If you want to truly know the heart of a city, try writing about it.
For a handful of years, I worked for a local alternative newspaper as a feature writer, trusted to write about lives I thought had meaning. An editor wondered if it would be difficult to find enough Clevelanders with tales worth telling. I said it would be harder to find somebody without one.
They were good people, my co-workers, and most were finer reporters than I will ever be. But in my own big head, I believed I carried an edge. What they knew of life, I thought, they had learned from a desk in journalism school. By the time I arrived on their doorstep, I had read some Shakespeare, seen Jimi Hendrix play Music Hall, boxed at the old Navy Park gym, fired a gun and had one pointed at me in anger. I believed I knew this city.
I might as well have been raised in a windowless basement by cloistered nuns.
For a solid year, I lived in a state of wonder. One of my first assignments was to profile a man who led African game hunts. He had a fine home here with a three-story foyer where a stuffed giraffe took up every inch. The head peeked over the top landing, and it was a straight shot to the hind legs and the marble floor 40 feet below. It took all my self-control not to climb over the staircase railing and slide down the neck. But I was, after all, a professional.
It is funny: When the stories come back to me now, they come back not in words, but in pictures. I recall stumbling over snowdrifts in Hough, trying to keep up with Councilwoman Fannie Lewis. I had been warned she could be prickly, but she turned out to be 98 percent lollipops. (Ms. Lewis was a closet Elton John fan, but I did not hold that against her.) I rode a campaign bus and shook hands with two Tafts — or maybe it was the same Taft twice. You could write all my political savvy on a campaign button, with a paint roller.
Some stories I would have paid them to let me write. I talked football with Otto Graham, the greatest Browns quarterback ever, and basketball with Joe Tait. I spent a morning in Harvey Pekar’s living room and an afternoon in a Gateway restaurant with a pretty pastry chef whose tarts looked like what Fabergé might’ve come up with had he worked in pie. I hung out with race car drivers in Lorain County and boxers in Old Brooklyn and learned that both groups only knew fear when they stepped out of the ring or slid from behind the wheel.
Occasionally I was assigned to the arts beat, which was like sending a parrot to cover the ballet. I toured the home of the Cleveland Orchestra and wrote a story that pleased our music editor, who had feared I would report that Severance Hall was Arsenio’s brother. I sat in a West Side saloon while a trumpet prodigy — he was leaving on a Juilliard scholarship — blew like Gabriel. I traveled with a program that brought blues music to elementary schools. (You have not lived until you’ve heard a classroom of 7-year-olds rip into “Baby Please Don’t Go.”) I suppose I came dangerously close to getting “cultured.” But my encounters were mostly glancing blows and did no lasting damage.
I put about a million miles on an old car and a dent in a borrowed one. I vowed to follow a good story to the ends of the earth — or Pennsylvania. I did not have to travel that far. The best stories were marked with yellow tape. All I had to do was follow the flashing lights.
I became the murder writer.
We are a crazy stew, and that is what gives living here its flavor. But sometimes the pot boils over and a life ends with the slash of a knife or the bark of a gun. My subjects were not important people, but, I argued, any death deserved better than an inch of the Metro section. So I would show up an hour or a day or a week after the coroner and promise the victim’s kin I would sketch their loss as best I could. Then I would peer into their grief, careful not to fall in.
I recall a woman who lost her husband a week before Halloween. Their home was already decorated, and as we talked, a breeze stirred her parlor curtains and a string of skeletons danced over her head.
I wrote about a quiet man who bled to death under his own rented window after a botched robbery. The victim was a radio buff, and cassette collections of Fibber McGee and The Shadow lined his neat apartment. Outside, it was 1999. But inside, it was 1936.
I napped sitting up on courtroom benches during trial recesses and consumed twice my weight in lunches at the Justice Center cafeteria. They do a really fine ham Hawaiian.
I interviewed a patrolman who questioned murder scene witnesses and documented the deceased’s last words, if any. He said “What’re you gonna do, shoot me?” was a favorite.
I learned to talk around door chains and to landlords who stared at the carpet, then pointed me upstairs. (No victim ever seemed to live on the first floor.) I would nod, then trudge up steps that reeked of must and despair to face another chained door and look for truth under a 40-watt bulb. It never occurred to me that my dream job was woven from other people’s nightmares.
I told myself the stories did not affect me, then found myself lighting my fourth cigarette in five minutes, peering up at a street sign, trying to get the spelling of Praha or Juniata right.
I needed to be around people, but not just anyone. I wanted to be around men who carried themselves like aristocrats with their name stitched on a work shirt, and women who dripped dignity on their way to the diaper laundry.
All-night diners owned the hours between last call and first shift. I favored a chicken shack on Clark Avenue where, if you asked how something was prepared, the cook would growl, “In a kitchen, by me.” I haunted a Chinese place on the East Side. The dining room sat nearly under a railroad trestle. When a train passed, your noodles danced down the tablecloth.
I would sit for hours, the aroma of grilled onions mixing with the sound of a kitchen radio, until the story came together in my head. Then I would drive to the office to paint in words what I had seen and felt.
Those nights were my Juilliard.
The job went on too long and ended way too soon. That life is an acquired taste, like ham Hawaiian. To do it well, you must stay in a state of wonder. Otherwise you begin looking at life through glass eyes, like something stuffed.
I still have the itch, although I think writing must be harder now. For starters, 24-hour diners are now as scarce as third shifts. But I do know a place, a diner with a window to the street. The owner’s name crosses the glass like a banner headline. Passersby look like stories moving across a front page. Sometimes a stranger will sidle onto the next stool, tap the morning paper, say, “You read this?” and launch into a monologue. I can almost hear the chain sliding off a locked door.
There is a genius to listening. Folks will tell you their stories if you let them. And just by listening, you tell them yours.