Steven Heller | Essays

Shouts and Tremors

I have long thought I wanted to write a memoir. Memoirs are big these days and so are memoirists. The memoir is not exactly an autobiography but sometimes they are interchangeable. My goal is not to burden the public with a chronological trek through the hills and valleys of my comparatively “normal” life, but to focus on a what, by luck or circumstance, put me in certain curious places at critical times, which works best as a memoir. At the same time, I want to tell a compelling story that either will be entertaining or enlightening — or both. I’ve been at it on and off for almost twenty years. At times I think that waiting five or ten more years might provide me with more content, but truth be told, I doubt it. What’s more, I have yet to find a voice that pleases me. More to the point, I have not yet committed to tell my whole story.

The fragmented manuscript at this stage is as redacted as a Mueller memo. Chunks of info are left out for numerous personal reasons. But after reading (and reviewing in EYE magazine #95) Paul Sahre’s splendid “Two-Dimensional Man: A Graphic Memoir” (Abrams) I have become more antsy about finishing at least some semblance of a manuscript. I’ve also started making up titles, which often helps the writing process. So far I’ve come up with “Shouts and Tremors” (because I have Parkinson’s Disease and love the Shouts and Murmurs section of the New Yorker); “One Life To Live” (because I used to like soap operas and it sounds serious); “I Am Not Steven Heller by Steven Heller” (which will become obvious in a moment); and “Catcher In The Rye” (because it did so well for J.D. Salinger).

Now with the new year, I’ve decided to restart the process by cutting and pasting some bits of my manuscript together. I’m not certain what the outcome of the outpouring of outwardness will be but it is already making me nervous.

From Chapter One where I disclose my not so closely held secret.

I am not Steven Heller.

My parents, Bernice, a buyer for Associated Dry Goods, and Milton, an Air Force auditor, named me Harmon Steven when I was born on July 7, 1950 at Beth David Hospital on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which was torn down almost immediately after my mom’s scheduled “appointment birth.”

Coincidence? Or design?

Harmon was in memory of my mom’s father, Herman, who passed away at the moment of my conception, eight years into my parents’ sixty-year marriage. My folks wanted to surprise him with a fully born progeny, so Herman never heard the blessed news.

Where they came up with Harmon is anybody’s guess. Herman isn’t such a great name for a New York kid either. Remember Hermann Göring? But Grandpa came from some part of Austria Hungary that is now Poland so it at least made sense for him.

From Chapter Three where the seeds of discontent and future neuroses are explored.

I was fourteen years old when my parents went on a sightseeing trip to Russia and I was sent with a Swedish-American family friend to stay with some of her relatives in the north of Stockholm. I loved Sweden, not just for the beautiful blonde girls, forests, logging rivers, Bergman films, tasty smoked fish and pungent acquivit, but mostly because they steadfastly refused to call me Harmon. It was as foreign to them as Mr. Mxyzptlk is to readers of Superman comics. Instead they decided it was easier to call me Steve or Steven.

Wow. I was no longer Harmon. I could actually change my name if I wanted to and that was that. The relief I felt was palpable.

I stayed in Sweden a few months. Lived with a few different families who called me Steve and taught me to think differently about politics. It was 1964. I was fourteen. The Vietnam War was starting. The elder members of the families I lived with were vocally against United States involvement in this war and they spoke English well enough to tell me why. The younger ones didn’t seem to care one way or the other. Night after night, I listened to harangues against U.S. policy. They’d say “Steve, don’t you understand that South Vietnam is an American puppet state, just like being a French colony, and they should have their own right to self-determination, Steve!” The more they said Steve, the more I listened and the more my fourteen-year old-having-once-gone-to-Valley-Forge-Military-Academy-because-I-wanted-to-join-the-air-force brain was beginning to be washed clean of all its blind patriotism. . . .

. . . . Returning from Sweden I was no longer Harmon Heller, I was H. Steven Heller. I kept the H but had become someone else. Now it was time expose myself to the world around me. I couldn’t wait.

From Chapter 3 on becoming a rebel in my own mind.

