The moment I stepped into Johnny's Downtown on West Sixth Street, Mary, the hostess, hugged me and whispered a warning: Watch out for Roop. James J. Roop, who for years has suffered mightily from my barbs, was waiting in ambush in a dark corner near the end of the bar.
I heard the shot before I saw him.
"You know, Roberts," Roop said, "I read your column this month. It was awful. If you are so down on Cleveland why don't you move away again? It was really nice the last time you left."
The moment became even more desperate for me when Jared Chaney, formerly of California, echoed Roop's sentiments, then added:
"Why is it that people who move to Cleveland have a greater appreciation of the city than those who have lived here all their lives?"
These readers were complaining about a column I wrote that described the mistakes Cleveland had made in its development over the last 100 years. On one hand, it was gratifying to be provoking, on the other, the burden of such persecution was so unnerving that I needed a drink for composure.
Roop moved here from Chicago and Chaney from San Francisco. Roop did his advanced studies in Cleveland history at Nighttown. Chaney first experienced Cleveland lore in an astonishing moment at Johnny's.
New in town and sitting alone at
the bar one night, Chaney turned to the fellow next to him, a man with an aquiline nose, and as a friendly gesture introduced himself.
"Hey, I'm the new sheriff in town," Chaney said as he extended his hand.
The man with the aquiline nose glared and in a tone devoid of any friendliness responded, "What are you? A smart guy? I got a jail full of guys like you."
By chance, Chaney had just met the greatest sheriff in the history of Cuyahoga County, the honorable and infallible Gerald T. McFaul. And McFaul was in one of those jailbreak moods. It was a classic Cleveland moment. Chaney made up for it later by buying tickets to the sheriff's annual clambake, a celebrated fund-raiser where some say it's not just the clams that get shucked.
John Minco, who analyzes such things for a concerned-citizens group that meets nightly, fears that someday the clambake will become a local holiday and government workers will get yet another day free of work at taxpayer expense.
But my night was no
holiday. Dr. Marvin S. Friedman, who made house calls in a $125,000 Rolls-Royce before managed health care, waved his finger in warning.
"You and that Feagler do this city no good," he said. "We need real writers, not soothsayers who are always telling us what is wrong."
The doctor was referring to a column that The Plain Dealer's Dick Feagler had written, suggesting that a new convention center was a waste of time because people did not want to come to Cleveland anyway.
The former owner of a local baseball team nodded in approval at the doctor's observation, a rare moment of accord between the two.
Before the night ended, the proprietor of the Rockefeller Building, no relation to the late John D., agreed that the low quality of thought in the media hurts the town. Samir, Johnny's Middle East expert, seconded that motion. As did Cleveland Bob, the singing lawyer, who, sources say, is working on a musical titled "Cleveland" and starring himself.
This was formidable opposition. These weren't letters to the editor; this was assault and battery.
I have moved away from Cleveland twice in my life, once to Washington, D.C., and once to Boston. Each time, I returned with a better understanding of Cleveland.
The epiphany comes when you realize that the city is what it is and not what we want it to be. Newcomers see this and accept it. In Cleveland, we tend to look back instead of forward and we brood about yesteryear.
Newcomers accept reality. Tolerable traffic, great housing, affordable auto insurance, suburbs that go beyond the rainbow, a comfortable cost of living, struggling sports teams, crooks who actually go to jail, heart surgery that works, bad television and a newspaper with colored pictures.
The natives want Fifth Avenue shopping, bigger botanical gardens, great restaurants at cheap prices, more sun, baseball players who work at a discount, a billion-dollar lakefront, stadiums, convention centers, Otto Graham at quarterback, more freeways, sausage from the West Side Market and more benefits.
Wait long enough and everybody is honored at a benefit here. Cleveland is a place where everyone can be made to appear interesting. And fame lasts longer witness Bob Feller.
It is also a place where you can make a difference if you so desire.
Since it's a town of few celebrities, give a couple of million to charity and you get so much attention on Page One that the neighbors will think you landed on the moon. The money here is not necessarily humble.
It is a place where there is more esteem in being a lawyer than a writer, a bus driver than a developer, a heart surgeon than a mayor, a defensive tackle than a designer, a car salesman than a politician, and a sports-show host than an English teacher.
Fashion here has the color and feel of winter. The arts crowd is sparse, but rich, and the best stories never make the newspaper.
It is also a forgiving town. It is a place where you can go to jail for stealing millions, and the victims extend sympathy to you. The town sweeps its dirt under the rug, takes care of its own and tolerates far too much posturing.
"Chicago is great," says Roop. "But it takes too much out of you to live well there.
"Besides, there is a certain charm and decency about a gritty town."
What Roop really means is that Cleveland is a city that you can shake hands with and still come away with your fingers.