Hot Town, Summer in the City

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.

Nancy & Me__7:72

Rob McCurdy on Bleecker copy

Tony__7:72

Our Bleecker Street apartment was 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

Dear Mom,

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.    

Droog__5:72

copyright Sharon Watts

video courtesy YouTube

Just Waiting on a Friend

jim green on roof

A little routine is now locked into place: frequently checking in with my (mostly) New York City pals, with mutual reassurances and holding fears in check. Plus the occasional well-deserved vent. We are “New York Tough” as Governor Cuomo reminds us daily. We share other information: web links of interest to inform, amuse, or distract while plugged into our devices and desktops, as well as rediscovering the old-fashioned telephone call. We send little “I’m still here” heads-ups to each other across the wide, wide pandemic.

Another way to check in on friends who have drifted from my inner circle (either by the tides of life, or algorithm) is through Facebook. Probably 97% of my friends (or anyone else I need to look up) are on it. Knowing its dark side, I try to engage here mindfully, often with distrust or disdain, while not ashamed to admit that I need (and even love) it at certain times. Like, now. And so, Jim Green immediately came to mind. Time to click the search bar.

In many ways, Jim had proven to be even more in love with New York than I was. In 1971 (when we first met as neighbors in a tenement on Avenue A and 2nd Street), I would have begged to differ, but after nearly fifty years I see the truth. I left the city (who betrayed whom?) and he stayed, continuing to root himself into the cracked sidewalks with a Chi that probably began with watching old Bowery Boy matinees while growing up in Baltimore.

Jim flourished as only a true maven can, in that fertile Greenwich Village street compost that the Beat Generation left behind for us stragglers. Over the decades, he morphed into various lifestyles, losing the hippie frizz and Dylan shades, but always with his trademark smile and fervor (including built-in contradiction, if you could read the fuzzy fine print). In the ’80s, as AIDS was decimating so much of the city’s creative life, Jim cut hair at the Silver Fox studio in the Village and loved Ronald Reagan. I was briefly a client, but neither his haircuts nor his politics suited me. No hard feelings, but decades would pass before we reconnected. His name, number, and address remained unchanged in my book, written in ink.

A few years after 9/11, I gave him a call. Jim had become a serious Tai Chi instructor, and lived in the same studio apartment in the West Village. His hair was short and grey, but his boyish charm and megawatt grin were the same as I remembered. We sat in simple straight-back chairs facing each other as we reminisced dirty old New York, and he shared some of his lifestyle details. I was fascinated to learn how he foraged restaurant dumpsters for perfectly good food, otherwise wasted. I got the impression that this was a decision made more from principle than penury, matching his spartan surroundings, but more importantly, his evolving monastic values. Throughout the conversation, I kept thinking what a true New York character Jim had become. It was a total compliment.

One day he appeared on my screen as a Facebook friend request. I nearly fell over. He had embraced social media, and within a few months had mastered the iPhone camera, roaming the city streets, documenting and posting photos on his Facebook page. It was as if Bill Cunningham had passed the torch to Jim Green. What I always called Millennials (no matter how many years or alphabet letters had passed), he called iGens, and they were his muses. He shot them night and day, with a kind of unabashed, open love and acceptance that I could never muster. We groaned about them, but I could tell he enjoyed being the wise old Boomer in his building, whose owner would have loved to evict and quadruple the rent for the never-ending flow of trust fund kids. (How dare they have not have a hard-knock life and still call this an authentic NYC experience!) Jim just kept on being Jim, while our city kept changing.

Eventually I had to check the Facebook box that allows one to see less of a friend’s posts. I wholly supported his newfound creativity in theory, but I just didn’t want photos of “those damn kids” clogging up my newsfeed 24/7. (Sorry, Jim. I hope you never knew that.)

Jim Green pic
photo credit: Jim Green 2019

On April 7, I clicked on your name. (How are you faring, your streets now swept of life? How is lockdown in that tiny studio?) I knew you could weather the storm; I just knew it. Yet I had this gut feeling. I had learned on this day that John Prine had died. Soon after we met, you told me I should listen to him (in that gung-ho, John Wayne-way you had. I wasn’t ready). I learned that you had passed peacefully on February 24. Cancer, not coronavirus. You must have felt the pandemic approaching, but it wouldn’t get you, and of that I am glad.

The city streets are extra-quiet without Jim Green on them, doing your Tai Chi in a pocket park, or capturing life that is momentarily suspended. I look forward to a day when I’ll feel you on my walkabouts. I can imagine it right now, something like: “Watts!! Right here is where John Garfield died! You gotta see Body and Soul!”

 

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 the gospel of yin and yang.

Not quite ready to completely plug into his cult-like energy, I managed to ask, “So, 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. — Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams

copyright Sharon Watts

video courtesy YouTube

Hanging Out in Washington Square

The Lower East Side’s counterrevolutionary troubadour David Peel died last Thursday. I knew of him because he used to hang out in Washington Square Park, and because he was collaborating with John and Yoko at a time I was feeling a bit untethered to my Beatlemania roots. They had officially and publicly split on April 10, 1970, when Paul made the announcement (dragging a few years behind John’s admission of the fact). I halfheartedly followed the Fab Four individually, with less passion and success. John and Yoko were living at the Dakota, and alternately drove around in a white limo and walked by themselves like regular New Yorkers in Central Park and Washington Square, where they discovered Peel.

Living on Bleecker Street in 1972, I often hung out in the park, keeping to myself. Sometimes I was approached. As anonymous as I thought I wanted to be, there was something about being there and singled out for anything other than panhandling that felt like a casting call. One time, it actually was.

28 June 72
Dear D____ ,
My social life at present consists of going to Washington Square with Tessa at night and grooving with the local derelicts. Tony, the toothless poet, King Frog, Enoch, & Rudy . . . all of them black & always drunk. On weekends David Peel & the Lower East Side (John & Yoko sang & played with them on “David Frost”) come to the park & play really weird chanting, neat music that turns on every drunk in the place. I like it too. That’s how we get to meet the local celebrities (not David Peel & the Lower East Side, but the derelicts).

Washington Square Park was the magnet that drew everyone below 14th Street, and I was no exception. I took along a sketchbook in my knapsack and filled it with drawings of people’s backs, too shy to engage in eye contact with my subjects while capturing them in charcoal. I blended in with the crowd of laid back loungers, war protesters, troubadours, pot dealers, pram pushers, chess players, frisbee tossers, young lovers, and elderly pensioners. Starting with kids and dogs in the fountain, the diversity of co-existence fanned out centrifugally, leaving no patch of park unoccupied.

That’s why I was surprised when singled out to participate in a NYU student film. Getting over my self-consciousness, I followed direction until the late afternoon light turned to dusk. Much to my disappointment, the film did not become the follow-up to Martin Scorcese’s Mean Streets. And I never saw the final clip. —Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams

BJ in the park

17 June 72
Dear Mom,
I guess I didn’t tell you I was in a film, did I? I was in Washington Square reading, & as I got up to leave a girl asked me if I’d be in a film she was doing (she was in 3rd year at NYU filmmaking). It was silent, & just about a girl (me) sitting in the park and a black guy comes up like all guys do (“Hey baby, whatcha doing?”) etc. and I just sit there with no expression, but then there’s a fantasy where I get mad & shove him off, & then it goes back to reality where I still have no expression and walk off. It was fun to do, & finally I got a chance to act (Ha!) Look for me in your local theatre. —Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams

David Peel

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!