I was sitting at WKYC's big clear Plexiglas interview table, waiting to talk with Jim Donovan about my book The Hard Way on Purpose, which is about coming of age in Rust Belt-era Akron.
WKYC was pitching it under the sunnier headline, "Akron writer describes love for his hometown."
During a break between news segments, Donovan marched across the studio floor to say hello, hand outstretched, infectious smile leading the way.
"Akron!" he said in that bighearted way of his. (Jim Donovan does not possess an indoor voice.) "I love Akron!"
There's no reason I should have heard anything else because, well, that's what he said, and I'm sure it's what he meant. Still, I couldn't help allowing my parochial imagination to fill in the rest: Some of my best friends are Akronites! That's what you people are calling yourselves these days, isn't it? "Akronites?"
This obviously says a lot more about me than it does about Jim Donovan.
In fact, what Donovan said next is that he and a crew had been to the city recently to do a story on the Rubber Bowl, the former University of Akron football stadium, which is to say that he was simply making friendly conversation, looking for common ground.
But when it comes to the relationship between Cleveland and Akron, the common ground is slippery. We in the 330 have a tendency to parse for the condescension. And Clevelanders have a tendency to be defensive whenever this occurs.
The camera lights came on, our interview began, and soon Donovan himself broached the subject.
"Tell me this," he said. "Why do you think LeBron James, the most famous person that's ever come from Akron, is so proud of Akron that he never, [or] very rarely, says, 'I love Cleveland'? And I don't take that personally. But he definitely always says, 'I love Akron.' Akron, Akron, Akron. Always with LeBron James."
He pounded his fist against the table with each of those three utterances of my hometown's name, suggesting that maybe, perhaps, he does take it just a teensy bit personally.
There's a saying in these parts (these parts being south of Brecksville): It's 35 minutes from Akron to Cleveland and two hours from Cleveland to Akron. I suspect anyone reading this magazine understands the distinction. I suspect anyone anywhere else in the hemisphere (the hemisphere being east of Painesville) would not have a clue what in the hell we were talking about.
But it's true. Akronites tend not to think much of heading to Cleveland for a lunch date or an evening out, but getting a Clevelander to the Rubber City is like enticing Dave Chappelle to drop in for open mic night at the local comedy club. Akron sees itself as an independent city near Cleveland. Cleveland often sees Akron as a large suburb vaguely south of Independence.
Our cities are like the United States and Canada: friendly neighbors, as alike as they can be, yet acutely aware of their differences.
Akron's cabbage goes into sauerkraut balls; Cleveland's into pierogies. Akron is Devo; Cleveland is Nine Inch Nails (two bands that shared the same drummer). Cleveland lays claim to Alan Freed's "rock 'n' roll." Akron lays claim to Alan Freed himself.
The distinctions are so fine that we're the only ones who understand them. Yet we make them all the time.
Because The Hard Way on Purpose is so much about the culture of Northeast Ohio and the Midwest, I've had countless conversations since its release last spring about the quirks and particularities of my place. They became even more prevalent when James announced that he was coming home.
Home. To Cleveland. Or Akron. It depends on which end of the Interstate 77 divide you view the world from. (It was a testament to James' evolution as a diplomat that his Sports Illustrated essay described his homeland with the carefully inclusive phrase "Northeast Ohio.")
This subject came up during nearly every interview and reading I did in Northeast Ohio, usually with an air of defensiveness, or at least pointed curiosity, on both sides. Outside Northeast Ohio, no one broached the subject, and if I brought it up, it was like I was trying to define the difference between apples and apples.
"We're kind of like the Twin Cities," I'd attempt. To another set of ears, that would sound like I was saying we're the same place.
But we're not. But we are. But we're not.
We're two cities divided by a common culture. We're siblings, each of the same blood, but each wanting our own personality. We share the struggle for identity when our defining industries — rubber, steel — imploded. Much of our mutual civic pride is born of having been misunderstood, prodded as the butt of jokes. So we're lightning-quick to define ourselves before someone else does it for us, and especially before they get it wrong. Even if it's our closest neighbor.
Truth is an Akronite understands Cleveland better than anyone else in the country. A Clevelander understands Akron just as well. We sometimes forget how well we know each other.
We could sit down sometime and talk this out. It shouldn't be hard. It's a short flight from Hopkins to Akron-Canton.