Roz Chast didn’t realize how splendid life could be until she moved to Manhattan
Updated Oct. 20, 2016 10:33 p.m. ET
With no disrespect to Brooklyn, where she grew up, the cartoonist Roz Chast didn’t realize how splendid life could be until she moved to Manhattan.
Now known for her work in The New Yorker and her award-winning memoir “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?,” just published in paperback, Ms. Chast moved to West 73rd Street after college.
“I have no nostalgia for Brooklyn, I really don’t,” she said when we got together at the Broadway office of her publisher, Bloomsbury. “It sounds enormously corny, but moving to the Upper West Side when I was 23 was really the first time I thought my life would not be a complete f— disaster.”
The year was 1978 and the rent was $250 a month. “My apartment did not have a stove,” Ms. Chast said. “I cooked on a hot plate.”
She lived there until 1987, then returned to Brooklyn with her husband, the humor writer Bill Franzen, while pregnant with their first child. They stayed until they were priced out of Park Slope, then moved to Ridgefield, Conn.
But Ms. Chast’s ties to the big city remained strong, inspiring her new project, a homage called “Going Into Town.” “Town” was how her family referred to Manhattan, and the book’s cover will feature a photo of her when she was around 4 years old.
“We’re in front of a token booth,” she said. “I have memories of the subway. I remember the rattan seats.”
“Going Into Town” began as an urban guidebook when Ms. Chast’s child, raised in Connecticut, was preparing to move to Manhattan to attend the School of Visual Arts.
“We sat down, and I said, ‘Most of New York is laid out like a grid,’ ” Ms. Chast said. “I said, ‘It’s very easy. If you’re on 43rd Street and you want to walk to 47th Street, you walk four blocks uptown.’ And she said to me, and maybe she was pulling my leg: ‘What’s a block?’ ”
Ms. Chast realized a pocket-size map might come in handy. She embellished it with neighborhood descriptions and, knowing her, more than a little humor. “She gave it back to me at the end of four years, and she said, ‘This has been really helpful,’ ” Ms. Chast said.
The cartoonist sent it to her agent, who also thought it was funny. “The heart of it is still this guidebook, but it’s also about my relationship with the city and how much I love Manhattan,” she said.
Ms. Chast, as anyone familiar with her work in The New Yorker can attest, has a talent for identifying our collective neuroses, both large and small, and rendering them if not harmless, at least manageable.
Self-deprecation seems baked into her genes. She said she suspected she had a sense of humor early on—“it was very internalized”—but her anxiety spoke to her just as deeply.
Despite her success, Ms. Chast seems to have no problem summoning those demons. While she breathed a sigh of relief whenever she arrived at Grand Central Terminal from the suburbs, and welcomed her weekly visits to The New Yorker, she doesn’t miss the face-to-face meetings with the cartoon editor. These days she submits her work by email.
“Why would I want to be there on purpose?” Ms. Chast said. “It’s so embarrassing on both sides. You are looking at my stuff. And I’m sitting there with my needy little face.”
She never lost her love for the city, nor for the subway. “It’s fast, and I like to look at the people,” she said.
When we parted, Ms. Chast boarded the uptown train to a studio apartment she recently bought on West 71st Street. “It’s amazingly unchanged since ’78,” she said of the area. “It’s like coming back home for me.”