Novelist, essayist, and critic Frederic Tuten recalls his personal and artistic coming-of-age in 1950s New York, a defining period that would set him on the course to becoming a writer.
Born in the Bronx to a Sicilian mother and Southern father, Frederic Tuten always dreamed of being an artist. Determined to trade his neighborhood streets for the romantic avenues of Paris, he learned to paint and draw, falling in love with the process of putting a brush to canvas, and the feeling it gave him. At fifteen, he decided to leave high school and pursue the bohemian life he’d read about in books, a life of salons and cafes and “worldly women” from whom he could learn and grow. But, before he could, he would receive an extraordinary education, right in his own backyard.
My Young Life is the story of those early formative years where, in the halls of Christopher Columbus High School, and later the City College of New York, Frederic would discover the kind of life he wanted to lead. As Tuten travels downtown for classes at the Art Students League, spends afternoons reading in Union Square, and discovers the vibrant scenes of downtown galleries and Lower East Side bars, he finds himself a member of a new community of artists, gathering friends, influences—and many girlfriends—along the way.
Frederic Tuten has had a remarkable life, writing books, traveling around the world, acting in and creating films, and even conducting summer workshops with Paul Bowles in Tangiers. Spanning two decades and bringing us from his family’s kitchen table in the Bronx and the cafes of Greenwich Village and back again, My Young Life is an intimate and enchanting portrait of an artist’s coming-of-age, set against one of the most exciting creative periods of our time.
My Young Life Rex’s Visit. The Race The Bronx, Pelham Parkway North, 1944
Sometimes she brought me a little present she had found on a fruit cart she passed on her way home from work, a pomegranate—my favorite color—or a little cellophane bag of salty roasted soybeans. If it was a Friday night, I could tell if she still had her job the moment she walked in the door. If yes, she was smiling and would kiss me and say, “Figlio mio, ti voglio bene, bene.” If no, she’d put on a brave face and, before removing her coat, say with a forced smile, “How was school today?”
Francesca, my grandmother, had dinner ready, and as soon as my mother washed up we three were at the kitchen table. Sometimes there was fish, which I hated and whose spines I dreaded choking on, but mostly there was pasta, prepared the Sicilian way, with little meatballs cooked with parsley and pine nuts. I hated everything my grandmother made. If there was money in the house, we had a dessert of nuts and cheese, but I wanted the apple pie I was sure all real American boys had when they concluded their meals. Sometimes we ate by candlelight. My mother pretended it was for the fun of it, but I knew she had once again forgotten to pay the electricity bill.
My mother was a draper and sometimes a designer in the fabled garment center on Seventh Avenue in faraway Manhattan, and she talked in Sicilian about the cheap bosses, the haughty cutters, her jealous fellow drapers, and the pressers—like tired slaves, she said. My grandmother listened keenly, wanting news of the outside world where she seldom traveled, wanting, above all, to advise my mother in matters where my mother, born in America and thus naïve and innocent, had no clue. She advised whom to watch out for, whose favor to curry, and whom to run from, like the bosses who offered to fly off with her for a weekend in Florida. “Why don’t you go, Mom?” I asked. “It’s warm in Florida.”
I was ten, and even though my Sicilian was fair, all this talk meant little to me in any language, so I daydreamed that maybe my father would come back soon and bring me the cap gun I wanted. Maybe he would take me to the ball game at Yankee Stadium, as he had promised time after time. Or maybe he would just come home and that in itself would be everything.
My mother was never happy when my father was not home with us. No sooner had we finished dinner and I had washed the dishes than she kissed me good night and went to her room to read in bed. My grandmother opened the screen separating her part of the living room and came to my cot. She was dressed all in black, as she did from the day her husband died, so she always looked like an old thin crow and was a bit frightening as she hovered over to kiss me good night.
I could hear my mother crying in her bedroom, on the other side of the wall. Then silence. I could feel her light go out.
