2.9: Grown-Ups Just Wanna Have Fun

On the last episode, Moms on Wheels, I talked to a couple of moms who were staying connected to their pasts, keeping their kids out of trouble, and just having plain old fun themselves, by roller skating at Zelma George Skating Rink in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood.

Talking to them got me thinking about grown-ups and fun. As adults, sometimes we don’t get much fun. We work, we eat, we sleep, we take care of kids. Even exercise, when we get it, can feel like a task more than a real outlet. You know, one more mile on the treadmill.

Which is too bad, because according to research, people who are playful are a lot better at handling stress than people who are all serious all the time.

On this episode, I talk to random people in Mount Pleasant about how they have fun. Then we’ll hear from a national researcher, a local nonprofit director, and somebody known as The Play Lady, to talk about the importance of fun for adults - and how neighborhoods can enable and encourage people to have more of it.

 

On the streets

I’m on Kinsman Avenue, in Mount Pleasant, on a weekday in May. The weather’s kind of gray and cloudy, and colder than it should be for this time of year. But people are still happy to talk to me about how they have fun.

I get all kinds of answers. One man tells me he likes to "save up my money [to] being able to buy the things I need and enjoy myself in the community - friends and family."

Another says he likes to go to baseball games and sporting events. He also really likes going to plays and the opera.

A young woman tells me her idea of the most fun ever is to "snuggle up in my bed with movies."

I talk to random passers-by, an older man in a convenience store who says he has fun just by walking with his granddaughter.

Then I ask people, what about ways to have fun in your neighborhood? As in, outside your house but still within a short distance? Is that easy to do?

"No," one woman tells me emphatically. "No it’s not. They need more stuff to have fun with. I don’t know like more community centers, recreation centers."

A not-fun epidemic

This is a feeling that’s not specific to Mount Pleasant. According to some research, adults are not having fun in neighborhoods all across the country.

"If you think about places you can go, they’re structured, they’re highly structured," says Lynn Barnett-Morris, a professor in the department of recreation, sport, and tourism at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. "There’s nowhere you can go and just let loose and do what you wanna do."

Barnett-Morris studies the ways kids and adults have fun, or not. She says even in her city, which is a college town with lots of bars and restaurants and movie theaters, "all are very structured and there’s a long list of rules that go with each one about what you can and can’t do."

And in a neighborhood like Mount Pleasant, where there’s a lot of disinvestment and underused buildings due to complex factors including institutional racism, there aren’t even a lot of those structured options.

That’s a problem, she says, because research - including some of her own - shows that adults who both know how to play and get opportunities to play - are better off than those who don’t.

Specifically, one of her studies - The Playful Advantage - showed that adults who are playful view their lives as less stressful. And it wasn’t because they had less stress to begin with. They just handled their stressors more directly, focusing on how to make themselves better. Less playful people, meanwhile, had more avoidant, escape-oriented strategies.

For example, less playful people might be more likely to drink, or isolate themselves in their houses with video games and the Internet. They beat themselves up, telling themselves over and over that the stress in their lives is their fault.

Playful people, on the other hand, either take action — by having that difficult conversation, for example, or going to therapy, or taking that first step toward finishing the big project that needs to get done — or they find a way to accept that things are just stressful right now. It’ll pass, and maybe at the end they'll grow as a person.

"So they’re dealing directly with that stressor, either mitigating it in some way or dealing with it and moving on from it," Barnett-Morris says.

She says there are a lot of things that can keep adults from being playful. We get a lot of messages that as adults, we’re not supposed to have much fun. Only kids have fun.

Also, even as kids, we may get messages that the way we like to have fun isn’t acceptable, so that by the time we grow up, we’ve had it ground out of us. In another one of her studies, Barnett-Morris found that children who are playful when in kindergarten tend to be negatively reinforced or even punished by teachers and classmates who view their playfulness as disruptive.

That’s especially a risk, she says, for boys.

"Boys act out their playfulness differently than girls," she says. "Girls do it much more verbally and it’s much more quiet. Boys are much more physical and assertive and so it’s easier to catch it and then do something about it."

One solution, she says, could be to build in frequent, short breaks into the school day so kids who are more demonstrative have a chance to get the sillies out of their system.

But while there are deep root causes of “all work and no play making Jack a dull boy” - Barnett says our neighborhoods and communities could also do a lot more to unravel all that conditioning.

"The more flexible the environment, the less it dictates how it should be used, that’s a better situation to encourage playfulness than a situation where you dictate the heck out of it," she says.

Of course, just having an empty plot of land isn’t the answer. Instead, she says, how about a park, or a building, where there are raw materials that people could use to perform, or make anything they wanted? Kind of like mini versions of a certain annual event that happens out in the Nevada desert: Burning Man.

"There’s just a whole group of people from all over the place that converge and all these raw materials provided," she says. "There are no schedules. It’s very open and very flexible. People get together and decide if they wanna do something."

 

Neighborhoods and fun

Pat Rumbaugh is someone who thinks full time about how to get adults to have their own kind of fun, right in their neighborhoods. She runs a nonprofit called Let’s Play America, which she started in 2009, in her hometown of Takoma Park, Maryland, right outside Washington, D.C.

Over the past 10 years, Rumbaugh has closed 25 streets in Takoma Park for what she calls “Play Days” - day-long events that sound a lot like the unprogrammed free-for-alls that Lynn Barnett was advocating.

"This is your street," she tells people. "You can play what you want to play, we bring what you like, but we do open them to the public because we want everyone to have the opportunity to play."

Some of the events are mostly for kids, and some are aimed at adults, but people of all ages are always welcome.

