Joe Queenan Turns Hard Times Into Humor

NPR's Scott Simon talks with humor writer Joe Queenan about "Closing Time," Queenan's memoir of growing up in a Philadelphia housing project with an abusive father and indifferent mother.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Joe Queenen's father, Joe Sr., was a mean drunk who beat his children. His mother seemed cold, uncaring and mostly depressed by her children. They reminded her of her marriage to a mean drunk. Joe Queenen Sr. bounced from job to job. Joe Queenen and his three sisters mostly grew up in a grim Philadelphia housing complex, often eating canned donated foods, stripped of its labels, so that the poor people who received it couldn't squabble over the contents.

Of course, Joe Queenen is best known as a humorist, albeit with a wit that can scald. He's now written a personal memoir of his childhood called "Closing Time." It could be hard to holding your hand. It is unsentimental, unsparing, but ultimately, almost despite itself, a testament to the power of love from aunts and uncles, and the kindness of strangers, teachers, friends and music to rescue a hurt little boy. Joe Queenen joins us now from our studios in New York. Joe, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. JOE QUEENEN (Humorist; Author, "Closing Time"): Thank you. That's a nice summation of the book.

SIMON: Let me begin this way. When we talk about beating, this was the way of life with your father, not just once or twice.

Mr. QUEENEN: You never know what would set him off. He was - he had gotten into trouble when he was young. He'd been shot in the head. He told us that it was a ricocheting bullet, but he was probably shot while he was robbing a store or something. We don't know. And he had a dishonorable discharge from the Army. And we lost our house in the recession of 1958.

I think by the time I was about eight or nine, we knew that he was playing out the string. And he was bitter. And what really made my father very, very dangerous was that he saw that we might get the life that he wanted, that we might get out of the working class and it just drove him crazy. I mean, I don't remember ever why he would hit us.

SIMON: Drink sure helped set him off.

Mr. QUEENEN: Yeah. When I was young, my father didn't drink on Sundays. And that was paradise. And for a long time we really distinguished between Jekyll and Hyde. And we always thought that if our father would just stop drinking, he would just be the most fantastic guy in the world 'cause he was funny, and he knew a lot and he knew a lot about movies. And he could recite Marc Antony's funeral oration from "Julius Caesar." And he was an interesting guy.

But over the course of time, Jekyll and Hyde merged. And Jekyll, of course, created Hyde. And at a certain point, it wouldn't have made any difference what happened. He was just too far gone.

SIMON: And we need to talk about your mother. She often said, well, let me put it - why did your mother get married and have children, much less, four?

Mr. QUEENAN: I think there was a lot of stigma attached to being unmarried in the late '40s. My dad was funny. He was a good looking guy. They got married. And I think they had children because they were Catholics. You know, Catholics didn't practice birth control, Catholics practiced rhythm. They had four children. And they couldn't manage it financially after my father lost his - he had a white collar job as a sort of draftsman's assistant in the '50s. After he lost that job, he worked as a security guard. He drove pretzel trucks. He had all kinds of sort of, you know, make-do jobs. They just couldn't make it financially.

SIMON: She would say in front of you that she never wanted children.

Mr. QUEENAN: She'd say that later. She didn't say it to hurt our feelings. She said it more as a - because it was true. I think in a way it was a justification of - she knew that she was not that affectionate towards us. The way she was affectionate was - my mother went back to work when I was about 13 and that enabled us to stay out of the project. It enabled us to move to a slightly better neighborhood and to get a nicer house. And without my mother's income, we would've ended up back in the project. That was heroic on her part, for her to do that because she was already in her 40s.

SIMON: I'm going to ask you to read a section of the book, if I could, where you talk about living in that project in Philadelphia. And this is very, very tough stuff to hear.

Mr. QUEENAN: And let me stress that our housing project would be paradisiacal, compared to the projects that a lot of people live - are living in today.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. QUEENAN: I mean, this was 1959. We were poor and it was bad. But there was nothing like Cabrini-Green or places like that. Although it did become like that.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. QUEENAN: So, here's the passage. Nothing good ever came out of living in that project. One might argue that the degrading experience of poverty taught me to be ambitious and self-sufficient, but it would be more accurate to say that it taught to be ruthless and cruel, indifferent to other peoples' feelings, particularly if I was writing about them. I never had any warm memories of the project. It gave me nothing. It taught me nothing.

The rich old men who run Hollywood have long been smitten by the romance of indigents zealously manufacturing life-affirming cultural pornography that appeals to middle class people who quite fancy the poor, but only in an innocuous celluloid incarnation. Up close and personal, the poor or less appealing, they wear bad clothes, and use bad language, and do bad things and have guns. They make excellent fodder for films, but even better fodder for canons.

