Sweet Lorain - by Michael Dirda

And was Jerusalem builded here/Among these dark Satanic mills? Michael Dirda. Senior editor at the Washington Post


Even now, when I haven't lived in Lorain, Ohio, for more than 30 years, I still think of it not only as home but also as a strangely magical place. Isn't there, after all, a kind of Iron Age romance to deteriorating industrial towns? Eyes closed, I see the puffing smokestacks of National Tube, the slag heaps guarding Black River, those ponderous lake freighters cautiously docking near the jackknife bridge, and of course, Lake View Park, with its antiaircraft guns, rose garden, and giant Easter basket, all on the eroding shores of the blue and polluted Erie. Even now, I can feel the bumpy B&O railroad tracks crossing Oberlin Avenue, touch the soft accumulation of grit on cars parked along Pearl Avenue, taste the cherry vanilla at the long-gone Home Dairy ice cream company. So many places there linger in the memory - St. Stanislaus Church, where Polish fishermen attended 5 a.m. Mass, the Czech Grill, the Abruzzi Club, the Slovak Hall, Pulaski Park. Who can doubt that I grew up in what sociologists would quickly label "a classic midwestern Rust Belt city"?

Sweet Lorain, as poet Bruce Weigl called it in his recent book of poems. Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison was born and educated there, and so was Gen. Johnnie Wilson, the highest-ranking African-American in the U.S. military until his retirement. Comedian Don Novello, a.k.a. Father Guido Sarducci, grew up there. My high school was named after favorite son Adm. Ernest J. King, commander of the fleet during World War II. It was rumored that Admiral King High School boasted - le mot juste - the highest rate of juvenile delinquency in the state. Might well have been true, since many of my classmates belonged to "clubs" such as Bachelors, Dukes, Barons, Cavaliers, Southerners (denoting South Lorain), Islets, Stylers (for guys with a particular interest in souped-up cars), and Bishops (black kids only). There were girl gangs, too - Emeralds, Rainbows, Junior Gems. And at least a third of AKHS was African-American or Hispanic: Following the Second World War, U.S. Steel had recruited 500 Puerto Ricans to come work at National Tube. Need I say that we fielded powerhouse football and basketball teams? Go Admirals! "Industrial Empire in Ohio's Vacationland" - so proclaimed a sign as one entered the Lorain city limits. It's not there any more. I suppose the local solons realized how ludicrous it must have seemed after Thew Shovel moved away and American Shipbuilding shut down and Japan's Kobe Steel bought National Tube, reducing a work force of 13,000 to 2,000, and Lake Erie was declared unsafe for bathing, and its perch and white bass dangerous to eat. But, amazingly, Lorain seems to have survived. As Ohio's "International City," there's still a festival each year, with an international princess and a fair where one can eat kielbasa and piroghi and souvlaki and tacos and cannoli. One year booths sold T-shirts emblazoned with your choice of ethnic heritage: "I'm Polish and Proud," "I'm Italian and Proud," I'm Mexican and Proud." Little wonder that I was at least 12 before it dawned on me that not everyone in the world was Catholic.

Almost everybody's father was a laborer, putting in long, sweaty hours on the line at the Ford Assembly Plant or down at the mill, as National Tube was called. Many men worked turns, seven to three one week, three to 11 the next, 11 to seven following that - and most leaped at the chance to earn time and a half for an extra four or eight hours. During a couple of summers I suffered through a grinding routine like this, one year as a bricklayer's helper relining vessels and furnaces, another as a laborer in the rolling mill. Everyone knows that steel mills are volcanically hot and perilous, but you have no idea how deafening they are when behemoth machinery is hammering gigantic ingots into long, round pipes. And the air! Sometimes I could see graphite particles gently floating around me, and would wade through half an inch of fine gray dust on a floor that had been swept clean eight hours before. At other times, I used to work in tunnels underground, in a crepuscular half-light, shoveling up loose slabs of ore - the outside scale that had fallen from cooling ingots - and then upend my loaded wheelbarrow into buckets the size of conversion vans, which would be hauled away by distant, overhead cranes. Laved with sweat trapped inside green asbestos clothing, often wearing a respirator to protect my lungs, I would occasionally stumble across a retarded coworker sitting in the dark behind a mound of slag, talking excitedly to imaginary companions. For one memorable week, in this realm of Moloch, I even debated election and damnation with a young born-again fundamentalist who had dreams of going to Bible college.

