Roz Chast: Making Each Other Less Miserable

EPISODE 8
Cartoonist Roz Chast talks about arsenic-infused wallpaper and the occasional dutifulness of “I love you, too.”

ABOUT THE GUEST
Roz Chast has had her cartoons and covers featured in The New Yorker magazine since 1978. She is the author of several cartoon collections and children’s books. Her graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was short-listed for a National Book Award in 2014. You Can Only Yell at Me for One Thing at a Time: Rules for Couples, an illustrated collection of love and relationship advice from writer Patricia Marx, with illustrations by Roz, will be released in January 2020. More info at rozchast.com.

ABOUT THE HOST
Neil Goldberg is an artist in NYC who makes work that The New York Times has described as “tender, moving and sad but also deeply funny.” His work is in the permanent collection of MoMA and other museums, he’s a Guggenheim Fellow, and teaches at the Yale School of Art. More information at neilgoldberg.com.

ABOUT THE TITLE
SHE’S A TALKER was the name of Neil’s first video project. “One night in the early 90s I was combing my roommate’s cat and found myself saying the words ‘She’s a talker.’ I wondered how many other other gay men in NYC might be doing the exact same thing at that very moment. With that, I set out on a project in which I videotaped over 80 gay men in their living room all over NYC, combing their cats and saying ‘She’s a talker.’” A similar spirit of NYC-centric curiosity and absurdity animates the podcast.

CREDITS
This series is made possible with generous support from Stillpoint Fund.
Producer: Devon Guinn
Creative Consultants: Stella Binion, Aaron Dalton, Molly Donahue
Assistant Producers: Itai Almor, Charlie Theobald
Editor: Andrew Litton
Visuals and Sounds: Joshua Graver
Theme Song: Jeff Hiller
Media: Justine Lee with help from Angela Liao and Alex Qiao
Thanks: Jennifer Callahan, Roger Kingsepp, Tod Lippy, Nick Rymer, Maddy Sinnock, Sue Simon, Shirin Mazdeyasna

TRANSCRIPTION:

ROZ CHAST: I had one teacher who said to me, “You know, Roz, I have the feeling you’re never going to be happy,” to which I would still say to this day, “and your point is?”.

NEIL GOLDBERG: Hello, and welcome to, SHE’S A TALKER. I’m Neil Goldberg, and today my guest is New Yorker cartoonist and author Roz Chast. But first, a reminder that we have SHE’S A TALKER merch. We’re talking mugs, totes, t-shirts, hoodies, little onesies, all adorned with the show’s muse, Beverly. You can find them at shesatalker.com.

If you’re listening for the first time, the premise of the show is that I use a collection of thousands of index cards containing passing thoughts I’ve written down over many years as prompts for conversations with some of my favorite writers, artists, performers, and beyond. These days, the cards usually start as little recordings I make into my phone.

“I love listening to guided meditation, podcasts and other languages.”

“Lost-urbate: the pleasure of walking around aimlessly.”

“As a spouse. I feel like I’m a denial of service attack of neediness.”

I am so thrilled to have as my guest, Roz Chast. Roz is widely known for her cartoons in The New Yorker, but she is also the author of a number of books, including a hugely powerful memoir about parental mortality called, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

We talked about some of that material along with our love of New York city and a bunch of other things at a recording studio at the New School near Union Square. Here goes.

Well, I’m so happy to have with me today, Roz Chast, who I’m frightened to quantify the duration of my fandom. But I did bring with me today a copy of Parallel Universes that I got as a gift when I was a freshman in college in 1986.

ROZ: So this is when books were printed on Papyrus.

NEIL: Absolutely. It still has the smell of the freshly tanned…

ROZ: It was before cars.

NEIL: But I’m so thrilled to have you with me and I want to just start with some questions I ask everybody: What is the elevator pitch for who you are? You’re on an elevator with someone they ask like “who are you?”.

ROZ: What’s it to you? Who wants to know?

NEIL: I love the question “who wants to know?”.

ROZ: I’m from Brooklyn, that’s what we would do. You know? Who wants to know?

NEIL: What would the person from Brooklyn, who is asked, “Who wants to know?”, say back?

ROZ: Say your mother. What am I? I am a cartoonist, a longtime cartoonist for The New Yorker magazine. I guess that’s…

NEIL: The New Yorker magazine. What’s that? I’ve heard of it.

ROZ: It’s the guy with the top hat and the monocle and, and the really cool lettering that gets ripped off by everybody when they want to make it look classy, and a lot of cartoons and articles and, uh, yeah.

NEIL: Do you ever get recognized in an elevator?

ROZ: I do, occasionally. I’m always sort of shocked, but I do.

NEIL: And, what is the basis of that recognition? Because there is a resemblance to some of your characters, I think you would agree. Correct?

