Excerpt of “The Lord Will Provide” from the album Old Brooklyn composed and performed by Andy Statman used courtesy of Shefa Records.
Excerpt of “Renewal” written and performed by Doug and Judy Smith.
Roz Chast: Uh, my parents, I think, that they actually believe very much that they were each other's soulmates. And my mother would say things like, "The rocks in his head match the holes in mine.” The idea of being happy was so ridiculous to them. That was for the modern people, or movie stars, i.e. degenerates.
Joe Reed: That’s cartoonist, Roz Chast. She’s the author of one of the latest Big Read selections, Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts—I’m Josephine Reed.
Roz Chast is probably best known for her funny cartoons in the “New Yorker” about neurotic people coping--or not-- with the everyday anxiety that life can produce. In her world, panic is the default setting. Roz is also known for her books. She has written some dozen of them, including, her latest Going into Town: A Love Letter to NY—which started as a guidebook of the city for her daughter. And most particularly, the memoir Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant which won a raft of prizes including the 2014 National Book Critics’ Circle Award for Autobiography. Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant has also been chosen for the NEA’s Big Read program. It’s a bold choice and a bold book—equal parts laugh out loud funny and heartbreaking. Roz Chast is an only child whose parents were in their mid-90s and living in the same run-down Brooklyn apartment they’d been in for 48 years. Then her mother’s physical health and father’s mental state began to falter and they were unable to care for themselves any longer. Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant is a graphic memoir that combines cartoons, found documents and photographs to chronicle the conflicting emotions and practical challenges of her parents’ last years and passing and she does this with enormous heart and without a trace of sentimentality. We’re living a longer life and more often than not advanced old age brings enormous physical and mental diminishment; and, as Roz Chast points out, this is not something we typically talk about—and it’s not something most of us know about…until we have to. And in fact, it was her own shock at this that compelled her, in part, to write the book.
Roz Chast: I think, for me, it was a story that I needed to write partly for myself to kind of make sense of it a little bit, and that aspect of old age was so new to me, and it was so, in some ways, so horrifying in equal parts. The one part of it that was horrifying was just the things related to extreme old age themselves, and the other thing that was horrifying to me was how little I knew about it and how little it's talked about in our culture. And yet, here I was in the middle of it. I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't know what a health care proxy was. I didn't know I'm going to have to learn my parents, Social Security numbers and what medications they're on and, you know, I just knew nothing.
Jo Reed: Power of attorney.
Roz Chast: Power of attorney. Didn't know what any of these things were, you know? So…
Roz Chast: It was such an intense kind of experience that I needed to write about it, and there were also very funny things. So there were pages in the book-- there's cartoons in the book that I had done not even thinking they were ever going to be in a book that I had just submitted as part of my weekly batch to the New Yorker. You know, when I went shopping for clothes with my father, at one point when my mother was in the hospital, and my father's close were in tatters, pretty much, because they didn't go clothes shopping in Brooklyn. You know, it used to be they didn't go clothes shopping because they were frugal, but then they were too old, and they didn't go. And so, they just wore what they had until they were in bits and pieces and I took him clothes shopping, and I held up a sweater to him, and I said, "Dad do you like this sweater?" He said, "I can't wear that," I said, "Why not?" He said, "Its red. Communism.” It was so funny to me I did a cartoon about it but never thinking I would eventually be writing a book and that it would be in the book.
Jo Reed: Right from the get-go on the page where we have the table of contents, you introduce us to your parents and, I think, in four small cartoons, one strip, you give us a great insight into who they are. Can you describe that?
Roz Chast: It's kind of this silly cartoon. My father is looking at the contents of the book, and he's pointing to it, and he's going, "What is all this is?" And my mother saying, "It's just the contents, George," and he's looking at is still with, like, sweat beads coming off of him and anxiety. And she says, "Stop getting nervous in the service," that was one of her expressions, and he says, "Well, maybe I'll make some tea," and she says, "Use the tea bag on the counter. It still has plenty of juice in it," and they used teabags like over-- not twice but like three, four times they would just keep the teabag on the little saucer and use it over and over and over. And my mother would make an announcement; she'd say, "I'd like a tincture of tea," you know, she would just practically waved the teabag over the water.