"What we have found is when there are a lot of choices for people of all ages you see intergenerational happen, and you just see spontaneous play happen," Rumbaugh says.

Some examples of the activities she offers (but does not require): "Touch a Truck," where people of all ages can climb up on big municipal firetrucks and tractors and backloaders; dress-up stations with wigs and clothes; a mud pie lady; and a box lady who brings 100 boxes of all sizes that people can do whatever they want with.

"We didn’t know if people would want to make mud pies but they love it," Rumbaugh says.

OK, some of you may be thinking, Playing dressup? Making mud pies? In public? That doesn’t sound like my idea of fun. At all.

Well, for you more introverted types, Pat also organizes what she calls ‘playful walks.’ The walks themselves are mostly just - well, walks. But at the beginning, you pair up with someone else and talk to each other about what you like to do for fun. And that alone, she says, can be enough to remind people where they find joy.

"You really should only do what you enjoy," Rumbaugh says. "If you enjoy the gym, go to the gym. If not, don’t. It’s between the ears."

 

Three types of fun

With all this talk about play and how good it is for us, I’m thinking - 'Wow. That’s the answer for everything, right? Find ways to play - especially in your neighborhood, with your community, without too many rules - and it’s smooth sailing forever?'

To find out, I visit Dr. Martha Potts, executive director of the Life Exchange Center on Kinsman Avenue. It’s a drop-in center where people in recovery help out peers dealing with mental health and substance abuse problems.

"I feel like maybe the emphasis on fun is good," she says. "But my emphasis is more on, ‘OK this is fun but what are we doing to support our health and our recovery?’"

I'd been figuring, the Life Exchange Center would be a great place to talk about the healing power of play, because right on the homepage of their website, it says, “Come on over and visit us! We have all kinds of fun and exciting programs, activities, and people just like you to spark your interest and uplift your mood!”

And sure enough, on the day I visit, there’s a DJ set up on the ground floor. Karaoke and movie nights are on the schedule for next week. I’m thinking, this is perfect.

But Dr. Potts is quick to let me know that there’s fun, and then there’s "fun that's meaningful," in her words.

"Fun for fun’s sake is short lived," she says. "It doesn’t leave a resonance. You can do it today maybe there’s a short memory for it but meaningful fun, there’s something that’s lasting."

For example: things like journaling, gardening, photography. All of which are offered at the Life Exchange Center.

"For me meaningful fun is a challenge, and really understanding that i have potential," Dr. Potts says.

There’s a reason she’s careful to make distinctions in types of fun. A certain type of fun - an escapist kind - took her down a dark road a long time ago.

"I was sexually abused as a child and I started using drugs and alcohol as early as 8 years old," she says. 

She used illicit street drugs all the way up until her 30s - until she encountered crack cocaine, which made her very quickly hit a wall in a way that she never had before.

"I’ll never forget it," she says. "I was up all night one night smoking crack, sitting in my living room on the floor. And the daylight hit and even as I was getting high I knew, 'This is it for me. It’s done, I can’t do it anymore.'"

She continues: "There was like this battle between the fundamental darkness that drug addiction surfaces from within the depths of your life, and my fundamental light. And I knew if I didn’t make a decision that the fundamnetal darkness was having its way. And if I allowed it to get much stronger i would lose the battle."

She called the hospital when the sun rose and she was out of drugs. They told her they didn't have room.

"I said, 'Well, get a space ready in the parking lot, 'cuz I’ll be there,'" she remembers. "And I threw the phone across the room and headed to hospital."

It was the beginning of a long road to recovery for her. But eventually, she found her version of meaningful fun. She went to work, then back to school.

Serious school. She got her bachelors in business management, her masters in organizational development, then her PhD in organizational behavior.

"I spent so many years having fun that was not meaningful," she says. "[But] it led me to meaningful fun."

We get to talking about how it seems like for adults, there are three types of fun. There’s destructive or self-destructive “fun." Then there’s fun for fun’s sake - not hurting anyone, but not really uplifting anyone either.

And then there’s productive or meaningful fun. Dr. Potts says one way of understanding what the Life Exchange Center does is helping people move from one end of that spectrum to the other. 

"People transition to ways of creating value for themselves," she says. "We construct experiences and opportunities for them to be able to tap into other places inside that maybe they have never tapped into before."

I ask if the Mount Pleasant neighborhood itself offers enough opportunities for adults to have fun.

"It depends on what kind of fun you’re talking about," she says. "The neighborhood offers opportunities for adults to have destructive fun - that’s evident. [But] I would imagine there’s pockets of all three types of fun and maybe the challenge is in getting those three aspects or communities of folks to cross-pollinate to talk to one another. 'Oh, I didn’t know you felt that way,' or, 'I didn’t even know you existed.'"

As I leave Dr. Potts, I think about how all three women I interviewed for this story may be saying different variations on the same thing.

We all need to find our own ways of having positive, productive experiences. And it helps if we can see each other having those different types of fun, out in our neighborhoods and communities, not just because it can be inspiring to others - but also because seeing each other can demystify the ways that other people have fun.

People that we otherwise might not even know existed.

2.8: Moms on Wheels

Kellee Wright has been coming to the Zelma George Roller Skating Rink, in Mount Pleasant, ever since she was a girl. Today, it’s Mother’s Day, and she’s here with her two sons and niece.

"Skating means to me being active, working out a little bit, having fun and family time with whoever you’re with," she says.

Moms skate free this afternoon, and Kellee - who works as a security guard, with hopes of becoming a prison officer - is about to tie on a pair of old-school roller skates. You know the kind: tan-leather, red wheels, big raggedy laces.

