A Fistful of Condoms: Harvey Pekar, the Cleveland Paradox, and Me

I lived in northeastern Ohio for twenty-two years before moving to central Georgia. My hometown, Ashtabula, is about an hour east of Cleveland. I’d always assumed that everyone’s perception of Cleveland was the same as mine—a magical place Mom and Dad took us to on weekends for special occasions, the holy grail of field trip destinations. The zoo! The Jake! The lake! The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame! And even when I got a little older, Cleveland still seemed like a Mecca compared to Ashtabula—bright lights, restaurants sans dollar menus, strippers with full sets of white teeth and flat scarless stomachs.

It wasn’t until I left that I began to understand how outsiders view the city. My graduate program has—for the first time in my life—put me in contact with people from all over the country. And each time I mention where I’m from, I’m met with some new version of the same look: scrunched nose, corners of the mouth slightly upturned, one eyebrow raised. At first, I expected people to respond by asking about the Tribe or ZZ Top’s induction into the Hall. Instead, I was met with a look that suggested I’d claimed I was born and raised in the Black Lagoon. Something was amiss. I felt like I was on the outside of an inside joke.

What’s so funny about Cleveland? Suddenly, I felt uncertain about the city I thought I knew. Maybe “Money” Mike, a Cleveland icon, isn’t endearingly quirky, but really fucking embarrassing. And if Cleveland is so great, why did I leave as soon as an opportunity presented itself? And why did I saunter off to Georgia feeling smug, like I’d escaped some inevitable doom that nobody else had the guts to confront?

In Harvey Pekar’s final graphic novel, Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, published shortly after his death in 2010, the panels open with a close-up of Cleveland’s famous skyline, and then slowly recede to illustrations of the suburbs, and, finally, a cantankerous-looking Pekar wandering Cleveland’s streets. It’s a snowy day, his hands are shoved deep into his pockets, his shoulders are hunched, and he’s staring down at his shoes with an exasperated look as he walks and grumbles, walks and grumbles, his thought bubbles forming clouds above the skyline’s silhouette.

The first half of the book recounts the city’s rise and fall, but Pekar’s story emerges in the second half, tracing the author’s own rise and fall—his alienation as a child growing up Jewish in an all black neighborhood, his lonely teenage years working at his parents’ struggling grocery store, a series of sexual misadventures, tragic divorces, battles with cancer, his “flunky” long-time job as a clerk in a veteran’s hospital, his minor successes in the comic book industry, a few memorable dates scattered throughout a lifetime. Pekar and Cleveland are bound together, their ups and downs occurring simultaneously, side by side. Pekar knows his story isn’t spectacular. But he’s searching for the “value of an individual life… of the shabby, legendary places where we live.”

This is a notion that I couldn’t shake. I sensed something menacing about the paradox—that a place can be both legendary and shabby, that defining it with only one of the two adjectives would mean missing its essence entirely. How could I make sense of the paradox? What was the joke? What was I missing?

What was I afraid of?

A few months ago, my brother-in-law, Steve, had his SUV stolen in the middle of the day, right in front of his apartment in a relatively safe part of town. A year before that, Steve, a friend, and I made a late night beer run in downtown Cleveland. Our friend was passed out in the passenger seat, so Steve and I left him to make our purchase and engage in some drunken small talk with the storeowner. We returned to the car to find a man rifling through the glove compartment, unconcerned with the occupant sleeping inches away from him. When the thief saw us he grabbed a handful of change from the cup holder and shuffled off into the night. We stood in the dark parking lot looking at each other, and then, finally, at the cold case of beer dangling from Steve’s hand.

A few years before that, I’d been in the city for less than ten minutes when a man burst out of an electronics store with a TV in his arms. He threw it into a shopping cart and bolted down the sidewalk, nearly running over my toes. The manager gave chase for a block or so before his hands hit his knees and he was sucking air, squealing fucker! and shithead! and cocksucker! into the deserted city street, into the fading sunlight.

Is this what comes to mind when people think of Cleveland? Is this the joke’s punch line, the reason behind the face? Something still felt off. There was no splendor in this version of Cleveland, no better half of Pekar’s paradox. I felt a sudden urge to defend Cleveland, to fight for it, all of it, its shabbiness included, its shabbiness be damned.

“Cleveland,” I’d say when confronted with that face, the Black Lagoon face, “is a lot like this girl I used to know” (we’ll call her Megan).

