Cooking Up Trouble

By Ed Staskus

   “Mom, you know it’s not dinner without a napkin,” Matt said. He was on the third floor on his cell phone calling his mother who was in the kitchen on the first floor. She answered on the land line. She had made a 3-course dinner for him and taken it upstairs a minute earlier. She made dinner and took it upstairs to him every night, at least on those nights he was at home. When he wasn’t, my mother-in-law caught a break. She quick fried some chicken for herself and kicked back in front of the TV. She liked B & W movies, mostly comedies and melodramas. Her husband worked split shifts. She had the house to herself those nights to yuk it up and cry at the sad parts.

   My mother-in law Terese was a self-taught chef and taught herself well enough that she could make anything, including cakes for millionaire weddings and potato salad for picnics. She only ever glanced at manuals when she had to. No matter that she was intrepid, having created and managed several restaurants, as well as working as a pastry chef and a caterer, she had to play dumb waiter once a day.

   “I’ll bring one right up to you,” Terri said.

   Matt lived on carry out dinners except they were carry up dinners. His mother Terri did the cooking and carrying. She had been a professional cook for many years. Matt did the eating. When he was done he brought his dishes downstairs. My father-in-law Dick washed all the dishes by hand every day. They had a dishwasher, but he preferred to stand at the sink and get his hands dirty. He had been a military policeman in Vietnam before becoming a bartender.

   The house was on East 73rd St. at the corner of Chester Ave. in the Fairfax neighborhood. It was built in 1910, three stories, four bedrooms, two baths, two fireplaces, and a full basement. The third floor was originally servant’s quarters. The foundation was sandstone quarried in nearby Amherst by the Cleveland Stone Company. Amherst was the ‘Sandstone Center of the World’ at the time.

   There were stores, churches, and schools everywhere then. There were light industries and warehouses. Street cars ran east and west day and night on Euclid Ave. one block north. The Karamu House Theater opened in 1915. Langston Hughes developed and premiered some of his plays at the playhouse. Sears, Roebuck & Co. built a flagship store in 1928. 40,000 people lived in Fairfax in the 1940s. Sixty years later, when my mother-in-law showed up, 5,000-some people lived there. 

   By the 1950s the servants were long gone and so were the wealthy families who raised their children in the house. They moved away to the suburbs. Urban renewal was in full swing. As 1960 rolled around the neighborhood was nearly all-black and low-income. The home was divided up and converted into a boarding house. By the 1980s it had gone to hell.

   Terri and her husband were living in Reserve Square in a 17th floor three-bedroom corner apartment overlooking Lake Erie on East 13th St. and Chester Ave. when they bought the house and brought it back to life. They were living well. They owned and operated a bar restaurant on the ground floor. When they moved it was the biggest mistake they made in their lives. They didn’t realize how much trouble they were asking for.

   The neighborhood they moved to was less than three miles from their digs in downtown Cleveland. The Fairfax neighborhood was located on the edge of University Circle, where most of the city’s major educational institutions and museums were. The northern part of the locality was dominated by the Cleveland Clinic, which was growing by leaps and bounds. The Hough neighborhood was just to the north and the St. Clair – Superior neighborhood was north of Hough. Past that was Lake Erie where yellow perch and walleye lived rent-free.

   The house was being flipped when Terri and Dick first saw it. The flipper put the house back together as a single-family, putting in a new central staircase, a new kitchen, and a new two-car garage. He stopped there. He bought the house for pennies on the dollar. He sold it to my in-laws for dollars on the dollar. Terri and Dick paid $135,000.00 for the house, more than double nearly triple what almost all other houses in Fairfax were priced at. A weedy vacant lot next door was thrown in. There was another vacant lot across street. There were several others within sight. The neighborhood was more ghost town than not. 

   Hough was where race riots happened in 1966, when Terri was in her mid-20s, married to her first husband, with a child and another one in the making. They lived on the border of the Euclid Creek Reservation, bounded by North Collinwood and Richmond Hts. It was a family friendly neighborhood with good schools. All the men drove to work in the morning. The kids walked to school. Their backyard was a forest. On clear days in the fall and winter they could see Mt. Baldy in the distance.

   The Hough Riots started when the white owner of the Seventy-Niners Café on Hough Ave. and East 79th St. said “Hell, no” after being asked by a passing black man for a glass of water on an oppressively hot day. One thing led to another, an angry crowd gathered, there was some rock throwing which led to looting and vandalism, arson and sniper fire followed, and two days later the Ohio National Guard rolled in with .50 caliber machine guns mounted on Jeeps and live ammunition.

   Terri and Dick opted for the Fairfax house because Terri wanted a house on the near east side near where she had grown up. She grew up in a Lithuanian family of two parents and four sisters in a two-bedroom bungalow where she slept on the sofa. It didn’t matter to her that she was on the wrong side of the racial divide. Dick wanted what his wife wanted. They lived for each other. He cashed in his 401K to make the down payment on the house. The next summer they took out a second mortgage for $85,000.00 to replace the roof, replace all the early 20th century windows with vinyl windows, blow liquid  polyurethane insulation into the walls, and vinyl side the exterior. They painted the interior.

   The floors were hardwood from back when there were man-sized forests. They had them refinished. When the floors were finished they sparkled like the clock had been turned back a century. Everything was once new.

   They blew through their second mortgage fast. When Terri’s downtown diner in the National City Bank building on East 9th and Euclid Ave. slipped out from under her feet, her partner getting the better of her, they started living partly on Dick’s paycheck, partly on Terri’s freelancing, and partly on their credit cards. It wasn’t long before they were making only the minimum payment on their multiple cards. 

   My brother-in-law Matt moved in with his parents after briefly living in both Cleveland Heights and Lakewood. He was working full-time for General Electric and going part-time to graduate school to get a second high tech degree. He paid some rent for his third-floor space. He helped out around the house. He played lead guitar in a local rock ‘n’ roll band and kept his eyes open for girlfriends.

   My wife landscaped their front yard and Dick put in a sizable garden in the back yard. Terri liked herbs and fresh veggies where she could get her hands on them in a jiffy. They adopted a handful of stray cats. They invited Terri’s sisters and their husbands over for holiday dinners. Dick’s family lived in New York a long drive away. The house was spacious and cozy at the same time. It was pretty as a postcard when it was lit up and full of people on Christmas.

   They had barbeques in the summer, opening the garage door and wheeling out a grill. Dick wasn’t a chef, but he was a master at charcoal-broiling when it came to hot dogs, hamburgers, and steaks. We played horseshoes in the vacant lot where there was plenty of room for the forty-foot spacing. Dick was a big man with a soft touch and almost impossible to beat when it came to pitching. He was King of the Ringers. Even when he didn’t hit a ringer or a leaner he was always close. The game is deceptively simple, but hard to master. When I vented about losing to him repeatedly, he said, “You can’t blame your teammates for losing in horseshoes.”

   We brought skyrockets, paper tubes packed with gunpowder, on the 4th of July and shot them off from the vacant lot when it got dark. One of them went haywire and flew into the garage through the open door. Dick was standing at the grill but ducked in the nick of time. The cats went running every which way. They stayed away for two days, until they got hungry.

   Their garage got broken into. They installed a security system. They lost their front porch patio furniture to thieves. Terri saw the thieves dragging it down the street in broad daylight, but there wasn’t anything she could do. She called the Cleveland Police Department but there wasn’t anything they could do either. The crime rate in Fairfax was high and the cops had better things to attend to. They replaced the furniture, chaining it down to the deck of the porch. They went on litter patrol most mornings, picking up empty wine and beer bottles, and sweeping up cigarette butts and plastic bag trash.

   What few neighbors they had watched out for each other. A mailman lived in a newer house catty corner to them where Spangler Ct. met East 73rd St.  He let them in on the workings of Fairfax, what to watch out for and what didn’t matter, and after they took the measure of the neighborhood they got as comfortable with it as they were ever going to get. Terri started watching some of the kids who lived in the four-story run-down walk-up apartment building behind them. She made lunch for some of them, took some of them on day trips to nearby museums, and drove some of them to school when their parents were incapacitated.

   Some condos and McMansions had been built in both Hough and Fairfax, but they were far and few between. Police cars and ambulances sped up and down Chester Ave. every hour on the hour sirens blaring. There was an occasional gunshot in the dark.

   One day, sitting on the steps of their front porch, I watched three men tie a rope around a dead tree in the vacant lot across the street. They were going to try to yank it out of the ground. The first time they tried the rope snapped. The second time they tried they used two ropes. They put their pick-up truck in low gear and tugged. The rear bumper got pulled off and the truck shot forward, the driver slamming on the brakes, tearing up the turf. They came back with a bigger truck. When the tree started to lean it fell over fast, cracking, the roots ripping loose, barely missing them. I thought they were going to saw the branches off and section the trunk, but they didn’t. The tree lay rotting on the ground all summer.

   Neither Terri nor Dick lived to see their house taken away from them. If they had they would have seen their one asset in life reduced in value by 90% in 2008. All the money they had was tied up in the house. They would have been left with nothing. They could see it coming and it made them miserable. Their health started to fail. The wise guys who blew up the housing bubble until the bubble blew up walked away free and clear. Alan Greenspan, who ran the Federal Reserve Bank for nearly twenty years, said the meltdown was due to a “flaw in the system.”

   Terri died on New Year’s Eve 2005 and Dick died on Easter Saturday 2006. She collapsed  on the landing of their staircase. She was dead by the time 911 got her to the nearby Cleveland Clinic. Dick collapsed in the front room of the house in the middle of the night four months later while working on a crossword puzzle. He never used a pencil. He always filled the open squares in with a pen. When Matt found him head down in the morning he had almost finished the puzzle. His pen was on the floor.

   It was right then that house prices started to slip and the housing collapse that was going to push the United States into recession picked up speed. Matt stayed in the big house for a few years, taking in Case Western Reserve University student boarders, but it was no good. When he walked away it was for good. My wife and I helped empty it, giving most of everything that wasn’t a personal effect to whoever could use it. 

   Matt never went back and whenever he found himself driving through the Fairfax neighborhood he avoided the crossroad at East 73rd St and Chester Ave. He had no taste for what he might see. Or not see.

Ed Staskus posts on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Made in Cleveland http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Monkey Business

By Ed Staskus

   Kevin Rourke was a winsome young man with a big handsome face, big handsome hair that fell waving across his forehead, and a handsome man’s love for all girls, great and small. He was charming and devious. He was slowly going to paunch but still young enough that nobody noticed it except us, his roommates, who saw him flip flopping to and from bedroom and bathroom every morning with a towel wrapped around his spreading mid-section.  

   He was in his late-20s, but his belly was going on late-30s. He didn’t drink, but he didn’t work out either. He liked food as much as he liked girls. He was always eating and plucking daisies. The only time he wasn’t was when he went to Florida, which he did for a week twice a year. When he did he took only a tube of toothpaste, a toothbrush, two pairs of clean underwear, and a wad of cash with him.

   “What do you do there?” we finally asked him.

   “I don’t do anything,” he said. “I hardly leave my room. I sit on the balcony sometimes at night.”

   “How about getting some sun?”

   “No,” he said. “I keep the outside where it belongs, which is outside.”

   “What do you mean? There’s a beach right there.” He always stayed in the same hotel, the Pier 66 Hotel, on the Atlantic Ocean. “What do you do in your room?”

   “I sleep,” he said.

   “What about food?”

   “It’s my diet week.”

   “You can’t sleep all day every day for a week.”

   “I’ll take that bet,” he said.

   His Lebanese fiancée took the bet and lost. When she did she wouldn’t take his calls for two weeks, but he wormed his way back into her good graces after he got back to Cleveland from Fort Lauderdale and their wedding was back on, except when it wasn’t. They had been engaged for more than a year. Day after day they were unable to set a firm date. In the meantime, Kevin kept sowing his wild oats, continuing to hedge his bets.

   He took more showers than anybody we knew. He showered every morning, and often enough again in the early evening after work. He even showered those nights he wasn’t going out but staying in. He wrapped his dampness up in a bathrobe those nights and watched TV. Neither Matt Lavikka, our other roommate, nor I minded. We didn’t watch much on the boob tube, anyway, except in the fall when the Cleveland Browns were losing to somebody every Sunday after Sunday.

   When he was spic and span, Kevin worked for ABF Freight Systems, which was a national less-than-truckload motor carrier based in Arkansas. We called it All Broken Freight. After calling it that to his face a few times and seeing frown lines break out on his puss, we eased off and stopped with the buzz talk.  

   He was an orphan, or at least said he was an orphan, and had thrown in with ABF like it was a second family. He had a desk in an office in Brook Park, although he hardly ever went there. His paycheck grew, being largely commissioned, only when he was on the road. He never missed a day of work. Most of the time he worked overtime, pressing the flesh day and night. Some nights he slept in his car in his suit when the drive back to Cleveland was going to take too long. When he showed up in the morning he took a shower, changed his clothes, and went back to work.

   Even though we knew he was making a boatload of money, he didn’t seem to own anything except half a dozen expensive suits, a row of long-sleeved starched white shirts, a trove of status symbol ties, comfortable Italian leather shoes, and a 1980 Mercury Marquis. The car was still nearly new and was reddish purple with a leather-and-velour interior and split-bench seats. The driver’s seat reclined. We called it the land yacht. He kept it even cleaner than he kept himself. If there was anything he loved, it was that car.

   I was taken aback the first time I saw Leyla, Kevin’s Lebanese girlfriend and treasure chest. She was dark-skinned like she had just crossed the River Jordan, with black hair and a pocket-sized hook nose. There isn’t much that is more problematic than marrying somebody with a big nose. She was swank, with some sort of fur wrapped around the top of her. Her dress was cream-colored and designer. She wasn’t half as good-looking as Kevin, and I pegged her at about ten years older.