Jo Reed: In the general direction.
Roz Chast: Yeah. Yeah. So…
Jo Reed: Well they came up in the depression.
Roz Chast: Yes, exactly and they grew up poor, so, you know, these habits of frugality were...
Jo Reed: Ingrained.
Roz Chast: Yeah.
Jo Reed: Your parents were older when you were born. They could’ve almost been your grandparents.
Roz Chast: Yeah.
Jo Reed: So they weren’t one generation removed, they were two generations removed.
Roz Chast: Absolutely. You know, my parents were older than their generation of-- especially with Jews, you know, who moved to the suburbs. Who belonged to country clubs, they kind of poor that Philip Roth was satirizing, you know, that generation of Jews. My parents were older than that. They were almost closer to the immigrant generation.
Jo Reed: And so, it was quite different.
Roz Chast: Yeah.
Jo Reed: And, I think, you really tackled that in the cartoon where your parents refer to each other as soulmates.
Roz Chast: Yes.
Jo Reed: Can you just talk about that because it really twigged something for me?
Roz Chast: Yeah. I mean, in some ways their sort of like pre-psychotherapy, you know, like where my parents, I think that they actually believed very much that they were each other’s soul mates and my mother would say things like, "The rocks in his head match the holes in mine.” And they were both very neurotic in a lot of ways and fearful, but they really believed in true love in this way that wasn't just like, "Well we believe in this adult kind of love and we are whole people in ourselves and... "No. They were like old-school. It was like we are soulmates. We don't have to be better people than we are, you know, you accept me for who I am. I accept you for who you are, even though we fight and stuff like that. We're not trying to live up to some, you know, somebody wrote in a book what kind of person you're supposed to be to be a healthy "adult" you know, they just didn't care about any of that, so.
Jo Reed: And you also say I think in the bottom where there is this business about happy, what are you talking about, happy?
Roz Chast: Yeah, happy. Right, they didn't--The idea of being happy was so ridiculous to them. It was, I mean, here I say it's not as if they never fought because they did and my mother saying, "Don't sit sideway. You're twisting your kish-kahs but the concept of looking for something better or being happy that was for modern people, or movie stars, i.e. degenerates. They were a tight little unit. Co-dependent? Of course, they're codependent and thank God and, you know, maybe they believed if they just held onto each other really tightly for eternity nothing would ever change and I really think that that's what they thought.
Jo Reed: Yeah. But, you know, it's so interesting in thinking about this concept of being happy as a modern concept because it's-- I think…
Roz Chast: Yeah.
Jo Reed: It is.
Roz Chast: It is.
Jo Reed: It really is and for many people even now as we speak, for so many people. They just need to survive. Happy, are you kidding me? Do I have food?
Roz Chast: I know. I know. I know. Well that was my parents and, I think, that it is a-- that's more of an attitude of the past is just this thing about happiness. I mean…
Jo Reed: Well, we have time to worry about it.
Roz Chast: Yeah, we have time to worry about it and also by keeping that going it's-- it sells products. It sells books. It keeps the machinery of searching for this happiness, kind of, it keeps it going, you know?
Jo Reed: Yeah.
Jo Reed: Yeah. Your parents were very different people?
Roz Chast: Yes. Oh, very much so.
Jo Reed: Your mother was an assistant principal, which right away could put the fear of God into somebody.
Roz Chast: Yeah. Yeah, she was the disciplinarian.
Jo Reed: And always right.
Roz Chast: Always right.
Jo Reed: And that could be tough sometimes.