“Megan and I met last spring. I was on break from school, back home, back in Ohio. Now, Megan and I didn’t have a lot in common. We both knew I’d be gone in a month, knew not to take things too seriously, which was pretty easy, since neither one of us seemed to like the other that much anyway. What we did like to do though, was to get drunk and to have clumsy sex in the first place that offered enough space for us to be prone or semi-prone and which afforded enough concealment so we were more or less hidden from the view of pedestrians or neighbors or friends.”

“The first time I went to her house, her ex showed up, peeked in windows and beat on walls. When she finally cracked the door to tell him she was going to call the cops, he plowed his way inside and threw a fistful of condoms at me. He said, ‘You’ll need these.’ I thought, Well that’s just fine, pal.

“I held my position on the couch. Now, I’m 5’7, 130 pounds after a big meal. Sure, handsome as hell, but that doesn’t help much when you’re eating fists. And even though I suffer from a severe case of Napoleon Complex, I wasn’t about to get in a fight over a girl I’d just met. But he didn’t know that. I tried to look crazy as hell and just stared at him, didn’t say a word. We locked eyes for a few seconds before he gave Megan a little shove and stormed off. She felt horrible about the whole thing, and apologized over and over. It was Cinco de Mayo.  We had some fajitas and drank a fuckload of tequila. She plucked a condom up off the floor.”

“Now, I was fresh off of a pretty devastating breakup myself. And I spent a lot of time oscillating rather unpredictably between feeling self-destructive, indomitable, and guilty as hell. So even though Megan never complained about not being taken out to dinner or never receiving any shiny gifts, and even though she seemed all-in-all satisfied with our situation, I still felt like I was doing something wrong, that she and I both deserved better. I decided to give it a try, to be the type of person I wouldn’t wake up feeling so grim about.”

“A week after Cinco de Mayo, we went out in downtown Cleveland. Things were already getting hazy when we arrived at the Cadillac Ranch Bar. I ordered us both a beer (what a gentleman!), and we found a couple of seats near a flat-screen. I don’t remember either of us saying much. After a few more beers (my treat!) I was thoroughly sauced, and I headed to the bathroom to take a leak. When I came back, Megan was smirking. ‘What gives?’ I asked. ‘That guy just told me he wanted to take me home,’ she said. I thought to myself, Time to make up for being such a pussy last week. I need to show her she deserves to be fought over as much as anybody. I felt good. Real good. Indomitability mode was fully activated. ‘What the fuck!’ I yelled. ‘Which one?’ She pointed down the bar. Fuck, fuck, fuck. He was at least 6’2, maybe 185.”

“The dude was wearing an Affliction t-shirt, which meant either A) he was a fighter, or B) he was a douchemaster that idolized fighters. No matter how you cut it, he appeared to be a legitimate whack job, the real deal to the faux psycho look I had used on Megan’s ex. But I was drunk, and my manic-depressive gauge seemed to be broken, pointing to guilty, indomitable, and self-destructive all at the same time. I tapped him on the shoulder.”

“‘Stay the fuck away from my girl,’ I said, trying to match his insane stare. I looked down the bar at Megan. She was concerned, but probably felt superb about her overall self-worth. I felt good too. Affliction followed my gaze. ‘I’m going to fucking kill you,’ he said, abruptly. He skipped the whole ladder approach to shit talking! Straight to the death threat for ol’ Teej. I wanted to scream, ‘But this is all for show! Just play along! I’m trying to be a better person here, man! Surely you are reasonable enough to understand that! Can’t you just help me out?’”

“‘Meet me outside in five minutes. I’m serious. I’m going to kill you,’ he said. I knew Steve and his friends were at a nearby bar. I called him and told him to get to the Cadillac Ranch pronto or I was going to die.”

“Megan wanted us to sneak out the back door. She begged, but she was smiling. How could I leave? If I had to get my ass kicked, if I had to die to prove to the whole world what a great guy I was, I’d do it. I walked outside and Affliction screamed in my face. I wasn’t listening. I felt tired. The stars were out. I closed my eyes and the night air caressed my skin. I suddenly became aware that I’d never loved anyone, not really, not like I’d wanted to, not like I’d planned to, and it made me sad and strong. I opened my eyes just as Affliction cocked his fist back, just as Steve and six of his friends showed up. ‘Wait a fucking second!’ one of them yelled. Affliction, now outmatched, deflated. He grunted, smiled, as if to say that it wasn’t over. Megan kissed me. I bought a round of shots and dark clouds filled my head, blotting that Cleveland sky, so full of stars.”

