Sunday, December 4, 2016


The Cleveland skyline
Before my parents and younger brother (almost collectively) died between 2003 and 2005, the City of Cleveland was “where my sister lived.” Darla, my sister, settled there right out of college in the late nineteen-sixties and never left. Whether in the city or in the suburbs, she always lived in or around that city. It made sense. She was a talented sociologist, and Cleveland was a city that had a demand for her talents.
Tom, her ex-husband—and the father of her two sons, Jon and Andrew—was from Cleveland originally. Or better said, from Berea, a West Side suburb. The city had need of his talents as well. Very soon after he graduated from Miami University (Ohio)—also Darla’s alma mater—he became a probation officer, a job from which he eventually retired after decades of keeping ex-cons on the straight and narrow and of putting them back in the slammer whenever they jumped their parole.
The city glistens by night
But my knowledge of the place—such as it was—always tended to be scant at best, and usually had to do with driving up with or without my parents for a couple of days whenever I was “back home” for a visit, following careful instructions as to how to get to my sister’s house without getting lost, enjoying a brief get-together at her place, and returning to our hometown of Wapakoneta, three hours southwest. Often when she could make it down to Wapak (as locals abbreviate the name of our town), there was no trip to Cleveland at all for the rest of us. Back then, we were all very busy people and visits were short if sweet.
My late brother Dennis lived there briefly as well, when he was an area manager for an Ohio-based chain of record stores, living in the area of Greater Cleveland known as Olmstead Falls. But that was at a time when I spent several years outside of the United States before getting back for a visit, and by the time I made it back, he was on his way to a knew destination and I only visited him in Cleveland for a single weekend.
After our parents both passed away in 2003, Dennis decided to sell his place in Lima, Ohio, and move into the Florida condo Mom and Dad had bought a decade and a half earlier as a winter home. It was an unlikely move on his part, but by then, he was doing a lot of unlikely things, trying to change something...change everything. Our family home of forty-two years in Wapakoneta we sold. And suddenly, I felt cut adrift. That place had been my anchor to the US and my official American address since I had moved to South America thirty years earlier. Now, suddenly, it was gone. So for the two years that my brother was alive after that, my also unlikely US address became Ocala, Florida, as well, and Dennis and I even shared a post office box there.
Following our brother’s untimely death, however, my sister and I decided to sell the condo. She wouldn’t be using it, she said, and with no further family ties there, I certainly wouldn’t be either. God knew Florida was low on my list of places to get to know back then— unless it were with my folks, who had chosen to live there.
Cleveland's Hope Memorial Bridge with its
massive Guardians 
Again, then, I was “homeless” in the US. At the time, Darla was living with someone—Ron, a widower—and they had set up housekeeping at his place. He was an ex-Airborne Ranger with whom I shared Army veteran status and memories of crawling around in the course red dust of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, if practically nothing else in the way of politics or beliefs. But he generously let me borrow his address in the Highland Heights area of Cleveland and gave me the run of the house and his liquor cabinet whenever I was in town. “You can drink the Scotch,” he would say. “I don’t mind.” And since that was back in the days when, left to my own devices, I tended to drink as much Scotch as I could hold, that was a truly tempting offer.
Eventually, however, Darla decided to take a whole new step, moved out, and bought herself a condo in Rocky River, just a few blocks away from the Cleveland Metro Parks. From then on, for her, it was mi casa tu casa with me. And this was at about the time that I started getting back to the US for a visit about once a year. Suddenly, Cleveland was no longer “where my sister lived” but my home away from home when I was in the States as well.
Oddly enough, Cleveland, way up north and way over by Pennsylvania from our central western Ohio home town, is connected to our history and geography. For one thing, the great Auglaize River which rises to the surface up by Harrod, Ohio, in the territory of the old Hog Creek Reservation that the Shawnee nation once occupied, meanders more or less south to Wapakoneta, then turns sharply west and runs, like a ribbon of liquid highway, right through our town before looping north and flowing over a hundred miles to its confluence with the Maumee that feeds Lake Erie, on the shores of which Cleveland was founded. The Auglaize was home to the Indians before it became the territory of the white man and is rich with the tragic history of the Shawnee, Mingo and other tribes that happily populated the area until a couple of decades into the nineteenth century when they were displaced and sent on a death march to Kansas after the government broke its treaty (and its word) with them.
My sister Darla can always be counted on for fascinating 

