See ya later, Harvey
by Eric Nuzum
Probably one of the saddest things I’ve ever witnessed in my life was also one of the most intimate things I’ve ever witnessed, as well as one of the most inspiring and uncomfortable.
Harvey Pekar, asleep, his nose pushed against a microphone I was holding.
Well, Harvey wasn’t really asleep--more like passed out. He’d nodded off, mid-sentence, while reading into my microphone.
“Harvey,” I said, quietly, hoping to wake him up.
“Harvey, are you okay?”
I moved the microphone slightly, hoping he’d jolt back awake. He just leaned forward more.
I sat there for a few seconds, which felt like hours, not knowing what to do. His wife was upstairs, so I could have called out for help. But then, if Harvey was simply asleep, he’d probably be more freaked out by me yelling. I just held the mic, which was, at this point, also holding up Harvey.
It was 2002 and Harvey was undergoing intense chemo to treat a recurrence of the non-Hodgkins lymphoma that he’d documented earlier in his American Book Award-winning graphic novel, Our Cancer Year. The timing of the recurrence was Pekar-esque to say the least. After busting his ass for 37 years as a file clerk at the VA hospital, Harvey had finally managed to retire. Shortly afterwards, he got sick. Shortly after getting sick, he got news that his auto-biographical comic book series, American Splendor, was going to be made into a movie. At what should have been the peak of his career, the culmination of sixty-plus years of struggle, Harvey was thin, pale, weak, slightly disoriented, and barely able to muster enough energy to read 400 words of text.
Check that, he didn’t have the energy. So little energy, in fact, that he couldn't come into the station to record. I went to his cluttered house to tape Harvey while he propped himself up on a futon. Less than two paragraphs in, he closed his eyes and lowered his head until it came to rest on my microphone.
I eventually reached out and gently touched his arm.
He slowly opened his eyes, turned to me, took a second to remember what we were doing, looked down at his script and said:
“How far did I go?”
“Not far.” I answered.
“So I didn’t finish?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“So then, I guess I should start over,” he said, completely uninterested in reflecting on the simultaneous humor and tragedy of what just happened. That was Harvey.
Despite his health, Harvey had insisted on recording that day. It was nothing romantic like some sort of unstoppable work ethic (which, frankly, he did kinda possess), nor some kind of “healing through art” nonsense that he would deplore--Harvey wanted to record because once he recorded a commentary, he’d get paid. He wanted the money.
When I became Program Director at WKSU in Kent, Ohio, in 1998, one of my first "big ideas" was to build up a stable of commentators. The first person I wanted to approach: Harvey Pekar. I came up with a bunch of reasons why I thought he'd be a good choice, but in truth, I just wanted a chance to meet him.
Like many people, my first exposure to Harvey came when I was in college, watching David Letterman. Harvey was a regular on the show for awhile until the Letterman folks decided his unpredictable nature and cantankerousness were no longer funny. At some point during his brief television career, I’d picked up a copy of one of Harvey’s comic books and enjoyed it. His writing was vivid and frank, sad and funny, depressing and yet even more depressing. He was a sad sack with a heart of gold. He was an angry quasi-socialist who had a unending, yet highly pessimistic, idea of fairness. He was more optimistic than you'd expect (as long as the subject wasn’t himself) and thrived on evangelizing about music, books, and movies that he loved and excited him. He was, above all, an idealist masquerading as a cranky old man.
Over the years, I just kept collecting Harvey’s stuff.
We made arrangements to meet with Harvey to discuss doing commentaries. My co-workers Vince (the station’s news director), Betsy (who was tapped to produce and record Harvey's commentaries), and I went up to meet him for lunch. Harvey did not eat, as he had chosen to eat at home before coming to a lunch meeting at a restaurant. Harvey approached us, as he did everything, with a dower quasi-paranoid suspicion. More than once during the lunch I wondered if Harvey wasn’t eating because he didn’t trust us not to mess with his food. After talking, we decided we’d try out a commentary to see how it worked.
After Harvey’s first radio commentary hit the air, the complaints were almost instant.
A lot of people listening to the station hated Harvey. They hated his choice of subject matter. They hated his opinions. They even hated the sound of his voice. But we kept doing them. Once every few weeks over the course of a few years. After Betsy left the station, I took over all the production and editing of Harvey’s stuff myself. I had no time to do so, but I always made time for Harvey. Partially because I liked him so much, and partially because no one else wanted to deal with the obsessions and arguments and whining about getting paid and so on.
During the time we worked together, I never felt that Harvey “got” why I was such an advocate for his work. Being so naturally suspicious, he never could quite trust why someone would put up with so much associated grief. But every time he’d call with an idea, I’d jump on it. I think he just couldn’t come to terms that his work could be the recipient of the same kind of boundless love and evangelism that he so quickly gave to things he liked. Regardless, he always tried to return the enthusiasm, always complimenting my writing work and talking up my first book to a bunch of editors in hopes of getting them to review it.
We even, with quite disastrous results, tried to get Harvey’s work on NPR’s Morning Edition. They called after Harvey won a national award and had a typically confrontational first phone conversation with Harvey. They rejected a few scripts, telling Harvey he should, instead, write about things he is experiencing in his life. Harvey then submitted a script to Morning Edition about how ridiculous a process it was to submit commentaries to Morning Edition.
They passed on that one, too.
Shortly after the movie American Splendor came out, I decided I was going to move to Washington to work for NPR. Upon hearing the news, Harvey’s first assumption was that he, too, would end up working for NPR doing commentaries--and was quite happy about it. Unfortunately, I had to tell him that wouldn’t be the case. We produced one last commentary together, and I tried to find him a new producer at WKSU, but I’m pretty sure that was the end of it.
Over the past six years since I left Ohio, I’ve written Harvey a few times—just short letters to say hello, tell Harvey what I was up to, mention that I’d enjoyed his latest book project, and let him know I was thinking of him. I never heard anything back, not that I ever expected to.
This morning, my wife sent me a txt message to make sure I knew that Harvey had passed away last night.
I’d known that Harvey was sick again, but had always figured that he’d pull through this, just as he’d managed to pull through 70 years of other tragedies that would have ended a lesser man.
Since I learned of his death, I keep looking at blog posts about Harvey, Twitter RIP props about his passing, and other shout-outs to one of the true innovators of the narrative graphic novel. The outpouring of love for Harvey made me more upset than I expected. Even though we haven’t spoken in a few years, I do feel like I am mourning the loss of a friend.
On the other hand, it’s nice to see how many people were also touched by Harvey and his work.
The world will be less interesting without you, Harvey. Rest in peace.