“Are You a Tourist?”

I stopped in my tracks at her question. Me? Me, a tourist??

I had just asked permission to take a photo of a woman in a dress, after trailing her for several blocks. (Was it because I asked permission? Wouldn’t a real New Yorker just snap away?)

Desiree in her NYC dress

Desiree

It was a summer day in New York—the kind of day I can walk forever, popping into shade pools, sitting in a park watching kids play in the fountain, planning my next culinary treat (egg cream or Italian ice?) It wasn’t just the dress, it was her—walking down Houston Street, enjoying the day, just as I was. As if we were steeping in the city’s shimmering heat itself, with not a care about the ongoing incendiary news headlines. Immune, in our moments in the sun.

I’d just left the Bowery and was heading toward my old stomping grounds, circa 1972: the Lower East Side. It’s only been in the last year or so that I have reclaimed some of the street joy that I lost after 9/11. I am thrilled that it is still there, a reserve I am tapping into again.

I go on walkabouts to neighborhoods I remember from forty-five years ago, to see what, if anything, remains. Dismayed at razed blocks of tenements once propped up by sturdy mom and pop shops and bodegas, I now stand on a prominent corner almost anywhere and don’t know where I am without a struggle. There is no distinctive storefront, no defining character at all. Just four huge bank branches (and sometimes more) anchoring the intersection, along with chain mega-drugstores. A global corporate Mexican stand-off.

To me, these businesses have no right to be here taking up valuable real estate. Paying astronomical commercial rent fees, they are a blight—a direct sow from exponentially grown greed begun in a starter kit—all for $24 worth of wampum.

A lot of small businesses—especially those I remember from the 1950s thru 1980s—had the aura of commerce as being personal, accessible, and even creative. Over the decades, Chase, Citibank, Duane Reade and their ilk have spread as noxiously as crabgrass in July.

So, in answer to Desiree’s question. Yes. And no.

Here are some things that caught my eye recently, on the sidewalks of New York.

On the Bowery, wholesale restaurant supply stores are still tucked in-between facets of millennial glitz. A frustrated *creative*, maybe stuck in his family business, exercising a little black humor to save his sanity (and mine):

meatgrinder store veteran

slicer with dog head

dog in grinder

Barbie in slicer

Some vintage Bowery signage, taken with my 35 mm Olympus, sometime in the ’80s:

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photos copyright Sharon Watts

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Hawaiian Punch

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Hawaii is the kind of place I can visit for two weeks and feel my paradise-absorption levels at full saturation. By the end, I can’t take any more of all that good stuff:  sunshine, pristine beaches, postcard sunsets, snorkeling over reefs teeming with jewel-toned fish in turquoise water warmer than the air. And did I mention the fruit? Mangoes, passion fruit, pomegranates, dragon fruit, apple bananas, pineapples, papayas…all just hanging off trees for the picking! Maui is fruit smoothie heaven. And that is where I was, the end of November, during the blizzard that had blitzed Buffalo. Winter had arrived in New York. And I was in a good place.

I was there to help my friend with some home decor projects, so it was a kind of workation. It also was a place where, I had asked her six months previous, I might have a little mini-nervous breakdown, should I need it. Just a little quiet corner.

It turns out that, happily, I didn’t. So what can I do? I asked. She handed me a paint brush and pointed at the louvre doors. In my life I had done this task twice before, decades apart, each time swearing never again. But this time was different. I was on the porch, overlooking her tropical garden, and her gardener kept bringing me fresh-picked apple bananas. New to me, these small cousins to the ubiquitous bunch of Chiquitas in my kitchen seemed to be infused with something “other”–mysteriously evasive yet citrus-y.  I became hooked. I had my iPad and Ella Fitzgerald wafted over the warm air. I could paint louvre doors forever.

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My Arches watercolor block was in my carry-on luggage, and so, dammit, I was going to paint! (I have a history of good intentions but no action when I pack art supplies). I wasn’t all that ambitious to switch brushes, but I took a few moments to paint what was around. I didn’t do the dragon fruit justice–the skin is luminous, neon, even as it aged.

