Stalking the Ukraine

By Ed Staskus

   Even though Ukraine wasn’t Ukraine in the 14th century lots of folks called it that so that is what it was. The word itself means borderland. The Lithuanians visited every summer. They did it for their health, if not for the health of the natives. When they did they had good times marauding and looting and drinking too much whenever the devil got the better of them. They didn’t control the land so much as take advantage of it. The less governance the better is the way they saw it. “We do not change old traditions and do not introduce new ones,” they said.

   They were freebooters who became empire builders. The boyars rode fast horses, big and fit, were outfitted in chain mail, wore conical metal helmets, were armed with lances, swords, and knives, and carried a black shield emblazoned with the red emblem of the Columns of Gediminas. They weren’t draftees or recruits. Those who were, walked and died where they stood. The boyars were tough men who could be dangerous in the blink of an eye. The Golden Horde warned would-be enemies of them, “Beware the Lithuanians.” That was all they ever said.

   They had to be rough and tough. When they went to war they didn’t launch cruise missiles and kill their enemies at great distance, checking the body count with drones. They hacked their enemies to pieces with long swords face to face and watched them bleed to death in the mud at their feet.

   By the end of the 14th century the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was the biggest country in Europe. Today it is one of the smallest countries in Europe. When they were growing fast and furious they didn’t do it by being soul brothers or good trading partners. They did it by getting on their horses and taking what they wanted. They didn’t bother explaining.

   The Grand Duchy got started in the early 13th century when Prince Mindaugas united his Baltic forest clans, swamp tribes, and fiefdoms into a feudal state. They were desperate times. The Teutonic Knights were on a rampage. They wanted to incorporate all of Lithuania into the Teutonic Order. They never stopped trying. Between 1305 and 1409 they launched 300-some military campaigns. They slaughtered more peasants than anything else. The Lithuanians beat them back time and again. Finally, in 1410, at the Battle of Grunwald the Lithuanians and Poles destroyed the Teutonic Knights. Most of the order’s leadership was killed or taken prisoner. The Grand Master ran away. They never recovered their former power. When the carnage was over, the Lithuanian-Polish alliance became the dominant political and military force in the region.

   When I was a kid almost everybody called the Ukrainians Russians. We didn’t call them that because we knew what was up with the Reds. They had done the same thing to Lithuania, enslaving the country, and reaping something anything everything for nothing. Both of my parents came from there after WW2, so we knew what was up. We didn’t have to read between the lines of whatever Washington and Moscow were forever saying.

   Even though Ukraine didn’t become a nation-state until 1991, after getting their feet wet for a few years after WW1, it was extant in the 14th century, and well before that. We all knew about the Ukrainians when I was growing up, The first Ukes came to Cleveland, Ohio in the 1880s. They settled in the Tremont neighborhood. Their idea was work hard in the factories of the industrial valley, get rich, go back home, buy some land, and live happily ever after. Between the world wars lots of former freedom fighters came. They were goners if they had stayed. Stalin was itching to get his hands on them. Most of them settled in Parma, a southwest suburb, where they built churches, schools, and started their own aid associations and credit unions.

   We didn’t live in Parma, but on the east side along the lake. Nevertheless, among the Poles, Hungarians, Croatians and Slovenians, and anybody else who could sneak into the country when the Statue of Liberty wasn’t looking, there were some Ukrainian families in our neck of the woods. One of them operated a gas station on St. Clair Ave. not far from where we lived. One of their handful of sons who was our age messed around with us summers, when we had three no-school months to mess around in. His name was Lyaksandra. It sounded like a girl’s name, so we called him Alex.

   We played pick-up baseball at Gordon Park, from where we could see Lake Erie. We once asked him, taking a break in the action, what he thought about the Russians. He growled, made an obscene gesture, spit sideways, and said, “There are lots of Russki’s in Ukraine. They are liars about everything. They aren’t all bad, but they all hate themselves. We hate them, too.”

