She is a necklace of Dandelions in the Sky. . .
There is a song by Gillian Welch called Look at Miss Ohio, and it is full of the heartbreak and yearning of the Midwest, as well as the Ohio of the Civil War. Every time I drive through this state and look up at the stars, I think of this song and how perfectly grounded and suited it is to this most American of states; how the longing in one woman’s heart can, at that moment, seem like one we all share. It is a brilliant bit of songwriting that makes kin of us all.
This piece is about that lovely song.
There is really no such thing as an American polecat. It is a colorful bit of slang that has been used to describe skunks, weasels, minks, and ferret–anything that smells bad and resembles a weasel or an art dealer. It is also a bit of urban slang used to describe a “pole dancer” in a particularly low-end strip joint.
There is something wholly American about this bit of slang. During the political season, I heard an older resident of Akron, Ohio comment on cable news that, “Every four years these polecats come to Ohio shilling for the Democrats or Republicans and try to scare everyone into voting for their party’s slimy imbecile. What a load of horse shit.”
This piece is for that guy who knew a skunk when he saw one.
“When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet for life” — West Side Story
In “Sons of Anarchy,” the highly entertaining (if improbable) TV series on FX, the codes of biker gangs are examined as if watched through a prism of a sociology experiment. Some of it is very close to the truths of SOME bike gangs.
Often, if a member of an outlaw biker gang elects to leave the gang, his tattoo is removed; forcibly, if need be. the choices are not pleasant. The tat is cut or burned off. I used to think this was bullshit until a friend of mine from England showed me his scar from leaving the Road Rats. It was cut off of him.
Outlaw gangs usually stipulate that you’re in for life. The Hell’s Angels, The Outlaws, The Pagans, The Mongols. . .these are lifetime affiliations.
Outlaw Bikers consider themselves “One-Percenters,” the oen percent that doesn’t fit in and doesn’t want to.
The best known of these gangs, the Angels, started after World War II. Most of the guys were Air Force veterans that came back to San Bernadino after the war, only to find unemployment and a culture that had little to offer them. They drove big American motorcycles, wore boots and leather and started their own tribe. One cannot separate the crucible of warfare from the formation of this fraternity. This was years before post-traumatic stress syndrome even had a name.
The first generation of Hell’s Angels were young men who had no real way of explaining the effects of warfare on themselves. It’s not an accident that a great many bike gangs are full of military veterans. The outlaw biker structure is not unlike the military in that it is fraternal, tribal and run by order of rank. There is a Sargent at Arms, there is an established pecking order in which the prospects, (new members who’ve not earned their colors, or patch yet) and there is a deeply tribal caste system.
The white gangs are only white. Black bangs, the same way. Hispanics, as well. There are very few mixed-race outlaw biker gangs; in fact, almost none.
Outlaw gangs started for the same reasons every other outlaw organization has. Protection. Safety in numbers. There was no American mafia until newly-arrived Italian immigrants fell victim to the Irish gangs in New York in the 1850′s. Italians formed the mob here to protect themselves from Irish and Jewish gangs on the lower east side, as well as from the cops.
The Knight Riders of Toledo are an African American gang. One can surmise from their very existence that they probably formed to protect themselves from white motorcycle gangs such as the Outlaws, who are all over the Midwest.
The Black gangs are a bit different in that they ride many different kinds of bikes, whereas the white gangs are almost exclusively Harley Davidson riders. Lots of Kawasakis and Suzukis (“rice burners,” in the parlance of white bikers). Like white bikers, African American bike gangs are largely comprised of working class guys, as well as veterans of the military. Some of the California black bike gangs also have former Black Panthers as members.
In Ohio, the Knight Riders are a chapter of the Slim Goody gangs which are also found in D.C. and the Carolinas. The gang “colors” have always fascinated me because they speak to a tradition that dates back to the oldest heraldic designs. Hell, the armies of the Crusades, the Romans and the Spartans wore colors and carried their “patch” on staffs into battle.
In other words, bands of warriors are nothing new. Today’s gang is tomorrow’s army.
There’s an “Inside Sport” segment, a couple of years old, that follows Bill Russell and Jim Brown as they make their way around the country on a road trip they’ve made a couple of times, stopping in urban centers around America to talk to gang-affiliated young men about being young men of color in America and the responsibilities inherent in surviving this construct.