The families with whom I lived in Sweden were my first real encounter with foreigners. My grandparents and their respective families came from Eastern Europe, Austro-Hungary and Russia but they weren’t foreigners to me. They lived in New York long before I was born and in the melting pot, mulligan stew, potpourri, smorgasbord, poke bowl, etc. called the Bronx, where immigrants were not outsiders, they just spoke American with funny guttural accents. There was some prejudice but anti-Semitism was, I was lead to believe, a ritual rite-of-passage or custom; it was nothing personal and didn’t amount to much more than a bit of name calling from the Irish kids — as in “hey you lousy yid.” And I do recall a young kid walking down the street with his dad giving the Hitler salute. His dad mildly rebuked him saying, “You know Hitler was a bad man” to which the kid responded “Oh, I thought he was a hero like Shakespeare.” That was a learning moment.

Other than the minor West Side Story-style altercations between Sharks, Jets and Jews and that misperception of the difference between a mass murderer and English playwright, what gave me more concern was not racial or ethnic outbursts but the fact that in the mid-Summer of 1966 when I returned to New York from Sweden that so many strangers, regardless of their ethnic and racial heritages, went out of their ways to abuse me because I had grown a mane of long black hair. My hair became a lightning rod for rude comments and unwanted physical contact. I guess I should have been proud that my appearance seemed to unite the various urban demographic groups through common revulsion but I found it rather unpleasant and at times downright scary.

Predictably, scant sympathy came from my Mom, who said it was my own fault. I should cut my hair and this would all go away. What’s more she harangued me everyday: “Your face is too small for all that hair” and “You look like a troll,” she said, lengthening by at least an extra year my psychotherapy sessions.

From Chapter 4 where I learned there was a temporary cure for what I had become.

Sweden had unlocked my inner-hippie and showed me there was more to life than going to McBurney, a boys-only upper West Side prep school, wearing a wrestling team varsity letter and belonging to the student Kiwanis Key Club like the good lad they wanted me to be. (The results of a psychological analysis that my parents had forced upon me suggested I attend a boys school because I was “precocious”.) The only problem was this: When Swedish Summer was over, I had to give up Bohemia and go back to McBurney where we wore blazers or letter sweaters, grey wool pants and short cropped hair (the kind my mom loved). I was not prepared for reentry into this world. . . .

. . . . Especially the part where the dean of discipline, a stubby gerbil-like little despot, named Mr. Deme, used a ruler to measure the distance between every student’s hair-to-shirt collar as we walked obediently past his first floor security post. Assuming there’d be a problem, I had gotten a bit of a haircut before the first day of school and greased it down with Vitalis. But on that day in September 1966 he nonetheless measured my fringe and ordered the first of several punitive haircuts. . . .

. . . . There was, however, a plus side. I started to obsessively draw with pen, ink and watercolor. My uncle Walter, my mom’s brother, a Columbia University history professor who I adored, also found me a shrink that handled “gifted kids with crippling neurosis.” He convinced my parents to send me to her or otherwise “watch me descend into a very dark place.” Drawing and reading books about drawing and looking at drawings and cartoons, especially Jules Feiffer’s Village Voice cartoons, Harvey Kurtzman’s comics and pouring through MAD magazine were saving graces. As a diversion, I had long drawn war and western scenes that I narrated with my voice as I drew them, but this time I was going deeper into my psyche to express the anger and depression my shrink said I had towards the world in general and my parents, teachers and others to be determined at a later date. Actually the only teacher I liked at McBurney was the drama teacher, named Mr. Bates (we called him Master Bates), a former B-picture actor featured in one science fiction-horror movie. His subject was religion, but he was the most liberal of all the McBurney pedagogic miscreants. . . .

. . . . At the same time that I was finding solace in art, my hair was also growing back, my interest in leaving the house (where I was voluntarily sequestered) was slowly returning; I even acted in a play with classmate Richard Thomas (who the following year was cast as John-Boy on the “Waltons” TV series). But most important, my father was in his quiet way trying to get me into another, less destructive school environment. I’ll always love him for that act of kindness. He succeeded in convincing Walden, another upper West Side New York “progressive” school, to accept me in the middle of my junior year. I remember the day he called home to tell me and how ecstatic I was.

