Kid from Cleveland contemplates adulthood on pilgrimage home

An absurd fight with Lisa, my older sister, in a Beachwood sushi joint. A couple visits to Progressive Field to see the pitching-hobbled Cleveland Indians get the shit kicked out of them, but also bond with Marty, my younger brother, and experience the old joy of Lisa’s company, a tacit mending of fences. An hour and a half burn down Route 90 to Toledo to look in on Nina, my younger sister, who’s making do in a Residence Inn while Allstate and a construction company tangle themselves in red tape fixing up her fire-gutted house. A chance to see Karyn, Lisa’s old friend, who looks like Sissy Spacek or Jane Fonda, I can’t tell which, and whom I had a crush on since I was four. An opportunity to sit on the back patio of my old friend Roger, the big brother I never had, and have a soul talk and some well-needed laughs. Finally, the cherry on the sundae, a raucous lunch with a gang of guys I knew from Rowland Elementary and Greenview Junior High.

At the Indians game, from left: my niece Melanie, who draws funny pictures; me, smiling too hard as usual; my staunchly loyal sister Lisa, as loving as she is occasionally meshuggeh; my niece Emily, the older girl, saucy and cute as hell; and (in the yellow shirt) Marty, the greatest kid brother any guy ever had. Not pictured: Melanie’s awfully nice boyfriend, Jared, who did duties as photographer, and whom I left a can of Barbasol lest the guys at the airport take it anyway.

Who could have known an innocent remark about Kent State, a graphic novel about the events leading to and including the horror of May 4, 1970, could have triggered Lisa’s diatribe about my not appreciating her role in college activism? I guess any tongue can get unhinged after enough shots of warm saki to cause repetitive motion disorder. Ah well, we all get a little meshuggeh at times. Age, and a ripened appreciation of the absurdities of life, has made me a forgiving person.

I get the weird feeling Lisa was annoyed because she thinks I’m secretly on fire over something I’m afraid to admit. Lisa feels bad for me because I can’t publish my novels. It wasn’t until my last night in Cleveland, when she and Karyn and I met at Taza, a Lebanese place on Eton Square in Beachwood, that she said I was suffering and would never heal until I sold fiction to a commercial press. But this would have happened already if I was that good or that lucky.

“That’s not even the big picture thing,” I said. “The big picture thing is being happy, as it turns out. I realized I’d been happy for years; I just need to get out of my own way and let it happen.”

I hope she believed me.

Lisa would stand in front of a bullet for me. I’d do the same for her. My whole family is like that. Emotionally delicate Nina, despite her questionable decisions and self-medicating, gets me, laughs at my jokes. Marty, the only one of us with kids, a man ensconced in juvenalia and sports stats, remains fiercely protective of me and seems to regard me (sometimes to my amazement) as a big brother to be proud of.

Marty’s two daughters are a product of his slapdash life. The older one’s saucy and defiant; the younger, a bit softer but sharing her sister’s archness. Marty never had the resources our wealthy PR guy of a father had; my brother’s two girls seem scattered to the winds to fend for themselves. Wise Lisa cast some light on this. “We all got out of college with no debt,” she explained on that last, healing night, at Taza, after she and Karyn and I had filled ourselves with schwarma and hummus and baba ganoush.

He may not be a perfect dad – who is? – but my wife thinks Marty is the most successful of the Gitlin writing clan. Marty’s been engaged in a knock-down, drag-out battle for survival, and he’s finally winning, publishing book after book, learning to parlay a schedule of speaking engagements about cartoons and the Cleveland Indians into some financial comfort. He’s got a new book out, about Indians pitching phenom Sam McDowell, that I can’t wait to read. Literary rockstar Lisa delivers food in New York, this despite having won awards from her first, coming-out lezzie novel and filling bookstores at reading gigs in Cleveland and New York. Me, I work at Walmart and blog; come October, I’ll just blog.

On this pilgrimage to my hometown, as well as contemplate writing and how it’s alternately ravaged and blessed the Gitlin clan, I went to the Cleveland Museum of Art, subject of my last post. Went to a lot of places on my own, for the experiences themselves but also to get the hell out of the Super 8 in Westlake which I picked to place me near Marty’s North Olmsted home. I’d have stayed with him except his dog is not hypoallergenic.

Only so much time I could spend in that smoke-stinking room. They gave me a smoking room by mistake. I haven’t had a cigarette in eight or ten years. I was out of town, away from my wife; I could have bought a pack. But I so hate the varnished fingers and grey skin, the shortness of breath, that I stayed strong. I could have changed rooms but for some screwy reason kept the room and, against the laboring air conditioner in the swampy Cleveland heat, punctuated by rainstorms, opened the door a lot.

The capper was that lunch with those old Greenview droogies. What fun to see those familiar faces. Gary, who was always on the team I played against in noon-rec ping pong in Greenview. Bruce, who lived down the street from my dear departed friend Mike and knew about good pickles, and who endeared me to him a few years ago, when I had to attend a stone setting in Cleveland, by telling me he read my blog. (I do wonder at times to what extent I labor in anonymity.) Steve, who always seemed aloof and funny, and re-emerged into my world by saying he liked the novel I self-published on Kindle under a pseudonym. Marc, who goes way back, having lived down Judson Drive when we lived in Cleveland, the Harvard-Lee area, in the fifties and early sixties. John, whom I only glancingly knew back in Greenview, and who consoled me when I Facebooked about losing my dog. Micky, a tough skinny kid who tackled me fearlessly around the ankles during one of those Bexley Park football games we used to play; and his lovely and engaging wife, silently bemused by all the reminiscing. Last but not least, Jon, whom I’d partied with before leaving town for Prescott, Arizona, almost two decades ago, and who still wields that incisive, cynical wit.

I am fond of saying that no matter where I die – and it looks like it will be Arizona – my soul will fly to Cleveland. Even with the old family house gone, 2060 Langerdale inhabited by strangers, and all those old memories (which include my English relatives) brimming with love and zaniness, burnished by time but retreating into the haze of the past, I was able to visit my old hometown, mingle with the memories … and collect some new ones.