Chapter 23: Jake
Hough Bakery | Cleveland, OH
Sometimes, it’s hard to tell if there’s a way in.
Take the Hough Bakery in Cleveland, OH, for example. When Jake and I rolled up to the front of the building — or, at least, the front as Google Maps determined it — I couldn’t figure out where the entrance was. But after a bit of poking about, we found it.
Clamoring out of the car, I suddenly noticed Jake’s posture. It’s astute, as astute as his speech pattern, the tone of his voice, his version of diction, the shape of his midwestern vowels, flat “A”s that sing:
I was born in Northwest Ohio —
Slow, measured, tempered.
He takes his time, in everything. It can be irritating. Like how often he goes back to make sure he locked the car; how long it takes to choose a beer off a menu; the care and consideration that goes into sorting receipts and bills on his dusty keyboard in his not-up-to-code studio apartment, under high ceilings, the afternoon light monitoring the aloe plant in his front window.
On weekends, at my house, I like to poke my head outside every so often, spring-into-late-fall, to, secretly, watch Jake dig his hands into the dirt. When he mows the lawn with his dork-ass headphones on and his golfer-dad sunglasses clutching the sides of his dusty red-brunette head, I can’t help but objectify him, gawking and drooling over his sweat-soaked skin. He’s hot.
And he’s so dang smart. I don’t need to watch the news anymore, or check the weather, or doom-scroll at all. Jake’s got it — and enjoys it, knows how to cooly and calmly process it, digest the storylines in our disastrous current state of affairs without losing his chill. What he consumes doesn’t make him feel any less anger inside, any less rage in his body, but it does afford him the mindfully-earned privilege of choosing how to fight for a progressive societal metamorphosis by staying grounded and allowing the wisdom that comes with being intentionally informed to guide conversations with un-like-minded individuals, blind followers of the GOP.
(Aka: folks who are deeply entrenched in fascism.)
I marvel at him. I am in awe of his patience. Daily, I utter gratitude that I am deliberately sharing space in a partnership with healthy, transparent boundaries, an act of evolution that took me until I was in my 30s to begin to understand. He’s honest, and it’s served up with deep-seeded compassion. His heart is good. His mind is good.
He is good.
I can’t stop staring at the back of Jake’s head — and at his stately, prominent neck. I feel like Ben Affleck (in, arguably, his best role) as Nick Dunne, the protagonist/antagonist (if you know you know) in Gone Girl, kicking off the film by talking about his wife’s skull, his desire to open it, unspool her brains to uncover the truth — only my version of this is far less violent. All I can do is adore that full head of hair on his sturdy, upright, 6'0" build. He’s lean, almost a swimmer’s frame, and like every gay, cisgendered man I know, he has body issues that confuse me because I am so deeply attracted to every pore on him.
We slip through a large incision in a brick and cement wall, and by the nature of my Sagittarius moon, I take the lead. We’re standing in a drippy front hallway, a short corridor that must’ve served as a welcome center for visitors. Normally I’d hear the chatter of those phantoms echoing all around me, but my imagination is blank today. The southwestern side of the passageway faces the outside courtyard, littered in garbage, remnants of the formerly thriving bakery.
Years ago, Hough was the largest multiple-unit bakery in Ohio, extending from its flagship location at 1519 Lakeview Road in Cleveland to branches in Cuyahoga, Lake, Portage, and Summit Counties. For years, Hough Bakeries experienced massive success; however, soaring costs of production, the fear of modernization, plus the growing competition from larger corporations sparked a sudden closure of all facilities, including the Star Bakery Plant on Lakeview. After filing for Chapter Seven bankruptcy, any and all remaining subsidiary divisions and company assets were sold to various larger entities, including the Hough recipe book which was acquired by Kraft Foods.
The mid-morning May sun bleeds through the tiny glass windows that face the outside, into the must and dust in the complex. I run my finger along the smooth textures, past two fake trees in giant wicker baskets, covered in condensation from last night’s midwestern spring rain. Jake and I step into an enormous cavern which I instantly identify as the first line of production. This large stage, in the round, boasts the kind of machinery you’d imagine sitting and rotting inside any abandoned industrial bakery from the 1950s or ’60s, comically large ovens, scissoring with conveyor belts, buttons, lights, gears, sprockets, steel, ancient power sources, the smell of oil and wheat, the hiss of ghostly motor engines spitting and sputtering while the voices of first and second generation Ohioans float gruffly through the gluten-stained air.
Usually, I can hear them. Usually, my imagination flickers on, and I’m surrounded by specters. It’s the practice of playing pretend that has saved my life since I started exploring abandoned spaces a couple of months into the pandemic.
But today is different. It’s somber. Jake and I are on our way back to the Hudson Valley, having spent the weekend at an unfortunate family reunion, a memorial walk for the father of Jake’s brother-in-law. They recently lost him to pancreatic cancer, and this was my first time meeting everyone. Lovely.
As I wander through the brick and mortar of the abandoned Hough Bakery, I realize that my imagination may not flicker today. This visit to this particular American ruin isn’t necessarily for my mental / emotional / spiritual health. I don’t know exactly what the intention is today, other than an invitation for Jake, to take a peek inside this small piece of my life he only knows about peripherally. It’s a warm feeling, sharing the joy of abandoned spaces, providing a glimpse into how grounded I feel when I explore a decaying wonderland. I picture that it’s the way Jake feels when he has his hands in the dirt, making things grow from the earth. He honors the rule-bender in me by obliging my adventurous muse and accompanying me on this strange date. I think he finds my innate sense of wanderlust sexy. He likes that I’m an artist. He thinks it makes me smart.
