“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!

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

Meet Me on MacDougal Street ~ Part 1

Street awnings

On this hot July weekend I gravitated twice in two days to the neighborhood where I spent the summer of 1972. Miraculously, not much has changed on the stretch of MacDougal that was right around the corner from my Bleecker Street tenement.

Friday, I dipped into the cool of Caffe Reggio for an iced cappuccino. It’s hard to tell if any grime has ever been removed from the old world paintings, and the only upgrade I could detect was electrical outlets added for laptops popped open on the small marble tables. 

Cafe Reggio interior

I looked around and was relieved to see something else—a paucity of tourists! Instead, young city dwellers (iGens, my savvy Boomer buddy from days of yore informed me) holed up in the still cozy surroundings, plugged into the old Beat Generation vibe for the price of an espresso.

Lola
This young bohemian’s parents met here, she told me. “If it weren’t for Caffe Reggio I wouldn’t exist!”

By the spring of 1972, the neighborhood’s charms had tarnished a bit since the Beat Generation made it their digs a decade or so earlier. Still, junkies nodding out near West 4th Street couldn’t completely mar the aural graffiti scratched by Bob Dylan onto Washington Square. Our stoop put us directly opposite the famed Cafe Figaro.

In fact, there were authentic Beat cafes everywhere we turned. I discovered the nirvana of cappuccino—heavenly foam forming a cinnamon cloud cover to the dark, rich roast I had never before experienced. I’d sit at a sidewalk table, sipping slowly with the regulars, rubbing shoulders with ghosts of beatniks past. I learned to diplomatically deflect the panhandlers, all the while keeping an eye peeled for Dylan to stroll by with Donovan, interpreting “Subterranean Homesick Blues” as he gave Sunshine Superman the grand tour before ducking down Minetta Lane. The Fat Black Pussycat was still there, a cafe where Dylan supposedly penned “Blowin’ In the Wind.” But my main haunt was the dark-walled Caffe Reggio that opened onto the street near West 3rd. The many solo patrons kept to themselves, and so did I. I was learning how easy it was to be alone without being lonely. With no Camus at hand—not even Ginsberg’s “Howl”—I hunkered down with my cappuccino and cannoli, embracing my own anonymity. — Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams

copyright Sharon Watts

my cappucino
Yum!

Attic Archaeology

Attic overview

In my attic is my own personal Collyer Brothers scenario. Childhood scrapbooks tower precariously as I trip over shoe boxes filled with the dubious bounty of a lifetime’s routine—over-sentimentalizing or saving for posterity. Contents include a not-quite complete set of Beatle bubblegum cards (both black & white and color), the long hair I chopped off just before my church Confirmation (my patron saint in 1967 became Twiggy), and elementary school classroom photos that I look at and can still name nearly everyone (!) Plus all my report cards (Where did that D in Algebra come from?) I can easily get lost in the past. But I am archiving! Not going crazy. Not yet.

art & scrapbooks

Shifting around my ankles are layers of my old art—from my earliest attempts at drawing princesses (on the back of Civil Defense notebooks—Duck and Cover!), to the waning work-for-hire that I still do—a stratum of my life in fashion-centric art.

Necklines & heart hems

I find my Scholastic Award from 1971—my ticket to New York. The accompanying art is somewhere in here . . . under yellowing newsprint pads and portfolio pages and illustration boards and spiral sketchbooks. The cement of memory is dry and flaky in spots, but what I remember most are my dreams, and how light I once felt. I was going to fly like a crow from the only nest I knew, and make a new one in a skyscraper. Or a railroad flat.

Ali MacGraw

Incessantly creating outfits for paper dolls in fourth grade was a sure sign that I was a future fashion designer, despite a brief defection into the world of secret agents. TV shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Avengers, and Honey West toyed with my trajectory as cool characters in chic black turtlenecks and trench coats, walking pet ocelots on leashes, filled the screen. I soon realized I was not so much interested in thwarting Evil as I was fixated on what figure I would cut while taking an Emma Peel stance, my diamond-encrusted mini-derringer aimed at the enemy agent.

My subscription to Seventeen magazine (a fifteenth birthday gift), was added to a tower of 16 magazines that kept me in tune with all my favorite pop stars, and I continued exploring ways to express myself in the trendy world of fashion. Which, in the Mod 60s, was everywhere.

