Katya in Asia Town

By Ed Staskus

   The Chinese started settling in the United States in the 18th century. Wherever whenever there were enough of them, they lived close to hand, building their own neighborhoods, appropriately called Chinatowns. There are more than 50 of them across the United States, including at least 16 in California alone.

   There are several of the towns within cities in New York City, the most famous one being in Manhattan. It’s the largest Chinatown in the country, spread out over 40 blocks and home to more than 150,000 Chinese-speaking residents.

Cleveland, Ohio used to have a Chinatown, a colony at Rockwell Ave. and East 21st St., immigrants settling in the area starting in the 1920s. The south side of Rockwell was Cleveland’s Chinatown. After the Communist takeover of the mainland and into the 1960s more than 2,000 lived in the neighborhood. There was a row of Chinese restaurants, Three Sisters, Golden Coin, and Shanghai, as well as two Chinese grocery stores between East 21st and East 24th. Small storehouses in the district supplied other eateries one end of the city to the other. There was a temple and a meeting hall.

   Chinatown went into sharp decline in the early 1970s and a few years later, when I moved into what was becoming Asia Town, there wasn’t much left. Most of the residents moved to the suburbs and by the 1980s there were only two restaurants holding on, catering mostly to business folk and occasional tourists looking for the city’s historic Chinese quarter.

   Asia Town is roughly from East 18th St. to East 40th St. and from St. Clair Ave. to Perkins Ave. It has the highest percentage of Chinese, Koreans, and Vietnamese in Ohio. When I lived on East 34th St. between Payne Avenue and Superior Ave. in the mid to late 70s, there weren’t as many yellow faces yet but they were everywhere. There were dirt poor whites, dirt poor blacks, and a recent influx of college students. It wasn’t as dressed up as it would become after the 1990s when Asia Plaza was built at East 30th St. and Payne Ave., when it became a business as well as a residential community.

   My roommate Carl Poston was tall, walked with a lanky slouch, and wore a mop of twisty black hair. Everybody called him Erby. He never said why, and I never asked. He liked to read, tearing through the Plain Dealer newspaper every morning, and liked to play chess, like me, but was better than me. He had a bad-ass motorcycle and several bad-ass friends with motorcycles. He worked downtown for the city helping crunch numbers and delivering bad news as Cleveland went under.

   In 1978 the city became the first one in the United States to go bust since the Great Depression. After the bankruptcy it became known as the Mistake on the Lake, a nickname nobody in the hometown liked. When Mayor George Voinovich showed up at a Cleveland Indians game against the New York Yankees in the 1980s wearing a t-shirt under his sports coat, the t-shirt said, “New York’s the Big Apple, but Cleveland’s a Plum.” Only the Asians liked the plum thing, since plums represent purity and perseverance to them. Nicknames come and go but when Cleveland later became The Land, nobody shook their heads in despair. It was far better than the mistake and the plum.

   Our house on East 34th St. was behind another house. There was no backyard or garage. Almost all the houses on the west side of the street were that way. The houses across the street had backyards and most of the houses in the neighborhood had backyards. But there were some houses so tucked away one had to be looking right at them to see them. Our rent was more than reasonable, and my half was even better. The landlord lived in Strongsville. His grandmother lived in Asia Town, like me. In return for checking up on her at the beginning of the week and taking her to Dave’s Grocery at the end of the week, I lived almost rent-free.

   Her name was Katya, and she was hundreds of years old. She was five foot four something short and hunchbacked on top of that. She was always in her kitchen when I knocked on the side door, she always croaked “Come in, honey,” and when I went in, she always asked me what I wanted.

   She had three cats who I never saw. She kept a pan of water next to the door for them but no food bowls or litter. They were freeloaders, running down grub in the wild. She had a stack of old newspapers in a corner and the linoleum kitchen floor was usually covered with them. It was sketchy walking inside. The unfolded papers piled haphazardly on top of each other slid every which way. I had to walk like a duck to stay upright.

   “I keep my kitchen floor clean that way.” she said, peeling back the corner of a newspaper and showing me.

   She bought her clothes from third hand stores but bought her shoes new. She was crazy frugal, but she wasn’t crazy. She was built to last, and her feet had to lead the way.

   Katya was from Slovenia, from sometime back in the 19th century. Her parents were peasants from a village nobody ever heard of southeast of Ljublijana. They came to Cleveland to work in the steel mills in the 1890s. At first, they lived in Newburgh, but when a community started forming along East 30th St., from Lake Erie south to Superior Ave., they moved, finally landing on East 38th St. She still lived in the small house her parents bequeathed her.

   By 1910 there were so many Slovenes in Cleveland that it would have been the third-largest Slovenian city in the world if it was in Slovenia. The immigrants opened enough taverns to drown their New World blues and enough churches to repent their drinking. St Vitus was established in 1893, St. Lawrence in 1901, and St. Mary in 1906. Each had its own school. They published their own newspapers in their mother tongue and formed debating drama and singing clubs.

   The singing clubs were stamping grounds, as well. The Lira Singing Society, located in the St. Clair neighborhood, and adamantly Catholic, was opposed by the Zaria Singing Society, sponsored by atheists and socialists. Everybody knew what the arguments were about.

   Katya was married long enough to have two sons before her husband was shot by mistake by a policeman outside a Collinwood bank during a botched robbery. He bled to death before an ambulance could reach him. She buried him in Woodlawn Cemetery, never married again, raising her sons by herself. She took in sewing days and worked nights during World War Two. Her oldest son moved to Seattle and she never saw him again. Her younger son moved to the west side and had a family, but they didn’t want to visit her.

   “We aren’t going to your crazy grandmother’s house in that terrible neighborhood, and that’s final,” his wife said. What the woman didn’t know was that Katya kept a loaded Colt Pocket Hammerless in her kitchen table drawer. It was a single action blowback .32 caliber handgun.

   “Nobody going to shoot me by accident,” she said.

   Her eldest grandson loved her and made sure she had what she needed to stay afloat. She had a small pension and some social security, too. She told me she had silver dollars buried in the backyard, but quickly shot me a wily look.

   “Forget I say that.”

   When Katya’s husband Janez was buried in Woodlawn, it was the oldest cemetery in Cleveland, the first man being inhumed there in 1853. It was the worst cemetery in Cleveland, too. The Depression wrecked its finances. There were sunken graves, toppled headstones, grass never mowed, piles of rotting leaves, and broken tree branches all over the place. That was before the city found out Louise Dewald, who worked in the finance office, had stolen almost half a million in today’s dollars from the coffers as the Depression picked up steam.

   After that it got worse.

   The cemetery chapel roof and the rest of it collapsed in 1951 and was hauled away. The next year City Council thought about digging up and moving all the bodies somewhere else, but the public outcry was too great. Katya never stopped visiting Janez, no matter what, no matter what it took to get there. 

   One Friday walking her home from Dave’s Grocery she asked me if I could take her to the Slovenian National Home the next afternoon for a luncheon. 

   “I don’t have a car anymore, Katya, sorry.” My 1962 Rambler Custom Six, that I had gotten for free, was no more. When I got it, the car was already on its last legs. It was now rusting peacefully away in a junk lot somewhere up on Carnegie Ave.

   “Oh,” she said. “Maybe you walk with me there?”

   “It’s pretty far,” I said. I didn’t mention taking a bus. She distrusted the metropolitan buses getting to where they were going, ever since the city’s rail tracks had been torn up and the electric cars replaced with diesel transport. She believed half the drivers were addled from the fumes.

   The Home was almost thirty blocks away on East 64th St. and St. Clair Ave. At the rate she walked we would have to start as soon as we finished speaking. After the luncheon we would have to walk the whole night to get back.

   “Oh, that too bad. Janez and I dance there all the time before he die.”

   “Let me see what I can do.”

   I asked my roommate Carl, in return for my washing the dishes, cleaning the house, and mowing our grave-sized plot of grass, if he would take her there and back.

   “It’s a deal,” he said.

   The next day he schlepped her to the Slovenian Home on his Harley, waiting outside smoking cigarettes and shooting the bull with passersby. She was a big hit with her cronies when they spilled outside after the gabbing and feedbag and saw her climb on the back of the hog, wrap her stumpy arms around Carl’s waist, and glide away.

   The Slovenian Home was where my Baltic kinsmen booked their big wedding receptions and celebrations. The Lithuanian Hall on Superior Ave. was too small in the 1960s and the new Community Center in North Collinwood wasn’t built yet. The Home opened in 1924, with two auditoriums, a stage, bar restaurant kitchen, meeting rooms, a gym, and a Slovenian National Library.

   The main auditorium was plenty big enough for any get together and the stage was plenty big enough for any band. The bar was big enough for even Lithuanians. Europeans drink more alcohol than anybody else in the world and Lithuanians are number one in Europe. Whenever I accompanied my parents to the Slovenian Home for a reception or gala, it was always a long night. There was a big dinner at big round tables, speeches, chatting it up, dancing, drinking, and as the drinking went on, singing. My father and his friends would booze it up well into one and two in the morning, singing “In the Sea of Palanga” and “The Old Roofs of Vilnius” and “Oh, Don’t Cry, Beloved Mother.”

   By then I was snoozing sprawled out in the balcony.

   Unlike our no backyard house Katya had a backyard where she grew Brussels sprouts cauliflower broccoli onions potatoes and anything else she could squeeze in. She liked prosciutto and bread for lunch. Sundays she made loads of yota with turnips beans cabbage and potatoes and a slab of meat loaf with hardboiled eggs in the middle. She kept it in the fridge all week, dinner at her beck and call.

   That fall I had to tell Katya that once the school quarter at Cleveland State University was over, I was going to have to take the next quarter off. I had found a job with an electrostatic painting outfit that was going to send me on the road, expenses like food and motels paid, for a couple of months. We were going to start in Chicago, swing out to the west coast, end up in Texas, and be back in time for the spring quarter at CSU. It was chance for me to earn good money and save almost all of it.

   “I going to miss you,” she said.

   We traveled in three-man crews and worked nights, from about 5:30 to about 1 in the morning. We worked in offices, painting office furniture like metal filing cabinets, desks, bookcases, and storage cabinets. The paint was loaded with a low voltage positive charge and the metal items magnetized negative. The finish was like new, no runs, no brush or roller marks, and there was almost no overspray.

   When I got back from my two-and-a-half months on the road, I picked up my cat Mr. Moto from my parents, did my laundry, and registered for classes for the spring quarter at CSU. I went to visit Katya that evening, but she wasn’t there anymore. The house was vacant. A “For Sale” sign was posted. I asked one of the neighbors, but he said he didn’t know much, just that a moving truck pulled up one morning and by the end of the day she was gone.

   I peeked through the windows. The ground floor rooms were all empty. The only thing left was a stack of old newspapers in a corner of the kitchen.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Brand New Plan

By Ed Staskus

   The year my class graduated from St Joseph’s High School was the high point of the Vietnam War. It was the low point of the American War, which was what the North Vietnamese called it. It was 1968, the year nearly 600,000 American troops were fighting Victor Charlie up and down the country and the year 80,000 Victor Charlies struck back during the Tet Offensive. They hoped to ignite a popular uprising. It didn’t happen. During the month-long battle for the city of Hue, the city was destroyed.

   In 1964, nine years after the start of the Cold War-era undeclared proxy war, it got roaring with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Just ten-some years since the end of the Korean War, the United States military began bleeding back into Asia in force. By the time the war ended in 1975, nearly 60,000 servicemen lost their lives, along with 250,000 South Vietnamese troops, as well as a million Viet Cong and North Vietnamese fighters, and more than two million civilians.

   There was no use trying to count the maimed fractured shrapnel-scarred napalmed and dismembered. Eight million tons of bombs, two-and-a-half times as much as was dropped on Europe from 1940 to 1945, was dropped by the US Air Force. Who knows who was down there?

   I didn’t know the Gulf of Tonkin from the man in the moon the summer before my freshman year. I barely knew anything about the Vietnam War. I had a vague idea where Vietnam was, which was somewhere near China. I had never heard of the domino theory or the idea of dying for it. Four years later I knew more, although sometimes it did me more harm than good. I knew enough to stay away from the dean’s office and the kind of trouble officialdom could bring to bear, which was at least something.

   Many of my friends at St. Joe’s, on the east side of Cleveland, were Lithuanian Americans. The neighborhood was crawling with us. We were all Roman Catholic and the school was Roman Catholic, within walking distance for most of us.

   We were taught math history religion science civics and English. There were vocational classes and there was an honors program. The football team was big and bad, playing for titles. We were taught to be good Catholics and good citizens, God and country.

   None of us worried about the Vietnam War as freshmen and sophomores. We had other things to worry about, like getting to the next class on time, homework, pep rallies and school assemblies, dances in the gym, our status and looks, part-time jobs, outside activities, and summer vacation. The greasers had cars and we could only look on enviously. The jocks had good looks and never mind getting a good look at their girlfriends. The smarty pants had brains and were looking towards the future.

   It changed fast our junior and senior years. President Lyndon Johnson’s State of the Union address in 1967 was bleak. It was bad no matter if you were the parent of a draft-age young man or if you were the young man.

   “I recommend to the Congress a surcharge of 6 percent on both corporate and individual income taxes, to last for 2 years or for so long as the unusual expenditures associated with our efforts in Vietnam continue. I wish I could report to you that the conflict is almost over. This I cannot do. We face more cost, more loss, and more agony,” he said.

   Nobody liked the cost part. He proposed a record-breaking $135 billion-dollar federal government budget. My father, an accountant, was shocked. I didn’t know how to count that high and kept quiet. I didn’t like the agony part.

   Our last two years in high school, nobody wanted to not be going to college. A student deferment wasn’t a sure thing, but it was better than nothing. In 1965 Lyndon Johnson ordered the country’s young men to get up stand up and fight. It didn’t matter that twenty-five years earlier LBJ had largely avoided WW2. What mattered was what he said now.

   Lewis Hershey, the head of the Selective Service, ordered draft boards to stop granting deferments so that more men would have to join up. College students found themselves being reclassified. When the Selective Service Qualifying Test came into play for everyone who wanted to keep their deferments, students took to the streets. The next year “Hershey’s Directives” ordered draft board to punish anyone who protested against the Vietnam War.

   After that the shit hit the fan until the Paris Peace Agreement was signed in 1973.

   The year after we graduated was the year the Selective Service started drawing lottery numbers determining who would or would not be drafted. The drawing was televised live. Everybody aged 19 to 26 stayed glued to the tube. If you were born on September 14th, your number was number one and you were going to be drafted the next day, or sooner. If you were born on March 14th, like me, your number was 354 and you weren’t going to be drafted and weren’t going anywhere more dangerous than your own backyard. No Victor Charlies were going to be firing 1,800 MPH lead-filled dominoes at you in dozing your hammock.

