I sat up late on my screened-in porch in the early fall, reading and listening to the crickets — the voice of summer.
As the nights cooled, there were fewer of them each evening. Then, one night, there was only one, a single cricket, after the thousands that sang all summer.
I listened to him carefully, because he was wise. He had something important to say. And then he was gone.
We often talk about the voice of this or that. Hemingway was the voice of his generation. Bob Dylan was the voice of the ‘60s. And in my own lifetime, on that increasingly anachronistic device called the radio, there have been a few crucial voices. Garrison Keillor on A Prairie Home Companion. Diane Rehm, whose voice I believed in because it was damaged. Click and Clack, the Car Talk guys, who spoke a kind of universal New York Americanese.
For decades, they were the soundtrack of my life. Wise, funny and somehow comforting, they reminded me that America — an America I knew, loved and felt at ease in — was going on out there, somewhere beyond the immediate horizon. It was reassuring that even places that didn’t really exist, like Lake Wobegon, were happy and thriving. All the children were above average.
But in the past few years, all those shows have gone away. Keillor has retired. One of the Car Talk brothers died. Rehm is hanging it up after the presidential election. Which is just another way of saying that I’m 65, and every day brings more bad news.
It makes me anxious. Who’s going to remind me that Powdermilk Biscuits will give me the strength to do what needs to be done? Who’s going to tell me that the scary noise in my transmission is really nothing to worry about? Who will somehow reassure me that the world is not becoming totally unhinged?
That’s how it felt back in 1996 as I began my new job in the John Carroll University English department. I was coming from Northern California, land of fruit smoothies, redwood trees and surfer cool.
Cleveland — big, broken, industrial, gray — was impossibly alien to me, both exhilarating and intimidating. I knew no one. I’d never heard of a pierogi. I’d never seen a city built of bridges, rust and vast crumbling edifices of brick.
I’d never seen a place whose glorious, extinguished past was strewn like the bones of a dinosaur amid valiant little pockets of new life attempting to spring up. It was a lonely and disorienting time for me.
But on the weekends I’d take my map of the city, climb into my Pontiac Bonneville and head out on all-day excursions: The Flats, Edgewater Park, University Circle, Rocky River, the early stirrings of Tremont and Ohio City.
Most of the time, in that pre-GPS world, I was lost. My one companion on these early explorations was a brand-new show on 90.3 WCPN called Around Noon with a simple format. Dee Perry and her producer, Dave DeOreo, would find an interesting person in the Cleveland arts scene, and Dee would interview him. Or her. If the person wasn’t that interesting, Dee had a way making it more so. One hour, three people.
If you listened regularly, a mosaic of Cleveland’s arts and cultural scene began to emerge. I learned about the art museum, the orchestra, and the dance and literary scenes. I learned the names of the cultural players, many behind the scenes, who were crucial to making Cleveland more than a collection of streets and buildings.
But more than this, Dee’s voice — an indescribably rich confection of dusky timbre, irresistible mirth, sophistication and self-deprecation — was full of hope.
Somehow, in these heady days after the Cavs championship, the spotlight of the Republican National Convention and the civic energy that has revitalized downtown, the Gordon Square Arts District, University Circle and much of the rest of the city, it’s easy to forget Cleveland was on life support.
For a newcomer hoping to make a life here, it was daunting. But there was something indomitable in that voice, something that refused to give in to despair. Dee clearly believed in Cleveland and in the power of the people here to realize a vision of the future that somehow buzzed and percolated and simmered with promise.
“You always sound like you’re smiling,” Harvey Webster, Cleveland Museum of Natural History director of wildlife resources, told her in a recent interview.
A few months ago, Dee was awarded the Cleveland Arts Prize. In her acceptance speech, she remarked that she’d interviewed approximately 10,000 people throughout her career. Consider what that means for so many Cleveland artists, writers, musicians, dancers, singers and arts supporters who have been given a public voice by her show.
In August, Dee signed off. For that last show, WCPN’s Dan Polletta interviewed her about her 20 years on the Cleveland airwaves. It was a wonderful, characteristically modest retrospective on a life devoted to Cleveland culture.
Now, she’s off to pursue her own career as an artist, writer, dancer and photographer. And while I couldn’t be happier for her, I’ll admit to feeling a little nervous about the kind of city Cleveland will be without her.
When that final hour was over, she said, for the last time, “Thank you for listening. I’m Dee Perry.” Just like that, the last cricket had gone silent.