It is tough love, but it is love nonetheless. Seen from afar, it feels like it could be another feel-good NFL film, the self -congratulatory kind not uncommon in pro sports coverage. Up close though, it is smarter than this. Both Bill Russell, formerly of the NBA Boston Celtics, and Jim Brown, of the NFL Cleveland Browns, know that they may be a generation (or two) too old for salient conversations with these young men to have the same kind of gravity that a dialogue with Michael Jordan or LeBron James might have. Both men are aware of this, and though they don’t use this particular forum to call out Jordan or James, the viewer wonders….
It is clear both men feel like the inaction of these and athletes like these have cost black America. This kind of honesty is not unusual for either man. In their playing days, both men were often painted by the white media as prototypical “angry black men,” and both of them would have told you that this assessment, at that time, was on the money.
They were outspoken, proud, and the kind of men who owned themselves. They kicked open the doors for all athletes of color who followed. Theirs was an effortless-looking defiance that became some of the defining iconography of the nascent Black Power movement of the 1960′s. They didn’t kowtow, they walked tall, and right from jump, they scared the hell out of the guys who made the rules.
Especially Jim Brown, who walked away from the NFL at the age of 29 to work in movies after a beef with the Browns’ owner, Art Modell. Modell was upset that Brown would be returning to training camp late because of his role in “The Dirty Dozen” and decided to fine the NFL’s all time leading rusher $1,500 a week until he returned. Jim Brown decided he was his own boss and told Modell to go piss up a rope. To this day, Brown is the only rusher to average more than 100 yards rushing per game.
A few years ago, when LeBron James announced he was leaving Cleveland, I remember how pissed everyone got. I didn’t really understand it until I saw a replay of the press conference and remembered just how engineered and produced the whole thing was, how LeBron insisted upon jerking Cleveland off and trying to imbue this moment with way more significance than it deserved, referring to himself in the third-person and basically conducting himself like an asshole.
And LeBron was a native son of Cleveland. His message to his hometown seemed to be, “I’ve out-grown you.”
As I watched it, my first thought was: Jim Brown never would have done this. He played his whole career in Cleveland, nine punishing seasons. He left too soon, but he left proudly, with a greatness Browns fans could savor forever. My friend Martin Mull, the insanely talented painter and actor, comedian and musician, actually lowers his voice when discussing watching Jim Brown play. Martin is lucky enough to know Brown personally and is even more awed by the man Brown became after football.
There are people out there who disparage Jim Brown for his anger, his relationships with women, and the rumors of domestic violence. But know this: nobody can see into another’s personal relationship. I wasn’t there and neither were you.
The Brown I see is the one urging young men to walk away from gangs—to embrace education and responsibility and their communities. The Brown I see was also, arguably, the first Black Action Star. Every time I watch “Any Given Sunday,” I marvel at Brown’s natural ease and power. Even as an older man he moves with a cat’s grace and purpose. A smart director could have built any number of franchises around him.
Jim Brown could have just stacked his money and done nothing—played golf, opened restaurant chains, and talked shit on TV. He could have hit the speaking circuit and rehashed the glory days, night after night, finally giving America what it wanted: an angry black man tamed.
He could have.
Except that he is Jim Brown.
“On the eve of retirement, after bombing and shooting his way into the headlines for half a century, Cleveland’s leading racketeer, Shondor Birns, was murdered in a style he would have admired. Where do you begin to look for the killer of a man feared and hated by so many?
Duster Mooney was late. The candlelight procession that preceded Holy Saturday Mass at St. Malachi’s had already begun as Mooney, his fiancee, Eileen, and his parents hurried south on West 25th Street toward the church.
The evening was still faint with light and a gusty wind swept off the lake, but the temperature was surprisingly mild for late March. In a little more than two minutes the 8 o’clock mass would begin, and the only concern Mooney had was whether there would be room to sit in the crowded church.
Mooney felt the shock wave first. It was as if some unseen hand had reached out and had given him a terrific push. The impact of the force was breathtaking and it forced him to stagger back a step or two.
The sound followed. It was more like a loud W-O-M-P than anything else, the kind of sound you imagine a coal mine would make when it collapsed. Mooney, still stunned, looked to his right across the street, and saw a piece of sheet metal spinning high in the air. Christ, it was part of a car door!”
