In Cleveland there are two main highways that lead into the city, and both of them stay high above the Cuyahoga River. That area, the Cuyahoga Valley just south of downtown, is an industrial wasteland where steel mills and chemical plants operate — not like they used to, of course, but they belch smoke into the sky, and burn off noxious fumes from their chimney stacks sending red, orange, and blue flames into the night. Riding on those highways, Interstates 71 and 77, is the closest thing Cleveland has to offer that compares to the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disney World. In the span of five miles, you see the tops of buildings that once were the pinnacle of American industrial society, creating wealth for a few lucky ones, providing jobs for tens of thousands, and creating deadly pollution that damn near killed the entire region. Both my maternal and paternal grandfathers found work in those industrial mills, started families that thrived in Cleveland, and ultimately created me and my brothers.
I lived with my brother for eighteen months while I was going to graduate school at Cleveland State. He had a house in Parma, and I commuted from there to CSU, which was downtown. I took I-77 and never grew tired of the surreal view of the vestiges of Cleveland’s glory. Being a city college, CSU only offered evening classes for graduate courses, and so I also had the advantage of commuting into town when most drivers were fighting to escape. My brother was also getting his law degree at CSU’s Marshall College of Law, so he was there most evenings as well.
One day, my brother and I had reason to commute downtown together late in the afternoon. It was between four and five P.M., and traffic was heavy but not thick. We found ourselves pinned in behind a truck pulling a flatbed trailer, and on the trailer was a large industrial machine we couldn’t quite identify. We were behind it for a couple of miles on I-77. Because traffic was slow, we had quite a few minutes to wonder what that machine might possibly be.
The machine was made mostly of stainless steel and absolutely filled the flatbed behind the truck. It had a large arm that hung over a massive round body. It was oddly familiar, but neither of us could quite place it.
That particular stretch of highway is rough and abused. The speed limits are not really necessary because the potholes and half-assed repairs keep only the most insane from going over 50. As we approached downtown, we noticed that the shaking from the bad road had caused the massive round body on the strange machine being transported ahead of us to spin on its axis.
As the Terminal Tower and BP Oil building came into view, we recognized what was before us: an industrial sized mixer, and the massive round body was its enormous mixing bowl. The spinning gave it away. Here was a machine capable of making enough dough to bake a loaf of bread the size of a Buick. Of course such things had to exist, for how else did ten thousand loaves of Wonder Bread appear on the shelves of A & P and Krogers each morning if some huge machine did not spit out ten thousand balls of dough? If you saw a leprechaun or a unicorn in the morning mist, you would believe; so it is with industrial sized mixers being dragged above the smelly wasteland of Cleveland: once you see it, you believe.
As we neared our exit, East 9th Street, the mixing bowl spun faster. It warbled and rocked, and before our disbelieving eyes, that mixing bowl spun off of its trailer just one hundred feet in front of our car. It bounced a good six feet off of the pavement, and bounced again still spinning.
My brother eased off of the accelerator, but because of the traffic we didn’t dare slam on the brakes. For a brief moment I know we both thought that the stupid giant mixing bowl was going to bounce onto our car and crush us. It was a funny feeling that did not induce fear. We were going to die, but in such a bizarre way that it wouldn’t seem like dying, but merely suffering the ultimate prank — the bucket propped on the door, filled with paint, but that also chops off your head, or the electric buzzer in your palm intended to shock you but which instead stops your heart — and so the story explaining what happened would obscure the fact that you were dead and never coming back to this world.
When it hit the pavement the second time, now less than fifty feet before our car, the spin of the bowl took it out of our lane. My brother hit the gas and we surged forward. The bowl bounced again in the next lane, and then slammed off of the cement barrier dividing the highway. We tore ahead and took the exit.
I did turn back and saw the huge mixing bowl bounce back across the highway, and somehow, as if guided by the practical joking hand of God, it missed all the other cars as well. We spun down the ramp, down to the level of the city, and began making our way past the abandoned storefronts, the condemned apartment buildings, and the empty warehouses, and we said a quiet prayer of thanksgiving. Then we began to laugh.