Here I sit, pondering where my story fits. WhereIfit. 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.
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
This is the last day of this past year. 2020 was a life game-changer. Priorities were turned upside down, chaos reigned and rained supreme, silver linings peeked through, fires ravaged and the virus savaged. We divided and nearly were conquered by human behavior I simply can’t fathom—mostly, the absence of empathy and kindness. If hindsight is 20/20, I need a new prescription for my glasses.
Meanwhile, I have no idea what I am doing with this writing—this memoir—that was supposed to capture a bitter-sweet not-too-distant past. Ironically, I “officially” ended the writing (countless drafts after starting what was a series of essays a decade ago) in early March of this year. Pre-covid awareness. So, in that sense, this documents what once was, in an unanticipated way. I wrote about many things that now seem almost quaint in my missing them. Post-covid, the places and people and feelings that once existed and will likely never return have been documented and lamented in many a New York Times and New Yorker article over the last eight months. I’ve already put my two cents in. Just multiply it by infinity.
So, I will randomly choose an excerpt of something that I will miss about New York City and my life in the early 1970s.
Nine months of living off-off Broadway had me waxing nostalgic for neon lights, missing the jutting marquees that trumpeted what magic went on, just inside. One day in early autumn I returned to Times Square to get my theater fix, peering at cast photos for new shows that had opened since I last snuck in at intermission and squatted discreetly on the steps of the rear mezzanine for the second act. Jaywalking the cross streets between Broadway and Eighth Avenue had me in a comfortable groove.
The granddaddy of them all—naughty, bawdy, gaudy 42nd Street—I knew to avoid. There was not one iota of a good reason for me to be there, I learned after my daring first foray down that long block. Peep shows, porn palaces, massage parlors, hustlers, junkie prostitutes, con men, and all other forms of lowlife brazenly hawked their wares and flaunted their presence in the glare refracted from the Great White Way. This kind of cockroach didn’t scatter when the lights came on. This was their stage, every night.
Loitering was encouraged, necessary for a scam.
“All you hafta do is tell me where the queen is.”
A version of the classic shell game, Three-card Monte was set up at a moment’s notice and instant throngs gathered around, the rising excitement blending the shill with both out-of-town rubes and city know-it-alls who thought they could beat the odds. New York’s Finest occasionally broke up the G-rated entertainment almost apologetically; this was just filler-fluff on their beat until something bigger trumped in, featuring screaming sirens and drawn guns. In this neighborhood, that didn’t take long.
I was getting accustomed to mayhem. There was something tantalizing about being so close to the action, to being caught in the klieg light—an invisible non-participant—while absorbing it all through every sensory organ in my body. — Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams
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.
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
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.
My first apartment was a typical tenement, and now is spiffed up with a restaurant and outdoor seating.
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:
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~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.
Our Bleecker Street apartmentwas 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
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.
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 somehowsuccessfully 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.
“He” was a torso. Literally half a man—a 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, rollingknee-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 look—up? 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, Promiseswas the show. I took it as an official invitation. — Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams
Will dining out in New York City ever be the same again? Right now, after two and a half months of lockdown, the rats are reportedly freaking out for lack of leftover restaurant and deli food. As things slowly start to reopen, which places will have survived? Exorbitantly high commercial rents had already decimated so many of my favorite eateries over the decades. Worst case scenario is a city overrun—not by rats—but by chain restaurants. Chock full O’Nuts was fine. Cracker Barrel would be gagable.
I’m doing way better than I could have imagined, sheltering in place an hour or so up the Hudson River from Manhattan. I eat very simply and very well. What I do miss is my routine of purchasing my bulk items from the health food store up on Route 9, whose twenty-something cashiers probably regarded me as the crazy lady with the senior discount who brought her own repurposed plastic bags—mostly with Trader Joe’s labels on them—and filled with mismatched ingredients with SKU numbers written on a separate piece of paper. Checking out was quite a production, but I always felt I was keeping some plastic out of the landfill with my slightly obsessive routine.
The spices that get depleted the fastest in my kitchen are curry, turmeric, and paprika. I wish I could beam myself back to pre-pandemic New York City, and stock up at the International Grocery on 9th Avenue. Until that time, I hold my beautiful spice jars and open the stopper to peer in, and think about the life they’ve led.
Now we were ready to set up our kitchen. After the shared hot plate at the Y, this was the equivalent of dining at the Waldorf Astoria. I had toted Nana’s old German milk glass spice jars from home. Other than mustard, I didn’t know what any of the words on the labels meant, but I filled them carefully with my two-ounce purchases from bulk burlap bags, just up the street at Pete’s Spice and Everything Nice. No McCormick’s plastic packaging for me!