One evening in the middle of dinner, the doorbell rang, and Carl, a giant in coveralls and work boots, came to tell us that Rex, my father, would be home the following week, maybe on Tuesday, or maybe Thursday, or maybe in two weeks. Carl wasn’t sure. We still had no phone, so this was the way my father got in touch with us: different giant men, shy at the door, came with Rex’s messages. My grandmother was always alarmed by these sudden appearances, and urged my mother not to open the door, not even with the chain attached, and to let the man say his words through the peephole.
My mother, Madelyn, in one of her rare moments of happiness.
With the news that Rex would be coming home, my mother burst alive. Over the weekend she sang, she hugged and kissed me every ten minutes. I helped her wash the windows, bringing her bowls of rinse water and drying the windows with newspapers. My grandmother was sent to do the shopping with a list my mother had scribbled to show the grocer and the butcher. She spoke very little English, so the list was necessary; it also asked to put the bill on our credit, which we had not paid for a long time. My father, from Savannah, Georgia, loved Royal Crown cola, pork sausages, pickled pig knuckles, pork chops, and hominy grits. Where did she find such stuff in our Jewish neighborhood, where we had moved a year after I was born, my mother telling me later that she wanted me to be raised among people who prized education rather than among the southern Italians not too far away on Arthur Avenue, where I would become a truck driver or a Mafia lowlife?
My father was coming: my mother walked with a lilt and lightness—with joy. I was excited, too. I told my friends that my dad was coming home and was sure to bring me a cap gun, caps, and firecrackers, and that we were going to a ball game. It was the same thing I told them each time I expected him home, and I was met with snickers because I had said the same thing countless times before.
“Where’s your father?” the kids asked. Their fathers came home from work every day and took the families to dinner every Sunday night at the neighborhood “Chinks.” “My dad is in the Seabees and he builds roads and airports in the war against the Nazis,” I said, as I was told to say. “And he has to be away a lot.”
I half believed it, but I knew from what passed between my mother and my grandmother that there was another story. Rex had another life in Jersey City, New Jersey. I was not sure even what that meant, but when the family met for Sunday dinners at my uncle Umberto’s seemingly palatial private home with its garden and fruit trees, this New Jersey life eventually found its way to the table, and with the same consequences. My mother defended Rex, said he was a wonderful man, that she loved him, and that he would soon return home.
Her sister, my aunt Sadie, had warned my mother not to marry a non-Italian. “Anyway, so he left you,” she said. And, nodding over to me, she added, “And him, too.”
My mother rushed into the bathroom and sobbed behind the door. My uncle and aunt stood there, cajoling her to come out, saying that they loved her and just wanted her to be happy. Eventually she emerged, her mascara running. They all hugged and kissed and brought her back to the table and to the unfinished meal. By the end of the dessert of pears and a plate of cheese and nuts—my uncle cracked the shells for all—and a round or two of golden muscatel, made by my uncle and mellowed in casks in his cellar, all conflict and crying was suspended until we were home again, when my mother went back to her room, and back to her crying. I wanted to hug her and make her not cry. But she did not welcome me into her room and the night ended. I was left alone with my grandmother in the living room, where she went to her cot and I went to mine. I turned off the light and dreaded the morning.
Monday meant school again, and I had not done my homework. I rarely did, and my mother, who had left grade school to go to work, had no idea what homework was and never asked why I wasn’t doing it. I often imagined myself becoming invisible at will and also able to fly whenever I wished, so I could escape a scolding from my teacher and the mockery from the other students, who were obedient and did their homework and kept their hands folded as they were told.
One winter morning, when I was safe in my predawn sleep, when the snow muffled the sounds of passing cars and I could hear, even deep in my dreams, the comforting clinking and rattling of the chained tires as the cars plowed their way in the snow, the buzzer buzzed and kept buzzing, until my frightened mother and I woke up and went to the door. “Damn it, Madelyn, open up.” It was an unexpected, welcome voice that I had not heard in months.