–Cleveland Magazine, 1975
Michael D. Roberts
- – -
On March 20th 1975, Shondor Birns, Cleveland’s version of Al Capone, was blown to smithereens by a car-bomb. It was a mode of death Birns was quite fond of in his own practice of disposing of enemies. Most likely, his killer was connected to Danny Greene, an Irish-mob-former-union-leader on the Cleveland waterfront. It could have been many others as well; Birns was perpetually at war with the black criminal gangs as well over control of the numbers racket in Cleveland, and he wasn’t shy about flexing his muscles.
So ended five decades of his dominance in the underworld of that city.
He was something of a local celebrity in the ’50s and ’60s, palling around with Lou Boudreau, Bill Veeck, and Bob Feller to name a few, as well as prominent businessmen he bought rounds for at Alhambra, Cleveland’s premier watering-hole for the big shots in town.
He served much the same function as a guy like Toot’s Shorr or Sherman Billingsley did in their New York saloons. Birns fancied himself as something of a flaneur or a man about town in his later years.
This was Cleveland, Ohio in the mid-seventies and Birns was in a life and death battle with Danny Greene for control of the city’s criminal enterprises and unions, and had tried to kill Greene no less then six times with car bombs. My friend, Stan Klein, a child of Cleveland, told me that in the summer of Birn’s death, over sixty car bombs went off in Cleveland.
At the same time, Lake Erie was a chemical mess. The only fish that could survive in the toxic drink were the wholly unattractive sea lamprey, which look like nothing so much as a yard and a half of snot attached to a sucker disc at one end, and the lowly carp, which my pal, Stan, swears some Cleveland entrepreneurs tried out as an ingredient on. . .pizza.
Really. No Shit. Carp Pizza.
Stan Klein also told me he drove by the Shondor Birns crime scene back in ’75 and there were scraps of Shondor’s flashy wardrobe hanging in trees and on telephone lines. this was also the same year the Indians had 10-cent beer night at the ballpark. It ended in a riot of projectile beer bottles and fights, and rumor has it the team mascot got shanked.
Cleveland became the scrappy carp of American cities. No matter what indignities they must endure, they trundle on with the tacit knowledge that things can always be worse and probably will be.
They comfort themselves with feel-good bromides like, “It could be worse. . .it could be Detroit. It is an odd, beautiful city with a rust belt history and muscle and resilience. It is a place of mordant humor that produces cheery outlooks like that of the late Harvey Pekar. My pal, Stan, knew him a bit from the record stores and comics shops they both frequented and assured me Harvey’s distracted, misanthropic view of the world was no act. “Oh Yeah. He’s Cleveland.”
Even the underworld of this place was decidedly working class. Birns largely made his dough from numbers, gambling, and Union skim. He and Danny Greene fought over this prized turf for years. Only a scant yearand a half later, the notoriously hard-to-kill Greene would also be blown to bits by a car bomb, the seventh such attempt on his life.
They, the citizenry of Cleveland, for better or worse, seem to have been spared the bigger variety of criminal. The Bernie Madoffs, the Jack Abramoffs, the Donald Trump-types who fleece cities, only and always with the
bigger lie. . .the smoke-and-mirrors-type hustles common to bigger cities and economies and populations which always mean “more suckers.” Bigger. Better. More glorious. . .carp pizza.
Cleveland’s vices and criminal enterprises seem almost heart-warming and homey compared to the hustlers that take us over the hurdles now–the insurance, real estate and medical professions are constructed in a way that fuck us far harder and longer than guys like Birns or Greene could have never dreamed of.
Cleveland is Ohio’s biggest city. It has some gorgeous architecture–some of those last-gasp-of-the-Industrial-Revolution beauties. It also has an idiosyncratic and wholly American history; a place of fascinating contradictions and great epic narratives. Like we Chicagoans, hey suffer from a cursed baseball team and the city rests on a great gray lake of unpredictable temperament murky legends. It feeds into the cursed Cuyahoga, which once caught on fire and, before the EPA got a hold of it, was orange.
It is part of the mysteries of Ohio. . . Why do they stay? Why do they leave? There is an odd survivor’s pride about those who come from Cleveland. They are very proud of having lived there and when they meet each other, there is that unmistakeable Midwestern warmth and goodwill. They’ve even learned to laugh about the carp pizza, and the Mayor whose hair caught on fire.