   Her groom-to-be lived by the mantra that when he found a woman with millions of dollars, who would sign over most of it to him, and promised to be dead within a couple of years at the most, that was the woman he was going to marry. “It’s just as easy marrying a rich woman as it is marrying a poor one,” he explained. Leyla didn’t look like she was going to drop dead any time soon, although she looked like she had the dollars, for sure. We found out her father was a big time import exporter.

   Kevin knew that married couples become in the eyes of the law one person, and that one person was going to be him. Even though it is true enough that one shouldn’t marry for money, since it is cheaper to simply borrow it, he had a one-track mind.

   I was dating a queen bee by the name of Dana Price. Her family lived in a new house in a new development in Solon, a bedroom suburb about twenty minutes southeast of Cleveland. She worked for IBM as a saleswoman, selling hardware systems to banks, and lived in an apartment twice as large as she needed at the top of Cedar Rd. in Cleveland Heights. Her father ran Mrs. Weiss’ Noodles.

   The family company had been another family’s business for more than forty years. They were Hungarian, churning out Ha-Lush-Ka noodles for casseroles and dumpling-style Kluski egg noodles at their Woodland Ave. plant. When it burned down in 1961 they built a new plant in Solon. By 1968, after they merged with American Mushroom, they were a multi-million-dollar company and still growing. After the Hungarians were dead and gone, Jim Price became president in 1978.

   I called him Big Jim because he was a big man with a big mouth. He knew everything about everything. There was no mistaking where you stood with him. He told me so himself when he told me to stay away from his daughter. He didn’t want her marrying an immigrant son with nothing in the bank and anarchist leanings. But she was as stubborn and determined as her father and ignored him.

   We talked about her father’s concerns. She wasn’t planning on marrying anybody to reform them. “That’s what reform schools are for,” she said. Dana was like the highway between Akron and Cleveland, no curves, but I liked her for sticking up for me.

   Kevin hated Dana. She had swagger to spare, and he knew it. She wasn’t curvier than his steady but was better-looking by far. He resented her faux Boston accent. He resented her family, her family’s wealth, and their lifestyle. The family house in Solon had four bedrooms and a hot tub decking out the back deck. Big Jim drove a Caddy. It seemed like it was always a new car. Kevin hated all Big Jim’s Caddy’s.

   Dana had gone to college in Boston and flew there every two months-or-so to get her hair done by her favorite stylist. That winter, when I was thinking of breaking up with her, she asked me if I wanted to go to Aspen for some skiing. Before I could say anything she stuck an airline ticket in my hand and said she would meet me at the airport. She was going a few days in advance. She was more like her father than she knew. 

   “I’ve only skied a few times,” I told her. “I mostly cross-country ski on the golf courses, which are mostly flat.”

   “You’ll get the hang of it,” she said.

   I felt like I was being hung out to dry with a broken leg in the making. Aspen Mountain is almost 12,000 feet up and has a vertical drop of more than 3,000 feet. The ticket was like an albatross around my neck. I went for a walk around the block to work it out.

   “Why don’t you give the ticket to Matt?” Kevin suggested. “He’s always skiing. He would love to go to Aspen.” Matt’s parents were from Finland, where skiing is second nature. They always said, “One cannot ski so softly that the tracks cannot be seen.” It was some sort of Finnish proverb.

   That’s what I did. I gave the ticket to my roommate. I didn’t say a word to Dana. After he got back from Aspen, Matt told me Dana was thrown off balance when he arrived in my place, his gear in tow. After she got her feet back under her, she swore up a storm and swore it was over between us. She was true to her word.

   “How was the skiing?” I asked.

   “It was great,” Matt said. “You should try it.”

   The on-again off-again wedding of Kevin and Leyla was back on when spring started to bust out all over. They planned to get hitched in June. I had majored in English and minored in Unemployment at Cleveland State University, and so had time to spare for errands and lending a helping hand. I addressed all the invitations, sealed, and stamped them. I mailed them out. The replies started coming back the beginning of May. It was shaping up to be a sizable wedding followed by a chock-full reception. Kevin was opting out of hot wet love and into cold hard cash.

   I thought all his talk about marrying for money was just talk since a lot of what he said was all talk. I found out otherwise. He was going to marry for money. He was inviting anybody and everybody, no matter how distantly related by blood or friendship, adding up what their envelopes stuffed with fifties and hundreds might amount to.

   Kevin had sparred with too many people in his day. There was nothing any girl could say to him that he didn’t have a better retort for. That was his number one problem. What girl was willing put up with a smart-ass day in and day out, much less for the rest of her life? The second problem was he never dated anybody who was better looking than him. When that became clear to whoever was princess for the day, she chopped his head off with words and moved on. Leyla was willing to put up with both problems. She wanted Kevin so she could make him into what she wanted him to be. Kevin was still wrestling with that a week before the wedding. 

   When he went down for the count he called it off. He was giving up the job of loving his girl. Leyla was going to find out soon enough she was being made a monkey of.

   Matt and I were watching the Kardiac Kids on TV a week before the ceremony. It was going to be at St. Marion’s, which was a downtown Maronite church. The congregation had been around since before WW1.  It was the center of Lebanese culture in Cleveland, both religious and ethnic. The Kardiac Kids were the exciting new version of the Cleveland Browns. They snatched victory out of the jaws of defeat most every Sunday. Kevin walked in on the broadcast and tried to break his news flash to us. Brian Sipe was lofting a Hail Mary Pass. We motioned for Kevin to wait. When the Dawg Pound erupted, their prayers answered, we turned to him.

   “What’s that you were saying?” we asked, high fiving each other.

   “The wedding is off,” he said.

   “It’s off?” we asked, flummoxed.

   “Finito,” he said in an Italian accent phony as a bag of baloney, making a slashing motion across his throat. “You’re going to have to let everybody know.”

   “Hey, that’s all right,” I said turning back to the football game, making sure Don Cockcroft had kicked the extra point. “No man should get married until he’s studied some anatomy and dissected one or two women, so you know exactly what you’re going up against.”

   Matt and I were at his parent’s house the next Sunday. They had gotten a new Philips color TV and we were watching the adventures of the Kardiac Kids. The game hung by a thread. In the middle of the drama a slew of commercials interrupted the action. We told them all about Kevin’s misadventure.

   “Life is not a waiting game for better times,” Matt’s dad said when the commercials were wrapping up, the game was coming back on, and we were done with our account of the no wedding.

   “What does that mean?” I wondered. I thought it had to be another Finnish proverb. What about all good things come to those who wait?

   “Even in Helsinki they don’t keep a maid on the dresser too long,” Matt’s mom said as though she had read my mind. I didn’t have to parse that. I went back to watching Brian Sipe avoiding the pass rush and pitching flying colors right and left.

   “Even in Helsinki they don’t keep a maid on the dresser too long,” Matt’s mom said as though she had read my mind. I didn’t have to parse that. I went back to watching Brian Sipe side-stepping the bull rush and pitching flying colors right and left.

Ed Staskus posts on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Made in Cleveland http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Show and Tell

By Ed Staskus

   “It’s one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, now go, cat, go.” Elvis Presley

   Some folks turn on the living room and porch lights Halloween night and wait for the doorbell to ring, others sit on their front steps or stoop, while others plop themselves down on lawn chairs at the base of the driveway. Those who don’t want to bother make sure all their lights are off. They sit sulking or watching whatever on their phones and tablets. They think Halloween is just for kids and that grown-ups have better things to do.

   When I was a kid and went trick or treating with my sister, brother, and our friends it was, next to Christmas, the biggest show of the year. It didn’t matter what exciting show was on TV or what show and tell we had going on the next day at school. What mattered was making sure we stuck to our battle plan. We planned our route days beforehand, which was left out of our house on Bartfield Ave., left on E. 128th St., left on Locke Ave., left on E. 127th St., down Coronado Ave. to Lancelot Ave. and back home. We knew we had about two hours and if we banged on a door every minute we would have gotten to more than a hundred houses and hit the jackpot. When we did we ran home to survey what we had gotten.

   My sister and I hid our loot from our brother. We had to. He had a non-stop sweet tooth. He believed in sharing, like us, but Sharing Street to him was a one-way street.

   All of us hated dark blank houses. Time is candy, we reckoned, and wasting time evaluating a dark house was time lost. We imagined mean old men and women lived there, better left unseen, although we also thought they could have shown their faces at least once a year. Halloween was the one day of the year when we were OK with seeing their wizened selves.

   We weren’t scared about anything anybody threw into our pillow cases, except when it was pennies and apples. The day of crazy people putting razor blades and poison into candy hadn’t arrived yet. We didn’t want money and we got more than enough apples at home. Our mother fed one to us every day to keep the doctor away. When we got sick she gave us cold Ginger Ale and hot slices of liver and onions. The soda was refreshing. The liver and onions were sickening.

   A neighbor high school boy told us there hadn’t always been any such thing as Halloween. We were aghast. How could that be? We ignored him. We found out later he was right, although by that time we weren’t trick or treating anymore, so it didn’t matter.

   In Romania the holiday is Dracula Day. In China it is the Hungry Ghost Festival. In Mexico it is the Day of the Dead. In the Middle Ages in England ‘soulers’ went around begging for round cakes or ‘souls’ during All Hallows Eve to remember the dead. It was the soul kitchen.

   My parents didn’t know a thing about Halloween until we got to the USA. It’s not a traditional celebration in Lithuania, where both came from after WW2. It was only introduced there after the country kicked the Russians out in 1990. It wasn’t much of anything in Sudbury, Canada, where I was born and bred, either. There was usually snow on the ground by the end of October in northern Ontario and nobody went out dressed as a skeleton in zero weather sponging for sweets. 

   Before there was Halloween there was nothing, just the end of the month and the beginning of the next month. Then the Irish Potato Famine happened, and millions of Irishmen came to the USA. They didn’t have any food, but they had culture. They brought Samhein with them. The Irish New Year started on November 1st and Samhein was the day before that. It was when the spirits of the dead returned to the world of the living for one night. Paddy lads and lassies dressed up in costumes and went door to door begging for food and money. Their parents carved ghoulish faces on turnips to ward off evil. They put candles inside the turnips to let kids know they could bang on their door for treats.

   Many youngsters without a drop of Celtic blood in them got into the spirit of it but the powers that be didn’t like it. They blanched at the complaints of vandalism, houses splattered with eggs and toilet paper littering shrubs and trees. Enough is enough, they said, and put a stop to it wherever whenever they could. They didn’t care that some parents wrapped their kids up in toilet paper to look like mummies. After the post-WW2 baby boom there were too many families making too many  demands to make the holiday official, and they were forced to bow to the popular will. Halloween broke out all over.

   It busted loose just in time for the candy companies and us. Old timers used to parcel out nuts, fruits, and trinkets. They thought we would have fun bobbing for apples. They were wrong, just like everybody who gave us candy corn was wrong. Candy corn was originally sold in the 1880s. It was like chicken feed with rooster images on the boxes. Nobody ever ate it unless they wanted a jelly belly. It didn’t matter that the last pyramid-shaped penny candy had been slurried together during the Roaring Twenties. Every year it was repackaged and redistributed. By the mid-50s real candy became the treat of choice. We were all in on the new tradition. We didn’t know it would grow into the second-largest commercial holiday in the country, raking in more than $6 billion dollars.

   It doesn’t do it in on the shoulders of kids going door to door anymore. These days only a third of people hand out candy. Another third leave candy out in a bowl, while the rest keep their lights off. One year my wife and I were going out to dinner with friends. We left a big plastic bowl full of goodies on the front porch with a sign saying, “TAKE ONE.” We were pleased to see it empty when we got home, until we ran into one of our neighbors the next day.

   “Two boys just ten minutes after you left wiped you out. They turned the bowl over and poured everything into their bags. When I went up to them to say something they ran away.”

   We loved getting Clark Bars, which were peanut butter and spun taffy, Zag Nuts, which were peanut butter and toasted coconut, and Mary Janes, which were peanut butter and taffy molasses. We had a soft spot for peanut butter. Treacle was a close second. We hated Necco Wafers. They were tasteless except when they tasted bad. We liked candy cigarettes, which we could pretend to smoke and eat at the same time.

   Many more than less of everybody stays home nowadays and watches a scary movie instead of trick or treating. “Hocus Pocus” is the number one Halloween movie followed by “Friday the 13th” and “It’s a Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown.” In the late 1950s and early 1960s nobody stayed home watching any stinking movie. Everybody beat feet the second it got dark enough for the starting gun to go off. When it did we raced outside and took a left.

   A decade later, when my trick or treating days were behind me, I lived in Asia Town. The old school Cleveland neighborhood had plenty of Chinamen, Eastern Europeans, Puerto Ricans, the working class, trailer trash, beatniks and hippies, and college students. I fit in somewhere between beatnik and college student. I joined the working class whenever I ran out of money. It was an affordable place to live with all of life’s necessities within walking distance, which worked for me because most of the time I didn’t have a car. The rest of the time I had a car that didn’t work most of the time.

   Joe Dwyer was one of my friends who lived one block over. We had gone to high school together and were both some-time students at Cleveland State University. We were dodging the draft as much as we were reading “Paradise Lost.” At least I was reading it for one of my English classes. I was majoring in English with a minor in Unemployment. Joe was an art student and didn’t read anything unless it was necessary. He painted houses whenever the need arose.

   His house was on East 33rd St. between Payne Ave. and Superior Ave. It was narrow as a one-lane road and as cluttered as the Animal House. He smoked reefer like nobody’s business. He made sure it was nobody’s business. In those days cops were always throwing young adults into jail for toking on the weed. Dying in Vietnam was OK. Smoking pot was not OK. He had two white cats with mismatched blue and green eyes. There was a disheveled garden in his postage-stamp sized yard. He collected and decorated gourds.

   One day in mid-October, passing by his house, I heard hammering. When I took a look-see I saw he was hammering a coffin together in his backyard.