   I was dismayed when I found out the lottery in 1969 didn’t apply to me. I entered high school early and wasn’t quite 19 years old. I would have to wait a year. I was worried that lightning might not strike twice. Was it possible to replicate the luck of a number like 354 out of 365?

   Two of my friends, John Degutis and Algis Karsokas, were shipped to Vietnam as riflemen for tours of duty fighting Commies in God-forsaken jungles. They didn’t know what they were getting into until they got there. When they came back, they weren’t the same. Another one of my friends, John Skardis, a National Honor Society student, enrolled in Columbia University and joined Students for a Democratic Society, later splintering off into the radical Weathermen, and then the even more extremist bomb-throwing Weather Underground. If he ever came back from the anarchist trenches to Cleveland it was under lock and key. He thought he knew the plan for fighting the man, but he was wrong.

   When Mark Rudd, a national leader of the Weathermen, snuck into Cleveland for a February 1970 meeting with the local boys and girls, he said they were going underground for “strategic sabotage against all symbols of authority” according to an informer.

   He called for urban guerilla warfare.

   From 1965 to 1972, 150,000-and-more men of draft age lived in Cleveland and within surrounding Cuyahoga County. About 60,000 of them served in the military, many of whom enlisted, the others drafted. More than 90,000 never served in the armed forces. Nearly 4,000 of them were draft dodgers and the rest deferred, exempted, or disqualified from service. Of those who served 47,000 never went to Vietnam, 3,000 were stationed in Vietnam but saw no fighting, and some 10,000 experienced combat. 427 of them were killed and more than 2,000 were wounded.

   The odds weren’t bad, but who wants to roll snake eyes in the crap game of a meaningless war? 

   Kent State happened in May 1970. The spring quarter was coming to an end. Warm weather was busting out all over and everybody wanted to be out in the sun. Some three hundred students were protesting the war when Jim Rhodes, the four-term “Get It Done” governor, had enough and ordered the Ohio National Guard to put down the fanfare. When they had enough, they started shooting. Four students were killed and nine wounded. 

   Before the shooting the Tower of Rhodes said the squawkers were “the worst type of people that we harbor in America.” After the shooting he said, “We deeply regret those events and are profoundly saddened by the deaths of four students and the wounding of nine others.”

   The bloodshed turned the mess into a place on the map busting out across the country. Crosby Stills Nash & Young wrote a song about it.

   “Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming,
   We’re finally on our own,
   This summer I hear the drumming,
   Four dead in Ohio.”

   Gerald Casale, who later became lead singer and bassist for the rock band Devo, was there. 

   “All I can tell you is that it completely changed my life. Two of the four people who were killed, Jeff Miller and Allison Krause, were my friends. I was a hippie boy and then I saw exit wounds from M1 rifles on two people I knew. We were all running our asses off from those motherfuckers. It was total, utter bullshit. Live ammunition, none of us knew, none of us could have imagined. They shot into a crowd that was running away from them. I stopped being a hippie and started to develop the idea of devolution. I got real, real pissed off.”

   The shootings ignited outrage on campuses around the country. More than 4 million students participated in walk outs at hundreds of high schools, colleges, and universities. It was the largest student strike in the history of the United States. Everything at Cleveland State University, where I was a student, stopped dead in its tracks. Kent State University was 30-some miles southeast of our downtown campus.

   We all thought it was a horrible thing. Everybody knew Kent State was a chill campus, and even though somebody had burned down the ROTC building the night before, the demonstration was restrained as far as riots go. Coarse words and billy clubs would have done the trick.

   I was shocked the next week when a Gallup Poll revealed that 58% of respondents blamed the students, 11% blamed the National Guard, and 31% expressed no opinion. I was surprised that one of three people didn’t know what to think about it. Many people confuse feeling with thinking. Didn’t they even feel bad about what happened?

   The tabloids sided with the soldiers, but the national press didn’t agree.

   “The National Guard insisted that their men fired as they were about to be overrun by the students. But if the troops were so closely surrounded, how was it that nobody closer than 75 feet away was hit? And if the rocks and bricks presented such overwhelming danger, how did the troops avoid even one injury serious enough to require hospital treatment?” wrote Newsweek magazine.

   The average distance from the soldiers to those killed and wounded was the length of a football field. It was a turkey shoot, especially since the students didn’t have two derringers to rub together. In the end, none of the triggermen took the dead undergraduates home for their roasting pans, turkey shoot or not.

   “It took 13 terrifying seconds last week to convert the traditionally conformist campus into a bloodstained symbol of the rising student rebellion against the Nixon Administration and the war in Southeast Asia. When National Guardsmen fired indiscriminately into a crowd of unarmed civilians, killing four students, the bullets wounded the nation,” wrote Time magazine.

   Less than a week after the shootings, 100,000 people demonstrated in Washington, D.C., protesting the war and the killing of unarmed if unruly students.

   “The city was an armed camp. Mobs were smashing windows, slashing tires, dragging parked cars into intersections, even throwing bedsprings off overpasses into the traffic down below. That was the student protest. That’s not student protest, that’s civil war,” said Ray Price, Richard Nixon’s chief speechwriter from 1969 to 1974.

   President Nixon was whisked away to Camp David for two days for his own protection.

   John Skardis went on the run after he and a gang of Weathermen rampaged through a new indoor mall in Cleveland Heights, smashing plate glass windows and terrorizing mid-day shoppers. He was arrested but after his parents made bail for him, fled the state. The FBI got involved, naming him a Federal fugitive charged with Unlawful Flight to Avoid Prosecution. 

  “Attended Columbia University in 1968 and 1969 and was involved in student disorders. Joined the revolutionary Weatherman group and took part in several violent Weatherman demonstrations in Chicago and Ohio. Entered the Weather Underground in early 1970. He has used the alias Jonas Rytis Skardis,” said the dryly worded wanted man poster.

   In 1975 he was named by United States Senate investigators as one of 37 members of the Weather Underground who the FBI were still looking for after 19 politically motivated bombings since 1970. The year before the group had managed to plant a bomb in the State Department building in Washington. Although they avoided blowing people up, they scared the hell out of a lot of people in power suits.

   When John Skardis and a companion surrendered the following year, they had been traveling for many months in several European countries under U.S. passports issued in false names on false ID’s. After he was extradited, he disappeared down the rabbit hole. 

   Although I went to an anti-war demonstration on Public Square, I avoided the clouds of tear gas and confrontations with the Cleveland Police Department, especially the cops on horseback. I bided my time until next December and the next Selective Service drawing. When the time came, I found my hopes for another draft-defying lottery number were fool’s gold. My number came up 12. I was going to Vietnam to fight in a failing war that most people, whether they said so or not, didn’t believe in anymore. In 1965 about 80% of the American public supported the war. Six years later it was down to 40%. By the end of the war, it was 30%.

   I had to appear at my draft board for a physical, which went well, thanks to my having been a Boy Scout for many years. But I was determined to not go to Vietnam. “Hell No! We Won’t Go!” was the handwriting on the wall. I was willing to volunteer if the Viet Cong invaded the United States, but I wasn’t willing to put myself in harm’s way in anybody else’s civil war, especially not insurgents nine thousand miles away in Southeast Asia who had been fighting for self-determination since 1943. It didn’t seem like they were about to give up anytime soon.

   Young men were burning their draft cards coast to coast. I was hoping it wouldn’t come to that. I didn’t even have a lighter.

   I had to pull out all the stops. First, I declared myself a conscientious objector. The draft board laughed it off. Then I told them I had been an altar boy and objected on religious grounds. They laughed that off, too. Finally, I told them I was just as likely to shoot an officer as I was to shoot a gook if I was shipped overseas. That was no laughing matter to them.

   They sent me to a Master Sergeant who chewed me out, who sent me to psychiatrist, who finally wrote me up as hopeless. He gave me a 4F deferment, meaning I was “physically, mentally, or morally unfit to serve.”

   I was OK with the snub.

   In the meantime, my father a God-fearing faithful Republican, and I got into several mean- spirited arguments and I moved out. I dropped out of Cleveland State University for half-a-year and discovered the bohemian beatnik hippie enclave on the city’s near east side. I had grown from one end of high school to the other, but I hadn’t grown up as much. Cooking and cleaning, making the rent, and meeting folks in my new haunts outside of my old world started me up that road.

   I hoped Johnny came marching home, but I got to thinking the lockstep mindset might not be the best and brightest way for me to go when catching a ride at the crossroad.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Lay of the Land

By Ed Staskus

   When I moved to Carpenter, Ohio the post office had been gone more than ten years. The Baptist church was still there, but the minister didn’t live in town. He drove in on Sundays, performed his mission, and drove away after shaking a few hands. I went to the service one morning, but the minister looked like a talent scout for a graveyard, and it was the last time I went. The general store had closed even before the post office, which was good for Virginia Sustarsic and me, because that is what we moved into, staying the spring summer and into the early fall.

   The post office was opened in 1883 and stayed there until 1963. Nobody knew who the town was named for, although three men who had been natives of the place took credit. There was Amos Carpenter, an old geezer who talked too much, Jesse Carpenter, a farmer who hardly ever talked, and State Senator J. L. Carpenter, who only talked when it counted. He brought tracks and a railroad station to the town. Those were long gone, too.

   It wasn’t my idea to go live local yokel on the banks of Leading Creek, but Virginia argued living in the country was the way to go. She was a hippie and wore its ethos of going back to the roots on her sleeve. I countered that the hippies happened in coastal cities like San Francisco and New York, flowered in college towns like Austin and Ann Arbor, and were trucking along in cities like Omaha, Atlanta, and Cleveland. We were both from Cleveland, born of immigrant stock, she Slovenian and me Lithuanian.

   My reasoning fell on deaf ears.

   A friend of ours with a van drove us and our stuff to Carpenter, dropped us off, and waved goodbye. I had never been there before. Virginia had been there twice, having a friend who lived in that neck of the woods. It took less than ten seconds to look the town over. There wasn’t much to see. We stashed everything away in the sturdy but dilapidated 19th century-era store and walked up Carpenter Hill Rd. to Five Mile Run, detouring down what passed for a driveway to a small house where Virginia’s friend and his bloodhound lived.

   He was somewhere between not young and middle-aged, lean and scraggly, literate and friendly. He was the kind of man who was a hippie long before there were hippies. He read lots of books and smoked lots of weed. There was a Colt cap and ball pistol on his coffee table, laying there as relaxed as could be. It was a Walker .44. It was big, old as dirt, spic-n-span workable. 

   “That’s an imposing handgun,” I said.

   “They call it the Peacemaker,” he said. “Even though it can get you into a load of trouble the same as not.”

   He shot rabbits with it for his stew pot. The large percussion revolver could have taken deer in season. He let me shoot it at a tree later that summer. It was heavy when I lifted it. I shot it stiff-armed expecting more recoil, which turned out to be modest. What I didn’t expect was the “BOOM!” at the end of my arm. I was glad I missed the tree. Even though it was a full-grown maple the ball hitting it might have put it on the woodpile.

   We spent a week sweeping dusting cleaning arranging the ground floor front room of the general store. There were two storerooms in the back and an upstairs we didn’t mess with. Two long broad oak tables served as platforms for working and preparing food. We ate in rocking chairs we set up at one of the windows. We found a braided round rug in a closet, beat the hell out of it, and rolled it out in the middle of the floor.

   After laying in a garden, we stuck Grace Slick on a stick to guard the plot. The scarecrow, however, fell down on the job. Birds shat on her and rabbits ran riot. We ended up hunting and gathering.

   A kitten walked in out of the blue one morning, worn out and hungry as a horse. He was white with a black blob on his chest and a masked face. Virginia gave it a bowl of water, but we didn’t have cat food. “We should go into town, get some, and some food for us, too,” I said.

   Virginia was a genius at living off the land, but we still needed some store-bought stuff, salt pepper coffee pasta peanut butter and pancake mix, as well as toilet paper. The outhouse was bad enough without the comfort of Charmin.

   There were two municipalities within driving distance, Athens, which was 15 miles northeast of us, and Pomeroy, which was 17 miles southeast. Ohio University was in Athens, had several grocery stores, and plenty of citizens our own age. Pomeroy was on the Ohio River, was notorious for being repeatedly destroyed, and there was nobody our age there. We never went to Pomeroy except once to look around.

   The town was consumed by fire in 1851, 1856, 1884, and 1927. The floods of 1884, 1913, and 1937 were even more disastrous. 1884 was an especially bad year, what with fire and flood both. Why the residents kept rebuilding the place was beyond us, although we speculated they must have been plain stubborn.

   We stopped at the courthouse to lay eyes on the excitement. We had read in “Ripley’s Believe or Not!” that there is a ground floor entrance to each of its three stories, the only one of its kind in the world The sight of the phenomenon wasn’t all that exciting. A plaque explaining that the courthouse served as a jail for more than 200 of Morgan’s Raiders after their capture in the Battle of Buffington Island during the Civil War caught our attention. It was exciting to learn that Ohio boys had gotten the better of Johnny Reb when they ventured north.

   The county seat of Meigs County is mentioned in Ripley’s a second time for not having any cross streets. We took a stroll and didn’t see any. It didn’t seem deserving of mention in Ripley’s, but what did we know?

   Once he had a steady supply of food, out kitten got better and bigger. He spent his days outside and after sunset inside. He learned fast there were plenty of hungry owls, racoons, and coyotes in the dark. At first, when he was a tyke, he slept on top of my head at night. As he grew, I had to move him to the side. It was like wearing a Davey Crocket racoon hat to bed. 

   Meigs County, in which Carpenter lay, is 433 square miles with a population of around 20,000, or 54 people per square mile. Where we came from, Cuyahoga County, it was more like 3,000 people per square mile. At night in the middle of Meigs County it often seemed like 2 people per square mile, Virginia and me.

   There wasn’t much crime in the county, thank goodness, because the law enforcement amounted to one sheriff, one lieutenant, one sergeant, and six deputies. We had been in town a week-or-so when the sheriff stopped by to say hello. He was a pot-bellied man with fly belly blue eyes. He made sure we had the cop and fire department phone numbers even though we didn’t have a phone. He warned us not to mess around with the marijuana market. Virginia made roach clips for sale in head shops, but didn’t smoke much, and said so. 

   “No, I don’t mean that girlie,” he said. “I don’t care what you do on your own time. What I mean is, don’t mess with the growers. They’ve got it tucked in all around here. Some of them have been to Vietnam and back, and they learned a thing or two from Charlie. Even the DEA is careful when they chopper around these hills spraying their crop.”

   He pronounced Vietnam like scram.

   Meigs County is on the Allegheny Plateau. It is especially hilly where we were. The soil isn’t the greatest. The top crop by far is forage, followed by soybeans and corn. Layers and cattle are the top livestock. The marijuana growers hid their fruitage in corn fields, where it was hard to spot.