What I would pay to see that happen here!
With the election ever nearing, operatives and politicians are beating Ohio like a rented mule. From river to city there are dipshits with clip-boards talking a smooth line of sophistry from both parties.
Democracy, down where the kernels get small and greasy,(the margins) are where elections are won and lost.
Sadly, that IS the history of this unique slice of ruptured geography.
The word, “Ohio” is Iroquois for “Big River.” The iroquois peoples were part of a powerful conflation of First Nation tribes known as the nation of six. The others, the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and the Seneca, inhabited a wide swath of the Northeast from New York to Ohio and including the St. Lawrence seaway.
They primarily farmed, trapped fur and protected their nations which extended from the Atlantic Ocean to the middle of Ohio and north through Canada. In my research, I’d always thought of the Iroquois peoples as primarily Canadian. I was wrong–their home base seems to have been mostly New York State and along the Great Lakes.
Only the tribes of the Sioux were a bigger nation of indigenous peoples.
The Iroquois were tough. They fought the French over land, water and beavers. In fact, there were whole wars about beavers and their pelts in the 1600′s. Over the glacial march of a couple of centuries, any American Iroquois were mostly in Ohio.
Ohio was where you went when you lost the Indian wars of the American Northeast. That, or flee to Canada, who treated First Nation peoples a little better, but not much.
The Iroquois kinship extended through a great many Matrilineal tribes, meaning the women ran things.They were broken up into “clans”–Turtle, Bear, Elk, Eel Hawk. They are also known as the “Haudenosaunee,” which means “people of the long house.” Unlike a great many tribes, the Iroquois built their housing like long barracks (an actual house) rather than tipis. Their architecture was more evolved and soon copied by white settlers.The Quakers owe a debt to the Iroquois’ “long houses. As tribes go, they succeeded at farming, raising animals, fishing, fur-trapping, etc. In other words, the Iroquois were self-sustaining and doing fine when the French decided to “civilize” them by murdering them and trying to steal their land and resources, as well as convert them to Christianity.
To this end they sent a couple of earnest young missionaries–Jean deLalande and Isaac Jogues–to civilize the savages. The Bear clan didn’t know quite what to think of these two funny-talking, pasty-assed Jesus freaks who wore their shirts down to their shoes.
So they shanked them and ate their hearts. A message to the French (and the Huron tribes) that “When we need your advice, we’ll fucking beat it out of you.”
Ohio has a fascinating history. The more I read about it, the less, I realize, that I (or the rest of the Republic) know about it. In the 1800′s, Ohio natives were fond of reminding the rest of the country that what we had in this bloody, merciless, expanse of natural beauty was, in fact, a Republic. That as Americans, we owned ourselves and didn’t answer to any kings or queens anymore. It is a bitter, horrific irony that we would not cede these ideas about liberty to the Africans we kidnapped or the First Nation tribes who, rightly, were this great land’s caretakers before we stole it.
Americans who go to the polls in the next few weeks would do well to remember that those they will cast votes for are our employees, and we, the people, are but custodians of these fifty states, and that our haggard, beleaguered, beating heart can be found somewhere between Canton and Dayton where we, the people, clip the coupons and hope.
She lit her Tiparillo and pulled her Suzuki up on its stand. It was one of those magical Ohio nights,complete with lightning bugs and the smell of New Riegel’s ribs; not BBQ, but smoky garlic, unlike any other rib joint in the world.
It was a haul from Finley to New Reigel but the ribs and the beers were worth it. It was one of those evenings that could have been early fall or late spring where everything smelled like it was wet and brand new. The Fudge shop was open and the Korean women were pulling and weaving maple, rocky road and even peppermint fudge, of all things. Their smooth faces, half smiled as they pulled and folded the fudge in a way that was hypnotic to watch. She could smell it in the air if she thought about it long enough.
She watched the 18-wheelers sail East on the turnpike from miles away, the tail-lights disappearing like solitary embers over the hills. This was the Ohio she loved–rolling hills and pitch black skies with a blanket of stars like diamonds laying on black velvet.
Even better was this time of night. Nobody on the roads and she could push her little 300 cc rice-burner as fast as it could go. It was proportional. Even with a buzz on, she could handle the Suzuki and let it off the leash and hear the little beast scream.
She pawned the asshole’s engagement ring. Had a pocket full of cash and not a goddamn thing in the world could catch her.
Every election cycle, Ohio is a battleground state. For months before the election, there are political operatives, state-wide, working the populace into a furious lather about jobs, immigrants, unions, guns, and gay marriage. As goes Ohio, goes America, or so the consensus seems to indicate. Our Speaker of the House, John Boehner, is from Ohio; the orange, douche-y crybaby a native of Cincinnati. He typifies the Ohio political operative.
It is a state with an immense unemployment rate– like the rest of America right now. What has particularly hobbled Ohio though is the disappearance of its manufacturing base. The last century’s slow leak of economies have been almost unduly brutal to Ohio. Steel, paper, glass and rubber all found cheaper places to be made than Ohio. In fact, the government, in many cases, paid companies to outsource these industries–(and jobs) a dirty secret they blame everyone and everything else for.
It’s actually been a masterful job of political misdirection. Blame the Unions. Blame the undocumented workers. Blame minorities. Blame immigrants. It became a round robin of working class furies and unfocused bigotries, and much political hay was made from it.
Ohio became America’s blues song–poverty piled on top of hopelessness, piled on top of recrimination and vitriolic hate-speech. It won the
GOP two elections. The Democrats played it safe and timid and lost the soul of middle America. Al Gore trying to win an election from Nashville. John Kerry doing his best Kennedy imitation, aloof and above it all. The despair and fury of places like Ohio weren’t having any–they were sick to fucking death of candidates who with a wink, let them know how much smarter they were than the electorate.
It is why a disgrace like George W. Bush could win. He acted like he gave a fuck what they thought. Did he? Of course not. One can tell by looking at Ohio today. There has not been a whole lot of marked change. County by county, Ohio’s lowest percentage of unemployment is 4.4% and in Pike county, its highest rate, is 12.9% with most other counties averaging out at just under ten percent. It’s safe to say that a state with nearly ten per cent unemployment has not experienced much in the way of renewal.
Has Obama helped?
If you look at the bald numbers, you’d think not. In fact, a cursory glance leads you to believe unemployment went up under Obama’s first term. A harder look will tell you that while there might be more unemployed people, a result of a death-spiral started decades ago with dying industries–there would have been a hell of a lot more unemployment had not Obama bailed out the auto and banking industries. The argument can be made in a salient way; that huge auto plants like Lordstown, (a GM subsidiary) which employs thousands– would not have survived a collapse of the auto industry.
In the battle for Ohio, though. . .nobody is talking about that. The political operatives wish only to further erode the American fabric of this place, with more bile, more ugliness, and move divisive vitriol.
There is a reason I pay so much attention to Ohio. My favorite poet is a son of this place. James Wright won the Pulitzer Prize in 1980 for his poems about his sad, gray, Midwestern place. Ohio, in Wright’s eyes, seems a purgatory of sorts; a place more to be survived than actually lived in.
His lovely poem, Autumn begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio is ostensibly about football season. It can now be read as a metaphor for the season of American and Ohio politics, and its definition becomes ever more tragic.
Here it is:
In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.
All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home,
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each others’ bodies.
An unintended elegy for the bloodsport of American politics.
Here is wishing Ohio a break– some grace, some peace, a sky full of hopeful stars.
In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.
All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.
–Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio by James Wright
The above poem might be my favorite American poem. It’s often a toss-up between this and 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by Wallace Stevens.
Wright was a native Ohio son who lived in Martins Ferry amid the disappearing industries of that state. Steel, paper, rubber, glass. . .all of the things our country used to proudly make, were made in Ohio.
It was a necessary place. The manufacturing, beating heart of America. Ohio was blessed with three rivers much prized for being conduits to the St. Lawrence Seaway and its precious economy.
There was a time when Ohio had it made. Akron was the rubber and tire capital of the world. Cleveland a major manufacturing and rail hub. Youngstown was the city of steel; the town that made the cannon-balls that won the Civil War.
The Buckeye State also grew rich on paper mills and the manufacture of glass.
Those businesses have gone away now; the slow leak of a century’s diminishing economies took its unholy toll. There were cheaper places to do all that Ohio did and most of the manufacturing moved to right-to-work states or out of the country, away from the rust belt and lousy weather.