By my senior year, the high point of my creative life so far was winning a National Scholastic Art award. This was the holy grail for our public high school art department, with the winners exhibited in New York City. I had entered a fashion drawing; my subject: Ali MacGraw, fresh from Love Story, lounging in a maxi-skirt. Instead of just rendering from a photograph, I used white line on a black background, with the skirt pattern  popping out of the negative space.

“Can I go to New York to see my art? Please, Mom, please please?” — Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams

copyright Sharon Watts

Elvis and Me (and another footnote that I won’t go into here)

Looking back, I realize this was a busy weekend in June 1972.

I remembered that I had seen the King.

And that I lost (or tossed) my virginity.

I just forgot the particulars.

Elvis pic.jpg

The collective cultural energy building up was from the littered streets, the cracks in the sidewalk, the “are you talkin’ to me?” and “I’m walking here” and fuck-you attitude of survivors that perhaps has always been the backbone of the city. Holly Golightly had retreated to the wings and Patti Smith was about to take center stage.

I must have sensed this changing of the guard when I purchased a ticket to see Elvis at Madison Square Garden. I probably should see him before he dies, I thought, already shelving and archiving a cultural icon who represented so much of the America I grew up in. I went by myself partly because no one I knew was interested. But mostly because—I realized even then—I feel most comfortable when alone in a crowd. I sat in five dollar nosebleed seats behind the stage, never really connecting with The King on that sold-out afternoon. For all these years I assumed that I had seen “fat Elvis” on the ebb. While perusing a forty year-old scrapbook, a yellowed New York Post review fell out and I read to discover that this was his first live appearance in New York since the 1950s, and one of his finest. I wish I had felt it at the time. — Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams

It was a great show that Elvis Presley put on at the Garden last night, this cornball express, this John Wayne of music, this heavyweight champion in a game that his successors don’t play anymore —Alfred G. Aronowitz

elvis article.jpg

Fred B. contact info
for a good time?

copyright Sharon Watts

I Am My Mother’s Daughter, Kinda

At least when it comes to letter-writing and archiving. A few years ago I helped my mom and stepfather downsize, and was re-gifted every handmade card, every letter I ever sent to her when I was young. As eager as I was to leave the nest, I still wanted my mom to know all about my exciting new life in New York City. It was 1971.

Letters I wrote to one of my best friends from high school were also returned to me, a few years before I started this memoir. These sat in my basement collecting mildew until I curled up on the couch with a glass of wine, opened the shoe box, and discovered a girl I had forgotten all about. Me.

I was mesmerized. And a bit appalled. Who was that girl?

My friend D. and I wrote several times a week, describing every little factoid of our emotional lives. Long distance phone calls were expensive, and letter-writing was not the lost art it is now. It simply was how we communicated.

With my old letters, I am able to flesh out long dormant memories. I vaguely remember that I once was escorted by “Ace,” a member of the Black Panthers, past the Hell’s Angels headquarters in the East Village as I checked out the neighborhood. Now I can not only write about the experience from my current vantage point, but also add the contents of a letter that I wrote in “real time,” with all the feelings I had as I eagerly shared my life.

Tizzy and letters(This is just a small sampling!)

Joel Grey Eat Honey copy

romeo & juliet envelopeE. 2nd sealing wax

 

“I’m Walkin’ Here!”

“I arrived in Hell’s Kitchen with my turquoise vinyl trunk, my art school scholarship, and the soundtrack to Midnight Cowboy sensurrounding my dreams.

Everybody’s talking at me
I don’t hear a word they’re saying
Only the echoes of my mind

I was eighteen, and ready for the ’70s. On my own.”

That was to be my opening paragraph. Now it’s tucked a bit further into the story. I lost count—nine drafts so far? Ten? All I know is that I now label it Latest Draft.

I wanted to move to NYC so badly in 1970 that when I saw Midnight Cowboy, I thought I could even live in the same kind of squatter’s squalor as Ratso Rizzo. Just how deep was the hue in those rose-colored glasses I had on? I suppose I was just making a point.

What propelled me out of my home environment is something I explore in my writing. At the same time I was planning my escape, I would archive all I was leaving behind, with my Instamatic camera and my innate sense that I would want to remember everything, eventually. That day has come.

me & my olivetti