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. Pepper, 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 cap- tion: “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 puppets, 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.
“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 produce, 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 sweatshops 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 mar- ried, 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.
Babbi couldn’t understand why my parents would raise her grand- children in the ghetto she had escaped. But the Lower East Side, the neighborhood their ancestors had already abandoned, was all the newlyweds could afford, and was the first sacrifice they made for their children. A year before I was born, in 1985, my parents bought our old tenement with other artist bohemians, cleaning out the debris from its former incarnation as a shooting gallery. When they purchased it from the city for $25,000, the building was infested with rodents and crammed with garbage, hypodermic needles, and busted condoms.
“But this is my big money maker! The smartest move I ever made,” Dad insisted when his mother-in-law, my Babbi, questioned his decision to live in the dodgy neighborhood. With a team of other eccentrics, he and Mom renovated the building themselves, knocking down walls and plastering sheetrock, while she was pregnant with me.
Six years later, Dad’s investment still hadn’t paid off. He picked up garbage, weaving it into his artwork or making Yuvi and me wear it. When he saw a down winter coat sprawled on the street between molding fruit and a puddle of fluorescent green radiator coolant, he brought it home and washed it.
“It’s a perfectly good shmata,” he argued, when I refused to touch the stained item.
I would have demanded that he don the filthy finds he brought home, except he always did, proudly displaying his “deals.”
Also availing herself of local color, my Jewish mamacita practiced Spanish at Castillo de Jaguar, a bustling restaurant where my Sunday morning breakfasts were eggs over easy, bacon, and home fries—colored orange from sofrito. The waitresses smiled, pinched Yuvi’s cheeks, and called him “Papi.” With his black hair, dark eyes, and full, pouting lips, he fit in more than grey-eyed, pale-skinned me.
Instead of having playdates, I spent my free time making Mom administer psych tests to me. My ambitious mother’s degree now hung in a small, private office near Washington Square Park, where she tested children for dyslexia and attention deficit disorder. My ambition was to have a big problem, like the children who stole her time as she tested them. I imagined my mother’s love lay hidden in the runny, black ink blobs of the Rorschach test.
“What do you see in this ink splotch?” she asked with the earnest curiosity of a specialist.
“Superman. Do I have dyslexia?” I replied.
“No.” Mom smiled every time she had to dismiss one of my hopeful self-diagnoses. But I figured if I had attention deficit disorder or autism, she wouldn’t have to find patients because she could stay home to treat me.
But that never happened. Instead, Dad’s studio on the first floor of our building became the site of my messy longings let loose on canvasses, or in stories about suicidal whales that I dictated to him before I could write. Encouraging my taste for tragedy, Dad started reading me bloody bedtime stories. Every night, tucked into the warm crook of his arms, his rough beard brushing the top of my head, we were locked together in beautiful, frightening fantasies.
“Several young men, also flushed with drink, seized anything they could come across—whips, sticks, poles, and ran to the dying mare. Mikolka stood on one side and began dealing random blows with the crowbar. The mare stretched out her head, drew a long breath and died,” my father read.
The horse hadn’t harmed anyone. I got up and left the room with- out a word. When I came back, Dad was holding the book open to the same page, glaring at me.
“What is wrong with you? Don’t ever walk out of a room while I’m in the middle of a sentence,” he shouted.
“It’s not fair,” I said, crawling under my covers.
“It’s Dostoyevsky!” Dad screamed, getting up and taking the book with him. He shut off my light and slammed the door.
At school, the most aggressive girl in my first-grade class was named Patrice. She pinched and hit all the other kids except me. She was a six-year-old bully with cornrows and a smoky voice. One day she whispered, “Let’s go to the bathroom to play mommy and daddy.”
“I don’t want to,” I said, pushing her away.
“What’s going on here?” our teacher asked, coming over to us.
Though I had engaged in this game with other girls in my class, there was something different about Patrice’s aggression; her strong hand was now squeezing my wrist hard. Ashamed and scared, I stared at the floor and just shook my head, blushing.
“Everyone has to have a potty partner,” our teacher said, annoyed, scooting us out of the classroom. Patrice led me to the unisex bathroom in the empty faculty lounge, which locked from the inside.
“Show me your dick,” Patrice demanded, bolting the door.
