Food was out to get me. Food devoured me with every mouthful I took. I chewed for minutes without being able to swallow. I gagged, spit up into a napkin, then secretly shook the remains into the garbage when my mother’s back was turned. She didn’t suspect.
Much in the manner of immigrant Jewish mothers of her time and circumstance, my mother placed all her hopes and dreams on me. She wanted me to be big and healthy. But I wouldn’t cooperate. I was small for my age and underweight for any age. I could count my own ribs when I stripped down to my shorts.
“It’s good for you,” was her unpersuasive catch phrase as she tried to shovel noodle pudding down my throat. “It’s your favorite,” she insisted against the evidence of my tightly sealed lips. “I have no time for this,” she pleaded.
She had anointed me, the only male child in the family, to succeed where she had not. But at the rate I was going, I had three months to live. Or so my mother worried. I knew I’d do fine if I could only get away from her noodle pudding. I despised her noodle pudding.
My mother had failed to live up to her early promise as a fashion designer. It was never clear why her career had gone flat, but what was clear, much too clear, was how she toiled, night and day, over her drawing table stationed in a corner of our living room, sandwiched between the piano no one knew how to play and the bookcase stacked with Russian, French, and English novels (read by my father) and uplifting essays by Emerson and others (studied by my mother). She drew her fashion sketches, cloaks and suits they were called, in pencil and lightly tinted watercolor. Three days a week she packed them up and subwayed down to the Garment District on Seventh Avenue, where she peddled them door-to-door to dress manufacturers. Each sketch earned her three dollars. Since my father perennially failed at business and his various other jobs didn’t last that long, it was my mother’s three-dollar sketches that brought us through hard times.
She performed dutifully the roles of breadwinner, wife, and mother, unsought obligations inflicted on her by a bad choice in husbands and the Great Depression. She was said to be good at design, but how was I to know? Except for superheroes in tights and capes, I was indifferent to fashion. But from an early age I was forced to observe how absent pleasure was from her work, how often she mentioned the strain, her headaches, her throbbing temples—
I was meant to grow up to right the wrong of her stalled career, undermined by my grandparents, who prodded her into marrying Dave Feiffer. So much had been taken from her, small wonder the anxiety she brought to raising me. Her offers of food felled me like a battering ram. She pushed, cajoled, browbeat, destroyed my appetite for the very things she offered. “Eat, it’s delicious,” “You’ll love this, you know you’ll love this.” This is not the job she wanted. What she wanted was to get on with the day, get back to her drawing board, dive deep into the world of fashion, which, though it offered few rewards, remained her single escape from this marriage she was drafted into. Her aim was to stuff me at least to the extent that I wasn’t a physical embarrassment to the neighbors, a reproach to her reputation as a mother, forty pounds at seven years, my reminder of her failure.
I had my appetites, not for food but for comics. I didn’t see that food had anything in it to sustain me. I ate only because I wanted to be a good boy. I wanted to keep my mother happy. Not that I, or anyone else, could keep her happy. But more about not keeping my mother happy later.
Comics: I ate them, I breathed them, I thought about them day and night. I learned to read only so that I could read comics. Nothing else was worth the effort. Marginalized from every aspect of the Bronx world I inhabited, my only escape was a life of escapism: reading comics, going to movies, listening to radio serials and favored comedians — Jack Armstrong, I Love a Mystery
, Fibber McGee and Molly
, Charlie McCarthy, Jack Benny, Burns and Allen — each transporting me out of real life into a totally impossible fantasy reality that I bought as a metaphor for my future.
My alternate dream was to someday work myself into the ranks of the great cartoonists. Getting to the top, where I’d be invited to hang out with Milton Caniff of Terry and the Pirates
, Will Eisner of The Spirit
, Roy Crane of Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy
, E. C. Segar of Popeye
, Raeburn Van Buren of Abbie an’ Slats
, Alex Raymond of Flash Gordon
, Al Capp of Li’l Abner
. . .
These men were heroes
! Brilliance in four-paneled daily strips and full-page gloriously colored Sunday extravaganzas that they routinely created. I loved the look, the dazzling interplay of words and pictures that leaped off the comics page at me, a preferred universe to the one I was mired in. But not for long. If I had anything to say about it. I lived in circumstances where I was poor (a drawback in real life, an incitement to high adventure and rags to riches in comics), where I was small and powerless, so inadequate that I couldn’t bat, throw, or catch a ball (a disaster in real life, but in comics a self-imposed limitation that hid my superpowers from evildoers).
I could have used superpowers. If you grew up poor in the Bronx during the Great Depression, missing out on the joys of boyhood as others knew them — baseball, football, basketball (fun for others, failed challenges for me) — then what was my way out? A fantasy of fame and fortune as a cartoonist! So went my exit strategy.
The scenario begins with my own Bronx version of a movie Western shootout. It’s Saturday. It’s summer. It’s Stratford Avenue in the Soundview area of the East Bronx. Five- and six-story dreary brick apartment houses line the streets. Brown, gray, and rust are the colors that dominate. On the corner of Stratford and Westchester, the Lexington Avenue El clatters by, noticeably noisiest in the middle of the night. Kaminkowitz’s drugstore is on the corner of Stratford, next to Horowitz’s vegetable store, next to a vacant lot. I worked at Kaminkowitz’s as a delivery boy when I was eleven and twelve.
