“Nostalgie de la Boue”

Here is a phrase I only just became aware of: nostalgie de la boue (“yearning for the mud”). In his chapter on the demise of Times Square in Vanishing New York: How A Great City Lost Its Soul, author and blogger Jeremiah Moss further clarifies this, via architecture critic Herbert Muschamp, as “the sentimental attachment to decrepitude and sleaze . . .a venerable urban tradition.

Muschamp went further, in 1996: “Where have they gone, the chicken hawks and stiletto knife displays, the peep show shills, the pickpockets, coke heads, winos, pimps and tramps? We had a world class gutter here. Must we trade it in for a shopping strip of retail chain outlets?”

If Muschamp and Moss can lament, let me add my small voice to the chorus. That tawdry, tactile, magnificent mess of a neighborhood was my first home in New York City, and I too mourn its demise. The world it contained informed the adult-child I was in the early Seventies just as indelibly as had the small suburban enclave where I grew up.

Danger always flickers at the edges of any child’s universe. Disappearing fathers with their strong, reassuring arms catapult one closer to the flames, testing personal limits and capabilities of how to feel safe. Alone. All these years later, faint tracers of that trajectory still stream through my consciousness.

The last time I was on 42nd Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue and felt any vestige of that hyper-pulsating block (that I dared myself to walk down upon arrival, just to see if I came out of it alive), was in the late 1980s. I had earned my green belt in karate and needed to buy a bō, a long martial art stick, from a shop that might have been there all those years previous, tucked between peep shows and porn theaters. The irony didn’t escape me. All I was packing in 1971 was an eighteen-year-old “good girl’s” sense of daring. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, and I knew it.

The Disney-fication starting to happen in the 1990s, and my red flags went up as the red light district went out. It all sort of sounded good, on the surface. Make things safer? Who could argue? Perversely, me.

Fear is a basic instinct—nothing else heightens the sense of feeling alive as that breath you finally exhale when you get just past it. Yet, I guess it’s all relative. For me, the all-consuming plague of corporate porn is far worse than the old-fashioned garden variety that once flourished in Times Square. I could never attempt to match Jeremiah Moss as he describes meticulously why it this is so, in Vanishing New York.

All I know is that I feel gutted when I visit my old neighborhood.

8th Ave.

How easily I plugged into that throbbing street energy, and with it, the tactile seediness. My suburban backdrop faded into history—bland Colonial and ranch houses (reflecting even blander life prospects), slow trawls through the local hangout, McDonalds (required first stop with a newly acquired drivers license), unrequited crushes on boys (both squeaky clean jocks and the shadier rebels without a cause)—all just an out-of-town tryout for the stage set before me.

Our turf. Irish bars with wafts from steam table fare and stale beer snaking over the sidewalks, pawnshops beckoning with diamond rings and musical instruments long abandoned by desperate owners, shoeshine men stationed on high-traffic corners with stained fingers whipping the rag, over and over, and tired hookers tucked into sooty SRO doorways trying to meet nightly quotas for their pimps, who, like cockroaches, were rarely seen in the light of day. Enveloping, even nurturing—while soaring above it all—was that ever-seductive siren, the Broadway theater world: the heart of the sexy beast beating deep behind velvet curtains.

They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway
They say there’s always magic in the air.

 

Second Day in NYC – Mon. Sept. 6, 1971 (Labor Day)
[Letter to high school friend]
Dear D____ ,
Tessa and I were walking all over town today—I really like her. The Y is fantastic—big room (not dingy at all), good location (the theater district). Like 8th Ave. is junky, but things improve as you go east. The location is good cause it’s a 10 minute walk to Central Park, 5th Ave., & any other midtown place & subway. Yesterday we got in at 1:30, lugged all my junk up (my mom got the look-over by the elevator guy & told me to watch out for him). Tessa got in at 6 and we didn’t go out, just talked and talked. Today we found out 8th Ave. is the prostitute hang-out, & there’s a porno movie house opposite our room. But there’s also, just catty-corner from us, a Howard Johnson’s, a deli (with YOGURT!) around the corner—like everything is so convenient. So we’ll likely stay here all year. We fell in love with the city today. — Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams

copyright Sharon Watts

lyrics copyright Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller

 

 

 

Ferry Princess

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy. Unless you are five years old and miss having your daddy around to jump in the ocean or shoot water pistols with. Well, today I got a splash of cold water in my face. My whole life I thought that my first visit to New York City was on a school field trip in 1970, when I was a junior in high school. I discovered evidence to the contrary—an old box of slides taken by my paternal grandfather includes one with me on what appears to be a Circle Line ferry with my “Mammaw.”

Yep, that’s me—pixie cut and plaid dirndl skirt. Why do I have no memories of this? Didn’t I know right then and there that NYC was my destiny?