ROZ: I’ve been told that. I mean, it was never, you know, like a conscious thing. But I think the people that I draw are the people from my world. They are my people. They’re people who maybe I grew up with, or relatives or, people in my building when I was growing up, people in my classes, people that I know. Yeah. That’s my world.

NEIL: What would your parents say you do?

ROZ: They would be very proud. They would say, “This is my daughter. She is a cartoonist for The New Yorker magazine. Perhaps you have heard of it”. And they got very good at like sort of like weaving that into the conversation. I have a very good friend who went to Harvard, not to brag. But her mother, she had a black belt in weaving that into any conversation with anybody.

It would be like, you know, she’d be in the elevator and be like, god, I wonder what the weather is like in Boston? You know? And then like, it was really like two beats away from “my daughter at Harvard, I wonder, you know how the weather in Boston.”.

NEIL: Roz Chast. Let’s go to the cards. I’ve curated a selection of cards with you in mind. First card is, “I never want to use the word ‘unforgettable’ because of the history of dementia in my family. It feels kind of jinxy”

ROZ: Yeah. Yeah. I think we forget a lot all the time. Yeah. I mean, maybe that’s partly why you make work, you know? I don’t know. I know for me. I think writing and drawing is a way of trying to hold on to things that I would otherwise. I know I would forget, especially like the everyday-ness, not just the big moments, but just like the texture of like the everyday.

NEIL: What’s the value in holding on to the everyday by way of your work? I mean, we’re all going to perish anyhow and it’ll all be gone, so why? Why bother?

ROZ: You know, I’m not sure. I do feel that in some ways it connects with asking oneself why bother even just being alive. That if the every day is so unimportant that you might as well just forget it. Then why even experience it? So I don’t know.

NEIL: You know another card I have around the question of dementia, because, my mom had dementia. I know you your father did the card is that “Early point in dementia when you know you’re forgetting”. How was it for your dad?

ROZ: I think it was all right because he was so dependent upon and sort of enmeshed with my mother, that I think he had always sort of let her hold the reins and take charge of everything. She always made the decisions even when he was completely all there. So it was just, you know, going a little bit farther in that direction. You know, he had retired early and also he did not have Alzheimer’s.

He had Senile Dementia. So he knew who I was. But if you asked him like what he had for lunch or something, he couldn’t tell you. But he had very strong memories of like his early years growing up in East Harlem. And at one point I asked him, because he was talking so much about these early memories, I said, “Do you, do you have more of these early memories now than you had, let’s say 20 years ago?”. What I was asking was, is there a certain part of your brain that is like, reawakened that you know now you have access to these memories that you didn’t have, for, 40 years? And his answer was, “I don’t know”.

NEIL: Talk about, um, Beckett,

ROZ: Yeah. I don’t know.

NEIL: Roz, next card: “Some people have face blindness. I have car blindness.”

ROZ: I have both face blindness. Did you know that?

NEIL: I didn’t know you had face blindness.

ROZ: I thought you were asking me that because you knew that I am. I’m seriously face blind.

NEIL: Wow. Okay.

ROZ: Yeah. And I am car blind. I feel like isn’t everybody car blind? But I guess they’re not.

NEIL: I feel like every conversation with my brother involves some sort of like, “I’m coming in the Prius”. And it’s like, okay, help me out there.

ROZ: Yeah. Oh god. That’s, well, I didn’t learn to drive till I was 38. I hate. I don’t like cars. Really.

NEIL: Me neither. Why do you think you don’t like them?

ROZ: I mean, I am always afraid something’s gonna go wrong, that they’re going to catch on fire, that a wheel is going to fall off or go flat, that they’re going to break in some horrible way that, I don’t like to change lanes. I’m afraid of trucks. I’m afraid of bad weather. I don’t like highways. I don’t like gravel roads. I don’t like having to drive to go places. It’s boring and everything about it rubs me the wrong way.

NEIL: It’s interesting that you say it’s boring. I don’t feel bored often. And that’s partially privileged. But driving is that, I think because it requires a certain in-between kind of consciousness. You can’t fully zone out, which I guess if you’re a master meditator, you could treat driving as this kind of like…

ROZ: The road is coming towards me.

NEIL: Mindfulness. Exactly. Yeah. I do think a public transportation is kind of a miracle.

ROZ: Oh my God, I know! It’s so great. And you can look at other people or you can look at your phone. I mean, I never get bored on public transportation.

NEIL: One of my cards is that I didn’t cure it for today is “Every subway car is a casting call for itself”.

ROZ: Yes. The subway is so interesting. I love looking at the other people.

NEIL: Yeah. I love the permission to look, or the semi-permission to look.

