Joey Biden, He Could Really Talk
An excerpt from the classic What It Takes: The Way to the White House.
Longform is proudly sponsored this week by Open Road Integrated Media.
The mud in Delaware stinks. It’s clay, really, and you get used to it—it’s not bad unless you dig it up wet. But when you get a whole soggy swampful dug, it smells like someone died in there … and that was the smell, the day they got to the new place, the day they were going to start their new lives: Joe, Sr., Jean and Val and the boys, the Bidens, of Wilmington, Delaware.
Actually, it wasn’t even Wilmington, but Claymont, a steelworking suburb to the north, near the river, where in the fifties they were putting up ticky-tack houses, and garden apartments (except there were no gardens, just this malodorous mud), and when the Bidens drove in that day, to Brookview Apartments—they were among the first tenants—the place was a bulldozed moonscape, a stinking mess. Brookview would never be beautiful: strings of one-story yellow stucco boxes—efficiencies—appended to larger, two-story units at mid-horseshoe … so there were these horseshoes of stucco marching across the gray mud with the promise of eventual, unlovely overcrowding: an instant slum. You could see it at one glance, through the windshield, as you drove up. … And from the backseat, where he sat with his sister and brother, Joe Biden looked at his mother, and she was crying.
“Mom, what’sa matter?”
There was an instant’s pause, as Jean Biden tried to make her face a smile. “I’m just so happy,” she said.
“Honey,” Joe, Sr., said from the driver’s seat, “it’s gonna be okay. It’s gonna … it’s just to start …”
Now, from Joey in the back: “What’s wrong?”
Jean Biden turned quickly and said: “Nothing’s wrong, honey.” And then she turned back—must have taken all the will she had—turned back to Joe, Sr., and hugged him:
“It’s wonderful—thanks …” Jean said. “I’m just so happy … I can’t stop crying.”
Joe, Sr., just couldn’t hack it anymore in Scranton—not with the old man, Jean’s father, silent in his armchair, and Gertie in the attic, and Boo-Boo all over the house (his house, the Finnegan house). When brother Frank Biden called from Wilmington and said he knew of a job there … well, it didn’t matter what the job was, it would be easier than swallowing another day in Scranton.
So, Joe, Sr., started driving back and forth, each week, started cleaning out boilers—that was his work in Wilmington. And then he landed a job at Kyle Motors, in sales, and they liked the way he carried himself, the air of distinction he lent to the place, so right away they made him manager of sales … and that’s when he moved the family, to Claymont.
It was still a far cry from the big place outside Boston, the beautiful house in Garden City, Long Island—wasn’t half as nice as the place they left in Scranton. But at least they’d be on their own. And Joseph was going to get back, see: he never liked that used-car job, never—it was only a start. And the house, well … there’d be a better house. After a year, he moved Jean and the kids to a real house in Arden, a rental place, but better … and after another year, they moved to the house on Wilson Road. For nineteen years, they lived on Wilson, but to Joseph, it was always temporary. He was going to get back to a really good house, he was going to make it again, every day … he’d get up, and he’d say: Today, I’m going to turn that corner, get the big break, today. … That was the great thing about him: he would never, never quit.
And to Joey, who watched this … every day … that was the difference between balls and courage. That was better than daring … that was guts. And Joey meant to have guts. He would never, never quit.
A stutter is a cruel affliction for a kid, because no one, not even he, can see anything wrong. It’s not like a club foot, or a missing finger—where there’s something physically, visibly wrong, and you have simply to shrug and do the best you can. No, a stutter is more insidious: it attacks directly a child’s ability to make himself known and felt in the world. But indirectly—because there’s nothing wrong—it attacks his own idea of himself, his self-esteem, his confidence: Why can’t he talk right?