Mammaw and me NYC

*****

Circle Line schedule copy

 

Meanwhile, I had discovered something of interest right on the boat: a dazzling specimen of a human, Che Guevara only sweeter, with high cheekbones and windswept hair that lifted off and touched down on lithe shoulders enveloped in a dramatic Peruvian-looking cape. Tessa also got wise to his aura, and we nudged each other, giggling. The Brooklyn Bridge, the United Nations, Tudor City, Hell’s Gate, Harlem—all became a backdrop eclipsed by this alluring stranger as we tried to guess who or what he might be—surely a poet!

Or—maybe a drug dealer? Every once in a while, an imposing black man with a bald head and draped in a white shearling maxi-coat strode over and exchanged a few words with him. When the tour ended, the mysterious couple left the boat separately and then met up on the West Side Highway. Like two Nancy Drews, we followed them east. By the third corner, while waiting for the green light, the Isaac Hayes character arranged the cape around Mr. Exotica’s neck and shoulders a little snugger, nuzzling him with an air of possessive intimacy. Tessa and I looked at each other and groaned.

“Oh no! He’s gay!”
The nature of the relationship, previously in our collective hormonal blind spot, was now more obvious, cutting through all the intrigue. What a waste of male beauty was the provincial thought bubble that popped into my growing worldly consciousness.

We stopped in Smiler’s Deli to assuage our sorrows with Drake’s Cakes, and retreated with our bounty to our room at the Y.

Nov. 71
Dear D____ ,
It seems really weird hearing you talk about frats, etc. It’s so far away from my life up here. Tessa & I took a Circle Line Tour of Manhattan 2 Sundays ago. We discovered a beautiful, exotic-looking guy about half way around—dark, long hair, in a long cape, & alone. We physically were in no condition to attract his attention [referring to our fat shame, not our gender] , but we decided to keep our eyes on him. And we saw our first transvestite. He-she was definitely a male in face—complete with wig, make up, mini-skirt, nylons, boots, & pocketbook. Kind of a pity if you’re a “woman” trapped in a man’s body. —Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams

copyright Sharon Watts

More from the Circle Line Tour chapter

Whose Skyline Is It Anyway?

It’s every generation’s lament. When I look at the downtown city skyline, I barely recognize anything. The area—especially around and below Houston Street—is now shimmying with new kids on the block. Ubiquitous glass and chrome high-rises continue to shoulder their way into old neighborhoods like the Lower East Side. I know change is inevitable, I know Manhattan was founded on the bedrock of commerce—but like most aging New Yorkers, I also love to complain about it. New millennial money, faux immigrant hipsters, and corporate chutzpah have made me avoid my old stomping grounds for over a decade. But this past weekend I wanted to take in a block festival in NoHo, see an art exhibit on Eldridge Street, and purchase my favorite plastic summer slippers in Chinatown. Where I finally found a skyline that I could still embrace.

East Broadway

My very first apartment was on 2nd Street between Avenues A and B. In 1971, you made sure you were triple-locked-in at night. But—oh!— during the day, there was nothing more exotic than exploring the Lower East Side.

Avenue A

 

Tessa and I pooled the last of our five dollar bills and moved our meager belongings out of the YWCA—one trip via “Man with Van”—down to 2nd Street between Avenues A and B. Our new home would be a fifth floor walk-up with the prerequisite ornate fire escape, dingy hallway, cooking smells, and marble stairs; each one literally worn down and sloped to the center from a century of treading shoes. The heavy door had a peephole and the old iron police lock—a bar that angled up from a slot in the floor on the interior to brace the back of the door against a break-in. Once inside, we were standing in the small kitchen dominated by a claw-footed bathtub next to the sink. A tiny water closet off to the side was large enough for a toilet, with its pull chain connecting to a wooden box suspended above. I loved the very quaintness of the antique plumbing, every yank of the chain metaphorically flushing away the rube I had been. Exposed brick walls added the kind of charm I could never even imagine in my suburban fantasizing, and a non-working potbellied stove plunked in the central room was altar to our new sanctuary.

2nd Street unpacking
“Wow. I can’t believe we’re here in our own place!” I circled slowly to take it all in. The pièce de résistance was a partitioned area that housed our separate closet-sized bedrooms. Each held a loft bed platform with a built-in desktop and clothing rod below. There was no natural light; the windows faced an air shaft with a foreshortened view of the next building that we could almost touch. A burglar gate was in place over the kitchen window next to the fire escape. Who needed light? We were positively beaming!

