Cartoonist Roz Chast Draws A 'Love Letter' To New York City, Cockroaches And All

Oct 2, 2017
Originally published on October 3, 2017 11:57 am

New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast is a city person. She grew up in an apartment building in Brooklyn, N.Y., and though she moved to the suburbs as an adult when she was pregnant with her second child, she never stopped loving the grit and excitement of New York City.

"Just about every street in Manhattan has that kind of density of visual information," she says. "It's just fun. I like looking at it. Everything seems to suggest stories."

When Chast's daughter was preparing to move to Manhattan for college, Chast wrote a guidebook for her, offering tongue-in-cheek tips for suburbanites navigating the city. Now Chast has adapted that guide for a larger audience. Going Into Town: A Love Letter to New York is a cartoon book about all the things Chast appreciates — or finds skeevy — about the city she loves.


Interview Highlights

On how to look at strangers in New York City

There's a way that, when you live in a city, you look at other people. ... You don't ever stare at anybody. You kind of look ... away. You kind of take note of them and register them and see them, but it's not as direct. Because my parents really did train me not to look at somebody directly, especially because they could be a nut and you didn't want to, like, set a nut off. That was a very big lesson from the time I was little: There are people that are just ready to blow and you don't want to be the person that, like, causes that to happen.

On her worst run-in with New York cockroaches

When I first lived on 73rd Street, I had a cockroach infestation, which I didn't realize when I first moved in. One time, it was so horrible, I came back after being out one night and I turned on the light in the kitchen and ... it was like thousands of cockroaches. It was like a cockroach convention, and it was so incredibly horrible. It's just almost beyond describing. And, of course, after that I told the super and they started getting the exterminator coming in regularly and then I would see an occasional cockroach.

On growing up in apartments and knowing not to make too much noise

From the time I was able to understand English, I got from my parents that we were living with other people, and that you didn't bang hammers on the floor, and you didn't make a giant amount of noise after 9 o'clock at night. You didn't blast your TV at 11 o'clock at night.

And I'm still very conscious of that. I mean, as I said, I have a little place [in New York City] now and if I put on the news after 11, I don't blare it, you know. But there are some people, I think, who maybe they think it's OK to ride their pony around — that it's fine to keep a pony in an apartment and prance around — and it's just sort of mysterious. Why don't you know that's not OK?

On selling her first cartoon, Little Things, to The New Yorker in 1978

My goal was not to be a cartoonist for The New Yorker. I thought, if I were really lucky, I would become a cartoonist for The Village Voice, because my stuff didn't look anything like what I saw in The New Yorker. ...

I did not have my hopes up because I was so sure that I was not going to sell anything to them. ... [But] they bought one. And out of the cartoons I submitted, that was probably the most personal of the lot — the weirdest one, the kind of thing that, like, when I'm doodling and making up stuff to make myself laugh, that would be the kind of thing.

On not understanding the appeal of owning a lawn

There's something about suburbia which is just so bizarre. I don't really understand why anybody wants a lawn. I mean, I like greenery. I love the park. I love Central Park. I love when we travel, being out in nature. It's wonderful.

But this thing where you have a house and then you have a lawn and then you have to mow the lawn and you really have to deal with your lawn or maybe the neighbors would get mad at you — it's just baffling to me. And you have to spend time on it and people think about it. I can almost not bear it.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Roz Chast has become one of the best known and most beloved New Yorker cartoonists of our time. She sold her first cartoons to the magazine back in 1978 when she was 23. Her new book, "Going Into Town," is like a cartoon guidebook to New York. But as Chast points out, it's not really a guidebook, nor is it an insider's guide about the hippest clubs and swankiest restaurants. It's about what she loves and what she finds most skeevy about Manhattan. It's pretty hilarious.

Chast grew up in an apartment building in Brooklyn. When she was pregnant with her second child, Chast, with her husband and their 3-year-old son, moved from Brooklyn to a suburb about an hour away from Manhattan. Years later when her daughter was preparing to move to Manhattan to attend college, Chast put together a guide to Manhattan to show her suburban daughter how to get around and what to look out for. Chast's new book is adapted from the one she put together for her daughter.