"I always make sure they real tight, so that way when I’m skating around they won’t fall off or twist my ankle," she says.

She’s ready to go, and rolls out onto the shiny hardwood floor with her kids.

On this episode, we hear from two moms who grew up in Mount Pleasant, coming to the Zelma George Skating Rink. Even though neither one of them lives here anymore, this rink is a place they come back to again and again.

We hear their stories of skating, both as kids and as moms - and why they’re planning to keep coming back, no matter where they move.

Kelly Wright: I Love This Rink

Kellee Wright seems like the kind of person who’s usually in a good mood. She smiles and laughs a lot, likes to post videos of herself singing on her Snapchat. Plus, it’s Mother’s Day, and she’s a mom, so she’s star for the day.

She’s also at one of her favorite places in Cleveland. Kellee grew up in Mount Pleasant and Buckeye, and for her, Zelma George Roller Skating Rink isn’t just a fun place to hang out. If her childhood were made into a movie, this would be one of the primary locations. A place where she has fond memories, of friendship and laughter.

"I used to come here when I was a kid," she says. "It was just something active to do. I can remember coming here with my friends, us just skating and having fun and buying stuff and doing the little activity they do at the end: Tug of war."

Even though she lives in the Glenville neighborhood now, she comes back to Zelma George a lot. Not just to give her kids those same opportunities for fun - but to stay in touch with a part of her history and herself.

"Like, me even choosing to still come to this skating rate and introducing my kids is me being attached," she says. "Me still coming to the swimming pool is still being attached. It’s just what I’m familiar with. If I could choose any skating rink to go to it would be this one. I love this skating rink."

She’s considering moving from Glenville to another neighborhood, maybe even back to Mount Pleasant.

"Growing up in this neighborhood was kinda ghetto," she says. "But I believe it has gotten better over the years. You can actually go to the park and not deal with shooting or nothing like that. So it’s better than when I was younger."

Wherever she goes, though, it won’t be too far away. Like, probably not to the suburbs.

"Though the places I grew up was a little ghetto, a little ratchet, a little violence, you cling to where you come from, you know what I’m saying?" she says. "I’m kinda street, so I know how to handle myself in these environments just period. So i ain’t the type of person that would move too far from family and the area I stayed in. 'Cuz still, no matter what it is, you feel more comfortable where you’re from."

Chandon Singleton: Like Being on Vacation

Chandon Singleton works at the Cleveland Cavaliers Team Shop in downtown Cleveland. She’s got six kids, ranging in age from seven months to 11 years.

"I used to be a skater but now I’m not due to the fact that every time I fall, my 11-year-old daughter records me, so I gave it up," she says with a laugh.

Like Kellee Wright, she was raised in this neighborhood, and even though she doesn’t live here anymore, she keeps coming back to this rink.

"Honestly speaking, there’s plenty of skating rinks we can go to, [but] I like this one 'cuz it’s affordable and they do little things on social media - little raffles, you can win a birthday party," she says. "[So it's] more towards the people who can’t afford to go to the nicer skating rinks with the laser tag and stuff like that. I choose to come here 'cuz me, I have six kids and it’s hard for me to pay $20 a kid to go to a skating rink that's got the laser tag when we can have same amount of fun here as we do there."

For her and her kids, coming to Zelma George is like taking a vacation without having to leave the city.

"When I bring 'em here, they think that we’re basically like gone out of town, we’re having fun," she says. "We’re enjoying ourselves, 'cuz it's not only a skating rink but a track, a basketball court and the boxing upstairs. So it’s more to it than just the skating thing.

She says all those activities are a good way to keep her kids out of trouble.

"It’s very easy for them nowadays watching TV and social media and being around friends, trouble can find people everywhere," she says. "So I feel like if you spend more time with your kids and showing them different ways to have fun versus just sitting at home, they stay out of trouble."

She says her own mom brought her to Zelma George, trying to model positive ways of having fun. And it worked, at least until she got to high school.

"You know how your mom would give you an age limit where you could have a relationship? No, I didn’t. I seen a boy, he was my best friend, and I went behind her back and started dating him," she says. "It led to us having a child, then it led to us having three kids together. I stayed in school but I also wanted a boyfriend 'cuz my friends had boyfriends."

She may have been too young, she says, but she doesn’t for a second regret becoming a mom.

"It’s everything," she says. "I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Like I have six kids, I wake up to my kids, I eat, sleep, and breathe my kids. I don’t know if i’d be the same person today if it wasn’t for them."

Unlike Kellee Wright, Chandon is planning to move to the suburbs - Garfield Heights, to be exact, where she feels the schools are better and the streets safer. She’s tired of the violence in her neighborhood, and of her kids asking tough questions about what they see.

"[They ask], 'Why those teddy bears there?' or, 'Why them balloons wrapped around the tree?' You know, I can’t give another answer but someone lost their life there due to violence."

But moving doesn’t mean she’ll stop caring about the neighborhoods where she grew up.

"Some people can’t afford to live in the nicer places," she says. "They shouldn’t have to live in those places scared to go to sleep or scared to be in their living room or anything."

She adds: "It is trouble here, but we don’t have to give in to the negativity and all the violence, so they could stay out of the street like I did, coming to the skating rink like I did."

From talking to these two moms, it’s pretty clear to me that Zelma George is a lot more than just a skating rink. It’s a constant, a place where traditions like tug-of-war at the end of a skate session, hot dogs for sale at the concession stand - they haven’t changed for decades, and they draw families back generation after generation.

It’s also a retreat, a place to laugh and be safe, a place where no matter how complicated life gets - you can have, in Chandon Singleton’s words, a vacation without leaving town.

