Sunday, June 16, 2013

Writing Myself Home

For anyone who wonders why I'm always all about Cleveland, this is the story of how I got to be AnnieCLE.

Seven years ago we moved from Shaker Heights to Collinwood.  We’d lived in Shaker for decades.  It’s one of those cities that when you tell people you live there, they nod sagely and say, “Oh, yes. Shaker Heights."  Your stock goes up.  And it probably should because Shaker Heights is a magnificent place to live—even if you don’t, as we didn’t, live in one of its storied mansions.  Founded on principles of excellence in architecture and education, forged out of a commitment to housing equality—at a time when that was in way short supply—and, for the most part, manicured out the wazoo, Shaker is pretty darned breathtaking.

The perception that people—particularly Cleveland people and maybe particularly-particularly Shaker Heights people—have of  Collinwood is not quite so stellar.

In the tumultuous years of the Great Migration when African Americans abandoned the South to seek safety and opportunity in cities like Cleveland, the working-class Eastern Europeans who’d migrated for much the same reasons and built the neighborhoods, succumbed to the impulse to fly white.  

Drive through Collinwood today and you see a city that is still, at its roots, the same industrial town, built around a railroad yard, it was when it thrived. When steel turned rust, when populations jostled and moved out, when the economy got hard, towns such as this got hit very, very hard. 

That’s Collinwood now. More black than white. More poor than rich. Beleaguered schools and parents. Crime. And despair sometimes. So how come I love Collinwood with a blind passion I never, ever felt for Shaker Heights?   

A black, ex-CIA agent named John Pritchard showed me the truth about my new home town. 

We moved here for the lake. It had been whispering to me—first softly calling, then hollering—ever since we arrived in Cleveland. According to MapQuest it’s 9.08 miles from our old address to our new one. When it comes to a body of water as big as Erie, that’s next door.  Stormy nights up in Shaker, I could hear the thunder echoing out over big water. I could feel its tug. I longed for it like a woman who’s infatuated with a bad man. A wink and a nod (and a brave, supportive husband) hooked us up. Before I knew what hit me, I was driving down E 152nd past two blocks-worth of burned-out building and going “holy shit what have I done?” My mother in heaven was wringing her hands. 

I cannot possibly defend the ridiculous impulse that made me think I could write a guy (a gender affiliation I know about only through close observation of a good one of those), a black guy whom I can access only by the most speciously ill-informed imagination … plus he’s  a CIA guy?  Really, Annie?  Are you NUTS? 

But there he was, talking to me, telling me about his wife, Norah, who’d died last year, his old boss Harry who was retired but not one bit out of The Company, his best friend Andy Corrigan who’d crashed his plane into Lake Erie under suspicious circumstances, and Andy’s widow Emily, still very much alive and in danger from who knew what.  Plus very attractive, Emily. Very. Even if your good old best friend was dead out there somewhere in deep water and your own beloved spouse was also gone.  Maybe especially if those things were true….

John Pritchard and I were both in over our heads in this story.  Big time. 

So whatever else John Pritchard might do for me now from the digital drawer in which I’ve laid Twice as Dead to rest, back then he showed me Collinwood.  He and Andy grew up here—black kid/white kid— obsessed with the dreadful Collinwood School fire of 1908 which killed 172 children of a very small neighborhood. John and Andy swore their oath of loyalty on that tragedy: “I’d walk through the fire.”  (That one still haunts John. I feel his shame.)  They played—without parental consent, of course—out on the frozen lake with near-disastrous results that foreshadowed….  But that’s another tale.

Over the course of their story, John introduced me around.  He showed me the old Commodore Theater. (It fell to the wrecking ball in 2008. John got me there just in time.)  He took me, for the first time, to the amazing City of Cleveland Greenhouse.  We had lunch at the Time Out with Emily’s annoying son John. (Yeah. Namesake. Too bad the kid was such an SOB.)  He took me down 152nd Street in the back of a cab, and showed me an ancient abandoned building, still smoldering.  Or maybe, that one, I showed him.

And the deeper I looked, the more I moved home to the heart of Cleveland. He took me on a stroll up an somewhat unmanicured street in my own neighborhood and showed me the flower boxes, the kids, the folks who are and are not me in the way that all we humans are and are not each other.  He taught me to listen for the wail of trains up in the Collinwood Yards and to hear the bells of St. Jerome toll 172 times for the lost children of Collinwood. 

Writing John Pritchard did this for me. Made me look deep. Showed me how rich life is in the places that don’t get mowed once a week, where neighbors sometimes cover up what’s not working with plywood. Kicked me in my arrogance, made me accept some hard truths. Writing John Pritchard may not have revealed me as an expert on black CIA agents, but it enriched my life. 

Now, when I drive down 152nd and look at the progress that’s happening and the hard times that are still going on, I soak it all in. I understand now why Collinwood is fast becoming a major magnet for artists of all kinds.  All you have to do is open your eyes and your heart. Art—beautiful, ugly, miraculous—is happening wherever you are. 

A year after they tore down the Commodore, and about the time I decided I was either not enough or too much of a woman for John Pritchard, I was driving home from the McDonald’s up on Lakeshore and I heard a woman’s voice that was and was not my own saying, “You know you live in a rough neighborhood when someone honks at a blind man in the crosswalk.” 

That’s how I met Allie Harper, protagonist of Somebody’s Bound to Wind Up Dead.  But in my heart I know that she was introduced to me by a black retired CIA agent who lives in a digital drawer in my laptop and is still in love with Emily Corrigan.

Thanks, John Pritchard.  For everything.

Photo of the bridges of Cleveland courtesy of John Hogsett