Roz Chast: Yeah, yeah. Well she did not like any kind of argument and she was often right, but she just didn't-- she's very sure of herself.
Jo Reed: And she was also full of rage.
Roz Chast: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Jo Reed: Which was intimidating to you and your father?
Roz Chast: Yeah, she was a very intense person.
Jo Reed: And your father he was?
Roz Chast: He was a very sweet person and I think he didn't like conflict and less sure of himself.
Jo Reed: I got such a strong sense that he just loved your mother?
Roz Chast: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.
Jo Reed: And relied on. I know relied on, but just she was always right.
Roz Chast: Yeah. Yeah.
Jo Reed: I mean, I didn't feel like he was the one needed convincing about this.
Roz Chast: Right. Right. Right. No, they really were melded together in this way, and he did believe in her, you know, and I think that when he died, she missed having-- because he died before her and I think that she missed having somebody who believed in you totally.
Jo Reed: That's so rare.
Roz Chast: Yeah. Yeah. It's so rare.
Jo Reed: There’s a cartoon in the book that centers around a piece of pastry that I think sums this up. Could you describe that cartoon, which actually is one of my favorites?
Roz Chast: Should I read it?
Jo Reed: Yeah, please.
Roz Chast: Okay. It takes place at the assisted living where they eventually where and in my book I call it, The Place and I brought a cheese Danish, so my father's on the couch I'm bringing in a cheese Danish. "Look, Dad. I brought you a cheese Danish," "My favorite. Honey," and he turns to my mother who's sitting on the other side of the couch which now you see and he goes, "Honey care to share this with me?" "No, because I ate my lunch. Unlike some people who were so busy socializing that they neglected their lunch. Which is why some people are hungry now," and my father says, "I'll cut it into quarters, that way if you change your mind you can have some," "As I told you, I'm still full from lunch," "I'll cut it in half, then I'll eat one half and I'll put the other half away for later," and then my mother says to me, "Watch. He'll forget and eat both halves," and she's in the background, my father's in the foreground. He has the knife and he is surrounded by these musical notes, like, "La, la, la, la, la," and she finishes it up by saying, "And then some people won't be hungry for dinner," and I say to my mother, "I don't get why you're the boss of dad's Danish ingestion," and he says, "Actually, your mother's right. She's a brilliant woman. Thank you Elizabeth." You know, I really should just shut up and let them work it out because they had a little dance going that my little helpful comments were not that helpful. I mean, I remember this was not an incident in the book, but it was going with them-- this was they used to go this place up at Sylvan Lake. Workman's Circle Camp and they went there every summer and one time I went with them and there was like a little kind of place where you could buy ice cream there and my mother gets a cone don't remember what flavor she got and I got a cone and my father is looking at the flavors that they have that day and he goes, "Rainbow sprinkle. Maybe I'll try that," and my mother says, "George, you don't want that," and she starts like telling him, like, what flavor he can or can't have and he sort of backs down from it and he gets like vanilla or something and I remember I was so angry I threw away my ice cream. And I was an adult that’s like totally childish. That's like baby behavior, but sometimes when I was with them I felt, like, so regressed. I felt like this is the same crap that I grew up with and I'm still made as angry about it as I was when I was a kid but now, probably, if I had thrown away my ice cream in anger at like then I would've gotten socked or whatever but as an adult now I can just do it and she's not going to sock me, so-- but it's just ridiculous. Yeah, they made me crazy.
Jo Reed: Yeah, and that does not cease when they get older?
Roz Chast: No, it doesn't. It doesn't cease. You'd think it would, but it doesn't. It doesn't.
Jo Reed: Yeah, and that's part of what this book explores about aging and coming to grips with death and not wanting to talk about any of it.
Roz Chast: Yeah. Yeah.
Jo Reed: And you document that, but who would have thunk doing it in cartoons would, sort of, be the perfect vehicle for a very tough subject?
