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Driving Mr. Pekar

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As an eighth grader in Parma, Ohio, I sometimes cut the entire day of school, rode the bus downtown, where I transferred to another bus that I rode to University Circle, where I transferred to yet another bus that I rode up Murray Hill on the East Side of Cleveland, to the hipster neighborhood called "Coventry," where I would slink into Record Revolution -- afraid I'd get busted by scary Truant Officers -- just so I could buy the latest issue of American Splendor, Harvey Pekar's chronicle of life in the city of Cleveland. I was so short in stature that I sometimes put bars of soap in my shoes so as to look taller and therefore older, but in retrospect I'm pretty sure just made me look stupider and more wobbly. At other times I would get tired of waiting for the bus up Murray Hill and would actually trudge all the way up to Coventry on foot. For me, it was Harvey more than anybody who put Cleveland on the map. American Splendor was sold as a comic book. It looked like a comic book. But it was so much more than a comic book.

Instead of the DC and Marvel titles I was used to pouring over, starring men with super powers who wore tights and had ridiculous weaknesses (like the Green Lantern's color yellow), Harvey's stories starred Harvey, a regular joe who worked at the VA Hospital and wrote reviews of jazz records. Harvey's weakness wasn't the color yellow, or Kryptonite, or anything otherworldly -- it was almost everything in everyday life. And you didn't have to be a jazz fan to understand his obsession with his record collection -- it was the obsession itself that struck a universal chord with everyone whoever picked up a copy of American Splendor and got hooked. I don't know of anyone who ever picked one up and didn't get hooked. And I know a lot of very cool people who got hooked and stayed hooked.

Harvey's work showed me that you could write about real, everyday people. That, for me, was a little like getting hit by lightning. Quite possibly the only other writer who did that to me was Vonnegut. Harvey was that good.

Years went by before I ever actually got to meet the guy. Working on Six Feet Under, I got invited to the premiere screening of the movie version of American Splendor, and afterwards I got up enough nerve to go over to Harvey and his wife and creative partner in life, Joyce. I started to tell him who I was, and he interrupted me with, "Yeah I know you, you're that playwright." That Harvey knew who I was made me feel like a real goddamned writer. Believe me, I can count the number of times that's happened in my life on one hand and have a couple of fingers left over.

Joyce gave me their phone number, and before too long we were actually corresponding via email. In 2007 Joyce asked me if I would do a benefit performance of my monologue "My Buddy Bill" for the Unitarian church she and Harvey were affiliated with. Of course I said yes.

Shortly before I flew to Cleveland, Harvey and I were asked by Scene magazine (Cleveland's free entertainment weekly that skewed very much toward rock-n-roll) to interview each other. Sharing a byline with Harvey (in Scene magazine no less) was another one of those moments for me.

I did my benefit show, and hung out with Harvey and Joyce in Coventry for a couple of days. The day before I left Harvey invited me over to his house, and we spent a couple of hours just hanging out and talking. His house was cluttered the way a great writer's house should be cluttered. The whole time I was there I was thinking, "Well, here I am, I'm hanging out with Harvey Pekar -- I've finally made it." Harvey was working on his graphic novel biography of Studs Terkel. We talked about Studs and Kurt Vonnegut and books and movies and music.

He was in his late 60s, and it took until the movie version of American Splendor for Harvey to start to make any real money -- and if he heard me suggest he made any real money he would no doubt correct me about that. He had so many projects lined up. I know he was still fighting cancer and depression, but the guy just seemed so vital and full of life. At least that afternoon he did. Before I left he pressed a pile of books in my arms, and we said goodbye.

I spoke with Joyce a few months later and asked her if she thought Harvey might ever be up for a cross country road trip. Writers sometimes play a game called "If You Could Pick One Writer to Drive Across the Country With Who Would You Pick?" A lot of writers would pick Hemingway or Fitzgerald or Steinbeck or Kerouac for sure. Dickens would be an interesting choice. Vonnegut would be a great choice and so would Twain. I'll bet Stephen King would be a hell of a lot of fun. But I didn't know any of those guys. But I knew Harvey, and we spent an afternoon together just hanging out, and he gave me a pile of books from his very own collection -- so we must be friends, right?

Sometime later Joyce called me and told me that Harvey was feeling kind of depressed, and if I wanted to take him on a road trip, now would be a good time. I was working at the time, and couldn't take off for the three or four weeks I thought the trip might take. I told Joyce I would try and make it happen another time. But I never did.

Over the last couple of years I've fantasized about making that trip with Harvey. I would fly to Cleveland, and then rent a drive away, something cool, like maybe a Mustang convertible. Harvey and I would hit the road, and yeah, he might've been cranky and complained a lot, but man, we would have had a real literary adventure. That was a missed opportunity for me, and now that he's gone, it was a big one.