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

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.