The East Village was nurturing my hash-brownie generation while still catering to the aging Polish-Jewish population that clung like ivy to the tenements their families had staked out, after first pausing on the Ellis Island welcome mat. I felt an inexplicable kinship with them as I wandered into their bialy shops and take-a-number delicatessens, as if I were a baby left on the doorstep. Or—as I was learning to say—stoop.
“A sweet potato knish, please. Can you heat it up first?” It arrived via dumbwaiter from the brick oven in the basement of Yonah Shimmel Bakery. I sat at the old enamel-top table waiting for the pastry to cool as I hungrily took in the atmospheric detail, especially the neighborhood’s pre-hipster clientele slurping their borscht with sour cream, just like I imagined it was back in the shtetl.
Shunting aside my Chef Boyardee childhood, I was similarly dazzled by Katz’s Delicatessen, Russ and Daughters, and Ratner’s Restaurant (where three years earlier I might have brushed shoulders with Janis Joplin). I embraced pirogies, potato pancakes, Guss’ pickles, and homemade baked cream cheese studded with walnuts and raisins. TastyKake memories yielded to tzimmes, rugelach, and babka. I was shaking off my Velveeta-and-mayo-on-Wonderbread roots and swimming with the gefilte fish, feeling more and more like a “real Noo Yawka.” — Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams
A little routine is now locked into place: frequently checking in with my (mostly) New York City pals, with mutual reassurances and holding fears in check. Plus the occasional well-deserved vent. We are “New York Tough” as Governor Cuomo reminds us daily. We share other information: web links of interest to inform, amuse, or distract while plugged into our devices and desktops, as well as rediscovering the old-fashioned telephone call. We send little “I’m still here” heads-ups to each other across the wide, wide pandemic.
Another way to check in on friends who have drifted from my inner circle (either by the tides of life, or algorithm) is through Facebook. Probably 97% of my friends (or anyone else I need to look up) are on it. Knowing its dark side, I try to engage here mindfully, often with distrust or disdain, while not ashamed to admit that I need (and even love) it at certain times. Like, now. And so, Jim Green immediately came to mind. Time to click the search bar.
In many ways, Jim had proven to be even more in love with New York than I was. In 1971 (when we first met as neighbors in a tenement on Avenue A and 2nd Street), I would have begged to differ, but after nearly fifty years I see the truth. I left the city (who betrayed whom?) and he stayed, continuing to root himself into the cracked sidewalks with a Chi that probably began with watching old Bowery Boy matinees while growing up in Baltimore.
Jim flourished as only a true maven can, in that fertile Greenwich Village street compost that the Beat Generation left behind for us stragglers. Over the decades, he morphed into various lifestyles, losing the hippie frizz and Dylan shades, but always with his trademark smile and fervor (including built-in contradiction, if you could read the fuzzy fine print). In the ’80s, as AIDS was decimating so much of the city’s creative life, Jim cut hair at the Silver Fox studio in the Village and loved Ronald Reagan. I was briefly a client, but neither his haircuts nor his politics suited me. No hard feelings, but decades would pass before we reconnected. His name, number, and address remained unchanged in my book, written in ink.
A few years after 9/11, I gave him a call. Jim had become a serious Tai Chi instructor, and lived in the same studio apartment in the West Village. His hair was short and grey, but his boyish charm and megawatt grin were the same as I remembered. We sat in simple straight-back chairs facing each other as we reminisced dirty old New York, and he shared some of his lifestyle details. I was fascinated to learn how he foraged restaurant dumpsters for perfectly good food, otherwise wasted. I got the impression that this was a decision made more from principle than penury, matching his spartan surroundings, but more importantly, his evolving monastic values. Throughout the conversation, I kept thinking what a true New York character Jim had become. It was a total compliment.
One day he appeared on my screen as a Facebook friend request. I nearly fell over. He had embraced social media, and within a few months had mastered the iPhone camera, roaming the city streets, documenting and posting photos on his Facebook page. It was as if Bill Cunningham had passed the torch to Jim Green. What I always called Millennials (no matter how many years or alphabet letters had passed), he called iGens, and they were his muses. He shot them night and day, with a kind of unabashed, open love and acceptance that I could never muster. We groaned about them, but I could tell he enjoyed being the wise old Boomer in his building, whose owner would have loved to evict and quadruple the rent for the never-ending flow of trust fund kids. (How dare they have not have a hard-knock life and still call this an authentic NYC experience!) Jim just kept on being Jim, while our city kept changing.
Eventually I had to check the Facebook box that allows one to see less of a friend’s posts. I wholly supported his newfound creativity in theory, but I just didn’t want photos of “those damn kids” clogging up my newsfeed 24/7. (Sorry, Jim. I hope you never knew that.)