Roz Chast: Yeah. Well, for me this is what I do, so it was better for me to do it this way than any other way.
Jo Reed: You laugh, you cry because as you and your parents are moving through this I so recognized it.
Roz Chast: Yeah.
Jo Reed: I just could recognize it, so I think, there's something always so miraculous about something that is so specific, but at the same time can just speak to so many people. I mean, that's art.
Roz Chast: Oh, well thanks.
Jo Reed: But I also think in a way your mother sets us up for it when in the beginning of the book she's like, "I don't want to talk about death, this is navel gazing."
Roz Chast: Yeah. Yeah.
Jo Reed: And, I think, by presenting it as a memoir in cartoons there is a way that it mitigates against a kind of self-involved navel-gazing where you could lose somebody.
Roz Chast: Yeah, yeah.
Jo Reed: Or it's just like, "Yeah. Well, things are tough all over. Sorry Roz."
Roz Chast: Yeah, yeah things are tough. I heard that growing up. Things are tough all over.
Jo Reed: Oh, yeah. Me too.
Roz Chast: Right. Right. Right, oh, god. I hadn't heard that expression before. Things are tough all over.
Jo Reed: And I do think that that's what cartooning this did. Some of these issues that you had to deal with and probably one of the most awful is the whole money thing.
Roz Chast: Oh, God. Yeah, it's enraging. It's terrible because you feel such an expletive even thinking about it and especially because it's their money that they saved up for. But there's an aspect of it that is so-- it's almost comical in a black way. A black humor way. I think about the way my parents like scrimped and saved and the way when we moved out of the city and my father would ask me questions like, "So how much are they charging for Fig Newtons in your area?" and it was either, "I don't know," you know? Are they $3.49 are they like $2.99? I'm not sure, you know, but they were very conscious of like…
Jo Reed: How much is a quart of milk?
Roz Chast: Yeah. How much is a quart of milk. They were very conscious whether the Fig Newtons were $2.79 or $2.99, you know? And you would go the store where they were $2.79. So my parents who were scrimpers their entire lives, to be now at this assisted living place where-- and it was a very nice place. I've heard of places that were-- where people are just-- it's nuts. You have to pay $400,000 to even enter, you know? And if your parent dies, like, within the first few months they keep all the money. I mean, it is disgusting. It is just some sort of, like, robbery and the costs at the end were just like it was Niagara Falls all of it just flowing. Every penny just went to their care and they weren't even, like in intensive care in the hospital. By the time-- at the end with my mother the last two years-- especially the last year she was 97. She was barely out of bed she was in this assisted living place, which was over $7,000 a month just for the rent and then there were like additional charges for this and that and-- oh and their insurance, by the way, which they had been paying into their whole lives did not cross state lines so then they were just Medicare, they didn't have their health insurance plan. The teachers' plan that they were a part of, so that didn't work. And then, with assisted living, something that I was to learn, was that they have plans of care. They have, like, assisted living, the very basic. I think they actually give you like six hours a week of help. Like, if you need a shower. Six hours. Then there's another tier, you know, where maybe you need like 12 hours a week. Then there's another tier and then you top out. And then you have the choice do you transfer your elderly parent to a nursing home or do you hire additional care, which is not covered by anything. So, I hired additional care and at that point the costs were like $14, $15,000 a month. I mean, it was just unreal and, you know, I mean, part of me was like you know, thank God they had the money. Most of me was really, you know, I'm glad because-- but I was also panicked because I started to think what happens when the money runs out? And at that point I'm going to have to take her out and put her in a nursing home or I'm going to have to go into our money and I have two kids in college, so how is that going to work? You know, do we put a second mortgage on the house? I don't know, you know, I don't know and it was really scary, but you're not supposed to talk about it, you know?
Jo Reed: No, definitely not.
Roz Chast: And I just think it’s better if we sort of know what we’re getting into here.