   Moonshine was made from the first day Meigs County was settled, for themselves and for whenever a farmer needed hard cash in a hurry, as long as they were near water and could haul a barrel of yeast and a hundred feet of copper line to the still. The yeast is stirred with sugar and cracked corn until it ripens. When the mash is ready it’s poured into an airtight still and heated. When it vaporizes it spirals through copper pipes, is shocked by cold water, returns to its original liquid form, and drips into a collection barrel.

   After that it is ready to go and all anyone needed was a fast Dodge to get it to market.

   The marijuana growers were young, a loose-knit group known as the Meigs County Varmits, which was also the name of their championship softball team. They drove Chevy and Ford pick-ups. They stopped by and said hello, just like the sheriff. One of them told us to keep our heads down the middle of October.

   “What’s that all about?” I asked.

   “That’s when we harvest our green and that’s when the state cops and Feds get busy. You’ll see their cars and spotter planes. They ask you any questions, play dumb. You hear any noise, ignore it.”

   Meigs County Gold was high quality highly sought weed. It was the strain of choice for the Grateful Dead and Willie Nelson when they toured Ohio and West Virginia. Meigs County folk learned to not lock their cars and to keep their windows partly rolled down when they went to the Ohio State Fair in Columbus or Kings Island near Cincinnati.

   When I asked why, a man said, “Because people see the Meigs County tag and it’s almost for sure you’ll have busted windows if you don’t. They will be looking for your pot.”

   Our pots and pans were always filled with grub Virginia gleaned in the forest lands where she found nuts greens fruits and tubers. She collected walnuts chestnuts papaws raspberries blueberries and strawberries. She dressed up salads with dandelions fiddleheads and cattails. In the late summer she hunted for ginseng, selling it to a health food store in Athens.

   She kept two goats in a shed. I fed them and cleaned up after them. They were more trouble than they were worth, especially after one of them head butted the minister who walked over late one Sunday morning inquiring about my spiritual frame of mind. The goat lowered his head and got him from behind, in the butt, knocking him down. He scuffed up his hands breaking his fall and got mad as the devil. He told the sheriff about it and the sheriff had to stop by and warn us to keep our goats civil.

   “Yes, sir,” I said.

   Carpenter was the kind of place where tomorrow wasn’t any different than a week ago. But it had its moments. A week-or-so after the sheriff paid us his official visit, we watched him drive slowly past our grocery store summer home on State Route 143 dragging an upright piano on rollers behind him, chained to his rear bumper. A deputy was walking beside the piano trying to keep it from falling over. It looked like a bad idea on the way to going wrong. We waved but didn’t ask any questions.

   Our nearest neighbor was Jack, his two brothers, and their mother, on the other side of Leading Creek, a quarter mile down the state route. Velma looked like she could have been their grandmother, but Jack Jerome and Jesse called her mam. It was a one-story house with a front porch. They had running water and a bathroom, but no cooking stove or furnace. Velma did the cooking in the fireplace and they heated the house with the fireplace and a cast-iron potbelly stove. It was more than we had, which was just the potbelly thing.

   “Food cooked in a fireplace tastes better than food cooked any other way, including charcoal grills,” Velma said. It was big talk, but she backed it up. She might not have been able to whip up a cake or a souffle, but she made just about everything else. We never turned down an invitation to dinner.

   There were always half-dozen-or-more barely alive cars and trucks in their backyard, which was more like a field. There was a chicken house and a pen for pigs. They slaughtered and smoked their own pork. There was a big deep pond near enough to the house and they let us go floating and swimming in it whenever we wanted. They had an arsenal of rifles and shotguns, even though they didn’t mess around with marijuana. Moonshine might have been a different matter. 

   “How come you’ve got all those guns?” I asked Jack.

   “That’s how our daddy raised us,” he said.

   They were born and bred right there. The folks in the ranch-style houses up Carpenter Hill Rd. avoided them. Sometimes when we went swimming the sheriff’s car was there. I had the impression he wasn’t there on lawman business, but rather visiting.

   By the end of summer, we realized we couldn’t stay. The Velma family already had enough cords of dried wood beside their house to keep themselves warm if winter went Siberian in Ohio. We didn’t even have a pile of twigs. We could have ordered coal, which was plentiful, but neither of us had ever started and stoked a coal furnace. We didn’t know anything about air vents. All we knew was dial-up thermostats for natural gas furnaces.

   Our friend returned with his van and helped us move back to Cleveland. We said goodbye to Virginia’s hippie friend and his bloodhound, and to Jack up the hill. Jerome and Jesse had gone hunting waterfowl, the first day for it. Velma gave us an apple pie for the drive home.

   The cat, who was left-handed and so named Lefty, decided to stay. He wasn’t a city boy. He wouldn’t have been able to make sense of the Cuyahoga River catching fire. Lefty had made friends with all the cats and dogs a half-mile in every direction, knew how to sneak into the grocery store closed doors or no doors, and had grown up enough to take care of himself. We slit open the 20-pound cat food bag and opened it like a book. We left it on the floor so he and his friends could have a party.

   When we drove away, he was sitting on his haunches on the gravel in front of the store’s double front doors. I watched him in the rearview mirror and Virginia waved goodbye through the open passenger window. The last I saw of him he was sauntering into the high yellow grass.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Bumming a Ride

By Ed Staskus

   The morning Arunas Petkus and I left for California 2500-some miles from Cleveland, Ohio, the Summer of Love was over. It had been a social phenomenon in 1967 when as many as 100,000 people, mostly young, mostly hippies, converged on the neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, hanging around, listening to music, dropping out and chasing infinity, and getting as much free love as they could.

   We were both in high school at the time and stumbled into the 1970s having missed the hoopla. 

   The Mamas & the Papas released “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” that year and it got to number four on the Billboard Hot 100. It stayed there for a month, a golden oldie in the making, while the parade across Golden Gate Bridge went on and on. The vinyl single sold more than 7 million copies worldwide. 

   Arunas found a bucket of bolts, a 1958 VW Karmann Ghia, somehow got it going, brush painted it parakeet green, and was determined to hit the open road to see what all the excitement had been about. He also wanted to visit the spot at Twin Peaks where Chocolate George’s ashes had been scattered.

   George Hendricks was a Hells Angel who was hit by a car while swerving around a street cat on a quiet afternoon in 1967 as the Summer of Love was winding down, dying later that night from his injuries. He was known as Chocolate George because he was rarely seen without a quart of his favorite beverage, which was chocolate milk, usually spiked with whiskey. He was a favorite among the hippies because he was funny and friendly. His goatee was almost as long as his long hair, he wore a pot-shaped helmet when riding his Harley, and his denim vest was dotted with an assortment of round tinny pin badges.

   One of the badges said, “Go Easy on Kesey.”

   The writer Ken Kesey had been the de facto head of the Merry Pranksters. Much of the hippie aesthetic traced back to them and their Magic Bus. Arunas was an art student and liked the way the bus was decked out.

   The Karmann Ghia was a two-door four-speed manual with an air-cooled 36 horsepower engine in the back. The trunk was in the front. Unlike most cars it had curved glass all the way around and frameless one-piece door glass. My friend’s rust bucket barely ran, unlike most of the sporty Karmann Ghia’s on the road, but it ran. There was still some magic left in it.

   When Arunas asked me if I wanted to join him, I signed up on the spot. The two of us had gone to the same Catholic boy’s high school and were both at Cleveland State University. We threw our gear and backpacks in the front trunk of the car, sandwiches apples and pears in what passed for a rear seat, a bag of weed in the glove compartment, and waved goodbye to our friends at the Plaza.

   The Plaza was on Prospect Avenue, on the near east side, near CSU. It was an old but built to last four-story apartment building. Secretaries clerks college students bohemians bikers retirees and musicians lived there. Arunas was still living with his parents in the old neighborhood, while I was a part-time undergraduate part-time manual laborer trying to keep my head above water in a one-bedroom on the second floor.

   We got almost as far as the Indiana border before an Ohio State trooper stopped us.

   “Where do you think you’re going in that thing?” he asked us after Arunas showed him his driver’s license. He wrinkled his nose looking the car’s no-primer paint job up and down.

   “California.”

   “Do you know you’re burning oil, lots of it?”

   We knew full well. That was why we had a case-and-a half of Valvoline with us. We had worked out the loss of motor oil at about a quart every two hundred miles and thought our stockpile would get us there.

   “All right, either get this thing off the road or go back to Cleveland,” the trooper said, waving us away with his ticket book.

   On the way back home, we decided to go to Kelly’s Island, since we had sleeping bags and could more-or-less camp out, staying under a picnic table in case of rain. We took the Challenger ferry out of Sandusky, leaving the VW behind. We landed at East Harbor State Park and stayed here until the end of the week. There were a campground, beach, and trails at the park, all we needed. We bought bags of homemade granola and a couple of gallons of spring water at a small store and settled down on a patch of sunshine. We met a gaggle of high-class girls from Case Western Reserve University and played volleyball with them.

   When we got back to Cleveland everybody marveled at our quick turnaround from the west coast and attractive tans.

   “We didn’t actually make it to California,” we had to explain to one-and-all.  “We didn’t even make it out of Ohio.” We had to endure many snarky remarks. When Virginia Sustarsic, one of my neighbors at the Plaza, said she was going to San Francisco and abruptly invited me to try again, joining her, I jumped at the chance. My feet got tangled up coming down when she said she was hitchhiking there.

   “You’re going to thumb rides across the country?”

   “Yes,” she said, in her detached but friendly way. She was a writer photographer cottage craftsman. Virginia was a raconteur when she wanted to be one. She made a living dabbling in what interested her. She lived alone.

   “How about getting back?”

   She explained she had arranged a ride as far as Colorado Springs. She planned on thumbing rides the rest of the way, stay for a week-or-so with friends on the bay, and hitchhike back. When I looked it up on a map, she was planning on hitchhiking four thousand-some miles. I didn’t know much about bumming my way on the highway. When I asked, she confessed to having never tried it.

   Our ride to Colorado Springs was a guy from Parma and his girlfriend in a nearly new VW T2 Microbus. Although it was unremarkable on the outside, the inside was vintage hippie music festival camper. It was comfortable and stocked. We stopped at a lake in Illinois and had lunch and went for a walk. I veered off the path and got lost, but spotted Virginia and our ride, and cut across a field to rejoin them. I tripped while running, fell flat on my face, but was unhurt.

   We got to Colorado Springs in two days. The next day I found out what I had fallen into in Illinois was poison ivy. An itchy rash was all over my calves, forearms, and face. I tried Calamine lotion, but all it accomplished was to give me a pink badge that said, ‘Look at me, I’m suffering.’” Virginia’s friends who lived in ‘The Springs’ let me use their motorcycle to go to a clinic. They prescribed prednisone, a steroid, and by the time we got to San Francisco I was cured.

   In the meantime, leaving the clinic, since it was a warm sunny summer day, I went for a ride on the bike, which was a 1969 Triumph Tiger. I rode to the Pikes Peak Highway, 15 miles west, and about half the way up, until the bike started to dog it. What I didn’t know was at higher altitudes there wasn’t enough air for the carburetor. By that time, anyway, I had gotten cold in my shorts and t-shirt. It felt like the temperature had dropped thirty degrees. I turned around and rode carefully down. There was a lot of grit and gravel on the road. I found out later that Colorado snowplows spread sand, not salt, in the winter. The last thing I wanted to happen was dumping the bike. 

   All the way back to town, as dusk approached, I saw walloping jumbo elk deer and antelope. Even the racoons were enormous. I stayed slow and watchful, not wanting to bang into one of the beasts.

   We stayed a few days and hit the open road when my rash was better. There was no sense in scaring anybody off with my pink goo face. We had a cardboard sign saying “SF” and finally hit the jackpot when a tractor trailer going to Oakland picked us up.

   The Rocky Mountains, left behind when the glaciers went back to where they came from, were zero cool to see, although I wouldn’t want to be a snowplow driver assigned to them. It was fair but cold with a high easterly wind the day we crossed them. Every switchback opened onto a panorama.

   Virginia’s friends in San Francisco lived in Dogpatch, east of the Mission District and adjacent to the bay. It was a working class partly industrial partly residential neighborhood. They lived in a late nineteenth century house they were restoring. They went to work every day while we went exploring.

   We stayed away from downtown where there was an overflow of strip clubs peep shows and sex shops. Skyscrapers were going up, there were restaurants offices department stores, but it looked like the smut capital of the United States. Elsewhere, rock-n-roll, jazz fusion, and bongo-drum players were in the air, especially the Castro District and Haight-Ashbury. Dive bars seemed to be everywhere.

   Virginia went to Golden Gate Park and took pictures of winos, later entering one in a show at Cleveland State University. She had a high-tech 35mm Canon. When her photograph was rejected with the comment that it was blurry, she said, “That was the point.” I went to Twin Peaks and took a picture of the spot where Chocolate George’s ashes had been strewn. When Arunas saw it, he said there wasn’t much to see.

   Twin Peaks is two peaks known as “Eureka” and “Noe.” They are both about a thousand feet high. They form a wall to the summer coastal fog pushed in from the ocean. The west-facing slopes get fog and strong winds while the east-facing slopes get more sun and warmth. The ground is thin and sandy. George was somewhere around.

  I showed Arunas some pictures from the summit facing northeast towards downtown and east towards the bay. “Those are nice,” he said, being polite. My camera was a Kodak Instamatic.

   We stayed for more than a week, riding Muni busses for 25 cents a ride. No matter where we went there seemed to be an anti-Vietnam War protest going on. We rode carousel horses at Playland-at-the-Beach and went to Monkey Island at the zoo. We ducked into Kerry’s Lounge and Restaurant to chow down on French fries. We stayed away from all the Doggie Diners. We listened to buskers singing for tips at Pier 45 on Fisherman’s Wharf. Jewelry makers were all over the place. Virginia was on Cloud 9, being an artisan herself.

   When we saw “The Human Jukebox” we went right over. Grimes Proznikoff kept himself out of sight in a cardboard refrigerator box until somebody gave him a donation and requested a song. Then he would pop out of the front flap and play the song on a trumpet. I asked him to play “Purple Haze,” but he played “Ain’t Misbehavin’” instead.

   “I don’t know nothin’ about Jimi Hendrix,” he said.

   Everywhere we looked almost everybody was wearing groovy clothes made of bright polyester, which looked to be the material of choice. Tie-dye was on the way to the retirement home. Virginia dressed classic hippie style while I dressed classic Cleveland-style, jeans, t-shirt, and sneakers. I didn’t feel out of place in San Francisco, but I didn’t feel like I belonged, either. There were no steel mills and too many causes to worry about.

