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.

IMG_5066
Ave. A signage thru the decades
Deport Trump
Yes! Or better yet—JAIL!
IMG_5073
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.

IMG_5068
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

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

“Fasten Your Seat Belts . . .”

Two days after the presidential election, I was in the city—my emotional touchstone. All day long I had done my walking meditation, hobbling in new (but sturdy) shoes, from Grand Central to the Upper East Side, through Central Park and over to Riverside Drive. I sometimes forgot that this was a new world. A lunch date with a friend I had reconnected with after a thirty-year hiatus had us lamenting the “good old bad old days” in Hell’s Kitchen. With what we’d been through in our lives, we could deal with this looming apocalypse, right?

Darkness fell, and I continued down upper Broadway past the Trump Tower on Columbus Circle that replaced the Gulf & Western Building (which housed an underground movie theater in 1970, where I first saw Midnight Cowboy). Finally, heading down Eight Avenue somewhere in the 40s, I realized I was desperately seeking comfort, looking for familiar landmarks to pin me to a map in my head (and heart) that went back over forty years.

Entire blocks are now eviscerated. Blarney Stones have yielded to video game streetscapes, a Trump-visioned hell. I didn’t expect such physical disorientation that had me second- and third-guessing my sanity as I tried to locate a cross street sign. Passing the neon reminder that Smith’s Bar still existed, I briefly considered ducking into the neighborhood hangout that I had never hung out in. Spiffed up by new owners, it teemed with pre-theater goers—something that definitely was not part of the Runyonesque clientele that reflected the neighborhood back in 1972. I wasn’t looking for a yuppified Times Square institution. I was looking for a place that felt timeless. All I wanted was something even peripherally from my past, that predated Disney’s porn-ification of Times Square.

Swinging a left onto a stretch of 44th Street layered like a pastrami sandwich with tourists lined up for their 7 p.m. curtain times, I saw the sign.

sardis

Of course.

In 1971, when I lived within spitting distance of the legendary landmark

—famous for its celebrity caricatures marla-maples and frequented by Broadway stars and theater critics—

I was too intimidated to enter. Now I was ready. I was fastening my seat belt for a bumpy four years.

With my modest monthly allowance, I somehow managed to see almost every play that came to life within the neon trapezoid that encompassed the theater district. Balcony seats in 1971 cost $7, yet I had another, still more frugal ploy. I would arrive at intermission break, mingle with the crowd outside, then enter with them for the second act. Making my way up to the rear balcony, I discreetly nestled on the aisle steps, unreported by the paying seat holders and unnoticed by the usherettes in their prim white collars and black cardigans. By now their flashlights were off and they were clustered in the ladies’ lounge puffing on cigarettes or catching up on gossip. By now, they were far too jaded to the magic happening on stage.

Fri. Sept. 17th, 1971
Dear D____ ,
It’s now 11:30, & Penny & I just got back from a walk around town. First we had ice cream at Howard Johnson’s, where we’re pretty good friends with this guy that works at the counter. He always gives us extra and 1/2 off. Then we felt so full we had to walk around (it was dark) & it was really nice—everyone dressed up to go to the theatre. But we decided to walk through the lobbies of the big hotels. First the Taft (to go to the bathroom), then the NY Hilton. We glanced in the Kismet Room at the Hilton, & these guys (def. between 25-60) invited us in & we said we didn’t have any money but they said they’d buy, so they were smashed & we had 2 sloe gin fizzes a piece, plus the musician came by to play the accordian & sing. They spent $3 on each of us & invited us to see Englebert Humperdink right up the street, but we declined & got out. Then we hit the Warwick, the Park Lane (Central Park South—very ritzy) & the Plaza—just hitting the newsstands & gawking at the classy lobbies. Then we went past Thursday’s, a night-clubbish bar/restaurant for “young singles,” & ended up talking to the doorman who wanted Penny’s number. It was about 10:15, so we headed home. . . . Did I tell you about the Hare Krishna guy who got us in his apartment? — Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams

copyright Sharon Watts

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

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