PARMA SUN POST
18 January 2001

LIFE IN OLD TREMONT INSPIRES AUTHOR
by Joe Yachanin


Photo by Jim Votava

From his Parma Heights apartment, author Ray DeCapite can look out on the suburban sprawl that surrounds him and remember what living in a real neighborhood was like. A neighborhood where you walked to the market, church and school, and knew your neighbors by name.

Born and raised in Cleveland's Tremont neighborhood, which was then called the South Side, DeCapite was fortunate enough to have his extended family a stone's throw away.

"My grandmother lived across the street and so did two of my aunts. My uncle lived in the neighborhood and at least a dozen cousins," DeCapite said.

His family and his old neighborhood would provide the groundwork and setting for several noovels and three plays that would garner him comparisons to such venerable authors as Nelson Algren, John Fante and Charles Bukowski.

"Fante even reviewed my first novel," DeCapite said.

DeCapite and the authors he is often compared to blend tough and tender together seamlessly in their stories of growing up in working class, immigrant neighborhoods. Algren had Chicago, Fante had Denver and Cleveland has Ray.

"We're losing the neighborhood scene as a country," DeCapite said. "We had a complex mix of nationality backgrounds and religions: Syrian, Greek, Russian, Italian and Irish. Growing up we got used to different backgrounds and acknowledged that since we were all there, we obviously belonged there -- everybody."

Despite the fact that his stories read as if he had been writing all his life, DeCapite didn't feel the tug of his calling until later in life, publishing his first book when he was 37.

DeCapite spent time in the Army during World War II and went to college on the G.I. Bill.

"I didn't know what I wanted to do. I went to Ohio University, dropped out, went to Case Western, got a degree, got a master's in English, and writing became a consuming interest," DeCapite said.

After graduation, DeCapite went to New York City and stayed with his brother Michael for a few months.. Michael worked as a press officer at the United Nations and also wrote novels.

"He wanted me to stay, but I couldn't find a job. My wife lived there for five years," DeCapite said. "You would ride the train mornings and walk around looking for a job. It was very exciting."

DeCapite would also spend several months living in San Francisco and Boulder.

DeCapite came back to Cleveland, got married and moved to Euclid. While there he spent 10 years working in a liquor store on Lake Shore Boulevard.

"I would find jobs where I could work afternoons. I need the morning to write, it's the only time my head is clear," DeCapite said. He called working in the liquor store the best job he ever had.

"It was a good job, physical, throwing the cases around. I would write in the morning and go into work at 10 or 11. The combination of physical work keeps your body tuned up, but you don't really have to think about it," DeCapite said.

Although a long way off from topping the best-seller list, DeCapite's work hasn't gone without notice. All three of his plays have been produced, and his novel, "A Lost King," was tapped for the Paul Newman film "Harry and Son."

He has also been awarded the Cleveland Arts Prize, the Ohioana Award and the Cleveland Critics' Circle Award. DeCapite has also inspired his son Michael to be a writer. Michael has recently started his own publishing company, Sparkle Street out of San Francisco.

It's under the Sparkle Street banner that Michael has published his own novel, "Through the Windshield," which tells the semi-autobiographical story of his time spent as a taxi cab driver in Cleveland, and a volume containing two of his father's recent works.

DeCapite's son also maintains www.sparklestreet.com where readers can sample the books, e-mail the authors and place orders.

Suzanne DeGaetano, of Mac's Backs Paperbacks on Coventry where DeCapite does readings, said she thinks people are eager to read fiction about Cleveland.

"People are hungry to read fiction about themselves," DeGaetano said. "And it appeals because it's immediate. He has a flare for dialogue, he captures people's insides and motivations. He captures a world that's disappearing."

Still using a manual typewriter to put his sharp dialogue on paper, DeCapite has no illusions about making one's living as a writer.

"There's no middle class in the arts," DeCapite said. "Either you have a best-seller with movie rights or you can't even afford an edition of the book. The rewards are high but you have to pay a price. It calls for dedication and tenacity."

DeCapite, 75, says that he still has the fondest memories of his neighborhood and growing up. And when he gets nostalgic for the days when his family lived across the street, he can go visit his sister, who lives in the apartment building that faces his.

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