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While wandering around the Maui swap meet, I saw some familiar characters drawn on tiles and magnets. Sitting there with his wares was Kimble Mead, one of my favorite illustrators from the 1970s and 1980s, whose work adorned every magazine I read in New York City at that time. He had moved to Maui, ditching those icy sidewalks and portfolio-schlepping. Kimble’s style is just as delightful as it ever was–sunny, quirky, and easily adaptable to his new home. I snapped up a few.

Kimble

 

Kimball Meade art

I visited some galleries in Lahaina and saw a lot of tourist art, or “art.” Picasso rubbed shoulders with Anthony Hopkins, Miro with Tony Bennett, Rembrandt with Red Skelton. Gaudy souvenirs and impulse purchases for bottomless wallets. Once again I felt that I don’t really know who my market is, or if I even have one. Who wants to buy a watercolor of a couple of aging mangoes or apple bananas? Not in Lahaina, where you can buy a REAL Hannibal Lecter!

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I wandered the neighborhood my friend lived in, and noticed the mailboxes. That became a photography theme I’ll share in the next post.

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My friend requested a small mural in the corner of the guest room against a sea of faux painting. I braved Black Friday at the Queen K Shopping Center and ducked into a Ben Franklin arts’n’craft store to buy a set of acrylics. When I came out to the parking lot I discovered the car battery had died. Waiting for AAA was a very zen experience, the lesson of which got lost in one of the time zones I passed through. The new battery became my hostess gift.

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And just so you aren’t disappointed, here is a Hawaiian sunset. Sometimes it’s good to be a simple tourist.

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photos copyright Sharon Watts 2014 (except Anthony Hopkins art)

 

 

East Village Walkabout

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This week’s special mental health elixir was a walkabout in the East Village. Nearly finished with early punk rocker Richard Hell’s memoir I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, I found myself waxing nostalgic for my early, good old, bad old days in New York. I had one appointment on a warm October weekday, around which I indulged going with the flow of memory back into the seedy, dangerous, yet authentic past, with no evading what is the here and now.

I arrived in Hell’s Kitchen early September 1971, and two months later was living with my art school roommate in a fifth floor walk-up on 2nd Street between Avenues A and B. “Home Sweet Tenement!” was how we felt–in other words, ecstatic! On our way to becoming real Noo Yawkers.

Cuchifritos have caved to vegan everything, and the area I explored (below 14th Street and above Houston, from 4th to Avenue A) remains oxymoronic in who and how it nurtures and casts its spell. When I lived there, squatters and junkies ruled. Scattered into the sidewalk cracks were shoots of new growth, spawned by the artists and musicians who could afford no other neighborhood. They would add cachet for future generations–and end up as graphics on T-shirts sold to tourists. I peered into faces that looked to be about my own age, and could almost recognize who they once were. Reflecting who I once was. I looked at the buildings. At the streets. At life. The East Village will always be a symbol of survival. I wonder if it will survive all this.

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Sadly, the neighborhood is a construction zone. As buildings come down and the texture changes, I know that tipping points have already been reached. No going back.

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Happily, some relics exist, or co-exist with the new kids on the block.

Trash & Vaudeville

Russian Baths

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I watched triple bills of 1930s screwball comedies here, and the footprints of some of those stars grace the sidewalk–Joan Blondell, Joan Crawford, Myrna Loy–all added in the ’70s.

Myrna Loy

Block Drugs

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My favorite pit stop – DeRoberti’s Caffe. Since 1904.

Astor Hair

THE place for a punk cut in the ’80s. I indulged once, and almost did again this day. How cautious we become as we age!

B&H

Since I am now almost dairy-free, this is less of a temptation.

The low-rise tenements on the cross streets contain architectural detail unlike what we will ever see again–exquisite, fragile, tough.

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doorway graffiti

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This is the entry to my 1971 apartment building. Certainly spiffed up!

Hell's Angels

Now looks like a place you could take your mother – the Hell’s Angels headquarters.

More Wheels

bike explosion

wheels

Well, of course, you gotta shop!

flea mkt sign

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mick T

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Shiva on black velvet. Ommmm…my…..

vegan shoes

I’ll take a pair with licorice laces

Where there’s a wall, there’s a way.

scary mural

smile graffiti

See ya later, East Village!

photos copyright Sharon Watts 2013

Left Behind

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neil's moccasin

More here

all images property of and copyright Sharon Watts 2013