   Ukraine is the second-largest country in Europe. It is bordered by Russia and Belarus, as well as Poland, Hungary, and Romania, among others. It has coastlines along the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. It has its own language. Most people speak Russian, as well. The Muscovites are always trying to convince them to drop the Uke talk and speak only Russian.

   “We don’t talk that Russki talk anymore,” Alex said. “Not here, no way.”

   In the Middle Ages Ukraine, which is about the size of Texas, was the epicenter of East Slavic culture. It was, at least, until the Kievan Rus was destroyed by Mongol invasions in the 13th century. Somebody is always trying to beat up on Ukraine. From then to the 20th century Ukraine was variously ruled by the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth, the Ottoman Empire, the Austrian Empire, and the Tsars of Russia. Everybody wanted to be the boss of the Ukes. It’s a miracle they have prevailed and are still prevailing, facing the long odds of going against the vaunted Red Army.

   The Russians are finding out what it is like to go toe to toe with somebody who is not afraid of them and has the up-to-date American rockets and artillery to back up their bravado. The Ukrainians are fighting an existential battle. Their backs are against the wall. They have nowhere to fall. The Red Army is fighting to save its skin and make it home alive for Defenders of the Fatherland Day. The soldiers throw their uniforms into the nearest sewer when they desert.

   When I was a boy I played with toy soldiers. There wasn’t any such thing as a Lithuanian mounted  boyar toy soldier, so I pretended that anybody on a horse was a Lithuanian knight. They were always the good guys. They won every fight battle and war. They were my heroes. I didn’t know what sons of bitches they must have been. They weren’t any different than anybody else in power back then. They were all sons of bitches, including the Holy Roman Church, whose popes ruled by the sword whenever the pen wasn’t convincing enough. 

   In the early 16th century Pope Julius I, the Fearsome Pope, imported Swiss Guards to be his personal bodyguards. He strapped on armor and led the Papal State armies against the Venetians, the French, and the Spanish. His armor plating covered every inch of him just in case the grace of God didn’t get it done, including a helmet made to look like a miter. Everybody on his side was allowed to join the Holy League. Everybody else was badmouthed and excommunicated.

  After Pope Julius died a rumor had it that if he was denied entrance at the Pearly Gates, there would be hell to pay. He would storm them, St. Peter or no St. Peter, and never mind his set of silver and gold keys. It was every man for himself and God against all.

   Until the end of the 14th century Lithuanians didn’t give a damn what the Vatican did. They were pagans. They were the last pagans in Europe. The word “Lithuania” is first mentioned in 1009, in an account of the murder of Saint Bruno by “pagans on the border of Lithuania and Rus.” He was trying to convert them. That was a mistake. Their headman, whose name was Dievas, ruled the universe from his kingdom in the sky. He didn’t like anybody popping up with new ideas about Heaven and Hell. Perkunas, the god of thunder and lightning, was his right-hand man and enforcer. The holy fires were guarded by Vaidilutès, the Lithuanian equivalent of Vestal Virgins. They buried their dead with food and household goods. The last pagan grand duke was buried with his hounds, horses, and falcons.

   When they finally joined the God-fearing club it was a political move. They were doing a dynastic union with Poland, and one of the conditions the Poles laid down was that the Lithuanians had to convert to church-going and dump their veneration of the forces of nature. It didn’t change their business plan in Ukraine, other than to make them more organized. They transitioned from frat parties to fancy dress balls.

   The Grand Duchy of Lithuania had controlled Belarus for some time and when they went after Ukraine they got it, extending their control to the open steppe and eventually to the Black Sea. The Ukes learned to “Beware the Lithuanians.” When they started to get what they wanted they left their freebooting days behind and started building castles to keep their loot secure. It was  a ten-day ride from Vilnius to Kiev. Why not ditch the seasonal exploitation and make the most of the four seasons?