ROZ: Well, I wrote a little bit about that. The book I wrote about New York, where, especially growing up here, you sort of master the art of looking without looking. You kind of looking around and you kind of can look at somebody. But you can’t, like when I was growing up, my parents taught me like never look anybody directly in the eye. Cause that was, you know, the person could be a nut. And that was, you know, one of the commandments of survival in New York. And, so, I kind of got good at looking around and like that kind of glancing look at somebody. And. I have a, with one of my kids, we have code words, you know, for like when you want the person to look around cause there’s somebody interested, you need them to see.

NEIL: Can you share for the public what those code words are?

ROZ: Well, I wouldn’t want anybody to be in an elevator with me, but it’s usually what happens is we start talking about musicals. Oh huh. And not like, “Did you see the musical about the guy with the green hair who’s really fat?”. No, just the word “musical”. And it’s, it can be something just like, “I haven’t been to the theater in a long time, and what I really missed is musicals”, that word is like, look around, just feast your eyes. And then when the person sees it, they’ll say, “Oh God, yeah, I love musicals”. So it’s not, there’s nothing more than that. It’s not like, you know, you encode any like message. It’s just using the word.

NEIL: I love it. You do this with your kids.

ROZ: Yeah.

NEIL: That’s beautiful. Do you like musicals?

ROZ: I, actually, I’m going to see Fiddler On the Roof tomorrow night. The Yetish one, very exciting.

NEIL: It’s trippy.It’s super trippy. Oh, you’re in for a treat.

ROZ: Yeah.

NEIL: I love the feeling of having a musical, not to get into like, not to confuse the code.

ROZ: A real musical, not a “Musical” quote unquote.

NEIL: But having it like knowing you’re going to one tomorrow is like delicious.

ROZ: ] Well, if we’re ever walking around New York, I give us permission to use “musical”.

NEIL: I love it. It’s so, it’s so nonspecific. You rarely talk about musical. You’re always talking about Fiddler or Cats or whatever. I talk about musicals, in the specific, so often in my home life. Uh, this could be very confusing.

ROZ: Yeah. Don’t use it with your husband.

NEIL: He’s often in musicals and public.

ROZ: You have to have your own code word.

NEIL: Yeah, We do have a couple of code words.

ROZ: “Wallpaper” or just something.

NEIL: “Wallpaper” would be great. We have an ongoing discussion about the possibility of wallpaper in our lives.

ROZ: Yes. Well, it’s an interesting topic. I was reading about this kind of wallpaper that was very popular in the late 19th century, which was green, and it was a certain shade of green that was made with arsenic. And people got very sick from it, but they didn’t know what was making them sick. But it was, if you look up, Arsenic Green Wallpaper. You know, if you Google that, they have pictures of it and it is, it’s a great color. They also use this green in clothes, make people sick. It’s really interesting.

NEIL: Now, where do you get sick from the wallpaper, just from being in a room that you. It wouldn’t be that you’d have to consume the wallpaper in some way?

ROZ: No. The fumes. The fumes from the paint. .

NEIL: What a way to go though.

ROZ: I know.

NEIL: The wallpaper killed me.

ROZ: Absinthe in Arsenic. Good way to go though.

NEIL: Sipping Absinthe in my arsenic wallpapered room.

The next card is. It just says “The cleanliness of cities.”, but what’s behind that card for me is I feel very attuned to questions of personal hygiene, my own personal hygiene, other people’s personal hygiene. But I don’t care about the cleanliness of cities. I feel suspicious when people focus on this question of like, oh it’s not clean or it’s so clean.

ROZ: The dirtiness of New York actually makes me laugh. I mean, sometimes like in the subway, my friend Patty and I, we often talk about, we should do like a piece about bringing a Roomba into a subway station cause it’s just so dirty. I mean, uh…

NEIL: It’s like monumental dirt.

ROZ: Monumental like. This is dirt from like the early 16th century. So the dirt, the garbage

NEIL: Constellations in dirt.

ROZ: Yes. It’s just. I think I more like the personal cleanliness thing, you know, certain hangups about that. The dirt aspect bothers me a lot less than just a general decrepitude of the infrastructure. And I see that in subway stations where I see like pipes that are like dripping, that have like tape around them, that are held up to this ceiling by string or other pieces of tape, and that like the dirt, I’ll take tons of dirt over that. That just makes me feel like this is all going to collapse on my head. And then I think, Oh, well, it won’t happen tonight. So I’ll just kinda, you know, go on my day and I have the dinner date. So how could it happen? You know? I’m nice and yeah, and there’s plenty of musicals around. Maybe it’ll fall on them, you know? But yeah,the decrepitude of the infrastructure and having grown up here, it like looked like crap in the 70s and now it is like 50 years later and it’s still falling apart.

NEIL: “The hard thing about being in a relationship, not only compromising, but also not registering every time I compromise.”

ROZ: Yeah. Yeah.

NEIL: How long have you been married?

ROZ: Since 84, and we met in 1980, so we’ve been together almost 40 years. That’s a long time.

NEIL: It’s a lot of compromising, I’m sure.

