Go­ing to Town With Roz Chast

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Talya Zax

As Roz Chast in­forms read­ers in her new book, “Go­ing Into Town: A Love Let­ter To New York,” from Blooms­bury USA, grilled cheese is a bliss­fully safe food to eat in the gus­ta­tory wilds of Man­hat­tan. That, and eggs: “YOU CAN­NOT GO TOO WRONG,” she writes. The in­struc­tion’s un­con­tained ma­ter­nal anx­i­ety is charm­ing; “Go­ing Into Town” orig­i­nated as a Man­hat­tan guide­book for one of Chast’s sub­ur­ban-raised, col­lege-bound chil­dren. Equally de­li­cious is the im­plicit refu­ta­tion of the health-food crazes that oc­ca­sion­ally ap­pear to be over­tak­ing the city. New York healthy is not green juice; it is grilled cheese.

Yet in a sign of how Man­hat­tan has changed, when Chast and I took a stroll across the is­land on an Au­gust af­ter­noon, we found our sand­wiches — per­fectly golden and ooz­ing, served in white card­board shells, as they should be — at Melt Shop, a grilled cheese chain that boasts va­ri­eties with truf­fle oil, arugula and maple-glazed ba­con. We or­dered clas­sics, to Chast’s de­light. “That looks perfect,” she said, open­ing a packet of ketchup. “I feel like I’m at the beach.”

A good grilled cheese can still be found in a corner diner, of­ten known, in a quirk of New York lingo, as a cof­fee shop. But even the hum­ble com­bi­na­tion of bread, spread and Kraft slices has been al­tered by the city’s gen­tri­fi­ca­tion over the decades. Which is ex­actly the sort of phe­nom­e­non that Chast, a long­time car­toon­ist for The New Yorker who is known for chron­i­cling the tra­vails and mi­nor tri­umphs of the anx­ious, has ob­served.

Chast first fell in love with Man­hat­tan in the late 1970s, mov­ing to the is­land after grad­u­at­ing with a de­gree in paint­ing from Rhode Is­land School of De­sign.

As the child of a wo­man who also moved to Man­hat­tan after col­lege and found her­self en­chanted with its myr­iad ec­cen­tric­i­ties, I’ve of­ten found my­self nos­tal­gic for a city I never knew. Yet Chast, who has seen Man­hat­tan pass through all the decades I ro­man­ti­cize, sees a great deal of charm in the city as it is. Not just the out­landishly garbed res­i­dents and stores so swarmed with bolts of fab­ric as to be nigh un­nav­i­ga­ble, not just the ready avail­abil­ity of grilled cheese and the per­pet­ual prom­ise of the undis­cov­ered, but also, as chron­i­cled in “Go­ing Into Town,” the small and of­ten gross things that are so New York they es­cape long­time res­i­dents’ no­tice: The pat­tern of fos­silized gum on the side­walks, the wa­ter bug tak­ing a saunter down 14th Street, the par­tially de­clawed pi­geon con­vinced that the side­walk on which you are at­tempt­ing to walk be­longs, by right, to it.

Hence, there is “Go­ing Into Town,” the kind of love let­ter that could be penned only by some­one who knows New York in­ti­mately enough to have as much pa­tience for it as love. In one of the book’s more en­ter­tain­ing anec­dotes, Chast re­mem­bers the time she found a brand-new, care­fully pro­tected chef’s knife on a side­walk; she put it in her purse, for­got about it and then ac­ci­den­tally tried to take it into the Em­pire State Build­ing, a mis­take that led to an awk­ward in­ter­ac­tion with a se­cu­rity guard.

Drawn and nar­rated in the fre­netic, emo­tion­ally ex­ag­ger­ated, whim­si­cal style that is Chast’s trade­mark, the story is about the won­ders of a very strange city. For some­one lack­ing Chast’s par­tic­u­lar love for New York, the story of the chef’s knife could have be­come a tale of ran­dom dan­ger or an­noy­ing bu­reau­cracy. But for Chast it be­comes a story about a deeply plea­sur­able, mys­te­ri­ous or­der. “Out of the ether it came, and back into the ether it went,” she writes in “Go­ing Into Town.”

While we were walk­ing east on 24th Street from the Hud­son River and won­der­ing what the wa­ter tow­ers clus­tered on the roofs to our left might be gos­sip­ing to each other about, I asked Chast if she’s al­ways been so ob­ser­vant.

“Yeah, yeah,” she said. “I re­mem­ber grow­ing up in Brook­lyn, and some­body had put their laun­dry out on a line. I was with my mother, and I said, ‘Isn’t that beau­ti­ful?’”

