Every person who grows up with a family business has to make the same decision: building upon that which your family has erected, or deviating from the ancestral path and starting something new. For some, the decision is easy, while others may spend the greater part of their younger years deliberating on which route to take. No one decision is more honorable than another, though in today's day and age we have been led to think differently.
Back in 2016, a band I played in had a show at Pat's in the Flats. I didn't know it at the time, but Pat's had a long history in Cleveland, starting as a blue-collar bar in 1945. Once a place frequented by steel mill workers stopping in after their daily shift in one of the Flats’ factories, Pat’s eventually evolved into a music venue in the '80s. As we pulled into the parking lot I remember thinking we were in the wrong place. Instead of the bar we were expecting, we found ourselves in the parking lot of a house-like building that was missing several pieces of siding and had all of the second-story windows boarded up. The bass player and I hopped out of the car so we could scope things out, and after making our way to the front door, we saw the "Pat's in the Flats" sign painted in white on the front of the building. We looked at each other, shrugged, and went inside where we were greeted by dead leaves, walls filled with signs, license plates, and photos, and, of course, the smiling face of Pat the proprietor. After a warm introduction, Pat showed us to the end of the bar opposite the front door where there was an open space straddled by two old monitors. We thanked Pat and hurried back to the rest of the band so we could unload, set up, and stake out a section of the bar.
Years later, I'm meeting with a friend in Tremont. After hugging and saying our goodbyes, I head to my car and start the drive home. A few wrong turns later, I found myself at an intersection staring across West 3rd at Pat's in the Flats. I had forgotten about Pat's, and as I sat alone at the intersection in my Jeep, I took a minute to let the memories flow back to the forefront of my mind. I noticed that over the years Pat’s had pretty much stayed the same. The only difference about the venue was a for sale sign out front that I read over and over as I wondered when and why Pat's had finally succumbed.
Once I arrived home I found an old Cleveland.com article which explained the situation. It's a story as old as time. The family has one plan, the offspring another. Pat's parents started a bar with hopes of passing it down, and Pat went to college to study Russian with hopes of doing her own thing, maybe even becoming a spy. The way things shook out, Pat returned home and ended up taking over the family business. In her own words, she “felt a responsibility to the family and to the bar”. Pat ended up making the best of the situation and turned it into something her own: a music venue that gave small local and touring acts a spot to play their original songs. After tending the bar and booking bands for thirty years, Pat was ready to retire and decided to call it quits .
There's something to be said about familial obligations, continuing down the path your parents started. Family comes first for most of us, and it is often hard to know where to draw the line. At what point do obligations to family become outweighed by obligations to yourself? I suspect it is different for us all, but the edge of the line is ever more precarious when it’s around the life’s work of someone you love.
For generations, children had more often than not picked up the family business. It is a fiscally sound way to transition their parents into their older age and continue their legacy. I think it’s also a sign of respect to a degree. In American culture, this custom has become less and less practiced. With education and college becoming more of the norm, we have drifted away from simply continuing the family's work. There's even a stigma behind working in the family business. As if it's taking the easy route. There's really nothing easy about it, especially if you're someone who longs for another life.
When I was a toddler, my mother quit her job to start a business. I don't remember a ton about those times other than she would be gone a lot, and my Dad took on a larger role watching my siblings and me. Over the years, my Dad would also quit his job as my parents opened additional locations. It was a gamble my brother, sister, and I were too young and naïve to understand. A gamble that, fortunately, over the course of twenty years would pay off.
One college summer when I came home I helped my parents with their landscaping. As we labored to fix up the yard to our standards, my parents told me they hoped one of us kids would buy the family home from them one day. That they wanted to pass the business they had named after their children down to one of us. It dawned on me then how my parents had worked so hard to not only create a business that could pay the bills, but also to build a legacy of security for future generations. I remember feeling a strange emotional cocktail of sorrow, shame, and gratitude, as I knew I would not be fulfilling their dreams. In my stubbornness, I'd previously sworn I would make my way under my own conditions. I focused harder on spreading the mulch at my feet as I mulled over the idea of a life in the family business. It's something I'd considered before, but as a music student in college, it was an afterthought. As I picked up the empty wheelbarrow and rolled it toward the pile of mulch in the driveway for a refill, I realized deep down part of me is afraid.
Afraid of taking the business my parents toiled so hard to create and leading it to ruin. Afraid of being stagnant, instead of forcing my dreams upon my existence and the world. Afraid of not realizing my full potential. Perhaps, I'm also afraid of being viewed as unsuccessful, both in my own mind and the minds of my peers. Part of me wishes I had it in me to tow the family line. I love my parents, and it would be wonderful to honor them by continuing what they started, but I believe too much in myself and what I want to accomplish.
I imagine the thought process was similar for Pat. I imagine she found herself in a situation similar to the one I'm in now. At the crossroads of pursuing your own path or continuing the one paved by your family. The feelings of love and responsibility juxtaposed by the desire for independence and the pursuit of a different legacy. Admirably, she chose to continue on the path her family started but repaved it in a way which suited her. In doing so, Pat created a lasting memory for the Cleveland music scene. Just as admirably, I am choosing to deviate from the path that has been started by my family. As I pursue a career in music, I hope to build a new legacy, and build upon my city’s great community of musicians, venues, and fans.