TLD contributor Royal Young, born and raised on the Lower East Side, is making the rounds with “Fame Shark,” his just-published memoir. He will be celebrating with a book launch party at University Settlement on Friday, June 28th. Today we have an excerpt:I grew up watching my father make plates that featured penises as centerpieces. Pink, proud, and stiff, encircled by cerulean Greek key, Dad’s creations made me feel scared and small. I saw a private part of the man I could not measure up to. At six years old, I lived in a world shaded by his ceramic glazes. There was love and color, but anger, too, in the way he kneaded his clay, palms pounding the rich, wet earth into shapes of his choosing.
He also constructed skull-shaped masks of Republicans and American conservatives from Nancy Reagan to Arnold Schwarzenegger, and was thrilled when they caused a stir in George Bush Sr.’s Washington, D.C. “I chose a skeletal mask because I wish they were dead. I see them as dead,” Dad quoted himself from a review in the New York Guardian over family dinner. “Now every newspaper in town wants to interview me,” he laughed.
My father saw America as tortured and colorful, his early canvases capturing decadently dark theaters drawn from the lost grandeur of the Chicago movie houses of his childhood. Often the seats in my father’s imaginary scenes were crowded with clever caricatures of people he knew, family members and friends. They made me think of life as a stage on which figures moved briefly but stunningly until taking their final bows, never knowing that they were being immortalized along the way.
We lived in one of the first artists’ co-ops on Eldridge Street, our rat-infested backyard overgrown with ivy. They called me Hazak. I loved being the son of an emerging celebrity. Dad’s usually angry shoulders eased with confidence in the wake of his renown. I wistfully imagined that Dad would take me away, far from the seedy Lower East Side and its crumbling tenements with dark airshafts, crooked streets filled with dangerous wonders, its pickles in vats, and Hasidim rushing to Ratner’s while stepping over heroin addicts collapsed in puddles of their own piss.
My dreams came true when my mother and my two-year-old brother, Yuvi, and I took the Amtrak train to D.C., for Dad’s big show. (My father was phobic about flying.) In Washington I guzzled Dr. Pep- per, giggling and jumping up and down on my impossibly soft Windsor Hotel bed. I couldn’t sleep. The night before the opening felt magic. I listened to hushed footfalls on plush hotel corridor carpets, so different from the sirens and cars blasting heavy bass beats into the wild New York nights.
But the next day, at the opening, Dad whined, “Where are all the reporters?” and, “This show is horribly curated.” A lone photographer snapped pictures of a large white-walled gallery covered with Dad’s death heads and their brightly leering grins. My father looked distinguished with his graying beard and tall, thin frame tucked into a multicolored blazer with pink bowtie. Mom’s hazel eyes and short, dark wavy hair shone on Dad’s shoulder, where she rested her head. But who was there to appreciate any of it? A crush of people came, clasping my father’s hands with smiles and laughter, but soon left, taking their loud cheer with them. They did not stay to see disappointment cloud Dad’s face as he pined for something greater, to be forever in the center of that ecstatic attention.
I wondered why his work wasn’t hanging in the spacious galleries in SoHo, a few blocks from where we lived in New York. When he took Yuvi and me gallery hopping there, he complained the art was “pretentious” and the busy people selling paintings ignored us.
Also, if Dad had his own shows in Washington, D.C., where the president lived, I didn’t understand why we never had money. Dad blamed it on George H. W. Bush and the stifling Republican agenda of prioritizing business at the expense of the arts. I won’t exonerate Bush and his ilk, but I would come to find the art world just as much of a country club.
Eventually my father became a low-paid social worker. When I was around six he took a weekend job that didn’t interfere with his leftist politics and appealed to his fascination with the darker parts of the human brain; textbooks on depression, sexuality, addiction, and serial killers piled up beside his bedside. Before I could read, I would flip to the glossy inserts in Dad’s true crime books, staring at the photos of blood-drenched victims and then at their killers, glaring back at me in infamy.
My father’s lost fame haunted me. In first grade in 1991, I drew a convertible car with a smiley face and made my teacher spell the caption: “My dad was on the radio today. Now he is famous.”
But the reporters had stopped calling. And my father became increasingly interested in practicing social work skills on my brother and me, and in saving money. That year, 90 percent of all my birthday and Hanukah money started going into a college fund. My parents thought this was smart savings. They had decided to redeem me from juvenile instant gratification. They were stealing my birthday money so I couldn’t buy more X-men action figures or save up for a television.