   It wasn’t their land, but it is finders keepers. They meant to keep what they had subjugated. The Ukrainians didn’t have a say in the matter. They told the Ukes, “We may not be perfect but we’re Lithuanians so it’s almost the same.” The Ukes said, “We promise not to laugh when your oven is on fire.” The Lithuanians weren’t offended. They just said, “Show us the goats.”

   They built the Lutsk Castle, which later became a museum. They built the Olyka Palace, which later became an insane asylum. They built the Kremenets Castle, which later fell into ruins after the Cossacks sacked the city at the bottom of the hill. In the meantime, the boyars lived the high life. They started with red borscht, green borscht, and cold borscht. They feasted on holubtsi, cabbage leaves stuffed with minced meat, rice, and stewed in tomato sauce. They ate slabs of kholodets, a cold jellied meat broth. They drank vodka between courses. Ukrainians to this day drink more vodka than beer. When they were done with dinner they went to bed, snoring and cabbage farting in their sleep.

   Even though the Lithuanians always said the Ukrainians welcomed them with open arms, they built their castle-fortresses on high hills with steep inclines, the rockier the better, fitted with one main gate and plenty of towers, arrow slits, battlements, and dungeons. They kept big rocks and hot oil handy to toss down on door-to-door salesmen. If you ended up in the dungeon you found out soon enough they weren’t playing Dungeons and Dragons.

   Imperialism is never cozy and consensual. It’s more like assault and battery. The movers and shakers of power politics don’t get thrown in jail until long after they are dead. My friend Alex had never heard of Lithuanians living it up in Ukraine. He was surprised to hear they had once been a super power. He was chagrined to find out there were more invaders of his homeland than he had realized.

   “How come the Lithuanians push us around back then?” he asked. Most of us playing ball at Gordon Park were second generation Lithuanian Americans. We weren’t even teenagers, yet. None of us had a good answer, much less a sensible answer of any kind.

   “Somebody always wants to be the top dog,” Kesty said.

   “No, that wasn’t it,” Arunas said. “They just wanted to have somebody else do all the work, like make dinner and clean the toilets.”

   “It was the Ukrainian girls,” Romas said. “Ukrainian girls are hot.”

   Romas was over-sexed, and everybody knew it. Nobody had any other ideas. We went back to playing ball in the summer sun. When we got overheated we walked to the shore and sat on the edge of a cliff in the breeze. Lake Erie was in front of us, the water rippling, the tips of the waves white.

   “Can we see Ukraine from here?” Alex asked.

   “No, it’s that way,” Arunas said pointing over his right shoulder. When we looked all we could see was Bratenahl, where rich people lived in mansions. They made the rules, for what they were worth. Our grade school class practiced duck and cover once a month, just in case the Russki’s dropped an atomic bomb on Cleveland. We brought our own lunches every day but wondered where our next lunch was going to come from if all the food stores got blown up. Many of the Bratenahl bluebloods had their own fallout shelters. They didn’t worry overmuch about starving.

   All good things must come to an end. The Lithuanians were strong in Ukraine for several centuries, but the deal they made with Poland reaped a better harvest for their next-door neighbors than my ancestors. The Poles say, “A good appetite needs no sauce.” By the mid-16th century Lithuanians were sauce. Their goose was cooked. The dynastic link was changed to a constitutional one by the Union of Lublin in 1569. Ukraine was set free of the Lithuanians but was annexed by Poland the next day.

   The more things change the more they stay the same, until they don’t. The new would-be colonialists calling the shots in the Kremlin are finding that out, to their discomfiture. They make a wasteland and call it New Russia. They have been looking grim lately. Meanwhile, Lithuania has joined NATO and gone out of the plunder and pillage business. The boyars are rolling over in their graves.

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

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The Gospel Truth

By Ed Staskus

   “Mom, can you write me a note for school tomorrow saying I can’t be an altar boy,” I asked my mother after we had finished watching every minute of “The Wide World of Disney” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.” She gave me a sharp frown. I gave her my best first-born smile.