   When we left, we started at the Bay Bridge and got a ride right away. By the time we got to the other end of the bridge the man at the wheel had already come on to my companion. We asked him to drop us off. When he stopped on the shoulder and I got out of the back seat, he pushed Virginia out the passenger door, grabbed her shoulder bag, and sped away. She didn’t keep her traveling money in it, but what did he know? We saw the bag go sailing out the car window before he disappeared from sight and retrieved it. We smelled a brewery on the breath of the next driver and turned him down. After that a pock-marked man asked us if we were born again, and when I said I had been raised a Catholic, he cursed and drove off.

   We liked talking to the people who gave us rides but avoided talking about race religion and politics. I carried a pocket jackknife but wasn’t sure what I would do with it if the occasion ever arose. We never hitchhiked once it got dark, because that was when creeps lowlifes imbeciles were most likely to come out.

   We went back the way we had come, to Nevada, through Utah Nebraska and Iowa to Chicago and returning in the middle of the day to the south shore of Lake Erie. We thumbed rides at entrances to highways, at pay toll gates, and especially at off-the-ramp gas stations whenever we could. Gas stations were good for approaching people and asking them face-to-face if they were going our way. 

   One of the best things about hitchhiking is you can take any exit that you happen to feel is the right one. One of the worst things is running into somebody who says, “I can tell you’re not from ‘round these parts.” We avoided big cities because getting out of them was time-consuming. We avoided small towns because we didn’t want to be the new counterculture niggers in town. We got lucky when a shabby gent in a big orange Dodge with a cooler full of food and drink in the back seat picked us up outside of Omaha on his way to Kalamazoo. He listened to a border blaster on the radio all the way. We ate the sandwiches he offered us.

   Our last ride was in an unmarked county sheriff’s car. He picked us up near Perrysburg on his way to Cleveland’s Central Police station to pick up a criminal. It was the same joint where Jane “Hanoi Jane” Fonda was put behind bars a couple of years earlier. She wasn’t a real criminal and didn’t stay long.

   “They said they were getting orders from the White House, that would be the Nixon White House,” she said. “I think they hoped the ‘scandal’ would cause my college speeches to be canceled and ruin my respectability. I was handcuffed and put in jail.” When she was arrested at Cleveland Hopkins Airport, she pushed Ed Matuszak, a special agent for the US Customs Bureau, and kicked Patrolman Pieper in a sensitive place.

   The city cop later sued her for $100,000 for the boot that made him “weak and sore.” The federal cop shrugged off the shove. The charges and suit were later dropped.

   The Wood County sheriff was a friendly middle-aged man who warned us about the dangers of hitchhiking and drove us all the way to our hometown. When we got out of the car, he gave us ten dollars. “Get yourselves a square meal,” he said. We walked the half dozen blocks to the Plaza, dropped off our stuff, and walked the block and half to Hatton’s Deli on East 36th St. and Euclid Ave. where Virginia worked part-time. 

   There was an eight-foot by eight-foot neon sign on the side of the three-story building. It said, “Corned Beef Best in Town.” We had waffles and scrambled eggs.

   Our waitress lingered pouring coffee, chatting it up while we dug into apple pie. We split a slice. The butter knife was dull, so I used my jackknife. She asked how our cross-country trip had gone. I gave her the highlights while Virginia went into details. When she asked why we hadn’t gone Greyhound, Virginia smiled like a cat, but I put my cards on the table.

   “I had an itch to go, no matter which way got me there.”

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Making the House

By Ed Staskus

   Dave Bloomquist ran the show at the Plaza Apartments, trying to make it work on the near east side, on the fringe of Cleveland State University. What we called the house was on Prospect Avenue, a $.25 fare on a creaky CTS bus ten minutes downtown to Public Square. The ghetto was uptown. The house was its own place.

   Dave was from Sandusky. “The town, which is sluggish and uninteresting, is something like an English watering-place out of season,” Charles Dickens wrote after visiting it. A hundred years later it was known for Cedar Point, a big amusement park on a peninsula jutting out into Lake Erie. After high school Dave moved to Cleveland to study visual and fine arts at CSU.

   “Art held a natural attraction for me, and it was something I wanted to pursue,” he said. “My dad was an electrician, and I helped him run wires and other simple tasks. I also worked during college, renovations, painting, things like that. After graduation, my business partner and I scraped together a down payment on the 48-unit Victorian-style Plaza. We decided to restore it ourselves.”

   Dave was always in in and around the building. Whenever anything went wrong, it didn’t take long to find the owner superintendent maintenance man. If he wasn’t nearby, his ex-wife-to- be, Annie, tall slim, her hair done up in braids, was right there cooking cleaning taking care of their baby boy. Built in 1901 for middle-class residents, something was always making trouble at the Plaza.

   “We learned to sweat pipe, patch the roof, and fix windows,” Dave said. “We had to operate with just rent money. We couldn’t afford to call on anyone for help.”

   Back in the day Upper Prospect was the second most prestigious place to live in Cleveland, next to Millionaire’s Row on Euclid Avenue. Prospect and Euclid were where to be, smoking rooms of the city’s economic and social elite. Most of the homes on Prospect were brick two-story single-family houses in the Italianate style. The street was lined with elm trees.

   By the time I moved into the Plaza, all the rich folks were long gone, and Dutch elm disease had killed most of the trees. It was killing most of the elms in all but two states east of the Missouri River. What hadn’t died was being sprayed with DDT or removed.

   The entry point for the bug was Northeast Ohio in 1929, on a train bringing in a shipment of elm veneer logs from France. The train stopped south of Cleveland to load up on coal and water. Not long afterwards elm trees along the railroad tracks started to die. The elm bark beetle doesn’t hurt the tree, but the fungus it carries is deadly.

   There were rowhouses scattered among the single-family homes, which included the Prospect Avenue Rowhouses, still there, that Dave was throwing his eye on. He had more than enough work on his hands, but he was a no slouch go-getter. Preservation and restoration efforts on Upper Prospect were just beginning to pick up steam.

   The Plaza was home to students secretaries hippies machinists artists bikers clerks musicians court reporters anarchists activists warehouse men and writers, some in full swing, some shaking and baking the wolf at the door, everybody coming and going.

   “We were urban pioneers before the term was coined,” said Scott Krauss, a drummer for the art-rock band Pere Ubu. “Like the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead had their band houses, we had the Plaza.”

   “There were scores of wonderful community dinners, insipid and treacherous burglars,” Dave Bloomquist said years later when it was all over. “Innocence was lost. There were raucousoutrageous parties. Families were formed and raised and there were tragic early deaths of close friends. But music, art and life were in joyful abundance all the time.”

   There was an abundance of old-fashioned seediness, too.

   “I remember coming home at four in the morning and there would still be people in the courtyard drinking beer and playing music,” said Larry Collins. “We would watch the hookers and their customers play hide-and-seek with the undercover vice cops.”

   One of the first friends I made was Virginia Sustarsic. I had seen her around Dixon Hall up the street before I moved to the Plaza. She was close to John McGraw, a trim bohemian who lived alone on the third floor, read obscure European poets, drank Jack Daniels from the bottle, and drove a 1950s windowless black Chevy panel truck.

   Virginia had interned at the Cleveland Press, worked on CSU’s student newspaper, and wrote for the school’s poetry magazine. Since she was settled in at the Plaza, was friendly, and worked for herself, she made friends easily, and I subsequently found friends by hanging around with her.

   She knew all about art. I didn’t know anything. When she showed me a picture of an American flag by Jasper Johns, I found a big used flag and thumbtacked it to the wall at the head of my bed. When she showed me a picture of a Jackson Pollack painting, I thought, what a mess.

   Virginia made candles, incense, and roach clips for a head shop on the near west side. The owner of the shop, Jamie, was a little older than us and square-jawed. He wore a red checked bandana and liked to go barefoot. He pulled up in a mid-60s VW T2 bus, Virginia delivered the goods, he would say he had a great idea for going someplace fun, as many people who could fit would pile into the Splittie, and he would drive to a park a beach or a grassy knoll overlooking a cemetery.  

   Jamie always played The Who’s “Magic Bus” at least once every trip, there and back. “Thank you, driver, for getting me here, too much, Magic Bus, now I’ve got my Magic Bus.” The speakers were tinny, but the volume made up for it.

   We went to see “Woodstock” the movie, since none of us had gone to the music festival, at a drive-in. Virginia’s roach clips came in handy. The Splittie’s back and middle seats could be pulled out. It was groovy at drive-ins, backing the bus in to face the screen, some of us in the seats on the ground, others in the open rear of the bus, and Jamie with his gal on top, an umbrella at the ready. 

   Nobody wanted to be sitting behind Mike Cassidy, who was skinny enough, but had a massive head of long fuzzy electrified red hair.

   Virginia was hooked on photography and showed me the ropes, letting me use her camera. When a photography contest was announced at Cleveland State University, she entered a picture she had taken in San Francisco and I entered a picture of Mr. Flood.

   Bob Flood lived on the second floor, like me. None of us knew what he did, exactly, although he wore a hat suggesting he was a locomotive engineer. Virginia thought he was a professor of some kind. Everybody called him Mr. Flood. Nobody knew why. He was a lean careful man, sported a shaggy looking beard, was divorced, but had visitation rights to his two kids, who came and played in his apartment weekends.

   My picture was a portrait and Virginia’s a full-scale shot of two homeless men in Golden Gate Park, passing a bottle of booze between them. The trees in the background disappeared into a triangle. After I won the blue ribbon, Virginia went to the art department and talked to one of the judges.

   She told him she had been trying to conjure the Pointillism of Georges Seurat.

   “Well,” he said. “The portrait and your picture were our top picks. But yours was kind of grainy.”

   “That was the whole point,” she said. 

   Virginia’s best friend at the Plaza was Diane Straub.

   Diane had a straight job. She was a secretary downtown. She got up every morning, got on the bus, went to work, and came back at night. Monday through Friday she took care of her apartment and her cats. But, on weekends she got psychedelic. She also got up as Bogie’s old lady.

   Bogie was Diane’s live-in boyfriend. He was rangy and always wore black, tip to toe. He had a Harley Davidson he kept in the back lot. Nobody ever tried to steal it, because everybody knew that would be a big mistake.

   He was one of the Animals, although he and the other Animals had been forced to go freelance. They used to have a clubhouse, its walls pockmarked with bullet holes, on Euclid Avenue in Willoughby, until the day the Willoughby police raided it.

   “The police couldn’t get anything on us, so they hot-wired the landlord to force us out,” one of the Animals, Gaby, told the Cleveland Press. “We never did anything worse than use the clubhouse walls for target practice.”

   Gaby knew there was more to the story. His biker clubmate Don Griswold had been arrested the day before for being involved in a shooting with members of Cleveland’s Hells Angels that left two dead.

   “The Angels were going to take care of me if the cops didn’t do it first,” he said. “Misery loves company.”

   The spring before my first full summer at the Plaza, Cleveland’s Breed and Violators got into it at a motorcycle show at the Polish Women’s Hall southeast of the Flats. The 10‐minute riot with fists clubs knives chains left 5 men dead 20 Injured and 84 arrested.

  The dead were buried, the hurt rushed to hospitals, and the arrested hauled away to the Central Police Station on Payne Avenue. The Black Panthers were always demonstrating outside the front doors, but they had to make way. Extra armed guards were posted in hallways and doorways as a precaution. When the injured bikers recovered, they were arrested.

   Art Zaccone, headman of the Chosen Few, said the fight broke out because of trouble between the two groups going back to a rumble in Philly two years earlier. The biker gangs didn’t ride on magic busses. They rode hogs. They made their own black magic. They had long memories and never forgotten forgiven grievances.

   After Bogie moved out, Diane took up with Igor, a math wizard. He was tall, had long dark wiry hair, and played air guitar. Even though he was egg-headed about numbers, he often looked like he was half there.

   “We all thought he was tripping a lot,” Virginia said.

   I lived in a back apartment on the second floor, Virginia lived in a side apartment on the same floor, and an older Italian couple Angeline and Charlie Beale lived in the front. They always had their apartment door open. Charlie was short and stocky, a retired mailman. He read newspapers and magazines all day long.  Angie was stout with wavy hair. She stayed in the kitchen all day long cooking in a black slip. 

   They had a parrot. Whenever Angie spied Virginia walking by, she called out, “Oh, honey, honey, come in, let me see if I can get him to talk to you.” She would coo and try to convince the parrot to talk. He never did, even when she poked him with a stick. When she did, he whistled and squawked. He sounded offended and tone-deaf.

   “How long have you had that parrot?” Virginia asked, thinking they were still training him.

   “Oh, we’ve had him for sixteen years, honey.”

   Angie and Charlie went shopping for foodstuffs a few times a week. They walked down Prospect Avenue to the Central Market. “They started out together, but ended up a block or more apart,” Dave said. They both carried handmade cotton shopping bags, one in each hand.

   The Central Market was on East 4th St., nearly two miles away by foot. The only people who went there were people who couldn’t get to the West Side Market. It was grimy, and the roof leaked. “Some panels are out, and when it rains, we have to put plastic tarp down. That looks like hell,” said produce stall owner Tony LoSchiavo.

    “She always walked twenty feet behind him,” Virginia said. “A couple of hours later, same thing, both of them their two bags full, he would be walking twenty feet ahead of her as they came back to the Plaza.”

   He waited at the front door, holding it open for her. She trudged up, he followed her, and the parrot every time said, “Welcome back!” when they stepped into their apartment. Angie returned with vegetables like asparagus and nuts like filberts for the thick billed brightly colored bird.

   Most of the tenants at the Plaza were on good terms with one another. Many of us were single and sought out company up and down the floors and down the hallways, especially in January and February when snow piled up. We visited one another and chewed the fat.

   “Friends would just drop in,” said Virginia.

   One Siberian Sunday Mr. Flood’s kids were visiting and went exploring in the basement. They found a red metal and wood Flexible Flyer. Their father bundled them up and carried the sled outside. When they got tired of pushing each other back and forth in the parking lot, they found a shovel and scooped snow onto the back stairs as far up as the first landing. They shoveled enough snow on the stairs to make a ramp and spent the rest of the day running across the landing, throwing themselves on the sled, racing down the ramp and zooming across the icy lot.

   Mr. Flood and I watched them from the second-floor landing.

   “They’re up to snow good,” he joked laconically when they hit bottom bumped up and got some air under their sled.

   “They’re on their own magic carpet ride,” I said.

   “It takes one to snow one,” the kids whooped back at us.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Fried Eggs on Toast

By Ed Staskus

   The first language Eddie Staskevicius spoke was Lithuanian and until he started meeting Canadian children it was the only language he spoke. All his first friends in Sudbury, Ontario, were other small change in the same boat, visiting his parents with their parents. When spring broke early his second year of life, he started meeting other youngsters, boys and girls on the block of nine houses on their dead-end street. 