   “Who died?” I asked. I didn’t put it past him. He was crafty in more ways than one.

   “Nobody died, not yet, at least,” he said. “This is for Halloween.”

   He was making the coffin so it would stand on its hind legs. He painted the outside a glossy black and the inside a glossy fire engine red. He was going to park it in his front door on the big day. When kids came up his stairs they would have to approach the vertical lid of the coffin in the doorway. When they did, spotting them through a peephole, he opened the lid, dressed as a vampire, and handed out treats.

   Nobody in that neighborhood at that time took a pass on Halloween, especially not that year. The holiday was on a Friday and that made it Halloweekend. It didn’t matter if the children were from China or West Virginia. Every child who could walk hit the mean streets of the near east side running. Every teenager did the same thing. Even some elderly Slovenian women dressed up as themselves went out, their babushkas tied tight under their chins. I sat on a front porch next door to Joe’s house with some college friends. We had a family-size bag of Lay’s potato chips and a 12-pack of Stroh’s beer for ourselves and tossed Home Run gumballs into everybody’s bags, but not before getting our two cents in about the costumes we were seeing. We tried to be nice. The gumballs were right up our alley, costing us close to nothing..

   Joe had somehow rigged up a mirrored stardust ballroom light. It strobed, throwing shards of colored light on the ceiling, walls, and deck of the front porch. Once the trick or treaters were on the porch there was no missing the coffin, especially since a purple floodlight was making it look creepier than coffins usually do.

   At first, everybody was cautious about approaching the coffin. Some kids didn’t even try. They took one look at it and left for greener pastures. Some kids recoiled when Joe slowly swung the lid open, the hinges creaking, extending Nips in assorted flavors. Nips were pint-sized Coke bottles made of food-grade paraffin filled with colored syrup. 

   Some kids fell backwards in surprise when Joe’s hand floated forward reaching for them, landing on their behinds, and scuttling away. A few screamed and ran for their lives. Joe’s vampire get-up featured pancake make-up, fangs, and fake fingers a foot long. His lips were  and eye sockets were blackened. He was dressed in a stitched together tuxedo a starched white shirt, and a black bow tie. There were few parents accompanying their children so there were few irate parents to give Joe a piece of their minds.

   Not that it mattered. When word got out, Joe’s house became the place to go to for fun and fear in Asia Town. At first the line was down the walk. Then it was down the sidewalk. Then it was around the block. Everybody had to see the coffin for themselves. When Joe ran out of Nips I ran to Stan’s Deli on the corner and got more of anything he had.

   Stan was a Polack who ran a combo meat counter and beverage store on Payne Ave. He was short and heavy-set and always wore a white apron. It never had drops of gore or blood on it, which was surprising since he so seldom washed it. It was plain dirty all the time. He sold a grab bag of wares besides ground beef and beer. He had a box of old flavored wax lips he said I could have at a big discount. I bought those. He had bags of old cotton candy. He slashed the price. I bought those, too. He had wads of World War Two-era Orbit chewing gum. I bought those and rushed back to Joe’s house.

   He was still there, standing outside his coffin, telling monster stories in lieu of handing out treats. We dished out what I had brought back until it was all gone and then called it a day. “Hey mister, you got any candy corn to go with that gum?” a pint-sized Long John Silver asked. The next morning Joe told me he was so tired at the end of the night that he threw himself down on his sofa still clad in his Bela Lugosi outfit and fell right asleep. “I slept like the dead last night,” he said.

   At the end of the first “Halloween” movie, after Dr. Sam Loomis pumps six bullets into Michael Myers, he catches his breath on the balcony and looks down at the sidewalk. He doesn’t see the boogeyman lying there. He’s gone! When that happened, everybody knew there was going to be a sequel, just like everybody knows after the big night that the next Halloween is exactly one year away.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

High Wire Act

By Ed Staskus

   When your back is to the wall, you’ve only got one place to fall, which is flat on your face. I didn’t want to do that. I had gotten married the year before and it was time to knuckle down. I called Doug Clarke and asked if I could see him.

   “Absolutely,” he said.

   “What’s a good time?”

   “Anytime.”

   We made a time on the following Monday.

   I met Doug Clarke when he was in a small building on Linda St. in Rocky River. It was going on the late 1980s. Doug had been set up in business by his father, who worked for Philips Lighting. He was selling commercial lighting and had lately gotten a head start on tanning bulbs. Philips had developed the 10R, 09, and 09R fluorescent UV tubes for the European market and Doug was selling them like gangbusters. There were three of them, Doug, his friend and salesman Marty Gallagher, and Chuck Pampush, who did the warehouse work and driving. The company truck was a red F150 Econoline. It was called the Lightmobile.

   Doug had an office, but Marty’s desk was in a hallway leading to the warehouse. They weren’t going to stay friends long. As tanning bulb sales grew by leaps and bounds Marty took the leap and set up his own distributorship. It went to court, there were claims and counterclaims of theft of trade secrets, but in the end, they both stayed in business, personal enemies, and business rivals.

   Randy Bacon, Chuck’s brother-in-law, helped in the warehouse now and then. He had a tattoo inside his mouth under his front lip. It said, “Fuck You.” I gave him a wide berth whenever I saw him. I gave his junkyard dog a wide berth, too. The pooch was unusually mean.

   By the time I met Doug on Monday he wasn’t in Rocky River anymore. He had fast outgrown it. He was in Lakewood on the third floor of a hybrid industrial commercial building, renting space and then more space.

   “What can you offer us?” he asked.

   “I can offer you 20-some years. After that it’s up for grabs.”

   “Steady Eddie.”

   “That’s right.”

   “All right, you’re hired.”

   In the end it amounted to twenty-two years.

   When Doug was still in Rocky River I had teamed up with a friend of mine and set up a small tanning salon across the street from the Cleveland State University campus. We were in a five-story brick building at East 21st St. and Euclid Ave. The Rascal House Saloon was across the street. It was where concert goers at Peabody’s Down Under would go after shows for a gorge fest. The Plain Dealer called it “Cleveland’s Best Pizza.” I went whenever I was famished and down to a couple of bucks.

   “Man, I spent a lot of book sale money there!” Carla Wainwright, a graduate of CSU, said. “You never got much for used books, but it was a win if you got enough for a beer and a slice.”

   We were on the lower level. Bill Stech, an architect and the landlord, was on the top floor. He always wore the same dark suit, white shirt, and dark tie. He had black hair that looked laid on. He always made promises and usually broke his promises. After a while I stopped taking it personally. Whenever he didn’t want to see me, his receptionist said he wasn’t in, even though his car was parked in the back in its customary space. Sometimes I could see him in his office, his back turned to me.

   My business partner was a full-time fireman in Bay Village, so I did most of the work at the tanning salon. I drummed up additional work at other salons, trying to make myself useful, doing repairs, selling delivering installing bulbs, and whatever else needed a handyman. I kept my head above water, but I was treading water. When Doug hired me for part-time sales, I opened a savings account.

   Doug had moved to the Screw Factory on Athens Ave in Lakewood. Madison Park was in front of the building and Birdtown was all around us. One day after work, as I walked to my car, I saw a dead bird stuck headfirst in my front grill. I hadn’t heard or felt him hit the car that morning. He was stiff and there were flies buzzing around him. I pulled him out, wrapped him in a newspaper, and took him to the park, where I laid him down in a pile of autumn leaves.

   The brick pile was going on a hundred years. It was on 18 acres with plenty of parking. From 1917 to 1924 it was the Templar Automotive Plant. They built cars, trying to compete with Detroit.

   Dave Buehler, a Lakewood native, collected cars and had more than dozen of the Templars. He had restored them and kept them on display on the same floor where they were first assembled. I sat in one of them one day. It was sizable enough but uncomfortable. The steering wheel was huge, and the mirrors were tiny. It looked like it would transition into a coffin at the first whiff of an accident.

   The building became Lake Erie Screw in 1946 when John Wasmer took it over and started manufacturing fasteners. In the 1970s they added large bolts to their line-up and growth accelerated. When most fastener manufacturers disappeared into China, the Wasmer family kept up the beat of the hometown maker and their growth continued apace. By the mid-90s the company was doing about a hundred million dollars in annual sales, all of it in cap screws and structural bolts.

   In the beginning my job was as thankless as it gets in the world of commerce. I had a cubicle the width of a toilet and was expected to cold call until I got sick of it. I got sick of it every day. There were few busy business owners who wanted to talk to an eager beaver trying to sell them something. The other salesmen sat back and waited for calls to come to them. They racked up commissions while I racked up zeros.

   It took longer than I wanted, but I finally got a desk and got to answer in-coming calls. I sat between Betty the Typist and Jim Bishop. Betty was a looker who never looked at me, except when she had something sharp to say. She was doe-eyed on Doug. Even though Doug had a girlfriend who was going to be his wife soon enough, the talk was that he and Betty were close.

   He had a bedroom behind what passed for his office, which was a large desk at the back of our shared bullpen. There was a waterbed and a fridge. There were posters of hot cars and hot girls on the walls. There were piles of clothes and old mail everywhere. He wasn’t especially tidy.

   One day when I was on the phone with a customer, Betty broke into her song and dance about what I was doing wrong and what I should be doing to win friends and influence people enough to make them buy our stuff. She didn’t stop even when I finished the call and was writing up the sale.

   “Look, shit for brains,” I finally said loud enough for anybody listening to hear. “You take care of your business at that typewriter over there and I’ll take care of mine over here.” Nobody dropped a pin in case I had anymore to say. Betty sniffed and went to the bathroom. I went over to Doug’s desk and apologized for the outburst. He laughed it off. I never apologized to Betty. She wasn’t ever going to become Mrs. Doug Clarke, anyway.

   We were riding the wave of the tanning craze. We had more sales than we knew what to with. Doug rented additional space for warehousing our bulbs and hired more packers. Trailer loads of bulbs from Cosmedico, Wolff Systems, and Light Sources rolled in every other week. We sent small orders out by UPS and pallet orders out by LTL.

   Doug started out as Efficient Lighting selling run-of-the mill commercial lighting. Tanning bulbs sold under the name of Ultraviolet Resources were making him rich, but we still sold all kinds of incandescent, fluorescent, and high-pressure bulbs. I got into the swing of it and lent a hand, even though the commissions were less. Jim Bishop was the lead man. He sat on the other side of me. Betty hated him more than she hated me. He never stopped baiting her, no matter what. 

   I couldn’t make him out. He looked like hell, even though John Elias, another salesman one desk down, told me he was trying to “hold on to his youth.” That horse was out of the barn. He lived in the Warehouse District, in the Bradley Building, an early pioneer of downtown’s revitalized housing. He wore his hair long, down to his shoulders, dressed better than anybody else in the office, and only took calls when he wanted to. He snorted coke on his lunch hour and was always more personable when he got back to the office.

   He liked to stop at Betty’s desk and stare down at her without saying a word.

   “What do you want now?” she asked, breaking the silence.

   “What if I told you I was gay?” he asked.

   “Just go away, please,” she said.

   Kathy Hayes was Mrs. Doug Clarke in the making. There was no mistake about that. She brought her sister Maggie into the business, then her brothers Kevin and John. Kathy came from a family of thirteen. More brothers and sisters came and went as the need arose. Maggie, Kevin, and John stayed. They became Beavis and the Buttheads. Maggie was Beavis. Kathy was the Queen of Mean.

   She was a mix of go-getter, speed and greed, and a hair trigger temper. She calmed down after her children arrived, but never lost the mean streak. She was my immediate boss, so I watched my step. I was fake polite to Beavis and the Buttheads.

   After I cold called myself into the good graces of the kingfish, I settled into a routine of Monday through Friday. It wasn’t what I wanted to do but it was what I had to do. The only concession I was able to wrangle was a starting time of 11 AM to be able to work at my part-time job, which was more remunerative but not as steady. I would be getting a paycheck every two weeks, making good on my bills, and paying into a 401k, which were good things. I never worked overtime and never volunteered for anything. They didn’t pay me enough for that.

   The American Dream is only true blue for those who say so.

   Towards the end of the millennium Doug broke ground on a new state of art warehouse and offices in Brook Park. He spared no expense. It was 45,000 square feet next door to the 230-acre Holy Cross Cemetery. There were dedicated loading docks and a separate dock for the delivery services. There were skylights in the warehouse. The head honchos had sizable offices with windows. There was a gym and a party center on the second floor. The lunchroom was all stainless steel and a huge flat screen. Christ on the Cross was fixed to the wall above the front entrance doors. The cross looked like a cactus.

   It rained money. One day a young Middle Eastern man walked in with a paper bag stuffed with more than 50 grand in tens and twenties. He was setting up a salon. We were outfitting it. I wrote up the sale but didn’t bother counting the loot. I left that to Beavis, who scowled mightily when I poured the cash out on her desk.

   We moved into our up-to-date nerve center at the beginning of the new century. It was the beginning of the end at the other end of the glad handing. It took five or six years but Light Sources, whose tanning bulbs were Doug’s meal ticket, decided they wanted a bigger slice of the pie. They offered Doug a choice. He could sell the tanning division to them, they would send somebody from headquarters to run things, or he could decline their offer, in which case they would open their own operation somewhere else, bypassing him. Doug went with the flow. Everything stayed put.

   It didn’t do any good. Inside a few years Light Sources moved themselves to Westlake, Beavis and the Buttheads jumped ship and went with them, and Doug was left holding the bag. He lost a ton of money in the stock market downturn of 2007. As the second decade of the century dawned, he had to shed most of his remaining staff, including me, sell his new building, find an older, smaller building, then find something even smaller, until he ended up in a strip of mom-and-pop shops in Avon selling whatever he could. His kids didn’t re-enroll at their private schools. He lost his McMansion in North Ridgeville.

