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The Rust Belt city has suffered a significant decline over the past half-century, and its residents feel it. They practice a certain chummy civic dysphoria that resonates at about the same frequency as a Passover Seder. They catalog their injuries and public humiliations: the burning of the Cuyahoga River on June 22, 1969, memorialized in Randy Newman’s song “Burn On” from the 1989 movie “Major League”; the 1978 civic default; the Browns’ last-second defeat at frozen Municipal Stadium on a misbegotten play known for all eternity as “Red Right 88”; the way they called us, from Canada to Florida, “The Mistake by the Lake.”
In no form of misery does Cleveland get as religious as it does about its sports teams. There are no words in other languages for “Cleveland Sports,” though some of the psalms convey about the same sense of epochal arthritis. Think “Babylonian Captivity.” People in Cleveland don’t speak of old sports catastrophes; they chant. There is an actual litany: The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot; it sounds like a person counting off Sorrowful Mysteries on rosary beads, or enumerating the various expulsions and massacres that litter Jewish history. Cleveland has thirsted for a major sports championship since 1964, when Jim Brown led the Cleveland Browns to the city’s last title. Then the river burned and no more championships came.
We continue to wander the desert like Moses. Brooklyn Dodgers fans knew this frustration; they were Jewish even if they were Catholic. In a faint echo of “Next year in Jerusalem,” the Dodgers fans said, “Wait till next year.” We keep fooling ourselves: “Witness!” we Clevelanders said, and let Nike hang a 20,000-square-foot banner of LeBron James in a Christ-like pose in Public Square. Then he “took his talents to South Beach” in an event that promptly entered the litany as The Decision.
The dirty secret in Cleveland is that we like our misery. We relish the opportunity to add a new grievance to our “Fill-in-the-Blank” litany. We like it in precisely the same way that Jews tongue the sore-tooth of suffering — hence the extent of the Yiddish kvetching arsenal. A colleague calls this communal affection for woe and complaint “The Comity of Auto-Schadenfreude,” which ought to be translated thus: “a happy society of those who take pleasure in their own misfortune.”
Auto-Schadenfreude is not masochism, but rather the odd pleasure of that old cartoon character Ziggy, “the quintessential little guy in a big world,” invented by Tom Wilson in Cleveland in 1969. Wilson’s New York Times obituary summed up Ziggy like this: “[Wilson] liked the name because it meant the character would come last in the alphabetical order of life, a theme he illustrated — literally — in one memorable strip. In it, Ziggy is stranded on a rooftop during a flood as a rescue boat picks up people alphabetically.” My mother had a Ziggy cartoon on our refrigerator for years. It showed Ziggy looking down at a page torn from his calendar, and the caption was, “So far so good.” The torn page was “January 1st.”
Auto-Schadenfreude no doubt creates a risk of despair or wallowing, but at its best it’s a culture that relieves misery by narrating and acknowledging it. It’s the very opposite of the guy at the cocktail party who tells you how great his job is and how great his kids are. A real Jew and a real Clevelander might bore you, but not in that way. After Jews acknowledge something good, they say in Yiddish, kin eyn-hore (or kennahorra, as I heard it from relatives, to rhyme with Cuyahoga), meaning “without the evil eye,” meaning anything good could disappear the second it’s said. Now, I admit that neurosis and superstition don’t help much, but give me a little of that haimish, Cleveland humility anytime, a little of that perspective that says: “You know and I know that sometimes it snows on your head. Sometimes your roof leaks. Sometimes your kicker has a herniated disc and your river catches on fire. But as long as you know it and I know it, we’ll get through it together. Pass the bourbon.”
Sing it, Randy:
Now the Lord can make you tumble
And the Lord can make you turn
And the Lord can make you overflow
But the Lord can’t make you burn
Burn on, big river, burn on
Burn on, big river, burn on
Austin Ratner, winner of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, is the author of the forthcoming novel “In the Land of the Living” (Reagan Arthur / Little Brown, 2013).