All you need is a couple bucks, a pair of skates, a few friends - and pretty soon, you’ll be laughing.

2.7: More Church Than Church

Bernard Long grew up going to Epiphany Catholic Church, in Mount Pleasant.

All through his childhood, he attended services under the big, peaked arches of the church’s vaulted ceiling, sat in its creaky old pews, played in the playground as he watched the metal chimney twirling.

Like a lot of people, Bernard strayed in his 20s and 30s. He got a job in manufacturing, made good money. Who needed church? But in the 1990s, he came back. Looking for something more in life than just work and money.

At Epiphany, he found what he was looking for.

"We would have praise dancing, a lot of gospel," he says. "It was really an African American experience."

Drums were an important part of that experience. The church had invested in some really nice, African-style cylinder drums made by a company called Remo, and Bernard — being a musician — was one of the parishioners who played them during services.

One Sunday, while he was playing, he realized something.

"I looked at a Remo drum," he remembers, "and I said, 'Man, this is just cardboard. I got free cardboard, as much as I want, just free.'"

See, back then Bernard had a job running a web press at the old Model Box Company on E. 93rd and Woodland Avenue. Cutting out pizza boxes, cake boxes, any kind of box, from big spools of cardboard.

He took those huge spools -- picture giant versions of the cores inside rolls of paper towels -- and grabbed an electric saw. Cut the cardboard cores into drum-size segments.

He’d use some scrap wood to reinforce the insides, buy some drum skins for a few bucks from a music store, stretch and bolt those over the top. Decorate the outside with African fabric he bought from friends. Bernard made drum after drum like that, as many as 100 of them, he says.

 

The Church of Drums

That was in 1999 or 2000. For years afterward, Epiphany was filled with the sound of Bernard’s drums. After school, on weekdays. During evening meals. And of course, on Sundays, backing up services led by Father Daniel Begin and the church choir.

Thanks to Bernard - more people than ever before could join in.

"It’s just a joyful noise," he says of drumming and its relationship to spirituality. "Camaraderie and friendship and it’s just a positive you know."

By the mid 2000s, though, not even Bernard’s drums were enough to keep Epiphany open. Only about 1 in 20 African Americans are Catholic, and attendance at Epiphany had been dwindling for years. The Diocese made up its mind that the church needed to close. And it did, for good, in May 2009.

But Bernard and his drums never had to go anywhere.

After the church shut down, the building became the Thea Bowman Center, a social service agency that offers everything from summer camp for kids, to tax prep lessons, to exercise classes.

The Center needed a custodian, and Bernard — who was out of work by then because the Model Box Company had shut down — got the job.

Dozens of his drums still live in the church balcony here, and you’d never know they were made by a guy with an electric saw and some recycled cardboard spools. They look just like what you’d buy in a store, down to the beautifully decorated shells. Some show repeated geometric shapes - squares and dots and triangles in red and gold. Others are more abstract. Curved black lines against a yellow background, rainbow tie-die patterns.

After the church was sold, the Diocese decided to remove and sell off the church’s pews. Bernard managed to snag a few, and guess what he did with them?

"I just dismantled 'em and sliced 'em up and made drums out of 'em," he says.

Today, aside from his custodial duties, Bernard still offers drum lessons to kids during after-school programs. And he's turned the old altar area into a kind of music room — a piano, a couple guitars, speakers plastered with old photos — and, of course, drums.

You can visit him anytime. He keeps the side door to the church open all day, and if he’s not in the middle of a job he’s happy to chat with anyone who drops in.

 

Past and Present

Part of him is sad, of course, that the church closed down. He travels out to suburban Garfield Heights now to attend services. And while he loves his new parish, it’s not the same as being able to just walk down the street.

But he’s happy that the old Epiphany has a present as well as a past. The building is active seven days a week now, and in that way, "it's probably more church now than when it was church," he says.

In church, "at the end of the service you go live your life," he says. "But now people come in here and I watch them play in that large space, man. When you see that, that's pretty good."

Still, he says more could be done. Even more people could be invited in.

"I would like to see more things we could do with large groups of people," he says. "Not exactly church but it’s relative."

He could picture line dancing, town hall meetings.

"Really just to sit down and share some ideas and see what happens," he says. "Because things happen on an impulse and then you learn things as people bring forward their gifts."

Not unlike the gifts Bernard brought forward all those years ago - when, on impulse, he started making church drums at work.

2.6: Laundry, and a Park Next Door

Photos and Sound Design: Angie Hayes

Eric Warren is the owner of Henry's Dry Cleaners, at the corner of Kinsman Road and E. 116th Street. The business is named after his grandfather, who established it nearly 50 years ago. Below, he shares the story of this fixture of the Mount Pleasant neighborhood.

 

My grandpa was the owner before me. I started off just coming in and helping him out on weekends as a child. And later on, as it grew, I started coming in on other days just helping out. And eventually I just came in as his manager.

I’m only 47, but a lot of the older customers, they come in and they can’t believe I was just a kid [when they started] coming here. Like, 'Wow, that has been 50 years that you guys have been here on the corner?'

A lot of my customers come back just because of how we treat them when they come in. If we see the customers pulling up we try to have their clothes out before they even get in here. So that’s very important for me, the customer service part.

The only thing that would get me to leave would probably be money: if someone came in and bought me out. But other than that it’s, you know, this is where I am. This is where I'm gonna be.

This neighborhood is getting a bad rap -- and it should, because of the violence that’s out there. But it’s not as bad as if you just saw it on the news or read it in the papers. You would think, 'I’m never going nowhere near there, it’s like Beirut or something.' But it’s not actually as bad as news and the media portrays it to be. You're not hearing the good stories coming out of the neighborhood.

