A Grand City on a Great Lake
Back in the year 2000, when I finally began to take my work seriously and to think of myself as a ‘writer’ rather than a hobbyist who occasionally wrote thoughts on paper, I came across the novel “Crooked River Burning,” by Mark Winegardner. When I read his brief dedication, “This book is a love song to J. and the grand, misunderstood city she came from,” I knew the author had done his homework. I too, came from Cleveland, Ohio, and though I’d left 20 years earlier, I found the city haunted my writing. It was as if I carried the geography of the city in my body –- woven into my solar plexus –- just as I channeled the nasal vowels and the broad ‘a’ of Northeastern Ohio in my speech, along with an unrequited love for the Cleveland Browns and Indians through countless losing seasons, an endless series of summers and falls.
I grew up on the outskirts of a once great American city, its population approaching one million people, 7th largest in the nation when I was born in 1957, and today, at 400,000, barely in the top 50. In the town of Beachwood, (strangely named, since we were far removed from Lake Erie and had no beach), I formed an instinctive love for the downtrodden, the maligned, the underdog. The suburb was full of Jewish kids like me, our parents the sons and daughters of immigrants, the first generation born in America. They, and by extension we, were the fortunate ones, descendants of our grandparents who had left Europe while the storm clouds were still distant, over the horizon. Our parents and grandparents worked hard, scraped and struggled so that their children could grow up in this homogenous town filled with people like them, who seemed to be living embodiments of the American dream.
Growing up, I absorbed the narratives of my two tribes — Clevelander and Jew — without much reflection. I spent countless hours in Hebrew school, twice a week after school and on Saturday mornings, hearing the checkered history of our people, and the familiar refrain: “They tried to kill us, we suffered and prayed for deliverance, we (barely) survived.” I was skeptical of this distant Jewish God who couldn’t be named, pictured, or described, and who seemed so removed from my life and the daily lives of the people around me. Few of them seemed to have a strong sense of faith; it was more a connection with their families, and a shared tribal culture that held the community together.
I was anxious to have my Bar-Mitzvah and finish Hebrew School, and to get the gifts and the party that went along with it. (In our secular family, the Bar-Mitzvah was primarily a social event, an excuse for friends to come together, a rite of passage without much spiritual significance). By then, when I turned 13, I was already chafing at the bit, dreaming of getting out of Beachwood and the state of Ohio, of living in a city on the upswing.
Yet I secretly loved Cleveland. To me, the city was a place where things got made, cars and bars of steel, a whole array of stuff rolling out of the factories belching smoke along the Cuyahoga River. My father brought home a glossy booklet from Positively Cleveland or some other local group heroically trying—and failing—to overcome the city’s reputation, which had been stoked by the flames bursting on the Cuyahoga River and in the Hough and Glenville neighborhood riots of the mid-late 1960s. The booklet reminded us that we were number 2 in steel production (after Pittsburgh) and auto parts (after Detroit), and ideally situated to serve the needs of our neighbors in the eastern half of the country, but somehow that never seemed enough.
On my trips into town I grew watchful, recording whatever I could for future use, the smells, cracked sidewalks and listing double-decker homes committed to memory. I suspected I’d been born too late, knew that I had missed the Great Lakes Exposition (a mini world’s fair) held on Cleveland’s downtown Mall in 1936, and the Indians’ World Series victory in ’48, those days when Cleveland was a boomtown rather than a national joke. My beloved Indians and Browns tried to bring pride to a city on the downswing, and though they rarely succeeded, I remained hopeful, steadfast.
Still, the remnants of the city’s greatness were visible if one knew where to look. First with Nanny Frida, my father’s mother, who lived in a small bungalow tucked into the eastern corner of the city proper, and who relied on blue and green CTS bus schedules and an indomitable Hungarian spirit to find her way around town—and later with my maternal grandfather Papa Ben, who worked as a druggist in another corner of Cleveland, the Polish enclave of Slavic Village, I learned my way around several ethnic neighborhoods. With my grandmother, I took the new CTS Rapid train all the way out to Hopkins International Airport on the far West Side, and was awed by the dramatic view of downtown from the observation deck of the Terminal Tower, the art deco skyscraper completed at the dawn of the Great Depression, and felt my spirit lift like the jet planes streaking out over the lakefront.
Years passed and I made my own forays into the city. The ironically named Shaker Rapid, rickety but never fast, jostled my friends and I as we rode west from the end of the line at Shaker-Green through a series of high-class neighborhoods and on past Shaker Square, where we entered into Cleveland itself. There, the neighborhood changed, becoming black and poor by the time we passed East 116th Street and old St Luke’s Hospital.
On summer evenings, heading toward downtown and an Indians’ game at the massive and mostly empty stadium on the lakefront, the yellow cars swayed in the heat, and the scent of the steel mills along the river wafted through the open windows. Coal, ash, soot — the aroma of Cleveland – the scent of a city that worked and didn’t put on airs, that simply was what it was.
Energy pulsed through that city, magnetic, and it drew me in. I knew there were “problems,” everything from white flight and black riots on the city’s East Side to schools in turmoil, lost jobs, and polluted waters. In 1969, when the Cuyahoga River, the ‘crooked river’ that flowed through the industrial flats near downtown caught fire and Lake Erie was declared “dead,” Cleveland sparked another series of jokes, ones I still hear 45 years later, when I mention the city of my birth.
Like most of my childhood friends, I made plans to leave. Back in the 1940s, when Cleveland was the largest city between New York and Chicago, a headquarters town, the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company unveiled the slogan, “Cleveland: The best location in the nation.” It may have seemed true then; the city was thriving and the Indians and Browns won championships. But by the time I was growing up in the 1960’s and ‘70s, the slogan seemed half-hearted, ironic. By then, comedians, talk show hosts, and even the locals called Cleveland, “The mistake on the lake.”
In the mid-‘70s, I left for college in Chicago, the powerhouse that hoovers up the young, doers and dreamers from St. Louis, Toledo and Fond du Lac, from throughout the Midwest. I joked about my hometown, shook my head when it slid into bankruptcy in 1978, sported a “Cleveland: You have to be tough” T-shirt, complete with urban smog, tall buildings covered in a dark cloud, soot spewing from a nearby factory. Wearing that shirt, I beat the pundits to the punch, absorbed self-inflicted pain before it could be thrust upon me.
After completing my college education in Tennessee, I returned home and spent two years working in Cleveland’s troubled school system teaching deaf children. I moved close to A.G. Bell School, just inside the city limits, and spent the fall of 1980 fervently rooting for the Cleveland Browns, who earned the nickname the “Kardiac Kids” due to their uncanny ability to keep their rabid fans on the edge of their collective seats, and their penchant for winning or (rarely) losing games in the last few seconds. But after a great run and a divisional title, the Browns were upset by the Oakland Raiders in a swirling December snowstorm at the wind tunnel on the Lake.
During that golden season, the Browns were led by Brian Sipe, a plucky height-challenged quarterback with a heart and confidence that belied his size. Sipe and the team around him seemed to will themselves to victory, until the season was on the line, and an errant pass late in the game ended the Browns’ chance for their first trip to the Super Bowl. The outcome came down to an intercepted pass, a chorus of ‘what ifs’ and dreams that remain, 35 years later, unfulfilled.
That loss, and the crushing disappointment that went along with it, did not surprise me. It was our comeuppance, the cost of living in Northeast Ohio, a reminder that the underdog usually loses, and it was simply hubris – and blind hope — to think that we would stem the tide.
It was only after being away for 20 years that I came to see Cleveland in a different light. I’d been working as a sign language interpreter in Boston, drawn in by the beauty of American Sign Language, and the challenge of translating from an oral language to a visual one. The work was inherently creative and stimulating; I helped deaf folks communicate with their hearing brethren. But after just a few years I burned out, drained by a combination of the physical work, the mental strain, and the pressure of rushing from one freelance job to another.
Past 40 and two decades removed from Cleveland, I started to write. Invariably, what flowed out of me were pieces about my family — the people I observed most closely as a boy coming of age in that world within a world –- and the larger city that provided my father –- an electrical engineer with a growing business near downtown — and my grandfather the druggist with their livelihoods.
One of my first pieces focused on my grandfather, “Papa Ben” Cohen, a dusty man with a smoker’s voice, his clothes pock-marked and ash-covered by his hunger for Camels cigarettes when I came to know him in the 1960s. Back in the ‘20s Papa had been a flaneur about town, frequenting speakeasies and dancing the charleston, his chest puffed out in a rooster strut, a bantamweight ready to take life by the horns. He had graduated from high school while still a boy, raced through pharmacy school at Ohio State in three short years, and passed his state boards at 19, the youngest druggist in Ohio. He wooed and won my grandmother, a pale beauty featured in newspaper ads for IJ Fox, a local furrier, and bought the drug store.
A young man from Cleveland’s Northeast side with the obviously Jewish name of Cohen was not embraced by the locals; he literally fought his way into the neighborhood in the mid-‘20s. Forty years later, Papa told me the story of a group of local toughs, including a semi-pro boxer, who stopped by and told him to get out of Slavic Village by sundown. My grandfather refused, and fought the boxer on the playground of the local Catholic school. Papa lost, got knocked down again and again, but refused to quit. He had worked too hard, come too far, and after that one-sided fight, the boxer said, “I guess you’re not leaving, huh?”
Four decades of work and life reversals had worn him down. By the time I knew him in the 1960s, Papa had lost his looks and bore little resemblance to the handsome suit-coated gent with the pencil mustache and boutonniere looking out from the wedding photo my mother had placed on our family-room wall. Still, my grandfather knew his place in the world. At Harvard Drug, on the corner of Harvard Avenue and East 71st Street, Papa doted on his customers, mixed their medicines in a chipped mortar and pestle, and kept the place open every day for 50 years. Eventually, they made him a member of the Union of Poles, an honor usually reserved for Polish Catholics.
“You’re grandfather’s gonna die in that store,” my mother often said in exasperation when I was a boy, after one of many conversations in which she implored Papa to retire, close the store, slow down. “And do what?” Papa might have said, though I never heard his side of the conversation. In July 1975, just after I graduated from high school, my grandfather did collapse at the store after suffering an aneurysm, and died soon after.
At 18, I saw my grandfather’s life work reduced to a pile of empty bottles, colored glass splayed out on his unpainted wooden floor, the store stripped bare and soon to be torn down. Papa’s customer list, compiled over half a century, was sold to a younger pharmacist –- another Jew with a store in the neighborhood –- for $2,000.
Cleveland is full of stories like my grandfather’s, of battles fought, lost and won, of decay and (sometimes) renewal. Ultimately, the stores and businesses, like the people who built them, disappear under the weight of fate and time, leaving only memories to be passed down in family lore — a precious inheritance — or forgotten. Still, maybe it’s the fight that matters most, the stubborn drive to survive through harsh winters, family crises, the inevitable times when ‘man plans, and God laughs.’
When I moved back to Cleveland after college in 1980, the Plain Dealer, the soon to be only remaining daily newspaper, came up with the line, “New York may be the Big Apple but Cleveland is a plum.” Looking back 30 years later, I know that Cleveland is not a plum, but something more bitter, and underneath that sweet. To me, Cleveland is more like anise, the taste of hopes passed over or passed on to the next generation, whether they remained in town or left like I did, but never forgot where they came from.
I live near Boston, with its winning teams, high tech industry, pulsing arrogance. Yet at heart, and in my stories both written and spoken, I return to that gritty city on a Great Lake, which wrapped me in its fierce embrace fifty years ago and never let go.