   They all spoke English and many of them spoke French. They stuck to English on the street, which was how he picked up enough of it to get by. French was for talking about cooking fashion and popular culture.

   His close friend and arch-enemy Regina Bagdonaite, who he called Lele, lived a block away. Eddie and Lele played together, burning up the pavement, except for those times that she spied him dragging his red fleece blanket behind him. When she tried to take it away and he resisted, starting a tug of war, she resorted to biting him on the arm. It was then the squabbling and pushing started in earnest.

   Lele didn’t begin learning English until the first day she went to school.

   “All my friends were Lithuanian during my childhood in Sudbury,” she said. “When I entered kindergarten, I didn’t speak a word of English. Many people over my lifetime had a chuckle when I told them I was born in Canada, but English is my second language.”

   Time is money is the watchword in the grown-up world, but time is candy is what works for many children. The young wife who lived next door to Eddie’s parents, Angele and Vytas, had a daughter and they visited together some afternoons. She always brought candy and while the women talked, Diana and Eddie sat at the kitchen table with a paper bag of candy between them. Whenever one of them was ready for another piece, they jiggled the table vigorously before making a grab for the bag.

   The immigrant couple bought a house as soon as they could, the same as every other Lithuanian who ended up in Sudbury. They had three children inside of five years. They didn’t have a TV, but they had a telephone and a radio, as well as a washing machine and a fridge. They knew their neighbors, but all their close friends were other post-war DP’s, most of them working in the nickel mines. Sudbury was a city, but it was a company town, too.

   By 1950 it had long been associated with mining, smelting, and a broken-down landscape. The environment was said to be comparable to that of the moon. Decades of mining and smokestacks had acidified more than 7,000 lakes inside a circle of 10,000 square miles. 

   “I didn’t like Sudbury,” said Angele. “All the trees were dried up and dead. It was god-forsaken.” 

   More than 50,000 acres of the hinterland were barren. Nothing grew there. Another 200,000 acres were semi-barren. There was substantial erosion everywhere. It wasn’t a wasteland, but it was a wasteland. All anyone had to do was walk up a rocky promontory and look around.

   As early as the 1920s “The Hub of the North” was open roasting more than twice as much rock ore as any other smelting location in North America. The result poisoned crops. The result made it one of the worst environments in Ontario. It blackened the native pink granite, turning the rose and white quartz black. 

   “Vytas worked two weeks during the day and two weeks during the night,” said Angele. “He walked to work, except when it was too cold, and whoever had a car would pick him and others up. In the morning he left at seven and got home at seven at night. When he worked nights, he got home at seven in the morning. The kids and I would wait by the window for him to get back.”

   Sudbury is in a basin. It is the third-largest impact crater on Earth. It was created about 200 million years ago when an enormous asteroid rocketed through the atmosphere and hit the ground with a blast. World-class deposits are found there and mined extensively.

   The city’s reputation as a rocky badlands was known far and wide by the time Angele and Vytas got married in 1949 and bought their house on Stanley Street a year later. Despite the industrial blight of the past half-century, there was a growing working-class population. They were a part of that population. The newlyweds were two of the displaced willing to take whatever work was offered in return for getting out of the Old World.

   “All our friends, the Zizai, Simkai, Bagdonai, all had children,” Angele said. “Since our living room was a little bigger than most, they often came over on Saturday nights. The men played bridge while we made dinner. The kids ran around, we drank, lots of it, smoked and danced. We put the kids away and talked all night.”

   Whoever had the opportunity to get married got married as fast as they could. There wasn’t an overabundance of single women in Sudbury. Henry and Maryte Zizys saw each other three times before they got hitched. The Simkai and Bagdonai stretched it out for a few months. The married men drank at home. The single men drank in bars, usually with other single men.

   The early Lithuanians who went to the New World weren’t Lithuanians, since the country didn’t exist at the time. It had once been its own empire but had since been taken over and was part of the Russian Empire. Many who fled to the United States were mistakenly documented as Polish, since there was a language ban in their homeland and scores of them spoke Polish as a second language.

   The first Lithuanians in Canada were men who fought in the British Army in the War of 1812 against the Americans. For the next 130 years most of those who left the Baltics and went to Canada did so for economic reasons. After World War Two they fled toil and trouble after the Soviet Union reincorporated Lithuania into its realm.

   “All of us hated the Russians for what they did” Angele said.

   The Russians deported hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians to Siberian labor camps during and after the war. Sometimes they had their reasons. Other times the reason was slaphappy. The neighbors might have complained about you. The new Communist mayor might have taken a dislike to you. A cross-eyed apparatchik might have thought you were somebody else. It didn’t matter, because if you ended up in a boxcar going east, your future was over.

   The house Vytas and Angele moved into was on a newer extension of Stanley Street north of Poplar Street. It wasn’t in any of the city’s touted neighborhoods, but Donovan was nearby, and so was Little Britain. Downtown was less than two miles to the east. 

   Stanley Street started at Elm Street where there was a drug store, tobacconist, five-and-dime, fruit market, bakery and butcher shop, restaurants and a liquor store, and the Regent movie theater. The railcars were being replaced by busses and the tracks asphalted over. The other end dead-ended at a sheer rock face on top of which were railroad tracks. The Canadian Pacific ran day and night hauling ore. When the train wailed, the kids wailed right back.

   Angele shopped on Elm Street. When Eddie was still a toddler, he rode in a baby carriage. After his siblings were born, they rode in the carriage. He didn’t fit anymore, having become a third wheel.

   “He was unhappy about it,” Angele said. “I told him he was a big boy now and had to walk to help his brother and sister, but he still didn’t like it.”

   Vytas spread topsoil in the front yard of their new house and threw down grass seed. The backyard was forty feet deep but sandy and grass wouldn’t grow. He built a fence around it to discourage their kids from climbing the rocky rounded hill over which the railroad tracks curved west. 

   Even though children imitate their elders, they don’t always listen to them.

   “We always told the kids they weren’t allowed to climb the rock hills,” said Angele. “One day I couldn’t find Edvardas. He wasn’t in the house or in the yard or anywhere on our part of the street. I called and called for him. When he didn’t answer, all I could do was wait outside. When he finally came home, he had pebbles in his pockets. Where have you been? I asked him.”

   “I was looking for gold, mama,” he said, handing his mother pebbles that had a glint of shine. “I found some and brought them back for you.”

   Their house on Stanley Street was ten blocks from the vast open pits on the other side of Big Nickel Mine Drive. Logging and farming were what men worked at in the 19th century, but after 1885 big deposits of nickel, copper, and platinum were discovered in the basin. The impact over decades of roasting ore on open wood fires killed most of the trees, except poplar and birch, which dotted the city and their street.

   “We had two bedrooms, a small kitchen, and a nice living room,” said Angele. “Upstairs was a half bath and two rooms We rented those rooms. We usually rented to women or a couple who were new to Sudbury. Where they took a bath, I don’t know. Vytas charged $11.00 a week for a room and he saved all the money we got. Right before we left for America, he was able to buy a used car.”

   When Bruno and Ingrid Hauck came to Sudbury from Germany, they rented a room for several years. “She watched the kids sometimes, so Vytas and I could go to the Regency to see a movie,” said Angele. They saw “The Greatest Show on Earth” and “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” The kids saw “Lady and the Tramp.”

   They had a New Year’s party at their house, inviting their friends. A few minutes before the magic moment Angele cut her eye adjusting the elastic strap of a party hat under her chin while sliding it up over the front of her face.

   “I had to lay down and didn’t see New Year’s Day,” she said, disappointed.

   When she woke up her husband and Rimas Bagdonas, her dancing partner in the local Lithuanian folk dancing group, were washing the night’s dishes. Rimas worked in the mines, but wrote plays in his spare time, staging them in the hall of the nearby French Catholic church hall. They went to church there once a month when their visiting Lithuanian priest made his rounds. It cost ten cents to sit in a pew. The children sat for free. Piety was mandatory.

   “I was just in my twenties, but in one of Rimas’s plays I was the mother of a dying partisan,” Angele said. “I made myself cry by thinking about the time I cut my eye.”

   September through November are cold, December through February are freezing, and March into mid-May are cold in Sudbury. The first snow by and large falls in October, but it can show up as early as September. The season’s last snow comes and goes in April, although May sometimes sees a late snow shower. There are never any flurries in June, July, and August. 

   Vytas learned to ice skate and taught his children on a rink in the front yard. He hosed water out on the lawn on bitter cold days where it started freezing in minutes. When it was frozen hard as rock, he and the children laced up their skates and went skating. Whenever all the kids on the block joined in it got pell-mell fast. Eddie and his two friends across the street dazzled the girls with their figure 8s.

   In the 1950s in Sudbury sulfur dioxide formed a permanent, opaque, cloud-like formation across the horizon as seen from a distance. There was lead nickel arsenic and God knows what else in it. The ground-level pollution wasn’t as bad, a gray haze, but was worse on some days than others.

   When it was worse, Vytas built igloos for the kids to play in.

   It snows a hundred and more inches in Sudbury. After the streets and sidewalks are cleared there is plenty of building material. He formed blocks 2 feet long 12 inches high and 6 inches thick. When there were enough blocks to start, Vytas made a circle leaving space for a door. After he stacked them, he used loose snow like cement, packing it in. He put a board across the top of the igloo door and another at the top of the dome for support. Halfway up were small windows and around the top several air holes.

   As long as there was daylight there were daylong Eskimos in the igloo.

   The furnace in the basement ran on coal. It was delivered once a week by truck, the coal man filling up the bin in the basement down a chute. Every morning Vytas shoveled coal into it, lit the fire, and stoked the coal. At night either Angele or he banked the furnace, salvaging unburned coal and putting the ashes in bags. They saved some in a container on the front porch for the steps whenever they got iced over.

   Angele told the kids to never go in the basement. One day Eddie started down the stairs to see what his dad did exactly every morning, tripped over his own feet, and tumbled the rest of the way down. He was back on his feet in a second, ran up the stairs and into the kitchen, and started to bawl, even though he was unhurt.

   The furnace heated a boiler that created steam delivered by pipes to radiators throughout the house. The kids were forbidden to stand on the pipes or scale the radiators.

   “I didn’t have to worry about Richardas and Rita, they were too small, but Edvardas was always trying to climb up on the radiator in the living room. I told him he was going to fall off and one Sunday night, while I was cooking, he fell off and broke his collarbone, although he didn’t cry when it happened. He seemed more surprised than anything else.”

   For the rest of the next week, his arm in a sling, Angele fed him his favorite food every morning, fried eggs on toast. He was the envy of his sidekicks, the two Canadian boys from whom he had learned most of his English. After finishing their pancakes or porridge, they ran to his back porch and watched him through the window go one-handed at his sunny side up breakfast.

   He saluted his pals with half a piece of gooey toast.

Photograph by Rimas Bagdonas.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Mumble the Peg

By Ed Staskus

   The week we went to our last Boy Scout camp at Lake Pymatuning State Park wasn’t any seven days longer than any other summer camp we had gone to, but since it was going to be our last camp, my friends and I were determined to make the most of it, stay up most of the time, lengthen the days and nights, mess around in the woods and water, raid the girl’s side, and play mumble the peg.

   We weren’t supposed to, even though all of us had jackknives and some of us had fixed-blade sheath knives.

   “No mumbledy peg,” our scoutmaster told us in no uncertain terms, in uncertain English, in his strong Lithuanian accent, speaking through his Chiclet teeth.

   One way we played mumble the peg was to first pound a twig, a peg, into the ground. We threw our knives at the ground, flipping from the palm, back of the hand, twist of the fist, and every which way. Whatever the other scout did, if he threw it backward over his head, and it stuck, you had to do it, too. If you failed, then you had to mumble the peg. You had to get on your hands and knees and pull the twig out of the ground with your teeth.

   The other way we played was to stand opposite each other with our legs shoulder-width. Taking turns, we would flip and try to stick our knife into the ground as close to our own foot as possible. The first toss was always in the middle, but when the other guy got closer, you had to get closer, and the closer and closer it went. Whoever stuck his knife closest to his own foot, and the other guy chickened out, was the winner.

   If you stuck the knife into your own foot you won on the spot, although nobody ever wanted to win that way.

It was why everyone who had not gotten their first aid merit badge and was going to get in on mumble the peg at camp, took the class at the park ranger cabin a half mile away. It was taught by an older scout who wore leopard-print cammo-style pants and shirt. One of us read from the only available Red Cross manual, while he was the hands-on guy.

   It was the only book-learning merit badge on the program. Sticking our noses in a book at summer camp was the last thing anybody except the bookworms wanted to do. They read what somebody else dreamed up about fun. We dreamed up our own fun.

   We were going to look for Bigfoot and nab him if we could. He was the hide and seek world champion, but we knew he was somewhere around the lake. What we were going to do with him once we got him, none of us knew. We thought, if we did find him, and he was friendly, we would ask him where he lived and what he did all day. 

   “His name is Sasquatch,” the cammo scout told us, looking like he thought we were retards.

   There were more of us than Bigfoot, or whatever his name was, for sure. There were seven of us, first-generation immigrant children like all the boys and girls at the camp, and we were all Eagle Scouts. None of us had earned any Palms, though, since none of us had gotten more than the twenty-one merit badges needed to get to Eagle, but all of us were going for twenty-two, since Ginty’s dad had brought two canoes. We were looking forward to it after we heard what getting a canoeing badge was all about.

   What it was about was getting out of a canoe in deep water and getting back in without capsizing, then performing a controlled capsize, and swimming, towing, or pushing a swamped canoe fifty feet to shallow water. In the shallow water, empty the swamped canoe and reenter it. Back in deep water, rescue a swamped canoe and its paddlers by emptying it and helping the paddlers reenter their boat without capsizing.

   We were all about that.

   We had searched for Bigfoot at camp before, but sporadically, never having a plan. This time we had a plan. We brought flashlights, we had a map of the landscape north of our camp, and a compass, and we made sure all of us had sharpened our knives, just in case Bigfoot tried to mess with us.

   It would put Troop 311 on the map.

   Seven years earlier Bigfoot had terrorized a weekend Cub Scout camp at the park in the middle of the night. The scoutmaster was jolted out of a sound sleep by the screams of his boys. He stumbled out of his tent to find the 11-year-olds crying and running around in circles. Using a whistle and a flashlight he got them to stop and form a line. He then asked them what was going on.

   It turned out four of the boys had been woken up suddenly by a loud noise. Their tent started to shake. They thought it was a prank being played by their friends, until the tent was ripped from the ground and thrown into a tree. A creature bellowed at them. It was Bigfoot. Two of the boys immediately shut their eyes. The other two were mesmerized by its glowing eyes. They couldn’t look away.

   The beast was satisfied with scaring them and left. The scoutmaster searched, but only found the tent high in the tree. He built a fire and gathered all the boys around him. In the morning he cut the camping weekend short.

