Hell’s Kitchen and All That Jazz

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04/09/2015

Neighborhood: Hell's Kitchen

Hell’s Kitchen and All That Jazz
Photo by Lionel Martinez

I was dropped off 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 1970s. On my own.

My stepfather-to-be had driven my mom and me nearly four hours from azalea-shrubbed suburbia to this city block of peep shows, Blarney Stone neon, and the bland, brick YWCA. My new home. I checked into a room with two single beds and one cheap veneer desk.

Forty minutes later, my mother was crying as they pulled away into the 8th Avenue traffic, leaving the corner of 50th Street to the afternoon hookers in torn fishnets and out-of-date white go-go boots. And leaving me on the doorstep to my future.

I wanna be a part of it. New York, New York.

Parson’s School of Design had accepted me into their elite fashion design program. It seemed only logical that my childhood of paper doll couture, fueled by my fantasies, would deliver me straight into that rarified stratosphere of skyscrapers and social registry. Brought up on Howard Johnson’s fried clams, I sensed that Oleg Cassini’s world was now my oyster.

I was soon convinced otherwise by the French curve, a plastic template so crucial to turning flat muslin into wearable art, 3-D wannabe-Dior. It proved to be just as flummoxing to my right-sided brain as the slide rule had been in high school.

There was no foundation course, no luxury of time to waffle about the future. In 1971, Parsons was a no-nonsense technical school (not yet joined at the hip to The New School for Social Research and its bohemian take on academics). Young, determined, and mostly local talent was funneled in, with the occasional trickle from the hinterlands–me. By the end of the first semester I had flunked draping. I convinced myself first, then the head of the department, that I was destined to make my flamboyant mark in the world with a charcoal pencil, not a French curve.

Newly transferred to the fashion illustration department, 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” by 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.

My roommate, Penny, proved to be everything I desired in a companion. We were like-minded with enough opposite components to click instantly. She was Alpha-female, extroverted, and able to pull from my natural demureness one strand of DNA similar to hers (undoubtedly from my father), knitting us together as partners in adventure, if not exactly crime. 

Penny was majoring in general illustration, so we didn’t crowd each other in artistic competitiveness. Just in our small room with one desk. More often than not, I was the one hunkered on the stained, worn carpet over my Strathmore drawing pad.

Besides having no dorms, there was no extra-curricular activity at Parsons. We spent our non-homework evenings roaming the theater district, often winding up in unlikely places for girls fresh out of high school. Jilly’s was practically right around the corner: Sinatra’s old hangout, where we sat at the bar with feigned soigné requests to refill our White Russians. Here I met Frank Fontaine and got his autograph. Studio 54 had yet to arrive, and other than leftover discotheques from the 60s, where was a young gal with no money to hang out? What better place than here with “Crazy Guggenheim,” who offered a bridge to my suburban sofa left behind. On The Jackie Gleason Show, this character had made me howl with his “drunken” antics, then suddenly stop and confuse me with his sober and beautiful singing. It was an era when fame had an entirely different aura. People had not actively started claiming their fifteen minutes of it, and I was mesmerized, sitting on a bar stool next to someone I had only known in black and white on a Zenith television screen.

Penny and I had bonded like epoxy, with the result making me bolder than I naturally was. We ducked under police barricades, leaving the hoi polloi behind to mingle with theater celebrities and society types at red carpet premieres. With Salvation Army vintage furs tossed over Landlubber bellbottoms, we applied bright red lipstick before descending on Alan Bates at the stage door where he was performing in Butley.  We struck up conversations with older men who were hungover but still whirling from the Sixties’ sexual revolution. Somehow, in the wake of that centrifugal force, we remained chaste. Occasionally we found ourselves in situations that could have ended badly. Very badly. But God was on the job, busy taking care of two foolish Broadway babies. 

The counter at Howard Johnson’s, a few blocks down Eighth Avenue from the YWCA, was a more appetizing haunt than Jilly’s or Sardi’s for several reasons, two of them being Butter Brickle and Mint Chocolate Chip. Penny and I would plant ourselves on the stools nearly every day after art class and order the rich ice cream, served up in chilled, fluted stainless steel sundae dishes, usually by Julio, the friendly, cute, mustachioed counterman. We broadened our circle of extracurricular friends to one, and on a mild October afternoon rode the subway far uptown to visit him in Washington Heights on his day off. He played his saxophone for us as we sat on the sofa, then was called aside by his wife for diaper duty. Awkwardly realizing that we didn’t have much more in common with Julio than a HoJo’s counter, Penny and I said good-bye to the young Hispanic family, proud to have ventured outside our orbit, but more comfortable back on the ragged edge of Times Square.

