The Astor Place Kmart Was My Place to Be Normal
Photo: wendyfelton / Flickr /
The first time my wife, Roberta Smith, heard that I was shopping for my clothes at Kmart, she was appalled. In fact, she was very upset. She was a snob.
I put that a lot in the past tense. We’re both upper middle-class kids from the Midwest, basically raised by animals that haven’t taught us anything about the ways of the world – let alone the art world – or of dressing, of cooking, of art or, really, of life. Like most of you reading this, we’ve each run away to New York and reinvented ourselves. Upon arrival, she worked to learn how things were done and what made one thing better than another, by being courageous to learn things that she did not know and by taking an interest in everything that happened. passed around her.
I went in the opposite direction. For me, Kmart – which opened its first of two Manhattan stores on Astor Place in 1996 and suddenly closed this weekend – was a form of fashion in the fetal position. I dressed in Kmart marks as in an aggressive protective squat. They clothed my upper middle class absence with what I imagined to be a more working-class look. Kmart was my drugged escape from my then still bad body image, self-hatred, insecurities, delusions of grandeur, rage against all who have money and the envy of those who succeed.
In the 1980s, as the art world took off like a rocket, art and money began to have prolific sex in public, everywhere, at once, all the time. The distorting power of living around so much ubiquitous money in such distorting proximity and at times rendering the space of the art world to this day toxic. Regardless, at the time, artists painted in expensive Comme des Garçons costumes, merchants were dapper or presented as jewels of power, and men dressed like businessmen in grand costumes that said, “I dress like a professional, but I’m not; I am still a pirate; little i can afford these clothes. It was the irony of fashion at a high price.
Terrified, resentful, ignorant and unable to afford fashion, I quickly switched to another path: the low end. Ashamed of having neither “taste” nor “style”, I decided to become “a man of the people”, the “critic of the people”. Never mind that I was still infinitely loath to myself. On the fashion side, Kmart was my safe space, my battleground for ideas, my revenge, the internal cracking of my self-martyrdom, my methadone style that took me away from the inaccessible and scary hard drugs of haute couture. At Kmart, my demons have been arrested, allowed to retaliate, to hide. I could stay in my solitude, a parody of an art critic.
There were no changing rooms, no mirrors. There was no one who looked like me, certainly no one I knew. Breaking in the 1990s with the work shirts I wore, I found my Kmart brand, “First Edition”. Every few years I would visit and drift around until I found the exact same First Edition shirts, still in solid dark colors or with little checks to hide my breasts, still in the same size. These shirts cost around $ 12. I would buy four or five. They are still in my closet. I once went to a 4th of July fireworks display given by my friend, art critic Peter Schjeldahl. One of the rockets overturned and shot me with sparks, burning me. My first thought was, No! I’m wearing my favorite dark blue Kmart shirt! I had it fixed and I still wear it. I had my portrait painted there by Dana Schutz, who had just finished a portrait of the young Illinois state senator, Barack Obama. As far as I know, he wasn’t wearing a $ 12 Kmart First Edition shirt.
Its location may have contributed to its strangeness. Astor Place and Lafayette Street, between East Village and Greenwich Village, where train 6 stopped and crowds always flocked in and out, looked like manless territory. Neither commercial nor residential; there were municipal buildings and offices around but also dive bars, tattoo parlors, a large wine store that I never went into (because, as with clothes, I didn’t know anything about wine and I never had the courage). This was the corner where we were all going to line up to get The voice of the village, where I was an art critic and took a handful off the pile so that I could cut and paste my reviews into my album. The album and the Voice are gone, but Kmart has survived until now. I would go grab a coffee and a slice of pizza in the huge, almost empty second floor cafe and sit in what looked like plastic high school or DMV chairs and gaze out the large arched curved window to the south. , to the city center. I have never met anyone I know there. Was I weird that I went, or were everyone I knew weird never to go?
There are ghosts all over this estuary non-district. I lived in a drugged building on Avenue B with a dealer’s dogs patrolling the hallways and no heat in the winter. I later moved into a lovely apartment in Greenwich Village and could feel the gentrification running out of steam in this curious architectural hallway as it passed Kmart. I never liked the space right there. We always look as quickly as possible towards the masterful Cooper Union or the rotating black public sculpture. Now there’s a boring glowing red-orange Jeff Koons balloon dog in the glass lobby of a new building with indescribable glass walls.
While Roberta was still in shock to be with a man shopping at Kmart, I had a way to get clothes into the house. After one of my quadrennial shopping sessions (each lasting about 20 minutes), I would take the clothes home, cut out the labels, and launder them. Then I slipped them into my clothing rotation. When Roberta would hold up one of those new shirts or hoodies and say “What is this?” I would say, “Oh that? No, this is not new. It has been around for a long time. Turns out she always knew. Later, I learned that she had cycled for the threadbare. That’s why I never seem to have more clothes.
Kmart was more to me than clothes. I also buy our lamps, pots and pans and other kitchen items there. The day Roberta came home her first cancer operation and i was running out of energy and terrified, the first thing i did was go to kmart and buy our very first microwave oven. I took it home in a huge box. Kmart saved my life.
I like the large anonymous generic space and the fact that each Kmart is more or less like the others. There, I felt part of the spirit of the American group, no one spoke to each other; we’re all cut off, all knowing that the only way to get somewhere is on our own: American carnage and pathos. I wish I could say that shopping there was, for me, pretend – cosplay fun being American, being punk. This was not the case. It was in keeping with a tendency that I struggle with almost every day, to pull back and come back to the safe psychological hologram I created for myself in Chicago before moving to New York to try to make me a name. This anonymity is neither cool, nor philosophical, nor black; for me, it’s more austere, more bare, the primordial nothingness of the Midwest from which I wanted to escape. Likewise, I prefer anonymous high-rise hotels, like Holiday Inn, Marriott and Hyatt. I feel incognito here, myself, at ease. As with these hotels, Kmart meant that I didn’t have to venture outside myself; it allowed my strange personal pathology to be in a crowd but not have to really make contact. Here I felt locked in, satisfied, confident just beyond my lack of confidence, fears displaced by the illusion that I had found a way to survive my fears. Kmart was a defensive alliance I made with the world, a place where my flaws were covered, healed.
Every time I posted a photo of myself happily shopping at Kmart, people fell in love with it – much like people do when I confess my love of New York deli coffee. People comment “Don’t go, Jerry!” Kmart is ruining New York. On the contrary. I think Kmart was one of the few more “normal” things left in our city. Kmart was what was left of the deli coffee: a more diverse, less pure and non-artisan New York. Until the end, it was a place that still seemed strange.