Every Sunday after church my Dad’d stop at the newspaper store to pick up The Sunday Times.
I walked my Sunday-best into the shop and stood in my father’s shadow just below the register, slid my sticky fingered hand into the candy bin and swiped a piece of Bazooka bubble gum.
The pink of it. The sweet stink of it.
The soft cornered tablet shape.
Crystal sugar that ground against teeth like sand and melted like icing in my throat.
And clinging to the wrapper, the inane pirate-patched Bazooka Joe tiny comic.
The chance to collect cool stuff.
Five minutes off my knees, papery host stuck on my tongue, the Holy Ghost tracking my every patent-leather step, and I stole gum my father would not have hesitated to buy for me.
The force was overwhelming.
The act was Irresistible.
Who knew sIn could taste so sweet?
Until the third fateful Sunday, I was accused.
My father defended his daughter’s honor to the belligerent shopkeeper as I slyly dropped the sweaty wax papered treat back into the bin.
The holy ghost had a good laugh.
I never pinched candy again.
I earned allowance. I saved. I spent.
Down on Soho’s Broome Street, grown-up girls with decorating daydreams can’t resist swank SICIS where you can rifle through their mosaic tile bins and slip your fingers over chicklet shaped glass mosaics infused with real sliver, gold or platinum.
Drop an offered mermaid hued sample in your pocket, or lick the back like a postage stamp.
Does it taste like it popped out of a Pez dispenser?
Or dropped off the counter at Bulgari?
Go to SICIS to get inspired.
Or Daddy Hedgefund willing, to buy.
Me, I browse at SICIS.
I buy at Canal Street Plastics.
At Canal Plastics I gotta pay a buck-a-piece for my 2×2 fluorescent or mirrored plexi samples.
But I don’t have to go down on bended knee for an act of confession.
Kiki at SICIS.
Call me unconventional.
I loved school.
Especially Catholic School.
The More House School for Girls.
Plenty of girls.
Bright, brilliant, clever, ever-so-often naughty girls.
The curriculum included Latin, French, Spanish, history, maths, confession, ballroom dancing, fencing and Shakespeare.
In our Shakespeare theatricals girls played all the roles.
Rosalind, Viola, Julia and Portia were juiciest.
Roles that only boys had played we now played; women disguised as men to teach justice, illuminate, and set the world right.
Disguise, doubled-up identities, corsets and capes.
We were intellectual superheroes.
In Girls School, we painted on swirly moustaches, swaggered with sabres and dropped our capes over puddles.
We waltzed in petticoats, held séances in cloakrooms and cribbed cheat sheets in several languages.
We donned pirate gear and orchestrated elaborate treasure hunts up then down back and front staircases.
We wore our costume-shop dresses home with Biba platform shoes, hand-crocheted cloche hats and Gary Glitter nail lacquer.
Winter week-ends we hung out at Conran's or the Tate and summers we swam in the Serpentine.
What’s not to like?
At Moore House, our curriculum did not include petty, catty infighting over boys and popularity.
We were born-free.
Brain Barter is like going back to Girls School.
Girls School with goblets of wine and platters of Brie.
Girls School relocated to fairy-lit Saks Fifth Avenue.
Girls School where we don’t have to draw on a moustache to be the smartest person in the room.
And then rub it off to be the sexiest.
Now aren't we clever girls!
Head east on 10th street and stride towards 268.
Before you see the sign, you’ll feel the heat rising off the bathhouse like humidity off of black August tarmac.
Last week I climb the steps, lean against the counter and hand over my watch, earrings, and wallet to the open security box offered by reliably grumpy Russian proprietor Boris.
My Old Friend, how long you been coming here?
Boris, I been coming here since you and your business partner David were friends and stood behind that desk laughing and glad-handing customers.
Since Madame Agnes reigned downstairs where she laid me out on that marble butcher’s slab and rested my arm on her enormous bosom to massage my neck and shoulders.
Boris, I been coming here since the Turkish guy.
Oh, the Turk.
When he said it, it was a grunt.
Time was the East Tenth Street Russian and Turkish Baths was a Turkish bath.
At least Turkish owned.
The fit young Turk was a chiropractor.
Or so he claimed.
A stealthy commando-styled chiropractor.
Upon entering the establishment, the unsuspecting patron could suddenly find her throat caught in his sure grip.
Without a whisper, he’d stepped from behind and then twisted and turned a neck so quickly you’d think he was a carnival geek cradling a chicken.
A series of snap crackle and pop would ricochet down my spine and deafen like skeet shooting through my cerebrum.
Stunned, I survived where the chicken wouldn’t.
My head still on.
But a hell of a lot tenser.
Thanks to the Turk then for the baths down below.
Some people are schvitz people.
To schvitz is to be alive.
And schvitzless is a slow rigor mortis particularly when your nearby domicile is an authentic tenement.
Where wind whistles, “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” through the gaps in the window’s wooden frames.
Where the heat hisses, “Steam Heat” and slips out into the cold night headed towards an encore of “Take the A Train.”
The Tenth Street Baths, upstairs and down, are a convocation of geeks, freaks, outlaws, thugs, and mobsters.
Ayy, how ya doin? When d’you get out?
One ape-chested patron greets another,
as a third starts to bark,
Who let the dog out?
Mix in a handful of sour stoop-shouldered hipsters and a few radiant, tiny-pored, beautiful people.
Welcome to Schvitz Culture.
Schvitzers don’t talk about schvitzing.
It’s the non-Schvitzers who ask,
What do you DO there?
Schvitzing can’t be explained.
It’s like telling someone you’re into bare-fisted cage fighting.
What do I do there?
I sit in a room so hot, if my bare leg touches the wall, it’ll scald.
The heat assaults with a ferocity that causes my mind to blackout in a proto-Ayahuascan vision quest.
For respite I step into a pool so frigid my numbed feet barely climb back out.
Once a month I actually pay a bear of a Russian to pulverize me with frothing oak branches and manhandle me through a sequence of three-quarter and full nelsons in a climate that simulates the inner sanctum of a pizzeria’s brick oven.
When I leave, my arms are too weak to hook my bra.
My skin is blushing like a bride’s.
My waist is taut, my face aglow, each breath like a baby’s first.
Exeunt the Turk.
Enter two Russians: Boris and David.
They add barely a sun roof, flavored vodka, more massage rooms, expand the men’s changing room by squeezing down the women’s.
Once friends they are now mortal enemies and swap out ownership every other week.
It’s like divorce where the business is in a custody standoff.
Dad moves in one week and then packs up and leaves with out a trace.
Mom moves in the next.
Mom and Dad each have their spies.
They’re called employees.
Do they double or triple cross?
At the Tenth Street Baths, you’re back in the USSR.
Buy a seven or ten-pack pass.
The economy’s in your favor and cash’ll get you a special price.
It did me.
But my pass is only good for Dad’s weeks.
I have to go next week and sort something out with Mom.
Nasty attitude, crowd, noise, dirt, cracked rubber slippers, over-laundered robes, rough and ready towels, broken hooks in splintered lockers.
The list is unbearable.
For ordinary people.
But for Schvitzers what’s unbearable, is not to schvitz.
But to collapse on a wooden bench in a small tile-walled room, where cast iron radiators stack floor to ceiling and output enough steam to propel a Mississippi River boat, blasting with a force and a din that convulses then slackens muscles immobilizing them like strychnine?
For a Schvitzer, that is to lay down with the Gods.
It’s not for everyone and it doesn’t last forever but
there’s a time and a joy in eating candy that’s so sweet it feels to melt away
your teeth. For coconut fans, the British Bounty bar is far more
cavity-enhancing than its Yankee cousin the Mounds.
Once upon a time, New York City hosted two subway vendors
that sold a shredded-coconut treat sweeter than a Bounty bar.
The pastel-colored patty was 3 inches square, non-chocolate
and slipped into a sticky cellophane envelope. This free-standing bonbon
filling was a creamy grout joining long rough coconut strands in a
melt-over-your-tongue and eat-at-your-teeth delight.
Grand Central sold ‘em down at the bottom of the subway
entrance just to the left of the turnstile.
And Coney sold ‘em.
During an August heat wave I’d fold myself into the already
packed can of F train and press sweat with the world’s population and out we’d
ride to the people’s beach: Coney Island. The train’d roll into Stillwell
Avenue where we’d solidly exit as one and pour through the open doors, thinning out
toward the thickening summer heat.
Now new and nearly European Stillwell Station.
Stillwell Station’d greet with the smell of urine, grease,
salt, and sweet. The salty sweet wafted up from the vendor at the bottom of the
wide long ramp that pitched towards Stillwell Avenue, to the thick splintered
boardwalk, a pocked and pitted littered stretch of sand, and the vast flat
The station’s food counter displayed bagged cotton candy,
hallucinogenic lollipop spirals and a pirate’s booty of pastel coconut gems
alongside sun-colored corn popping in a smudged glass vitrine. The first bite
of creamed coconut filled my mouth with a carnival delight and fortified till
lunch hour when I’d step off the counter at Nathan’s carrying my over-the-brim
cup of famous fries. Nathans still offers the customers of people’s beach
a self-operated ketchup pump; a faucet of satisfaction to drench the world’s
best fries till the heart and tongue’s content.
Fries are now served by the bag, and still with a tiny devilish fork.
August in Coney Island, the beachcomber rolls up from hot
tenement hell into the purgatory of nuclear sun where Coney seizes the senses till the eyes leap out on
springs and the tongue hits the boardwalk with a thud.
Behold here in Coney Island, a roiling abundance of human
Man and dog.
Banners herald The World’s Tiniest Woman alongside The
World’s Biggest Rat.
Twenty-nine tiny inches.
This way to a world of fun.
Fly your flag.
How Sweet It Is.
August won’t last forever.
Kiki and Sophie in Wayfarers, Coney Island, August 1983.
I’ve never seen Valley of the Dolls.
Until last night.
Now I don’t usually weep in the dark before a screen unless Ralph Fiennes is projected on it.
On a recent long haul flight I watched The English Patient.
Back to back.
Weeping, I actually lost water weight.
Ralph brooding in khakis. The perfect diuretic.
So, why did I sob an entire Valley of the Dolls?
It is the perfect kitsch masterpiece.
But that can’t be the only reason.
When I was a girl my mom had a friend as gorgeous as Sharon Tate. J’s hair teased up in a high smooth lift over her crown then fell waistward in a California dreamin’ cascade. J. wore belted safari suits in crème and bone. She was long and leggy and used to chat on the phone sitting on the kitchen counter, her pretty feet in the sink, her knees tucked up under her chin.
When Sharon Tate lies alone in her twin bed, a bandage peeking out of her mocha negligee, afraid of losing her breast, her husband locked up in a loony bin, her sister-in law, the elegant and practical Lee Grant, pimping her out, like her mother before her, I thought of J. with her leg in a cast and years later I’d heard her husband put it there. I thought of Sharon Tate, murdered in her home by the Manson clan, and I wept.
I wept thinking of all those gorgeous women, on screen and off, with
all their goddamn gorgeousness and yet all so forlorn. They gave it all
away. And in their poverty, they turned to dolls.
And what about those hairpieces?
I wept for the end of the era of Hollywood la-dee-da speech, of women in hats, hairpieces, and gloves.
And when Susan Hayward says,
One day you'll wind up alone.
And wonder what happened.
Yeah, you guessed it. For that I wept.
Child star Patty Duke, all grown up here, flicks her beatnik hips to stardom only to stumble doll-addicted back to Nowheresville in a glitter mini-dress and mussed wig.
Shall I call you a cab? A kindly bartender queries.
I don’t need it.
I don’t need anybody.
Cause I got talent.
They love me.
The hell with ‘em, who needs ‘em?
The whole world loves me.
This morning I had trouble dressing. Nothing would do. I stood on a pile that was my whole damn wardrobe. Everything was just a little too tight. The mirror just a tad too wide.
Now it all becomes clear.
That time of month when a girl could really use a doll.