Joe did not stutter all the time. At home, he almost never stuttered. With his friends, seldom. But when he moved to Delaware, there were no friends. There were new kids, a new school, and new nuns to make him stand up and read in class: that’s when it always hit—always always always. When he stood up in front of everybody else, and he wanted, so much, to be right, to be smooth, to be smart, to be normal, j-j-ju-ju-ju-ju-jus’th-th-th-th-then!
Of course, they laughed. Why wouldn’t they laugh? He was new, he was small, he was … ridiculous … even to him. There was nothing wrong. That’s what the doctors said.
So why couldn’t he talk right?
He learned to dread. He’d be coming to school, running from the bus—flushed, healthy, full of juice—and then he’d remember: Oh, God, it’s my day to read in Latin class. God! … and the joy was gone from the morning.
He learned to scheme. In Catholic school, kids sit in rows. “A-a” takes the first seat, front of the row on the teacher’s far left. “A-b” will have the next seat back, and so on. Biden would usually sit in the middle of that far left row, maybe four or five seats from the front. And when the nun would start the readings, it was easy for a smart kid like Joey to count the paragraphs down the page … three, four … five—to find his paragraph, and memorize it. Somehow, it was easier, his mouth worked better, if he didn’t have to look at the page.
He learned what cruelty, unfairness, was—a dozen ways, but all from the wrong end of the stick. There was a kid in class, Jimmy Lanahan, who used to give Joe fits. Every time he stood up to read, Lanahan would start on him:
Of course, that only turned the screws tighter, and Joey would stumble, have to look down at the page, and then it was over:
In a whisper, from behind: “B-b-b-b-b-BIDEN!”
“… qu-que v-v-v-vi-v-vinc-c-c-c-it …”
And from the sister at the head of the classroom: “All right, Mr. Biden. That will be enough.”
Thing was, he knew they were wrong to mock him. There was a saying in Jean Biden’s house: “Never kid a fat person about being fat.” You could punch some kid in the nose—sure—but you did not, could not, attack his dignity.
One day, he stood to read, and from behind, Lanahan let him have it: “B-b-b-b-b-b-Biden!” And Joey turned around and got Jimmy—by the neck—and held on, shouted in his face:
“You sh-sh-shut up! I’m reading here!”
Mostly, he got mad at himself: ashamed of his own helplessness. He always felt he was imposing on them. The class should not have to sit there, and l-l-l-li-lih-l-listen to him, t-t-t-t-trying to get out a p-p-p-p-pa-pa-paragraph th-tha-th-that everyone else w-w-w-w-wuh-wuh-would’ve f-f-f-f-f-ffinished!
One of the nuns in Scranton had told him he’d do better if he got into a rhythm, a verbal march that would help him keep step while he read. So when Joe got to Wilmington, and schemed ahead to find his reading, he’d break each sentence into rhythmic bursts, till he could hear it, by memory, bouncing in his head. One day, that first school year in Wilmington, Joe skipped ahead to find his paragraph in the story of Sir Walter Raleigh:
“Then, the gentleman put the cloak across the puddle, so the lady could step …”
And he broke it up in his head to hear the footfalls of its march:
THEN the GEN-tle
MAN put the CLOAK
a-CROSS the PUDdle
So the LA-dy could
And that’s the way he spoke it—he was getting along great!
Then the nun broke in: “What is that word, Mr. Biden?”
“The third word, Mr. Biden! Read it!”
Joey froze. He could only say it as he’d heard it in his head: “GEN-tle MAN …”
“Mr. Biden! Look at the page, and read it!”
Joey could not look at the page and read it—he knew he’d lose it. What was the word? Did he have the wrong word?
“GEN-tle MAN …”
“That will be all,” the teacher snapped, “Mr. B-b-Biden.”
Joe put his book down, silent in his shame, and just walked out of the class.
Thing was, Joe, Sr., never could get out of selling those cars: there were four kids now—the youngest, Frankie, was born in Delaware—and Catholic schools for all of them, and the mortgage for the house on Wilson … so, it was the sales lot, every day, and evenings till nine, and Saturdays, too. He never could trade up to a house of distinction … no, it was a three-bedroom tract house, like its neighbors.
