It was time. After over five months, I needed to face down my anxiety and fears. (Not of Covid-19 germs, surprisingly. We New Yorkers had beat back the curve under the savvy leadership of Governor Andrew Cuomo. We were, and are, “New York Tough.” And smart.)
I took the Metro-North train from my home, an hour and twenty minutes north of NYC, behind a mask for the longest time in my mostly at-home sheltering of the last five months. Reading, what else? The New Yorker. Roz Chast is always my preferred interpreter of generalized-anxiety-disorder, and she covers Covid pretty well, too.
But what would it feel like? I had lamented the changes in my city for years, bashing greedy corporate culprits responsible for the decimation of the unique texture that was once every neighborhood’s rightful claim. Now you need to be very observant to see what once was.
My first apartment was a typical tenement, and now is spiffed up with a restaurant and outdoor seating.
I sugar-coated when I described the building and apartment to my friends and family back home, in 1971. But my authentic enthusiasm was that of an 18-year-old who was living her dream:
Wed. Nov. 10, 1971
Dear D____ ,
First of all . . . we got an apartment! Hooray! We found it in 1 day, & we’re moving in tomorrow evening. The neighborhood is not too hot—Lower East Side—but the apartment itself is so nice. It’s in a pretty old building, & when the landlord showed it to us it was being completely renovated. It’s only $180/mo., & has loft beds (double size) built into the bedrooms and underneath is a clothes rack & desk built into the wall. The living room has one wall entirely in brick, & the kitchen is big (compared to most NY apt.’s) The bath tub is in the kitchen, but it’ll have a shower attachment & curtain. There’s a new sink, a big refrigerator, & a small stove. We just can’t wait to move in & start making it a home. But before we do anything we have to spray for cockroaches. They’re all over the city, & do they give us the creeps! It’s neat cause Alan [the landlord] is giving us $125 to furnish it (from thrift shops, Salvation Army, etc.) So it’ll be fun buying furniture. And he gave us free (but used) wall-to-wall carpeting. I just can’t wait.—Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams
copyright Sharon Watts
So, now—2020—how did I feel? People were out, mostly masked, and street energy was good. But I was disoriented. Not sure if I was mourning the changes of the last 5 months or the last 50 years, or was it all rolled up into one scribbly cloud? I couldn’t wait to get home and take my mask off, and sit in my little yard—my comfort zone. I know my boundaries need to be stretched from time to time, and I’ll be heading back to the city soon. I wonder what that tenement apartment rents for now. Let’s see. And I wonder if the cockroaches are gone.
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.
Our Bleecker Street apartmentwas 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
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.
Covid-fears have been nudged aside in the news cycle, as “Black Lives Matter” has asserted its place on the country’s center stage, and rightfully so. We’re all mad as hell and we’re not gonna take this anymore. Of course, opportunists have jumped into the orderly demonstrations to whip things up and blur the boundaries, creating more divisiveness (and making off with some high-ticket items).
Macy’s was looted last week. It had already been gutted, along with so much retail in the last decade, but the brick and mortar giant on 34th Street limped on. I find myself longing for images of a younger New York—it doesn’t matter if it’s from the tawdry ’70s when I first arrived, or the seemingly innocent 1950s, when I was being taught to be a good little girl. They peacefully co-exist in me. Just—New York, hang tough!
This is one of my all-time favorite films, with one of my all-time favorite cinema couples—Judy Holliday and Jack Lemmon. (Was I a little like Gladys Glover? Weren’t we all?)
Stepping outside the slightly threadbare art deco hotel lobby—which I refused to perceive as anything but Busby Berkeley-glamorous—I melded into the midtown throng. While no one looked like Holly Golightly, I was not going to be disappointed on my first day in New York City. Not if I had any say in the matter. Our high school Tri-Hi-Y club, the Katrells, had sold enough cupcakes and cookies at our junior year bake sale to buy Broadway theater tickets and charter a bus. It was 1970—a new decade for adventure and adulthood.
Across Eighth Avenue, finishing touches were being added to the block-long construction site of a relocated Madison Square Garden, and a bit farther east was Macy’s. I split from my coterie of classmates who were making a beeline toward the landmark store we all knew from Miracle on 34th Street. My plan was to bond in private with the city I had chosen as my future home.
A bit tentative, I decided to walk around the block. That way I wouldn’t get lost. Once I turned down 35th Street I was in another world, not of tourists and shoppers, but garment workers pushing huge clothing racks to clatter over the sidewalk cracks and somehowsuccessfully navigate intersections pulsing with turning cars, honking horns, and swarming pedestrians. I was merging my pace into this strange ballet on a narrow one-way street with no sunny side, eager to blend in, when he entered my peripheral vision.
