man—propelling himself with quick assurance using only his arms, palms paddling the dirty sidewalk while seated (if that is the right word) on a mover’s dolly. No one gave him so much as a glance.

Except me. I was shocked. How could such a person exist? Where did his digested food go? How did his body end, under his shirt? And what was he doing here, rolling knee-height along the streets—a human skateboard! Would he get squashed by a taxi before my very eyes?

He continued on his way, swallowed by an unfazed crowd, out of my sightline. Breathing a sigh of relief, I got my bearings. Not sure where to lookup? down? straight ahead?—I still wanted to take in everything and everybody. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to be looked at. I needn’t have worried, as any eye contact was fleeting-to-nonexistent.

Heading back to the hotel, I had a more classic, yet still unanticipated, encounter. As I waited at an intersection, a man flashed me. Contrary to cliché, he was not wearing a trench coat. He may have been playing to the crowd, but I felt singled out, as if I were being put to a test by the city itself. And so, turning on a dime, I got to practice my new persona—jaded nonchalance. After all, by now I had been around the block a few times.

I met up with my girlfriends in the lobby where they opened Macy’s shopping bags to show me their purchases, including wild pantyhose designed by counterculture artist Peter Max.

     “Wow! Groovy!” Or, more likely, I would have said “Neat!”

Nobody could have scored this fashion coup back home. Only in New York. I kept my own recent discoveries to myself, not quite knowing how to share them with my friends. Not wanting anyone to cast a provincial pall on my future.

We next turned toward our evening plans: dressing up in suburbia-tamed psychedelic print mini dresses for dinner and the theater, with chaperone moms who had volunteered to herd us into Manhattan on an early weekend in spring. Promises, Promises was the show. I took it as an official invitation. — Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams

promises-promises-broadway-movie-poster-1968-1010409312

 

copyright Sharon Watts

This Ain’t No Party. This Ain’t No Disco. This Ain’t No Fooling Around.

The promise of spring is finally starting to put a positive little ding on my thoughts and fears, which have been exponentially expanding with the pace of bodies being layered into refrigerated trucks outside New York City hospitals.

Just a month ago, I was in Manhattan, excited to be there on the final day of a fashion art exhibit at the Society of Illustrators. I met my old friend John, who dates back to our early years in Hell’s Kitchen (mid-1970s) when he lived across the hall of a fifth floor walk-up all the way west near 11th Avenue, and introduced him to Bil Donovan, the show’s curator. Bil is what I wanted to be when I first arrived in New York City—a bonafide fashion artist star. And deservedly so. I have no envy, only awe at his talent, focus, and arc. We all come from varying degrees of working-class Pennsylvania, and I’m pretty sure we all pinch ourselves that we’ve managed to live our dream in New York City.

For this exhibit—“The Visionaries”—Bil rallied many of the same fashion artists that inspired me when I was an eager young sponge. Included were works by three of my favorite Parsons instructors—Bobbi Pearlman, Al Pimsler, and Albert Eliaas different as chalk, cheese, and Chinese checkers.

On that early spring-like day, we all knew a little bit about the coronavirus, but no real alarms were being sounded. A touching-of-elbows greeting was performed by some with a smile of self-awareness, as a hopefully unnecessary precaution. Of course John and I hugged. The devastating rollout that soon would cross continents and oceans was still being met at the top with: “It’s a hoax” (of course, “perpetrated by the Democrats”). It’s a cold. It’s nothing. Dismissive drivel and drool from the president was constant when prodded—the same person who had recently gutted the Center for Disease Control’s pandemic response team. And, racist to the core, he insisted on calling it “the Chinese flu.”

Good-natured diners at the Society of Illustrators acclimated to our group of about fifteen hovering over them, as Bil gave democratic attention (with low-key charm and a scholarly fashion knowledge) to each piece of artwork on the walls of the café. John and I then relaxed on the patio, enjoying some late winter sun, planning his birthday celebration. On April 7 we had tickets for Patti LuPone in Company, and we were jazzed. Here the two of us were after all these years, “ladies who lunch.”

We then wandered up Madison Avenue to Bemelmans Bar at the Hotel Carlyle for a taste of vintage Cafe Society. Ludwig Bemelmans’ demented bunnies painted on murals and lampshades are always a delightful reminder that there is still a touch of an old New York time warp to tumble into. And so we did, on that day shortly before the city closed up shop.

John is always a fixture on Fifth Avenue for the Easter Parade. He alternates between bunny ears and elaborately flowered hats, always with a spiffy bowtie, prompting smiles and photos as he revels in his own particular fashion-art expression. This year the parade is cancelled. If John is out and about, practicing social distancing, a matching mask will be part of his get-up. John lived through the AIDS crisis up close and personal, so he dourly proclaims, “This ain’t my first ride at the rodeo.”

On Easter Sunday I’ll be isolated here at my house with my cats, blasting my Jesus Christ Superstar album. Hoping for a complete resurrection of all we fear may be dead.

John - lilac hat
John in Easter finery

John - Ravioli King
On 9th Avenue – 1976

By my third and final year of art school the soft, black stick of charcoal was a natural extension of my arm, its loosely controlled line cantering over the newsprint pad. The class with the freest range was taught by Barbara Pearlman, whose own lush fashion drawings adorned the Galey and Lord textile ads appearing in Vogue and Women’s Wear Daily since the mid-1960s. We longed to emulate or even (was it possible?) transcend her, and basked in her approval when she nodded her head at our efforts. Dark-haired and -eyed, she was gypsy-fiery, brimming with both confidence and charisma—qualities I wished I had, or could still attain.

But “Bobbi” Pearlman did not prepare us to churn out gracious Murray Hill fashion plates for Lord & Taylor’s loyal lady customers browsing the Sunday Times over tea and croissants. Not by a long shot. The models she hired veered from sweetly eccentric to truly bizarre, the fringe of the Warhol fringe, not-yet-iconographic downtown denizens.

With the hippie scene a decomposing compost heap somewhere in middle America and the neon dawn of punk yet to break on the city’s horizon, the missing evolutionary link was found in this room on lower Fifth Avenue, in these living, breathing mannequins who flourished in the tar pit of a time when New York City was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

None possessed the healthy, golden glow of a Cheryl or a Christie or a Cybill. Instead, we had towering transvestites in platform shoes and glam rock Lurex, striking the exaggerated poses of their Hollywood heroines, reveling being on any stage, even a plywood platform in the middle of a drawing class. Others—Dietrich-esque women with pencil-thin eyebrows, slicked back hair, and bored expressionslanguished in their men’s pinstripes as we dragged chalk lines around the forms, into our sketch pads. Fleshy dominatrixes in full regalia straddled fishnet-gartered legs over wooden chairs to assume Bob Fosse slouches, while we smudged the red pastel rouge onto their portraits with abandon. — Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams

Tranny

copyright Sharon Watts

“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