big boxes

The Astor Place Kmart Was My Place to Be Normal

Photo: wendyfelton/Flickr/

The first time my wife, Roberta Smith, learned that I shopped for my clothes at Kmart, she was appalled. Actually, she was very upset. She was a snob.

I put this very much in the past tense. We are both children of the upper-middle-class Midwest, essentially raised by animals who taught us nothing about the ways of the world — let alone the art world — or of dressing, cooking, art, or, really, life. Like most of you reading this, we each escaped to New York and reinvented ourselves. When she arrived, she worked to learn about how things were made and what made one thing better than another, being brave about learning things she didn’t know and taking an interest in everything going 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 closed abruptly this weekend — was a form of fetal-position fashion. I dressed in Kmart brands as if in an aggressive protective crouch. They clad my upper-middle-classlessness in what I imagined was a more working-class look. Kmart was my narcotized escape from the inscape of my then-still-bad body image, self-hatred, insecurities, delusions of grandeur, rage against anyone with money, and envy of those with any success.

In the 1980s, as the art world took off like a rocket ship, art and money started having prolific sex in public, everywhere, at once, all the time. The warping power of living around so much ubiquitous money in such close proximity skews and sometimes makes toxic the space of the art world to this day. Anyway, back then artists painted in expensive Comme des Garçons suits, dealers were dapper or presented like power jewels, and men dressed like businessmen in large suits that said “I dress like a professional, but I’m not one; I’m still a pirate, but I can afford these clothes.” It was fashion irony at a high price.

Terrified, resentful, ignorant, and unable to afford the fashion, I soon went a different way: downmarket. Ashamed that I had no “taste” or “style,” I decided to become “a man of the people,” the “people’s critic.” Never mind that I was still infinitely repellent to myself. Fashion-wise, Kmart was my safe space, my battlefield of ideas, my revenge, the internal fissuring of my self-martyrdom, my style methadone that kept me off the inaccessible scary hard drug of high fashion. At Kmart my devils were stilled, given agency to fight back, hide. I could remain in my solitude, a parody of being an art-critic.

There were no dressing rooms, no mirrors. There was no one who looked like me, certainly no one I knew. Breaking away in the 1990s from the work shirts I’d worn, I found my Kmart brand, “First Edition.” Every few years, I’d visit and drift through until I found the exact same First Edition shirts, always in solid dark colors or with small checks to hide my moobs, always in the same size. These shirts ran about $12. I’d buy four or five. They’re still in my closet. Once I went to a Fourth of July fireworks display given by my friend, the art critic Peter Schjeldahl. One of the skyrockets fell over and shot me with sparks, burning me. My first thought was, No! I’m wearing my favorite dark-blue Kmart shirt! I had it mended and wear it still. I had my portrait painted in it, by Dana Schutz, who’d just completed a portrait of the young Illinois state senator Barack Obama. As far as I know, he did not wear a $12 Kmart First Edition shirt.

Its location may have contributed to its oddness. Astor Place and Lafayette Street, between the East Village and Greenwich Village, where the 6 train stopped and crowds were always pouring in and out, felt like no-man’s territory. Not commercial, not residential; there were civic buildings and offices around but also dive bars, tattoo parlors, a big wine store that I never went into (because, as with clothes, I knew nothing about wine and just never mustered the nerve). Here was the corner where we would all line up to get The Village Voice, where I was the art critic and used to grab a handful off the stack so I could clip and paste my reviews into my scrapbook. The scrapbook and the Voice are gone, but Kmart survived till now. I would go for coffee and a slice of pizza in the huge, mostly empty café on the second floor and sit in what felt like high-school or DMV plastic chairs and just stare out the great arched curved window, south, all the way downtown. I never once met anyone I knew there. Was I weird for going there, or were all the people I knew weird for never going?

There are ghosts all over this estuary non-neighborhood. I used to live in a druggy apartment building on Avenue B with a dealer’s dogs patrolling the hallways and no heat in winter. Later I moved to a nice apartment in Greenwich Village and could feel the gentrification just petering out in this curious architectural corridor as it passed Kmart. I have never liked the space right there. One always looks as fast as one can to the magisterial Cooper Union or the spinning black public sculpture. Now there’s a red-orange shiny boring Jeff Koons balloon dog in the glass lobby of a new, nondescript glass-wall building.

While Roberta was still in shock that she’d be with a man who shopped at Kmart, I had a way of sneaking clothes into the house. After one of my quadrennial shopping sessions (each lasting about 20 minutes), I would bring the clothes home, cut out the labels, and launder them. Then I’d sneak them into my clothes rotation. When Roberta would hold up one of these new shirts or hoodies and say “What’s this?” I would say, “Oh that? No, it’s not new. It’s been there a long time.” It turns out that she always knew. Later, I learned that she cycled out the threadbare ones. That’s why I never seem to have more clothes.

Kmart was more to me than clothes. I also buy our lamps and pots and pans and other kitchen items there. The day Roberta came home from her first cancer surgery and I was out of energy and in terror, the first thing I did was walk to Kmart and buy our first-ever microwave oven. I walked it home in a huge box. Kmart saved my life.

I love the large anonymous generic space and that every Kmart is more or less like every other one. There I felt part of the American group mind, no one speaking to one another; all of us cut off, all knowing the only way to get anywhere is on our own: American carnage and pathos. I wish I could say that shopping there was, for me, pretend — fun cosplay at being American, being punkish. It wasn’t. It was in line with a tendency that I fight almost every day, to withdraw and crawl back into the safe psychological hologram I created for myself in Chicago before I moved to New York to try to make my name. This anonymity is not cool or philosophical or noir; for me it is starker, barer, the primordial Midwest nothingness I wanted to escape. Similarly, I prefer anonymous skyscraper hotels, like Holiday Inn, Marriott, and Hyatt. I feel incognito here, myself, comfortable. As with these hotels, Kmart meant I didn’t have to venture out of myself; it allowed for my strange personal pathology of being in a crowd but not having to really make contact. Here, I felt enclosed, satisfied, confident just beyond my lack of confidence, fears displaced by the illusion that I’d found a way to survive my fears. Kmart was a defensive alliance I made with the world, a place where my faults were covered, healed.

Whenever I posted a picture of myself happily shopping at Kmart, people got into a snit — much the way people do when I confess my love of New York deli coffee. People comment “Don’t go there, 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 deli coffee remains: a more diverse, less pure, non-artisanal New York. To the end, it remained a place that still felt strange.

The Astor Place Kmart Was My Place to Be Normal