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The Life & Times of Grovey Cleves

drawings by Mickey Harmon, words by Scott Mancuso

This Friday, the Western New York Books Arts Center opens an exhibition of work by graphic designer and artist Mickey Harmon called The Life & Times of Grovey Cleves, an illustrated study after the life of Grover Cleveland — he of the remarkable mustache, sheriff of Erie County, mayor of Buffalo, governor of New York State, and the 22nd and 24th president of the United States.

The exhibit was originally planned as a series of drawings by Harmon but then expanded to include a book about Cleveland’s life, which Harmon made in collaboration with local writer Scott Mancuso.

“Cleveland’s ascent to mayor of Buffalo, to governor of New York to president of the United States, through only three years, from 1882 to 1885, is nearly unparalleled in the history of American politics,” says Mancuso. “It might have been Cleveland’s unusually fast ascent to the presidency that then gave him such an interesting perspective on the office, where he showed an admirable amount of restraint in an era that was notorious for political corruption. He is now generally seen as a ‘near-great’ president who has merely gone unsung due to the very understated factors that made him ‘near-great’ in the first place.

“It was this story that first inspired Mickey to begin a series of illustrations about the life and times of Grovey Cleves—a stylized, fictional version of the man himself. Mickey penned a series of over 40 illustrations in his signature style, following Cleveland’s life from birth until death, with emphasis on his time spent in Buffalo. Mickey then asked me to narrate the story in a series of vignettes that are, mostly, biographically accurate, but are also a highly dramatic fictional treatment of his life. The result is The Life & Times of Grovey Cleves.”

The book will be released in a limited edition at the show’s opening reception at WNYBAC beginning 7:30pm this Friday, March 21—just three days after Cleveland’s 177th birthday.

Below are excerpts from the second chapter, “Grovey in the Queen City,” covering the career of Grovey Cleves as a young lawyer in Buffalo.

In 1855, Grovey moved to Buffalo, New York where his uncle, Lewis Allen, helped him obtain a clerical job…

Grovey sat in one of the chairs facing the desk where his Uncle Lewis sat writing and breathing heavily through his nose. Grovey shifted in his seat and squinted at the sun, which was coming in through the windows at a low and awkward angle. It was not the type of sun that was hot, only the type of sun that was bright.

The sun was the most powerful thing Grovey could imagine, but it didn’t always act that way. Sometimes it was hot and direct and sometimes it was low and bright and sometimes it was most powerful by leaving and reminding you that it could go away.

“Do you have any discernible skills?” Uncle Lewis asked Grovey without looking up from his writing.

“I worked a bit as an assistant teacher with my brother in New York,” Grovey said.

“I said discernible. Am I to discern that you are capable of holding William’s flask for him while he babbles at a room full of blind children?”

“I met a 12-year-old girl from Brooklyn named Marion Day,” said Grovey. “She lost her vision when she was so young that all she could remember was the elm tree in her front yard. I realized that every time she dreamed, she would never see anything but the elm tree in her front yard.”

“Wonderful. Extensive.…clerking…experience. Highly…sought-after…prospect. Here. Take this to Rogers in the morning and if he turns you away, ask him to point you to the law office where I’ll be taking my business from now on.”

Grovey opened his eyes wide and he let the sun into them and when he dreamed that night, he did not only dream of the elm tree in Marion Day’s front yard.

Grovey’s Uncle Lewis introduced him to high society at parties and galas with many important people in attendance!

Uncle Lewis was talking to a severe-looking man that Grovey had never met. Grovey avoided the inevitable introduction and made his way to the other side of the room where he hid in the foliage of handshakes and laughter. Grovey felt the sunlight inside of him, collecting and magnifying against his will. God wanted him to meet and impress and to be adored, but the human parts of Grovey—the same parts that were all of the parts of William—wanted him to drink and be silent and take a woman with no last name back to his boarding house.

Two days earlier, Rogers had looked around the office and didn’t see anyone so he locked the door and left for the day. Grovey had still been there, but Rogers didn’t see Grovey. Rogers didn’t see all of the sunlight inside Grovey. He didn’t see the unmanageable dreams of the non-blind dominating his vision while he thrashed on his bed and eventually onto the floor. Richard Cleves saw though and he nodded in approval. He said, “It’s in you, boy. And you can fight it like a man fights a sunrise. You can’t.”

But Rogers didn’t see it and Rogers didn’t remember Grovey and so Grovey had to sleep under his desk and think of smart things to say to the severe-looking men who would slowly shake the sunlight out of his hands so that Grovey could be better remembered.

Grovey was admitted to the bar in 1859. He became known for his dedication and hard work and in 1863 was appointed the assistant district attorney of Erie County!

The courtroom did not look like a real place and the defendant did not look like a real person. Grovey’s mouth made sounds but it was the light talking and the light doing the prosecuting. It was Grovey on the inside, seeing himself cut open on the grass on a piece of shit farm in Virginia while some son-of-a-bitch whiskey-soaked Reb pulled Grovey’s boots off and the hole in Grovey’s tummy stretched and stretched while the Reb just kept on pulling.

Grovey tried to move his hand to put his tummy back together but his hand didn’t have enough fingers. He tried to tell the Reb that he couldn’t die because he was not a little fish and he had a name that needed to be remembered and the Reb said, “I thought you din’t care ’bout none o’ that,” and Grovey opened his mouth to let the light out but it was all red and runny. Grovey finished his argument, pressed a handkerchief to his mouth and stumbled out of the courthouse.

Grovey would have been drafted in the Civil War, but due to his wealth and status, was able to pay a Polish immigrant named George Benninsky to take his place!

Grovey handed George Benninsky $150. He said, “Yes. I’m sure.”

In 1870, Grovey was elected Sheriff of Erie County!

Patrick Morrissey’s repentant Catholic neck had broken straight away but John Gaffney had fought against the fall and when he dropped, he twitched and jerked until the hemp took the air out of him.

Grovey had gone back to Holland Patent when the news of the Missouri had reached Buffalo. Cecil and Fred had been on board and the papers said they had died heroes, helping passengers into lifeboats, before going down with the ship. William had joked that for every soul Cecil and Fred had kept from the afterlife, Grovey would only replace with some Irish criminal who had murdered his mother with a steak knife. Grovey’s mother had cried and cried and Mary had said that they were probably laughing with father now and William had snorted into his hand and Grovey’s mother had asked him why, why did he vex her so with his drinking and his unreasonably protracted bachelorhood and now with his killing men, in the name of the law Grovey said, but man’s law not God’s law said his mother.

Grovey kept his hand on the lever that had held the trap door in place between John Gaffney and not John Gaffney. Not John Gaffney and not Patrick Morrissey were part of Grovey now because he had pulled the lever and he had turned the people into not people and their souls had to go somewhere. Grovey felt them in his chest like he was three people now (William had said he was starting to look like three people now) and they harnessed the light howling inside of him and told him to move, move, move, because it was only going to get darker.

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