 
Our landlord had even given us a modest stipend to furnish the flat. Feeling like kids let loose in a candy store, Tessa and I first bought thick foam cut to order on East Houston Street—two mattresses for our loft beds. That was our first encounter with Hassidic shopkeepers who were ruling over their individual fiefdoms in cramped and dusty storefronts while I had been wheeling a cart in the wide-aisled Weis Market and selecting sheets in Bowman’s department store back home. Next we purchased a used wooden kitchen table and an old rocking chair, precariously hauling them by foot down Avenue A on a mover’s dolly. Home Sweet Tenement! —Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams

chinese slippers
There’s no place like home!

copyright Sharon Watts

Hanging Out in Washington Square

The Lower East Side’s counterrevolutionary troubadour David Peel died last Thursday. I knew of him because he used to hang out in Washington Square Park, and because he was collaborating with John and Yoko at a time I was feeling a bit untethered to my Beatlemania roots. They had officially and publicly split on April 10, 1970, when Paul made the announcement (dragging a few years behind John’s admission of the fact). I halfheartedly followed the Fab Four individually, with less passion and success. John and Yoko were living at the Dakota, and alternately drove around in a white limo and walked by themselves like regular New Yorkers in Central Park and Washington Square, where they discovered Peel.

Living on Bleecker Street in 1972, I often hung out in the park, keeping to myself. Sometimes I was approached. As anonymous as I thought I wanted to be, there was something about being there and singled out for anything other than panhandling that felt like a casting call. One time, it actually was.

28 June 72
Dear D____ ,
My social life at present consists of going to Washington Square with Tessa at night and grooving with the local derelicts. Tony, the toothless poet, King Frog, Enoch, & Rudy . . . all of them black & always drunk. On weekends David Peel & the Lower East Side (John & Yoko sang & played with them on “David Frost”) come to the park & play really weird chanting, neat music that turns on every drunk in the place. I like it too. That’s how we get to meet the local celebrities (not David Peel & the Lower East Side, but the derelicts).

Washington Square Park was the magnet that drew everyone below 14th Street, and I was no exception. I took along a sketchbook in my knapsack and filled it with drawings of people’s backs, too shy to engage in eye contact with my subjects while capturing them in charcoal. I blended in with the crowd of laid back loungers, war protesters, troubadours, pot dealers, pram pushers, chess players, frisbee tossers, young lovers, and elderly pensioners. Starting with kids and dogs in the fountain, the diversity of co-existence fanned out centrifugally, leaving no patch of park unoccupied.
That’s why I was surprised when singled out to participate in a NYU student film. Getting over my self-consciousness, I followed direction until the late afternoon light turned to dusk. Much to my disappointment, the film did not become the follow-up to Martin Scorcese’s Mean Streets. And I never saw the final clip. —Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams

BJ in the park

17 June 72
Dear Mom,
I guess I didn’t tell you I was in a film, did I? I was in Washington Square reading, & as I got up to leave a girl asked me if I’d be in a film she was doing (she was in 3rd year at NYU filmmaking). It was silent, & just about a girl (me) sitting in the park and a black guy comes up like all guys do (“Hey baby, whatcha doing?”) etc. and I just sit there with no expression, but then there’s a fantasy where I get mad & shove him off, & then it goes back to reality where I still have no expression and walk off. It was fun to do, & finally I got a chance to act (Ha!) Look for me in your local theatre. —Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams

David Peel

copyright Sharon Watts

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

So You Wanna Be A Fashion Illustrator

Forty-five years ago (!) (I just did the math, both in my head and on the calculator), I was shifting into what would ultimately be the ejector seat that got me to where I am today. Which is sitting in a chair at my computer, going through digital mountains of Collyer Brothers-style desktop folders filled with scans of my art through the decades. Over the years I have often detoured from the fashion art I had felt destined to create since childhood, but the whimsical style that became my career trademark is all here— interspersed with more serious veins I tapped into through collage, assemblage, and photography. This is one of my new year’s resolutions: to see what all I have and organize it. The archivist in me is following her slightly OCD’d lead.

img_4166

I still have my tackle box for toting art supplies, and my first and only pack of Color-aid paper. All purchases were made at the Parsons School of Design “company store” in 1971.

img_4167

After a bumpy first semester, where I decided that Draping and I were never going to be a seamless match, I switched departments from Fashion Design to Fashion Illustration. And the rest is, shall we say, history.

By the end of the first semester, I had managed to extricate myself from the Fashion Design department and was transferred into Fashion Illustration with my full scholarship intact. Amid my angst of landing in the wrong place after all those childhood years of strategic fashion career planning, there was also discomfort from my weight gain and shame. I no longer enjoyed dressing inventively, or envisioning myself in my own creations that had once filled spiral sketchbooks. Besides, I had gotten a whiff of where fashion was heading and I wasn’t embracing it. Counterculture values were combining with my newly hatching mores, convincing me that there were more important things to focus on than French bodices and cutting fabric on the bias. Besides, the current styles were meant for very thin, androgynous people.

