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

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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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

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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

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!)

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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