   Every Sunday night my parents nibbled sliced-up smoked eel while my brother, sister, and I munched handfuls of popcorn from paper bags sitting in front of the Zenith TV console in the basement. It was a family ritual. We loved Walt Disney, but The Great Stone Face wasn’t a chip off the old block. The circus acts and comedians were fun, but the opera singers and dramatic monologues were dull as turned off. None of us understood what the Little Italian Mouse was up to, either.

   I asked my mom for the note after we were out of the tub, in pj’s, and book bags ready for Monday. I wanted it to be short and sweet, as though it were no big deal, routine, really. I thought something along the line of all my spare time was already being spent on my studies would be appropriate.

   I knew I was on shaky ground, though. My parents went to mass every Sunday, which meant we all went. “Everybody went to church back then,” my mother says. “There were two masses every Sunday. The church was full of people. We went early to get a pew.”

   My mother always went to church because she had always gone. “I grew up that way,” she said. My father was a true believer. He was an accountant and counted on getting to heaven. Even though he wasn’t a betting man, he put his money on Pascal’s wager. 

   The wager argues that a thinking person should live as though God exists and try to believe in him. If God doesn’t exist, there will only be a few finite losses, like good times with too much money and too many girlfriends. When you are dead and gone you won’t miss them. But if God does exist, there are infinite gains, like spending eternity in heaven, and no infinite losses, like spending eternity in hell. 

   After he told me about the parlay there was no arguing with him about whether I was going to faithfully serve out my altar boy time. “St. George is one of the Holy Helpers,” he said. I helped myself by biting my tongue. Everybody at school knew George was a stud, the Trophy Bearer.

   The most embarrassed I ever was as a child was when my parents made me go to Sunday mass dressed up in a Buster Brown sailor suit. Something criminal happened to the costume before the next service. It was never found alive again. I had to go to confession after telling my mom I had no idea what happened to it. 

   The fashion show took months to live down at school. I had to fight my way out of several mean-spirited jibes. There will be blood in grade school.

   The St. George church school and parish hall were all in a package, a rectangular two-and-a-half story brick building on Superior Avenue and East 67th Street. The church was on the top floor, the school on the middle floor, and the hall on the half-in-the-ground floor. The hall doubled as a civil defense shelter in case of nuclear war, even though it was unclear what we going to do down there after the atomic bomb had blown Cleveland, Ohio, to kingdom come.

   I was glad my mom didn’t down-press me about it, but wrote a note, sticking it in an envelope, sealing it, and finishing it off with my teacher’s name on the front. A small whitecap of uncertainty took shape in my mind at my mom’s readiness to do my bidding, but I put my doubts to rest and slept the sleep of the blessed.

  The next day I gave the envelope to my third-grade teacher, Sister Matilda, a gnarly disciplinarian who had press-ganged me and a half-dozen other boys the second week of school. I found out later it was an annual recruitment drive.

   She read the note, smiled, and said, “Very good, you start next Monday.”

   How could that be? What happened between last night and now? My own mother had tricked me, I realized. When I asked her about it, she said, “As a mother I do the possible and leave the impossible to God.” I had already heard God helps those who help themselves, but that didn’t seem to be working out for me.

   The St. George edifice was the biggest Lithuanian building in Cleveland, built in 1921. It was at the center of the ethnic district and many parishioners had businesses and institutions, like the newspaper and some kind of historical outfit, nearby. The east side along Lake Erie was full of Poles, Serbs and Slovenians, and Lithuanians.

   The parish priest, Father Ivan, short for his civilian name Balys Ivanauskas, lived in a seven-bedroom Italianate-style rectory a stone’s throw from the church. It had been built for a big family in the 1880s. Our teachers, the Sisters of St. Francis of the Providence of God, lived together in a slightly smaller house on Superior Avenue two or three minutes away. There were eight of them, not including the Mother Superior. They could have used some of Father Ivan’s empty bedrooms.

