A mistake on the lake

Trip Start Apr 02, 2007
Trip End Jul 02, 2007

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Flag of United States  , Ohio
Saturday, April 14, 2007

1am and the neon lights of this truck stop in Pennsylvania are dazzling. all around the greyhound and the shop is highways and forest. creaking cracking legs and frosty breath, and a moment of splendid realisation; i am on the road again. the sensation is unmistakable and exhilarating.  back on the bus and off to sleep.

morbid curiosity is the best explanation i can give for the logic behind this trip. the greyhound bus happens to be one of those great American institutions, an insight into the 'real America', whatever that is. a woman takes her job interview by phone as the Midwestern farmlands fly past. across the aisle a man who just slung an entire drum kit under the bus is discussing venues across Michigan. impromptu conversations flare up everywhere; Americans love to talk and they love to do it loud. its not eavesdropping if you can't help but hear the conversation. and pretty soon you don't want to miss a word anyway. an entire world absorbed through your ears. this has to be one of the most aurally rich countries on earth.

the destination is Cleveland, on the banks of the immense lake Erie. Cleveland that was, in former times when the American Midwest was still at the height of its manufacturing and industrial power, a worthy halfway point between Chicago and new york. the river still bears the marks of this rich and stupid past, hemmed in by steel steel steel. in more recent times, though, the Midwest has been in decline, some areas more steeply than others. Cleveland, as its inhabitants are acutely aware, is one of the poorest cities in America. in recent times the once-great city has been re-dubbed the mistake on the lake. and then the river caught fire, and any remaining afterimages of the old Midwest were well and truly shattered.

why Cleveland? the people from every state but Ohio ask me. the city's one claim to fame is the rock and roll music hall of fame, an immaculately curated museum. in Australia the city would be most definitely on the map, and would be a major player. but squashed into the Midwest of America, it must bicker with its near neighbours for any scrap of acknowledgment. all of these cities have their one claim to fame; for me it came down to Cleveland vs Pittsburgh, or rock hall vs  Warhol museum. both museums are of course brilliant - the cities cannot afford them to be otherwise. it is a phenomenon observable right across the US. in this monster of a nation, once you remove California, new york, and perhaps Florida, you are left with very few major drawcards. i am fascinated by the license plate art you see from the greyhound; it is indicative of the situation. while Arizona can play up the grand canyon and its desert setting, many other states are forced into generality and poetic leaps. new jersey the garden state, also known as the armpit of America. stars fell on Alabama, a lovely and meaningless idea. even so the bickering over minor merits continues. Ohio is the birthplace of aviation, but north Carolina is first in flight. in a country that prizes individuality so highly, it proves a difficult commodity to come by. unless your lake has caught fire, and then individuality becomes a heavy heavy mantle that is carried with shame.

the rock hall, though, remains the gleaming jewel, a grand contributor to the aural wealth of the country. on the shore of the no-longer-ablaze lake Erie, a dazzling, glamourous labyrinth of smashed guitars and pimped cars, of leather pants and ponchos and moomoos and cowboy boots, john lennon's school report cards, michael jackson's lonely glittering glove, david bowie's fanatical fanmail, the rolling stones' everything. it is a fabulous collection; Cleveland can't afford it to be otherwise.

my experience of Cleveland was characterised by a return to the wonderfully serendipitous world of couchsurfing. there is still some stigma attached, as least in my mind, to the business of answering the question 'so how do you two know each other', with, sheepishly, 'the internet'. but the awkward moments are quickly forgotten before the many doors opened and people met.

megan was my host in Cleveland. if the reinvention of Cleveland is to meet with any success, it will be through megan and her sleepy neighbourhood of Ohio city. here, within and among the wooden, cottagey houses and american flags, community programs are conceived of and hatched. food cooperatives and community spaces, lectures and protests, all going to work to bring hope to disconsolate Cleveland. my first stop in the neighbourhood was a community theatre where i was put to work on preparing the lighting for the upcoming production of Urine Town (which, despite the name, is a satire that has more to do with water conservation and American treatment of natural resources than anything else). its an all hands on deck kind of place, the sort of pragmatism that made the Midwest what it was/is.

Megan was/is an exquisite host; my every venture was accompanied by a hand-drawn map, which lead me, for instance, to the monument to assassinated president Garfield, the most serene and pleasant spot in all greater Cleveland. the same maps, when misread by me, took me on a bus headed right out of the city. the outskirts of the American city are a disorienting place, with the same landmarks repeating endlessly: McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King, McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King. it wasn't until i saw road signs for Cleveland turn right, Columbus turn left that i knew with certainty that something was amiss.

i arrived in Cleveland at 7am on a Saturday. it was a cold and desolate place. the easter snow has been ploughed into out of the way places and sat in grubby, brooding lumps. three days later i was impressed by a city of daily struggles, striving to overturn an entire history by tiny, incremental advances. the old steel yards rust and creak by the river and lakefront. they are monuments to their own disintegration, sculptures signifying America the amorphous, the land of possibility and new beginnings.
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