In 1996, everything about Joe Biel’s life seemed like a mistake. He was 18, he lived in Cleveland, he got drunk every day, and he had mystery health problems and weird social tics. All his friends’ lives were as bad or worse. To escape a nihilistic, apocalyptic worldview and to bring reading and documentation into a communal punk scene, he started assembling zines and bringing them in milk crates to underground punk shows. Eventually this became Microcosm Publishing. But Biel’s head for math was stronger than his ability to relate to people, and it wasn’t until he was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome that it all began to fall into place. This is the story of how, over 20 years, one person turned a litany of continuing mistakes and seeming wrong turns into a happy, fulfilled life and a thriving publishing business that defies all odds.
About the Author
Joe Biel is a writer, activist, filmmaker, teacher, and founder of Microcosm Publishing and co-founder of the Portland Zine Symposium. He shows his films on tour with the Dinner and Bikes program. He has been featured in the Time Magazine, Publisher’s Weekly , and Utne Reader. He lives in Portland, OR.
Sander Hicks (Introduction) lives in New York City. He founded Soft Skull Press, winner of the Outstanding Publisher of the Year award for the publication of controversial George W. Bush biography Fortunate Son.
Joyce Brabner (Foreword) lives in Cleveland, where she is a social activist and writer of political cartoons. She co-wrote Our Cancer Year with her late husband Harvey Pekar, and is most recently the author of Second Avenue Caper.
Read an Excerpt
The troubles started even before I was born. Both sides of my family immigrated to the East End of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania between 1890 and 1910. My grandma, Helen Biel, was one of ten children, and her parents were seemingly seeking out some sort of better life by leaving Berlin. While I imagine that Pittsburgh would be preferable to living through World War I, moving to the United States just before the Great Depression was certainly bad timing. The gradual collapse of the steel industry being lost to Japan over the next 60 years was probably a bit rough on them as well, though it did little to prevent her nine siblings from having lots of children. Helen married a railroad worker, Theodore, who was accidentally electrocuted by a co-worker who turned on the power while my grandfather was working on the rails.
Helen only had one son, Donald, in 1929. They lived alone in Pittsburgh in a house near America's first co-operative grocery store. Beneath the house was what appeared to be an Underground Railroad apartment in their sub-basement. Donald, from all that I can tell, was always a big nerd. He worked on radios and TVs in the basement and, while he owned a deflated football, the idea of him tossing it around with his friends, with his lanky 6'6" frame, is hard to imagine.
Around the time of Woodstock, Donald met my mom, who was dating someone else but, as my mom tells the story, my dad won out by having a pronounceable last name. They got married around 1970 and moved to Mentor, Ohio — a new development in a new suburb of Cleveland. Cleveland was America's fifth largest city in 1949 but had been on the decline since about 1960. By the time my parents arrived, bankruptcies shook the steel industry and violent crime peaked, plummeting Cleveland down to the 29 largest city. The worst was yet to come — it's currently the 48 largest city in America. When my parents arrived, the City of Cleveland was on the verge of filing bankruptcy and electing the "boy mayor" Dennis Kucinich. The Cuyahoga River began catching on fire from being full of industrial pollution, and the federal government formed the Environmental Protection Agency as a result. Mayor Perk caught his own hair on fire during a televised ribbon cutting ceremony, and the next decade saw continued depopulation.
My parents were part of the problem. They were second-generation European immigrants who moved into a house that they had built in Lake County, in a scheme dreamed up and sold to them by the likes of the highway developer Robert Moses and the 1926 Euclidian zoning court case, where industrial, commercial, and various residential uses were zoned away from each other, creating massive urban sprawl.
The advent of cars and the city planning delusions of the 1950s convinced my parents that it was a good idea to live 21 miles from my dad's job and far from any entertainment or shopping opportunities. They believed that the family car would solve that problem. Lots of other people did too: The population of Lake County grew by 747 percent that year. My mom always insisted that the house cost a meager sum for something "quiet" and "nice." This facade and the availability of loans created the illusion of a middle-class lifestyle for many people.
When I mention Cleveland in conversation today, most people remember it as the city where three women were kidnapped and held captive for a decade by Ariel Castro. Some people remember Anthony Sowell, the loner serial killer, whose work had created such a terrible neighborhood odor that the sausage factory next door was blamed and dismantled. But the problems go back much further. Cleveland was nationally recognized in the '70s as a city in the midst of racial violence. The Hough (pronounced "Huff") Riots were the result of a white-owned bar's posting a sign reading "No Water For Niggers" in a neighborhood that was 87 percent Black. Over the next six days, the neighborhood was burned to the ground. A series of harsh responses and racially charged white "neighborhood patrols" all over the city ensued for years to come. The racial tension was exacerbated by the collapsing economy and resulted in firebombed cars and gangs of armed white men shooting solitary Black men who were minding their own business. Most were acquitted on the grounds of some proactive interpretations of "self-defense."