How easily I plugged into that teeming street energy, and with it, the tactile seediness. My suburban backdrop faded into history–bland ranch houses (reflecting even blander life prospects), slow trawls through the local hangout, McDonalds (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

Other than ticket prices, nothing has changed in all these years. Not even me. Awakening sounds from the orchestra pit start to tease, first with strings, tickling the inner thigh of seated anticipation. Sly foreplay crescendoes with woodwinds, brass, percussion, until the Overture erupts in symphonic ecstasy. Lights dim, the curtain finally parts; I am pulled in as the world outside dissolves into nothingness. Back then, this experience was a seismic orgasm for a small-town virgin.

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.

The first play I remember sneaking into was Jesus Christ Superstar. I already knew the lengthy 1970 Webber-Rice soundtrack by heart, had blasted it on our family’s Magnavox, mincing along with King Herod:

So you are the Christ, you’re the great Jesus Christ?
Let me know that you’re no fool
Walk across my swimming pool

Here it was on stage in full, bizarre, glam rock excess, putting in the limelight my crush dilemma from the past. In one corner: Jesus Christ, representing the highly desirable and parentally-approved high school jocks. In the other, Judas Iscariot, pinch-hitting for all the doubters, the questioners, the misunderstood (and, of course, sexy) James Deans.

At the crowded stage door, I waited for Jesus, careful not to clutch too tightly and bend that week’s Time magazine, its cover featuring this golden creature I was about to ask for an autograph. More nervous anticipating a Broadway stage actor than I would have been with a true messiah, I threaded after Jesus into a nearby bar. “Be Sweet,” he wrote on his visage, with my Flair pen. Thus blessed, I headed back to the Y, leaving him on his bar stool with whatever libations liberated him from the shackles of being the Son of God.

On the darker side, Ben Vereen was a hypnotizing Judas, and I would have kissed his betraying lips and followed him anywhere. In fact, I’d only have to trot around the corner and down to 45th Street to the Imperial Theater where he next starred in Pippin. As The Leading Player, he had plenty of “Magic To Do” in the opening number. This was my introduction to Bob Fosse, who would put his stylistic stamp on much of the decade with trailblazing choreography and cynical, deadpan delivery, topped off by a rakishly angled bowler hat. While The Company’s silhouetted and seductively waving hands pressed me back against my seat, I had no choice but to allow the genius production number to ooze all around me. Kicking my army bag under the seat, I forgot the forgettable plot and focused on those mesmerizing, thrust forward hips, the R-rated pantomime, the beckoning suggestiveness that seemed to correspond with my arrival to the city.

I was a sponge, soaking up every drop.

Sharon Watts spent forty formative years in New York City soaking up street energy when it was so tactile you could scrape it off your feet with a chopstick. She’s been, at different times: an art school student, a wine stewardess in a kosher-Chinese restaurant, a fashion illustrator, an assemblage artist, a watercolorist, and an archivist of things both inconsequential and of enormous meaning. She compiled a book in 2007 – “Miss You, Pat: Collected Memories of NY’s Bravest of the Brave, Captain Patrick J. Brown” about the FDNY’s most legendary firefighter who died 9/11. She also wrote “Back To My Senses,” a collection of post-9/11 personal essays. “Satchmo: King of Queens” is one current work-in-progress, a visual and educational word-play project about Louis Armstrong. Another is “Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams,” a memoir/scrapbook of her early days as a fashion design/illustration student in New York City, 1971-1974.

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§ 4 Responses to “Hell’s Kitchen and All That Jazz”

  • Susan Gutterman says:

    I loved reading this. I lived in that YWCA — The Laura Spellman (Rockefeller) in the hot summer of 1959. My new friend was from Messina NY, & headed back upstate without finishing our course — 8th Ave. in the 50’s was too intimidating.
    What a burst of nostalgia. Except that I wasn’t stagestruck, the atmosphere is just as I remember it.

  • sharon watts says:

    Hi Susan~ thanks for reading and commenting! I would love to have seen how the neighborhood was in the late ’50s. Glad it stirred up some memories for you.

  • andy padre says:

    Sharon: I loved every word of this as well! I’m an artist who moved here in ’96 and now own a co op at 54th and 10th. One of my favorite nights out was to hit the Rainbow Room and then Ho Jo’s. I’d go with friends and we’d sit in one of the booths along Broadway and not leave until we’d seen: a famous person, a “transaction” and someone we knew. Andy

  • sharon watts says:

    Andy~ so nice to hear from a fellow artist and Hell’s Kitchen resident! What a fun tradition you had–the HoJos I went to was on Eighth but yours was the really classic landmark that unfortunately became, I don’t know, an M&Ms store? There may be more intact the farther west you go. I lived on 45th between 10th & 11th in the mid-70s. That was no man’s land then.

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