The old neighborhood was the place Joe Mackall left. It was a place where everyone’s parents worked at the factory at the dead end of the street, where the Catholic church and school operated like a religious city hall, and where a boy like Joe grew up vowing to get out as soon as he could and to shed his blue-collar beginnings and failed, flawed religion. When the mysterious death of a childhood friend draws him back to the last street before Cleveland, however, he discovers that there is more to “old haunts” than mere words—and more to severing one’s roots than just getting away.
The Last Street Before Cleveland chronicles Mackall’s descent into his past: the story of how, looking for answers about his lost friend, he stumbles on larger questions about himself. With clear-eyed candor, Mackall describes the resurfacing of dormant demons, the opening of the old chasms of depression and addiction, and the discovery, at rock bottom, of a flickering faith that casts a surprising light over everything that has come before. Mackall’s is, finally, a story about life—lived and lost, given and earned.
About the Author
Joe Mackall is an associate professor of English and journalism at Ashland University and the editor of the nonfiction journal River Teeth . His essays have appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies as well as on National Public Radio. He has also worked as a reporter for several newspapers, including the Washington Post .
Read an Excerpt
The Last Street Before Cleveland
An Accidental Pilgrimage
By Joe Mackall
University of Nebraska Press
Copyright © 2006
University of Nebraska Press
All right reserved.
We pull through the gates of Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery and
park at the curb. Bobby - a complete stranger to me until fifteen
minutes ago - knows the location of Tom's grave because of a water
pipe sticking up among the gravestones. It's nice to know my old
friend had somebody in his final days.
His final days.
Makes it sound as if Tom died in bed, covered by crisp and clean
home-worn sheets in the last days of his eightieth year after a good
long life full of love and success, modest failures and seasoned pain,
where grandchildren filled long Sunday afternoons crawling up on
his aching knees as he dreamed of the long-ago kiss under a black
umbrella in a light rain from a girl whose name still brings a small,
sweet smile to his lips.
Tom (aka the Ragman) was thirty-seven years old when he died.
On a hot August afternoon in 1997 Bobby found him furled up
cold, alone, and dead in the front seat of a used Buick in a rundown
"It's right here," Bobby says, using his boot to brush snow off
the Ragman's stone, which is between the paid-in-full but still
empty grave sites of his parents. Bobby crosses himself and says a
quick prayer over the Ragman.
Suddenly I havethe feeling that I'm trespassing, that I have no
right to be here. Surely some of these stones read Rest in Peace.
I too make the sign of the cross and bow my head as if in prayer,
something I gave up forever on Valentine's Day 1979. Instead I
look up at Bobby and observe a moment of real prayer, when a
person full of faith prays for the lost soul of a close friend.
Bobby's eyes look sealed, shut tight against the cold. A jovial
burly and bearded man in his early sixties, Bobby is bundled up in
layers, and his clothes and the eyes closed in prayer combine to
somehow diminish him or make him appear to be elsewhere, as if
he has just left a room with the promise of coming right back.
We're close to my mother's grave, and suddenly I have the irrational
thought that this is all some kind of ruse and Tom and this
stranger have tricked me into praying over her.
My mom died at forty-four. My age as I stand in this cemetery.
"I'm going over here for a minute. I'll leave you alone," Bobby
tells me as he heads to his own mother's grave site not fifty feet
from Tom's. I watch him walk away. He slips on a headstone.
The snow slickens the stones of the dead. Bobby looks down at
the name carved into the gravestone he's slipped on, the way you
might glance at the face of a person you accidentally bumped in a
crowded department store at Christmastime.
When he reaches his mother's stone, Bobby crosses himself for
the third time in five minutes and bows his head. I feel a sting
of envy for his faith. I cross myself again, meaninglessly, and stare
down at Tom's stone, which is decorated with stickers, colorful
caricatures of buzzards. In the seventies and early eighties the buzzard
was the symbol and the moniker of Cleveland's famous rock-and-roll
station, WMMS. "In God's Loving Care" adorns the space
not covered with the vultures of rock.
Thomas McGinty, 1959-1997.
I lean down and push the snow out of Tom's life line, that tiny
groove separating the date of his birth from that of his death. A
train whistle splits the winter night. I want to feel more than I do.
Granted, Tom and I were never very good friends, but because he
lived on our street, he was one of us. And being one of us meant
something. I want to pray and cry and pray and pound the earth
over these acres of stones, but I just focus on the grooves spelling
out a life spent.