Roz Chast, welcome back to FRESH AIR. The first thing I want you to do is to read a short excerpt from your book. We won't see the illustrations that you drew, but maybe you can describe some of them. And this is a part titled But First, A Little Background, and it's the explanation for why you and your husband moved with your first child to the suburbs from New York.

ROZ CHAST: (Reading) When our son was almost 3 and I was pregnant with our second child, my husband, our son and I left Brooklyn for a pretty, leafy suburb about an hour north of Manhattan. There were five reasons for this leap into the unknown. One, this was 1990, the middle of the crack epidemic. We'd had it with crime, the crack vials all over the sidewalk, all of it.

And I'll describe for the listeners. There's a little drawing of my son sort of taking his toddling steps on the sidewalk. In Park Slope we were living, and there were crack vials all over the sidewalk. And he's saying, Mommy, what that? I eat that.

(Reading) Two, free, excellent public schools where we were going. Three, my parents lived in Brooklyn. For some people, this would've been a plus, but I had mixed feelings. Four, sometimes when you grow up in a place, you need to get away. I saw Brooklyn differently from people who came there from Wisconsin or wherever. Behind every cute organic food store, I saw the ghost of the sad, dark, odiferous grocerette of my childhood. There was nothing there for me. Five - but the main reason was this. We couldn't afford the space we needed. The four-bedroom house we bought in Suburbia cost less than a crappy two-bedroom walk-up in Brooklyn even in 1990. The decision to leave the city was terrifying.

And here I have this little drawing of four figures starting, and they're kind of, like, walking like zombies. And my son is saying, must play soccer. My daughter is with her arms sticking out, going, need mall now. And my husband is saying, lawn extremely important. And I'm saying, hell with art; collect thimbles instead.

(Reading) I didn't know how to drive. I didn't like the idea of living directly on top of a boiler or a furnace or whatever the hell was in a house basement. I'd never lived in what my parents called the country. Also, would we turn into philistines, zombies?

GROSS: That was Roz Chast reading from her new book, "Going Into Town: A Love Letter To New York." One of the things that frightened you about moving to the suburbs was the idea of having a basement. What's so scary about a basement, and does it still scare you?

CHAST: Yes. The thing about living in an apartment house is that even though you know that in order for people in the apartment house to get heat and to get water, there must be some machinery somewhere in the area of the building, probably the basement that, like, puts that stuff into your apartment. But chances are you're not, like - I don't hear the boiler switching itself on and off when I'm in my apartment.

I have a little, tiny apartment right now. And I don't like it when I'm in the house and I'm in the living room which is on top of the boiler or the furnace. I'm not even sure what it's called - but, like, that big machine in the basement that does - makes the water hot. You know, I don't really understand how it works. I know that a truck comes and puts oil, and it has something to do with that. But I don't like it when it switches on and off.

Also, I'm always afraid that somehow, something is going to go wrong and it's going to blow up. I know that this is irrational, and it probably has a lot to do with my parents, you know, never having lived in a house. And you know, nor did I until I lived in a house, but I don't like it.

GROSS: So this book is a funny cartoon version of what you told your daughter or the book you made for your daughter before she moved from the suburbs to New York to go to college. Was it odd for you to bring up your daughter in a suburb when the idea of a suburb initially was so alien to you and you were so city?

CHAST: It was strange, but there were reasons for doing so. One was that financially, it made much more sense for us to bring the kids up in the suburbs. My husband works at home, as do I. And even a two-bedroom apartment, which we couldn't have afforded anyway, would not have been enough space. We needed more space than that. And that pretty much kicked us out of New York at that time.

And also, the public school situation was not, you know, very good in New York back then. I don't know what it's like right now. I'm not involved in that because my kids are out of that. But we were able to send our kids to public school where we moved, and I liked that. So - but it was very strange.