   In life he bore a resemblance to the late-night TV host Johnny Carson. He had a warm smile and went out of his way to make most people feel good, even though he was as oriented to the bottom line as a manhunter. He had been president of the Brook Park Chamber of Commerce. He spent money on himself and his family like he had money to burn. The money ran out slowly but surely. By the time he died there wasn’t much left.

   “I feel bad for the victim,” Dan Darko of nearby Elyria said. “It sucks to feel pushed to that point. But I feel worse for the driver. One person’s choice will affect him for the rest of his life to the point where he may never be able to do his chosen profession again.”

   It happened so fast the driver didn’t have a chance to touch his brakes. I couldn’t believe it was an accident, but I had a hard time believing Doug had deliberately done it. He was a Roman Catholic, taught Sunday School at his church, and was a member of Religious Readiness. According to Rome, death by suicide is a grave matter. It holds that one’s life is the property of God, and to destroy that life is to wrongly assert dominion over God’s creation. I never knew how sincere Doug was about his faith. I knew he sincerely valued prosperity. I don’t know if he had lost his faith. I knew he had lost his prosperity.

   The funeral was at St Clarence Church in North Olmsted. He left a wife and four kids behind. All the in-laws and good friends who had bailed out on him when Light Sources swallowed up his golden goose were there. They said all the right things. I didn’t go to the service. I had never been close to Doug or Kathy, keeping my distance. His in-laws always talked loud trying to tell you what they didn’t like. They had their faults, but changing their tune wasn’t one of them. The less I saw of them the better. I felt sorry for his fatherless kids.

   If Doug walked in front of the semi-truck trailer on I-90 on purpose, I wondered if he did it for them. He probably had a loaded life insurance policy. It might have had a suicide clause limiting the payment of benefits. He might have thought he could kill two birds with one stone if it looked like an accident. He could stay in the good graces of the church and provide for the future of his family.

   Nobody never does not have a good reason for committing suicide, especially if they believe hope is gone and not coming back. The problem is that the glow of how Doug lived his life is dulled by how he died. The first thing I now remember about him is how his life came to an end on a stretch of godforsaken go for broke concrete.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Pinball Wizard

By Ed Staskus

   In 1984 the Cleveland Browns finished the season 5 and 11 and nearly dead last in the NFL in points scored. The Municipal Stadium on Lake Erie was a cold lonely ballpark that winter with no happy memories to keep it warm. Two years later, in Bernie Kosar’s first full season as the starting quarterback, the team went 12 and 4, their best record in nearly twenty years, and scored points right left and center. 

   Webster Slaughter and Brian Brennan pulled in TD passes while Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack punched it in when they were knocking on the door. They only kicked field goals when it was necessary, like when it was 4th and forever to go. Even then, all bets were off.

   Facing the New York Jets in 1986 in the playoffs, Bernie Kosar led the Browns to a double-overtime win, leading two come-back scoring drives in the final four minutes of regulation. He set a playoff record for passing yards. They got knocked out of the playoffs the next round when they lost the AFC Championship Game, again in overtime.

   The quarterback was from Youngstown. His parents were Hungarian. He grew up in Boardman Township and went to Boardman High School. He didn’t play pinball then but was a hell of an athlete, slinging baseballs and footballs. The baseballs were strikes and the footballs were completed passes. In 1981 Parade Magazine named him Ohio’s Division I “Player of the Year.”

   My friends and I got hooked on the Cleveland Browns when they were the Kardiac Kids. We looked forward to the Sunday games and never missed them no matter what. If it was a Monday night game, it turned into a party. After their glory days in the 1960s the team hit a dry spell in the 1970s. Then 1979 happened. They were losing their first game of the season, and time was running out, when Brian Sipe threw up a 45-yard prayer and Dave Logan answered the prayer by hauling in the pigskin. In no time flat the game was tied, and the Browns pulled it out in overtime. Municipal Stadium went nuts.

   The following week a doctor from the Cleveland Clinic stopped at the team’s training center. “He showed us a paper readout on a cardiac machine,” quarterback Brian Sipe said. “It showed that somebody had died right at that moment. I think the story was that he was watching the game, and he died.” The team was the Kardiac Kids from then on.

   The 1980 season was more of the same, a few crushing defeats and an abundance of miraculous wins, until it all came to an end with Right Red 88. The Browns were knocking on the door towards the end of a tight game against the Oakland Raiders. The play call from Head Coach Sam Rutigliano was “Red slot right, halfback stay, 88.” As Brian Sipe started back out onto the field his coach told him, “Throw it into Lake Erie if no one is open.” Instead, he threw it to Oakland safety Mike Davis and that was the end of the Kardiac Kids.

   It took six years, but when Bernie Kosar got to Cleveland and started working his magic, the glow inside the lakeside stadium came back. For two years he was the second-best quarterback in the world, behind only Dan Marino. He had half as many interceptions and half as many fumbles as Boomer Esiason. He threw for more yards and more touchdowns and had fewer interceptions than John Elway.

   He almost didn’t make it to Cleveland. On the first play of the first game of his college career at the University of Miami a defensive lineman tracked him down. They were playing the Florida Gators in Gainesville. “It was a guy named Wilbur Marshall,” Bernie said. “We were backed up on the one-yard line, he cracked me into the brick wall that goes around Gator-land and the first thing I thought as I was laying there was, ‘I better do good in school because this football thing is not going to work out.’”

   He stuck it out, though, graduating with a degree in economics and leading Miami to a National Championship. When he got to the NFL, he found out there were more than brick walls to worry about. “The league was encouraging crown of the helmet, top of the helmet blows,” he said. “The beginning of Monday Night Football was two helmets smashing together. The pregame show had a segment called ‘Jacked Up,’ about how hard did you hit a guy and you were glorified for using your helmet as a weapon.”

   Bernie Kosar played tough football in tough times. He also played a mean pinball. He played for himself. It wasn’t about burning off steam. It wasn’t about a need to conquer the machine age. It wasn’t a metaphor for sexual fulfillment. It was like black magic in his hands.

   The Tam O’Shanter was a bar and grill in Lakewood, a bus line suburb on the west side of Cleveland. I had recently moved there and was living a couple of blocks from the Rocky River Reservation and a half-mile from Lake Erie. The bar and grill wasn’t far from where I lived. It was where I saw Bernie playing pinball one Thursday night.

   “He comes in for dinner and a draft and to play pinball every Thursday after the team film sessions,” Tom Gannon, who owned and operated the place, said. “He gets a buzz out of it.”

   Bernie was a big man, six foot five, but just a hearty dinner over two hundred pounds. He looked as fit as fit could be, even though he was gangly. He lived in a swank pink apartment building down Detroit Rd. in Rocky River on the west side of the bridge, overlooking the river. When he was done with whatever pinball game he had been dominating it was a five-minute drive home.

   He played the new-style digital electronic machines. Even though he was tall, he didn’t hunch over them. No matter how fast things got he stayed slow on the flippers, never getting overly excited. He played the Fathom, the Firepower, and the Eight Ball Deluxe. Time and again he played the Flash Gordon. It was the toughest of the pinball machines at the Tam O’Shanter. Everybody said it was the toughest single game of them all. The focus of it was trying to hit targets within a few allotted seconds to get double or triple points. Bernie could make it look easy.

   “The first inches of a pinball game are always the same,” Eric Meunier, a game designer at Jersey Jack Pinball, said. “But after that, the ball can go anywhere.” A spring-loaded plunger propels the ball up the shooter alley and the next second it is inside an amusement park maze of obstacles. There are ramps, spinners, and blinking lights. The goal is to keep the ball in play and away from the drain, a hole at the bottom of the playfield where the ball ends up after you lose control of it.

   Training camp for the Cleveland Browns was at Lakeland Community College in nearby Kirtland. “All of a sudden, I graduated quick, and you’re in camp,” Bernie said. “It’s seven weeks of training camp with Marty Schottenheimer. You’re right in the thick of it.” It was thick or thin on and off the field. “In between two-a-day practices, players and reporters could mingle in the dormitories,” Tony Grossi, the beat reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, said. “Lakeland had a couple of vintage pinball machines in the players’ lounge. Players competed against reporters in daily pinball contests.” 

   Nobody ever reported beating the curly-haired rookie at pinball. He played it clean, like he could feel the bumpers. He always got the replays.

   He tried not to replay the first snap he took in the NFL for the Cleveland Browns against the New England Patriots. He fumbled the snap from center, and their rivals kicked a field goal, going up 3 – 0. “I just dropped it,” he admitted. When his chance came the following series, he handled the ball like an old pro, completing seven straight passes, and the Browns downed the Patriots 24- 20. He led the team to five playoff appearances and three trips to the AFC Championship Game in five years. By 1990, despite his sidearm throws, he held the all-time league record for fewest interceptions when calculated against attempts.

   The Tam O’Shanter was near St. James Catholic Church. Fridays and Saturdays were for the O’Shanter. Sundays were for St. James and the Browns. Men tacked on prayers for the home team and wives racked up time serving snacks and drinks on game day. Bernie was raised a religious boy and didn’t change his stripes when he landed in Cleveland as a grown man. He attended church in his parish and appeared at pep rallies whenever asked. One morning more than four hundred kids gave him a big cheer when he stepped into their school gym, the nuns with their rulers keeping order. Two of the kids sang ‘Bernie Bernie’ from the stage. It had been a big hit on the radio the year before.

   When question time came, after all the playing football questions, and all the questions about what he did and didn’t like, one kid asked, “How much beer can you drink?”

   “Never mind, and stay away from that stuff,” he answered, and started autographing notebooks.

   After the rally, walking out with a reporter, a nun approached them. “If you ever find out anything bad about Bernie, we don’t want to know about it,” she said to the reporter. She tapped a ruler on the palm of her free hand. Bernie gave her a thumb’s up.

   I had played a few games of pinball in my time, but I was no wizard at it. Far from it. After watching Bernie play several times, I thought I might be able to get the hang of it. I was older and wiser. There was only one objective, which was to keep the ball in play and score as many points as possible. The longer the ball was in play more free balls could be won and more free replays could be earned. How hard could it be?

   The Tam O’Shanter was nearly empty the Tuesday afternoon I stopped in. I went to the Flash Gordon and studied it. The rocketman in ripped biceps and a red muscle T, a babe wearing a metallic bodice with pointy tips that could poke a man’s eye out, and a bald mean-looking dude with a goatee were on the back box display. The playfield looked challenging if nothing else. There were lights and colors galore. I thought, it stands on four legs, pulling its pants up one leg at a time like we all do. I dropped a quarter into the coin slot and went exploring.

   Pinball was going to celebrate its 60th anniversary in a couple of years. It got rolling during the Great Depression. At first the machines didn’t have flippers. Players leaned and banged on them to try to get the ball to fall into a hole. Flippers were invented in 1947. It had been a rocky road. The amusement was outlawed almost everywhere in the 1940s. Gambling on the game was rampant. All the pinball machines in New York City were confiscated in 1942. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and his crusaders smashed them to bits and pieces with sledgehammers and dumped them into the East River. In the 1970s they were still outlawed in Chicago and Los Angeles. Video games nearly wiped the pastime out. But it was back. Pinball machines raked in more than 10 billion quarters in 1988.

   I put another quarter into Flash Gordon. My first quarter had gone down the drain in a flash. I took a deep breath and squared my shoulders.

   Ball control and shot accuracy are the one-two punch of pinball. Trapping the ball with a flipper and tip passing it between flippers are important skills. It’s handy knowing how to bounce pass and post pass. Nudging is body language, although getting a feel for the machine’s tilt sensitivity is vital. The death save comes into play when it’s all gone wrong.

   By the end of the afternoon, I was out of quarters and nowhere near being better at pinball than I had been when I walked in. I walked home. I saved my quarters for the rest of the week and went back to the Tam O’Shanter the next Tuesday. One day I brought twenty-five quarters, another day fifty quarters. I kept it up through the fall and into winter. I gave it up after the New Year. I wasn’t ready to give it years of practice. I didn’t have enough loose change.

   I could not for the life of me get the hang of it. I played racquetball in state-wide amateur tournaments and squash on a downtown club team. I was good enough to hold my own most of the time. Both racquet sportds were like pinball, the ball bouncing all over the place. But there was something helter-skelter about pinball that I couldn’t master. I wasn’t a mind reader, especially not my own mind, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. I knew there was some luck and chance involved in playing pinball, but there was luck and chance involved in everything.

   It wasn’t a physical struggle. Making the flippers slap was no great strain. It was a mental struggle. I wasn’t nervous and never distracted by the lights and noise of the machine. I kept my eyes on the prize, especially when the ball was coming down the middle of the table and there wasn’t anything I could do about it.

   When he was in the pocket Bernie Kosar usually stayed there. He always ended up dead last in foot races, anyway. He was wily and patient waiting to throw the pigskin at the last second while defensive linemen and blitzing linebackers bore down on him. He kept looking downfield no matter the topsy turvy.

  I followed the pinball wherever it went. I knew that was a mistake but kept doing it. There was no reason to focus on the ball when it was in the top half of the machine. The time to focus was when it was in the bottom half. Then it was flipper time. I made myself dizzy watching the bouncing ball too much. I was thinking all the time, wearing myself out, sucking all the fun out of the game.

   I was smacking the flippers and getting an occasional big score, but not controlling the hubbub. I couldn’t reconcile the hit-or-miss ricochets of the silver ball. There were hardly ever any random bounces on racquetball and squash courts. There were good shots and bad shots, but no random shots. I couldn’t tap into the uncertainty principle of pinball.

   By 1990 Bernie Kosar had a nearly dead elbow, a torn ligament in the front finger of his throwing hand and was limping like Ahab on a bad day. Homemade signs were asking “Bernie Who?” and popping up at Municipal Stadium. He was 25 years old, and on his way out. When they lost to the Denver Broncos in the playoffs again the Browns became the first AFC team to ever lose their first three conference championship games.