“He” was a torso. Literally half a man—a black man—propelling himself with quick assurance using only his arms, palms paddling the dirty sidewalk while seated (if that is the right word) on a mover’s dolly. No one gave him so much as a glance.
Except me. I was shocked. How could such a person exist? Where did his digested food go? How did his body end, under his shirt? And what was he doing here, rollingknee-height along the streets—a human skateboard! Would he get squashed by a taxi before my very eyes?
He continued on his way, swallowed by an unfazed crowd, out of my sightline. Breathing a sigh of relief, I got my bearings. Not sure where to look—up? down? straight ahead?—I still wanted to take in everything and everybody. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to be looked at. I needn’t have worried, as any eye contact was fleeting-to-nonexistent.
Heading back to the hotel, I had a more classic, yet still unanticipated, encounter. As I waited at an intersection, a man flashed me. Contrary to cliché, he was not wearing a trench coat. He may have been playing to the crowd, but I felt singled out, as if I were being put to a test by the city itself. And so, turning on a dime, I got to practice my new persona—jaded nonchalance. After all, by now I had been around the block a few times.
I met up with my girlfriends in the lobby where they opened Macy’s shopping bags to show me their purchases, including wild pantyhose designed by counterculture artist Peter Max.
“Wow! Groovy!” Or, more likely, I would have said “Neat!”
Nobody could have scored this fashion coup back home. Only in New York. I kept my own recent discoveries to myself, not quite knowing how to share them with my friends. Not wanting anyone to cast a provincial pall on my future.
We next turned toward our evening plans: dressing up in suburbia-tamed psychedelic print mini dresses for dinner and the theater, with chaperone moms who had volunteered to herd us into Manhattan on an early weekend in spring. Promises, Promiseswas the show. I took it as an official invitation. — Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams
Will dining out in New York City ever be the same again? Right now, after two and a half months of lockdown, the rats are reportedly freaking out for lack of leftover restaurant and deli food. As things slowly start to reopen, which places will have survived? Exorbitantly high commercial rents had already decimated so many of my favorite eateries over the decades. Worst case scenario is a city overrun—not by rats—but by chain restaurants. Chock full O’Nuts was fine. Cracker Barrel would be gagable.
I’m doing way better than I could have imagined, sheltering in place an hour or so up the Hudson River from Manhattan. I eat very simply and very well. What I do miss is my routine of purchasing my bulk items from the health food store up on Route 9, whose twenty-something cashiers probably regarded me as the crazy lady with the senior discount who brought her own repurposed plastic bags—mostly with Trader Joe’s labels on them—and filled with mismatched ingredients with SKU numbers written on a separate piece of paper. Checking out was quite a production, but I always felt I was keeping some plastic out of the landfill with my slightly obsessive routine.
The spices that get depleted the fastest in my kitchen are curry, turmeric, and paprika. I wish I could beam myself back to pre-pandemic New York City, and stock up at the International Grocery on 9th Avenue. Until that time, I hold my beautiful spice jars and open the stopper to peer in, and think about the life they’ve led.
Now we were ready to set up our kitchen. After the shared hot plate at the Y, this was the equivalent of dining at the Waldorf Astoria. I had toted Nana’s old German milk glass spice jars from home. Other than mustard, I didn’t know what any of the words on the labels meant, but I filled them carefully with my two-ounce purchases from bulk burlap bags, just up the street at Pete’s Spice and Everything Nice. No McCormick’s plastic packaging for me!
The East Village was nurturing my hash-brownie generation while still catering to the aging Polish-Jewish population that clung like ivy to the tenements their families had staked out, after first pausing on the Ellis Island welcome mat. I felt an inexplicable kinship with them as I wandered into their bialy shops and take-a-number delicatessens, as if I were a baby left on the doorstep. Or—as I was learning to say—stoop.
“A sweet potato knish, please. Can you heat it up first?” It arrived via dumbwaiter from the brick oven in the basement of Yonah Shimmel Bakery. I sat at the old enamel-top table waiting for the pastry to cool as I hungrily took in the atmospheric detail, especially the neighborhood’s pre-hipster clientele slurping their borscht with sour cream, just like I imagined it was back in the shtetl.