And in fact, one of the things - I mentioned this in the book - that my daughter said - I would take her into the city with me a lot. And she looked at the fire escapes, and she asked me. She said, Mom, what are those "West Side Story" things?

GROSS: (Laughter) And did she know that from the movie "West Side Story" or from the posters that had...

CHAST: The posters.

GROSS: ...And the album cover that had the...

CHAST: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Fire escape on it?

CHAST: Yeah, that very famous graphic, you know? I mean it's a wonderful...

GROSS: It's the urban "Romeo And Juliet" shot (laughter).

CHAST: Yeah, yeah, you know, with the fire escape on it. But she has no idea what it was. She recognized the look of it, you know? She recognized the graphic, but she had no idea what it was.

GROSS: I grew up with a fire escape, and I was always afraid that some kind of, like, bandit or criminal or murderer was going to run up the fire escape and open the door to my bedroom window and, like, jump in. I always found them kind of scary because of that. Once when there were, like, gunshots behind where my apartment was when I was a kid, I thought, OK, here they come (laughter).

CHAST: Here they come, right.

GROSS: I know they're going to be hiding from the police and climbing right up my fire escape (laughter).

CHAST: I used to drag the couch cushions out there. I would drag a couch cushion out and a book. And it was, you know - hey, this is pretty cool. It's like a little porch.

GROSS: Your fire escape was big enough for you to do that?

CHAST: Yeah. We had a fire escape that would fit a couch cushion.

GROSS: Wow. No, ours was tiny. It was just big enough to get your feet on and escape the fire if necessary.

CHAST: Yeah, well, I didn't mean to brag.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So you write that the main wildlife in Manhattan is probably insects, cockroaches...

CHAST: Yes.

GROSS: ...Bed bugs, silverfish. You've lived in several apartments in Manhattan, right?

CHAST: Yeah.

GROSS: What was your worst run-in in Manhattan...

CHAST: Oh, God.

GROSS: ...With an apartment infestation?

CHAST: When I first lived on 73rd Street, I had a cockroach infestation which I didn't realize when I first moved in. But one time, I - it was so horrible. I came back after being out one night, and I turned on the light in the kitchen. And the kitchen was a sort of galley kitchen that didn't have a window. It also didn't have a stove. I cooked on a hot plate, which is a whole other story.

But it was, like, thousands of cockroaches. It was like a cockroach convention. It was so incredibly horrible. It's just almost beyond describing. And of course after that, I, you know, told the super. And then they started getting the exterminator coming in regularly. And then I would see an occasional cockroach but not like that.

GROSS: What did you do...

CHAST: The water bugs...

GROSS: ...In that moment right after turning on the light?

CHAST: I can't remember. I remember that it was, like, definitely one of those, like, back away, like, very bad feeling. I don't know if I screamed. I don't remember. I probably didn't scream, but it was just, like, oh, oh, oh, you know, this is really bad. This is my apartment. I live here, and I'm sharing it with, you know, all these little fellows.

GROSS: And then you went to bed (laughter).

CHAST: And then I went to bed, yeah, yeah because you know they start - when they - when you put the light on, they scatter. So they go back into the walls or whatever.

GROSS: Only to come back out again.

CHAST: Yeah, only to come back out again once they know you're asleep.

GROSS: You have a great drawing of a water bug, and you write...

CHAST: Oh, God.

GROSS: ...A water bug is like a cockroach who's been exposed to that that gigantifying kind of radiation that you see in old sci-fi movies. And yeah, water bugs - they're huge.

CHAST: They are huge. They're, like, sort of halfway between a cockroach and a mouse, you know? They're really, really big. They are too big. Like, I wouldn't want to just, like, step on them if I were wearing a flip-flop or something.

GROSS: Oh, no, no because...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: No, I don't want to get graphic about it. I actually - after seeing...

CHAST: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

GROSS: After seeing your drawing of a water bug, I actually wanted to know for sure what's the difference between a cockroach and water bug outside of that one's gigantic.

CHAST: Yeah.

