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Since 1978, cartoonist Roz Chast has evoked a world of quivering anxiety and grim humor in her art for The New Yorker. After she raised her kids in suburban Connecticut, the Brooklyn-bred artist wrote them a survival guide for Manhattan in Going into Town. Before she chats with The New Yorker editor David Remnick at independent bookstore Books Are Magic on November 7 at 7:30pm, the NYC author talks about her pad in the West Village, Brooklyn restaurants and owning a laundry machine.
How would you describe a Roz Chast character?
Um, I guess they’re more like people I would know than some characters in other people’s cartoons. I feel like Charles Saxon had the world he drew with WASPy people at cocktail parties and yacht clubs, and George Booth had those wonderful characters that he draws. This is the world I know—what I think of as regular people, on the subway or at the laundromat.
You grew up in Brooklyn. What are some changes you’ve noticed in recent years?
Here’s one thing about Brooklyn. It’s so big. And I don’t think it has changed that much. There are certain neighborhoods that have changed drastically, like Williamsburg, East Williamsburg, Bushwick and now Bedford-Stuyvesant, Greenpoint, Caroll Gardens and Fort Greene. But there’s still so much Brooklyn that is untouched. These neighborhoods like Mill Basin, and these places you can’t even get to by subway. The neighborhood that I grew up in [Flatbush] is changing, but not that much. I was there a few months ago, and there was a café across from the public school I went to, P.S. 217, and it had these handmade-looking menus and tables on the sidewalk—not something I grew up with. There definitely was this sense of creeping hipsterism, like: They have come, they have come here!
I have an image from a lot of your cartoons of people chained to their couches, watching TV in abject terror. It feels almost prophetic to our current political situation, in which many people have become news addicts at the risk of their own mental peace.
I don’t know why people in general do it, but I get into that, and it’s partly because I’m afraid that they want you to get sick of the news, so that you stop watching and they can do the sort of horrible things that they do—you know, like getting rid of any gun laws that there they haven’t already, or completely Trumpifying everything. Not that my watching TV is going to change anything, but I feel like it’s a responsibility to keep up with the news and the world we live in.
It seems that growing up, you didn’t get out too much.
No, no, no. It was more of a Skinner box kind of existence.
What are your indulgences in the city now?
It’s going to sound so corny, but I have a little place now [on the Upper West Side], and that’s my big indulgence. It’s a rental studio apartment. It only took 30 years! We moved [to Greenwich, Connecticut] when we had our second kid, and I didn’t know anything about this kind of thing. I’d never lived in my own house before. Still, when I do the laundry in my own washing machine, it seems like a miracle. It’s so weird not having to collect quarters.
I haven’t had a bathtub in years. Where I grew up, every house had three.
That’s the thing, when you get out of New York, everything is the inverse. Space is the luxury in Manhattan. When I travel and get out of New York, it is amazing how big the hotel rooms are. It’s like: I must be some kind of queen in exile, because this room is bigger than my apartment in the city. And it’s not even a luxury hotel, just a Ramada Inn! It’s a tradeoff. You can get a whole house in some little town in Ohio for 25,000 dollars, but there’s nothing else there. That’s a terrible thing to say, but it’s true. Not all of Ohio; Cleveland had Harvey Pekar, and there’s a lot of great stuff there. But Cleveland’s a city! It’s those little towns that are strange, but they might have their own washing machines!
And they have a bathtub. I cooked on a hot plate for 10 years. It’s often the way it is in the city. You trade up. I had a bathtub, but one time—this is so awful—raw sewage backed up into the bathtub.
Were you in the bathtub?
No! God, fucking forbid! No! I was just in the bathroom, and it was like, Oh, God, almighty! That was bad.