“TV makes you stupid,” my neuropsychologist mom explained when Yuvi begged her to let us have one. While studying for her PhD and learning Spanish, she supported us by working in the rehab department at St. Vincent’s Hospital. Her patients tended to be victims of severe head traumas, motorcycle accidents and construction site tragedies. It seemed my mother had mystical healing powers that she practiced on other people. While she was caring and kind with me, I was fiercely jealous of the restorative love she gave to rehabilitate her patients. It was a selfish, lonely child’s fury.
Dad worked weekends at Foundation House, a residence on Houston and Allen Street for recovering junkies with HIV. But he spent weekdays painting and parenting. My parents deemed it optimal for our psychological development to spend time with Dad in his studio, making papier-mâché puppets from The Wizard of Oz. I loved this time, surrounded by the colors of his paints and the dark, dusty smell of wet clay. Dad’s love and his artist’s madness filled the room, inspiring my small hands to grab paintbrushes and adorn my puppet face of The Lion. Yet Dad’s wild moods also ran through mine, reflecting and feeding my rages. When our mutt, Blanche, ate the heads off my pup- pets, Dad screamed and hit her, his eyes wild as an animal’s. Blanche’s helplessness wrecked me, but I stayed out of Dad’s way, cowardly as the Lion trembling in his celluloid jungle.
Yet, I craved revenge on my father’s aggression. Not bold enough to face him with my fists, I schemed. Money—particularly the lack of it—was always on Dad’s mind. So when he wasn’t looking, I started grabbing handfuls of quarters from his change cup, tossed them out the back window of our second-story apartment into the garden, then asked if I could go outside and play. Once there, I would collect the coins.
“Look what I found on the floor!” I proudly showed Mom my loot when she came home from the hospital the first time I plundered my father’s treasure.
“That’s nice,” she said with a distracted nod.
But then one sweltering day my mother was forced to notice my stealing. Hydrants blasted jets of water into the street, and Mom bought me crushed ice covered in coconut syrup from a grinning Dominican man with a pushcart.
“Can I have a soda too?” I asked as we passed the corner bodega. “There’s a limit,” she snapped. “Fine. I have my own money,” I replied coolly, unzipping my neon blue fanny pack to reveal a cache of stolen change I’d been saving for weeks.
“Where did you get that?” Mom asked suspiciously. “I took it,” I confessed.
I really wanted attention and absolution, not cash. But instead of being slapped or getting time-out, I endured long, horrible family discussions. I sat between my parents on our orange living-room couch, surrounded by naive paintings of houses on fire and naked women bathing in a lake; a mirror embossed with thin pink flamingoes; and antique furniture rescued from dumpsters.
“Why did you do it?” my father asked, concerned.
“I have needs that aren’t being met,” I replied, sniffling. By six, I was able to mimic their psychospeak.
“Sweetie, if you want money, all you have to do is ask,” Mom explained, gently running her fingers through my hair.
“Really?” “Of course. We love you,” Dad assured me. “Okay.” I hopped off the couch, and consequence-free, went to my room to draw elaborate underground tunnels with my Crayolas while fantasizing about escape.
They lied; my birthday and Hanukah money still kept disappearing into the mysterious Citibank. Whenever I asked for action figures, Twizzlers, or new clothes from the Gap—and not Salvation Army racks—the answer was always “there’s a limit.”
My drive for more—and all that “more” meant—were not unlike those of my maternal grandmother, fighting to escape her Lower East Side. My Babbi was born in 1932 and raised on Pitt Street and Houston, a few blocks from where I was now growing up. She was the daughter of Orthodox Austrian immigrants who came through Ellis Island in 1919 with thousands of other displaced Jews, gazing in awe at the Statue of Liberty from the steerage deck of a third-class freighter. Marked with chalk as they passed through Ellis Island, labeled like imported pro- duce, they hoped that in this strange new country their children could escape the poverty, persecution, and death of the Old World; that they could learn trades, and shape American educations into money, security, and safety.
The Lower East Side of the ’30s was an Eastern European shtetl transplant, an unruly Jewish village struggling through the end of the Depression. Its tenements teemed with immigrants who practiced wild customs—matchmaking, interpreting prophesies from dreams— that they’d imported with silver menorahs hidden under rags during the ocean passage. Beneath elevated trains hurtling over Allen Street, downtown Manhattan was filled with poverty, with windowless sweat- shops where thousands of laborers worked fourteen-hour days, where prostitutes leaned against the trembling subway trestles, and Klezmer music whined faintly through the streets.
Babbi got out of there—first by working as a lookout for gamblers as a child, and then as a governess in her teens. Eventually she married, and earned her doctorate degree in child psychology as a young woman. My family had a history of fixing other people’s problems and hiding our own.