Excerpt: Somehow, He Escaped

In “Closing Time”, acerbic author and East Falls native Joe Queenan tells the surprisingly touching story of his long flight away from a ’50s-era childhood dominated by an alcoholic, self-pitying father and wrenching poverty

THE ENTRANCE TO the East Falls Housing Project was no more than a couple hundred yards north of the Schuylkill River, which flowed straight through the city. The Schuylkill was neither a raging cataract nor a mythical waterway, and while it’s true that the river was the preferred setting for paintings by Thomas Eakins, the greatest artist America has ever produced, few Americans are aware of this. Despite this lack of epic stature, the river was reasonably wide, with plenty of open space on either bank where people could picnic, fish, frolic with their children, or sit back and watch the world go by. It was a feature of the landscape that had the power to console and inspire; it was lovely, it was accessible, and it was free.
My family never went down to the Schuylkill. We never went on picnics. We never set up a folding table and sat out playing cards or checkers. And we certainly never watched the regatta teams row past. The river was off-limits to us. The official party line was that it wasn’t safe for children to go down to the river by themselves, because the area was poorly traveled and rampaging Negro gangs from North Philadelphia were known to pounce on defenseless tykes and beat them to a pulp. As for the prospect of a picnic, that would never have occurred to anyone in my family or just about anyone in my neighborhood. Poor white people didn’t go on picnics; the bucolic fete was the province of the bourgeoisie, or otiose Negroes. Poor white people stayed inside and watched sports and drank beer and terrorized their kids. All the years that we lived in the project, all the years that we lived just a hundred yards away from a placid, slow-moving river that could have provided a respite from our unhappiness, we simply ignored it.
One summer morning not long after we moved to East Falls, my father woke me early. He said he was headed downtown to apply for unemployment compensation and wanted me to come along. I didn’t know what unemployment compensation was — it took me a long time to understand the protocol involved in losing a job — but the prospect of embarking on an adventure with my dad was thrilling. What I didn’t realize when he issued the invitation, however, was that we wouldn’t be taking the bus, the subway or the trolley car downtown that morning, because we had no cash on hand. Not one thin dime. Not one red cent. Not even one wooden nickel. Nothing. Instead, we would be making our way on foot. Children have a distorted concept of size and space, so in my memory, the distance between our home and downtown Philadelphia was easily 15 to 20 miles, a Herculean trek for a youngster, as we would also be making the return trip on foot. This made the outing immeasurably less appealing.
Life in those days, for the Queenans at least, was a trail of automotive tears. Not having a car in the age of the Thunderbird was a tremendous humiliation for a grown man. It was bad enough not to have a television or a telephone, but those were minor inconveniences. Having no car left us at the mercy of the dreaded Philadelphia Transportation Company and its fleet of unreliable, herky-jerky buses, subways and trolleys, most of them going places we didn’t wish to visit. No car meant no trips to the country, no trips to the seashore, no trips to visit those few relatives we didn’t wish to see impaled on sharp sticks. Not once in his life did my father own a new car, or anything resembling one. For most of my childhood, we didn’t have a car, and on the rare occasions when we did scrape together enough cash to buy one, it would turn out to be some wheezing bomb that keeled over and died within a few weeks. To the best of my knowledge, my father also never flew on a plane or found himself in a position to order room service. The late 20th century had a lot to offer working-class people, but he missed out on all of it.
Carless, cashless, we hoofed downtown that day. Though there were several routes we could have taken, he opted to walk straight down Ridge Avenue, straight through his old childhood haunts, straight through the heart of the North Philadelphia ghetto. My father was not especially fond of Negroes; like most white people we knew, his idea of race relations was to stay as far away from black people as possible. But he was adamant in his refusal to surrender this hallowed terrain to these tetchy intruders. To him, traipsing through a slum was a way of abolishing reality, a way of insisting that the past was still the present and always would be. It was an attitude he maintained until the end of his life, when he would breathlessly tell me about his latest excursion to an unappetizing neighborhood his ethnic group had deserted two generations earlier. To him, the phrases “8th and York” and “Strawberry Mansion” forever evoked the glory of days long past. Such glories were not apparent to the uninitiated. Our trek through the urban wilderness scared me speechless; I didn’t know anything about black people except that they weren’t all that fond of white people. Throughout the arduous trek down Ridge Avenue, I kept my eyes down, my face forward. And I walked double-time; I wanted to make sure we were out of North Philly before nightfall.
Many years later, on a visit home, I took a long, relaxing walk along the river. I was 47, yet had never once strolled any great distance along the Schuylkill. My feelings towards the city of my birth would always be mixed. One part of me loved to revisit a municipality whose charms had generally eluded me when I was growing up; but sometimes, particularly when I would hear the chillingly pedestrian Philadelphia accent, I felt as if I had never moved away to New York, as if my adult life had never happened. This return visit was a particularly illuminating experience. Casting my mind back, viewing events through the eyes of a nine-year-old, I remembered the distance between the housing project and Center City Philadelphia as Bunyanesque, a veritable death march. But now, after all those years, I discovered that the total was only about three miles — that it was no more than a 60-minute hike from the foot of the Art Museum to the project entrance. Kelly Drive, named after Grace’s sculling sibling, was a tree-lined urban paradise for joggers and bicyclists. This was a revelation. When my father had dragged me downtown to sign up for public assistance 37 years earlier, he made a point of marching through a slum, whereas we might have enjoyed ourselves. He preferred to wallow in melancholy urban nostalgia rather than avail himself of Mother Nature’s restorative powers; he would rather sift through the ashes of the past than take delight in the present. The river, the bushes, the flowers, the trees — none of it meant anything to him. The river hadn’t been part of his childhood, so it could never be part of his adulthood.