Jo Reed: Another thing you had to deal with was their apartment. Which…
Roz Chast: Oh, my god. Yeah. Well, they never threw anything away, you know, because they were children of the depression and one immediate effect of that on me was being less interested in collections and stuff or anything. I mean, I used to like to go to secondhand stores, and now I look at it, and it's like, "This is like somebody's dead parent's stuff." And it's like, "If I didn't want my dead parents' stuff, why do I want your dead parents' stuff?" you know, I don't want anybody's dead parents' stuff. I really am not even a big fan of stuff the way I used to be. I mean, I like some stuff. I like stuff. I like pretty, shiny stuff, but it's different now.
Jo Reed: Yeah, and you made the decision to include photographs throughout this book, and some of them of your parents. Your parents and you, your parents and you as you were growing up, but some of them was the stuff.
Roz Chast: The stuff. Yeah. Well, we all know photos can be manipulated, but there's something to me about looking at the photographs where it's like, no I did not makeup cheese-tainer, you know, that's patched with masking tape. I didn't makeup, you know, old milk carton full of pencils. When I was going through their stuff, there was drawers of newspapers. I mean it was so sad. It's like, why did you save all this stuff? I don't know.
Jo Reed: Yeah, and you did, you walked away from it.
Roz Chast: I walked away from it.
Jo Reed: Yeah.
Roz Chast: Yeah. I pulled out a few things I wanted and the rest of it I just walked away from it.
Jo Reed: You're good at showing how we cling to things, you know, from ideas to stuff and to life.
Roz Chast: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I might be in the same boat that's the thing, you don't really know until you get there, but it was definitely something that I did not know about. And I think that's why I was so compelled to write it down, and also it was a way of remembering my parents. And I don't have, like, that great of a memory, so I wanted to be able to hear their voices. It was a way of holding onto that for a little bit longer, talk about clinging.
Jo Reed: How did you even know cartooning was a possibility as a career?
Roz Chast: I didn't, and I don't. <laughs> I still don't. It feels very-- well, to use a word that I just heard that Lynda Barry used, the wonderful Lynda Barry, that she used to describe cartooning as a career. She says, "It's very rickety." And I think that's an excellent, perfect description. Even when things are going well, it's rickety. I think, for me, it was just I loved to draw, from the time I was a little kid, and I liked to tell stories, and I liked things that made me laugh. I liked cartoons, and it was just a kind of natural thing. I didn't really analyze it that much. I didn't think of it in terms of career.
Jo Reed: Like, "This is what I want to do when I grow up?
Roz Chast: Well, I did, but I didn't. It was like, "This is what I do." Like, "I draw, and my drawings are, sort of, starting to be like cartoons, and I'm just going to keep doing that. And now, I'm out of college, and I have to earn money, and I can't do anything else. So, I guess, this is what I'm going to try to do."
Jo Reed: Did your parents read your cartoons in The New Yorker?
Roz Chast: They did. I think that my sense of humor was really different from theirs, but they were very, very proud. They were New Yorker subscribers, and so they knew that that was a good thing. You know, my mother, I remember her once saying something like, "I see what you did here. You made the panel, and the third one's a kicker." And it was like, "Oh, okay." So I don't think that there was really much enjoyment of the cartoons. I think they enjoyed that I got published in the magazine. Or sometimes she would say, "You drew me and Daddy." And, of course, I would say, like, "No, no, no. These are, kind of, like archetypes and I'm using <grumbles>." Which is like a little bit of the truth and a little bit of avoiding that. You use what you know. I'm not going to draw, Charles Saxon's parents. I don't know them. "If I'm drawing a mother, it's going to be loosely based on the mothers that I know, including you."
Jo Reed: You have a cartoon of your mothers sex talk with you. Which I think is a classic, and I really would like you to read that for us.
Roz Chast: That was all real. That was completely.
Jo Reed: I completely believe that it was real.
Roz Chast: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Jo Reed: I completely believe it was real. I doubt none of that. Describe that cartoon.