   Troop 311 was the Lithuanian American scout troop on the east side of town. Our headquarters was the community hall at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, just off East 185th Street, the principal road, and the spine of Lithuanian life and culture in Cleveland. Our group was all 15 and 16 years old, and scouting was phasing out of our minds and lives. 

   The younger kids didn’t know anything. The older guys who were still scouts were Explorers, in it for life. We knew this was our last camp at Lake Pymatuning. Next year we were hoping to go out on a high note at the 12th World Scout Jamboree at Farragut State Park in the Rocky Mountains.

   “I will bust a gut if we make it there,” said Linas, our camel train’s crack wise.

    The first thing we did when we got to Lake Pymatuning late Sunday morning was haul our stuff, clothes, sleeping bags, tents, food and supplies out of the fleet of Ford station wagons, Chevy station wagons, and  Pontiac station wagons our parents had driven us in to the camp site. We set up our tents in a perpendicular line to the lake, hoisted the communal tent, dug a fire pit and a latrine trench. We built a 30-foot high abstract frame sculpture out of dead tree branches. Everybody went for a swim when we were done.

   The lake is partly in Ohio and partly in Pennsylvania, on land that used to be a swamp. It is named for Pihmtomink, the chief of the tribe who lived in the swamp. When the Indians were pushed off their land, and told to go somewhere else, the first farmers had a hell of a time. The swamp was infested by mosquitoes carrying yellow fever. Farm animals were eaten by bears and mountain lions or sank in quicksand. There was a massive flood in 1913. Finally, the Pymatuning Land Company bought all the land, thousands of men worked from 1931 to 1934, and built a dam. The lake they made is 17 miles long and 2 miles wide.

   There’s a spot called “Where the Ducks Walk on the Fish,” where people throw bread to thousands of carp and Canada geese and birds of a feather rush around on top of the fish to snag their share of it.

   Our scoutmaster’s tent was nearest to the lake. Vytautas Jokubaitis was a stubby-legged barrel-chested man with blondish hair and a red face. He wore a khaki campaign hat, the same kind that Robert Baden-Powell wore, to keep the sun off his face. But that wasn’t why his face was usually red. He wasn’t a bad man, but he had a bad temper. Nobody ever wanted to get on the wrong side of the scout oath, or scout motto, or scout code with him. 

   There was the devil to pay when that happened.

   He was our Scoutmaster, or Scouter, so we called him Scooter, since we couldn’t call him Vito. He didn’t like that. He was a grown man and we were kids. He didn’t like us calling him Scooter, either, but what could he do? Besides, we never called him that to his face. He was a “Yes sir” and “No sir” kind of man.

   He was from Alytus, the same town where my mother had been baby-sitting when the Russians stormed into Lithuania. She got out in the nick of time with her aunt and her aunt’s four kids on a horse drawn wagon with a cow tied to the back. By 1966 it had been 22 years since she had seen anyone from her family, who were all stuck behind the Iron Curtain.

   When he was young Vito weightlifted and wrestled. Nobody screwed around with him, but he beat it out of the Baltics in 1944 like tens of thousands of others, met his wife Onute in Germany, got married, and emigrated to the United States in 1949. They had three children, Milda, who was older than us and ignored us, Ruta, who was our age and eye-catching, and who we pretended to ignore, and a boy who was small fry and ignored by everybody except his small fry friends.

   Vytautas Jokubaitis organized Zaibas and the Lithuanian American Club in Cleveland, and had gotten medals, although he never wore them to camp. The CYO gave him the “Saint John Bosco Award.” We all went to Catholic schools, but none of knew who John Bosco was. He sounded like Ovaltine.

   Ona was just as industrious, and not about to be outdone by her husband. She ran the camp as much as he did, although she stayed on the girl’s side. She was the head of the Parents Committee of Zaibas, raised mounds of money for the Lithuanian Relief Fund, and was Outstanding Citizen of the Year in 1960. Cleveland mayor Ralph Locher gave her the award in person.

   They talked about Lithuania at the night-time campfire like it was the best place in the world, but none of had ever been there. Lithuania was like Bigfoot, something we heard about, but didn’t know if it was real or not.  When they talked about the Baltic and the dunes, all we could picture were the dunes at Mentor Headlands State Park on Lake Erie. That’s what we knew. We didn’t know Lithuania from the man in the moon.

   We got up early every morning, raised our flags on poles we had brought, did exercises in a field, made breakfast, and took a break after that. We washed out clothes in the lake and dried them on our tent lines. Scooter was focused on physical fitness, so before lunch we had to go on a forced march. The only consolation was being let loose afterwards to run and dive into the lake.

   The younger scouts worked on merit badges in the afternoon. We were free to drift off, which we did, fooling around, exploring the shoreline, and mumbling the peg in secluded spots.

   We did service projects, planting seedlings, and raking out the beach. We climbed trees and had our own “Big Time Wrestling” match with a Negro Scout Troop from Louisville. We went on more hikes before dinner. They were supposed to be short, two to three miles, but Scooter always took us out four and five miles. We hiked every day, rain or shine. We went on a night hike and got lost every which way.

   “It’s like training to be a mailman,” Linas grumbled.

   The last night of camp started after the campfire and lights out. A half hour later we snuck out of our sleeping bags, out of the campsite, and to the grove of crabapple trees on the other side of the girl’s side. There were plenty of last year’s old hard two-inch crabapples littering the ground that squirrels hadn’t gotten, and we filled our pockets with them. When we got close to the girl’s tents, we unleashed our barrage of missiles. They thunked the canvas and the girls woke up screaming. The next second, though, they were screaming mad. As soon as we were out of ammo, they rushed from their tents, led by the irate Milda, followed by the fetching Ruta, picked up the sour fruits, and started throwing them back at us. We scattered and they ran after us, pelting us, but stopped when they ran out of fireworks. 

   Algis had a lump on his head where he got hit. We rubbed it to rub it away, but he said, “Cut it out, you’re making it hurt even more,” and that he was good to go. We went looking for Bigfoot, following the beams of our flashlights. We thought he had to be somewhere in the woods, away from the water, where there were tents and trailers all summer long. 

   Bigfoot was beyond any doubt a loner.

   We knew he was going to be hard to find in the dark even though he was probably nine feet tall. He was covered head-to-toe in swarthy hair. We were hoping to find footprints, which had to be enormous. We tramped around for hours looking for him, but all we found was a skunk, who raised his tail before we backed off, and two racoons on their hind legs, peering at us from behind their masks.

   “Maybe he avoids white people, since they chased off his ancestors,” said Gediminas.

   “You think he’s an Indian?” asked Andrius. We called him Andy since calling him Andrius annoyed the crap out of him.

   “He’s got to be. Why would he live in the woods, all naked, no furniture or TV? Only Indians do that.” 

   “That makes sense to me,” said Linas.

   Looking for Bigfoot turned out to be a wild-goose chase. We stumbled into tree branches, tripped over roots, looked high and low, left no stone unturned, but he wasn’t anywhere to be found. We trudged back to camp, tired and disappointed.

   I don’t know what got into us. One minute we were sneaking back to our tents and the next minute we were sneaking up to Scooter’s car. It was a four-door Ford Country Sedan. After checking the driver’s door, it was unlocked, and quietly opening it, putting the manual gear into neutral, the next minute we were all at the back pushing the car down the slope toward the lake.

   Nobody said a word when it got stuck in the muck. The water slurped up to the front bumper. Nobody said a word when we slouched back to our tents and threw ourselves down on our sleeping bags.

   The next morning, we were woken up by ferocious bursts of anger and dismay. We were bum rushed out of our tents and lined up in a row. We could see the shipwrecked Ford down the bank. Scooter read us the riot act. 

  He gave each of us the third-degree, face to face, glaring, but nobody was talking.

   “I will give you one last chance,” he finally said. “Whoever did this step forward, apologize, know that you broke the code of scouting, and we will forgive.”

   We all knew that wasn’t possible. Scooter wasn’t one to ever forgive and forget. His face was getting redder and redder. Then Linas stepped forward.

   It was hard to believe he was going to spill the beans. He was the least tame scout among us. He was no chicken, either. He proved that every day. He had thrown down the mumble the peg gauntlet the first day and fended off all challengers. Playing the peg was forbidden but he played it more than anyone else and played it best, yet there he was, ready to tell all about pushing the car into Lake Pymatuning.

   “Yes?” asked Scooter.

   “I think it was Bigfoot, sir,” said Linas.

A version of this story appeared in Lithuanian Heritage Magazine.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Summertime Blues

By Ed Staskus

“Well, I called my congressman, and he said I’d like to help you, son, but you’re too young to vote, there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues.”  Eddie Cochran

   “Mom said you’re not leaving and you’re coming to my birthday party this year,” Maggie said, putting down her ear of corn, her lips peppered with flecks of salt and smeary with   butter.

   “That’s right,” said Frank Glass.

   Vera Glass’s brother, sister-in-law, nephew and niece, Frank’s sister and her new boyfriend, a policeman who lived nearby, were visiting on the Fourth of July, in the backyard, a breezy sunny day in the shade, crowded around a folding table-clothed table doing double duty, food and drink and board games.

   Independence Day has been a federal holiday since 1941, but the tradition goes back to the American Revolution. Since then it’s been celebrated with festivities like fireworks parades concerts big and small and family barbecues. This year the fireworks parades concerts were scratched.

   Maggie was born seven almost eight years earlier. She was due to officially come to life the third week of September, four five days after Frank and Vera expected to be back from Atlantic Canada but was born on the first day of the month.

   She was a once in a blue moon baby. To do something once in a blue moon means to do it rarely. It is the appearance of a second full moon within a calendar month, which happens about once every three years.

   “Where do you go in the summer?” Maggie asked.

   “We go to Prince Edward Island, a small town called North Rustico, but we stay in a cottage in the National Park, a family owns the land, they’ve been there for almost two hundred years. We leave in mid-August and stay through the first couple of weeks of September, which is why we miss your birthday party.”

   “You always send me a present. I like that. But last year you sent me a sweatshirt with a red leaf on it that was ten times too big.”

   “You’ll grow into it,” said Frank.

   “Maybe I will, but maybe I won’t,” said Maggie. She was a genial child but could be a testy cuss. She thought she knew her own mind rounding out her seventh year, although it could go both ways.

   “Do you like it there?”

   “Yes, we like it a lot.”

   “Why aren’t you going? Is it the virus?”

   The 20th century was the American Century. The United States led the way socially economically brain-wise learning-wise and in every other wise way. In 2020 it led the way in virus infections, far outpacing the next two contenders, Brazil and India. The flat tires in charge nowadays can’t get anything right, from building their useless wall, all three miles of new wall, to securing a useful virus test.

   North Korea and Iran keep making atom bombs, there’s no China trade deal, the deficit has skyrocketed, and race relations have gotten worse. All that’s left is for the other shoe to drop. On top of that, Hilary Clinton still isn’t in jail.

   “Yes, the bug,” said Frank. “The Canadian border is closed, and even if we could get into Canada somehow, the bridge to the island is closed except for business.”

   In May President Trump said, “Coronavirus numbers are looking MUCH better, going down almost everywhere, cases are coming way down.” In June he said the pandemic is “fading away. It’s going to fade away.” On July 2nd he said, “99% of cases are totally harmless.” Four days later, on July 6th, he said, “We now have the lowest Fatality Rate in the World.”

   John Hopkins University subsequently reported that the United Sates has the world’s ninth-worst mortality rate, with 41.33 deaths per 100,000 people. It was a bald-faced report. They didn’t capitalize the numbers.

   “Are you sad that you can’t go?”

   “Yes.”

   “They built a new bridge to our house. I know all about it, we drove over it two weeks ago. Mom was so happy. It’s a big bridge, too, the other one was small and always breaking.”

   “You know the bridge you go across from downtown, when you go up the rise past the baseball stadium where the Indians play ball, on your way to Lakewood?”

   “That’s a long bridge.”

   “It’s called the Main Avenue Bridge and it’s two miles long. The bridge that goes from Canada to Prince Edward Island is almost 5 times longer than that. It’s as long as the distance from downtown to our house.”

   “That’s far!”

   “That can’t be,” Frank’s nephew Ethan blurted out. “That bridge is too long!”

   “How do you know, Bud, you can hardly count,” said Maggie. She called Ethan Bud. They were buddies, although they didn’t always see eye-to-eye.

   “I can so count, I know all the dinosaurs, there are a million of them,” said Ethan.

   “I’m going into third grade and we’re going to learn division. You’ve been learning to finger paint.”

   “What’s a million and a million?”

   “2 million.”

   “OK, what’s the biggest dinosaur ever?”

   “The Brontosaurus.”

   “No! It’s the Argentinosaurus, and he weighed a million pounds.”

   “That can’t be,” said Maggie.

   “My math is my math,” Ethan simply said.

   “If you can’t explain it simply you don’t understand it well enough,” said Albert Einstein.

   As of July, there were more than 300,000 cases of the virus reported in children since the start of the pandemic. The Executive Office of the Federal Government has repeatedly maintained it poses almost no threat to them. “The fact is they are virtually immune from this problem,” President Trump said.

   “How do you know about the virus?” Frank asked.

   “Everybody knows about it. The whole world knows.”

   “They even know in Antarctica,” said Ethan.

   “Do you know anybody who got it?”

   “A girl in school got it from her mom,” Maggie said. “I took piano lessons with her.”

   “That’s too bad,” Frank said.

   “Are there going to be fireworks tonight?” Maggie asked.

   “No, the city cancelled them.”

   “Where we live, too.”

   “Here there were fireworks last night, we sat on the front porch, until after midnight, but it was just people in the street or their yards. There were some big pops over there by Madison Avenue. I think they were shooting them off from the empty lot. We could see bottle rockets over the trees.”

   “Wow!”

   “You said you knew about the virus, but how do you know?” asked Frank.

   “The news about it is on every day on TV,” said Maggie.

   “That’s right,” said Ethan.

   “We have a TV, but we don’t have TV,” said Frank. “We only have a couple of streaming services for movies.”

   “We have real TV,” said Maggie, “and it’s on all the time. The news is on every single hour every single day and all the news is about the virus.”

   “Do you watch TV all the time?”

   “We don’t watch TV, but we watch it all day,” said Ethan.

   “We don’t really watch it, but it’s always there,” said Maggie.

   Parents are urged to pay attention to what their children see and hear on radio online television. They are cautioned to reduce screen time focused on the virus since too much information on one topic can lead to anxiety in kids. Talk to them about how stories on the web might be rumors and wildly inaccurate.

   “That’s OK, it’s all in your head, anyway,” said Maggie.

   “All in your head?”

   “That’s what dad says.”