   He wasn’t deaf dumb or blind, though, and once his hand healed, he won a Super Bowl ring playing for the Dallas Cowboys. In his free time, he touched base with Flash Gordon. The rocket man flashed a ray gun bristling with energy coils, but when the homeboy threw down two bits and put his fingers on the flipper controls, both knew all bets were off.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Busted Flat on Prospect

By Ed Staskus

   As the Me Decade was winding down, I discovered I was poor as a church mouse. I owned lots of dog-eared books, some clothes, and a broken-down car. I didn’t have any money in the bank because I didn’t have a bank account. When the time came for me to leave Prospect Ave. for better prospects, it was past time. I didn’t have a clock, but I could tell.

   I moved out of the Plaza Apartments because I couldn’t make the rent, which wasn’t astronomical by any means, but considerable enough for me. I moved into a Polish double in Asia Town with a roommate and my Siamese cat. The house was behind another house with no driveway or garage, but the rent was heaven-sent. The kitchen was small to non-existent. The living room was large and the bedrooms fair-sized. The neighborhood was a mix of old-timers, students, and Chinamen. It was quiet, too, with little of the vice and violence that made Prospect Ave. menacing.

   In the 1870s the avenue steamrolled past Erie Street, which is now East 9th St., and kept going until it reached East 55th St. That’s where it stopped. “Lower Prospect, closer into downtown, went commercial long ago, but Upper Prospect, east of say 14th or 22nd, stayed residential longer,” says Bill Barrow, historian at the Michael Schwartz Library at Cleveland State University. Lower Prospect is where lots of downtown entertainment is now, including Rocket Mortgage Field House, where the NBA Cavaliers play basketball, and the House of Blues.

   At the turn of the century the Rose Building was built at East 9th St. and Prospect Ave. There were only four cars in the city. Everybody else walked or rode a horse-pulled streetcar. It was called Rose’s Folly because everybody believed it was too far from Public Square, even though it was less than a mile.

   The Winton Hotel was built in 1916 on the far side of East 9th St. It was highfalutin. It was renamed the Carter Hotel in 1931, suffered a cruel fire in the 1960s, but was renovated and renamed Carter Manor. I never set foot in it. The Ohio Bell Building went up in the 1920s before the Terminal Tower on Public Square was built.  When it was finished it became the tallest structure in the city. It was the building that Cleveland’s teenaged creators of Superman had the Man of Steel first leap over in a single bound. The cartoon strip appeared in their Glenville High School newspaper, The Daily Planet.

   Before Superman ever got the nickname, the Man of Steel was Doc Savage. There were dozens of the adventure books written by Lester Dent. When I was a kid, I read every one I could get my hands on. Doc Savage always saved the day. Nothing ever slowed him down, not kryptonite, not anything. 

   In the 1970s Prospect Ave. wasn’t a place where anybody wanted to raise kids. Nobody even wanted to visit the place with their kids in tow. The street was littered with dive bars, hookers, and bookstores like the Blue Bijou. There was heroin in the shadows and plasma donation centers opened in the morning light. The junkies knew all about needles and got paid for their donations.

   The Plaza was around 70 years old when I moved in. There was ivy on the brick walls and shade trees in the courtyard. There were day laborers, retirees, some no-goods, college students, beatniks and shiftless hippies, artists and musicians living there. “The people who lived in the building during my days there helped shaped my artistic and moral being,” Joanie Deveney said. “We drank and partied, but our endeavors were true, sincere, and full of learning.” Everybody called her Joan of Art.

   Not everybody was an artist or musician.

   “But anybody could try to be,” Rich Clark said. “We were bartenders and beauticians and bookstore clerks with something to say. There was an abiding respect for self-expression. We encouraged each other to try new things, and people dabbled in different forms. Poets painted, painters made music, and musicians wrote fiction.”

   The punk band Pere Ubu called it home. Their synch player Allen Ravenstine owned the property with his partner Dave Bloomquist. “I was a kid from the suburbs. When we bought the building in the red-light district in 1969, we did everything from paint to carpentry. We tried to restore it unit by unit.”

   The restoration went on during the day. The parties went on at night. They went on long into the night.

   “I remember coming home at four in the morning,” Larry Collins said. “There would be people in the courtyard drinking beer and playing music. We watched the hookers and the customers play hide-and-seek with undercover vice cops. In the morning, I would wake up to see a huge line of locals waiting in line in front of the plasma center.”

   When I lived there, I attended Cleveland State University on and off, stayed fit by walking since my car was unfit, and hung around with my friends. Most of us didn’t have TV’s. We entertained ourselves. I worked for Minuteman whenever I absolutely had to. The jobs I got through them were the lowest-paying grunge jobs on the face of the planet, but beggars can’t be choosers.

   I spent a couple of weeks on pest control bending and crawling into and out of tight spaces searching for rats, roaches, and termites. My job was to eliminate them with pesticides. The sprays were toxic. The bugs ran and hid. I tried to not breath the white mist in.

   I spent a couple of days roofing, trying not to fall off sloped elevated surfaces that were far hotter than the reported temperature of the day. The work was as unskilled as it got, which suited me, but I got to hate high places. My land legs were what kept me going. I didn’t want to fall off a roof and break either one of them.

   I spent a couple of hours jack hammering, quitting in the middle of the day.

   “If you don’t go back, don’t bother coming back here,” the Minuteman boss told me. “Hit the road, Jack,” I said, walking out. I wasn’t worried about alienating the temporary agency. Somebody was always hiring somebody to do the dirty work.

   The Plaza was four stories and a basement, a high and low world. Some folks were lazy as bags of baloney while others were hard-working. Some didn’t think farther ahead than their next breath while others thought it was a Lego world for the making.

   “I had a basement apartment in the front,” Nancy Prudic said. “The junkies sat on the ledge and partied all night long. But the Plaza was a confluence of creative minds from many fields. It was our own little world. Besides artists, there were architects and urban planners. My kids grew up there.”

   Some kids didn’t grow all the way up. Some of them didn’t last long. They moved on one way or another. One of the kids was Pete Laughner.

   He was from Bay Village, an upper middle class lakefront suburb west of Cleveland. He wrote songs, sang, and played guitar. He was “the single biggest catalyst in the birth of Cleveland’s alternative rock scene in the mid-1970s,” Richard Unterberger said. He led the bands Friction and Cinderella Backstreet. He co-founded Rocket from the Tombs. “They were a mutant papa to punk rock as well as spawning a number of famous and infamous talents, all packed into one band,” Dave Thomas said. After the Rockets crashed and burned, he teamed with Dave the Crocus Behemoth to form Pere Ubu.

   Pere Ubu’s debut show was at the Viking Saloon in late 1975. Their flyer said, “New Year’s Eve at the Viking. Another Godamn Night. Another year for me and you, another year with nothing to do.” Pete had a different take on it. “We’re pointing toward the music of the 80s.”

   When he wasn’t making his stand on a riser, Pete was writing about rock and roll for Creem, a new monthly music magazine which was as sincere and irreverent as his guitar playing. The magazine coined the term “punk rock” in 1971. “Creem nailed it in a way that nobody else did,” says Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth.

   He played with the Mr. Stress Blues Band in 1972 when he was 20 years old. They played every Friday and Saturday at the Brick Cottage. Mr. Stress called the squat building at Euclid Ave. and Ford Rd. the “Sick Brick.” When he did everybody called for another round. Monique the one and only barman ran around like a madwoman. “The more you drink, the better we sound,” the stocky man on the mouth organ said.

   Mr. Stress was a stocky TV repairman by day. The lanky curly-haired Pete Laughner was in disrepair day and night. He wasn’t part-time anything. He wasn’t like the other sidemen. His guitar playing was raw and jagged. While the band was doing one thing, he seemed to be doing another thing. 

   “He only ever had three guitar lessons,” said his mother.

   “He was so energetic and driven, but his energy couldn’t be regulated,” said Schmidt Horning, who played in the Akron band Chi Pig. “It could make it hard to play with him. He was so anxious and wouldn’t take a methodical approach.”

   Pete was already in bands in his mid-teens. “Peter was my boyfriend when we were 15,” Kathy Hudson said. “He still had his braces. He was with the Fifth Edition. They were playing at the Bay Way one time and he wanted them to bust up their equipment like The Who. The others weren’t down with it.”

   Charlotte Pressler was who Pete married. “From 1968 to 1975 a small group of people were evolving styles of music that would, much later, come to be called ‘New Wave’. But the whole system of New Wave interconnections which made it possible for every second person on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to become a star did not exist in Cleveland,” she said. “There were no stars in Cleveland. Nobody cared what they were doing. If they did anything at all, they did it for themselves. They adapted to those conditions in different ways. Some are famous. Some are still struggling. One is dead.”

   Before Pete died, he stepped into a photo booth in the Cleveland Arcade, one of the earliest indoor shopping arcades in the United States. He was wearing a black leather jacket and looked exhausted. He sent the pictures and a note to a friend. “Having a wonderful time. Hope you never find yourself here.”

   He played his kind of music at Pirate’s Cove in the Flats, along with Devo and the Dead Boys. “We’re trying to go beyond those bands like the James Gang and Raspberries, drawing on the industrial energy here,” Pete said. He played at the Viking Saloon, not far from the Greyhound station, until it burned down in 1976. Dave Thomas was a bouncer there, keeping law and order more than just an idle rumor. He wasn’t the Crocus Behemoth for nothing.

   Pete wrote to a friend of his in 1976. “I’m drinking myself to death. No band, no job, running out of friends. It’s easy, you start upon waking with Bloody Mary’s and beer, then progress through the afternoon to martinis, and finally cognac or Pernod. When I decided I wanted to quit I simply bought a lot of speed and took it and then drank only about a case of beer a day, until one day I woke up and knew something was wrong, very wrong. I couldn’t drink. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t piss or shit anything but water. And then the pain started, slowly like a rat eating at my guts until I couldn’t stand it anymore and was admitted to the hospital.”

   The rat was pancreatitis. If you lose a shoe at midnight you’re drunk. Pete lost shoes like other people lose socks in the dryer. He didn’t need any shoes where he was going. It was the beginning of the end of him. It didn’t take long. He wouldn’t or couldn’t listen to his doctor’s orders. He went back to his old pal, booze.

   “Peter could do whatever he wanted to do,” said Tony Mamione who played bass in Pere Ubu. “He was instrumental in crafting the Pere Ubu sound, but, even at such an early age, had a deep understanding of all kinds of music.”

   Tony and Pete met when they lived across the hall from each other on the third floor of the Plaza Apartments. “I had just moved in and would play my bass and Peter heard it through the walls and knocked on my door. We started talking and he went back and grabbed his guitar and some beer, and we started jamming right away.”

  Pete was as good if not better on the piano than the guitar, even though the guitar was his rocket ship. One day he found a serviceable piano at a bargain price and bought it. He and Tony picked it up to take back to the Plaza. “Here I was driving his green Chevy van down Cedar Ave. and there he was in the back of the van rocking out on the piano,” Tony said. “He was so special, a pure musician.”

   After they coaxed dragged muscled the piano up to the third floor, they had some beers and the next jam session started.

   “I want to do for Cleveland what Brian Wilson did for California and Lou Reed did for New York,” Pete said in 1974. “I’m the guy between the Fender and the Gibson. I want a crowd that knows a little bit of the difference between the sky and the street. It’s all those kids out there standing at the bar, talking trash, waiting for an anthem.”

   They would have to wait for somebody else. Pete Laughner died in 1977 a month before his 25th birthday. He was one year younger than me. He didn’t die at the Plaza Apartments. Neither of us was there anymore. He died in his sleep at his parent’s home in Bay Village. There’s nowhere to fall when your back is against the wall, except maybe where you got up on your feet in the first place.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Full Steam Ahead

By Ed Staskus

   I hadn’t seen my bootleg niece for three or four years. When she unexpectedly showed up the first week of Lent, I thought we might get together. She had always been a hard girl to get close to, opinionated and stubborn. But I thought I would try to catch up to what she had been doing. When two weeks went by, and it still hadn’t happened, I stopped in to see my sister, where Silvija was staying in her old bedroom. But it still didn’t happen. She relayed a message down to me that she had a touch of COVID that day but would see me in a day-or-two.

   “She says she’s had COVID several times,” my sister said. “Both times it lasted for months. She says she’s hugely sensitive to it and that she can tell when anybody else has it.”

   “That’s unusual,” I said. “How can she tell?”

   “She senses it.”

   Silvy’s senses were on high alert. She had her own key so she could come and go as she pleased, even though she hardly went anywhere. She was careful as could be. She spent most of her time on the second floor in a room by herself with a laptop. She didn’t like anybody knocking. She said she was studying for her next computer programming job interview. She subscribed to Netflix to fill the rest of the time.

   After a day-or-two went by and I hadn’t seen her I thought it might be in a week or-two. After a week-or two I thought it might be in the unforeseeable future.

  “How long is Silvy staying in town?” I asked my sister.

   “I don’t know but I hope she leaves soon. She is creeping me out,” she said.

   “That is creepy, your light was on in your room even though I had turned it off, and I kept hearing strange noises. Someone else somehow had to have been in the house. It looked like some objects were moved as well. I feel super creeped out if it wasn’t you. I’ve been keeping the front and back door looked with the deadbolt when I’m home.  I always lock the doors. Even taking Vilka out to go potty in the backyard I lock the door behind me.”

   Vilka was Silvy’s’s dog. The dog was a Tamaskan. She got her from a breeder eight years earlier when the dog was 10 weeks old. Her name in Lithuanian means wolf. She was big and friendly enough but scared of her own shadow. 

   “I had an issue with stalking and people breaking and entering my apartment ever since I did that military project. I assumed it was staff coming in unannounced and made complaints to management and even filed a police report. They did nothing. I caught maintenance coming in once. There was no maintenance there. It is a form of harassment and against the law. Maybe we should get some hidden cameras.”

   “She seems to be in the weeds. How did she decide to visit you?” I asked.