What accounted for this attitude? He was poor. Libertarians, self-made men and sage pundits believe that money can make any problem disappear — that if one merely puts enough cash into the hands of the poor, they will draw on the prodigious reserves of wisdom and enterprise they’ve been clandestinely stockpiling for so many years and make all the right choices needed to turn their lives around. School vouchers are the most obvious example of such thinking; who, after all, is better positioned to make Solomonic decisions about her child’s education than a 16-year-old mother of three? Adherents to this school of thought have difficulty grasping that poverty is as much a state of mind as an economic condition, a pathology that encourages the poor to make bad decisions. Ravished emotionally, not widely liked, rarely chipper in disposition, the poor early on develop a knack for making bad situations worse. Their folly is thereupon used as an additional indictment of their character. Poverty becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: It may not be your fault that you were born poor, but somewhere along the way you’ve certainly mastered the art of behaving like a poor person. You are shiftless. You are self-destructive. You are foolish. Now go away.
One of my earliest memories of the project was being dispatched into the streets to gather up cigarette butts for my father. If the butts were long enough, he would smoke the remains; if they weren’t, we would rip them open, pour the contents into a jar, and roll fresh cigarettes from the remnants, using a handy, inexpensive device manufactured and sold by some enterprising tobacco company. This was the ragpicker phase of my youth, though I didn’t know it at the time. I thoroughly enjoyed these foraging expeditions, as I thought I was being useful to my father and also in some way creative. I did not yet fully realize how straitened our circumstances had become.
Editor’s Note: With the help of a series of mentors and surrogate fathers, Queenan was able to escape into the wider world of St. Joe’s; meanwhile, his family moved to Olney, but the atmosphere at home didn’t change much.
My father continued to drink with homicidal zeal; he continued to conduct his nocturnal colloquies with invisible specters; he continued to sink into this abyss he had been sinking into since 1958. None of it was of any consequence to me; I would never live in his house again, and whatever happened to him from that point onward was his business. When people used the word “father” in my presence, it was like hearing a once-familiar term from a foreign language whose vocabulary I had now forgotten.
He may have felt the same way about the word “son”: Our estrangement was complete. The rupture was cemented when I phoned home in May of my senior year of college to announce that an organization called the Alliance Française had awarded me a $2,000 scholarship to spend a year in France. My French teacher, Tom Donahue, had suggested I apply for the scholarship at the end of my senior year, a suggestion I viewed as ludicrous because even though I could read the language reasonably well, my spoken French was almost actionably bad. He assured me that this didn’t matter, because the Alliance Française promoted French culture, not French grammar, and as I had already read the completed works of Molière and Racine, something no one else under the age of 21 in the Greater Delaware Valley could purport to have done, I would have the inside track on the competition. He also said that he could arrange for me to be the final applicant interviewed by the Alliance board, loping in at dusk, by which point the judges would be so weary of perky Swarthmore Francophiles smitten by the nuances of the future anterior tense that they would literally fall down on their knees and beg me to take the money.
This is exactly what came to pass: I entered the room and, when asked why I wanted to spend a year in France, immediately ran through the whole F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, James-Joyce-sleeping-on-the-floor-at-Shakespeare-&-Company, when-we-were-very-young-and-very-happy routine, then casually observed that every great non-French writer I could think of — Dante, Erasmus, Edith Wharton, George Orwell, James Baldwin — had lived in Paris, though none of them had died there. I had cribbed this material from Henry Miller, fully aware that, like many of Miller’s assertions, it wasn’t true: Oscar Wilde died in Paris. Be that as it may, my spiel manifested an edifying, if jejune, savoir faire; my determination to become a writer was unquestionable; and at least I didn’t pretend to hold any special place in my heart for the vanished splendors of the future anterior tense, much less the preterit. They gave me the 2,000 smackers.
In immigrant lore, when the eldest son becomes the first member of the family to graduate from college, and when he tops it off by winning a scholarship to spend a year in Paris, the parents react jubilantly. But there was no rejoicing on North 2nd Street when my parents heard my news; they were charter members of an ethnic group that lacked the capacity to enjoy anyone else’s good fortune. They knew that a year in France meant a lot to me, that it was far and away the most important event in my life. But it meant nothing to them. Their lack of enthusiasm didn’t derive from fear that I would get above my station and expose myself to the uninterrupted series of brutal disappointments that life held in store. Nor was their blasé response an expression of the equally popular Irish Catholic belief that human existence was a zero-sum operation — that one man’s success by definition was offset by another man’s failure. It was simply a case of my news being irrelevant to them. They were working-class people; they had been beaten down by life. My good fortune was not about to raise their salaries, heal their illnesses, repair their appliances, fix their marriage. Joy was an emotion to which they had long ago lost access. 

Around the Web

Be respectful of our online community and contribute to an engaging conversation. We reserve the right to ban impersonators and remove comments that contain personal attacks, threats, or profanity, or are flat-out offensive. By posting here, you are permitting Philadelphia magazine and Metro Corp. to edit and republish your comment in all media.