Pensky’s candy store is across the street, the near corner. Pensky was important to my life because his store was where I scanned comic books before buying them. Pensky also had a soda fountain and gum ball machines and, in a booth at the back of the store, one of the few phones on the block. If my mother got a call, Pensky sent a kid (in the store for a candy or a soda), up Stratford to our house, 1235, to call my mother to the window. “Mrs. Feiffer, you’re wanted on the phone!” the kid shouted from the street.
My mother walked three flights down, meandered to the store (she had two speeds: slow and slower), ambled into Pensky’s, said, “I have a phone call, Mr. Pensky?” as if it had to be a mistake, thanked Pensky correctly but without feeling (he was a tradesman, she was a snob), and then, no matter how hot the day, closed herself off in the phone booth to take the call.
My mother minded her own business and wanted Pensky to mind his. And her children to mind ours. She kept secrets, who knew how many and of what gravity? Secrets about finances, about family, about family and finances, about disappointments, about betrayals, about debt and more debts, about so much that she couldn’t let on, could only hint at: “You’re not old enough. I’ll tell you when you’re old enough.”
My mother’s secrets gave depth to her rigidity. And God knows, for a woman who started out a blithe spirit, the abuses that broke but did not bend her succeeded in alienating all three of her children, who were incipient blithe spirits themselves.
She was not affectionate. Not a hugger, a holder, a kisser, a squeezer, or a pincher. She didn’t go in for bodily contact, certainly not with my father. I’ve suspected for a long time that mine was a virginal birth. I can’t prove it. But in my life I’ve never been in much of a position to prove anything. My motto has been: Even if you have to make it up, move on. That’s just one of my mottos. My other motto is: Duck!
So I’m back in the Bronx in the 1930s, which I’m told was a fine place to be if you were a different kind of poor Jewish boy than I was. I hear, now and again, from Bronx nostalgia associations and Web sites set up for expats who remember their Bronx childhoods fondly, romantically, a bit misty-eyed. That’s not how I remember it: Walking down three flights of narrow stairs from Apartment 2-F at 1235 Stratford. I have a piece of chalk in my hand instead of a gun. But walking down those stairs and out the door into the sunlight is a little like walking down a lone Western street through the swinging doors of a saloon. Gunfighters everywhere — they know they can take me. I know they can take me. My three-year-old sister, Alice, who worships the ground I walk on, even she
knows they can take me.
But of course it’s not a saloon, it’s the very block I live on. My enemies are armed not with guns but with balls and baseball gloves and broomsticks. And they know when they see me walking out my front door (if they do see me, which I doubt), that I am of absolutely no consequence. I can’t hit, I can’t throw, I can’t catch.
I was missing a basic Bronx gene, the ball-playing gene. It seemed that every kid had it but me. Later, John F. Kennedy was to famously say, “Life is not fair.” He was never to know that, a generation earlier, I had proved his point over and over again.
Anyhow, back to the scenario: I have chalk, that’s my weapon. They have balls and sticks and gloves. They outsize, outweigh, and outgun me. I don’t know what I’m doing out here. I wouldn’t be here, but my mother made me. “You can’t stay in the house and draw all day.” “You need fresh air.” “Go out and play.” Play
? If she paid attention to anything but her own rules, she’d know that I can’t
play. I am physically at odds with sports. My body has been fitted with a hand that can draw but can’t catch or field a ball. She is sending her only son out to die.
Hence the piece of chalk in my hand. At seven I have begun to strategize. If no one else, not my mother, not my father, is aware enough to look after my survival, then it’s up to me. Chalk is my weapon, the sidewalk my battleground. While they, the other, the enemy, the kids with size and muscles and coordination, take over the street, a dozen or more, batting balls, fielding base hits in and around traffic, I establish my terrain, down on my knees on the sidewalk. I draw in large, brash strokes. I don’t know what it is until I’ve laid down the first lines. Its . . . Popeye. Next I do Wimpy. I do a better Popeye than a Wimpy, but it beats any Wimpy these jocks can draw.
One or two of the athletes wander over. They trot off their turf, the street, over to my gallery on the sidewalk.
“Hey, it’s Popeye.”
“Can you draw Dick Tracy?”
I can and I do. And I am fast. They are startled by my speed.
“Can you draw Tom Mix?”
Tom Mix is a favorite cowboy star of the thirties. I draw a ten-gallon- hatted gunslinger firing with both barrels. It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t look like Tom Mix. The growing crowd is responding to me, the fastest chalk in the West.
Of course, after five or ten minutes they are bored and go back to their game. Besides, I have a limited repertoire, only so many cowboys and cartoon characters that I know how to draw or fake draw. But it doesn’t matter, I’ve made my point, I’ve taken my ground: the sidewalk. And on that sidewalk I’ve carved out a niche for myself in the neighborhood. I’m the artist
I’ve won respect if not acceptance. Admiration if not friendship.
I’ve drawn myself into the pecking order. It’s an early use — perhaps my earliest — of a basic survivor’s technique: backing into recognition.
I figured out what the jocks couldn’t do that I could. I could draw. They couldn’t. I used their lack of talent to prove that even though I wasn’t a ball player I was visible, I existed! Inadvertently, I had stumbled onto the use of comics as judo. Talk about epiphanies.
Excerpted from Backing Into Forward by Jules Feiffer. Copyright © 2010 by Jules Feiffer. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.