GROSS: So I Googled water bug and immediately got - I guess it's an ad - one of the extermination sites. And so I thought I'd read you a little bit of what I found (laughter).

CHAST: Please, please do.

GROSS: Cockroaches and water bugs are two entirely different types of insects, but they're often mistaken based on their appearance. The most common species of water bug is the giant water bug, also known - I love this - also known as the toe biter.

(LAUGHTER)

CHAST: Oh, God, that's terrible.

GROSS: Or the electric light bug or the alligator tick.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Most species of water bugs are relatively large and at least 3.8 centimeters long. Oh, this is my favorite part. Water bugs have piercing mouth parts (laughter) and a short, pointed beak on the underside of the head. So I think I've just made things just a little bit worse.

CHAST: Thank you.

GROSS: Yes (laughter).

CHAST: Yes, the toe biter (laughter).

GROSS: Sorry (laughter).

CHAST: Oh, that's really bad (laughter).

GROSS: Yeah, and they live - they actually live in, like, watery places - so pipes and...

CHAST: Yeah, pipes, yeah, walls.

GROSS: ...Under leaves, where it's wet.

CHAST: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

CHAST: That was...

GROSS: So great. Did you enjoy drawing one?

CHAST: Oh, yeah, oh, yeah.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Roz Chast, a cartoonist for The New Yorker and now author of the new book "Going Into Town: A Love Letter To New York," which is a book-length collection of panels and cartoons about New York and all of the things that she really, like, loves and feels really skivvy about.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So we're going to take a short break and then be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAOMI MOON SIEGEL'S "IT'S NOT SAFE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Roz Chast, a very popular, beloved cartoonist for The New Yorker who has a new book called "Going Into Town: A Love Letter To New York." And it's based on the book she put together for her daughter, who is about to go to college in Manhattan, where Roz Chast used to live before moving out to the suburbs. And so this is kind of like a book-length series of cartoons that are basically her take on different aspects of New York.

So you grew up in Brooklyn in an apartment building.

CHAST: Yep.

GROSS: And you describe how your mother kept a crutch around to bang on the ceiling when the upstairs neighbor made too much noise.

CHAST: Yeah.

GROSS: Were you embarrassed when she did that?

CHAST: I don't remember thinking about it as, you know, embarrassed. You know, when you're a kid, there's so much that you just sort of take for granted because that's just, like, what your family does. It's like, my mother would serve spaghetti, and she would put a scoop of cottage cheese on top of it.

(LAUGHTER)

CHAST: And I just thought that was sort of normal, you know? I thought, well, everybody does that because, you know, when you're a kid, that's...

GROSS: All you know.

CHAST: ...All you know, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

CHAST: So...

GROSS: I grew up in an apartment building. And I was taking piano lessons as a kid, and sometimes when I'd practice piano, the downstairs neighbor - the floor right below me - they'd bang up to try to get you to stop.

CHAST: (Laughter).

GROSS: And it was just like - it was like getting a terrible review, you know (laughter)?

CHAST: Oh, God. And was it during the day?

GROSS: Yeah, it would be during the day. And if I didn't stop, sometimes someone from the apartment downstairs would come up and kind of bang on the door and go like stop it, and (laughter)...

CHAST: God, well, I remember one time the neighbors upstairs - even though my mother was banging with a crutch - it sounded like somebody had a hammer and was banging on the floor. And she went upstairs finally because they wouldn't stop. And it turned out that one of their kids actually had a hammer and was banging on the floor. I mean that to me is so astonishing because I guess I grew up in an apartment house. I had only lived in apartments.

And from the time I was able to understand English, I got from my parents that we were living with other people and that you didn't bang hammers on the floor. You didn't, you know, make a giant amount of noise, like, after 9 o'clock at night. You didn't blast your, you know, TV at 11 o'clock at night. And I'm still very conscious of that. I mean as I said, I have a little place here now. And if I put on the news, you know, after 11, I don't blare it.