We actually just purchased the land that’s next to us so we’re gonna do a green space there.

It’s three lots where the sewer district is working now. What we’re gonna do is just take it and plant trees, make it a park-like setting, and do water retention. But it’s [mostly] just a green space to beautify the neighborhood cause if you saw the lot before it was just nothing there.

Like I said, we've been here this long and we want the community to know that, you know, we're here to stay.

2.5: Michael Payne Takes Flight

There are a lot of ways that Michael Payne is striking. When I meet him after rehearsal for a play he cowrote and stars in, we cover a head-spinning amount of ground in just an hour-long conversation.

He tells me how he used to be a salesman for Bloomingdales department store in his hometown of New York City.

He tells me how he’s worked in Memphis as a car salesman. Flew to Trinidad to try to charm the father of a woman he loved. There’s laughter, there’s anger, there are tears. There are foreign languages.

All this energy, all these eccentricities: They provide a lot of the material for Odysseus Unraveled. That’s the name of the play he’s cowriting and starring in, part of a series of new plays in development at Cleveland Public Theatre called Test Flight.

But Michael is like a lot of artists, in that the stuff that’s fueling his creativity now was painful in the past. Growing up in New York in the 1960s and 1970s, he felt really different from everyone else.

"I cried all the time," he says. "My nickname was crybaby. There was times I cried all month and my mother told me if you keep crying I’m gonna have to put you out of here."

He says he has no idea how he’s so sensitive, because his two brothers were both tough guys. While they were out getting into fights, he was hanging around with an old German woman in a deli across the street from where he lived.

Eventually, while he was working those sales jobs in department stores, he got mugged a couple of times, and he says it sent him into a tailspin. He was afraid all the time. Drifted in and out of work, wasn’t able to hold down jobs anymore. Got into drugs.

Somewhere in that rough period, he moved to Cleveland. A friend took him to a psychologist, who diagnosed him as bipolar. At first, it was hard for him to accept.

"Bipolar?" he remembers thinking. "That’s what white people do. Here's what black people do: If there's a problem, we go to church."

Writing his story

But he started therapy, eventually got sober. He was able to go on disability, which gave him a steady if small income.

And as his life stabilized, he started writing down stories. Memories, in poetry and prose, of his life. About his past jobs and loves and addictions. He filled pages with reminiscences and reflections.

"To my mother, I'm her favorite child, her shining star. But she doesn't know in reality I'm an addict..."

The problem was, he didn’t feel like he had much of a present. He didn’t have a job, not many reasons to leave the house, and he says the less he got out, the less he felt like getting out.

That intensified when he moved to Buckeye a couple years ago. He didn’t know any of his neighbors, and his way of coping was to hole up.

He closed all the windows, drew the shades. The only time he went out was to go grocery shopping or to doctors’ appointments.

Loneliness happens everywhere, of course, for different reasons. In a wealthy suburban neighborhood with lots of space between houses, maybe you don’t have many opportunities to run into people organically and make new friends.

In Buckeye, the things that may keep people inside are a perception that their neighborhood isn’t safe. Mental and physical illnesses that may be caused or made worse by the stress of poverty.

Something in Michael, though, told him he had to make a change.

"I started to reach out to people because I was so lonely," he says. "I knew i needed someone to talk to because now I have nobody."

Meeting people

At first, he did that in a way that felt safe. He got on Facebook and found some old friends.

It helped a lot, having those online conversations. But for the next step, actually meeting real people in the flesh, he got a little help. It happened one day as he was coming home from a doctor’s appointment.

"A gentleman across the street offered me to go to [Neighborhood Network Night] to meet your neighbor. I said, 'What better place to go to meet people because I live here and I don’t know anybody.'"

I asked him what drove him out of the house.

A potluck turns to drama

At the meeting, this one woman stood up and invited everyone who was interested to come to a community garden she helped run about a block from Michael’s house.

Michael thought, 'Great. I like gardening and cooking.' So he screwed up his courage and rode his bike over that weekend.

He came back later for a potluck, and had great time. People loved the Creole chicken and rice he cooked with vegetables from the community garden. He had some good conversations. Then, the night got even better.

He heard piano music from inside the house next door, where the woman who first told him about the garden lived. Michael loves music, so he went to check it out.

The player was a guy he’d never seen before: Daniel McNamara. The owner of the house, and also one of the founders of the community garden. They kept singing and playing together, and Michael told Daniel his life story.

Daniel was as struck by Michael as Michael was by him.

"By the end of the story he’s weeping, this guy I just met," says Daniel. "He clearly had a lot he needed to share."

As fate would have it, Daniel is a playwright and performer. He’s naturally drawn to other storytellers. He invited Michael out to a diner a few weeks later, so they could talk more.

Michael showed up with a sheaf of handwritten papers: the writing he’d been working on during his time alone in his house.

He started reading, and Daniel thought it was beautiful if heavy stuff. A memoir of addiction, despair — but also recovery.

As eggs and burgers sizzled on the grill in the background, an interesting thing happened.

"As he’s telling it," Daniel says, "the waitresses in the diner are all freezing and listening and going, 'What are you working on?' And they’re all compelled and I’m just realizing this man has magnetism."

By the end of the meeting, Michael could tell Daniel was shaken.

"I looked at him and I said 'What’s the matter?'" Michael remembers. "He said, 'That’s amazing you survived that.' I said the only thing I’d like to do is leave my legacy, to help somebody who’s stuck where I left."

A crazy idea

Eventually, Daniel got an idea. By this time, he’d already been approved to develop a new play at the Test Flight series at Cleveland Public Theatre. Pretty much all he knew is that he wanted it to be inspired by the ancient Greek epic The Odyssey. And he realized something.