   “Well,” Frank said, “your father knows best.” He wasn’t going to get into a no-win argument with his brother-in-law. His sister’s boyfriend was a policeman at Metro Hospitals. Frank didn’t want his ears pricking up. He wouldn’t understand it’s all in your head.

   “Are you worried about the virus?” Frank asked.

   “Would that help?” Maggie asked, biting into a burger. “This is yummy good.”

   “No, it would probably just make you crazy.”

   “Dad said your name wasn’t always Frank Glass.”

   “Yes and no,” said Frank. “My given name has always been Frank, which is short for Francis, like we call you Maggie even though your name is Margaret, but my family name, what they say is your surname, used to be Kazukauskas.”

   “What happened to it?” asked Maggie. “Why is it different now.”

   “When my father came here, to America after World War Two, the immigration people said he should change it to something other people could pronounce, that they could say without too much trouble, so he changed it to Glass.”

   “Where did he come from?”

   “Lithuania, a little country, north of Germany.”

   “That’s a nice name,” Maggie said. “I like Glass.”

   “At least he didn’t have to climb another brick in the wall once he got here.”

   “What does that mean?”

   “I’ll tell you when you’re older. Are you staying home more because of the virus?”

   “Yes!” both of them exclaimed.

   “Do you have to wear a mask when you go somewhere?”

   “We cover up,” Maggie said. “My face gets hot, my head gets hot, and my hair get hot. It makes my glasses fog up.”

   “I have a tube mask with rhino’s and bronto’s on it,” Ethan said. “But I can’t breathe, so I just rip it off until mom sees.”

   There was a box of Charades for Kids on the table. “Three or More Players Ages Four and Up.” Frank pointed at it.

   “Are you ready to play?”

   Maggie rolled around on the lawn, flapped her arms, rolled her eyes, and hugged herself. Nobody had any idea what she was doing.

   “Going to bed!” she yelped.

   Ethan did a somersault.

   “Somersault?”

   “Yes!”

   Maggie rolled on the ground holding her head and grimacing like a mad chipmunk. Everybody watched with blank faces, stumped.

   “Headache!” she blared.

   Ethan slashed the air with his hands.

   “Karate?”

   “Yes!”

   Maggie jumped, waved her right arm in circles, flapped it back and forth, and licked her lips. As the one-minute hourglass dropped the last grain of sand to the bottom, she fell down on the grass. Everybody was stumped again.

   “Frosting a cake! I can’t believe nobody got it.”

   Ethan got on all fours like an anteater, pretended to be eating something with great chomping motions, and clomped to the driveway and back.

   “Argentinosaurus?”

   “Yes!”

   Summer signals freedom for children. It’s a break from the structure of school days, a time for more days spent at the pool, a time for more play, for exploring the outdoors.

   One day his mom asked Ethan if he wanted to go out on his scooter.

   “So much,” he said. “I have got to get out of this house.”

   “Every single day I see the Amazon truck and the FedEx and the white trucks go past me,” said Maggie. “They turn around at the cul-de-sac thing, they just rush back, driving crazy. I run to the backyard.”

   “There’s a big field and woods past our backyard,” Ethan said.

   “We’re stuck at home but it’s summer, it’s nice outside, the sun is shining, and we all go for walks,” Maggie said.

   She hadn’t been to school since April, studying remotely. Ethan hadn’t been to pre-school for just as long.

   “Are you going back to school in the fall?” asked Frank.

   “I hope so,” said Maggie. “I miss it.”

   “I’m supposed to start first grade,” said Ethan.

   About two months away from hopes there will be a return to school, many parents were looking to new findings which suggest children are less likely to get and spread the virus. In late June the American Academy of Pediatrics, which advocates for “having students physically present in school,” published reopening guidelines. They stated that children “may be less likely to become infected” with the coronavirus and to spread the infection.

   Living and breathing in-person face-to-face time is what makes school a school. “Better than a thousand days of diligent study is one day with a great teacher,” is what a Japanese proverb says.

   “I want to play something else,” Maggie said. “Can you teach us how to play Pictionary?”

   “Sure,” Frank said.

   They put the never-ending news of the pandemic away, cleared one end of the table, and unfolded the game board, setting out the pencils note pads special cards. “Quick Sketches, Hilarious Guesses” is what it said on the yellow box, and that is what they did the rest of Independence Day, the clear sky going twilight, lightning bugs flashing on off on off, and neighborhood kids shooting off Uncle Sam Phantom fire flowers in the alley behind them.

   There wasn’t a dud in the caboodle, not that they saw. Uncle Sam got it right, rockets red glare.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

In the Cards

By Ed Staskus

   By the time Dave Bloomquist set foot on Prospect Avenue the street had been there for more than a century. It is one block south of Euclid Ave, which between 1870 and 1930 was known as Millionaire’s Row. Nearly 250 houses ran along its 4 golden miles. Some of them were as big as 50,000 square feet on lots of 6 acres. One of them owned by Sam Andrews kept 100 servants to make sure the mansion made it through the day.

   On Sundays everybody paraded to church dressed in their best. At the time it was called “The Most Beautiful Street in America.” High-spirited sleigh races in winter attracted thousands, lining the 30 blocks between East 9th and East 40th Streets to watch. In the spring children busted out to the many small parks within running distance.

   Prospect Avenue was a second cousin, but the cousins were well-to-do. It housed the upper middle class, lawyers, doctors, and businessmen. Rowhouses were built between 1874 and 1879 near East 36th Street in Gothic Revival, Italianate, and Second Empire styles. A grand house was built in 1883 for Sarah Benedict, the widow of Cleveland Herald publisher George Benedict. The five-story Plaza Apartments was built in 1901.

   Dave grew up in Sandusky, in northern Ohio on the shores of Lake Erie, midway between Toledo and Cleveland. Back in the day the Wyandots called the spot Soundustee. It means cold water. 

   “I was recruited my senior year in high school by Findlay University on a basketball scholarship, but was disciplinarily dismissed after the winter semester of 1968,” he said. He quickly pulled up his dorm room stakes and went to Colorado. “I was avoiding arrest on a possession and sales charge but was eventually picked up and extradited back to Ohio. When I got out on bond I petitioned for probationary enrollment to Cleveland’s Tri-C.” 

   It was one of the only higher education schools of any kind in Ohio that offered that kind of re-entry opportunity. Keeping his nose clean and finishing with a 3.5 GPA he was able to later transfer to Cleveland State University. In the meantime, in between classes, he needed a job. When the Auditorium Hotel posted a stock boy position on the community college’s job board, he went downtown.

   “The manager’s assistant assumed I was there for another positing, for night auditor, since I showed up in a jacket and tie. I fabricated math and accounting skills on the spot and was hired.”

   The 10-story hotel built in 1927 was on the corner of East 6th Street and St. Clair Ave. There were 420 rooms. It was close to everything because everything was close-by.

   “Most of the rooms stayed mostly empty, except when the Metropolitan Opera came to town,” Dave said. “That’s when my limited skills with the NCR auditing machine and the Lilly Tomlin-style switchboard became obvious. The three manual elevators were operated by retired prostitutes. The second shift bell captain was a city supervisor during the day, but at night became the procurer for all the shady desires of the guests. The hotel had off-duty policemen moonlighting as security, who were good at raiding the restaurant refrigerators for steaks and regaling me with crook stories.”

   He was the last night auditor at the Auditorium. Six months after he started the hotel closed. Soon after it was demolished. Married and with an infant son, he dropped out of a school for a quarter to work full-time. When he went back to Tri-C, he worked as a student assistant in the Art Department and the night shift at a local psychiatric hospital. When he moved on to Cleveland State University, he again found work in the Art Department and became director of the university’s daycare, as well.

   The psychiatric hospital hadn’t driven him crazy. Infant crying and irritability weren’t going to, either. When he became the janitor at the Plaza, it didn’t test his mental and physical health.

   “Ruby and David, the janitors at the Plaza, moved out and Betty Basil, the manager, offered me the job. I had to sweep the halls, shovel the snow, cut the grass, and empty the three big trash barrels. I was also paid $50 for every room that I painted.”

   The work is messy, and the mess is always back the next day. It can drive a good man crazy. Janitors work odd hours and are prone to a high risk of trips slips falls, repetitive motion misery, and musculoskeletal injuries caused by overexertion. More than 46,000 janitors suffer work-related mishaps every year requiring time off, according to a report by the National Safety Council.  

   “Overall, most things were dutifully and patiently taken care of.” When you have the patience to do simple things well you get the hang of doing the dirty work easily.

   Keeping the grounds and premises clean gave him a window into the workings of the building. When he met Allen Ravenstine, he knew as much about the Plaza as anybody. Allen was mulling over what to with the inheritance he received after both his parents died in an accident. He had abandoned collegiate life and was re-making himself as a musician.

   “He was teaching himself the MOOG synthesizer and jamming with others engaged in experimental music,” Dave said. “But he was keen on being more personally engaged with his recent windfall. He was concerned that it was helping IBM and other blue-chip corporations that were supporting a government and a war.”

   The Vietnam War had gone full-scale big sky extravaganza. The ten-day Christmas Bombing of 1972, targeting Hanoi and Haiphong, was accomplished by B-52s. They were the biggest bomber strikes launched by the United States Air Force since the end of World War II. Other than blowing up lots of “major target complexes,” it didn’t get anything done. 

   After the titanic struggles of the past ten years, 1973 dawned with a new peace agreement. It was repeatedly violated by both sides as the struggle for power and control in South Vietnam continued. Nobody knew that by the end of the year there would hardly be any American combat forces left in the country and after that it was just a matter of time before Charlie won the war.

   “With the help of some wine and some smoke Allen and I discussed a wide variety of investments,” Dave said. “We talked about publishing and selling stories and poetry like City Lights, opening an art gallery, and getting an experimental music venue in the works. But as these interests were unlikely to go beyond a hobby that drained his resources, which were meant to sustain him into full adulthood, and some kind of career, one by one they were tabled.”

   After more talk and more ideas tabled as no good, Dave floated the notion of buying the Plaza Apartments and using the revenue from it to support their art enterprises.  At the time it was owned by the family who also owned Blonder Paints at East 39th St. and Prospect Ave. Blonder went back to 1918 when a cigarmaker and a paperhanger got it off the ground. They sold paint, varnish, and paperhanging supplies, both wholesale and retail. By the 1950s it was the country’s 6th largest wholesaler of wallpapers. 

   “We learned the family might be open to a purchase offer, so we got started. It was the days of red lining and white flight. We had difficulty finding an appraiser who would even look at the building. Of course, no banks would talk to us.”

   With the help of Everett Pruitt, Sr, a black realtor and appraiser with an office on East 86th St. and Cedar Ave they got a number on which to base an offer. “Everett helped us draft a land contract that was reviewed by Allen’s attorney and his older brother, who both thought we were nuts. We then manned up, dressed up, made a call and made an offer. After a little back and forth we struck a deal. We got the Plaza, the Victorian house next door, and the parking lot for $62,500.  I put in every penny my wife Ann and I had, which was $1,000, and Allen contributed the remaining amount, which was $9,000. The balance was amortized over 15 years. We formed Corona Unlimited, a partnership agreement based on a handshake and a toast.”

   They paid themselves $75.00 a week and lived rent-free. When a six-room front apartment on the top floor came open, Dave, Ann, and their son moved up from their small second floor rooms.

   “Mike Roccini was living in that suite,” Dave said. “He was a writer, some magazine articles and a novel. He graduated from the University of the Americas in Mexico City in pharmacy with a taste for tequila and cigars. After coming down with a heart ailment he retired from dispensing drugs and spent most of his time in what he called his Moose Hall writing, with breaks to check the mail and report to his office at the bar of the Sterling Hotel. His wife Speedy was a schoolteacher.”

   She kept him flush in pencils and paper. It was when the fourth-floor walk-up became too much for Mike that he and Speedy moved to a farm east of Cleveland. None of the chickens complained about his cigar smoke, fearing for their heads.

   To make ends meet Dave tended bar weekends at the Viking Saloon, helped out at the Mistake, and filled in at the Library when they were short-staffed. The Library was popular with CSU students and local bohemians. It was at East 37th and Prospect, in what had been the Benedict House, long past its glory days. The students drank too much and got into fights and the bohemians argued too much, even though it never mattered who won or lost.

   He went to work at the Round Table, an old downtown German restaurant. 

   “It had become a tired-out attorney’s bar with most of the grand old rooms empty. A young hustler from Lakewood convinced the owner to convert all three floors to a music venue. It was wildly successful. But bar tending was tailor made for my increasingly flagrant infidelities. After we purchased the Plaza, Ann grew tired of it and found sympathy and comfort from Allen.”

   Even so, the partnership continued for a dozen-and-more years. They used the rental income from the 48 apartments for operating expenses and renovations. With a 30% vacancy rate, a mortgage at 17%, insurance for an old building, taxes and utilities, it ate up most of the income. Renovations meant DIY for almost everything.

   “There was an old hardware store on Euclid just east of 55th Street, owned by Mr. Weiss. Before buying the Plaza, I got to know him and his helpmate Jimmy in my role as janitor of the building. Their stock of plumbing and building supplies dated back at least 50 years, which is a great resource when keeping an 80-year-old building alive. Since I was limited in my knowledge of trade skills it meant I would frequently go to Mr. Weiss or Jimmy for information on how to sweat pipe or wire a switch. They were very generous with their knowledge, if sometimes humored by my ignorance. They knew we were committed to the neighborhood.”

   The rigors of living it up on the late-night rock ‘n roll bar life roller coaster finally proved to be too much. He left his accustomed haunts to tend bar at the Elegant Hog on Playhouse Square. “It had an older crowd that tipped much better, and they closed much earlier.” He put his nose to the grindstone and the Plaza got better month by month. The vacancy rate went down, and the waiting list went up.

   Dave wasn’t lord of the manor, not by a long shot. Upper Prospect wasn’t anybody’s magic kingdom. Those days were done and gone. He was more like the Prince of Prospect, a hammer, wrench, and screwdriver part of his coat of arms. When the roof leaked or the boiler faltered, he put on his coat and went to work.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Seven in the Bag

By Ed Staskus

When Stan Riddman walked up from the guts of the Flatiron Building it wasn’t dark, not new dark yet. The sky was lemon and pale blue.  It was the first day of the second week of fall, but felt more like the middle of summer, except for the shorter autumn days. He wore a short sleeve shirt and linen trousers. The thin wallet in his back pocket was flush with more fives and tens than it was with one-spots. 

   He gave his wallet a friendly pat. The seven-card stud they played in the basement next to the furnace room had been good to him. I can buy the kid some new clothes, get up front on the office rent, and score tickets for the Series, he thought.

   The Socialist Labor Party used to have offices in the Flatiron Building, but not down in the underground. He wondered if they would have banned gambling, making it out like it was exploitive, if they had ever come to power. You took your chances at poker, but it was only exploitive if you had no skill at it. You deserved to be taken if you played dreamland cards.