   The sisters were a hard-boiled bunch. They were serious as could be about us taking our studies seriously and behaving in class. Those were rules number one and two. There were no other rules. They weren’t above hitting us with rulers riding crops rolled-up Catholic Universe Bulletins and their hands. Nobody’s parents ever complained about it, so none of us ever complained about it to them.

   What would have been the point? They would only have asked, “What did you do?”

   The nuns never sweated getting the job done. In fact, they never sweated at all. Wearing thick bulky habits, they should have been the first to perspire whenever it got hot, but they never did. Nobody knew how they did it, if it was part of their training or some kind of black magic.

   Even though I wasn’t baptized at St. George, I acted as a bump on a log at many baptismal fonts. One time a baby spit a stream of pea green apple sauce puke on my surplice and another time another one burped and farted and messed up Father Ivan. I had to run back to headquarters and get wet rags. I sprayed the boss with the new-fangled aerosol Lysol a busybody had donated.

   I received my First Communion there and was confirmed there. The First Communion happens when as a Catholic you attain the Age of Reason. I don’t know how any of us were ever given the host when we were, because I definitely had not attained the Age of Reason, nor had anyone in my class, unless they were faking it.

   My reason was affected by reading boy’s books in my spare time, adventures about running for your life full moons spies foreign lands secrets ray guns tommy guns spitfires hooded supervillains risky back alleys conspiracies and the bad guys foiled at the last minute by the good guys. The paperbacks seeded my dreams and I cooked up twisty exploits every night, waking up happy I had survived. 

   Once we were thrown to the lions, we got trained in the basics, how to dress, the call and response, and how to arrange the corporal, the purificator, the chalice, the pall, and the big Missal. We learned how to hold liturgical books for Father Ivan when he wasn’t at the altar, when he was proclaiming prayers with outstretched hands. We brought him thuribles, the lavabo water and towel, and the vessels to hold the consecrated bread.

   We helped with communion, presenting cruets of wine and water for him to pour into the chalice.  When he washed his hands standing at the side of the altar, we poured the water over them. If incense was used, we presented the thurible and incense to Father Ivan, who smoked the offerings, the cross and altar, after which we smoked the priest and people. It had one flavor, a sickly-sweet rotting pomegranate smell.

   The thurible was a two-piece metal chalice with a chain that we swung side to side. God forbid anybody got slap happy and swung it too high, hitting something with it, and spilling the hot coals, threatening to burn the church down. That was when Father Ivan became Ivan the Terrible.

   We rang a handbell before the consecration, when the priest extended his hands above the gifts. We rang the bell again when, after the consecration of the bread and wine, the priest showed the host and then the chalice. 

   “Ring dem’ bells” is what we liked doing best.

   I started low man on the totem pole which meant the 7 o’clock morning shift. Even though everybody went to church, nobody went to church first thing in the morning Monday through Friday. At least, almost nobody. The big man was always there and at least one of his altar boys. I had to get up at 5:30 in the morning, pour myself a bowl of Cheerios and a glass of orange juice, catch a CTS bus on the corner of St. Clair Avenue and East 127th Street, toss exact change into the fare box, stay away from the crazy people, run through the church to the sacristy, get into my uniform, and make sure I had my cheat sheet.

   The mass was performed in Latin, most of the time the priest’s back to the congregation, and we followed his lead. There were prescribed times we had to respond by voice to something Father Ivan recited. It was when we offered Holy Communion that I finally faced the nave and saw the only people in church were old older oldest unemployed worried about something or in the wrong place. 

   One benefit to hardly anybody being in the pews first thing in the morning was whenever I made a mistake, it usually stayed between me and my maker. That is, unless Ivan the Terrible, who had eyes in the back of his head and hearing better than a moth, saw and heard what I had done wrong.