My mother checked the peephole before unlocking the door; she was angry and happy at the same time. It was Rex, grinning—his coat covered in snow, his head, too—with two pails brimming with water standing at his feet. He lifted them, bending to kiss my mother, and walked into the narrow kitchen. The wall clock said four. I was still half-asleep and plunked myself down in a kitchen chair. “Hello there, son,” he said. I put out my hand, like the little gentleman he had taught me to be.
“How did you ever get here in this storm, Rex?”
When we had last looked, the cars were buried in snow and I dreamed that school would be closed.
“Just a few flakes, sugar, but parking was hell. I think I left the old jalopy in some tree.”
“We were expecting you later,” my mother said testily. “It’s his school night,” she added, to give weight to his offense.
“Tried to tell you, honey. I asked Carl to stop over with the news a week ago. Didn’t he come by?” He flashed that “Did I do wrong again?” look that I’d often seen him use on her. He gave me a wink, as if to say: See what we men have to go through? I winked back.
She didn’t soften right off. But with his kissing and touching her in a way that made me feel shy to watch, she slowly did. She caught herself for a moment and took his hand from her breast. “Rex,” she whispered, nodding over to me.
He gave me a big smile. “That’s all right, Madelyn,” he said. “He’s a big boy now.” That was wonderful to hear—a big boy, soon grown-up enough to go off on adventures with him wherever he went in the world, wherever men go to get the job of life done.
He gave me a soft punch in the arm—one man to another.
“Isn’t that true, son?”
“Yes, sir,” I said. I wanted to hug him and have him do the same, but that kind of thing didn’t come from him, as it did from the Italian side of the family, who were always kissing and hugging each other whenever they felt like it. Crying, too, even the men.
He was done with me and went to the business at hand.
“Madelyn—and you, too, son—how much money do you have in the house?”
I had a few pennies and three dimes saved in a jar from when my uncle Umberto slipped them to me some Sundays past after church. Mom had part of the rent money, she said, but she couldn’t touch that.
“Don’t be cheap. Just go and get it, honey.” He was beaming.
“It’s for the rent,” she repeated.
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” he said. “I’m flush.”
When we returned to the kitchen with our savings, Rex was on his knees and peering into the pails and giving each a stir with his hand.
He cleared away the kitchen chairs, bringing them into the living room, where my grandmother usually slept on a fold-up cot. She was at her other daughter’s home on Laconia Avenue, farther up in the pastoral area of the Bronx, where my aunt Sadie and my uncle Umberto’s home flowed with electricity that was never interrupted by the bill collector.
“Now, Madelyn,” Rex said in his most chivalrous manner, “I’m going to be fair about this.” He grabbed a lobster from each pail, holding them so that their claws chewed the air. He placed the lobsters side by side on the kitchen floor. “You choose first. They’re not for eating right away but for betting on. A lobster race’s slower than the ponies, but more fun.”
My mother laughed and kissed him for the first time since he arrived. “Oh, Rex,” she said. “What am I going to do with you?”
“Trifle with me awhile longer, sugar. Place your bet,” he said, pointing to the uneasy lobsters. “And you, too, son.”
She chose the one closest to her and I took the other, the one my father would have bet on. He released the racers and let them crawl helter-skelter across the linoleum, putting them back on track from time to time and prodding them when they got lazy or gave out, which they often did. It was a long race and I soon grew bored and very tired. My mother did, too, pleading with Rex to return the lobsters to their pails and come to bed.
“Oh, Madelyn,” he said, “why spoil all the fun?”
“Rex,” she said, apologetically, “I have to be at work in a few hours.”
“Well, let’s have some coffee and talk about that later.”
“There’s no milk in the house.”
“No cow juice? I’ll run out and get some.” Run outside in the early morning Bronx, where the snow was feet high in the streets and sidewalks and ice had already pulled down trolley lines? In Pelham Parkway, every store and shop usually opened at nine and closed at seven. Then everything was shut down and shuttered, people were at home, everyone except for those glued to the bars, where, my grandmother said, “the desperate live.”
“May I have permission to leave the table, sir?” I asked, half-asleep. If I left without asking, my father would blow up.
