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What has Cleveland given me? Might as well ask what the earth and air have given me, for the spot of Cleveland Heights where I grew up was my earth and air. As the very definition of the real world, Cleveland was the unspoken standard by which the rest of the world, glimpsed through books, stories, films, and hearsay, was to be judged and interpreted. Until I was seventeen, Cleveland, gave me my eye and ear, my vocabulary and accent, my sense of us and them, of do and don’t, of normal and weird, of familiar and alien, of home and beyond.
But no matter how devotedly I mastered the nuances of my hometime mores, I could not help but discover the astonishing news that in some places Cleveland pronunciation was considered an accent, that Cleveland terminology was not universally comprehended, that Cleveland behaviors and rituals, dress codes and values were not everywhere acknowledged. This dawning recognition came as such a shock as to catapult me straight out into the larger world where I could investigate for myself the fascinating and legendary differences of Elsewhere. But each discovery of difference in my new and varying foreground – the wonders of palm tree, cactus, ocean, mountain, fish knife, futon, featherbed – only confirmed for me the solidity and uniqueness of my background: white, suburban, middle-class Cleveland circa 1953, the indelible moment when I left.
My mother’s sympathy, her scent, my father’s guidance, his fedora, my brother’s summer ballgames; my gabled bedroom, the vacant lots where we played kick-the-can, the cinder path whose traces remain under the skin of my knees, the endless variations of boys against girls; the club where we heard Billie Holliday in person, demanding Miss Edith Malen, now aged 101, who taught me to write in an organized way, the Public Library, the #32 Heights Express that whizzed us down Carnegie and Euclid to the Terminal Tower; barbecued ribs and pecan rolls – they remain in almost all my fiction as the given that is questioned, the theme that is varied, the ground that is dug up, turned over, and replanted, the known to which I endlessly return in order to take my leave once more for the ever-beckoning and changing unknown.