Roz Chast: Yeah. My mother decided that she was going to tell me, like, one of her many theories and this was a theory about women and sexual feelings or attraction or something. And she said, "You could tell the level of a woman's sexiness by the height of her heels," and she started telling me about some lady that she knew who was, like, in her late '80's who was in some assisted-living place and she wore the highest heels possible and, like, all the men were always after her. And then, she would look at her shoes, "Look, look at mine. They are pure beetle-crushers," and I was like, "Mom, that's ridiculous and blah, blah, blah," and then I look at my shoes, and they are like clogs, you know, and it's like, "Uh, god. I'm pathetic."
Jo Reed: I completely believed that.
Roz Chast: Yes.
Jo Reed: As I was looking at my sneakers.
Roz Chast: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Jo Reed: That woman is right. She is right. Got to get a grip, Jo.
Roz Chast: Yeah. I know. I know, and yet walking around New York I am always happy I'm not wearing like some ridiculous shoes.
Joe Reed: I can't.
Roz Chast: It's so stupid.
Jo Reed: You'll break your neck.
Roz Chast: I know, you'll break your neck and they hurt and I'll be cranky. And then, I won't be able to pay attention to anything else I'll just be thinking, "My feet hurt. My feet hurt." You know?
Jo Reed: And this is a great segue into the book, Going into Town. Which began as an advice book for your daughter.
Roz Chast: Yes!
Jo Reed: I really do want to talk about it.
Roz Chast: Yes. This is the new book, Going into Town: A Love Letter to New York. And my husband and I lived on the Upper West Side in Manhattan for almost ten years. Shortly before my son was born, we moved to Park Slope in Brooklyn. And then, shortly before my daughter was born, we moved to a suburb about an hour North of the city, and it was very intense. I mean, it was the first time I had not lived in an apartment. I did not know how to drive. I had a new baby. It was really disorienting. But, you know, I did learn how to drive, and when my daughter was around 18, she decided that she wanted to go to college in Manhattan, and we had taken many trips into Manhattan. But as everybody knows, it's very different when you're a passenger than when you're the driver. Like, when you're a driver, you have to know how to get from "A" to "B." If you're the passenger, you might not know anything. You might just, kind of, be sitting there and watching the trees and everything like that. And that's the way it was for my daughter. In spite of all the trips we had made into the city, she really didn't know. So before she left for School of Visual Arts, I decided I would talk to her and just see how much she understood of getting around Manhattan, and I said, you know, "It's actually not hard because most of it's laid out on a grid." And she said, "What do you mean?" So I got a piece of paper, and I explained that avenues run North-South. The streets run East-West and the avenues are farther apart than the streets. It looks something vaguely like this. Of course, below, you know, 14th Street on the West Side, it gets really dicey. Don't think about that, but most of it is like on a grid. So she understood that and I said, "Well, okay. So if you are on 52nd Street and you need to get to 55th Street, you walk uptown three blocks." And she said to me, "What's a block?"
Roz Chast: And, you know, my head, basically, spins around on its neck, you know, like Linda Blair in "The Exorcist." It just does the whole 360, and I realized, we need to talk.
Jo Reed: Okay. Was that the moment you realized, "Oh, my God, I've raised a suburban child?"
Roz Chast: Yes. Yes, yes, yes. I raised a suburban child, who does not have any kind of understanding of blocks, and I should've known this. Because earlier, I remember once, we were in the city, and she looked at the fire escapes and she, literally, asked me, "Mom, what are those Westside Story things?" Because she was familiar with the graphic, of the cover of the album and on posters and every place, you know, when you see reference to "Westside Story." It's so famous.
Jo Reed: There they are. Exactly. Yeah.
