Not Yet the Boss of Me

1969
Me in 1969

The Age of Aquarius dawned on my generation with a bowl of granola, a “Make Love, Not War” protest sign, and a birth control pill.

Hugely popular books were Our Bodies, Ourselves, The Joy of Sex, and The Sensuous Woman, offering us heady new empowerment to push puritanical boundaries and discover the pleasures that (thank god!) went beyond those church-issued booklets on “becoming a woman.”

The rules for the guys, however, hadn’t really changed (not since they basically took the liberties to invent them in the first place). As the saying went: “Boys will be boys.” And in the early 1970s, a lot of them were now our bosses. (Not much has changed there either.)

If we didn’t feel any support when we needed it back then, we certainly have it now. We are Woman, hear us roar (finally)! In 1973, I found myself in a near-universal #metoo predicament.

*****

A few months into my third and final year of art school, I decided I could manage yet another part-time job. I turned to the Village Voice classifieds and saw something I imagined would be a perfect fit. Having no previous experience had never stopped me before, and so I circled with a red pen: Cocktail waitresses wanted for new restaurant in garment district. I had lost a few pounds over the summer and my hair was longer, giving me the courage to imagine stepping into one of my teen fantasies—the one where I am soignée and sophisticated, twirling on a bar stool at dusk, the Manhattan skyline as a backdrop and a martini in the foreground.

 
I showed up for the interview and was hired on the spot. However, I would not be serving Manhattans straight up, my witty banter and insouciant smile drawing generous tips and flirtations from charming men. Those three positions went to exotic young Asian beauties whose graceful bodies were perfect for leaning over in their tight, black dresses while balancing a tray of cocktails. No, I was going to be something else entirely, something I had never even heard of— a wine sommelier. For a kosher-Chinese restaurant. I was neither Jewish nor Chinese, and I knew nothing about wine. Moshe Peking now had a goy on staff.

 
The bottle-blonde wife of one of the owners took me to Saks Fifth Avenue to buy my uniform—two suits in polyester double-knit by Act III. The red, white and blue plaid won the dowdiness title hands down. I looked in the dressing room mirror, utterly doubtful, as Elaine adjusted the shoulders.

 
“You know, you were hired because you have a wholesome quality. It will encourage the customers to order bottles of wine for the table.”

 
Next stop was to visit the president of the wine company. This I was entrusted to do on my own. A diminutive yet pudgy middle-aged man ushered me into his office. The windows offered a view of Macy’s and on the streets far below, racks of wholesale clothing shuttled between trucks and warehouse entrances with an urgency that provided the current to this strange neighborhood I had first explored on my high school field trip. That seemed like eons ago. I listened conscientiously while he described every type of wine his Israeli vineyards produced, as he loaded me up with a barrage of pamphlets to study in order to become an expert company representative. I gathered everything together to leave.

 
“Wait a minute, there is something else.” Turning toward him as he lunged—with octopus arms and a badly aimed kiss—I managed to dodge any follow-through to this decidedly unkosher advance. (Was I becoming conditioned to unexpected moves from grown men?) What resulted was an almost farcical chase around the brown leather couch, until I slipped out the door and down the hallway to the elevator. Flushed and angry, my discomfort level was both tempered and confused by a gut feeling that I wasn’t in any real danger, just in yet another predicament where my power as a woman was squashed. (If I wasn’t in real danger, did that make it all okay?) Sexual harassment on the job still offered a blurry definition to me. I never told my bosses what had transpired, afraid I would be fired before my first paycheck. —Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams

copyright Sharon Watts

 

 

 

 

 

 

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