You’d think Manhattan might aggravate the heck out of a panicky person till they resembled the jangly lines of emotional stress that emanate from a Roz Chast cartoon character in the New Yorker. Yet somehow, the sights and sounds of Gotham have a soothing effect upon Chast herself. In fact, the pace and thrum of Manhattan are a refuge from where Chast grew up, in Brooklyn, a place she once loathed.
“Brooklyn, to me, symbolized hopelessness, claustrophobia, fear, loneliness, frustration and a lot of rage,” says Chast, noting that she bore no animus toward any other borough. “I didn’t have friends, I hated high school — with the exception of a couple of teachers — and my parents were not terrible people, but we didn’t have much to talk about.
“It was very grim,” she continues. “I even hated my room, with its hideous furniture from my uncle’s furniture store and disgusting curtains and buckled white and gold dirty linoleum — all of which my mother had chosen and shoved into my tiny bedroom at various times in my childhood.”
Those vivid memories inform Chast’s upcoming graphic memoir, “Going Into Town: A Love Letter to New York” (arriving in October). It’s a kind of sequel to “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” (2013), which won a shelf of awards for deftly examining eldercare through her parents’ experience. Begun as a how-to gift for her own child, “Going Into Town” is framed by the subsequent Chast generation.
During the National Book Festival on Sept. 2, Chast will talk about both books, as well as her four-decade career at the New Yorker. She also designed the festival’s whimsical official poster, which will be available free to all festival-goers.
With “Going Into Town,” Chast, who raised her family in the Connecticut suburbs, wanted to pass along to her then-college-bound daughter a humorous guide to the Big Apple, from the deepest subway platform to the Art Deco tip of the Chrysler Building. By illustrating such headings as “Questions Asked by the Suburban Child” and “Stores of Mystery,” Chast hoped that her child would experience Manhattan as a sweet land of creative liberty.
“I went to the Art Students League on West 57th Street when I was 14,” Chast says. “The first Saturday of every month, I’d take the subway from Brooklyn, carrying an 18-by-24-inch newsprint pad and a box of charcoal. Those were my first real forays into Manhattan. It was so exciting and interesting.
“I don’t know why, as a chronically anxious person, I didn’t feel more panicky about all the people and noise,” she continues. “Sometimes I walked around Midtown, sometimes I walked around Central Park. I was starting to learn the subway, and I knew as long as I could find the ‘D’ train, I could get home” to Brooklyn.
Just two years later, Chast headed off for college — an especially “immature 16,” she emphasizes — and eventually landed at the Rhode Island School of Design. “I didn’t know how to relate to people. I had never had a job, and forget about driving,” Chast says. “For me, drawing cartoons — making art — was the only thing I liked. Not a lot of happy memories.”
On graduating, she moved back in with her folks in Brooklyn, but she kept schlepping by subway back to Manhattan every few days, shopping her portfolio around town, hoping to get face time with art directors. Even these simple journeys thrilled her.
“I loved walking around” Manhattan, she says. “I loved checking out stores: fancy-schmancy ones, crappy ones. I loved looking at everything, especially the people. It was not Brooklyn, that was for sure.”
She was 22, a self-described “weird, shy, not pretty girl with no job experience or people skills.” She began selling art to the Village Voice and the National Lampoon, but home life was strained, to the point that Chast’s mother found her a large studio apartment on West 73rd.
“There are no words to express how much I loved this apartment, right from the get-go,” Chast says. “It didn’t have a stove. It was not fancy. I cooked on a hot plate. The wiring was ancient. If I used both burners, I could use one lamp, and sometimes that would cause the circuit breaker to shut off. Once, raw sewage backed up in the tub.
“But I could feel this cloud start to lift,” she says. “I was starting to sell my cartoons. I was starting to make friends. I felt, in this corny weird way, that for the first time in my life, I was where I was supposed to be.”
In April 1978, at age 23, she dropped off her cartoon portfolio at the New Yorker offices on a whim. “I had no hope of selling a cartoon to them because my stuff didn’t look anything like the stuff they ran, but they used cartoons, so why not?” she recounts. “To my shock, I sold a cartoon to the New Yorker. [Comics editor] Lee Lorenz was extremely supportive and encouraging. I remember he told me that [editor William] Shawn really liked my work. I had no idea who he was talking about, but it sounded like a good thing, so I nodded appreciatively.”
She was on the Upper West Side, and she was home. “It was really the first time and the first place that I thought: ‘Maybe my life won’t be a complete [mess].’ So I have very positive and grateful feelings towards it, and still do.”
Chast says her attitude about Manhattan is best summed up by a quote from a fellow New Yorker legend, the late E.B. White:
“It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.”
Four decades ago, Chast brought a raft of talent and a uniquely brilliant outlook to the big city. She drew her own luck.
Michael Cavna writes the Comic Riffs blog at The Washington Post.
At the National Book Festival on Sept. 2, Roz Chast will be at the Graphic Novels Stage from 6:25 to 7 p.m. She will sign copies of her books from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m.