Chast grew up as an only child in Mid­wood. Her par­ents, both the chil­dren of Rus­sian Jewish im­mi­grants, were in­tensely fru­gal chil­dren of the De­pres­sion, although they weren’t immune to the lure of a treat. In “Go­ing Into Town,” she re­mem­bers trips to Man­hat­tan to see mu­si­cals, in­clud­ing a black-and-white pho­to­graph of her young self standing some-

what re­sent­fully in front of a bill­board for “Man of La Man­cha.”

As she por­trays her­self in car­toons, Chast pos­sesses a yel­low wedge of hair, for­ever hunched shoul­ders and a re­mark­ably mal­leable face, a com­bi­na­tion well suited to con­vey a sense of per­pet­ual emo­tional dis­ar­ray. In per­son she’s no­tably put to­gether. On the day of our walk she wore a gray knit dress and sil­ver jew­elry, and was warm and ea­ger to talk. But she’s still rec­og­niz­able; she has a habit, for in­stance, of mak­ing up tiny im­promptu songs about phrases or ideas that catch her in­ter­est.

“I knew deep down I wasn’t go­ing to be a painter,” she said, re­call­ing her se­nior year at RISD. “When I left school I went back to my par­ents’ apart­ment in Brook­lyn. I just drew and drew and drew.

“At first I took around an il­lus­tra­tion port­fo­lio, be­cause, I thought, ‘No­body will buy my car­toons; they’re very weird.’ That was very un­suc­cess­ful.”

When she de­cided to show her car­toons, she wasn’t aim­ing for The New Yorker. “I thought, if I were very lucky, I would wind up do­ing car­toons for the Vil­lage Voice, be­cause Jules Feif­fer, Stan Mack — peo­ple who seemed to have their own voice — I re­lated more to them than I re­lated to the car­toons in The New Yorker,” she said.

Still, she dropped off her port­fo­lio at The New Yorker’s of­fices, which, in those days, was how it was done. When she re­turned to pick it up the next week, Lee Lorenz, who then was the magazine’s art ed­i­tor, had left her a note ask­ing her to meet with him. And so Chast sold her first car­toon to The New Yorker in 1978, when she was 23.

And there she has stayed, although she has also branched out, pub­lish­ing in other out­lets and writ­ing and il­lus­trat­ing sev­eral books. Her 2014 mem­oir, “Can’t We Talk About Some­thing More Pleas­ant?” won the Na­tional Book Crit­ics Cir­cle Award for autobiography and was a fi­nal­ist for the Na­tional Book Award for Non­fic­tion. While that

‘Go­ing Into Town’ is a love let­ter penned by some­one who knows New York in­ti­mately enough to have as much pa­tience for it as love.

book’s sub­ject — the is­sue of dis­cussing death with her aging par­ents — was sober­ing, in her other work Chast has taken a quiet glee in lam­poon­ing the pub­lish­ing in­dus­try. It’s hard not to see a dig at aca­demics in the ti­tle “The­o­ries of Ev­ery­thing: Se­lected, Col­lected, Health-In­spected,” or a wink to the re­lent­less en­thu­si­asm of how-to man­u­als in “What I Hate: From A to Z.”

As an un­der­grad­u­ate she may have felt that car­toon­ing didn’t re­ceive much re­spect as an artis­tic dis­ci­pline; her own ca­reer has helped al­ter that at­ti­tude. She re­turned to RISD to de­liver a prom­i­nent an­nual lec­ture in 2003. She also holds hon­orary doc­tor­ates from three uni­ver­si­ties, was pre­sented with the 2012 New York City Lit­er­ary Award for Hu­mor, and was in­ducted into the Amer­i­can Acad­emy of Arts and Sciences the fol­low­ing year.

This, de­spite lin­ger­ing ques­tions about her own artis­tic abil­i­ties. “There are peo­ple who re­ally can draw,” she told me. “There are cer­tain things I can draw, and some things it’s just im­pos­si­ble. I’m not bad at drawing peo­ple’s ex­pres­sions; I’m ter­ri­ble at drawing per­spec­tive.”

What she’s sure of, in her work, is char­ac­ter. “I al­ways think that style is a lot like hand­writ­ing,” she said. “Some of it is your own voice, and some of it is what you’ve cob­bled to­gether. I think it’s steal­ing, and tak­ing from oth­ers.”

To demon­strate, Chast drew two pairs of feet on my notepad (see photo at right). She drew the first pair as she did when she was a child — stick­ing out at right an­gles to the legs to which they were at­tached; the sec­ond pair shows how she learned to draw them from a first-grade class­mate who had fig­ured out how to draw feet point­ing for­ward. Chast hummed as she worked.