Like Richard—my first openly gay friend—who always came to draping class with a pale midriff peeking out from under a cropped sweater, slim arms stacked wrist to elbow with his signature chunky Art Deco bakelite bracelets. From there, it was a short trajectory to the glam rock look that would erupt onstage just one year and a few blocks away from our Avenue A apartment, at CBGB’s on the Bowery.

After the department transfer, I found myself in the deep end with city sophisticates from the High School of Art and Design—mostly young women with names like Romney, Anelle, and Karin (with an “i”)—poised and secure on their classroom stools, and in their place in the world, or so it seemed to me. They wore boutique folkloric blouses and pricey Frye boots, and were clannish with each other and chummy with the teachers. Desks lined three sides of the classroom, freeing up the wall for us to hang our 18” X 24” newsprint pad sketches. I would compare our differing styles, wondering if I could hold my chin above water in that talent pool on the Upper East Side.

Soon I would even be mixing with the General Illustration department, leaving behind Women’s Wear Daily dish for discussions about Cat Stevens, Carlos Castaneda, and Color Theory.

fashion-gesture-1972-copy

Fri. Jan.21, 1972

Dear Mom,

I like illustration a lot. Here is my schedule:

schedule-card-spring-1972

Even tho my course names are repeated, I always have a different teacher. No homework so far, either. This weekend, Penny and I are going to art galleries, buying furniture, going to church (?!) (you heard right—Norman Vincent Peale’s), eating out in a cheese restaurant, and seeing A Clockwork Orange (again).

There’s so many things (little) wrong with the apartment—the piping at the tub still leaks (it was fixed once), there hasn’t been hot water, & no heat! We might check out another apartment on 12th St. that is a bit smaller and $200/month to our $180. Ours has more character but is more of a fire trap. Also, in my bedroom, the ceiling is cracked and water or something leaked along the cracks from the apartment above us. Plus someone is breaking into mailboxes.

I’m in a life drawing class now, on a break. I think the only other “A” in Life Drawing besides me last semester was Richard.
Well, that’s all that happened.
Love,
Sharon
P.S. Art supplies CO$T A LOT!! — Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams

copyright Sharon Watts

color aid.jpg

“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

September 11 & the Unfinished Towers

1971 marked my first September 11th in New York City. A few days earlier, I had uprooted from suburbia and moved into the Laura Spellman YWCA on 50th Street and Eighth Avenue. I was instantly in love with my new life. I started writing letters immediately to share the wonder of my new home with my mom, who had dropped me off on this tattered street corner, and went back to Pennsylvania in tears.

Sat. Sept 11, 1971

Dear Mom,

There’s just so much to see & do, you can’t get bored. It’s so neat to see famous places you heard of. Like ritzy clubs & restaurants. I just found out today that around the other corner, at 49th Street, is “Hair.” And the famous Italian restaurant “Mama Leone’s” is there too. We decided to splurge today on a Ho Jo double dip.

Well, I have to go. Write soon.

I didn’t see the World Trade towers immediately. It wasn’t until my roommate and I decided to take the Circle Line Tour that I made my acquaintance.

Advertised in all the neighborhood souvenir shops was the Circle Line Tour, a three hour cruise that lassoed the island. It seemed a perfect way to embrace my new home, as well as get some perspective on where, exactly, my dreams had deposited me. On a brisk, sunny day in early November, my roommate and I shelled out $3.50 each for tickets and boarded the boat of tourists docked at 43rd Street.

We settled into deck chairs on the upper level, and, pulling away from the magnet of Manhattan, churned down the Hudson. The guide was expert and entertaining, pointing out neighborhoods and buildings as he embellished with tidbits of cultural and historical interest. Snapping photos with my Kodak Instamatic, I documented the journey.

At Battery Park the cityscape came to an abrupt halt. What seemed to stop the buildings from toppling into the harbor were two unfinished vertical towering blocks, reaching higher into the sky than anything in the world ever before built by man, their facades flat and without charm. — Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams

wtc-1971

One day I decided to walk down to where they were rooted.

Only to the far south was there any evidence of the future, a double exclamation point to the city’s evolution from the days of Dutch commerce. The World Trade Center was nearly finished, looming mirage-like, our own Oz. One afternoon I decided to walk down West Broadway from Houston Street, until I was standing just below the towers. Along the way, quiet brick-surfaced side streets crowded my peripheral vision with ghosts of factory workers hurrying to punch the clock, and massive buildings, once proud dowagers of the industrial age, loitered as shadows of their former selves. Dumpsters were attached in front like aprons, overflowing with fabric scraps from sweatshops, and perched high above were water towers—tiaras from another time. It was the eeriest, emptiest walk I could remember, with the end always a bit further away than it seemed, just out of reach. Iconic—but of what? I didn’t know, in 1972. — 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