Roz Chast: There they are. She knew she recognized it as a thing, but she didn't know what it was. Whether, maybe, it was just a design, you know, and that cracked me up. I remember, like, "Oh, my God, she doesn't know what a fire escape is. That's so funny." Anyway, I made her a booklet that she could take with her, and it was about, like, 12 pages and it just had things like a little map of Manhattan, explaining the avenues and the streets; explaining that Fifth Avenue divided the East Side from the West Side; explaining about these are the West Side trains, these are the East Side trains, you know, the numbers; and then, there's letter trains and those, kind of, sometimes jig-jag between the East and the West side; what a cross street is and why you should know what a cross street is. These are like main streets. They're like main cross streets. You know, how to hail a taxi, what the lights on the top of the taxi mean. Like, if it's lit up, it's empty. If it's not lit up, there's somebody in the cab. Just stuff that guidebooks don't tell you, and the reason I chose those facts was because I love New York so much, and I thought, as I said in the book, if she had just some good basic information, she might have a sort of, foundation on which to build her own information on top of. But if you don't even have a foundation, then, nothing really adheres.
Jo Reed: One great piece of advice you gave her in that book was how to walk on a city street.
Roz Chast: Yeah! Oh, my God. I mean…
Jo Reed: I used to say that. I used to say, “They just should have a lesson. This is how you walk in the city” when… before they let people into Manhattan.
Roz Chast: Right? I know. I said, “Please don’t dawdle.”
Jo Reed: Don't dawdle. Just...
Roz Chast: Just don't block...
Jo Reed: ...keep it going.
Roz Chast: Don't block the sidewalk, you know?
Jo Reed: Yeah, and don't stop and look at your cell phone, please, in the middle of the...
Roz Chast: Right; in the middle of the sidewalk. Yeah; right, exactly. It’s like thank you. Or at the top of an escalator. Yeah, “are you kidding?” And, yeah, just basic sort of things and at the end of four years she gave it back to me, and she said it had been really helpful.
Roz Chast: Yeah, "Are you kidding?" And just basic sort of things. And at the end of four years, she gave it back to me, and she said it had been really helpful. And I had the addresses of the major museums and, you know, "Y Museum." You know, she might want to go there, and it's kind of fun, and the Metropolitan Museum, it's "pay what you want," and it's incredible.
Jo Reed: And that's a museum I grew up with.
Roz Chast: Oh, it's the best...
Jo Reed: It is fabulous, and you're right. You can never see it all.
Roz Chast: You can never see it all.
Jo Reed: Ever, ever, ever.
Roz Chast: Ever, ever, ever. It is truly like a glimpse into the infinite. You know, some people get really thrilled by going to the Grand Canyon, and they feel that sense of awe, and I've never been to the Grand Canyon, and I do want to go there sometime. But I have awe being in the city it just makes me very happy. I just love seeing it.
Jo Reed: But part of the advice you give your daughter is just to be open to walking.
Roz Chast: Yes, yes, yes. Walking, walking, walking.
Jo Reed: It's the best walking city.
Roz Chast: Yes. It is a fantastic walking city, and I'm very biased because I don't like to drive. I really dislike it, and I love that everything is right next to everything else. I mean, I think that's another thing that I've learned from doing some traveling around the country. That New York is the unique-est of unique, and it's super unique because it's an island and it's small, and so everything is really condensed. In Manhattan, you can walk from the Hudson River over to the East River. And you'll see everything smashed up against each other, all these different architectural styles. You'll see some building that has, like, 10 million dollar condos, and then it's next to some crappy little building with, like, you know, this grimy little deli on the floor, and it's still like that. I mean, people say, "Yes, the city's changing." I know it is. I know it's changing and yes, it's more expensive, and so forth. I talk about it in this book, the density of visual information, that one impression after another, one thing after another, and there's always people in the street. Always, always, always, there's tons of people on the street, and I really like that a lot, you know? You know, E.B. White he wrote a wonderful book about New York called "Here is New York." He writes about the gift of loneliness in the city, and that, I feel like, walking around in the city, there's a kind of anonymity because everybody is very intent on their own thing, and you're there, a lot of times, because you're working or-- you know, you're not just, kind of, aimlessly-- oh, there are people who are aimlessly drifting around. But there's...
