My mother is really going to miss Jerry Stiller.
And, duh, I am, too. He was a legend. Inimitable. My freshman fall, Zoolander was the only movie silly and captivating enough to quiet my overactive brain before bed, and through nightly watches of the movie, I became very familiar with Stiller’s hilarious Maury Ballstein and his enlarged prostate. I’ve celebrated Maury squeezing out that droplet of piss more times than I can remember.
It’s funny what emotional attachments we make. Jerry Stiller was one of my mom’s “guys.” Nothing in her character description or on her Facebook profile would suggest that Jerry Stiller would be her guy. My mom’s a West African Muslim immigrant who settled with my father in 1980s Brooklyn. She’s relatively conservative and was pretty strict with my siblings and me growing up, especially with what television we were allowed to consume. She’d limit my brother and me to 30 minutes of TV time every weekday, and she banned The Simpsons from our house for years because my baby sister had begun parroting Bart’s rude catchphrases around the house. Nigerians don’t do well with back talk.
When working two jobs while raising three rambunctious kids finally left my mom too tired to be all Tipper Gore about what we watched on television, it was almost always a black sitcom my siblings and I were pretending to understand. We weren’t a Seinfeld household. We missed Frank Costanza. We were watching shows like Living Single, The Jamie Foxx Show, In the House, and all the other black sitcoms UPN, the WB, and eventually the CW had to offer. I can only guess that the white sitcoms just weren’t interesting or relevant to my family. We “get” Moesha. We didn’t really “get” Mad About You. Of course, there are shows so good that relatability didn’t matter much. Every so often, my dad would fall asleep on the couch watching Frasier, and for a while there in high school, my brother got super into Everybody Loves Raymond. He couldn’t explain it, but Brad Garrett really cracked him up.
I haven’t a clue when my mom met Arthur Spooner, Jerry Stiller’s character from The King of Queens. Suddenly, he was just kind of always around. Arthur’s shrill voice was always somewhere in the background, insulting his son-in-law the way syndicated comedians do sometime after the local news evening broadcast ends. Just screeching his outsize rage over minor inconveniences at Kevin James’s Doug, but also at my mom, who was always listening and laughing hysterically at his distress.
My mom was the first person I thought of when I read of Jerry Stiller’s death, so I called her to ask how she felt. “Well, he lived to 92,” she said. “That’s a full life. And thank God it was natural causes.” Yes, thank God. New York City is a hot spot for the COVID-19 pandemic, and too often she hears the news of another someone too young gone too soon. It’s weird to say about a beloved figure’s death, but the phrase “natural causes” was a relief.
I asked my mother what she liked so much about King of Queens. She liked Stiller, of course, and Leah Remini (she 1,000 percent botched Leah’s name). She liked how New York the show is. It felt familiar to her. Now, we aren’t from Queens, and my childhood neighborhood, East New York, doesn’t look anything like Rego Park, where King of Queens is set. Arthur Spooner’s Rego Park is white as hell, with the exception of Doug’s best friend, Deacon. But it was still so New York, so full of the kind of people my mom collides into when the driver brakes hard on the bus during rush hour. The kind of people who pronounce it “cawfee” when calling out their order over your head at the breakfast cart two steps away from the subway-station exit.
My mom works with the elderly, or at least she did before COVID-19 slowed the city down. Her seniors, from what I understand, are a lot like Arthur Spooner: blue-collar, outer-borough white people left over from a time before Park Slope and Red Hook turned into gentrified enclaves where Warby Parkers reign supreme. My mom loves her seniors. She tells the loveliest stories about them. The seniors are mostly sweet and funny. Some are loud, cantankerous, particular. Arthur Spooner is very particular. And he’s a trickster. My mom loves an elderly trickster. She has a couple stories she loves to retell about how the seniors will try to bribe her with candy or hugs to get special treatment. When I asked my mom why she liked Arthur Spooner in particular, she said, “He is so loud and feisty, and does exactly what he’s asked not to do,” chuckling as she reminisced. It was sweet. And I did my best not to express any saltiness about the fact that she does not find my loud defiance nearly as charming.
A Wikipedia deep dive — the kind you do when someone famous passes and you suddenly must know every single thing about them when you didn’t have that compulsion just one night before — revealed that Jerry Stiller, born in Brooklyn, spent a portion of his childhood in East New York. It was a long time ago. Way before white flight. They probably still called East New York “New Lots” back then. That piece of information was a pleasant surprise. I never knew Jerry Stiller was from where I’m from. Had I known, I’d have been bragging on him instead of, say, Tony Danza or Uncle Murda. I told my mom that Jerry Stiller is from East New York, too. I heard her smile through the phone. “Ohhh, really? Mmm! That’s my guy!”