On April 7, I clicked on your name. (How are you faring, your streets now swept of life? How is lockdown in that tiny studio?) I knew you could weather the storm; I just knew it. Yet I had this gut feeling. I had learned on this day that John Prine had died. Soon after we met, you told me I should listen to him (in that gung-ho, John Wayne-way you had. I wasn’t ready). I learned that you had passed peacefully on February 24. Cancer, not coronavirus. You must have felt the pandemic approaching, but it wouldn’t get you, and of that I am glad.
The city streets are extra-quiet without Jim Green on them, doing your Tai Chi in a pocket park, or capturing life that is momentarily suspended. I look forward to a day when I’ll feel you on my walkabouts. I can imagine it right now, something like: “Watts!! Right here is where John Garfield died! You gotta see Body and Soul!”
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 the gospel of yin and yang.
Not quite ready to completely plug into his cult-like energy, I managed to ask, “So, 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. — Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams
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 Elia—as 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.
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 expressions—languished 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
Who knew that I would get a double jolt of Vitamin G (for grit, grime, and gristle) this winter? S.A.D., cabin fever, the kozmic blues (I just finished the recent bio on Janis Joplin) —call it what you will—winter can do a number on you. Even, or especially, with global warming enveloping us all in a cocoon of dread.
Two recent films were the forces of nature that got me out of my doldrums and into that New York state of mind pre-hypergentrification, Disney-fication, and Bloomberg-ification, a trifecta that razed so much of what added a real feel to the city I had decided was home before I even arrived, in 1971.
JOKER. I was dragging my heels on this one. I hate cartoon and action-figure movies. Heath Ledger had already nailed it, so what was the point? Then I remembered—I had noticed “Leaf” Phoenix when he was a troubled kid in 1989’s Parenthood. I told myself then to watch and see who he became. He (now, of course, Joaquin) and director Todd Phillips transported, thrilled, and unnerved me, all the while opening me up to the ongoing hurt in the world. The stuff I had glanced over, mostly out of self-preservation during my early days in the city, was here in full-focus. Arthur Fleck is one of those struggling people whose mental fragility is stomped on just one time too many. Brilliant while disturbingly dark, JOKER is the only film I have ever watched three nights in a row, thanks to the Fandango app. I hid in the restroom between showings of 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon, while the ushers emptied the theater, so I could see it twice for one admission. Now I can watch JOKER’s dance on the stairs enough to be considered fit for Arkham Asylum.
UNCUT GEMS. If you ever told me I’d want to see an Adam Sandler movie, well. . . I do like to be surprised. And that he did. His character, Howard Ratner, is so vivid and jittery and real—and charasmatic!— that I knew I brushed shoulders (and more) with this type all my years in New York. They still exist. That kind of pushing the envelope and betting against the odds requires a chutzpah that can only be created in a NYC petrie dish. Adam, you should have been nominated for Best Actor—but Joaquin, you deserved it.
So—I look at Manhattan and see the obvious “new.” I also see the ghosts of the past. If you scratch beneath the glossy chrome and glass surface, the underbelly is still there. And if you can peel your eyes from your iPhone, you might be surprised..
A roster of truly eccentric, seemingly homeless men who were also street artists never missed a performance, their sidewalk stages radiating for several blocks around Carnegie Hall either by plan or ironic happenstance. On 54rd and Sixth, a horned Viking helmet poked above the heads and shoulders of office workers milling by on lunch break.
I’m not gonna die in 4/4 time, proclaimedMoondog, a blind poet and performer who sold his poems and writings on music philosophy to anyone with a dollar. Cloaked in a self-made cape, he emulated his notion of the Norse god Thor while playing a self-invented instrument he called an Oo. Moondog was in fact a respected and often-recorded composer, I learned years later, after his death in 1999.
I would pass him and continue uptown, coming upon an even stranger character who was hunched over a snare drum, beating it with a concentrated, compulsive fervor.
He announced these iconic Big Band names to himself, or to the air, or to anyone who stopped, while continuing with his set. The drummer’s look upstaged his act. He had applied black shoe polish to his hair, then continued it onto his skin, drawing an almost cartoon-shape of a haircut down over his forehead and around his temples. Filmmaker Martin Scorsese would use him as a documentary touch in 1976’s Taxi Driver. Sweetly garish and only in New York.
Hanging a left on 57th Street, I would next encounter the aria-singing tenor who was also in his own world, pouring his heart and soul out to some lost love: person, place, or dream. He too would be a fixture for many years on that patch of a sidewalk stage, surrounded by footsteps instead of footlights. I would first hear, then see him even decades later. He may still be planted there, pleading for his own personal Aida. —Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams