A Cleveland Story (for Harvey Pekar)
This is a Cleveland story about a guy who was born here, made a life here, became well-known here, and died here. The not-so-well-kept secret about our city is that, in many ways, it functions like a small town. I think this is because we have a large core of people who have lived here all their lives. Along the way, those lives intersect, criss-crossing hundreds of times, weaving a social network of friendships and acquaintances that span decades and generations. In Cleveland, six degrees of separation is reduced to three (if that).
I first met Harvey Pekar when I was about 13. He used to come into Wordsworth, the used bookstore on Lee Road that my mother co-owned and where she worked full-time. My mother had the habit of adopting stray people, sometimes inviting them to dinner, occasionally letting them live with us until they could sort their lives out. My first impression of Harvey was that he was another stray. He looked scruffy enough. She told me that he wrote comic books, but not with superheroes and not necessarily funny. I met Harvey and liked him, but was a little intimidated. His vocal patterns were of your garden-variety working class stiff, but his words were those of an incredibly well-read intellectual. I felt like a stupid kid around him. I started reading his comic books, and at that age, I didn’t quite get them. I knew he was doing something very different and very cool, I just couldn’t put my naïve finger on it.
I first met Joyce Brabner, Harvey’s wife, at a board meeting for the Cleveland Public Theater when it was still an idea, not an edifice and entity. I was slightly in awe of her confidence and directness. It wasn’t until later that I realized she had come to Cleveland to be with Harvey. I learned about Joyce and Harvey as a couple through American Splendor (issue #10 — his substandard dishwashing strains their relationship). I watched every appearance he made on Late Night with David Letterman. When he swaggered onstage wearing the “On strike against NBC” shirt and tried to get Dave to talk about something serious, my mom and I cheered. That Letterman appearance was retold in American Splendor #13. (The story immediately preceding it in that issue was about a visit to the West Side Market, where Harvey discusses the unfolding Ollie North scandal with Frank, an ex-lawyer who at the time ran a dried fruit and pasta stand at the Market. I had met Frank the summer before while I was working at Cain Park. Everybody knows everybody in Cleveland.)
Harvey and Joyce ended up buying a house down the street from my mom — the house where I grew up. My mom actually makes a small appearance in Our Cancer Year (she’s the neighbor who drives Harvey to the hospital when they have car trouble). I cat sat for Inky, the skinny black cat, the summer after I graduated from college and was slacking around the Heights, trying to figure out what to do with my life. I remember sitting in my mother’s backyard, talking to Harvey about writing. He suggested I try writing in comic form (I guess now you’d call it graphic novel form). I told him I didn’t know how, or didn’t know that I thought in that form. He started drawing some little boxes and stick figures as we talked. I wish I had saved that piece of paper. It didn’t seem that important at the time. I was always running into Harvey. He was part of Cleveland; he was always around. I guess I never thought there would come a time when Harvey wasn’t.
Now he’s been gone for a year. The last time I saw Harvey was at Tommy’s on Coventry one evening when my daughter and I were waiting in line for a table. (Tommy’s is its own little vortex of past lives. If you go there and don’t see someone you know, you must not be from around here.) Harvey was seated by the door, waiting with a couple I didn’t know. I took my daughter by the hand, and we walked over to say hello. For some reason, I thought it was important to introduce her to Harvey. It’s odd to be an adult and admit to being intimidated by someone I’d known for nearly 30 years, but up to the end, I was a little scared to go talk to him. Maybe it’s because I first met him when I was a kid. Maybe it’s because he had achieved the cult-hero level of success on his own terms that any other writer would envy. But I went and introduced him to my daughter. She was four and a half then, and though she started off shy, she ended up being typically charming. Harvey watched her with an amused little grin as we talked.
We didn’t talk long. Harvey was with other people and I didn’t want to be a pest. I just wanted to say hello. When I saw a few weeks later that Harvey had died, I asked my daughter if she remembered meeting him at Tommy’s. She wasn’t sure. To her mind, he was just some guy mom knew.
And he was. Harvey Pekar was Some Guy.
[Illustration by David Hansen. A few years back, I ran into Harvey at a reading of a play by David Hansen. David had just handed me his family holiday card, which he always illustrates. Harvey saw it and liked it, remarking that maybe he ought to give David a call about illustrating something of his. This is as close as we can get now.]
When Cool Cleveland contributor Susan Petrone is not writing an arts or culture article for Cool Cleveland, she writes fiction. Her first novel, A Body at Rest, was published in early 2009 by Drinian Press. An excerpt from the novel and some of her published short fiction are available at http://www.SusanPetrone.com.