I shook my head no. Then I looked out the narrow window at blue patches of sky as Patrice pulled down my pants and underwear, touching me and drawing my hand past the straps of her pink overalls. I felt violated, but also strangely wanted and excited, the blood pumping harder to my heart. It was my first taste of being singled out, chosen, carried along on the seductive currents of my own specialness.
When we got out of the bathroom, Patrice’s sister, who was in third grade, was waiting. She laughed and shoved us, screaming, “Oooh, you guys were fucking.”
My parents, so good at solving their young clients’ problems, didn’t know I was afraid to go to school. I finally had a real problem, but I was terrified to tell anyone. My name, Hazak, means “strong” in Hebrew, but I felt powerless to stop what was happening to me. My fear and fascination kept me quiet. But I started wearing a cape to school every day. If I pretended I was a superhero, I would have the strength to stop Patrice’s tough, teasing brown fingers.
“Why do you insist on wearing a costume all the time, sweetie?” Mom questioned.
“To save people from bad guys,” I said.
“How brave,” she smiled, not realizing I was the one desperate for a savior.
My first-grade playground was a hotbed of AIDS urban legends. I thought they would scare Patrice off.
“You’re going to die. I heard a man puts HIV needles in pay phone coin holes,” I told Patrice.
“No way. He puts them on movie theater seats with the spike up, so it stick you when you sit,” she scoffed.
Because of Patrice, I felt like there was a dirty, secret part of me. On our way to visit Babbi and Zayde in Long Island, a homeless man kissed the back of my neck in Penn Station. I felt cold, cracked lips on my skin and turned to see his ragged figure running away through the crowds. Strangers were even more dangerous than my classmate. When Dad and I ran into one of his old friends who asked my name I replied, “Blue fish wrapped in paper.” I was afraid to tell him my real one.
By 1993, when I was eight, Patrice was no longer my classmate. But I was left with morbid fantasies about being kidnapped. In taxi cabs I memorized the license plate numbers, just in case I had to yell them out the window to my unsuspecting mother as the murderous cabbie sped away with me still inside.
That winter, my father introduced me to an old friend he called “Fancy Nancy.” She lived on the Upper West Side and wanted to take Yuvi and me shopping for the holiday season.
“Don’t let Fancy Nancy spoil you,” Dad warned. “She’s not good with limits like us and will probably buy whatever you want.”
“OK,” I promised, listening hungrily on the extension as Fancy Nancy made plans with my mother.
“I’ll pick them up after school tomorrow for Christmas shopping,” Nancy said.
“Hanukah shopping,” Mom corrected. “I’ll make latkes for dinner and we’ll light the candles when you get back.”
As we tried to get a cab the next day on First Avenue and Third Street, an off-duty limousine pulled up. A tinted window rolled down. “Where ya goin’?” croaked the chauffeur.
“The biggest comic book store nearby,” Nancy said.
“Get in,” the driver said and jabbed his thumb toward the back.
“Cool car,” Yuvi remarked, grinning.
“Come on, this is much more fun than a taxi,” Nancy said and beckoned to me.
“I won’t,” I said. I knew my father would be furious. Liberals did not ride in limousines. I was suddenly certain this luxury trip I wanted so badly would end in a sinister sentence: my abduction and death.
“Sorry, he won’t get in,” Nancy shrugged.
The limousine took off, the driver scowling and the car’s exhaust hanging in the cold air, its acrid fumes the only reminder of my fear.
Later that night, I made Mom tell my favorite family fable. “When you were an infant, I was wheeling you through SoHo and a baby photographer stopped me. She said you were a beautiful baby and could she photograph you? We took you to her studio, but the flashbulbs hurt your light eyes and you wouldn’t stop crying no matter what we did. All the photos were ruined.”
The next day, I stole one of my father’s Sharpies and blacked out Patrice’s face in my class picture. I became obsessed with reclaiming my next close-up. If I was famous, my parents would pay closer attention and no one could ever touch me again.
Royal Young was born and bred on New York’s Lower East Side. Fame Shark is his debut memoir. Young contributes to Interview Magazine, New York Post, The Lo Down, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, BOMB Magazine. Other writing has appeared in The Villager, The Forward, and The Rumpus among others.