   “I don’t know, she just showed up. She doesn’t have an apartment, or a job, so I don’t know what to do with her.”

   “What about Algis?”

   Al was my sister’s ex-husband. He had been a policeman in Lithuania, a roofer when they got married, and was now a long-haul trucker. He worked and lived in his 18-wheeler. He had tried to convince his daughter to share an apartment with him in Texas, so he would have somewhere to stay for a few days every month, where he could wash his clothes, sleep in his own bed, and plug into some R & R, but she said no.

   “They can’t be in the same room for long before they start screaming at each other,” my sister said.

   Silvy was born in Alytus, Lithuania in the early 1990s to my brother-in-law Al and his then wife Asta. When they divorced Al met my sister on a flight from Europe to the United States. She was a travel agent and was going home to Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Al was on his way to New Jersey where his estranged wife had emigrated. He couldn’t get back together with her but got together with my sister. While they were married Al, Silvy, and my sister lived in Lakewood, Ohio, on a quiet tree-lined street in an old-school neighborhood. When she was a teenager, she attended Lakewood High School.

   “I don’t feel safe. On top of the non-stop cyber-attacks, I have been living in hell for years from abuse, stalking, harassment, and sabotage. It has been a constant nightmare. It has destroyed my work, my finances, and so many other aspects of my life. I have spent $15,000 on new electronics in three years because of people installing malware and viruses on my devices and remotely controlling my computers and phones. I have been given wrong directions from my GPS directing me straight into oncoming traffic on a one- way street.”

   While she was in high school, she played rugby, playing scrum-half and fly-half. She was fast and quick on the pitch. Her last year the team won all their regular season games. They scrimmaged against both Kent State and Ashland University. They beat them both. They placed second at the Midwest Rugby Tournament and qualified for the Nationals, where they were ranked second in the nation.

   Silvy hurt her knee during the Midwest Rugby Tournament. She dragged herself off the pitch. She was still limping after a trainer wrapped her knee but insisted on going back into the game. She could hardly walk much less run, but she was worked up about winning.

   “She was a difficult friend, hard to get along with,” Courtney her next-door neighbor and rugby teammate said. “She was nosy and jealous.”

   Silvy went to summer camp on Wasaga Beach in Canada with my niece Katie, who was more-or-less her cousin, who lived right around the corner and who went to the same high school, every summer for seven years. “She couldn’t get along with her,” my sister said. “She wouldn’t be friends with Katie’s friends and finally didn’t even want to be in the same cabin as her.”

   She went to Miami University, majoring in psychology and zoology. While there she collaborated on the study “Biodirectional Effects of Positive Affect, Warmth, and Interactions between Mothers With and Without Symptoms of Depression and Their Toddlers” published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies. She found a boyfriend, Dean, with whom she connected and with whom she traveled far and wide to raves and electronic dance music festivals. The lights were bright and the exclamation marks emphatic. She danced up a storm. In the meantime, she went back to school, earning a third degree in computer science. 

   “People corrupted my computer and prevented me from being able to interview by changing settings or preventing me from downloading a compatible browser. They have installed malformed certificates so the browser would not connect to the internet. All sorts of stuff like that for years. Non-stop abuse and attacks. Every single day I’m dealing with these things. I already had to return my new laptop. My phone currently has erratic behavior.”

   After she got done with her binary studies she worked as a software engineer for a year in Piscataway, New Jersey, five months in Windsor, Connecticut, and six months in Hartford, Connecticut, before landing in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where she worked for about a year. By the time she came back to Lakewood she hadn’t been working for some six months. She was living on her credit cards and living out of her car. Dean her one-time boyfriend had long since disconnected. The raves were behind her. She still had her dog, but she was a fish out of water.

   “It has all caused so much depression. I have wanted to kill myself several times in the last three years because of all the abuse. Every time I made a police report or filed a report to the FBI Cybercrimes Division nothing came of it. I have lost over $150,000.00 from all of this in wage losses, property damage, job loss, and having to use credit cards to get by.”

   She was more than $30,000.00 in the hole with her credit cards and more than $60,000.00 in the hole with her student loans.

   “My browser constantly gives the wrong info. When I am studying or working my code compilation returns incorrect results regularly. The people responsible deserve to rot in jail or die. Not die, but still. Just finished meditating and I feel way less stressed. I guess the silver lining is that I am aware of what is happening to many other people and have experience with these kinds of situations. Perhaps at some point that will give me the power to create change in a corrupt system.”

   “Is she still a vegan?” I asked my sister.

   Silvy had gone emphatically vegan while at Miami University, losing weight and losing arguments about the viability of eating animal protein, although a glow of virtue lit up her face whenever veganism and animal rights came up in talk around campus.

   “No, she cooks pork chops for Vilka and herself every morning.”

   My brother invited Silvy to dinner at his house, but it didn’t come to anything.

   “I would love to, but I might get an urge to assault Katie for the things she has done in the metaverse, so I better pass this time. I don’t feel like entertaining shitty actors or scripted conversations. I refuse to be a victim for the rest of my life. I am not a project. Super appreciate you thinking about me, though.”

   One day my sister was driving down her street when she saw a flock of fire trucks in front of her house. One of the smoke detectors had started beeping and Silvy had called the Lakewood Fire Department saying that the house was burning down. When my sister dashed up the driveway to find out what was happening, the firemen told her nothing was happening.  

   “Your smoke detectors are on the old side. One of them was signaling that it needed to be replaced. I suggest you replace all of them.”

   “I don’t get why fire fighters say there is no smoke when there is. I smelled smoke and felt dizzy and couldn’t think. I checked the oven, stove, the outlets, but could not find the source so I called 911. What did I do wrong here? I have had the same issues at other places I have lived at. In Connecticut the fire fighters told me there was nothing there, too, when I had symptoms of CO poisoning and no alarm went off. It’s like a psych game. It is gas lighting the individual to not feel confident in their experience of reality. I don’t need smoke detectors. I don’t need people telling me I’m crazy or schizophrenic when that is not the case. I need people to stop gas lighting me.”

   The day came when Silvy had to go, one way or another. She wasn’t paying her share of anything and was being bossy and disruptive. The techno was out of whack. When she left, she left her dog behind, although she took the dog’s bed with her.

   “I left her with someone I thought would look out for her best interests since I have no way to take care of her with nonstop cyber-attacks and nanorobotics controlling me and throwing programmed errors at me hundreds of times a day. I’m sorry for adding a burden to you. I have tried everything I could think of for three years to escape being targeted. I’ve moved states four times, switched jobs four times, tried to lay low and see if it would stop. I tried resisting and suffered a brain injury. I don’t know what else to tell you. I did everything I could think of, and it wasn’t good enough. I’m completely sane and aware. I’m not depressed. I simply refuse to be controlled by a corrupt system and insane people willing to do anything for a few bucks. If my life is not my own, it is no one’s.”

   My sister already had a cat and two dogs. She called Silvy immediately and insisted she come back and pick up her dog. “I can’t have another dog in the house, much less an 80-pound dog,” she said. By the time she came back my sister had changed the locks and wouldn’t let her inside the house. She brought the dog to the side door. 

   “Go,” she said, pointing in all directions.

   Silvy kicked up a fuss in the driveway but was gone soon enough when she realized nobody was watching listening paying attention. It was Easter Saturday. The next day was resurrection day. “I want people to listen to me, believe me, and help me solve the issues and attacks I’m experiencing so I can keep my job and be able to afford a home for Vilka and me. She deserves better, but I don’t have a way of providing better.”

   A week after she left Lakewood, I heard she made it to San Diego and was boarding in an Airbnb with access to a kitchen and a backyard. Vilka was glad to be out of the car, 2,500 miles later, even if it had been wagon’s ho. Silvy’s father was paying the going rate, although she was fluffing her own pillows. She had gotten a sizable tax return and was bringing home double pack pork chops. There were few weeds in the neighborhood despite the abundant sunshine. 

   Ohio has more than its fair share of noxious weeds, given its damp midwestern climate, including giant hogweed, purple loosestrife, and mile-a-minute weed. Southern California dreaming is more like the home of invasive weeds, but since it is manicured buffed polished, unless they are stubborn, they don’t usually stand much of a chance.

   The last word I got about the gone girl was from Katie on Mother’s Day, who said she saw her on a social media site attending a yippie yi yay modern music fest out in the call of the west. She wasn’t from around those parts, but she was staking her claim and grooving to her own beat.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Pulling Up Stakes

By Ed Staskus

   Hal Schaser was born in July 1931, in Cleveland, Ohio. His mother Agnes and his father Mathias were Saxons from Transylvania, where they married in 1929. His father was a minister’s son, and his mother was a local beauty. The Great Depression was making a hard life after the Great War harder. They emigrated to the United States. Baby Hal got free passage traveling unseen in his mother’s belly. 

   In time three more children rounded out the family, his younger brother Willie, and younger stepsisters Suzanne and Joanne. The family dog was the youngest and went by Buddy. He was everybody’s friend.

   “My grandparents got married in the town of Hamlish in Romania, which Transylvania was a part of,” said Vanessa, Hal’s daughter. “One of my great grandfathers was a minister who kept horses and grew grapes for wine.” The church was built for worship and battle both, the bastions protection against marauding foreign armies. “My other great grandfather was the local banker.” Their children were second cousins. The banker bought wine from the minister for his table.

   Hal attended Cleveland public schools, graduating from East Technical in 1949. He acted in historical pageants while in high school and through the 1950s was often seen on stage at Karamu and the Chagrin Little Theater. “It was how I met gals,” he said. He met his wife-to-be at Karamu. 

   “The first thing I noticed was that he looked like Paul Newman,” Terese Stasas said. “I liked that right away.”

   Mathias Schaser opened a corner grocery store on the near west side of Cleveland. Two years later, two days after the birth of his second son, he was robbed and shot by two young stick-up men. He was pulling overtime after visiting his wife and newborn. “You mustn’t stay here any longer,” Agnes told him. “You go back to the store. We will need to have more money now.”

   He was pronounced dead the next day in the same hospital where his wife was still nursing their son. Twenty-three years later the two by now middle-aged stick-up men were paroled from the Ohio State Penitentiary.

   “I taught my sons to be forgiving, not bitter,” Agnes said in 1955. “We got along all right. They started delivering newspapers when they were ten. They finished high school, although they always worked at a bakery and other places around the neighborhood. I have a happy life with my children. I hope those two men can find jobs and become good citizens.”

   She remarried after her first husband’s murder, but her second husband died of a heart attack a few years later. She never married again, raising four children on her own, mostly on a Mother’s Pension, which was $90.00 a month.

   “My pop’s stepfather passed on when he was 7 years old,” Vanessa said. “His mother was a devout Lutheran and she instilled in them Christian values, which our pop carried with him all his life. He may not have been religious all his life, but he knew his Bible. He drove his mother to church every Sunday until the day she died.”

   “He grew up a true city kid through and through,” said Matt, Hal’s son. “He built and raced in the soap box derby, walked with friends to baseball games at League Park, and trained and sparred at his local gym.”

   “He was no dead-end kid, though,” Vanessa said. “When violin lessons were ordered by his mother, he endured them with grace.” Grown up he put the violin down and took up the guitar, playing the backbeat tunes Cleveland’s DJ the Moon Dog was making popular.

   Hal survived the East Ohio Gas explosion in their neighborhood in October 1944, when a tank containing liquid natural gas equivalent to 90 million cubic feet blew up, setting off the most disastrous fire in Cleveland’s history. Hundreds of homes churches and businesses were engulfed by a tidal wave of fire. His mother saved their house, a mile away from the blast, by spraying it with a garden hose until the water pressure gave out.

   “I was walking home from school and the blast almost knocked me off my feet,” he said. “It was like all at once the sky blew up with thunder balls.” Buddy ran inside and stayed in the basement for a week.

   Hal boxed as a teenager, training at gyms on the near east side, reaching the finals in his class at the Golden Gloves tournament held at the Cleveland Arena. He served in the United States Army during the Korean War as an artilleryman in a front-line battalion and later as a spotter. “Spotting was a suicide mission,” one of his friends who fought in the Vietnam War said. “If the other guys didn’t get you, your own guys would. How he made it home alive, I don’t know.”

   During one mortar and howitzer firefight his radioman was wounded. He carried him to safety. He had a grudging respect for the courage of Chinese soldiers. “No matter what we hit them with, they always kept coming,” he said. “We couldn’t kill the son-of-a-guns fast enough.”

   He gave up fighting after coming home, going to work for Palmer Bearings, working closely with the city’s steel and automobile industries. He often lunched with clients at the Theatrical on Short Vincent, meeting many city leaders, celebrities, businessmen, and gangsters.

   “He became Vice President of Sales where his smile and enthusiasm for life and helping others was his formula for becoming a success,” Vanessa said. “Honesty and integrity led his work, something that isn’t always easy for a salesman, but it was natural to him.”

   Hal married Terese Stasas in 1959. The couple had two children, Vanessa and Matt, raising them in the Indian Hills neighborhood near South Euclid. Their backyard was the woods of the Euclid Creek Reservation. “Our mom was a ballerina, an artist, and a chef, and our pop was a boxer, a fine ice skater, and a salesman,” Vanessa said. “I think it must have been their sense of hope and freedom that attracted them to one another.”

   “He loved to read,” Matt said. “He had his favorite chair in the living room and read classics and plays after dinner. He read the newspaper in the morning.”

   His other great love, besides his family, was golf. He always traveled with clubs in his car trunk. He played with clients after work and friends on teams in city leagues. He played courses all over Ohio. Whenever he had the chance, he took short vacations to play famous links nationwide.

   “Good golf depends on strength of mind and a clean character,” he said. He didn’t shortchange the front nine or back nine. He didn’t shortchange himself.