They are fascinating when seen from a distance, less fascinating when they move in next door. They make unsatisfactory dining companions. They are too busy being desperate to be idiosyncratic or clever. My sisters and I understood this perfectly. We knew that there was nothing poetic or ennobling about our plight. We could not understand why we had been subjected to it. We were the odd man out, and we did not know why.

SIMON: There did come the day when you realized you didn't have to take these beatings from your father. And you hit him once. Good poke though, I gather.

Mr. QUEENAN: I was applying for - to college and it cost $10 to apply to the Catholic schools and $15 to apply to ten. And I was about five bucks short. I mentioned that at dinner that I didn't have money to fill out all these applications. And my father said, well, haven't we always taken care of you? And I must've been about 16 at the time. And I just looked at him and I said, well, actually, you've never taken care of me. And he came out of his chair, and he chased me into the living room.

And all of a sudden, I saw him for what he was. And I just saw a kind of paunchy middle-aged drunk that I could take. And he took a swing at me, and I swung back. And I think he was shocked by it. And I left. But after that incident, I never slept in my father's house without thinking that he was going to come and get me. So I used to sleep every night - I had a set of cowboy boots in my bedroom, and I would put a chair up against the door and I had a butcher knife in the cowboy boots because I always thought that my father was going to come after me. But I never ever, ever turned my back on my father after that night.

SIMON: Let me get you to talk about some of the people who made a difference in the best way.

Mr. QUEENAN: Yeah, I had an uncle. He was a Republican. He was as Republican as you could get. Everybody else in the family was a Democrat. And he wore fedoras, and he drove big cars and he was a salesman for Philadelphia Gas and Electric. And he drank exotic beers like Carling Black Label. And he ate pastrami sandwiches. And he was just unbelievably exotic by the standards that we were growing up in. And he would take us in his car. He always had a convertible and fold down in the back, and he would take us for drives. He taught me how to play chess. He would pick us up.

He was convinced that the best pizza place in the tri-state area was in Trenton, New Jersey. And he would drive, like, 50 miles to take us to this dive in the middle of nowhere. And it was, you know, any place in Philadelphia, any place in South Jersey, it's good pizza. You know, and it's the Italians, they know how to make pizza, but he was convinced that this was the best place. And only afterwards, maybe only when I was writing the book that I realized those trips weren't about pizza, those trips were about saving our lives.

SIMON: Well, he was trying to get you out of someplace horrible.

Mr. QUEENAN: He was. And it was hard for him. He was my - he was my father's sister's husband. I don't think it was his - it was his place to confront my father about some of the things that he was doing because people didn't do that back then. They held out the hope that there was some light at the end of the tunnel.

SIMON: You got a line in there I wrote down, to the affluent books are ornaments, to the poor books are siege weapons.

Mr. QUEENAN: Yeah, that's the best line in the book. There's a line in "Dr. Zhivago" about that that only rich people joke about education. Poor people don't joke about it. Poor people - when you're poor, you don't have a house, you don't have a car, you don't have a television, you don't have a radio, but you have words, and you have books. And books like "Kidnapped," or "Treasure Island," "David Copperfield," "Great Expectations," you can have dreams. You can, you know, you can escape into your head when you read those things. And words are magical.

SIMON: Joe, why do you think you wrote this book now instead of in your 20s?

Mr. QUEENAN: First of all, I wanted to become successful. So I became successful by writing a lot of really funny things. And a lot of the things that I wrote about are things I don't particularly care about, because I don't think pop culture is important. It's important sociologically, but it's not important in the grand scheme of things. But over the course of time, I got tired of listening to other people's - I got tired of listening to middle class and upper middle class people's stories. I got tired of listening to their problems because they didn't have problems.

I mean, if you didn't, you know, problems are food, problems are shelter, problems are, is there somebody down the street who's got a gun? Problems aren't, you know, my daddy didn't - you know, doesn't appreciate me enough or I, you know, I didn't get into Middlebury. Those aren't problems.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. QUEENAN: And so part of it was that. But part of it was also just the idea that I wanted to write about what poverty is really like. And in some ways paying tribute to working class people and in another ways just talking about how it was horrible. But I wanted to make it clear to people that we don't all come from the same background.

Just because I speak this way, and just because I've been to the Sorbonne and just because I've read Marcel Proust, I didn't start out like you. So - and there's a lot of people like me. And a large part of the book is to explain, don't you ever think that we all started out the same way and don't you ever take your good fortune for granted.

SIMON: Joe, thanks so much.

Mr. QUEENAN: Thank you.

SIMON: Joe Queenen, his new book, a memoir, "Closing Time."

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