And no room to spare—that was for sure. His daughter, Val, had to have her own room, so the boys, all three, slept in one small bedroom … and the dining table was spread with their homework, and the living room was an obstacle course of kids asprawl … and then Boo-Boo showed up. At first, he only came to drop off his father—Joey’s granddad—to stay with Jean for a few weeks, while Boo-Boo was on the road, selling Serta mattresses. But even after Pop Finnegan died, Boo-Boo would drop by for visits. And then one weekend, he came to visit, and stayed for eighteen years. Then, it was four in the boys’ room: two bunk beds, top and bottom. … And meanwhile, the Widow Sheen moved to Wilmington and lived with the Bidens for two years. Even after they found her a room in a private house nearby, she’d still put on her white gloves and come to lunch almost every day. … And then her son, Bill, Jr., moved into the Bidens’ rec room for a year or so … and then, too, Frank Biden’s wife died, and he was so lonely, he had to move in. Joseph and Jean took care of them all. That’s the way it was, with the Bidens.
But the big one was Boo-Boo, a presence in the house, and an object lesson for Joey: Boo-Boo stuttered. Edward Blewitt Finnegan was a smart man, a college man—had dreamed of becoming a doctor—but he stuttered. And the way Boo-Boo styled his life, it was a t-t-t-tuh-tuh-tragedy: he couldn’t go to med school when he talked like that! … It wasn’t that he didn’t try, was it? The stutter was his explanation, an alibi in constant evidence.
But Jean Biden would have none of it. Blewitt was her brother, and she told it like it was. He could have gone to medical school, if he’d tried—if it took twenty years. There was no excuse, in Jean Biden’s book, for giving up. She would not let Boo-Boo mention his stutter and his failure in the same breath, without shak
ing her head, rolling her eyes … or calling him out, right in his face, in true Finnegan style: “Edward Blewitt Finnegan! That’s a goddam lie!”
And she would not let Joey give up—not for one day, not for an hour: he would beat this … there was more to him than stutter. He had his Biden grace. He had talent. He had brains. She must have told him ten thousand times: “Joey, it’s just that you are so smart … your mind outruns your ability to say your thoughts.”
“Joey, you have such a high IQ …”
“Joey Biden, you’re just smarter than anybody …”
But she needn’t have worried. Joey was not short on will. And he had eyes to see what he didn’t want to be. He did not want to be Boo-Boo, arguing with schoolboys about their lessons, to show how smart he was. He did not want to have to alibi. He did not want to drive every week through five states, selling mattresses—no.
He knew it just as surely as he knew the other truth of his young life: he was not going to sell cars—no way. He didn’t know how his father could stand it. He would not be slave to a mortgage on a tract house; he would not end up trapped on that treadmill. No. He was a Biden and he could do … anything.
It wasn’t quick, it took years. But he learned to game it out. He learned, always, to see himself in the situation to come, to think what he’d say, how he’d sound, what the other guy would say, and what the answer would be …
He had a paper route, and a neighbor, an old chatty man, who was always around … and Joey knew (he could see it, like it already happened!) that if he wore his Yankee baseball cap, the old man would ask him about the Yankee game last night, and Joey would say:
“Mantle hit a home run …”
He could see where he’d be standing on the walk, in front of the porch, and he’d hand the man his paper …
He’d play the thing over and over in his mind: everything the guy could ask him … everything Joey would have to say. And he’d make sure to wear his Yankee cap. That was the key.
He lived so much of his life in his head, in the future, that he had more than a child’s understanding of how people were likely to react. Of course, every kid thinks that way about adults, to a certain extent, if only to stay out of trouble … but Joey had to know more. He had to know what they’d say, what he could say, how he’d be, how he’d sound, how he’d look. And then, if they said that … what would he say then?