Ohio is a physically beautiful state; rolling hills and farmland once you escape the cities. . .the Allegheny plateau in the eastern part of the state, rich with hills and streams and bucolic greenery.
I started this body of work out of a need to tease my pal Stan Klein, who is a native Clevelander and then the odd mysteries of the state of Ohio took over. It is our middle and for the last decade or so, the repository for all of our anger as Americans; a battleground state, (politically and constantly) and a place of eroding hopes and mundane shades of ideological gray. It is home to some of the finest learning institutions in our country. Oberlin College, which has produced some of our finest writers and musicians and scientists, Ohio State, Miami of Ohio. . .the list goes on and on. Yet for all of its erudition, the only representative population of this state we see lately are the John Boehners and Michael Steeles of the world. The latter of these gents recently bounced from his job for “someone” on his staff blowing two grand on “faux lesbian sex” at a club in Vegas. Really. A sharper guy would have realized he was in Vegas and for about half that price, you can get real lesbian sex. Wise up, Michael Steele!
I’ve been to lots of towns in Ohio–Columbus, Toledo, Sandusky, Dayton–and they all have the same kind of decent, salt-of-the- earth Midwesterners I’ve known my whole life. The only unattractive trait being an unfocused bigotry against those they perceive to be doing away with their economic opportunity; foreigners, big government,unions, and the like; the usual suspects torn from the Republican-climate-of-fear playbook. They never blame each other, nor the local political constructs that succeed in keeping them docile and ignorant–people like Steele and Boehner. When Obama made the remark about scared and angry people clinging to their religion and their guns, it was about Pennsylvania (which is basically Philadelphia and Pittsburgh separated by Alabama) but it could have been about Ohio.
In recent elections, Ohio is the easiest state to rile up with rhetoric and through the right kind of prism, hey look an awful lot like the entire body-politic of middle-class America. It’s a political tool of image making that has served the swine who perpetrate it very well.
Truth is, most Americans are better off than Ohio. The rate of unemployment and disappearing industrial jobs bears this out. But do the citizens of this mysterious state ever get angry at the political structure that got them here. . .that let companies outsource their manufacturing and tech jobs? When do these development-deficient politicians get their feet held to the fire?
The answer is, “never .” They just sell anger and yell louder and sink this great state even further into the gray.
It seems the Blue Tip Ohio Girls are becoming a body of work. I’m kind of hypnotized by them. The more of them I make, the more Ohio stories I hear. For better or worse, almost all of the people I know from Ohio left there for a better job, or job opportunity. Akron, the Rubber City, is known for its production of tires and being tied like an umbilical chord to the auto industry like Lordstown and Youngstown, at one time both big GM towns.
A lot of Ohio folks have written me to admonish me about putting stink on the place, which I honestly don’t mean to do. What I know about Ohio comes from Ohio natives themselves; the people who’ve been hardest on the place are those who grew up there.
This morning my friend, Alex Kotlowitz, was here. Alex is the marvelous writer who gave us There Are No Children Here and Never a City So Real, an amazing collection of essays and meditations on what it means to be a Chicagoan. We were talking about Cleveland and its pugnacious will to change itself. He told me it was different than Detroit, which just kind of fell over with the death of the big American auto industry. At least with Cleveland, there is some push-back. Clevelanders don’t just let life happen to them. They fight back and don’t get fucked around willy-nilly like we do here in Chicago when the city’s powers that be decide they want something . . . like charging you for every fucking parking spot in town and every bullshit permit under the sun, not to mention the insanely high property taxes pounded up your hole like a jackhammer year after year.
Akron, of course, is the home of Devo and Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders. It is an amazing Rock and Roll town; the place from which Cleveland rockers, like the seminal punk band Pere Ubu, held sway over a new generation of art-school rock kids. Mark Mothersbaugh, the frontman of Devo, is also afirst-rate visual artist who makes collages, as well as really trippy drawings. I am a fan. I attribute his divine weirdness to Ohio.
I’ve been through Akron and, when I think of it, I think of stacks and stacks of tires, and the exact midpoint between Chicago and New York.
