When trying to understand Akron, it’s not just about the place. It’s about the time in which you experience the place.
If you were part of those generations who made America’s tires in Akron’s factories, you see it all one way. If you were in that group and then saw the devastation that followed, you see the city another way. And if you knew Akron mainly as the place where the great tire empires had collapsed and taken downtown into the pit with them, then you see it still another way.
This is part of what drives The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt, the new book by David Giffels, the former Beacon Journal columnist who is now a writer and an assistant professor of English at the University of Akron. The book officially arrives on Tuesday; Giffels will speak at the main Akron-Summit County Public Library at 7 p.m. Thursday.
Giffels has written often about aspects of life in Northeast Ohio, not only in his newspaper work but as co-author of histories of the rubber industry and of Devo, and in his bestseller All the Way Home: Building a Family in a Falling-Down House. But The Hard Way on Purpose is a direct consideration of what it has been like to grow up and stay grown up in Akron during some of its toughest times, some of its best and the transitions from one to the other. (Needless to say, LeBron James almost immediately appears in the book, though as far more than another sporting disappointment.) On the cusp of 50, Giffels sees himself as “part of a generation that is kind of unique — the first generation in the industrial Midwest that never knew what it was like to be in an industrial powerhouse.”
The book is a coming-of-age story for Giffels but not a pure memoir. It moves back and forth in time and jumps from place to place, although always coming back to a basic question of who we are.
In the five years he spent writing the book, Giffels tried it as a memoir, “which wasn’t working, because I’m not that interesting.” At the same time, though, he was being told that books of essays were commercial death — they didn’t sell. But there had been exceptions, like John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead, and Giffels was thrilled when the publisher Scribner specifically wanted a book of original essays with an overarching theme.
So Giffels wrestles with the idea of life in the Rust Belt as he knew it during childhood in West Akron, high school at St. Vincent-St. Mary, college at the University of Akron and work at the Beacon Journal. He offers stopovers in old factories, now-gone clubs and bars, thrift shops, an ancient bookstore and hamburger joints. He also looks at other parts of Ohio, including Richfield, where Giffels was a ball boy for the Cavaliers during the Ted Stepien era, Cleveland, and farther-away places he examined before the 2004 presidential election.
He dug into research, whether to find out more about Chuck Taylor, the one-time Akronite whose name is best known for its place in a Converse shoe logo, or interviewing members of his own family about their all attending the Cleveland Browns’ notorious Red Right 88 game.
Giffels sees, more than a little wistfully, not only that landmarks from his life are no longer, but that people who were dear to him have moved on. One chapter describes the exodus of friend after friend; one of the mantras in the book is “I stay in a place that people leave.” (Another — necessary even for someone like Giffels, who is not much of a sports fan — is that this is a place that “always almost wins.”)
Local people may know that feeling. They certainly will recognize many of the places, even when they are not named, but Giffels also thinks there will be resonance in other places, where the experience is not identical but has echoes of Akron.
Indeed, one of the tasks Giffels faced in the book was to explain Akron in a way that would be understood both by the people who know it and the people who have no idea of it.
“I knew I was writing for a national audience,” he said in his office at UA one chilly morning. “I was writing for an editor who has never been here. The whole time I was trying to be specific about place and about experience but not myopic about it. … One of the really fun things about writing this was ‘I know this is interesting to us but I bet it’s interesting to other people.’ … Maybe they have some parallel experience of place, but different. It’s like, the blimp is hardly in the book even though it’s one of our icons, because I was interested in stuff that was more quirky and specific like the Taj Mahal bar. Stuff that seemed less obviously iconic.”
Still, he begins with James.
“I wanted it to be the first essay in the book,” Giffels said. “Here’s one of those things that has a universal understanding and recognition … but we have an understanding that’s unique and much more nuanced than The Decision, and the anger that followed. … It’s also about the burden that we put on him. He just happened to be born at the same time that the term Rust Belt was born. He happened to grow up during the attempts at recovery and he just happened to get drafted by miracle to his hometown team.”
James, Giffels maintains, has embraced Akron — and drawn a sharp distinction between it and Cleveland, even if Cleveland is where he once played pro basketball. James has a 330 tattoo, for an Akron area code. “After he left, he took a full-page ad in the Beacon Journal and not in the Plain Dealer,” Giffels recalled.
An even bigger part of the book is Giffels’ longtime friend John Puglia. Four essays about Giffels and Puglia are almost a novella in the middle of the book, Giffels said, as they explored and pondered Akron together.
“We developed our aesthetic simultaneously and collaboratively,” Giffels said. “We both got married about the same time, we both made a commitment to be here at about the same time. … There was this parallel experience, and the older we got, the more overt it was. And I started working on this book. I would interview him. I would ask him questions and ask him to compare his version of something to mine.”
Puglia also helped Giffels with his research, and the book is dedicated to Puglia. “I wouldn’t have thought the way I thought without his influence, and it’s a book that we would have celebrated together,” Giffels said.
“Would have” because Puglia died of cancer in 2013. As Giffels is seeing his words about Puglia discussed and reprinted — two published excerpts from the book have been sections about the pair — he is having to deal again with the loss of his friend, a loss that dovetailed with the completion of the book.
On Facebook not long ago, Giffels wrote, “I’m sad about that. I miss him every day. So please, if you knew John or if you’ve lost someone, join me in dedicating this book to him, and dedicate something else to him, and if you didn’t know him, dedicate something in your life today to his inherent/incessant generosity, or to joining with someone else to make something beautiful. That’s what he did best.”
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or email@example.com.