   Hal wasn’t entirely a religious man, although he was. He had his reasons, among them the twists and turns of the game. “My prayers were never answered on golf courses,” he explained. One lesson about the divine, however, stood him in good stead. Whenever he was on a fairway and got caught in a lightning storm, he held his 1-iron up in the air. 

   “Not even God can hit a 1-iron,” he said.

   He never stopped walking golf courses, even when he played two rounds, never riding a cart, well into his 80s. “Our pop golfed ever since I knew him,” Vanessa said. “Oh, did he golf. He played with a red ball when it snowed. He loved being with people and golfing with his friends. Sometimes mom said he loved golf more than he loved us.”

   He lived alone after his wife divorced him, taking their kids with her, although he never left his children or grandchildren behind. It wasn’t any back street girl that came between husband and wife. It was Hal’s career and the golf monkey on his back. After becoming a single man again, he ate like a buck private and stayed fit into his later years. He lived in Euclid and afterwards for 25 years in Lakewood, across the street from St. Ed’s High School.

   “I always loved my kids, no matter what,” he said.

   In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election Hal fell in love with Donald Trump. He started wearing a veteran’s cap, saying bad things about immigrants, denigrating blacks and Jews, and talking down anybody young who demonstrated against anything. He decried the federal government as a conspiratorial deep state and stuck his fork in the scrambled eggs of QAnon. 

   He believed the new boss man was battling a cabal of Democratic Party pedophiles and only he could get the job done. Only the President was dirty enough to do the dirty work, no matter that POTUS didn’t know one end of a pop gun from another, since he thought khaki was for suckers whenever target practice was mentioned.

   He watched Tucker Carlson on FOX. He reckoned the newsman’s idea of unvaccinated people getting fake vaccine cards to avoid mandates was a good idea. “Buying a fake vaccination card is an act of desperation by decent, law-abiding Americans who have been forced into a corner by tyrants,” the FOX man said. Hal refused to be vaccinated the first time, the second time, and didn’t even bother thinking about the booster shot. He didn’t know where to get a bogus card. He called Tucker Carlson, but the line was busy. He left a message, although he never heard back from America’s Voice of Grievance.

   Hal put his golf clubs away and kept them away, while POTUS went golfing in Scotland. Saving America from itself became his passion. It was a fire that burnt bright.

   When Rush Limbaugh died from lung cancer, after smoking stogies for decades and sounding off that cancer was a notion, and Dan Bongino took over, he stopped listening to Rush and started listening to Dan. When Rush had said wearing a mask to protect society from COVID was a conspiracy against the freedom-loving and God-fearing, Hal paid attention and never wore a mask, unless the grocery he was trying to get into denied him entry without one. An empty stomach usually trumps ideology. When Dan took up the mantra that the mask was Democratic BS, he gave Dan a thumbs up, but didn’t stop going masked man grocery shopping. 

   “My brother and I asked him to wear a mask every time we saw him,” Vanessa said. They asked him to get vaccinated, but he wouldn’t do it. He said there was something untrustworthy about the vaccines. He had heard Bill Gates was putting nefarious things into the shots.

   “I told him he had to wear a mask when visiting the kids, or he couldn’t visit them,” Matt said.

   Whether they knew it or not the right-wing radio poohbahs Hal listened to were playing with fire. Ranting and raving about unwed mothers and welfare cheats and the half-dozen voters who cheated is one thing. Ranting and raving about pandemics is another thing. It can be hazardous to life and limb conflating the two. Unwed mothers are not nearly as dangerous as man-eating viruses.

   “I’m Mr. Anti-Vax,” Marc Bernier told the listeners of his talk radio program. After the first vaccines were approved, he declared the federal government and the CDC were “acting like Nazis” in urging people to get vaccinated. The Nazis rolled over in their graves and died laughing. Six months later the whacky broadcaster died of COVID. So did Jimmy DeYoung, a nationally syndicated Christian radio preacher, and Dick Farrel, a talking head for Newsmax TV.

   They lived by crying wolf, screaming their lungs out, and died when they couldn’t breathe anymore.

   Hal played with fire for almost two years. He got burnt towards the end of the year and by the morning after New Year’s Day could barely walk. Vanessa and Matt tried for a week after Christmas to get him to go to Fairview Hospital, but he refused. He said he felt fine, even though he looked terrible. He had a kitchen cabinet full of supplements snake oilers had been selling him to combat COVID, but the mystery pills had suddenly lost their magic.

   Matt called 911 the day after New Year’s and paramedics took Hal to Fairview Hospital. Only one person at a time once a day could visit him. When Vanessa or Matt visited him, they had to wear bio-hazard bunny suits and masks. One day Hal felt good, and the next day felt bad. He complained about being brainwashed. He tried to walk out. He refused to take his medication. The nurses gave it to their patient, anyway, making sure he took it. One day after three weeks in the hospital he said he was feeling terrific. The next day he suffered a stroke and died three days later.

   Two weeks later a small memorial service was held for him in the Rocky River Memorial Hall. His grandson played a French children’s song on the baby grand piano and his granddaughter played “Amazing Grace.” A bugler played “Taps.”

   Vanessa and Matt said a few words. 

   “He supported animal charities, valued his friends, and loved his children and grandchildren, watching them laugh and enjoying their creativity and joy,” Vanessa said. “I’ll never forget an early childhood memory of my feet on top of his while we waltzed to records in the living room.”

   Bob his Vietnam War friend said a few words, too. “He was part of our group at McDonald’s for coffee every morning. He was the only Republican among us, so there were plenty of disagreements, but he was a great guy, the kind of guy who would give you the shirt off his back. They don’t make them like Hal anymore.”

   The next day his golfing buddies saluted him with their 1-irons held high to Heaven. Nobody got struck by lightning. Hal was watching over them.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

From Here to Someday

By Ed Staskus

   Sly and the Family Stone drifted into the kitchen where I was making pancakes, stood up on his hind legs, and slapped his tongue against the side of my face. I didn’t mind. His mouth was cleaner than that of most of my friends. His kiss was less risky than kissing another person, like my girlfriend. Whatever germs were in his cavernous mouth were mostly incompatible to human beings. I never caught the flu from him since he never coughed or sneezed. Sometimes it seemed he had more of a soft spot for me than any living thing I knew.

   My brother left his Great Dane behind when he moved out. The dog cost me an arm and a leg to feed. I had to walk him twice a day. I had to shove him out of my bed whenever he tried to sleep next to me. His germs might have been harmless, but his bad breath was like sewer gas. He was good-natured, though, and we got along. I called him Sly. He called me bossman. He didn’t know how to talk, but I knew what he meant when he barked.

   Sly was in his formative years and fascinated by cars. He chased them recklessly. I put a stop to it by sitting him down on the tree lawn and driving slowly past with a squirt gun in my lap. The gun was loaded with vinegar. Whenever he lunged at the car, I squirted him in the face through the open window. It only took ten minutes to teach him cars were dangerous and guns even more dangerous. After that I rarely put him on a lead when we walked to the pocket park on the lake for runaround time. He walked beside me and the only time I grabbed for his collar was when I spied another dog coming our way.

   I was living upstairs in a Polish double on the west end of North Collinwood, on a forgotten street, a couple of blocks from Lake Erie. Ray Sabaliauskas lived downstairs with his prize German Shepherd and the wife he brought back from the Vietnam War. I was going to Cleveland State University and paying for it by taking a quarter off every now and then to work for an electro-static painting outfit. They did most of their work on-site out of town. Ray fed and walked my dog whenever I was on the road.

   The day the dog became my dog was the week after my brother’s fiancée Brenda, a girl from Vermont who my brother met while in the U. S. Army at Fort Riley in Kansas, was killed on Route 20 coming home from her part-time job at a restaurant in Mentor. She had been enrolled full-time at Cuyahoga Community College the rest of the time.

   The night Brenda didn’t come home was the night I woke up at two in the morning from a bad dream with a bad feeling. I got up and sat looking out window. It had rained earlier, and the backyard grass glistened. The lettuce in the garden was fat and bright. A cat sat under the eaves of the garage, keeping an eye out for a late-night snack.

   When I noticed Brenda’s Subaru station wagon wasn’t in the driveway, I somehow felt certain something terrible had happened to her. I couldn’t shake the feeling. I stayed up, sitting by the window, until I finally went back to bed, thinking it was the dream that had upset me. Even so, I couldn’t fall back asleep, and when I did, I slept fitfully.

   The next morning a Cleveland Police squad car pulled up outside the house and broke the news to my brother. At first, I thought he hadn’t heard what the policeman said. He stood stock still. But then he asked where Brenda was and reached for his car keys. I didn’t see him the rest of the day or the next day. Brenda’s parents arrived later in the week and took her back to Vermont for burial in the family’s hometown cemetery. When my brother got back from the funeral he moved out.

   Brenda fell asleep at the wheel coming home the night she died, but that wasn’t what killed her. She wasn’t even hurt when the car drifted off the highway and halfway down the embankment. She was able to stomp on the brakes and stop the car from overturning. She even coaxed it back up to the shoulder, where she discovered she had a flat tire. She flicked on the flashers and was getting the jack and spare tire out of the back of the car when a drunk going her way slipped out of his lane and rear-ended her. She was propelled into and over the Subaru. She died on the spot, blind-sided, never knowing what hit her.

   When I finished my pancakes, I took Sly for a short walk. Brenda and my brother were gone, and the dog was my roommate now. He didn’t say much, which suited me, but he needed tending. I was running late for school. Back home I left him on the front porch to sleep the day away and made my way to Lakeshore Blvd, where I caught the 39B bus downtown for a class. It was cheaper than taking my bucket of bolts and paying for parking. It was Friday and I was looking forward to babysitting a friend’s motorcycle for the weekend.

   Saturday morning, I scarfed down a cream cheese bagel and a glass of Joe Wieder’s. The motorcycle was in the driveway behind the house where nobody could see it. The streets were sketchy, brothers from the hood and hoodlums from the neighborhood prowling for loot. It was a 1950s Vincent Black Shadow, only a couple of years younger than me. My friend had dropped it that spring when the front wheel locked up. A handlebar was bent and made tight right turns tricky. Even though it was beat up, it handled well, had great acceleration, and was all nearly all black.

   Thirty years earlier Rollie Free, wearing a helmet, swimming trunks, and tennis shoes, broke the motorcycle land speed record riding a Black Shadow at the Bonneville Salt Flats. He did it lying flat outstretched on his stomach and hanging on to the handlebars for dear life. Two years later he did it again, breaking his own record.

   I tied my backpack down across the handlebars, turned the key, and kicked it into life. The air-cooled V-twin engine made a happy sound. I dropped it into gear. At the sidewalk I tipped my hat to a blonde walking by. She turned her nose up at me but looked the bike up and down.

   I rode west on Lakeshore Blvd, halfway through Bratenahl, and turned south on East 105th St. I meant to connect with Euclid Ave. I wanted to get an eyeful of the urban decay in Glenville I had been hearing about. It was still there. I took in the ruins. The mess was a place, no place to live, I thought.

   I met my friend Matt Lavikka at our friend Mary Jane’s gray-colored Gothic-style clapboard house on East 33rd St. off Payne Ave. Matt was in the back with MJ, taking it easy in her deep-set narrow backyard. It was a tangle of overgrown hedges, monstrous bean plants, super-sized sunflowers, roses run riot, dwarf trees, and carnations trying to make sense of it all.

   Twin blue-eyed albino cats ran past from next door, across the lawn and over a low fence. One of them was cross-eyed. The hippie artist next door let them do their own thing. They were rolling stones who only ate and slept at home. Matt’s motorcycle was in the drive, a stripped-down 1965 Triumph with short pipes and a glossy paint job. We decided to ride west along the lake, nowhere special, just drifting in the direction the sun was going

   We gassed up across the Cuyahoga River and stopped at a diner for coffee. Matt was a fireman in Bay Village, where fires were far and few between. He knew his laydown jobs better than most. He graduated from Cleveland State University that spring. He was in a philosophical frame of mind all summer, trying to remember something that had never happened in the way of exercising his mind. 

   We rode on Lake Rd. through Lakewood, Rocky River and Bay Village. We were riding into a strong headwind, but it was no match for our bikes. The sun reached its zenith and kept going. We kept going, too, until we reached Vermilion. There were crowds milling in the streets. We slowed down to almost nothing. Children gamboled here and there. We inched our way to the harbor. A rail thin lady with a perky face told us it was the annual Fish Festival. 

   We caught a break coming into town that day. There were vintage cars on parade, men wearing fezzes and sashes, marching high school bands in starched uniforms, a covey of Boy Scouts, floats carrying gals looking like stars, garish looking clowns, and oafish looking town officials.

   Brenda had been an outdoorsman. She would have jumped at the chance to cruise the Fish Festival. She had just turned legal that year. Now she was gone with no future. I couldn’t get her out of my mind.

   We had heaping plates of buttered perch with potatoes and sage. Matt wanted to talk about the future, but I didn’t. I scorned the past as nothing but debris, and the present as grist for the mill. I left the future to chance. Now that Matt had a college degree, he told me I was being irresponsible. 

   “Mind your own business,” I said.

   “That kind of attitude is even more irresponsible,” he said.

   “You’ll be an old man soon enough. Wait until then to talk that way.”

   “I’ll have to look you up when that happens,” he said.

   A shapely gal wearing a bikini with ruffles came our way. She was topped off with a peaked hat two feet high, four feet wide, made of wire mesh and adorned with red, white, and blue rosettes. We admired her glide. When we left Vermilion, we followed a road along the shore winding past small frame houses and cottage resorts. There were big trees everywhere and the air smelled sweet.

   After we reached Marblehead, we took the ferry to Kelly’s Island. We saw sailboats bobbing up and down, leaning to one side of the wind. The ferry rode rough on the choppy water. Matt’s Triumph didn’t have a center stand and he had to lean on it to keep it from falling over. A tow-headed boy getting soaked at the bow laughed like Soupy Sales every time a wave crashed onto the deck. When he saw Perry’s Monument he jumped and pointed that way.

