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
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.
It hurts to still be in love with a city you now barely recognize. The rampant hyper-gentrification always sucker-punches me when I return: irreversible, botched plastic surgery on beloved neighborhoods and skylines, not allowed to age and change organically or with any grace. Yet I still manage to find, here and there, a vestige of what I remember from the early 70s—tactile reference to a certain dignity when New York City was considered (by the non-believers) to be down and out. It might be a faded sign on a building, or a scrawl of defiant graffiti. Or the city’s marginal people who still somehow survive, defying the slick surfaces of the latest bland glass and chrome box, and the iPhone culture that has no perception of anything or anyone beyond that screen.
Our neighborhood, and almost all New York, was dangerous. Full of litter and garbage, the city teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. Beggars, drug addicts, and homeless schizophrenics taking up valuable real estate on the sidewalks provided a reason for me to develop that famous New York attitude of detachment: dodging deftly without breaking stride while staring straight ahead. No eye contact, ever. Compassion, fear, distaste, curiosity; I had no time to process these feelings, and instead began to hone what seemed a necessary tool for survival.
Movies that took place here (that I watched as if doing research, while still in the safety of suburbia) portrayed something that was decidedly not for everyone. Midnight Cowboy transfixed me: a dark, achingly sad yet funny valentine that I held as a ticket to my intrepidity. There were stories here, and dreams, and roses in Spanish Harlem. And now, two new immigrants to the New World.
In fifteen years, the East Village would be gentrified and sweet-tarted up for The Slaves of New York, and today the Lower East Side is morphed unrecognizably into a clubland for the new, moneyed millennials. But “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” meant something different in 1972. Sure, we wanted to have fun. We also just wanted to get home alive. A demographic virtually unto ourselves, my roommate and I did not loiter after dark.
I took the long, slow bus fifty blocks up First Avenue to my classes at Parsons, near Sutton Place. Peering out the window, my Army Navy bag and portfolio at my feet, I absorbed everything. The route took me through the East Village and past Bellevue, founded to serve “lunatics and paupers” in 1736, through Methadone Alley (I would learn later), past the immense and bland Met Life housing communities, then eventually opening up to UN Plaza, the elegant pocket parks of Tudor City, and finally into the high-rent neighborhood where Johnny Carson lived.
I carried a brown bag lunch the half-block from class to Sutton Park, overlooking the East River, and on days after my modest allowance arrived from home, would treat myself to a deli sandwich and almond horn pastry. Marilyn Monroe had lived here nearly a decade before, and on the corner of First Avenue I once caught a rare glimpse of the legend—Greta Garbo.
The return route went down Second Avenue, depositing me at dusk near the Provenzano Lanza Funeral Home. My pace and my pulse picked up as I navigated east, choosing 6th Street for its strip of macrobiotic restaurants and hippie element as the first leg of my walk home. Next I zig-zagged, positively toward 4th Street and down First Avenue with its dairy restaurants and bakeries, to 2nd Street where I hung a left, past the housing project that was full of elderly immigrants living out their days. All of ten minutes from the bus stop, I arrived at Avenue A, where I picked up a pint of Haagen Dazs at Key Food and scuttled several doors down to our building, just past the minuscule Hispanic storefront selling candy and contraband. Finally, up five flights of stairs, until barred in safely for the night. — Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams