Navigating Loonies, Roller Skating on the West Side Highway, and Fiorucci’s: My New York Childhood

Inspired by last week’s New York magazine’s wonderful cover story, “Childhood in New York”, I could not help but reflect on my own. Back in the 1970s, the Upper West Side was a much funkier neighborhood; it had a diverse vibe, there was more of a pulse. The now very tame La Caridad restaurant on 78th street, for example, started out as a hole-in-the-wall cabbie dive. My parents referred to it as the Ptomaine Café, but I secretly wanted to try it out; on Amsterdam Avenue there were head shops and a Botanica filled with colorful religious statues and candles. My mom used to buy her cigarettes there, but the place creeped me out so much that I’d wait for her outside. Back in the 70s, even the very buttoned-up Collegiate School had a trippy Technicolor mural on its façade; it was just a different time.

One of my fondest and oddest memories was roller skating along the West Side Highway. A portion of it was closed for repairs for a long period of time, and my parents and dog would trail behind me as I clattered along in those clunky metal skates that fit over my sneakers. Afterwards we’d sometimes stop at Gitlitz Deli on Broadway and 76th street,  grab hot bagels from H&H, or get something at Zabars, where we once encountered Lauren Bacall in all of her husky-throated glory. We’d walk down Broadway, past the local color, like the Chicken Man, a 6’5” giant in an ill-fitting coat who would surprise passersby with alarming clucking outbursts; and the character we dubbed El Greco, a tiny lunatic whose dark and stormy looks reminded us of the works of the painter. We got used to them all – they were our neighbors too. That’s the one thing about being a Manhattan kid; you learn to navigate your way around crazy, fast.

There were small independent bookstores, like Eeyores, where I waited for Judy Blume to sign my copy of Are You There God, it’s Me Margaret (which I still have). Back then there was a huge Woolworth’s on 79th and Broadway, where you could buy turtles and goldfish,  and there were favorite restaurants like Teachers, and the Ginger Man near Lincoln Center, where I’d feel so sophisticated at dinner with my parents, sipping on a Shirley Temple. Plus there were cool places to shop, like the psychedelic boutique called Pandemonium which reeked of patchouli, and Charivari, the “it” boutique of the day and one of my mother's favorites.

Growing up in New York City gave me such a sense of independence; once we got past a certain age, we didn’t need our parents to drop us off at school or take us around. I felt bad for my cousins in the suburbs who had to be driven everywhere. The bus, subway and our sneakered feet did the trick. And no, most of us didn’t have backyards, but when you are perfectly situated between Riverside Park and Central Park, who needed one? Plus, the Museum of Natural History, was an adventure in and of itself; we’d spend hours beneath the giant blue whale, wondering if it could ever fall. As a tween, I remember going to Bloomingdale's with friends on Saturdays for frozen yogurt (a novelty at the time), and afterwards heading over to Fiorucci to try on overpriced Italian jeans and glitter makeup, back when performer Joey Arias worked there.

Manhattan was a brilliant, colorful and crazy place; for all of its flaws, danger, dirt and occasional stench, I’m so glad I got to grow up here. In my very humble opinion, few places are quite as vibrant. My thirteen-year-old daughter said to me recently, “You know, people from New York City are really different. It’s a special place." I had to agree; special indeed.

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