GROSS: So I think it was as a result of your comic-book-length memoir about your parents' final illnesses and their deaths that you got an email from somebody who I think you didn't know that told you they had located the grave site of your parents' first child who died.

CHAST: Well, it was not quite that direct. What happened was, she had - actually she - you're right. You're right. She thought that it might be. And she had found it on a website called Find A Grave, which I had never heard of. But she wasn't sure if it was. She just thought it might be. And when I looked into it, it turned out it was.

GROSS: So you had been keeping your parents' cremains, the ashes from their cremation, in your closet. And I remember you telling me about this the last time we spoke after the publication...

CHAST: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Of your memoir. And then I read that you decided once you found their baby's grave that you would move their ashes to that cemetery.

CHAST: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: So what did you do?

CHAST: Well, you know, first I made contact with the person at the cemetery to, you know - wrote this letter. And the next day, he wrote back and said that, you know, those were my parents, and that was their baby. And I knew, you know, I didn't want them to - their, you know, ashes to be in my closet forever. I just didn't know where they should be 'cause they had never really told me where - you know, they didn't have any particular place that they wanted their, you know, ashes to be.

So I met with him - the guy at the cemetery, and he found a place for them. There's - even though, you know, cremation is not traditionally Jewish and this was a Jewish cemetery, more people are opting for it. And he told me that he had found the perfect niche for them which was in this wall that overlooked where the baby was buried. And it was a very top of this niche wall. It was the only one that was left in that particular part of the cemetery. And he just thought that was the perfect place for them.

And the niche turned out to be J-2. And my parents' apartment was 2-J, the apartment they had lived in for 50 years. I mean if I had put that in a book, the editor would have said, I think that's a little tacky, you know? Could you, like, maybe take that out and change it? But no, that's really, you know, from 2-J to J-2. So that's where I brought them. And yeah...

GROSS: So for a couple of years, you'd be living with their ashes everyday 'cause...

CHAST: Yeah.

GROSS: ...The ashes were in your closet. Now they're in a cemetery. Do you visit the wall where they're interred?

CHAST: No, no I don't. I think about them a lot, but I don't have a big feeling about their cremains, you know? I think one thing about seeing both my parents after they passed was how clear it was to me that they were no longer there, you know? Their body was not them. Whatever, you know, animates us was gone.

So you know, no I don't have any particular - I think about them, as I said, all the time. I really do. Several times a day, I think about my parents. But to literally go and look at the niche wall is not something that I feel any particular need to do.

GROSS: Did writing the book about your parents bring you closer to them after their death?

CHAST: In a certain way, yeah. In a certain way, it did - I think also time. As time passes, I think, you know, I do understand more. Now I think about how much losing that first baby must've made it difficult for them to completely give themselves away to another child, you know? I think that was really devastating for them and more than even I understand now.

GROSS: So one more thing - on your bio page on your website, there's a terrific cartoon of the 9-year-old Roz Chast sitting in bed reading "The Big Book of Horrible Rare Diseases."

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Did you have a book like that? And as somebody who's so kind of visually attuned, were you especially interested in looking at, like, rashes and wounds and just things that could go wrong visually with the body?

CHAST: Oh, yeah, yes, yes, yes, yes. I don't know why. I don't know whether it's some sort of weird vaccination against, you know, growing a second head suddenly.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CHAST: I mean, I find myself definitely in - and it's terrible, but I'm sort of attracted to that - to looking at that. I mean, the body is a sort of horrible thing. It's a disaster, and we all know that. It's also sort of funny, you know, because we're all in the same boat. But it's basically a disaster and terrible and how we have to compartmentalize this. And yet I like to look at the pictures. I don't know why.

GROSS: Roz Chast, it was great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

CHAST: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Roz Chast is a cartoonist for The New Yorker. Her new book is called "Going Into Town." After we take a short break, Daniel Mendelsohn will talk about his new memoir about his father, who decided he wanted to take the course Mendelsohn teaches on the Greek classic "The Odyssey." And let's just say it got a little awkward. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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