Tuesday, July 13, 2010
My last Harvey Pekar story
Two years ago, Joyce Brabner and I collaborated on an event at the Unitarian Church, which featured a staged reading of a play I was working on about HUAC, and a talk from Harvey about a book he was working on about Joe McCarthy. Joyce was working overtime to keep Harvey’s spirits up, as he had recently fallen into a deep funk.
We ran into each other at Tommy’s around that time, Joyce with Harvey, and me with my two kids. We decided to get a table together and Joyce and I discussed logistics of the event, while Harvey could not stop talking to the boy. My son was about three and a half at the time. Harvey just kept checking in with him, asking him questions.
I wasn’t used to seeing Harvey smile so much. His voice was very soft, and sweet, especially for him. I understand now he’s like that around children. I had no idea.
The second-to-last time I spoke with him, Harvey was at the library (of course) and I asked him about my project. Could he recommend any 1930s era labor rights books I might be unaware of? On that day, he looked at me like I was a stranger, like I wanted something from him. Maybe he was in thought and just didn’t want to be bothered, who knows. He said it wasn’t really his era and I thought that was that. As I walked away, he called me back and recommended the works of Ruth McKenney. It just so happened my wife already had a copy of Industrial Valley, and I started making my way through that two weeks ago (distracted by certain period playscripts.)
Last Thursday, my wife had water aerobics at the pool and the whole family went to splash around while she got her exercise in. It was only as the pool was closing that we walked past Joyce and Harvey, also headed out. Joyce stopped to chat and Harvey went to the gate to sit. She explained that Harvey had just been diagnosed with prostate cancer. This would be his third go-round with cancer. Then she got a call, and told me see you later.
I could have just waved to Harvey, but I wanted to speak to him. The boy was with me. I went over and thanked him for the Ruth McKenney recommendation, and that put a smile on his face, but not as much as the boy did, standing shyly behind my right leg. I asked if Harvey remembered him, and if he remembered Harvey. They had a brief exchange. And we went.
I got word about the death of Harvey Pekar yesterday as I was checking Facebook while I was at the library downtown. So, it wasn’t entirely out of the blue, but still stunning. We weren’t friends or co-workers or peers. I always found it awkward having any kind of conversation with Harvey. But his work has had a strong impact on me. I could not have written my two solo plays without the early influence of American Splendor. In fact, reaching back there were an awful lot of pieces I wrote for Guerrilla Theater Co. and other productions which were due to his philosophy of storytelling.
And he has been one of the many reasons I have been proud to call Cleveland Heights my home.
I had to take the kids to the pool yesterday afternoon for swimming lessons. I asked the boy if he remembered the nice old man we saw the last time we were there, just because I wanted to say something out loud about Harvey. The boy said he did, and I didn’t think anything else about it. At dinner that night my wife and I were talking about the news and the kids wanted an explanation, so I began telling them why he was important to me.
“He wrote comic books about his own life,” I explained, “about his ordinary life, and what he thought about things, and his relationships with other people.”
“But that’s not a comic book,” the boy said.
When I went on to say that he was very sick, and that he had died, the boy was surprised. And then he was overwhelmed. And then he blurted out, “I wanted to see him again!” And then he cried for about ten minutes.
My kids know about death. They know about the death of their brother. We have had incidents with certain animals. But this was the first time he was struck by the finality of death. My boy likes repetition, he likes to play games he has played before, and watch shows he has seen before, and to see people he has seen before. And earlier I had reminded him of that nice old man, and that made him want to see him again.
Harvey Pekar has been an inspiration to me. And he is a man with whom I never had a satisfying conversation. But my strongest memory of Harvey will always be as that nice old man whose face lit up when he looked at my son, and that my son wishes he could see him again.