"Do you want to stop and see your mom?" Bobby asks. It's a
nice thing to ask a relative stranger. I wish I could deliver on the
other side of this niceness and take him up on it.
"No thanks. I stop around a lot," I lie.
The fact is I haven't been back much over the years, but as of late
I've started dropping by. I'm coming back to the last street before
Cleveland because I feel pulled back. For all practical purposes I left
Cleveland - the place of my birth - in 1980. Since then I've lived
in Washington DC, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Oklahoma, and
Virginia. I've been back in Ohio since 1990. Although for more
than a decade I've lived happily sixty miles from this graveyard I
once called a neighborhood, in the past couple of months I find
myself here more and more.
I'll tell my wife I have errands to run and end up where I began,
Fairlawn Drive. Or I'll get off the highway and deliberately wander
into the square mile that was once my universe, driving up and
down streets, through parking lots, looking, longing. And then I'll
find myself parked on my childhood street, the last street before
Cleveland, searching for tidbits of truth in the factory smoke and
the sidewalks, in the brittle gait of retired auto workers or the wary
eyes of cautious Catholics.
The last street before Cleveland is where I swore I'd never return.
For it's there I spurned and abandoned my Catholic faith.
There I rejected my blue-collar, working-class roots. There I jettisoned
friends and distanced myself from family.
There is the last place I was truly whole.
The cold on this February night is bitter. It gets under your gloves
and down in your boots, turns your nose red, your eyes teary.
I step toward the car, and I'm dizzy. I grab the hood, waiting for
the vertigo to pass and trying not to slip and fall. Resident geese
honk their antidirge. I pick a piece of hood ice free with my fingers.
And then suddenly they're all here. In this cemetery rest my
mother, two sets of grandparents - an aunt here, an uncle there, a
cousin totaled at twenty-one, an uncle murdered at forty-one. And
somewhere, under the honks of graveyard geese, lies little Thomas
John, a cousin whose entire life stretched all of an hour, all here
now as branches weave in the winter wind and the snow falls. A
stranger asks if I'm okay and I say yes, as the living visit the dead
and the dead the living.
Tom shouldn't be one of the dead. Not this soon. If not foul
play, the Ragman's death was most certainly foul. And there are
others. Boys, now men - me included, maybe especially me - with
"hearts as big as car engines," whose adult lives have been trouble: a
series of marriages and divorces, one nowhere job after another,
unemployment, trouble with alcohol and drugs, failed attempts
at faith and love, parents who died too young, and parents who
One was my mother, dead at forty-four, who took my faith with
her to the grave.
Maybe I'm going back to Fairlawn Drive to find out what and
who we were and what happened. What kind of men emerge from
boys with hearts the size of internal combustion engines? How
does a boy combust internally into a man? What explosions fire the
cylinders of the human heart? What fuel does it burn? Surely a
man's power derives from something more than gasoline vapor
What happened to the person I thought I'd be?
Sure, that's it, I tell myself. That's it.
I couldn't be here because lately I've been haunted by my mother
and Tom. Haunted by my mother's early death and Tom's drug-driven
end. I know it's no coincidence that I've been pulled back
now of all times, now when I feel myself standing at the edge
of sobriety and sanity, wondering whether I'll outlive my mother,
fearing I'm destined to meet the same fate as Tom, wanting a drink
or a drug more than at any time in the sixteen years I've been sober.
"Are you ready to get going?" Bobby asks, as he knocks the snow
off his boots. "No hurry if you want to hang around."
No, you go on ahead. I'll stay here. In the snow. With my family.
Thoughts like these tell me I need to understand the hold my past
has on me.
So I tell Bobby I'm ready, and I too knock the snow off my
boots, a salute to this stranger whom I have watched pray twice in
I take one last look at the Ragman's slick stone. I gaze in the
direction of my mother's grave. It's out there too, somewhere in
the snow and cold. I know the family and friends lying dead in this
cemetery have all taken something of me with them.
I wonder how much more of me can be lost before I am substantially
On this, one of my first nights back in the old neighborhood, I'm
still two years away from understanding that this was the moment
from which all else would follow. I did not know then that I would
leave the stones and cold of this night and begin the process of
losing the life I'd been living.
Excerpted from The Last Street Before Cleveland
by Joe Mackall
Copyright © 2006 by University of Nebraska Press .
Excerpted by permission.
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