   He walked down 22nd Street to Lexington Avenue, turned right, walked through Gramercy Park to Irving Place, and looked for a phone booth

   The Yankees were in and the Indians were out, that was for sure. The Redlegs were running on an outside track, but the Braves were neck and neck with the Dodgers. Sal the Barber had no-hit the Phils earlier in the week at Ebbets Field and the Cardinals were going hard at the Braves out in the boondocks. It was all going to come down to the weekend as to whether there was going to be a subway series, the same as last year, or not.

    Last year it went seven games, and the oddball thing was the Yankees won three at Ebbets Field and the Dodgers won their four at Yankee Stadium. Neither team won on their home field. Nobody won that bet. Nobody took the backside odds on the seventh game, win or go home, either, especially since Jackie Robinson wasn’t penciled in to play the deciding nine.

   Nobody but Stan and Ezra, and anybody else who flipped a coin.

   Who would have thought the Cuban would be the difference-maker when he took over right field in the sixth inning? Stan was in the upper deck with his sometime partner, Ezra Aronson. The Yankee dugout was on the first base side, so most of the Bum fans were on the third base side. A client who was a Yankees fan, after Stan had gotten him the black and white’s he needed to get his divorce done, gave a sudden pair of passes to him, so they were on the wrong side.

   “Beggars can’t be choosers,” Ezra said, sitting in a sea of Bronx Bomber fans.

   When Yogi Berra hit an opposite field sure double, Ezra sprang out of his seat, like everyone else, but the lightning fast Sandy Amoros caught it coming out of nowhere. He fired a pill to Pee Wee Reese, who relayed it to Gil Hodges, who doubled up the retreating Gil McDougald off first, ending the last threat Stengel’s Squad made that afternoon. 

   Casey Stengel managed the Yankees. Back in his day, when he still had legs, he had been a good but streaky ballplayer. Good glove, fair bat.

   “I was erratic,” he said. “Some days I was amazing, some days I wasn’t.” When he wasn’t, he played it for laughs, catching fly balls behind his back. One afternoon he doffed his cap to the crowd and a sparrow flew out of it. Another day, playing the outfield, he hid in a drainage hole and popped out of it just in time to snag a fly ball.

   When he stood leaning over the top rail of the dugout, he looked like a cross of the scowling Jimmy Durante and Santa Claus in pinstripes. He managed the Braves and Dodgers for nine years and chalked up nine straight losing seasons. But after the Bombers hired him in 1948, the only year he hadn’t taken them to the World Series was 1954.

   Stan and Ezra were the only men in their section who hadn’t fallen back into their seats, stunned, after Sandy Amoros snagged Yogi Berra’s liner. Stan had to pull Ezra down so there wouldn’t be any hard feelings. As it was, Ezra was so excited there were hard feelings, and Stan had to drag him away to a beer stand.

   “This beer is bitter,” Ezra scowled, looking down at the bottle of Ballantine in his hand. Ballantine Beer was on the Yankee Stadium scoreboard, its three-ring sign shining bright, flashing “Purity, Body, Flavor.” Whenever a Yankee hit a homer, Mel Allen, the broadcaster, hollered, “There’s a drive, hit deep, that ball is go-ing, go-ing, gonnne! How about that?! It’s a Ballantine Blast!” 

   The Brooklyn Dodgers, Ezra’s home borough baseball team, played at Ebbets Field. Their scoreboard boasted a Schaefer Beer sign, with the ‘h’ and the ‘e’ lighting up whenever there was a hit or an error. Below the Schaefer Beer sign was an Abe Stark advertisement. 

   “Hit Sign Win Suit”.

   “That’s some super beer, that Schaeffer’s,” said Ezra, polishing off his bottle of Ballantine and spitting. 

   Stan Riddman didn’t have a home borough, even though he favored the Bums. He had an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, up from Times Square and down from the Central Park Zoo. He wasn’t from New York or New York City. He was from Chicago, although he wasn’t from there, either. He had been born in Chicago, but when his mother died two years later, in 1922, his father moved the family, himself a new Polish wife two boys two girls two dogs and all their belongings a year later to a small house behind St. Stanislaus Church in Cleveland, Ohio, in the Warszawa neighborhood south of the steel mills, where his father worked the rest of his life.

   Stan wasn’t working on anything he thought would bring him free Series passes this year. As long as I put most of this away, he thought to himself, walking down Irving Place, thinking of the jackpot in his pocket, I can blow some of it tonight, and still have enough for ballgames and more card games.

   Dottie was at Marie’s for the weekend. That happened about as often as the Series. It wasn’t too early or too late, and if Vicki hasn’t taken any work home, and is at home, and picks up the phone, maybe she could meet him for dinner.

   He found the phone booth he’d been looking for and called her. It rang once almost twice before Vicki answered. That’s a good sign, he thought.

   “Hello.”

   “Hey, Vee, it’s Stan.”

   “Stan, my man,” she laughed.

   “How’s Stuy Town tonight?” he asked.

   “Hot, quiet, lonely,” she said.

  “How about meeting me at Luchow’s for dinner?” he asked. “I’m buying.”

   “Stan, I love you for the dear German or Polack or whatever you are, but the food at Luchow’s is not so good, even if you can ever get though that insanely long menu of theirs.” 

   “That’s what I’m here for,” he said. “Only a dog-eared investigator like me will look into everything the kitchen’s got to offer.”

   “All right, but the other thing is, since they seat more than a thousand people, how am I going to find you? And if I do, with that strolling oompah band of theirs, if we do bump into each other and maybe get a table in that goulash and Wiener schnitzel palace, we’ll only be able to make ourselves heard some of the time and not the rest of the time.”

   “We can always take our coffee and their pancakes with lingonberry over to the square after dinner and chew the fat, it’ll be quiet there,” he said.

   “Chew the fat? What it is I like about you, sometimes I just don’t know.”

   “I’ll take that for a yes.”

   “Yes, give me a few minutes to change into something fun,” she said gaily. “I hope there’s no goose fest or beer festival going on.”

   “Meet me at the far end of Frank’s bar, he’ll find a low-pitched spot in the back for us. Frank says the new herring salad is out of this world.”

   “Don’t push your luck, Stan, don’t push your luck,” she said.

   Luchow’s was a three-story six-bay building with stone window surrounds, pilasters, and a balustrated parapet on top, while below a red awning led to the front door. The restaurant was near Union Square. It looked like the 19th century, or some more earlier century, heavy Teutonic, North German. A titanic painting of potato gatherers covered most of a wall in one of the seven dining rooms. Another of the rooms was lined with animal heads, their offspring being eaten at the tables below them, while another room was a temple of colorful beer steins. 

   There was a beer garden in the back.

   “Welcome back to the Citadel of Pilsner,” said Frank. He gestured Stan to the side.  “Did anybody tell you Hugo died?”

  “No, I hadn’t heard, although I heard he wasn’t feeling well,” said Stan. Hugo Schemke had been a waiter at Luchow’s for 50 years. He often said he wasn’t afraid of death. He had firmly no ifs ands or buts believed in reincarnation.

   “Did he say he was coming back?”

   “He did say that, but I haven’t seen him, yet,” said Frank. 

   “How’s Ernst doing?” asked Stan. Ernst Seute was the floor manager, a short stout man both friendly and cold-hearted. He had been at Luchow’s a long time, too, since World War One.

   “He took a couple days off,” said Frank. “Remember that parade back in April over in Queens, they’ve got some kind of committee now, he’s over there with them trying to make it an annual thing here in Little Germany, calling it the Steuben Parade.”

    “You going to be carrying the cornflower flag?’

   “Not me, Stan, not me.” Frank was from Czechoslovakia. “I’m an American now.”

   Frank led Vicki and Stan to a small round table at the far end of the bar. He brought them glass mugs of Wurzburger Beer and a plate of sardines. Vicki ordered noodle soup and salad. “Hold the herring,” she commanded. Stan asked for a broiled steak sirloin with roasted potatoes and horseradish sauce on the side.

   “I saw Barney the other day,” she said, cocking her head. “He told me you’ve made progress.”

  “I didn’t think there was anything to it the first day I saw him, that day you brought him over to the office,” said Stan. “I didn’t think there was much to it all that first week the top of the month. But then there was all that action, and Bettina finally got it worked out, that it was the shrink. So, I know who did the thing to get Pollack to drive himself into that tree. I know how they did it. What I don’t know is why they did it.”

   “Do you know who they are?’

   “No, I don’t, even though one of the two, a psychotic by the name of Ratso Moretti, who roughed up Ezra, is being held at the 17th. He doesn’t seem to know much, but what he does know says a lot. The shrink is going to tell me all about it. He doesn’t know about the talk we’re going to have, yet, but that doesn’t matter.”

   “You don’t think Jackson Pollack had anything to do with it?”

   “He was the wrong man, that’s all, if you look at it from his point of view. Bettina and I think he was a test run. We think they’re up to something bigger. It’s hard to figure. We can’t see the pay-off in it. You know Betty, though. She’ll piece it together.”

   After dinner they looked at the dessert menu, but it was only a peek. Vicki shook her head no.

   “How about coffee at my place?” asked Stan. “We can stop and get pastry at that Puerto Rican shop on the corner, sit up on the roof.” It was a clear sky night.

   “I can’t pass up that pass,” said Vicki.

   They hailed a Checker Cab. 

   “Take us up 5th to 59th, the corner of the park,” said Stan.

   The cabbie dropped them off at the Grand Army Plaza and they walked into the park, following the path below the pond towards the Central Park Driveway and Columbus Circle. He liked her loose breezy walk. They didn’t notice the two greasers, as they strolled on a quiet wooded path south of Center Drive, until the two of them were in front of them, blocking their way.

   One was taller and older, the other younger and thinner, their oiled hair combed back. Both of the dagos were wearing high tops, jeans, and white t-shirts, one of them dirtier than the other. The younger boy, he might have been fifteen, had a half-dozen inflamed pencil-thick pencil-long scratches down one side of his face and more of them on his forehead. Small capital SS’s topped with a halo drawn in red ink adorned the left sleeve of his t-shirt. The older dirtier dago had LAMF tattooed on his neck above the collar line to below his right ear.

   Stan knew what it meant. It meant ‘Like a Mother Fucker.’  He kept his attention on LAMF.

   “Hey, mister, got a double we can have for the subway, so we can make it back home,” he asked, smiling, his teeth big and white as Chiclets.

   They were part of the Seven Saints, thieves whose favorite easy pickings was holding back the door of a subway car just before it was ready to leave the station, one of them grabbing and running off with a passenger’s pocketbook, while the other released the door so the woman would be shut tight in the train.

   “Where’s home?” asked Stan, stepping forward a half step, nudging Vicki behind him with his left hand on her left hip. 

   “You writing a book?”

   Stan asked again, looking straight at the older boy.

   “East Harlem, where you think?”

   “Why do you need twenty dollars? The fare’s only some cents.”

   “The extra is for in case we get lost.” 

   “It’d be best if you got lost starting now. “

   “I mean to get my twenty, and maybe more,” he said, smiling smirking mean, reaching into his back pocket.

   Stan took a fast step forward, his right foot coming down on the forefoot of the boy’s sneaker, grabbing his left wrist as it came out of the back pocket a flash of steel, and broke his nose with a short hard jab using his right elbow. Stepping away he let him fall backward and turned toward the younger boy, flipping the switchblade its business side face front.

   “Go,” he said. “Go right now.”

   The boy hesitated, looked down at the other Seven Saint on the ground, splattered with blood, and ran away like a squid on roller skates.

   Stan let the switchblade fall to the ground and broke the blade off the knife, stepping on it with his heel and pulling until it cracked at the hinge, and threw it at the older boy getting up. It hit him in the chest and bounced away. 

   “The next time I see you,” he spluttered, on his feet, choking, his mouth half-full of blood.

   “The next time I see you, you fill your hand with a knife, I’ll break your face again,” said Stan. 

   He took a step up to the boy and spoke softly to him. “Actually, it won’t matter what you do, nosebleed, what you’re doing, who you’re with, where you are. The minute I see you is when I’ll stack you up. Make sure you never see me again, make sure I never see you.”

   He took Vicki by the arm, shoved the teenager to the side, and they walked away.

   “You didn’t have to do that,” said Vicki. “You won plenty of hands. You might have tossed them a dollar-or-two.”

   “I know,” said Stan. “But they were working themselves up to be dangerous and that had to stop. The sooner the better.”

   “They were just kids.”

   “You saw the scratches on the face of the kid who ran away.”

   “Of course, the whole side of his face was gruesome.”

   “The Seven Saints have an initiation to get into the club,” Stan said. “They find a stray cat and tie him to a telephone pole, about head high, and leave the cat’s four feet free. The kid getting initiated has his hands tied behind his back and he gets to become a Seven Saint if he can kill the cat, using his head as a club.”

   “Oh, my God!” Vicki gasped, stopping dead in her tracks. “How do you even know that?”

   “I make it my business to know, so I don’t get taken by surprise.”

   Stan paused, then said, “I didn’t want them near me. I don’t give a damn about them. I care about you, Dottie, Ezra, Betty, the crew, what we do, not who we do it for or whatever they think it’s all about. I care about getting it done and getting paid. I like playing cards. Throw in a dinner, a dance, a drink with you, I’m all done. I don’t need anymore.”

   They passed the USS Maine Monument.

   “I don’t want greaser punks in my face.”

   They walked out of the park under a quarter moon, crossing Columbus Circle and strolling down Ninth Avenue. At West 56th Street they turned towards the river, stopping in front of a four-floor walk-up with a twin set of fire escapes bolted to the front of the flat face of the brick building.

   “Anyway, maybe it will do them some good,” said Stan, fitting his key into the door lock. “Not everyone is as nice as I am. Someday somebody will go ballistic on them.”

   “Ballistic?” she asked.

   “Like a rocket, a missile that goes haywire.”

   “I wish we had a rocket to take us upstairs” she said, as they took the stairs up to the fourth floor. “We forgot our pastry.”

   “Another time,” he said.

   At the door of the apartment Stan fitted his key into the lock, opened the door, reached for the light switch, and let Vicki go around him as he did. In the shadow of the back of the front room there was a low menacing growl and a sudden movement. It was Mr. Moto. He crossed the room fast. He lunged at Vicki’s lead leg as she stepped across the threshold.

   Hey, watch out for my stockings,” she cried out. Vicki was wearing Dancing Daters. “I’ll smack you right on your pink nose if you make them run.”

   Mr. Moto skidded to a sudden stop a whisker from her leg.

   “That’s better,” said Vicki, bending down to rub his head.

   The big cat arched his back and purred.

Excerpted from the crime thriller “Stickball” at http://www.stanriddman.com.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”