Stairway to Cleveland

My dinner with Harvey Pekar

Stairway to Cleveland
Illustration by Robert Faires

"Fuck you! We do what we want."

– Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship, Modern Times, 1981, "Stairway to Cleveland"

"I don't have any coffee," rasped Harvey Pekar over the phone.

In Cleveland three weeks ago for some 36 hours, I'd finally reached the longtime Chronicle contributor after weeks and weeks of trying. Working together a decade and then not talking for another three or four years after an inadvertent work estrangement, we'd never met.

"C'mon, Harvey!" I exclaimed.

"How about some chocolate milk?" he cried.

Deal. I offered to buy dinner (our publisher insisted), but the renowned Cleveland native begged off, citing a new graphic novel he'd contracted to write, something with a crazy title like How Israel Got the Whole World to Hate It. After an unexpectedly immersive day at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, not far from downtown stadiums for the Indians, Browns, and Cavaliers, we called Pekar back, and damned if he didn't answer the phone, let alone actually agree to have Agnes and me over. When our $28 cab ride arrived at the doorstep to his Cleveland Heights brownstone, he was sitting on his porch, hazel-green eyes ablaze.

"Can I still take you up on dinner?"

He drove us to a hippie hummus joint around the corner in Coventry, in a car that resembled the Volkswagen Beetle in Woody Allen's Sleeper. He limped slightly and maneuvered his downbeat compact with little regard for stop signs or lanes.

"I'm 70!" he pleaded. He didn't look it.

At Tommy's, there was a wait, and once it passed two or three minutes, Pekar was up and at the young waitstaff monitoring the list. A grandmother took his seat while he was doing so.

"I was sitting there," he demanded, nerves jangling. She scooted without incident.

When they waived our party of three into a handsome wood-cabin booth several minutes later, Pekar immediately recommended the milkshakes. He had black cherry. We shared a Moosetracks. We ate our rabbit food and talked about American Splendor and Austin. I'd edited a minianthology of Pekar's jazz reviews in the paper and midwifed my share of historical comics the music scholar/cultural critic had written but not drawn. He was no illustrator. Until American Splendor came out, seven years into our relationship, I knew him not by or for his celebrity but as a jazz encyclopedia that had come with my job.

He pitched me reviews, and I elicited his misadventures, his Charlie Brown to my nickel Lucy van Pelt in times of marital, parental, and professional chaos, which was usually. Pekar's pathos was as high frequency as his mordant humor was lo-fi. After the film was released and I understood his tribal worth, I couldn't justify assigning him any more $35 record reviews even though he wanted to continue writing them. A feature I pitched him about the history of music collapsed under the weight of its amorphous essence (mine) and handwringing (his). We didn't talk afterward, embarrassment (ours) more than hard feelings the cause.

Over dinner, quietly discounted in half by the restaurant, Pekar's rigid body language elasticized visibly. His smile softened, and his eyes let down their guard. He acknowledged how lucky he'd been in having American Splendor made into a film and how terrific Paul Giamatti had been in the role. On our way back to the car, we ducked into Record Revolution two doors down from Tommy's – empty save for its young minder, who was delighted to see Pekar. I considered a Rocky Horror Picture Show poster; our host recommended a Sun Ra DVD.

At 7:30pm, he was ready to take Agnes and me back to our lodging, me offering shotgun to the lady and hearing about it afterward in terms like "sheer terror" and "most frightening experience of my life." I questioned our chauffeur about his hometown the whole way. He told us that in Cleveland everyone kept their head down – eyes to the ground. Whether he realized it or not, he didn't.

He dropped us off, and we promised to return and buy him another meal. I got nostalgic about Pekar associate and local jazz library Jay Trachtenberg and my great journalistic coup: landing Duke Ellington on the cover of the Chronicle for the centennial of his birth. Pekar's review of the 24-CD box set accompanying the event was a victory in and of itself.

Harvey Pekar wore his insecurities on the sleeve of every conversation we ever had, 1996-2006, but as Agnes and I discovered at Tommy's, his heart was in that black-cherry milkshake.

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Harvey Pekar, American Splendor, Duke Ellington, Paul Giamatti, Jay Trachtenberg

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