ROZ: That’s a lot of compromising.

NEIL: Now, what is your relationship to the registery? Like, signaling the fact that you’ve just compromised.

ROZ: It’s daily. It’s hourly if I’m with the person. My, my friend, dear friend, Patty Marx, Patricia Marks and I, we wrote another book that’s coming out in time for Valentine’s day.

It’s about relationships and it’s called, You Can Only Yell At Me For One Thing At A Time. It‘s basically about that. It’s about relationships and compromise. One of my favorite items, and there’s about, 80 items or something, is marriage is one of you secretly turning the thermostat up a degree and one of you secretly turning the thermostat down a degree until one of you dies.

NEIL: I’ve become much better at compromising, but there is still this part of me that would like acknowledgement and credit for every single compromise I make, which would be the most annoying thing in the world to be on the other end of.

ROZ: Oh, we just had this this morning about credit. But I don’t know. I mean, this book about relationships, is a lot of that kind of stuff. And as I was drawing it, I realized. It’s funny cause it’s, it started out. The first few I did were these hetero couples of a certain age, like 25 to like 50. And then I realized after the first five, and as I said, they’re about 80, it’s like, oh my God, this is like any relationship. And so it was just like any kind of couple. There’s a couple of robot couples. Any, yes. Sexy. They’re, you know, they have their fights. They have their fights because people living together having compromise is part of it. And, if you don’t want that, then you live alone, and then you know what happens. You can get living alone disease.

NEIL: What are the symptoms of living alone disease?

ROZ: Uh, you can’t listen to other people well. You lose empathy for other people and things have to be your way. Or you flip a shit and that’s, you know, I know a few people they have living alone disease.

NEIL: Yeah. I know a couple of people in couples who have living alone disease.

Roz, next card is “My narcissism is that I want you to see certain things and always think of me or associate me with them”. That’s like my relationship to art. And I wonder how that lives for you. So for instance, I did a project that’s about people orienting themselves as they emerge from the subway.

ROZ: Yes, I love that.

NEIL: Thank you. And I think I love about that is that the way, hopefully it implants itself in people’s minds and there’s a narcissistic element to it, which is like, oh, when they have that experience, then I’m kind of somehow evoke. Does does the equivalent live for you in your work at all?

ROZ: I mean, you say narcissistic, which, you know, has very negative implications. But I don’t think it’s so much that, I think it’s that when you’re excited about something and you feel that you’re pointing out something or pointing out something in a way that people haven’t seen before and you’re doing so not because you want people to think, “Oh, aren’t you great.”, but because “it’s so cool! it’s so fun!”. And this will make your experience of life more interesting or more fun. I don’t think that’s narcissism. Maybe it is. I don’t know. But that’s. I think that’s what good art is, you know? And, or a good book. It just. It’s like somebody has thought of something in a way that you haven’t and it just makes things more interesting.

NEIL: Yeah. I love, thank you. You’re very good at depathologizing things. I’m straight, I go straight to pathologize.

ROZ: I am so pathological. I have to, or I will not get out of bed. Seriously. I have to.

NEIL: Let’s try one more?

ROZ: Okay.

NEIL: “The occasional dutifullnes of, ‘I love you too'”.

ROZ: Ah, my first thought when you said it was my mother and all my complicated feelings about her. And having at the end to say that even though it’s a very complicated statement and not entirely sincere.

NEIL: Yeah. “I love you too”.

ROZ: “I love you too”. And, but love can also mean not just like, oh, I just think you’re so cool, or you were nice to me, and we really make each other happy. I mean, in the best circumstances, it’s really, I hope it’s this way with my kids, but like when I’m with them, you know, I hope we make each other a little bit less sad. I won’t even go so far. Aim high. I won’t go so far as happy, but just like we don’t add to each other’s burdens or sadness. We don’t add to each other’s suffering.

NEIL: Right.

Well, Roz Chast, thank you so much for being on SHE’S A TALKER.

ROZ: Well, thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure.

NEIL: All right. Bye.

ROZ: Bye.

NEIL: Thank you so much for listening to, SHE’S A TALKER. I really hope you liked it. If you did, could you please take a couple of minutes right now to rate and maybe write a little review on Apple Podcasts, which helps people who are not my friends and family find the show.

Also buy merch at shesatalker.com. This series is made possible with generous support from Still Point Fund and with help from Devin Gwyn, Aaron Dalton, Stella Binion, Charlie Theobald, Itai Almor, Andrew Linton, Molly Donniehew, Justin Lee, Angela Lao, Alex Chow, Josh Graver, and my husband Jeff Hiller who sings the theme song you’re about to hear.

Thank you to them and to my guest, Roz Chast and to you for listening.

She’s a talker with Neil Goldberg. She’s a talker with fabulous guests. She’s a talker. It’s better that it sounds.