   “Don’t Give Up the Ship” was on Commander Oliver Perry’s battle flag during the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813. It commemorated the dying words of a fellow commander who fell in an earlier naval engagement against the British. Oliver Perry didn’t give up and the British squadron was sent packing.

   We rode around the island aimlessly with our helmets off and the sunny breeze in our hair. The blacktop dipped and curved. There were boats stashed in harbors tied to docks all over the place. We took a break at a public beach, ogling babes sizzling in baby oil from behind our sunglasses. Back on our bikes we rode across a field to an abandoned baseball field. The chain link of the backstop was rusted, and the painted stands weathered cracking peeling. The pitcher’s mound was overgrown with weeds.

   We shared some weed sitting on the outfield grass. Matt started waxing about the problem of good and evil. I suspected I was in for it and took a deep drag on the reefer. “The Nazi’s thought what they did to the Jews was righteous, while at the same time many other people didn’t,” he said.

   “Especially the Jews,” I said.

   “Who was right?”  

   I said we both knew Adolf Hitler and his supporters were monsters.

   “Sure, but that’s not the point,” he said. 

   “What is the point?”

   “Just trying to touch on something metaphysical here.”

   “All right, but metaphysics is a branch of fantasy. Arguments about good and evil are useless. Hardly anything except breathing is not relative. Most of it is all made up.”

   “What about your brother’s girlfriend who got killed? Did the drunk driver have the right to determine her life and death?”

   “I hope they hang that guy like they hung the Nazi’s.”

   We took a quarry road back to the ferry dock. We were early for our return ride and walked to a nearby tavern. It had a Louisiana ceiling and wide plank floor. Fishing paraphernalia filled the walls. Teenagers were playing pinball and yukking it up They looked too young to drink but had bottles of Blatz at hand. Over the cash register somebody had scrawled in magic marker that an Irishman was not drunk so long as he could hold on to a blade of grass and not fall off the edge of the planet.

   Matt and I each had a Blatz while we waited for our boat. Back on the mainland, we took secondary roads as far as Avon, where Matt waved goodbye and roared off for home. I laced up my skates and got on the highway. I crossed the Flats going 75 MPH. Passing the Municipal Stadium I fell in with three other motorcycles who were hauling ass.

   I hit 105 MPH keeping up, then taking the lead, leaning low over my handlebars. Every part of me was focused on the road flowing backwards in front of me. I had never gone that fast on a car or motorcycle or anything else other than a jet plane. Nothing mattered except keeping my tail on the seat and not wiping out. 

   Hunter Thompson once said, “If you ride the Vincent Black Shadow at top speed for any length of time, you will almost certainly die. That is why there are not many life members of the Black Shadow Society.” It took less than three minutes to pass the Cleveland Aquarium and veer away from the pack down the ramp of my exit onto Waterloo Rd. I caught my breath at the stop sign before an impatient blaring horn behind me made me jump and I tapped the gear shift.

   Back home I tucked the Vincent away out of sight in the backyard. I watered and fed Sly before throwing myself down on the sofa. My legs felt like worn out rubber bands. My left palm was puffy from handling the clutch all day. I wasn’t used to it. I wasn’t used to anybody my age dying, either, but Brenda had died and there wasn’t anything anybody could do about it. 

   A good idea is to die young as late in life as possible. The real pay dirt is to not be there when it happens, although that never happens. It hadn’t worked out for Brenda. Her life was still in the memory of the living. Nobody had forgotten her, yet. When that happens, it happens slowly, counting down to zero, until nobody remembers. It was a shame, I thought, before I stopped thinking about time and fate and fell into a simple as ABC dreamless sleep.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

When Hell Freezes Over

By Ed Staskus

   “The Hells Angels are so much aware of their mad-dog reputation that they take a perverse kind of pleasure in being friendly.”  Hunter S. Thompson

   When Frank Glass pulled his Hyundai into the back lot of Barron Cannon’s pop-up yoga class, on the border of Lakewood and Cleveland, Ohio, getting out with his rolled-up mat under his arm, he was brought up short by a fleet of Harley Davidson motorcycles parked outside the door. Inside, he peeked into the practice space, where a mob of muscled-up bare-chested men was in awkward cross-legged poses on rental mats. The denim vests and jackets hanging on coat hooks bore the Hells Angels colors and moniker, red lettering displayed on a white background.

   The bikers are sometimes called “The Red and White.” They are also known as “The Filthy Few.” Inside the club house among themselves they are “The Club.”

   The Angels are the best known of what are known as outlaw motorcycle gangs. The name comes from the P-40 squadrons of Flying Tigers who flew in Burma and China during World War Two. The pilots were known as “Hells Angels” because the combat missions they flew were dangerous courageous literally death-defying.

   Skulls scowled from the middle of the back of the biker vests and jackets.

   Frank took a seat, instead of taking the class, seeing he was late for it, anyway, and the room was full. He might as well, he thought, read the book he was halfway through, and go to lunch with Barron, as they had planned, when the class was over. The book he was reading on his iPhone was David Halberstam’s “The Fifties.” Even though the Hells Angels were formed at the turn of the decade, and ran riot in the 1950s, there wasn’t anything about them in the book.

   Yoga in the United States got going in the same decade, although it didn’t run riot. It kept a low profile until the next decade, the 1960s, when hippies made the scene, and adopted yoga as one of their motifs. Even so, from then until now as yoga has grown exponentially, it has never run riot.

   The Hells Angels and yoga have diametrically opposing outlooks on duty focus liberty life in general. The bikers are noted for violence, brawling, and fighting with fists pipes guns. They are notorious for being ruthless. They will cut the legs out from under you at the slightest provocation. One of the legs yoga stands on is ahimsa, or non-violence. Yoga stands up for its own values but doesn’t go out of its way to chop anyone else down to size.

   When the class ended the Hells Angels filed out of the studio. It had only been them in Barron Cannon’s morning class. They slugged back bottled water, toweled off, and got back into their denims and Red Wings.

   “I’ll be damned if that was a beginner’s class,” one of them said.

   The biker standing next to him, his bald mottled head glistening, said, “That was a hell of a workout.”

   “Workout?” another one exclaimed. “That was some kind of a torture.”

   The Hells Angels are the biggest biker gang in the world. There are 444 chapters on six continents. They are banned in some countries, like the Netherlands, where they have been labeled as a “menace to public order.” The Angels don’t give a fig about the Dutch, so it’s a wash. 

   There are only a few requirements for becoming a Hells Angel. First, you have to have a driver’s license and a seriously badass motorcycle, preferably a chopped Harley Davison. Second, you have to ride it a minimum of 12,000 miles a year. Third, if you were ever a policeman, or even ever thought of being a policeman, you cannot join the club. Fourth, you have to undergo a semi-secret initiation, resulting in being “patched.” Being patched is like getting tenured at a university. Lastly, you have to be a man, and a renegade, to boot, no women allowed.

   It’s best to be a white man when applying for membership.

   In 2000, Sonny Barger, one of the sparkplugs of the gang, said, “if you’re a motorcycle rider and you’re white, you want to join the Hells Angels. If you’re black, you want to join the Dragons. That’s how it is whether anyone likes it or not. We don’t have no blacks and they don’t have no whites.” When asked if that might ever change, he answered, “Anything can change. I can’t predict the future.” He was being sarcastic.

   As many Hells Angels as there are, there are many more folks who practice yoga, about 300 million worldwide. It’s easy to do, too. You don’t need a $20 thousand-dollar two-wheeler, you don’t need to ride it all day and night, and there are no initiation rites, half-baked or otherwise. You can be whatever race creed color gender you want to be. You don’t have to be amoral bloodthirsty ungovernable, either, although yoga is good for resolving those problems.

   “What did you say?” asked one of the Hells Angels.

   “Who, me?” asked Frank

   “Yes, you,” the biker said, looming over him.

   “I didn’t say anything. I’m just sitting here reading, thinking.”

   “Keep your thinking to yourself,” the Hells Angel said, stalking out of the pop-up. Some of the other bikers glared at him but left without incident. One of them gave him a friendly wave and a wink. Frank breathed a sigh of relief.

   There was a roar of 1690 and 1870 cc engines starting up in the parking lot. In a minute the bikers were swaggering down Clifton Boulevard towards downtown Cleveland. Frank had overheard one of them mention the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. He wondered whether there was an exhibit commemorating the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont, where the Hells Angels had been hired to provide security, and 4 people were killed during the show.

   Barron Cannon stepped out of the studio space, wearing loose black shorts and a tight-fitting Pearl Izumi jersey. He looked cool as a cucumber. Frank jumped up.

   “What in the goddamn Sam Hill was that all about?” he asked blurting it out.

   “Missionary work,” said Barron, as unflappable and insufferable as a post-graduate in philosophy can be. Barron had a PhD, although he eschewed academics in favor of his own leanings, which were economic Marxism, idealistic anarchy, vegetarianism, and yoga. He had grown up on the other side of Lakewood, camped in a yurt in his parent’s backyard while he was in school, been briefly married, and lived in a small 80-year-old vaguely modernized apartment close by Edgewater Park, a short bike ride away.

   Barron owned a Chevy Volt, but often rode his bicycle, shopping for groceries, visiting nearby friends, and training aerobically on the multi-purpose path in the Rocky River Metropark.

   “Missionary work? What do you mean?”

   “Let’s go across the street to Starbucks, get some coffee, some wraps or egg and cheese protein boxes,” said Barron.

   Sitting down inside the Starbucks, which had transformed a vacant Burger King the year before, their food and coffee in front of them, Frank again asked Barron, “What are you up to?”

   “Off the mat into the world.”

   “The last time that came up you derided the idea, saying yoga had to stay close to the individual, close to its roots, and not try to reform the world.”

   “Times change, bud,” said Barron.

   “Trying to teach yoga to Hells Angels isn’t a hop skip and jump.”

   “No,” said Barron. “It’s a great leap forward, man.”

   Barron Cannon took secret pleasure in conflating things like the moon landing and Chairman Mao, as though the past was play dough.

   “How did it go?”

   “Not bad, they got engaged in what we were doing. I think they might follow up on the class.”

   “When hell freezes over,” thought Frank.

   Barron Cannon laughed.

   “That’s mostly true, but not entirely true,” he said. “No one is absolutely unsuited for yoga practice.”

   “Are you reading my mind?”

   “Sometimes.”

   “Are you sure they weren’t just grandstanding?”

   “If there’s anything uncertain about yoga, it’s certainty,” said Barron.

   Many law enforcement agencies worldwide consider the Hells Angels the numero uno of the “Big Four” motorcycle gangs, the others being the Pagans, Outlaws, and Bandidos. They investigate and arrest the bikers for engaging in organized crime, including extortion, drug dealing, trafficking in stolen goods, and violent battery of all kinds. They raid their clubhouses and haul the Filthy Few off to jail.

   The police never bust up yoga studios, which are generally spic and span.

   Members of the Hells Angels say they are a group of enthusiasts who have bonded to ride motorcycles together, organizing events such as road trips, rallies, and fundraisers. They say any crimes are the responsibility of the men who committed them and not the club as a whole, despite many convictions for racketeering, riots, mayhem, and shootings.

   One of their slogans is, “When in doubt, knock ‘em out.”

   “How did you get them into the studio in the first place?”

   “I was at the Shell station up on the corner, filling up, when a Hells Angel pulled in behind me. He moved like a wooden Indian. He had to lean on the gas tank getting off his motorcycle.”

   “And you suggested yoga?” 

   “You should try yoga,” Barron said to the biker. “It’s good for your back.”

   “What the fuck?” said the biker, his arms tattooed from wrist to shoulder. “Who the hell are you?”

   “I teach yoga just down the street. You should come in for a beginner’s class. You might be surprised what a big help it can be.”

   “Fuck off,” said the biker.

   “So, what happened?” asked Frank. 

   “The next thing I knew, there they were this morning. They took over the class, one of them standing outside turning everyone else away, saying the class was full, until I got started.”

   “How did it go?”

   “They wouldn’t chant, and they didn’t want to hear much beforehand. They told me to get down to business, so what happened was that it turned into a plain and simple asana class.”

   “How did they do?”

   “They’re strong men, but most of them can’t touch their toes to save their lives. They tried hard, so I will give them that. They were terrific doing the warrior poses, but things like triangle, anything cross-legged, and some of the twists were beyond them. Most of them were stiff as boards.”

   Yoga plays an important role in reducing aggression and violence. It helps you by becoming more thoughtful about your actions. It makes you more flexible in tight spots. The brain-addled in prisons have been specifically helped by the practice.

   “Attention and impulsivity are very important for this population, which has problems dealing with aggressive impulses,” says Oxford University psychologist Miguel Farias about inmates

   Simple things like pranayama breathing techniques release tension and anger. Doing headstand is a good way to get it into your head that you can’t stay mad when you’re on your head. Mindfulness and awareness flip the misconceptions of anger.

   “We can see anger in terms of a lack of awareness, as well as an active misconstruing of reality,” says the Dalai Lama.

   Even the yoga concept of non-attachment can be a big help. No matter what patches you wear, you aren’t that patch. You are an individual who is free to make individual choices. The Hells Angel skull’s head is a reminder of the transitory nature of life. Make the most of it. Don’t be always punching your way out of a paper bag.

   Frank and Barron finished their coffees and stepped outside. At the crosswalk they paused at the curb. The traffic was light on Clifton Boulevard, but a biker was approaching. He was a trim young man on a yellow Vespa. He pulled up and stopped at the painted line of the crosswalk. He was wearing a turquoise football-style helmet. Both his arms up to the sleeveless of his black t-shirt were heavily tattooed. He waved at them to go. They went over the edge of the curb into the street.

   Stepping up to the curb on the other side, Barron said, “There you are, Frank, not all angels are bats out of hell.”

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”