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

“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!