"I don’t want to do just a solo show for this," he says. "I want to work with people. And --" he snaps his fingers -- "'Michael Payne! Michael Payne could be in this show! That’s a crazy idea but a great idea."

For one thing, there were some clear parallels between Michael’s story and the story of Odysseus. This man who gets swept up in a storm, and encounters a bunch of dangerous obstacles, before finally returning to safety.

But it was Michael’s presence that attracted Daniel more than anything else.

"The degree of storytelling, the degree of detail, and the emotional intensity of really being drawn back into that moment - it’s this amazing talent he has," says Daniel.

Daniel pitched the idea of a collaboration to Michael. Michael was excited, but nervous. He’d never acted before, but also the rehearsals were gonna be on the West Side. Which would mean he’d not only have to leave his house but take a 40-minute train ride across town.

Telling the story now, he still gets stressed out -- but he made it.

That was also when Michael met the other performers and co-creators of the show — actresses Diana Sette and Monica Idom; and musician Jonathan Apriesnig, who’d be improvising music while they performed. It was all a lot to take in, and Michael pulled Daniel aside.

"I said, 'Daniel, listen to me. If i’m not good at this stop it, because I don’t want to be embarrassed.'"

By the end of that first session, though, Daniel told Michael he had nothing to worry about.

"He has this unique view of the world and there’s a lot of kinetic energy," Daniel says. "And that’s extremely interesting to me. Instead of trying to get somebody moving and get their brain going and get them to tell you something, with Michael it’s like --"

He blubbers his lips in an imitation of an explosion.

Proud of me

Flash forward a few weeks, and far from being fearful, Michael can hardly stay away.

"He’s there on time, he’s there every time," says Daniel. "He’s there early sometimes because he’s so excited."

As I watch Michael rehearse, I’m struck by how easily he fills the space. One moment, he’s swooping around, ducking and snaking his body around Monica Idom as Athena. The next, he’s wearing a papier mache mask - of a man’s face, his mouth open in either wonder or fear.

As the play is ending up, it’s a mix of stories taken from Michael’s life and these more impressionistic sections inspired by myth. I ask Michael what he thinks are the similarities between himself and this Greek hero from thousands of years ago.

"Odysseus is a man who’s resourceful, he’s like a chameleon," says Michael. "He’s a multiple personality type character, which fits me well."

He’s also going up against forces that feel far more powerful than he is. But not giving up.

If there’s one potential drawback to all this creative release, it’s going to be dealing with the end of things. What happens after rehearsals are over, after the curtain falls.

Michael and Daniel are planning to work together on turning Michael’s writing into a book that he’ll self-publish. But the ending of any project - especially one that’s so public - can come with a feeling of anticlimax that Daniel knows well, being a performer and writer himself.

In this case, that's complicated by the fact that Daniel's a middle-class white guy, while Michael's an African American man living on disability, with mental illness. 

"Yeah there's potential negative impacts of sharing this creative process that I have the privilege of accepting as a part of my life that many people don't view as accessible to them for lots of systemic reasons," he says. "But the closest thing i have faith in is art and creativity. I believe that in sharing that and inviting others and including others, I believe in the importance of it, that we need that."

Michael says he believes that, too.

I ask how he thinks of himself now.

"I’m proud of me right now," he says. "At this point in my life, I have nothing to prove, nothing to gain, so honesty will set me free."

He says, no matter what happens when the show ends, he’s not alone anymore. Not only does he have Daniel and his other collaborators in the play, but he has all his Facebook friends, old and new. He has the neighbor across who invited him to the network night. He has all the people he met in the community garden last year.

Summer’s coming, and he’s ready to sing and cook more Creole food. And who knows what will happen from there.

2.4: Joe Daniels, Cart Guy

Sound Design and Photos: Angie Hayes

This story is from of our series of "audio postcards" featuring people and their work in the Buckeye, Woodland Hills, and Mount Pleasant neighborhoods. The stories are told in the voice of the person featured.

My name is Joe Daniels. I’m basically a cart guy. My job is to help people with their carts.

I’ve been doing this job for around 10 years. It’s not so bad. The worst time is like the winter generally.

I have minor depression so it slows my thinking process, my memory a little bit. Not so much but enough where it’s hard for me to get certain kinds of jobs. I’ve been doing like cleaning jobs almost 10 years on and off before I got the job here.

This is a little more than just janitorial. I like the variety of things to do other than just mop the floor. I get to see what kind of people come around here and things like that.

Female Customer: Sir, can we get some help over here please? Thank you.

Right now I’m helping someone get their groceries into their car.

Female Customer: You can put 'em on the back seat on the floor. Yeah, [Mr. Daniels] is a nice person. Very aware of what’s going on around him and he tries to help everybody. 

Since this is the only grocery store around close here, that’s why it’s so busy all through the month. It used to get slow around the 15th of the month. Now there are so many people shopping at this one store. It doesn’t really slow down quite so much.

I have to get more salt to finish the rest of the half of the walk way...

2.3: We Understand Each Other

Photos 1-2 show Kiara (center) and Eddie (right) with their friend Linell (left). Photo 3 shows Nelson Beckford (left) and Capt. Keith Sulzer (right).

As part of my job telling stories from the Buckeye, Woodland Hills, and Mount Pleasant neighborhoods, I pay attention to how the neighborhoods are portrayed by other media.

And last year, there was one story that probably got more attention than any other. Front page news in the local media for a couple of days, even picked up by the New York Times.