cultural outings, like this  exhibition of gardens painted by 
artists from Monet to Matisse at Cleveland's stunning Museum
of Fine Arts. 
But there’s an even stronger connection than the muddy waters of the Auglaize, mixed with the tears of the Shawnee nation. Cleveland, named (minus the “a”) for expeditionary General Moses Cleaveland who explored the area, laid out plans for the founding of a village and then left, never to return, wasn’t incorporated as such until 1814. But from the 1820s on, its growth was exponential, thanks to completion of the Miami-Erie Canal, a man-made waterway that was an early brainstorm of President George Washington but that didn’t become a reality until a quarter-century after his death. An incredible project for its time, the canal ran the south-north length of the state, from the Ohio River to Lake Erie, providing a major commercial and industrial link for the transport of resources from the new Ohio Territory to the Great Lakes and from the Great Lakes to the great ports of the American East Coast.
Beer-drinkers never go thirsty in Cleveland
The canal was a major building block in Cleveland’s growth as an important Midwestern lake port and thus too in its development as a great industrial power in the days before it went from being the capital of the steel belt to being a victim of the rust belt following the Vietnam War. And that same canal runs smack through our county—Auglaize County, of which our home town is the county seat. Grand Lake Saint Marys, Ohio’s largest man-made lake, a few miles from Wapak, fed that canal with water that carried barges north from the river to the lake, pulled by horses and mules along towpaths that stretched from Cincinnati to Cleveland along the narrow scar of waterway that was nicknamed “Deepcut”.
In the years since Cleveland agonized through the rustbelt era, the city has almost naturally reinvented itself—minus a big chunk of population that left when industrial job sources dried up—developing from being a once grimy, smoky mill town to being a more streamlined, glistening, cultural and business center, a city with, among other things, glass-sheathed skyscrapers, stunning natural parklands, one of the world’s finest art museums, upscale shops and galleries, and one of the most celebrated symphony orchestras in the United States. Of late, it has also gained a growing reputation for fine and varied cuisine,  and as a platform for the micro-brewing industry: Beer-drinkers never go thirsty in Cleveland and the city has served as the cradle for some of the finest craft brews imaginable.
The Cleveland church where the wedding scene from "The Deer Hunter" 
was filmed
Nor is old Cleveland forgotten. The city has given birth and praise to artists who document it, from film-makers and photographers to the likes of the late graphic novelist, Harvey Pekar, of American Splendor fame. Among other movie projects, it famously provided some of the exteriors and interiors seen in the now classic 1978 Michael Cimino feature film, The Deer Hunter, starring Robert De Niro, John Savage, Christopher Walken and John Cazale, despite the fact that the story was set in Pennsylvania (and Vietnam). There was an early role for Meryl Streep as well in The Deer Hunter, that of the “stock, vague girlfriend, Linda”. Cleveland figured most prominently in the scene in which the characters all go to the wedding of Steven and Angela (played by the John Savage and Rutanya Alda) filmed at the St. Theodosius Russian Orthodox Catholic Church in the City’s Tremont neighborhood, and in scenes in the mill where the male characters work, which were shot in US Steel’s Cleveland plant.  

It is to this City of Cleveland that I have come late in life as an adoptive son—making it official by voting in the last two presidential elections as a Cuyahoga County resident—and getting to know it through the eyes of my sister and my nephews, who swell with pride at their unique city. Doing so has made me defensive about the “hick-town” jokes of which Cleveland is often the brunt in movies as well as conversation with New Yorkers, LA residents and others from America’s better-known metropolises.
My guides are just the right balance of street and high-brow culture. Darla often plans outings for me that include museums and other points of cultural interest, and the city’s extraordinary Museum of Fine Arts is always a favorite—like last year when she and I visited a fascinating exhibition of gardens seen through the eyes of some of the greatest impressionist and expressionist painters of all time.
My nephews, Jon and Andy, meanwhile, can always be counted on to submerse me in the very fabric of popular Cleveland culture with every visit of mine including multiple tours of their favorite pubs, breweries, pool halls, neighborhood bars and restaurants—ranging from mid-twentieth-century retro diners and delis to high-end dinner clubs—as well as outings to points of interest in the downtown area. And spending a Christmas and a couple of Thanksgivings there has endeared the city to me all the more, since when I’m far away in my Patagonia home, I can imagine the days and the surroundings of my Cleveland family whenever I choose.
Cleveland, then, has become another bright brushstroke in the rich tapestry that I call “my dual life”, time shared between my native Ohio and my adoptive home in South America, a far-flung two-part world that allows me to refer to myself as “a southern Yankee”.

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