Friday, May 15th, 2009
Humorist Joe Queenan turns a serious eye to his childhood in his new memoir, Closing Time. He writes about his abusive, alcoholic father and growing up poor in Irish Catholic Philadelphia. This week, he spoke with Adam Rose about the memoir, and you can read an excerpt from the opening chapter below.
Chapter 1. The Man on the Roof
When a father dies, it is customary to forage through stored memories to conjure up an image that bathes him in the most heroic light. A single memory from my childhood eclipses all others. One Thursday night when I was thirteen years old, my father was standing alone in the kitchen of our Philadelphia row home, downing one of the ghastly local brews he’d long fancied. He was talking to himself, delivering some variation of his stock “O tempora, O mores” peroration, deploring the latest indignities that vested interests had imposed on the working man.
The engulfing darkness of the civil rights movement, the demise of the Big Bands, and the collapse of Holy Mother Church as a viable institution were his other standard themes. We never knew whether he thought that the rest of us were listening attentively or were merely indulging him. Though the truth is, he never really required much in the way of an audience; often, when he entered the Ciceronian mode, he was content to declaim to an empty room.
That night, something unexpected interrupted his jeremiad. Hearing tiny steps approaching, he looked up and realized that the swinging door connecting the dining room to the kitchen was about to smash my five-year-old sister in the face. The bottom of the door was solid wood—thick but innocuous—but the pane above it was a taut sheet of rippled glass. This was the section that would have struck my sister right around eye level.
Mary Ann, his third daughter and fourth child, was chubby and angelic, the only member of the family everyone liked. She was, the rest of us contended, though she furiously denied it, a beneficiary of the Final Child Syndrome: Even parents who cannot stomach their firstborn children, deeming them conspirators in the massacre of their dreams, are reasonably indulgent toward, or at least oblivious to, the last one. This forbearance may derive from a sense of mutual relief that the procreative ordeal has run its course, or perhaps the capacity for rage has simply exhausted itself. But Mary Ann had another ace up her sleeve: She was fabulously cute. This being the case, the idea of seeing her face scarred forever was unthinkable.
Reaching out to shield my sister from injury, my father grasped the edge of the door just as it was closing. In doing so, he trapped two of his fingers in the space between the jamb and the frame. The door swung shut; we heard him scream. His fingers were horribly mangled; it seemed at first that he might lose one. Suffering greatly, and making no secret of it, he was taken to the emergency room at nearby Germantown Hospital. We did not own a car at the time, as we were going through one of our fallow economic periods, and in any case my mother had never learned to drive. Next door to us lived a man my father always called Tex because he was tall, fat, blustery, and not terribly quick on the draw, though he was not actually from Texas. I suppose it was Tex who provided transport. My father’s mutilated fingers got patched up; he was given some painkillers; he returned home in great pain. He had been drinking heavily before he caught his fingers in the door, and he was certainly drinking heavily afterward.
At the time, my father was employed as a truck driver for a company called Bachman Pretzels. His job was to deliver boxes of potato chips, pretzels, and other savory snacks to supermarkets and grocery stores all over the Delaware Valley. The job didn’t pay well and wasn’t leading anywhere, but it was better than the ones he had held recently, and much better than the ones he would have later. His salary, which amounted to slightly more than the minimum wage, was not enough to support a family of six, which is why my mother, after a sixteen-year hiatus, would soon return the workforce, corralling a job as a credit manager at the hospital, where my father had been treated. This was the hospital where I had been born thirteen years earlier, the year the Reds invaded South Korea.
Every workday, my father would rise at six-thirty in the morning, shave, dress, then grab a trolley and two buses to the company warehouse several miles away. There he would load his truck and set out on his travels. His route was picturesque and varied, though not especially glamorous. A good number of his accounts were the wholesome, reliable A&P supermarkets that could then be found on half the street corners in America. He also serviced a number of tiny, not especially profitable independent grocery stores in South Philadelphia and several of the cavernous Center City automats operated by the Horn & Hardart company, an iconic chain that was once ubiquitous but is now forgotten. His job was to replace packages that had been sold since his last visit, remove merchandise that had passed its expiration date, and use guile, subterfuge, charm, or whatever delicate forms of intimidation he could muster to persuade his clients to give exotic new products a try. One of these cutting- edge novelties was the now- famous cheese curl, an audacious midcentury innovation whose triumph over entrenched municipal resistance to anything “ hoity-toity” was by no means a foregone conclusion at the time.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from CLOSING TIME Copyright © Joe Queenan, 2009.
READ an interview with Joe Queenan
BUY a copy of Closing Time