I was happy when I found his letter among the bills. As I opened it, I felt a warmth creep over me. It represented so much more than a letter from anyone else. Perhaps he was finally coming home after so many symbolic years in the cold.

In the end, however, the hope was dashed. The writing looked like a child's first scrawls with a crayon. There were no periods to end sentences. Parts of it were impossible to read, and the rest was unintelligible.

It was not a failed effort at being ambidextrous. It was not a child trying to mimic an adult. It was a letter from a person just a few months older than my 28 years, the work of someone who was once the most brilliant friend I ever had. It was the best he could now do.

Coming home . . .

On the flight home to Cleveland for the holidays, I remembered him. A national merit scholarship semi-finalist, mostly A's in math, a 625 verbal and a 750 math score on the SAT exams. He was going to go to college to become an engineer, but he never made it. He became known, instead, as "The Dope Angel." He has never been able to hold a job for more than a few months. He still lives in Cleveland, with and off his parents.

It is difficult to accept this, as difficult as the newspaper clippings my parents sent me over the years about someone I built forts with in my backyard sandbox, someone who was worthy enough to be called a best friend, someone I "hung out" with when I was older.

There were also my elementary school friends who were welcome at our house. One was unemployed and killed when the stolen car he was driving crashed during an attempt to escape Cleveland police. There was the tall, polite and admittedly slow friend who grew up just a few more blocks from my home. He was caught trying to rob someone with a starter's pistol and is now in jail. He was also unable to find a job. There was the child I remember as the kid who always seemed to idolize my friends and me when we were teen-agers. If you tossed a football to him then, he was so small that it would nearly knock him over. He became a street gang leader who was convicted as a juvenile of bludgeoning a young man to death with a club.

The message that these and other incidents pounded home was that Cleveland had slipped into a maelstrom of viciousness, frustration, violence and despair, a place that one should leave at all costs.

We were born in Cleveland in the 1950s, before it became the most insulted city in the country, before it and the other industrial centers of the Midwest could be referred to laughingly as the "Rust Belt." The places where we were born and grew up could not be called slums. There was no grinding poverty in our childhoods. But the city was in decline. Its population fell, unemployment rose and so did the crime rate. Gradually, it became clear that those of us who were succeeding would never come back to live in Cleveland, while those of us who failed along the way felt trapped there.

As we grew older we watched our parents install elaborate home security devices when burglaries suddenly became rampant. We watched them stay home at night more and more. The huge field behind our house where we played and picked blackberries as children became a dumping ground for addicts and stolen cars. Some of us, like the friend who landed a newspaper job in Atlanta and the buddy who joined a successful bank in Pittsburgh, came home less and less, and always just to see our families. Every time, it seemed, there was more bad news to trade, incidents that made us happy we were not there anymore.

For some reason, however, there remains a thread, a probably unrealistic hope that the city will rebound, and that the sad chapters of some of our friends will be succeeded by better ones. There is evidence of this, if one looks closely enough.

While I was home, I went with my father to the community center used by the city councilman of our ward. The councilman had been tenacious in trying to run drug trafficking out of the area and in getting stolen cars removed from the field. My father went there to give him a donation for the ward. It was Christmas Eve. Several windows had been shattered, presumably by people who wanted to see the drug trafficking left alone. The councilman was not at home with his family. Councilman John Barnes was in the back kitchen of the center, in dirty overalls, fixing a leaky pipe. He looked young, resilient, hopeful, and my father clearly believed in him.

There is hope in other places as well -- or at least persistence and commitment. Another childhood friend of mine has been "adopted" by my parents. They keep finding him new jobs, although he keeps finding new ways to get fired. He missed 37 days of work at the last one, and there is perhaps something naive in my parents' efforts. But maybe they are why I still telephone the friend whose mind has been so damaged by drugs.

I have hope too.