Harvey Pekar's Cleveland, And Ours

Harvey Pekar's posthumous history of his hometown is realer, and both sadder and less sad, than the myth.
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Looking good, City and Region!

Photograph via Flickr user KitAy.

The way that we usually mean it, it’s hard to say Harvey Pekar was a sports fanatic. Probably more interested in things literary and jazzical he was, despite the regular-guy aura that haloed and in many ways defined him, and which may have been more a product of Paul Giamatti's Pekar in American Splendor than Pekar's Pekar in his own life. Pekar was what a friend of mine used to call “intellecty.” He liked Andrei Bely and George Ade and all sorts of things that, in Cleveland, could easily have left him a lonely lonely man. But in Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, the posthumously published collaboration between Pekar and Joseph Remnant that came out in May, Pekar starts like any good Clevelander would:

“Yeah, I’ve had plenty of good days," he says. “But when people ask me which was the best, the first that comes to mind is when I was listening to the Elementary PA system as the Cleveland Indians clinched…the 1948 World Series.”

And from there, inevitably, he goes where all good Clevelanders must:

“(But) the 1954 World Series was a turning point…now they seemed to me rotten to the core with success. Like all they had to do was throw their gloves on the field, and they thought they’d win.”

“A few years later,” he concludes, “that’s how I viewed Cleveland: rotten.”

***

I’ve never had one of those good days. My mother—b. 1950—only had one, and it wasn’t in her favorite sport, and it wasn’t a Super Bowl; it was almost 50 years ago, and that got kind of ugly, too, eventually. Odd as it may seem to say when you helped make a play about the tremendous and infantilizing power of Cleveland sports, but when I was a kid I was more or less indifferent to it all. My mother played News Radio 1100—then all sports, now all Limbaugh—while I read comics and Dragonlance in the backseat. The voices on the radio were so loud and so certain, what they declaimed and yelped and whined about so clichéd. It drove me crazy, and I tuned it out.

Of course, being indifferent to Cleveland sports isn’t quite like being indifferent to sports in other places, and it certainly doesn’t mean complete ignorance, blissful or non-. I saw more than one Bulls-Cavaliers playoff game at the Richfield Coliseum, I remember where and when I saw Earnest Byner fumble, I inexplicably loved Ben Poquette. I was not as committed as some, or as I would later be, but in Cleveland sports are like the lake: always there, even if you’re not really paying attention.

I was re-rabidified as an adult, mostly because Cleveland sports are the language of Cleveland bars, and for a while I made my living tending Cleveland bars. When I moved away from Cleveland and bartending, it only got worse. And though I’ll be buying tickets to the NBA Draft this week, and am likely to be in Las Vegas for NBA Summer League, I’m still ambivalent about the decision to re-immerse in and recommit to these teams. It has been a consistently brutalizing experience, after all, but I do it anyway. Today, I find all that old, loud certainty reassuring; I subject my kids to sports talk radio while they read comics in the back seat.

This is a way of teaching them about home, and a way for me to remember what-was-once-home, but what kind of home is this? The story of Cleveland I’ve chosen for my kids is one of unmitigated misery, a misery that finds its apex in our nearly miraculous and unceasing disappointment as fans: Robert Attenweiler and I made that play about it, Scott Raab wrote a book about it, it's on t-shirts worn by TV chefs and discussed on this website with puzzling regularity. It’s not just the story of our teams, it’s the story of the whole city: we were once superior and now we’re in a decline so majestic it must be chronicled, its survivors praised.

It’s a Cleveland thing, I suppose, to make this weird equation between your sports teams and what seems like a fundamentally screwed-up municipality: In 2009, driving from New York to Cleveland to see the Cavaliers open against the Celtics, just getting to Quicken Loans Arena in my shaky car felt like a minor miracle, something that augured well. The ticket taker punctured this: "These are fake tickets. Sorry." He felt badly enough to offer us free magnets, and so we watched Boston rip apart the Cavs from a bar called The Clevelander. It was at that bar, about a year later, that I decided to watch LeBron make his decision and deliver his last bit of bad news as a Cavalier. The most common response to this story is simple, devastating: “So Cleveland,” people say.

***

"Well, Cleveland’s been around longer than I have, so let’s start at the beginning," Pekar writes. From those World Series pages he gives a Cleveland history that runs about a third of the book. It’s not a story whose trajectory is constantly, or even frequently, upward. All the hits are here: stealing land from Native Americans, the Cuyahoga River as malaria-magnet-cum fire-hazard, a mayor whose hair caught on fire, the incomparable Mr. Dennis Kucinich, Hough riots, busted schools and, as Pekar notes, a persistent problem with race relations.

Whether this stuff is the dullest stuff in the world to anyone not from Cleveland I don’t and necessarily can't know. Maybe tales of a miserable hometown are as conversationally unwelcome as stories about one's fantasy team, or kids. However beautifully drawn and paced Cleveland is—and, thanks to Remnant, it is both—the question haunts even an interested, admittedly partisan Cleveland-born reader: could anyone else care about the burning river, the city bankruptcy, the fight over Cleveland Public Power?

Because Pekar has written so much about his own life—his divorces, his bruising experience with David Letterman—and his city in the past, Cleveland at times has the sense of familiar territory being re-mapped. Again, it's tough to tell what those outside Cleveland's perseverating brotherhood would make of this, but there is something soothing and almost prayerful about hearing all these terrible stories again. This bleak familiarity, too, is home. It certainly feels more real than the alternative. In one of the talk-backs after the Cleveland premiere of "Our Greatest Year," someone said: "It’s going to happen eventually, at some point we’ll win a championship. What do you think will happen to our identity?" The first sentence scared me. “Well,” I said, “maybe we won’t.”

***

Maybe the story that confirms what we know, the usual Cleveland story, is a juvenile one: our city is a ruin, our teams always lose and isn’t it hilarious, or sad, just what you’d think would happen, wait until next year, and so on. There's a rough truth in it, but it's worth considering that Clevelanders are so attached to this sad story because we’re at the center of it, preternaturally picked for disaster. And maybe we talk about this stuff more than most because we’re doing just a little better than we were, and can finally afford the romance—maybe we’re able to keep our mouths just enough above the flood to keep talking about the flood, where cities like Detroit are already Max Cady-deep, gurgling and giving the evil eye.

But that usual Cleveland story isn’t the Cleveland in Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, or not exactly. Pekar doesn’t follow the arc up and then the long slide down. His Cleveland is up and down and up and down, in the way that life moves: change can mean better and worse at the same time. It’s all “however” and “but yet again” and “on the other hand.”

“People here are bitter,” Pekar writes. “I don’t blame ‘em. I still haven’t gotten over how we lost the 1954 World Series.” But then, on the second to last page: “There’s some talk of a medical mart…some say it will bring a BONANZA to our city. Wouldn’t I love to see that.”

Maybe that last line is a sarcastic jeer. It would be understandable; a seventysomething Clevelander has seen any number of “city saving” municipal projects. But maybe it’s someone who, near the end of his life, desperately wants to see how everything works out. I sense that it’s both. Pekar’s Cleveland isn’t the same as the Cleveland we see and talk about in our teams: it’s entirely more accurate, it’s seventeen shades less mythologized, and it’s neither condescending nor romanticized. It is, in the best and most recognizable and most hopeful way, entirely unsettled.

It is difficult and unpleasant to talk about housing blight, stolen copper plumbing, devastated schools, a hospital complex that eats low-income housing morning noon and night, or what happened to Frederick Holliday. It is so much easier and masochistically delightful to talk about what it felt like to lose on Opening Day in the snow, with 300 other Indians fans scattered across 80,000 Municipal Stadium seats. But both are true, both are present—to tell the story straight begs for a little of the old “Once it was better, but since then it always hasn’t been,” but demands a willingness to see Cleveland both for what it is and what it could be.

In the end, Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland is a Cleveland that eats away at our peculiar mythology. Its Cleveland is a regular place with regular place problems, not a special place with spectacular problems. It’s bad, but it’s a real sort of bad, and so maybe not so bad. Or, as a friend of mine said not long ago: “Yeah, the real secret is that Cleveland is pretty much like everywhere else.”


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