“I’m not sure what happened in the hours that followed, but my next concrete memory is that Affliction came over and apologized to me, bought me a beer. We hung out for the rest of the night while Megan kicked at my shins underneath the table. She looked ominous. Cleveland is a lot like that. That night, those people. Layered. Complex. Confusing. Worth fighting for.”

I liked the way all of that sounded—even though the people, the story, and the city were complex, and, sure, kind of funny, there was something undeniably redeemable in them. And even if that “something” hadn’t been made clear, it was certainly buried in the story somewhere, waiting. It settled the matter for me—the joke, the face, all of my questions about Cleveland—and I could laugh a little easier (nearly guilt free!) when I saw videos like this one.

I was finally in on the joke and I laughed long and hard.

But I still didn’t want to go home from Georgia. I still didn’t feel good about Cleveland. Not really. The paradox still scared me. That clichéd tale of rough exteriors, the salvageable pearls buried underneath? This isn’t Cleveland’s story. And it’s not what happened that night with Megan. All I’d shown was that I’d take a punch for an ideal I wasn’t even committed to—a girl, a city, the fading remnants of my innocence, my better self. I knew I was overlooking a critical component of the whole damn thing, and I’d merely been spurred to action by a fistful of condoms, a call-to-arms to a war without parameters or details, a “Mission Accomplished” banner hanging limply across my forehead.

Pekar’s graphic novel helped me put the pieces back together. I realized that the problem with the joke is that it’s outdated, that I’m too young to get the reference. I couldn’t see past my own life. The city hadn’t really changed since I’d first walked its streets. The segregation, the dilapidation, the crime, and the unemployment had always been there, as much a part of the city as anything else.

But Pekar shows us the splendor. Once upon a time, Cleveland was a leader in the push for Civil Rights for African Americans and women, politicians beautified and enriched their city with vigorous humanitarian and legislative endeavors, and businessmen made significant strides to create jobs in the coal, steel, and iron industries. It was a hotbed for art, culture, and music, and the rest of the country looked at it with envy. And then, because of overpopulation, gentrification, stratification, segregation, governmental corruption and greed, the Great Depression, and a host of other problems, Cleveland took a turn for the worse.

Now we have Super Pimp. Now we’re the “Mistake by the Lake.” Jesus. I understood the joke.

“Praise is very hard to come by in Cleveland,” Pekar says. “People here are bitter; I can’t blame ‘em. I still haven’t gotten over how we lost the 1954 World Series.” And this is how it goes for Clevelanders. We’re missing the voices, the catalysts that once spurred us to action, however fool-hearted. We’re afraid to make another mistake, to pick a fight with the wrong guy. Instead, we look back. We tell stories. The 1948 World Series. Those early, unexpected successes. And then, it was 1954. The monolithic drought. The disgust. The glimmers of false hope.

If you’re interested in Cleveland and its history, then Pekar is a brilliant, honest, and often hilarious guide. In his sendoff to Pekar at the end of Cleveland, Jim Izael, author and close friend of Pekar’s, says, “Cleveland’s a tough, slightly bowed, achy, gray, crotchety, charitable town with moments of brilliance and unexpected, often ironic laughter. Like Harvey.”

It’s these moments of brilliance that frighten us—when we see our potential and must face the long, hard road, and then struggle to fortify our resolve to stay the course, to keep working, to keep fighting. Or we can turn our backs. Take our talents to South Beach or to Georgia or to wherever. The terror doesn’t derive from our failures or our squalor, but from regression, returning to the nothingness from which we came and which we know nothing about.

Near the end of the novel, Pekar says, “We’ve gotta’ take CHANCES to turn this thing around.” So we try to be better. To make peace with the paradoxes present in ourselves and in the places and people we love. And we try to love them like we’ve always planned on, like we’ve always wanted to. We hope it will mean something the next time we tap someone on the shoulder, ready and willing to take a punch. We wait, making jokes and faces to fend off the fear. We listen closely for someone to say something true.

T.J. Sandella is the recipient of an Elinor Benedict Prize for Poetry (selected by Aimee Nezhukumatathil) and a William Matthews Poetry Prize (selected by Billy Collins). A nominee for Best New Poets 2014, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Spoon River Poetry Review, Passages North, Asheville Poetry Review, The Tusculum Review, and The Fourth River, among others. For the moment, he lives, works, and wanderlusts in Cleveland, Ohio.