It happened on the day after Thanksgiving. A 12-year-old boy was shot and killed outside his dad’s beauty supply store on Buckeye Road. The boy was from the suburbs, visiting his dad at work during his day off school, and he got caught in a spray of bullets aimed at another group of boys — boys he didn’t even know — outside the store. Five of those boys were wounded too, one critically.

The story was horrifying in itself, of course, and raised a ton of questions that we as a nation seem to grapple with more and more often lately. What could possibly drive kids to shoot at other kids? How did they get the guns?

But I also got pretty upset thinking about how for a lot of people in Northeast Ohio and beyond, this might be the one story they hear about Buckeye all year - or at least the one they remember most. And it’s one that confirms a perception that many people already have about the neighborhood - that it’s unsafe, even deadly. Maybe especially for outsiders. Like the boy who died.

In this episode, I try to provide a couple of neighborhood perspectives on this. First, I talk to a couple of kids from the neighborhood - kids who went to school with the boys who were the targets of the shooting.

Then, I meet with a police officer and a foundation program officer to talk about some of the work that’s being done to prevent violence like this in the future.

 

Part 1: The Kids

Unlikely friends

Eddie and Kiara are in the eighth grade at Harvey Rice K-8 School, on the border between the Woodland Hills and Buckeye neighborhoods.

They’re not boyfriend and girlfriend, and according to most stereotypes about teenagers - they probably shouldn’t even be friends. Eddie’s tall, outspoken, a jock - he’s on the school’s basketball team, which went 6 and 1 before playoffs this year. He lives in the Woodland Hills neighborhood with his aunt.

Kiara’s quieter, dressed in jeans and a plain green jacket. She likes to hang out at the library after school, and says she has trouble showing her emotions. She lives right off Buckeye Road.

The two of them meet me in the computer lab after school. They often hang out here together after classes let out - at least on days Eddie doesn’t have basketball practice.

I start out just asking how the two of them feel living in their neighborhoods - safe, not safe, or somewhere in between.

"I really feel that it isn’t a safe neighborhood over here," Eddie tells me. "It’s fun but it’s not safe. One time I was walking and someone asked me do I want to buy some marijuana from them. So I don’t feel as if it’s safe over here."

For Kiara, the answer’s a little more complicated.

"I feel safe sometimes," she says. "It depends on where I’m at."

That tracks with statistics, which show that there’s a big difference in crime rates depending on exactly where you are in the neighborhoods. According to the Cleveland Police Department, the violent crime rate in Buckeye and Woodland Hills is anywhere between being about average for the City of Cleveland overall, to being about the twice the rate of the city overall. It’s between four and seven times the national violent crime rate.

'Hood stuff' and guns

But Eddie and Kiara knew the boys who got hurt that day. And whatever the statistics say, when you know another kid who gets shot right in your neighborhood, that obviously can make a big difference in your perceptions of safety.

"I felt stunned about it - I thought it was unbelievable," says Kiara. "It’s just a bad feeling."

Eddie says when he first heard about the shooting, "I felt some type of way about it."

I ask him to elaborate.

"I felt as if guns should be taken out of children’s hands," he tells me. "Guns are used to protect you and people use them to shoot people just because they don’t like them, or over hood stuff."

“Hood stuff” - that’s Eddie’s term for rivalries between neighborhoods. Turf wars. And it’s what he and Kiara think motivated the shooting on Buckeye, at least on the surface - a group of kids from one neighborhood angry at kids from another, or just trying to show their dominance.

As for using guns to solve those disputes? Kiara says that’s a simple matter of kids modeling their behavior on what they see older people around them doing.

"It’s like if people got older cousins or their older brothers are just like addicted to the streets," she says, "they’re gonna follow after them."

She adds: "Say their uncles are selling drugs or something. They’re gonna wanna do that. They think it’s cool. If their uncle's shooting people, they’re gonna want to do it too."

The kids tell me they can empathize with how people could fall into that negative cycle. More than half the people in Buckeye and Woodland Hills, 54 percent, live below the poverty line. That's due to a lot of factors that are out of people’s control: Mortgage lending and property valuation practices that favor white neighborhoods, the outmigration of jobs to the suburbs or out of the region altogether.

For a lot of people that can create a feeling of frustration, sometimes anger.

"They're in a negative environment, and then as time goes by, when you think negative things you get negative things back," Eddie says.

Kiara says she’s felt that negativity showing up in her own behavior.

"I fight a lot," she says. "I don’t ever show my emotions, I just hold a lot of anger in and it just gets to that point where I got to solve it out with my fists."

She says she's working on talking through problems instead of getting physical.

Both Eddie and Kiara say what’s helped them stay positive, and the thing they think could help others, is positive relationships. Being around teachers and coaches - and especially other kids - who for one reason or another have chosen to steer clear of negativity themselves.

Their own friendship is a great example.

"I think what draws me and Kiara together is like, we understand each other," Eddie says. "Because before, I had an issue but I learned to control it."

 

A 'good character'

He says he knows what it is to feel abandoned, bullied - even to be a bully.

"The reason I was mean is because growing up, there were a lot of things missing," he says. "And the one big thing that was missing was, I felt abandoned. I don’t really like talking about it because it’s different now, but back then I was just so abandoned."

That was a few years ago, when he was at a different school. It was a persistent classmate, a girl named Maia, who was finally was able to break through.

She’d been through a lot of the same stuff and could understand where he was coming from, and that made him feel safe. Ever since he transferred to Harvey Rice in sixth grade, he says, he’s tried to be that understanding friend for other kids he sees struggling.

And he says he’s not alone in that. There are kids making friends with each other, helping each other, all over.