Jo Reed: They're not that interested in you.
Roz Chast: No, they're not that interested-- nobody's that interested in you. There's a, kind of, the gift of loneliness. He uses that phrase, but he uses it in a, sort of, positive way...
Jo Reed: Yeah.
Roz Chast: And I like that a lot. Even though there's tons and tons of people around.
Jo Reed: Yeah, and when did you start bringing color into your work? Because I love the colors, the way you use water-- it's watercolor...
Roz Chast: Yeah, it's…
Jo Reed: ...I'm assuming?
Roz Chast: ...watercolor; right.
Jo Reed: Yeah, I love the way you use it in your work. It's really striking.
Roz Chast: Thank you. I love, love, love using color and have loved that since I was a child, and watercolor-- I mean, I had done a couple of covers for The New Yorker. But I think it might've been under Tina Brown, who suggested that I do a cartoon in color, and that's when I started doing more watercolor work, and I really love watercolors a lot. I love--oh, boy. I'm trying to think of, like, how to verbalize it. I don't know how to verbalize it. Sorry.
Jo Reed: No, that's fine.
Roz Chast: Yeah.
Jo Reed: I think talking about...
Roz Chast: Yeah, it's...
Jo Reed: It's hard.
Roz Chast: There's not really a...
Jo Reed: Because I can't tell you why I like it so much. There’s a delicacy, but a depth at the same time.
Roz Chast: Well, I think that's the thing about watercolors, for me, that they are in some ways, delicate, you know, compared to, like, oil paint or acrylic or something like that or gouache. But I think you can really get a lot of depth of color at the same time with it, depending on how you build up the tones. And over the years, I've learned my own methods of, sort of, fixing little mistakes, which you can't correct that much. I mean, when I first started it, I thought, "This is the most unforgiving medium there is." But I've learned now that there are these little tweaks you can do to fix-- you know, to make a green a little more blue rather than yellow, or whatever, you know?
Jo Reed: Your drawing of Grand Central was gorgeous.
Roz Chast: Oh, thank you.
Jo Reed: It was beautiful. You captured the blue of that ceiling perfectly, I thought.
Roz Chast: Oh, thank you so much. Thanks. Yeah, Grand Central is a magical place. It's so beautiful, and I've always been happy that when I've come into the city, it's to Grand Central and not Penn Station, which is the armpit...
Jo Reed: Armpit.
Roz Chast: It's an armpit.
Jo Reed: It is an armpit. That's the only way to describe it.
Roz Chast: Yeah, How did that get built?
Jo Reed: I don’t know. In Going into Town you also sing the praises of public parks.
Roz Chast: Absolutely. I mean, if you live in the city, then you have Central Park. You have lots of greenery. There’s a kind of communal thing about living in the city, where we all get to, sort of, share Central Park. You know, it’s everybodys. You don't own, like, a little piece of it that you have to...
Jo Reed: Maintain.
Roz Chast: ...you know, maintain. It's everybody's place, and I don't know. I think that's a really, for me, a mentally healthy kind of thing. Like, "We're all in this together. Let's take care of it. Let's not, like, crap it up."
Jo Reed: Roz Chast, thank you so much. It was really just such a pleasure to talk to you.
Roz Chast: Oh, pleasure to talk to you too – fellow New Yorker.
Jo Reed: Exactly. Thank you.
Roz Chast: Thank you.
Jo Reed: That was cartoonist, Roz Chast—her latest book is Going into Town: A Love Letter to NY—her prize-winning memoir Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant is a recent selection for the NEA’s Big Read program. You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. And the Art Works podcast is now available on iTunes—please subscribe and if you like us—leave us a rating—it will help people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.