I never think about myself that way. Confident. Maybe I am.
We move through the space together — and separately — two autonomous amoebas drifting through the ether, each of us spinning on our own gravitational axis, sometimes entering each other’s orbit, other times not. I love being independent, and Jake loves that I love being independent, and vice versa. I splinter off from Jake and come across a section of the plant that contains several old department store display cases. Winkelman’s. I’ve never even heard of it. Shoe racks and jewelry display cases, decades of undoing, in the shadow of a tall filing cabinet where I spot the red Teletubby, Po, standing up inside one of the drawers.
I catch Jake in my visual purview again, scoping out a long hallway that at one time served as a delivery dock. I sneak closer and watch him from afar, the same way that I watch him from my carport as he gardens. He picks through and inspects every object in the room, paint cans and marketing materials, empty receipt rolls and product labels, canned food and tools and large grey metal vats filled with nothing. He peers way up at the ceiling, undoubtedly asking hundreds of questions about the architecture, its stability, the hows and whys of the weather’s effects on said stability, private interrogations on what each and every machine in sight was responsible for when the factory was still alive.
We reconvene and enter a confusing room that looks like it used to be a kitschy, tourist bar. There’s a jukebox, an old ticket counter, a bar, mirrors, broken glass, booths. I am dumbfounded. I don’t understand. Neither does Jake. He’s particularly attracted to a crumbling roof in the next room, hovering over another battered bar, bathing beneath brilliant light barging into whatever crack it can find.
Enchanted by the glow, he leaves, but I stay. The atmosphere starts to shift, a slow crossfade from the sight of Jake walking away, into the early 2000s, post 9/11 shock, the dawn of the cellphone as a primary method of communication for the general public, a showcase of millions of millennials around the world sitting on the fence between the world before and after You’ve Got Mail was released on DVD. (I bought a copy years later when I saw it in a sale bin at Walmart.) Britney Spears’ “Oops!… I Did It Again” purrs its perfect pop on the jukebox. I smell popcorn and hear skeeball machines and gawk at Ms. PacMan arcade towers. There’s a vending machine, Pepsi products, canned soda pop for $0.50/can.
I’m in middle school, or at least in my imagination. It feels scary. I’m afraid to look in a mirror. I’m not sure that I’m prepared to confront my 8th-grade self, a mop of hair on my head, a literal bike helmet made out of dark, shaggy, full volumed strands of DNA that would fool any passing stranger into thinking that this scared, secretive young man would grow up to fight balding with fervor.
I make my way through the crowd of middle and high schoolers, looking for Jake, and exit today’s brief fling with my imagination, the echoes of Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” slowly fading out with mighty reverb, lilting down the halls of the Hough Bakery and up into the Cleveland sky. I’m back to the present and find Jake standing underneath the cracks in the ceiling, allowing the light to seep into his skin. He asks if I’ll take his picture. I like photographing him. I enjoy spotlighting his handsome face, his solid set of shoulders that carry a lot of unspoken emotional and mental weight, the back of his prominent neck.
Click. Click. Click.
The photos are just for us. They look good. He looks good.
We press onward into a room with a disco ball sprawled out on a pool table. By now, nothing surprises me. This aging architectural testament to the downfall of midwestern commerce is packed to the brim with the spirits of carbohydrates. One of the many capitalistic dominoes that fell to create the vast Rust Belt. Somehow, over the course of trying to save itself from bankruptcy, Hough must’ve rented out sections of the compound to other small businesses. It’s the only explanation I can muster up, and after hours and days of extensive research, I still can’t find an answer. There was clearly a restaurant here. There was clearly a dance hall. A storage unit for Winkelman’s. It’s confusing, the most confusing visit to an American ruin yet. And a second pool table. There are records scattered everywhere. I pick on up. A 7" B.B. King single.
I leave the confusion behind as I look at the clock and realize we’ve overstayed our welcome. It’s time to go. I don’t want to, but we have hundreds of miles ahead of us back to New York. We exit building to a loading dock and discover an abandoned street food cart, intimate and alone, as the soft breeze of Cleveland skies rinses my skin and pulls us out to a backroad, Auburndale Ave., where we walk by houses that, while still very much lived in, look as though they could lose their occupants at any second. The neighborhood is filled with empty, boarded homes, roofs caving in, porches disintegrating.
We walk under a cement railroad trestle, still active, that runs along the southeastern side of the bakery, which itself takes up a large chunk of the Glenville neighborhood in Cleveland, 3.7 acres, nearly 180,000 square feet, an emblem of the Rust Belt, a time capsule that bears witness to resiliency, to loyalty, to American culture, and the systems that weave it together.
One of millions of interpretations of the Great American Dream.
I don’t know what I’m supposed to think about this neighborhood. I know I feel sad, but I can’t explain why. Sometimes this happens. It’s part of the healing process for me. Acceptance. That empires rise. That empires fall. That we can evolve in many different directions as a singular organism, as a country, full of individuals, each with individual ideas of how the country should look.
One of those individuals is Jake.
Jake makes me feel like my vision of the country, through the lens of these abandoned spaces, is accurate and worth sharing. And beautiful.
Just like the back of his stately, prominent neck.