Shunting aside my Chef Boyardee childhood, I was similarly dazzled by Katz’s Delicatessen, Russ and Daughters, and Ratner’s Restaurant (where three years earlier I might have brushed shoulders with Janis Joplin). I embraced pirogies, potato pancakes, Guss’ pickles, and homemade baked cream cheese studded with walnuts and raisins. TastyKake memories yielded to tzimmes, rugelach, and babka. I was shaking off my Velveeta-and-mayo-on-Wonderbread roots and swimming with the gefilte fish, feeling more and more like a “real Noo Yawka.” — Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams
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.)
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
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.
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.
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
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
Here is a phrase I only just became aware of: nostalgie de la boue (“yearning for the mud”). In his chapter on the demise of Times Square in Vanishing New York: How A Great City Lost Its Soul, author and blogger Jeremiah Moss further clarifies this, via architecture critic Herbert Muschamp, as “the sentimental attachment to decrepitude and sleaze . . .a venerable urban tradition.”
Muschamp went further, in 1996: “Where have they gone, the chicken hawks and stiletto knife displays, the peep show shills, the pickpockets, coke heads, winos, pimps and tramps? We had a world class gutter here. Must we trade it in for a shopping strip of retail chain outlets?”
If Muschamp and Moss can lament, let me add my small voice to the chorus. That tawdry, tactile, magnificent mess of a neighborhood was my first home in New York City, and I too mourn its demise. The world it contained informed the adult-child I was in the early Seventies just as indelibly as had the small suburban enclave where I grew up.
Danger always flickers at the edges of any child’s universe. Disappearing fathers with their strong, reassuring arms catapult one closer to the flames, testing personal limits and capabilities of how to feel safe. Alone. All these years later, faint tracers of that trajectory still stream through my consciousness.
The last time I was on 42nd Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue and felt any vestige of that hyper-pulsating block (that I dared myself to walk down upon arrival, just to see if I came out of it alive), was in the late 1980s. I had earned my green belt in karate and needed to buy a bō, a long martial art stick, from a shop that might have been there all those years previous, tucked between peep shows and porn theaters. The irony didn’t escape me. All I was packing in 1971 was an eighteen-year-old “good girl’s” sense of daring. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, and I knew it.
The Disney-fication starting to happen in the 1990s, and my red flags went up as the red light district went out. It all sort of sounded good, on the surface. Make things safer? Who could argue? Perversely, me.
Fear is a basic instinct—nothing else heightens the sense of feeling alive as that breath you finally exhale when you get just past it. Yet, I guess it’s all relative. For me, the all-consuming plague of corporate porn is far worse than the old-fashioned garden variety that once flourished in Times Square. I could never attempt to match Jeremiah Moss as he describes meticulously why it this is so, in Vanishing New York.
All I know is that I feel gutted when I visit my old neighborhood.
How easily I plugged into that throbbing street energy, and with it, the tactile seediness. My suburban backdrop faded into history—bland Colonial and ranch houses (reflecting even blander life prospects), slow trawls through the local hangout, McDonalds (required first stop with a newly acquired drivers license), unrequited crushes on boys (both squeaky clean jocks and the shadier rebels without a cause)—all just an out-of-town tryout for the stage set before me.
Our turf. Irish bars with wafts from steam table fare and stale beer snaking over the sidewalks, pawnshops beckoning with diamond rings and musical instruments long abandoned by desperate owners, shoeshine men stationed on high-traffic corners with stained fingers whipping the rag, over and over, and tired hookers tucked into sooty SRO doorways trying to meet nightly quotas for their pimps, who, like cockroaches, were rarely seen in the light of day. Enveloping, even nurturing—while soaring above it all—was that ever-seductive siren, the Broadway theater world: the heart of the sexy beast beating deep behind velvet curtains.
They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway They say there’s always magic in the air.
Second Day in NYC – Mon. Sept. 6, 1971 (Labor Day)
[Letter to high school friend]
Dear D____ ,
Tessa and I were walking all over town today—I really like her. The Y is fantastic—big room (not dingy at all), good location (the theater district). Like 8th Ave. is junky, but things improve as you go east. The location is good cause it’s a 10 minute walk to Central Park, 5th Ave., & any other midtown place & subway. Yesterday we got in at 1:30, lugged all my junk up (my mom got the look-over by the elevator guy & told me to watch out for him). Tessa got in at 6 and we didn’t go out, just talked and talked. Today we found out 8th Ave. is the prostitute hang-out, & there’s a porno movie house opposite our room. But there’s also, just catty-corner from us, a Howard Johnson’s, a deli (with YOGURT!) around the corner—like everything is so convenient. So we’ll likely stay here all year. We fell in love with the city today. — Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams
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.
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.
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.
“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
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.
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:
26 Jan 72
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.
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 Cowboysixteen 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