And so, he had more than a child’s understanding of what he wanted to do. That’s what his new friends in Wilmington saw. Joe always had an idea. … If their notion of a summer evening’s prank was to put a bag of dogshit on old man Schutz’s doorstep, Joey would say, “No, here’s what we’ll do. You know behind my house, where they got all those little trees? Get a shovel …” And they did: they went out with shovels and planted a forest of saplings on Mr. Schutz’s lawn. It was so much more elaborate—all thought out, the way Joey had it figured.
The other thing was, the moms loved Joey: as long as young Biden was along, the thing was okay. … Part of it had to be, he was so nice to them—he seemed to know how they would feel about things. They might have seen, too, how he was about his own mom—so sentimental. (The way to get a punch in the nose was to say anything about Joey’s mom. BANGO! Right in the face.) But what those ladies saw most clearly: here was a boy unswayed by peer pressure, who always seemed to have his own idea—such a sense of himself. …
Yes, and that’s why it mattered so much to Joey to get into Archmere—Wilmington’s smallest, most serious, preppiest Catholic high school. It was crucial to the picture he had of himself—in the future, which was so real, so present, in Joe.
He was so happy when he got to go—so grateful. (He knew it was a strain. He’d heard his parents talk at night about the bills … he knew.) But Archmere held its terrors, too. There was speech class—required for all ninth- and tenth-graders—and weekly Tuesday assemblies, where four underclassmen would each have to make a speech, in front of the whole student body, and all the teachers, and Father Diny, the head man.
What could he do but scheme ahead, and dread the day, and practice? He went into training. If memorizing helped, then he would train to memorize: he used to time himself, committing to rote stock pieces, like the Declaration of Independence. He’d grab the text and peer at it, like he wanted to bore holes through the page, and then he’d put it down and try to say it, whole. … How fast could he get the thing in his head?
Someone said a stutter was caused by facial muscles seizing up in nervous convulsion. So Joey stood for hours in front of a mirror, reading aloud or simply talking to his own image, while he tried to relax the muscles in his face, to attain that droopy, logy, sloooow eeeease that he thought would solve his problem.
And in class, he read about Demosthenes, who made himself the greatest orator of his day by putting pebbles in his mouth and declaiming to the sea, above the roar of the waves. So Joey Biden, of Wilson Road, would stand outside at the wall of his house, the blank wall that looked out toward the fence and Mom-Mom’s roses, and with stones in his mouth, he’d try to read aloud, until he could read that page without a miss, and then he’d go to the next page, and the next … until it was the book in one hand and a flashlight in the other.
And he got through: ninth grade, he had to stand up at assembly and give a talk, like the rest … but the rest could not have known such triumph. His speech was not perfect, no … but it was a great day. And like a kid who beats his big brother at a footrace, and devotes himself to running ever after, Joe Biden decided he would be a speaker. He would be the best goddam speaker at Archmere.
So he trained. That summer, after his job on the school grounds crew, in the hours till dinner, after which his friends would show up, he’d practice. He’d read aloud. He’d speak aloud. … And that was the same summer he grew so much, came of age and of size … and still good-looking—a wonderful smile—and plenty smart, and less wary now when he came back to school, which wasn’t a new school anymore, but a small place, really, where everybody knew him … or thought they did (He’s changed somehow, hasn’t he?) … and that was the same time that girls got important, and Joey was always sweet and serious with girls—they loved him—and his sister knew plenty of them … and that size made a difference on the football field, and Joey could run, and he could catch, and most important, he believed he could catch anything … and that was the difference, really: he believed he could master … anything. It seemed he could: he was in just the right circle, with the athletes, and the cool guys, and when the question came up—what’re we gonna do?—well, still, it was Joe who had an answer. He was a leader—that’s what his teachers said. And a player—that was from his coach. And the other guys, his classmates, they remember those things, too … but what they all say about Biden at Archmere:
Joey Biden, he could really talk.