In the last couple of elections, Ohio has been designated as a “battleground” state. It seems an obstinate place; a state that rather enjoys the bloody battle for our country’s political will. It is one of those places that clings to its guns and its religion; its burning working-class furies. It is a place of disappearing industries; rubber, glass, paper. . .things are being constructed of other re-purposed materials. It seems perpetually an angry place, spawning political bomb-throwers and minor-league intellects like Michael Steele. And for the life of me, I will never be able to figure out what the Republican party has to offer African-Americans, other than Horatio Alger-Style bromides about boot-straps, and “helping those who help themselves.” It’s beyond me.
In literature, Ohio seems a place of suffocating ordinariness, a place so much the middle of America as to be almost erased by this definition. James Wright’s poems, Sherwood Anderson’s little town, even Chrissie Hynde’s songs underline pervasive, whistling miles of emptiness.
I’ve driven through it. In fact, got a ticket for driving on a suspended licsense in 1986 in Fulton county from a humorless state trooper who was hiding behind one of those salt depots and was only too happy to extract most of my cash for a bond, in lieu of waiting in jail for a court date. It seems one of those places that is about consequences. In the ’60s, cities like Cleveland lost their middle class to white flight and industries leaving town, as did towns like Youngstown, yet oddly, Ohio is home to some of the best colleges in the country–Oberlin, Ohio State, Miami of Ohio–and people from Ohio are your basic salt of the earth Midwesterners. It seems a kind of “Our Town” type of state. It has four seasons like Illinois and Indiana; big cities and a cultural legacy of art and music and literature.
Yet there is an otherness and abiding sadness about this state; a great deal of unemployment and disintegrating manufacturing culture. It is the tiny America; a microcosm of all of our ills brought into high relief geographically by mere location.
Ohio is our middle–tensile and utilitarian–a November kind of place. . .
My favorite poet is from Ohio. James Wright wrote When Autumn Begins in Martin’s Ferry Ohio. It is a sad, autumnal ode to the beginning of football season and in it, Ohio doesn’t seem a very cheery place. He describes women as “starved for love, like pullets” and the desperation in the faces of men at glazing windows and ends with a description of horror lined with beauty at the sight of young men playing football. It is one of those perfect American poems where this fine, underrated poet got the lightning into the bottle. Wright was a sad kind of poet. He won the Pulitzer Prize in his lifetime (as did his son, Franz, making them the only father-son combo in history to win this prize for poetry) but was considered a poet’s poet.
His love poems are darkly beautiful; love and death and winter often part of the same triangle; and his poems about the Midwest, specifically Ohio, with its paper mills and glass factories and dead-end factory jobs, comes into high relief in Wright’s aching poems. The marvelous collection is called, Above the River. Pick it up if you love poetry.
I have lots of friends from Ohio. My studio director, Stan Klein, is from Cleveland and is a walking testament to the solid midwesternism of the state of Ohio. He is practical beyond belief; nothing flashy or showy. He lets his pugnacious dog, Ella, sleep on his coat. He buys the Jewel brand jelly beans rather than the fancy Starburst kind which are more expensive because they are not practical. The jelly beans are merely a delivery system for sugar. Nobody says you have to enjoy them, so he gets the utilitarian jelly beans. My friend, the painter Jenny Scobel, is also a Clevelander and didn’t like the taste of eggs from the store, so she raised chickens to lay her fresh eggs; this is more practical.
People from Ohio are common-sense, no-bullshit types. They are creatures of logic and the most direct route.
I found a box of Ohio Blue-Tip matches at the Dominick’s the other night. I didn’t even know they still made these. And then I realized–of course they do. They are practical. They are matches for people who need matches for other things besides smoking; lighting the pilot light, candles, lighting the coals, striking one when a fuse blows. . .shit like that.
I just fuck around with mine. Of course I light cigarettes with them, but also fireworks; of which I have copious amounts.
Also, if you smoosh Ohio Blue tips into a pipe with Black Magnum powder. you can make yourself a damned fine pipe bomb or “Dago Bomb” as we called them when we were kids. I have two great joys. Making things. . . and blowing shit up.
In my last missive I discussed an Ohio girl I used to know who lit these matches greaser-style off of her zipper. She also drank these little bottles of creamed ale called “Little Kings.” They were small, but they possessed the authority of a blunt instrument. When she was done with the bottles, on occasion, she would fill them with gasoline and a rag and a cork stopper and make a midget molotov cocktail. She would then zoom by on her Suzuki and plant this fucker in some teachers mailbox and blow it to smithereens.
Man, that was a woman.