To me, it was all overpowering, awesome, even sublime - but I knew I wouldn't be spending my life there, as my father had and his father before him. Yet sometimes, at two or three in the morning, I'd find myself high up in 4-seamless or one of the other sections of the plant, and I'd look out at the stacks with their flaming gases, smell the rotten-egg odor of the pickling vats, and survey the Piranesi-like ramparts and ladders and rusting buildings. One felt like Satan surveying the immeasurable expanse of hell. What better place, I thought, to argue about free will and the afterlife? For religion was important in Lorain, which had once been called Ohio's "city of churches." In the summer there were church picnics, with Tilt-a-whirls, raffles, and seared pigs or sheep slowly roasting on revolving spits. One day a year the priest would come to bless your house, accept a cup of coffee, and taste your nut roll. Sad-eyed ladies of the Altar Society would clean and decorate for holy days. Serious children, in ill-fitting suits and pretty, ruffled white dresses, would march in processions to receive their first holy communion, or the Knights of Columbus would parade in uniform and salute with uplifted swords. Someone would always faint during midnight Mass, finally overcome by the incense. Naturally, there were fish fries on Friday at the K of C hall. On Ash Wednesday half the townspeople sported gray smudges on their foreheads. At Christmas families would gather at the union headquarters - the AFL-CIO - and hear rousing speeches, especially if a strike threatened, then sing carols and line up to receive a special gift from Santa. In the evenings one might go shopping downtown, already starting to decay the mid 1960s, and buy some Faroh's chocolates or stop at the Ohio, Tivoli, or Palace for a movie. Back in the '20s a tornado had touched down one Saturday afternoon killing 15 moviegoers at the State, as the Palace was then called. Those who survived would talk about it all their lives. Out at the first big shopping center, called O'Neill's after its department store, year after year one could chat with a gigantic talking Christmas tree. Afterward, a father might drive his wife and sleepy children around the town so that they could ooh and ah at all the lights and decorations. At holidays mothers would cook all morning and take stuffed cabbage or lechvar cookies on afternoon social calls that would sometimes last into the evening. Uncles would drink shots and beers, grow jovial, then start dealing poker around a kitchen table. Little kids would play tag or hide-and-seek, teenagers might flirt, and I, a bookish little boy, would plop down in a corner and read about Tarzan while munching on a ham sandwich with sweet pickles, as happy as I will ever be. Sometimes my Uncle Henry would take out his battered concertina and we would all dance or pretend to dance in his kitchen. At other enchanted times, an older cousin might show off his new bow or .22 rifle, and even allow a four-eyed pipsqueak to sight down its smooth, black barrel. To wander around Lorain was always an adventure. A kid could climb on his bike and cover the entire town in a single summer afternoon. You might start by pedaling up to the shanty in Central Park where you could sign out basketballs, checkerboards, and frames for weaving potholders or lanyards. Then you might race up to Hawthorne Junior High, where I once received not one but two black eyes in a street fight with a kid named Andy. Then over to Broadway, past the Music Center, where we all took accordion lessons, and up toward Rusine's cigar store, where you could buy racy paperbacks wrapped in cellophane, and on to Cane's Surplus, where a boy might admire the folding slingshots and stilettos. By crossing the jackknife bridge to the East Side you could swing by the shipyards and then take the long vertiginous span of the 21st Street bridge and peer down at the inky water of the river or across to the mountains of slag and coke. Afterward you might turn up 28th Street, lined with ethnic bars, tailor and shoe-repair shops, and mom-and-pop eateries. If you went far enough, traveling under the rail overpass, you'd ride into South Lorain, up to the aging YMCA, a monumental red-brick building. From near there you could sometimes glimpse elephantine Euclid trucks lumbering around inside the mill, but before long you'd probably set out for Pearl Avenue to stop at Clarice's Values, the apotheosis of all possible junk shops, from which Clarice herself would sell you, for a mere 50 cents, all the books you could carry away. Then past St. Vitus Church, where we played on the steps before Saturday catechism class, on to dilapidated Oakwood shopping center, and then, probably, a turn down one of the graveled side roads.