The stigma of the riots depreciates property values in "Rough Hough" to this day. So when laws, mobility limitations, and city charters making neighborhoods and suburbs white-only were found unlawful during the civil-rights era, middle-class Blacks began moving to the suburbs and white people continued their eastward exodus farther and farther away from the city. As Cleveland proper continued to suffer massive population loss, the eroded tax base couldn't pay the increasing costs of maintaining the city — let alone the suburbs.
While it's clear where this is headed, perhaps the greatest mistake of all was the creation of Lake County. Located on Lake Erie on Cleveland's East Side, many white people — including many of my neighbors and my friends' parents — saw Blacks as poor criminals. The wounds still haven't healed, and, as recently as 2015, when a Black family bought a house in neighboring Painesville, residents spray-painted "No Niggers" on the garage before they moved in.
Aside from the obvious racism and classism that created this eastward exodus, Lake County seemed to be built on the backs of the workers. Trade workers and union leaders who were willing to push their fellow co-workers off the proverbial ladder were the ones who could scrape together the money to move their families out of the city and grab a piece of that new suburban dream.
James A. Garfield's mansion is also in Lake County. A former Civil War commander, Garfield was elected U.S. President in 1880 before being assassinated three months later in a Baltimore train station by Charles J. Guiteau, who had run against Garfield and lost. Guiteau said that he was commanded by God to commit the murder and he sought protection from the mob for his misguided effort to "heal the Republican Party" from Garfield's moderate views. As Guiteau was arrested he shouted "I am a stalwart of the stalwarts!" Somehow he lived longer than any other Presidential assassin.
In 1996 I realized that the legacy of corruption and brazen entitlement in Lake County continued into the present. A local police officer was caught having sex in the back seat of his squad car with his son's high-school classmate. The day after the officer was caught, his poor son, who has the same name as his dad, went back to school to the jeers of his classmates. After the officer was fired he responded by prosecuting the city for violating the terms of his union contract, but the case was thrown out. Social dysfunction and abuse of power lurked behind almost every closed door in Lake County, and people in power were often so cocky as to leave them a little bit ajar.
In November of 2003 the public caught wind that the high school's treasurer since 1981, Jim Metz, had concealed the fact that the school district was on the verge of financial disaster. Metz, a father of three former students, would routinely backdate receipts and move income from the next calendar year into the previous one to make the finances appear stable. At the time, the fiscal district was shared with the Lake County Health Care Consortium, and Metz would move money back and forth to create the illusion of fiscal health in the district. Things came crashing down when he got caught taking out an unapproved loan without the school board's knowledge, and a deficit of around $20 million was discovered — while Metz was claiming there was a budget surplus. Some people I interviewed alleged that Metz was actually pocketing the money himself, but when I interviewed the current treasurer, Daniel Wilson, he vehemently dismissed this allegation. He said that Metz's professional misconduct was providing "false and materially misleading financial information," and no criminal charges were filed. Metz claimed that the deficit could be recovered by a property-tax increase of $8 million per year, but the taxpayers voted down a levy.
When Metz was eventually fired from his position while on sick leave (though one board member voted against firing him), he sued the school district for wrongful termination. The case was eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed amount. The school board hired a collection agency to track down everyone who had written bad checks to the school and laid off about 240 staff members. Taxpayers still had to pay for a $15 million deficit. Regardless of whether Metz stole the money or just misled the public, it remains a classic case of how one Lake-County person's selfishness hurt over ten million people when the state of Ohio had to bail the school out.
You can see the urban/suburban cultural divide in the voter's habits. While the city center always votes for pro-union Democrats, the suburbs are voting for the Republican who can best protect their money. Ohio has gone to the winner of every U.S. Presidential election, and the urban/suburban tension continues today.
On top of this dynamic of screwing each other over as a life practice, most people had to commute right back to the inner city for work, including most of my childhood neighbors. They were relatively poor, working-class people, but, thanks to their skin color (to this day Mentor is still 96 percent white as part of a city that is over 50 percent Black), credit lines, and living above their means, they generally were able to perceive themselves as middle class. In reality, income in Ohio was falling behind the national average and moving away from the core didn't make people any wealthier.
My sister Julie and I were born into this awkward situation in the late '70s just as the first wave of punk rock exploded across the U.S.CHAPTER 2
IT'S BETTER IN MENTOR
In 1983 my dad, while at his job in the steel mill, had a stroke. The blood flow to his brain was blocked and brain cells rapidly died, never to come back. I was five. I have very few memories of him before this, but I sure remember staying up late on this particular night, waiting for him to come home from work and wondering where my mom had gone. No one suggested that I go to bed as the sky fully pitched black, and no one would answer my most basic questions.
My mom finally appeared alone late that night, screaming about my dad for what felt like an eternity. After having a stroke on the job site, he had gone right back to working. Through casual conversation, his co-workers finally convinced him that he should go to the hospital. The amount of damage that a stroke causes depends on how long the brain is deprived of oxygen, how quickly medical care is received, and the amount of intensive therapy to rebuild afterwards. My dad had waited a long time.
