Lovin’ Avenue A — again, if not always.

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.

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Ave. A signage thru the decades
Deport Trump
Yes! Or better yet—JAIL!
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Willie shaving next to his chair-cocoon draped in a Hefty bag

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.

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Still in business!

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Fri. Jan.21, 1972

Dear Mom,

I like illustration a lot. Here is my schedule:

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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

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