Lit Crit

True Colin

August 05, 2015

Multiple Pages
True Colin

It’s informative to compare two current memoirs focused upon race: the rapturously welcomed Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which I reviewed a week ago, and The Coloring Book: A Comedian Solves Race Relations in America by the veteran Irish-American comic Colin Quinn, last seen stealing the movie Trainwreck as Amy Schumer’s father.

Americans all claim to be fascinated by diversity, but the popularity of Coates’ old-fashioned black-white tunnel vision demonstrates once again that the conventional wisdom hasn’t become more sophisticated in the past half century. It’s always that Selma bridge in 1965.

In contrast, around 1966 the 7-year-old Quinn’s family moved to Brooklyn’s deteriorating Park Slope, then one of the most ethnically mixed (and junkie-infested) spots in America.

He loved it.

Through Aug. 16, Quinn is doing a one-man show Off Broadway about what he learned growing up there, The New York Story, directed by his old pal Jerry Seinfeld. (As you may recall, Seinfeld complained in June about how political correctness is increasingly constricting comedy; if you are interested in guessing what the usually diplomatic Seinfeld thinks in private, you might want to listen to what the outspoken Quinn says in public.)

Park Slope is a particularly educational place to be from because much of New York’s social history has happened there in overdrive. In 1890, following the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge to Wall Street, Park Slope, with its famous brownstone townhomes, was the richest neighborhood in America. But by 1966 it had fallen a long way.

“As a native Brooklynite, Quinn is a little weirded out by all the deracinated Nice-Americans newly arrived from suburbs across the land.”

This is not to say that Quinn is from the working class. Instead, he comes from a long line of “smart broke people.”

His father, whose death in 2012 at age 80 was likely the impetus for Quinn finally writing a book, was a professor of English at City College who had big, if unconventional, dreams for his son. Both of them were inspired by J.P. Donleavy’s peculiarly influential 1955 comic novel, The Ginger Man. If the first Velvet Underground album sold only 10,000 copies but every purchaser started a band, it sometimes seems as if every reader of The Ginger Man, such as Hunter S. Thompson, set out to become an alcoholic bard. Quinn recalls:

My father, who also loved these writers, enabled my delusions…. He loved the idea of me being a wild Irish poet-writer. I loved the idea, too. Both of us wanted me to be this guy. My father never said, “Hey, wait a minute, you’re just a drunk!”

Eventually, after a series of macroaggressions that often found Quinn waking up, bruised, in places like the median of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, he figured that out for himself. He stopped drinking and finally started working on his stand-up. In the meantime, a long series of lousy jobs had given him plenty of material about just how different the various ethnic groups can be.

Unfortunately, bartending at mobbed-up Italian restaurants and delivering Chinese food didn’t enable Quinn to buy property in Park Slope, which in the 21st century has been America’s ground zero of gentrification by thirtysomething married “white people who don’t scan as Italian, Jewish, or Irish.” As a native Brooklynite, Quinn is a little weirded out by all the deracinated Nice-Americans newly arrived from suburbs across the land:

But looking at them, you see why this country was built successfully—WASPs are chore-oriented. When they came to New York, there were ten times as many hardware stores…. That’s the one weapon that not even the toughest community in New York City was prepared to combat: affability. Guns, knives, bats, but the one thing they never thought you’d get hit with is a can-do attitude. How can you argue with the energy that built the West?...

These new white people hate the white man, too. They’ve been to liberal arts colleges where they learned about oppression and condemn it. And so there they are, these people who look like they stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting, on the sidewalks of Bed-Stuy, singing along with Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ten Crack Commandments,” sanding chairs.

Still, Quinn can’t see these New Conformists as genuine New Yorkers:

Supposedly nonjudgmental judgmentalism used to be what Southern California was for, but now it’s encroaching even here in New York—where people are supposed to come to judge things.

Growing up in Park Slope at the bottom of New York’s decline, Quinn couldn’t help noticing differences among the multitudinous ethnic groups. As one of the few true believers in diversity, he finds that everybody has something to contribute. For example:

We can learn about dating confidence from black guys. True story: I once saw a black guy handcuffed against a police car and when a girl walked by, he said, before being driven away, “What’s up, sweetheart?”

Whites, in Quinn’s opinion, could stand to work on their charisma:

White people do exciting shit boring, and black people do boring shit exciting. We will skateboard volcanoes and base-jump off a canyon but cause someone to fall asleep when we explain it to them.

Black guys can do nothing all day, but when you hear them explain their day, it sounds like they’ve been skateboarding volcanoes.

Quinn particularly likes Puerto Ricans, although his depiction of their accelerated life history might explain a little about why their test scores are so low:

Puerto Ricans are walking contradictions. On the one hand, they’re religious and family oriented. On the other hand, they are hypersexualized from the age of about eleven…. Puerto Ricans would have full-fledged relationships in sixth grade. We would go on a class trip, and while I was looking at some dinosaur they’d be furiously making out inside a prehistoric turtle shell…. They would be arguing over infidelity at thirteen, living together at fourteen, and parents by fifteen.

And then there are the Arabs, who aren’t big on observational humor:

Arabs are the most intense people on earth…. If you start a joke, “You ever notice when people do X?” and mention something annoying, you don’t hear laughter. You hear stony silence, and then, “Why would you allow that impudence to go unpunished?”

Quinn’s chapter on Jews is particularly worth reading. It begins:

I’m cautious with this section, because I know that Jews are the only ones who are actually going to read this book.

In his view, Jews dominate the media today because “They’re the only ones who care.” Granted, sometimes Jewish control of the culture gets out of hand and becomes bad for art.

If you kill a guy like [Mel Gibson] over a couple of anti-Semitic remarks, you reinforce all the beliefs that the Jews control the business and will take you down if you mess with them. I mean, even if it’s true, you don’t want to make it that obvious.

On the other hand:

Without them the whole country would be like Branson, Missouri. Go to a cultural center anywhere in the country, no matter where, and even if there are no Jews it’s the Maurice and Florence Rosenthal Center for Art of Wyoming, the Herman and Lillian Tannenbaum Historical Museum of NASCAR of Rural Arkansas.

The Jewish critical attitude is key. Jews encourage each other to offer well-considered judgments on quality:

Jews only listen to other Jews anyway, so this is falling on deaf ears, I realize that…. Their big word with each other is “recommendation.” Do you recommend we go see that show? You say it was a good resort but would you recommend it?

The urge to ask questions helps drive Jewish business success as well:

They have to understand how the system is set up. To get anywhere you have to incessantly ask for explanations…. Jews are here to remind us that it’s okay to ask Why? How much? Who owns this? How come he owns it? How hard could it be? You do the paperwork, you get the loan, you get the license, you get the documentation, you find a manufacturer and a shipping company, and you open up a store, what?

In contrast to Coates’ overt antiwhite animus and covert negrophobia—the poor soul grew up terrified by black bodies, whose bad behavior he publicly blames upon people who believe they are white—the worldly Quinn is confident that we can learn from each other’s strong points (and even from each other’s mistakes). Of course, as the success of Coates demonstrates, Quinn’s pro-diversity optimism is falling ever further out of fashion.

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