He was Sergey Gandlevsky, a famous Russian poet whose work I'd been translating for 10 years, who once took me under his grubby wing when I visited him in Moscow.
Now we sped from Cleveland Hopkins Airport on bridges over industrial steelworks still puffing like geriatric asthmatic dragons, yellowing the gray skies. I longed to show him the beautiful of Cleveland, but there was no way around the gaps in the mouth of this city, its industrial-hangover breath.
Gandlevsky nodded at smokestacks and industrial plants sprawling in the valley. "Just like home," he said.
One of his poems begins with a scene like that:
In the distance the blocks bristle
With the ugliness of heavy industry —
Building skeletons, pipes, complexes
Stubbornly crawl to the heavens.
As you see, nothing special here —
Drugstore, line of folks, shiner under
A dame's eye. Everywhere, a burning smell.
As I began to think about his poems again, I could see how my Cleveland was somehow a mirror of his Moscow, where "the fisherman loiter/At the dead Yauza River."
We passed pocked streets, broken gutter pipes, abandoned blocks, empty warehouses. Stopping at a red light on Superior Avenue, Gandlevsky nodded toward a man languidly crossing the road, gazing all the way up and all the way down the unpeopled street.
"I've seen that walk before, in Russia," he said. "It is the walk of a man who has nowhere to go. And his face, too. It is the face of someone waiting for something to happen to him."
I flashed back to a walk with Gandlevsky in Moscow, where he stopped short and pointed to a partly ruined church across the street. "I used to drink with friends on that roof," he said.
I drove him everywhere I'd discovered in my first two years here, trying to be my own tour guide, trying to convince him — and myself — that this new place was home. Though I'd grown up in the suburbs of Chicago, coming back to the Midwest after long stops in Moscow, Philadelphia and Boston felt strange, too safe almost. Had I settled in too easily to academic life, in a college much like the college I attended, in a town a bit too much like my hometown? Didn't poetry demand more hardship, more risk, more sublime sights?
But when I saw how Gandlevsky loved Cleveland, something in me finally calmed. "Traveling in Europe," he said, "I kept expecting someone to walk up, welcoming us to Disneyland and asking to see our tickets. But this is a real city."
That week, we shared a couple Indian summer days, the sort that happen during Novembers in Cleveland, where the sun tricks you into thinking it's going to settle down and stay forever, its golden ring extending to the tips of our fingers. Gandlevsky, the chain-smoking and espresso-downing Russian poet, spent a whole day raking maple and oak leaves in our yard, a pleasure denied him by apartment life.
Right before we left to give readings on the East Coast, I wanted to take him to see Lake Erie in its late-autumn majesty. But since this is Cleveland, one of those gray ceilings descended. Fog rolled in, a thick screen shielding the lake.
This wasn't the Cleveland I wanted to show him, the one that turned its face away when I called. This was the Cleveland of potholes and sulfur fumes, the unvarnished Cleveland, the Cleveland of dropouts and collapsing school gym roofs, the Cleveland of burning rivers, and of jokes of burning rivers, of black helicopters patrolling urban night skies "to protect the populace," and of asthmatic streets.
We exited on East Ninth and U-turned from the lake to face downtown again, the buildings swaddled in clouds. Sometimes you have to settle for clouds, I thought. Sometimes you have to settle for unclarity, uncertainty, hunkering beneath the weather.
Maybe Jean Cocteau, the French poet, was wrong when he said everything is ugly before it turns beautiful. Actually, there is something beautiful in what we've been told is ugly. Ugliness is its own truth, its own beauty.
Then it happened. The western half of a glass skyscraper, shrouded still in lake mist, began to turn slowly — slowly a burnished gold, a golden fire embering on the glass.
Despite the days of half-light, where the sky is the texture and color of liquid concrete, there is that moment in Cleveland, late in the day, when the sun finally dips below the ceiling of gray and blazes up like an answer to a question you didn't even know you were asking.
"There. There it is," Gandlevsky said. "Now we can go home."