In her early years at The New Yorker, Chast met her even­tual hus­band, the writer Bill Franzen, who was work­ing as an in-of­fice mes­sen­ger. The cou­ple lived in Man­hat­tan un­til 1987, when they had their first child and moved to Brook­lyn’s Park Slope. When Chast was preg­nant with their sec­ond child, they moved to a sub­urb north of the city, where they still live — with two par­rots — although Chast now keeps an apart­ment on the Up­per West Side for Man­hat­tan ex­cur­sions.

“I missed it like ev­ery day, pretty much,” she said.

Hav­ing fin­ished her love let­ter to the New York bor­ough she chose, she’s now turn­ing her at­ten­tion to the one in which she was born, and writ­ing a book about Brook­lyn.

“I don’t re­ally know Brook­lyn, that’s the thing,” she said. “I left when I was 16. I knew my neigh­bor­hood, sort of, and I know Park Slope, sort of. But Brook­lyn is so big. I want to ex­plore neigh­bor­hoods. Not like Wil­liams­burg or some­thing, more like Mill Basin. These out­ly­ing ar­eas — Ger­rit­sen Beach, Dyker Heights, Gravesend.”

She spoke of these places, most of which she’d seen only on a map, with rel­ish. We paused to peer in at a tiny, nar­row fab­ric shop, its of­fer­ings spilling out onto the side­walk. “I’m re­ally glad we picked this street. It just has more stuff on it,” she told me.

If you are Roz Chast, and you are walk­ing through Man­hat­tan, here are some of the things you are likely to no­tice: the store­front for the brass pol­ish­ers union; a build­ing with es­pe­cially hand­some fire es­capes; a school win­dow dis­play­ing chil­dren’s at­tempts to pay trib­ute to the postal ser­vice, and a Chelsea corner in­hab­ited by the most in­no­cently fa­mil­ial street-level wa­ter pipes, known as stand­pipes, that one could imag­ine: four, curved like candy canes, ar­ranged left-toright, big­gest-to-lit­tlest.

If you are a jour­nal­ist tag­ging along with Chast as she ex­plores New York, you may find traces of the is­land to which she was in­tro­duced in the 1970s. In typ­i­cal New York fash­ion, they will likely be tragic or down­right an­noy­ing, but also lov­able. On a street you’ve walked down mul­ti­ple times, you’ll see an aban­doned quilt store that you never pre­vi­ously no­ticed or mourned. De­spite the pro­lif­er­a­tion of chain eater­ies, idio­syn­cratic bak­eries spe­cial­iz­ing in highly dec­o­rated, gen­er­ally fla­vor­less-look­ing cakes still, proudly, have a home. Shiny new apart­ment com­plexes and ur­ban farms may have cropped up on the banks of the East River, but the frus­tra­tion of be­ing un­able to reach that river, brought on by Robert Moses’s FDR Drive, re­mains the same.

“I’m not nos­tal­gic for the grit­tier, ‘Taxi Driver’ in­car­na­tion of New York of the ’70s and ’80s,” Chast writes in “Go­ing Into Town.” “I don’t miss the mug­gings, the shoot­ings, the dog poop ev­ery­where, not want­ing to use the public re­stroom at Grand Cen­tral, the heroin, the graf­fiti (the ‘fuck you’ kind, not the ‘cool’ kind), AIDS, etc. I do miss the cheaper rents.”

At the end of our walk we found a foot­ball field­sized, marsh­like empty lot by the United Na­tions, hid­den from civil­ian eyes by a wire fenced draped with a rough black ma­te­rial. Some ad­ven­tur­ous cit­i­zens had at­tempted to cut out eye­holes, and we peered through at the sod­den ground, which hosted a few construction work­ers on a lateafter­noon break.

It was a rare, un-Chas­tian view of Man­hat­tan, a dearth rather than an ex­cess of vis­ual in­for­ma­tion. But de­spite the heat, the long walk and the im­mi­nent prospect of a re­turn to the stuffy tun­nels of the sub­way — all things that might make the stereo­typ­i­cally cyn­i­cal Man­hat­tan­ite, so adored by pop cul­ture, groan and kvetch — Chast was thrilled.

“I feel like I’m see­ing some­thing I shouldn’t be see­ing,” she said. “Some­thing is go­ing to hap­pen here, but I don’t know what.”

ROZ CHAST

ROZ CHAST

ROZ CHAST/PHOTO BY TALYA ZAX

ARTIS­TIC FEET: Chast doo­dled this on our re­porter’s note­book dur­ing their in­ter­view to demon­strate the early evo­lu­tion of her drawing style.

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