On one lived my Uncle Steve and Aunt Anna, on another Uncle Henry and Aunt Alice. This latter house gloried in a paradise of rusting steel - old cars, broken engines, metal barrels, bundles of wire - and a chicken shed and a park-sized swing set. In the summers I would visit my slightly older cousin Henry, and we would trudge up to the railroad tracks a quarter mile away and bring back, in wooden wheelbarrows, hunks of coal, scraps of lumber, or even lengths of railroad tie for my uncle's wood-burning furnace. In exchange, he would disburse a nickel pack of BBs for each load - at least until this foolish soul plinked out the street light in front of the house. It was a particularly important light because it helped illuminate the grassy corner lot where half the neighborhood would assemble for softball games on soft summer nights.

Does all this sound idyllic? Well, it should. Bliss was it in Lorain to be alive, but to be young was very heaven. Even adolescence was intermittently endurable. Playing cards on Friday evenings in Lethargy Hall, as we called my friend Ray's basement; cruising up and down Broadway in our friend Tom's 1964 GTO, L'il Blue Tiger; necking ecstatically in Lake View Park with a Saturday night date - how could anyone better spend the confused and angst-ridden years of high school? All around my friends and me the great world hummed, but Lorain remained its own place, homey and human-scaled, living for football games at George Daniel Field and carnivals at shopping centers and parades on the Fourth of July and long, slow beers, sipped by tired steelworkers, slouching in Adirondack chairs in oak-tree shaded back yards.

Certainly, I mythologize. Perhaps more than a bit. Childhood can be a golden age no matter where it is spent. And yet, Toni Morrison regularly goes back to Lorain and in interviews expresses a similar affection for the place. Fifteen or more years ago, Gloria Emerson contributed an article about the city to Vanity Fair and later told me how much she envied anyone who could grow up in such a sturdy, honest world. And, of course, I return there still, to see my widowed mother and my sisters. My own children spend part of their summers in Lorain with their cousins, wonderful days of baseball and hide-and-seek and swimming, and at the end of every visit they always say to me, "Dad, why can't we live in Lorain? Why do we have to go back to stupid, dull Washington?" I never quite know what to tell them. Doubtless their parents would go crazy after a couple of weeks, and obviously I have a job and their mother has a job and clearly there are a dozen really good reasons not to be in Lorain. But even now I sometimes wonder. Could I go back home, back to this ardently beloved, industrial Eden? Probably not. But like other exiles from paradise, I can murmur "Et in Arcadia ego " - I too have lived in Arcadia.

Reprinted courtesy of Preservation - the magazine of the national trust for historic preservation, copyright 2000.

The author
Michael Dirda is a 1966 graduate of Admiral King High School. He graduated with highest honors in English in 1970 from Oberlin College; was a Fullbright Scholar in France from 1970 to 1971; went to graduate school from 1971 to 1975 at Cornell University, specializing in comparative literature, and received a master's degree in 1975, and a doctorate in 1977. Dirda is a writer and senior editor at the Washington Post Book World, where he joined the staff in 1978. He and his wife, Marion Peck Dirda, originally of Youngstown, have three sons, Christopher, Michael,and Nathaniel. His mother, Christine Dirda, lives in Lorain. Dirda received the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for criticism.