Tuesday, June 16, 2009

What parish are you from?

Joe Queenan is not only a Hawk, but a very funny guy. The following about his son's discernment about where to attend college:

Shortly after entering his sophomore year in high school, my 16-year-old son began talking about attending college in Philadelphia. This warmed the cockles of my heart, as I am a native of the City of Brotherly Love and a graduate of St. Joseph's, a venerable Jesuit university. Moreover, because Philadelphia is only 130 miles from my home in Tarrytown, N.Y., Gordon's enrollment would allow me to keep my eye on him. Frankly, I never trusted the kid.

But when I asked Gordon precisely where he was thinking of applying, his response was vague. He didn't want to go to the same university I had gone to. He knew I would not pay for him to attend Villanova, because the Wildcats are the hated crosstown rivals of St. Joe's Hawks. He didn't seem to know much about Penn or Temple, had never heard of LaSalle, wouldn't have been able to pick Drexel University out of a police lineup. So why, exactly, did he want to
go to school in the city of my birth?

''I love the Eagles,'' he said, referring to Philadelphia's beloved but underachieving professional football team.

''I love the Eagles, too,'' I replied, even-temperedly. ''But you can't go to college in Philadelphia just because you love a football team that happens to play there. Any guidance counselor can tell you that.''

''Why not?'' he demanded.

''Because the college-selection process has to be rigorous, meticulous and nuanced,'' I informed him. ''Because where you go to college will affect your prospects for employment, your lifetime income and ultimately your happiness. You can't decide where to go to college simply because you like the city's football team.''

He considered my rebuttal. Then he spoke.

''Well, I also like the 76ers.''

''I can see you've given this a lot of thought.''


"I have just finished a memoir about growing up in a Philadelphia housing project. The project was only a few blocks from the house where Grace Kelly grew up, and was even closer to the well-appointed street where then-District Attorney Arlen Specter lived. It was a strange neighborhood, particularly by Philadelphia’s rigorous, demographically monochromatic standards. Across the river sat a luxury apartment building called The Presidential Apartments. The two towers in the housing project were nicknamed The Vice Presidential Apartments. The project itself was also called Sin City. It was probably my early exposure to such delicate, richly inventive wit that inspired me to become a satirist."
~ Joe Queenan, The New York Times


I'll give another pitch to the book "Closing Time" by Joe Queenan, St. Joseph's '72. I don't know how the book is being received by the rest of the world... but this Philadelphia Catholic is enjoying it ;-) The last excerpt I included made me, literally, laugh out loud.

It can be a sad book, a sobering book, a funny book -- but one that I think is important to read, particularly the parts he shares about growing up in poverty. His comments about "the nuns"
was dead on. (We all call them nuns, of course, but they are really sisters... as nuns are cloistered and so we never really knew them.) Some books have been written but we have never properly thanked those great ladies who gave up EVERYTHING for a black, blue, or brown habit so that generations of American Catholics could be educated.

Not everyone outside of Philadelphia or Chicago will initially get "it", but Joe will educate them -- in his own parochial way. It is now on 44's mandatory summer reading list. Please enjoy the following three excerpts and if you like feel free to pick up a copy to read when you're down-a-shore this summer. If you're still on the fence try reading Climbing to the Top at the Bubble-Gum Factory - NYTimes.com as well.

A 'thank you' to the Church and the nuns
Three things kept us going through these wilderness years: the Catholic Church, the generosity of the few relatives that did not abandon us in our time of need, and the public library. In recent times it has become fashionable to attack the Church, as if everything would be going swimmingly if the atheists were in charge. These attacks are often mouthed by celebrity heathens who are oblivious to the role the Church has long played in preventing the unfortunate from being swallowed up by the abyss. The Catholic Church kept my family afloat, partly through periodic infusions of cash, partly through the inspiration that pageantry-laden rituals can provide, but mostly through the superb education we received from the nuns that taught at Saint Bridget's Elementary School.

Laughable to some, dysfunctional to others, mysterious to virtually everyone, nuns are in reality exactly what they seem: angels of mercy who have sacrificed their lives in the service of God and humanity. It was the nuns who taught us to read and write, the nuns who taught us the principle export of Bolivia, the nuns who explained the significance of the Dred Scott decision. It was the nuns, not the priests, who pointed the way out of darkness; the nuns who made it clear that if you were born poor and you didn't want to stay poor, you'd better know the principle export of Bolivia. When we were hungry children, wearing tatty clothes, living in a crummy neighborhood, the only way we could make ourselves feel special was by excelling at school. So we studied hard, and we excelled.

Joe Queenan and his sister Ree with their Aunt Cassie in 1957.

Our cathedral-like local churches
Driving through a shabby district of North Philadelphia, I noticed the church of St. Edward the Confessor rearing up in the distance. This was the house of worship where my aunt Marge and uncle Charlie had once lived. I had forgotten how colossal St. Edward's was; it took up an entire city block. Back in olden days, when immigrants alighted from the trolley late at night, returning from brutal, poorly paid jobs that slowly broke them into pieces, the sight of these looming temples must have seemed exhilarating. Ordinary people build these parishes, they could remind themselves; immigrants built these parishes. And when immigrants caught a glimpse of those spires thrusting heavenward from what amounted to their very own neighborhood cathedral, they must have taken enormous comfort from the spectacle, knowing that, at long last, after another murderous day at the sweatshops, they were home. To working class Catholics, St. Edward's wasn't a church. It was a fortress. And St. Bridget's, blessed with an additional advantage of sitting on the side of a hill, played exactly that same role.

What parish are you from?
In the milieu that I grew up in, pivotal events were associated with a particular street or parish, rather than a specific day, month or year.

"You look like your from Fifth and Gybyp" was a popular insult.

"Father Whearty got into trouble with the archdiocese, so they shipped him out to Our Lady of Victory" was the sort of unsubstantiated assertion my father loved to make, adorning a quip with the mantle of theory.

"Was I born in Holy Child or Holy Angels?" I would ask my parents, ignorant of the yawning socioeconomic gap that divided the two parishes.

Dates were irrelevant in such an environment, because anything anyone needed to know was contained in this otherwise inscrutable semiotic code. "Your father started his heavy drinking on Russell Street, but it didn't get bad until you moved to St. Bridget's," my aunt Cassie would confide. Within its context, this was as exactingly precise as saying "The Spanish Armada was destroyed on August 5, 1588." These were Irish-Catholic hieroglyphics that, however mystifying to the uninitiated, made perfect sense to us. The entire city was gerrymandered into parishes whose very names served as code words for distinct economic classes.

"They live in St. Ambrose's" (They're loaded.)
"They moved up to St. Cecilia's" (They think they're better than us.)
"They live in St. Matthew's." (They think they're a lot better than us.)
"They never got out of St. Ed's." (Those poor bastards are still living down there.)

This penchant for describing all urban phenomena in narrow diocesan terms sometimes defied logic. When, at age sixteen, I introduced a new friend to my mother, she asked if his house on the 4800 block of Franklin Street was located in Holy Child parish or the Church of the Incarnation. His name was Weiss; he was a lion of Judah; until that moment, he had no idea that he was living in an invisible city over which a Catholic zoning board held sway, surreptitiously reconfiguring municipal boundaries without any of the Jews, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, or atheists being any the wiser.

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