I barely know anything about my parents. If they've told me, I have repressed those memories or wasn't paying attention. I know that my dad was fun and had a sense of humor before the stroke, but the brain damage gnawed at his personality. He lost control of his vocal cords and muscles. While he could develop thoughts, he had great difficulty expressing them. He couldn't walk and could barely crawl unassisted. He had always been smart, but, even when I could decipher his slurred speech, it didn't make any sense. He was demoralized and was unceremoniously placed in front of the TV for the duration of most days. He checked himself out of physical therapy after a few weeks. It's unclear whether he understood what he was doing or whether he was just frustrated, fed up, and feeling hopeless. In either event, leaving physical therapy became a major factor in his rapidly devolving condition and a major cause of screaming and blame in our household.
My dad was no longer able to work, and my mom had left her job as a high-school English teacher in the early '70s to raise two small kids. We received social-security and disability checks to pay our bills.
Everyone around me said that Cleveland was the center and source of all crime and violence, but 21 miles from downtown there was plenty of domestic violence behind closed doors in our home, in our neighborhood, and in my friends' houses.
The City's slogan, "It's Better in Mentor," posed more questions. Better than where? Better for whom?
I was still too young to even understand my feelings, but in 1984 I had an experience that gave me perspective. My mom was outside cutting the grass after some kind of intense fight with my sister. My sister had taken my mom's purse and wrapped her body around it like a tiger protecting a jewel. Not knowing or caring about the particulars of the situation, I felt that it was my duty to retrieve the purse. My sister and I had been raised to understand that my mom's purse and keys were her prized possessions, and I knew that this affront could not stand. I approached my sister, and she began lunging at me with her teeth and her nails. I managed to retrieve the purse but got pretty cut up and bloody in the process. Nonetheless, I marched outside, where I triumphantly handed the purse to my mom with a smile.
"That was a stupid thing to do!" was all that my mom said as she took the purse. I was crushed. I wondered why she wasn't proud or even appreciative of my act of bravery. From that day forward, I began to put the pieces together and slowly understand the dynamic that was going on. Yelling, threats, and physical violence had been common in our house as long as I could remember, even before my dad's accident. Certain family members, especially my dad — who couldn't speak in his own defense — would be blamed and shamed for family or circumstantial problems. Accidentally breaking a glass of jam would result in a beating, which resulted in fear. While most neighbors were sympathetic to our situation and I had friends, I never felt that I could talk about what was really going on in my house. Most neighbors assumed that my sullen mood was a result of my dad's health and uncertain future. On the other hand, my mom didn't have close friends. She would demonize the neighbors and tell my sister and me about only the most horrifying neighborhood gossip, which made the violence in our own home seem normal or even mild. The fear and intimidation were expected, if not hopeless. The promises of Lake County had isolated our family, and my mom's behavior seemed almost normal there.
I once spilled my cereal bowl all over the floor in front of the front door and hurriedly tried to clean it up before my mom got home and saw the mess. She wandered in as I was still wiping up milk, and she seemed confused when I recoiled from her in fear and put my hands in front of my face. She helped me clean up and even offered sympathetic words. It confused me. There was so much pain in our household, but no one seemed able to do anything to make anyone feel any better. I felt nothing but fear at home, so I hung out at the neighbors' houses and wondered why I never detected any tension in the air. The neighbors understood that I needed to be away from home and tolerated my presence without ever talking about why.
My mom made my clothes, which I understand is no simple endeavor, but corners were always cut. For most of my childhood I remember this pair of faded grey sweatpants that were permanently stained with spaghetti sauce and had only a right pocket because she had run out of material. I never heard the end of the ridicule about these pants from other kids in the neighborhood.
My childhood was like a playground full of wasp's nests. Any time something fun would come along, my mom had to pick at it until I was not allowed to participate or it simply wasn't enjoyable. She would make fun of my few friends and criticize other people until they were in tears. Sometimes when she was anxious she would pick at her nails until it drew blood, and I was just happy that it wasn't my blood. She would scrape metal spoons against metal pots to get the last bits of burned food out of the bottom. For twenty years afterwards I couldn't be around people who picked their nails. When anyone scraped metal against metal, it felt painful in my head.
I learned to cope by developing a life inside my head. I was the kind of kid who couldn't walk past a luggage rack without rearranging it to make good use of the available space and then lecture the adults about how they should do things differently. I once corrected a stranger in the park about the difference between ducks and geese. After learning about the invention of the GMO square tomato in the 1980s as a solution to efficient packing, I spent much of my time in the far recesses of my head thinking about the most efficient ways to pack a truck with items of various shapes and volumes.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Good Trouble"
Copyright © 2016 Joe Biel.
Excerpted by permission of Microcosm Publishing.
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