“See, Madelyn, see! He’s being raised like a Yankee without manners.” He’d threaten to put me on a train to his sister’s in Savannah, where I’d learn to be a gentleman. My mother, so unlike her, would stand up to him until he relented and drifted to another subject, maybe to one of his passions, like the cruelty of Sherman’s March to the Sea. “Madelyn, they burned down every damn house and field and they left us nothing to eat.”
I was not at the table but propped against the kitchen wall. I did not care about the lobsters anymore, or even about my father, only sleep. Without a word he carried me to my cot, tucked me in, and put his coat over me for extra heat.
“Good night, my little man,” he said.
It was still dark when I woke to their laughter in the next room. Rex was speaking in the low, soothing voice of a man calling down a kitten stuck in a tree.
“Now, come over here, honey.”
I listened to them for a long time talking and laughing. I wished I could be there with them and, without knocking, I opened the door to their bedroom. They were under the covers. My mother turned red and said angrily, “What are you doing here?” My father, in a most gentle whisper: “This is not a good time, son.”
I returned to my cot but I could not sleep in all the excitement of the lobster race, in his being home, in our being men together. But finally, the first thin light of the day carried me swiftly to my dreams.
Frederic Tuten is the author of five novels and My Young Life, a memoir. His short stories, art, and film criticism have appeared in such places as ArtForum, TheNew York Times, Vogue, Granta, and Harpers. Tuten is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship for Fiction and the Award for Distinguished Writing from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
"Frederic Tuten has written a sweet, openhearted, guileless, and deeply moving account of his formative years, one that will resonate with anyone who has undergone the process of trying to become an artist. He somehow manages to merge the young and older Frederics so that both are speaking at once, which is quite a feat." — Luc Sante
"Tuten’s memoir of growing up in the Bronx is passionate and rueful, and at times, hilarious. His bold, unabashed prose rushes beautifully through the decades. A naïf with attitude, Tuten’s younger self is a hopeless romantic, an impoverished dreamer who conflates his desire to be an artist with his yearning for love. He idealizes art and women in equal measure, failing at one but succeeding spectacularly at the other. A burning tale of the long journey from Arthur Avenue to the world of art and artists in Alphabet City.” — David Salle
Like Tuten himself, MY YOUNG LIFE has an enormous heart. It's the story of a young man in love with art, with New York, and with just about every person who crosses his path. MY YOUNG LIFE is an antidote to this cool, anxious century: a reminder that we can feel the most overpowering feelings, and dream the most dizzying dreams. —Paul LaFarge
"This memoir is about more than what happens, though what happens is quite a lot. It’s about a young man in search of a life, in search of himself. It’s about love found and lost. It’s about all of us. I love it." —Diane Keaton
"Sensational. So clearly and movingly written—its sentences so funny and quirky and matter-of-factly Steinian—its tone as lucid as James Baldwin's (in "Notes") or Delmore Schwartz (in "In Dreams") or Willa Cather's or Jean Rhys's. A straightforward shaped American (or French-American) tone. (The best American writing—such as yours—is mostly French in its leanness and succulence.) The feelings behind the words are so full and rich and (I daresay) pregnant with meaning, that the language therefore needs to do nothing fancy; it can simply be itself. A stylistic (and visionary) pinnacle." —Wayne Koestenbaum
"A remarkable—and remarkably beautiful—cultural record that is deeply personal, and a personal record that is deeply cultural." —Tom McCarthy
"The memoir got into my head in a very deep way, and for many nights I had dreams that it provoked. What the book seems to be about (and this is what made it so moving and disturbing) is the sadness of getting what you want. You (or "you") begin by wanting art and sex and you get more sex than you hoped for or imagined, but it leaves you just as lonely as you began. The chance to make art is something hinted at all along and the ending of the book is a wonderfully somersaulting marvel." —Edward Mendelson
"So thrilling. My Young Life describes a specific period, but it also evokes the timeless fascination with the Romantic life. I don’t think I've ever read a book so precise in presenting a young man's preoccupation and occupation." —Steve Martin
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