But people don’t hear about that. They just hear about things like the shooting on Buckeye, and they think, "'Oh, this is another incident of those black people who don't know how to act,'" he says. "They may even feel sorry for the people because they’re ruining their lives."

But he wishes disapproval or pity were not the only things people thought about when they thought about Buckeye.

"The story I would like you to tell about our neighborhood is there may be a lot of stuff going down in our neighborhood," he says. "But at the end of the day ... a lot of people around here are good people. They may make bad choices but they have a good character."

Kiara says she feels the same way. She says things like the shooting on Buckeye definitely scare her, and people should pay attention so that they can come up with solutions. But there’s also a lot of positive stuff that happens here that she wishes got more attention, too.

Things like The Soul of Buckeye Festival that happens every summer.

She wishes more people would come to events like that, so they could see a side of the neighborhood they don’t typically see in the news.

"I want them to be amazed," she says.

 

Part 2: A New Kind of Policing

To talk about what’s being done to build on those positives, while also dealing with crime - I meet with Nelson Beckford, now a program director with The Cleveland Foundation; and Captain Keith Sulzer of the Cleveland Police Department. You may remember Captain Sulzer from last season’s Walk With a Cop episode.

The two of them have been teaming up since 2015 to build up a community policing program in the department’s Fourth District, which includes Buckeye, Woodland Hills, and Mount Pleasant.

Nelson was a program officer at the Saint Luke’s Foundation back then, and he says he approached Captain Sulzer with the idea of "getting out and building relationships with people, [starting] that person by person cop to civilian, cop to shopkeeper, cop to block club leader conversation."

That’s pretty much the idea of community policing: that a great way to prevent crime is for police to build positive relationships with residents and business. Which of course has been especially challenging in African American neighborhoods in this country. If people trust cops more, then cops hear about problems, and can help people address them before they become crimes.

The Saint Luke’s Foundation made a grant so the police department could pay officers to do community policing.

"There’s probably 10 officers and civilians working in the unit right now," says Captain Sulzer.

He'd like to see that number grow.

"It would help the city dramatically ... to be able to get [more] policemen in the schools talking to kids walking in the community, in business districts, getting to know business owners, to know the people living there," he says.

A big part of those officers’ jobs, and how this all ties back to the shooting on Buckeye Road, is just hanging out in schools. Walking around in their uniforms, doing things like reading books to kids and taking them out for ice cream. Captain Sulzer himself has pretty much become a fixture at Harvey Rice, where kids know him by name.

"If I have nothing to do I’ll go walk around the schools," he says.

If the cops can build positive relationships now, the hope is that later, as the kids get to be teenagers, if they’re having problems or feeling unsafe or they have a friend who’s getting into drugs or guns, they’ll see cops as allies rather than adversaries. People who can help intervene before anyone gets arrested or sent to jail.

"That’s where we need to do our work," he says. "The kids need to see an officer in the school that cares about them. We’re not there to just arrest somebody, and that’s the only time they see us, when there’s a problem."

Nelson Beckford says the outcomes aren’t being measured in crime rates going down, though of course that’s an outcome everyone hopes for.

"The things we measured were positive community police interaction, [for example] the number of times police went to community events," he says. "So we were counting the positive interactions between the police and the community."

The police department counted more than 5,000 of those interactions in the 4th District in 2017 - contacts with citizens and business owners that weren’t about dealing with a particular crime but instead just checking in, building relationships.

That’s about 10 times the number as in 2016. The department will also be tracking resident perceptions of the police. In 2016, only about 56 percent of residents in the 4th District said they felt positive about the relationship between police and the community. The hope is that over time, that number gets a lot closer to the 82 percent of white people citywide who say the same thing. (Data courtesy of the Cleveland Police Department, not yet available online.)

When it comes to incidents like the shooting on Buckeye Road, Nelson and Captain Sulzer say they believe community policing can make a long term difference. But there’s also a need to work more closely with one particular population.

"Boys, in my opinion between like 12 and 17, we treat them as if they’re tough and rugged but I think they’re probably vulnerable and very, very fragile," he says. "They need positive figures to help them see there’s another way."

Of course, Kiara and Eddie talked about that same thing - young boys seeing older guys and modeling their behavior after them.

"Boys naturally want to form into cliques," he says. "It could be a baseball team, a gang, it could be kids getting together every saturday to ride bikes. We need to know that’s a fact of boys and create alternatives to those natural things that boys want."

 

Part 3: 'They're All Cool'

Back at Harvey Rice, I got a chance to check out Eddie’s basketball practice after we talked.

He was completely in the zone - eyes focused, barely noticing me or anyone else in the stands. He told me afterward that what he loves about playing is just that it simplifies his mind. For that time he’s on the court, nothing else matters. And even more than that, he just likes being with the other players.

"It’s just the fun of it, being on the same team as certain people," he says. "Some of them are better than me. I’m not scared to admit they’re better than me. But it’s just like, they’re all cool."

As I left Eddie for the day, I thought, that 12-year-old who was shot - that was news, of course. But this is news, too.

That this 12-year-old, who once felt friendless and abandoned and was a bully, found another way. That’s just as momentous and instructive as anything else we might hear about Buckeye Road. Maybe even more so.

2.2: No Choice But to Drum

Mama Fasi works out of her drum studio and school, Fasi’s Cultural Experience, on Larchmere Boulevard. Her storefront is full of African and African-influenced artwork - racks of clothing, shelves of fragrances, musical instruments wood paintings.

“I tell everybody they need to drum," Fasi says. "Whoever comes in my shop, they run the risk of drumming whether they want to or not. And by the time they leave they are happy that they did.”

Check out this recording of an impromptu drum lesson we received one day when we stopped into her shop!