My father took me to the Coney Island Freak Show every summer growing up. My artist Dad seemed unfettered from his day job as a social worker, sketching subway riders on the hour train ride from the Lower East Side, where we lived surrounded by junkies and prostitutes wandering derelict streets. On the boardwalk, he had directed my eyes to details in carefully colored Carousels and lurid posters advertising the largest rodent in the world. I used to worship the sound of light bulbs crunching in the glass eater’s teeth, the snake charmer wrapping albino Pythons around her curves. So different from his serious persona, Dad laughed loudly, treating me to cotton candy we usually couldn’t afford and tossing me screaming over the warm waves.
My parents pinned all their hopes on me, their bright firstborn son. Though all my life, I had spent hours drawing with Dad in his studio, crammed with colorful canvasses, my parents insisted I take psychology courses in college. I didn’t want a sensible degree, I wanted to fulfill my father’s fantasies of artistic fame. Instead, I ended up a drunk university dropout, living at home. Dad burst into my room unannounced, catching me throwing a solo drink and draw party by myself.
“This is a waste of time. No one cares about your sketches,” Dad screamed, “Get a real job. They’re hiring at Duane Reade.”
“You’re just jealous,” I shouted back.
By 20, my parents had kicked me out of their house.
Angry and alone, I escaped to the old Astroland, where I had always been happiest with my father. I finagled an invite to the Mermaid Parade and a special VIP after party, to meet my best friend’s godfather for the first time, Sylvain Sylvain, bassist for famous vintage punk band The New York Dolls. Sipping whiskey from a Snapple bottle on the rumbling D train, the Cyclone shining in the distance, I felt like my real freak family would be waiting to take me in. Sylvain was in his 60s, the same age as my father and they were both artists. Yet, Syl had made it big on the stage, while Dad’s old paintings still hung dusty in his studio. I was ecstatic, imagining Syl would see right away that I was a hurt kid in need of a surrogate rock star father figure.
My best friend Meier and I spiked giant cups of lemonade with vodka and marched into an indoor club, velvet ropes strung up past fried clam counters, but Syl was nowhere in sight.
“He’s probably getting stoned with my mom in the manager’s room,” Meier explained.
Growing up, my parents only drank cheap Manischewitz on Hebrew holidays. Meier had been born in the Chelsea Hotel, where his mom had flings with famous rock ‘n’ rollers, a past that at the time I wished was my own. My mother and father had insisted on analyzing my childhood problems on the couch. We had strictly structured family dinners at 6 o’clock each night, a suffocating ritual recommended by all the eminent psychoanalysts. Yet, I kept a handle of Jim Beam behind my pillow. Without a diploma Dad approved of, I was drinking away the wide-eyed Jewish bookworm version of myself who had made muddy castles with him by the ocean’s edge. I secretly planned to search among the sequined, sandy crowds, hoping to find the spot where I’d been so close to my father as a child.
“Meier! My man!” A stocky guy in leather pants with long dyed black hair in a ponytail rushed over, hugging my friend. Sylvain had on dark leather pants and a matching vest. Syl’s skin was olive toned like my father’s, except Dad remained natural, letting his silver grey hair show.
“Who’s your buddy? You guys make music together?” Sylvain shook my hand. His raspy smoker’s voice reminded me of the lost world my dad had raised me in, old Spanish men flicking ash off their cigarillos as hydrants blasted jets of water into summer streets.
“No, we just drink together,” Meier laughed.
“I’m an artist too,” I blushed, lamely looking at my would-be mentor.
“Any drinking buddy of Meier’s is a drinking buddy of mine,” Syl grinned at me. “You guys want to get out of here? I hate these stuffy parties, I can give you a lift back to Manhattan.”
“That would be awesome,” I nodded before Meier could respond.
Meier sat in front and I piled into the back of Syl’s car. Syl drove fast with all the windows down under the elevated train tracks, subway cars squealing above us as he blasted old rock ‘n’ roll. I sucked up huge sips of my vodka lemonade, completely abandoning myself to fantasy. If I could only switch lives, I imagined I’d go on the road with the Dolls partying backstage with beautiful girls, living like a legend. I pretended I didn’t know Dad and instead moved in celebrity circles too lofty to extend to a painter’s co-op on the Lower East Side. I hadn’t been brought up in understaffed schools where hood classmates abused me, never lost my virginity too young or dropped out of college after getting in trouble with the police for alcohol, a legacy of failure that tugged at me, foreshadowing a future for myself I was desperate to escape. I was the son of a New York Doll.
“Do you guys need drugs? I can get you anything,” Syl offered.
“We want Shrooms,” Meier said.
“Anything but that,” Syl laughed.
We ended up getting pizza. Over pepperoni slices, Sylvain talked about music, a new clothing line he wanted to start, old drinking stories. I noticed Syl’s face in the fading light was a little fleshy, laugh lines zigzagging away from his lips. Like Coney Island, he was a creature of the past, fame slowly fading with the tide of fresh New York fables. I realized I had been living off salty ocean air and hollow hallucinations, sitting down for dinner at the wrong table. I had been staring at a distorted image of myself, as if in a funhouse mirror. My father had always worked steadily in his studio, raising a family, while continuing to follow his own creative passions. He had never been blinded by limelight, preferring to parent me with love. It could be fraught with anger, our shared unfulfilled dreams driving us to destroy, but underneath was an intense devotion to each other.
My artist/social worker dad and I ended up working things out in therapy. He could fix his client’s problems, and paint away his own, but the damage to our relationship was beyond diagnosis. We needed outside analysis. In a cramped office cluttered with art, my father admitted he had been jealous of my ambition.
“Don’t you think I have the same underlying grandiosity you do? Where do you think you got it?” Dad asked.
“I need to learn from you, not feel like we’re in a competition. Me being ambitious doesn’t mean I’m abandoning you,” I said.
“I know that now,” he admitted.
Over months of group sessions, I found out my love for Dad had been under construction, it was never completely crushed. Like the broken down boardwalk, we rebuilt our bond, slowly, piece by piece.
Royal Young just completed his debut memoir "Fame Shark." Follow him at Twitter.com/RoyalYoung.