Walden had no corrosive rules. We could wear what we wanted. We called the teachers by their first names. It was co-ed. Walden welcomed individuality. Walden’s headmaster said the only uniform was our “uniform of alienation” (I later realized it was one of the cleverest put-down lines I’ve ever heard, but it sounded positive at the time). Acceptance meant I would start right after Christmas break, so my remaining weeks at McBurney reminded me of the time my parents let me draw all over the walls of my room because they were having it painted. Once ensconced at Walden, the art teacher told me he liked my drawings and he me to do linocuts for the school annual in my faux Beardsley style. I had gone to Heaven.

From Chapter 6 when graphic design entered my life.

At 17, nearing graduation, I was unschooled in magazine design yet appointed the de facto art director of The New York Free Press. In fact, I was a glorified paste-up artist but my name was on the masthead as a.d. after the previous art director, J.C. Suares, who hired me, abruptly quit. I had to learn the production ropes with each weekly issue I worked on, but fundamental lessons about type, typography and illustration were not to be learned in the NYFreep offices.

Nonetheless, given the arrogance of youth, I was ready to start my own magazine. Why not? It couldn’t be so hard, I thought.

I had some money saved up to pay for printing; my best friend Leigh’s stepfather was a bigshot Varick Street printer; there was a place to set type for free on an IBM MTST computer; and I had been the seasoned art director of the Free Press for all of three months. The rest would take care of itself.

I had the desire but one thing I did not have was a point of view. Nobody told me about points of view or editorial philosophies (I hadn’t yet seen “Citizen Kane” or even “Funny Face”). I had come up with the title, Borrowed Time, which came from adolescent musings on mortality and impermanence and was a play on Time magazine. I had a classmate—the school’s resident “mod”—who, when I floated the idea of a magazine, immediately drew a Beardsley-esque cover, that to my eye was just perfect. And I had assembled a few poems and stories, thinking that it would be a literary magazine.

I would do the layout. I figured the headline type would come from the IBM by blowing up (on a photostat machine) the 12pt Geneva from the type “golf balls” that came with the computer. So, I put a classified ad in the Village Voice for contributors, writers, poets and artists.

Lo and behold, many people answered the ad. Yet what they showed me was mostly stale to the point of rancid. Until one morning a tall, skinny, bearded fellow with a twinge of Midwestern accent stood at my door. Looking a bit like young Abe Lincoln, he was carrying the largest portfolio I had ever seen, three or four inches thick, close to 40 inches wide. He opened the case, and there was a pile of neatly laminated page cuttings from Playboy, Avant Garde, Evergreen Review and more, representing the highest tier of illustrated magazines. I lucked out. He was the real deal.

Brad Holland had arrived in New York City from Kansas City, a year before by way of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Freemont, Ohio, and Kansas City where he worked as a design supervisor at the rabbit department of Hallmark cards. He started acquiring illustration assignments almost immediately after getting off the Greyhound bus. It was clear to me that he certainly did not have to submit work to my semi-literate literary magazine. And he almost didn’t when he saw what I was planning, especially the cover . . . .

From Chapter 6 the time I spent in the asylum.

I was a young lad and Holland was a few years older, when together with the underground comics artist Yossarian, we devised a plan to rule the alternative art and cartoon world with our wares. We founded The Asylum Press.

In fact, Holland’s work already graced the pages of mainstream magazines and he was well on his way to earning his deserved reputation.
Yossarian (he passed away in 2015) was a droll, obsessively dark comics creator, who eventually published The Razor’s Edge a fetish zine for women who shaved their heads. I tried hard to balance on their shoulders, but found it too difficult, so I gave up my own cartooning and became the art director.

The Asylum Press, aptly named because we rented (or rather inhabited without paying rent) a dingy office that belonged to a “rag man” who sold fabric remnants, reminded us of a vintage intake station at an institution for neurotic, psychotic and panicked souls. We added Snail Studios to the name because it implied the lethargy that we actually did not have. We were uber motivated, yet didn’t mind frequently missing deadlines — and I liked the image of a snail.

There is more . . . and more . . . and more — the radical leftwing, producing rock shows, Screw magazine, two arrests, Mobster Times,  working for Hilly Krystal before CBGB, etc. But does it really add up to anything? This is the question that streams through my mind each year. I’m not asking you, the reader, for answers. I’m asking myself to either commit to this with zeal or accept memoir as self-indulgence that will drag itself slowly somewhere or nowhere, like the aforementioned snail.

Posted in: Graphic Design

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