   Moths have the best hearing in the world, next to priests, who are accustomed to listening to whispers in the confessional. I was waiting for my turn one afternoon after school when I heard Father Ivan bellow, “What did you say?” and the next thing I knew a red-faced boy burst out of the booth running followed by the dark-faced priest. 

   I quietly slipped away. There was no need to put myself in harm’s way for somebody else’s mortal sins.

   When I started Father Bartis was in charge, but the next year Father Ivan became the parish priest. He was a burly man. None of us knew where he came from or how old he was, although we guessed he was between 30 and 60. He ran the parish until 1980. He smoked, we could smell it on his breath when he got close to us, and sometimes we caught a whiff of spirits. We all knew what strong drink smelled like because almost everybody’s parents drank.

   He liked to take walks and mind his own business, unless he was minding ours. We were always under the gun. He was irascible to begin with and screwing around with his life’s work brought out the worst in him. Our school janitor said he never met anyone worth a damn who wasn’t irascible. Father Ivan was short-tempered, but his bark was worse than his bite. The nuns put him to shame when it came to crime and punishment.

   All of us carried cheat sheets. Latin was a foreign language, as well as a dead language. None of us were taking classes in it and none of us knew what we were saying. Our responses during mass were rote, except when something went wrong, when we improvised with mumbles. It wasn’t speaking in tongues, but Father Ivan warned us exorcism was imminent if we didn’t learn our lines.

   The Eucharist was the high point of mass. It got us off our knees and on our feet. We helped in the distribution by holding a communion plate under everybody’s chin when the priest gave them the wafer. There would have been hell to pay if there was an accident, the wafer falling out of somebody’s mouth, landing on the floor.

   It would have meant saying a million Hail Mary’s and a thousand turns around the Stations of the Cross.

   After acquiring seniority, I was promoted off the morning shift and started serving at Sunday masses, funerals, and weddings. Sunday mass was more of the same, only longer and more elaborate, but at least I got to sleep in and go to church in the family car instead of the city bus with strangers.

   Funerals seemed to always be scheduled on Mondays and Fridays. It happened so often I began to think weekends coming and going were a dangerous time. At one Friday funeral Father Ivan spoke glowingly of all the good works the deceased had done and how he was sure the man was going to heaven. “The way to the brightness is through good works,” he said. “The first thing we all have got to do is do good.”

   We were standing on either side of the dead man. The other altar boy leaned over the open casket and said to me, “What you got to do first is be dead.”

   The corpses didn’t bother us over much, but the mewling coffin sounds freaked us out.

   None of us especially enjoyed funerals, not because we were near at hand to the dead, but because they were sad dismal and mournful and on top of everything else we rarely were gifted with cash. It dismayed us to see the family light twenty thirty candles at a votive stand and push folded ones and fives into the offering box.

   Weddings were a different story. It was festive. Everybody was in a good mood. It was always a sunny day. The brides looked great in their white dresses with trains. Heaven help the altar boy who stepped on a moving train and yanked it off.

   The number one perk of serving at a wedding was we were always rewarded in hard cash. The best man was usually the man who slipped us an envelope and told us what a great job we had done, even though we never did anything special beyond kneeling and standing around most of the time, like we always did.

   Weddings in July and August were often hot and humid. Before one of them the groom himself paid us in advance in Morgan silver dollars, ten of them for each of us. It was a windfall. We stowed them away carefully. I wrapped mine up in a handkerchief. Everyone was sweating during the ceremony, and when it came time for communion, I reached into my pocket for the handkerchief to dry my hands. It would have been bad if I let the cruet slip. 

   When I did, the silver dollars fell out pell-mell from my handkerchief, rolled down the two steps in the gap between the altar rail, past the bride and groom, and down the center aisle of the nave. A man stuck his foot out and corralled them with his shoe. I was alarmed until I saw it was my uncle, who was an accountant like my father.

   Jon Krokey, a fellow traveler at Holy Family, dropped the Roman Missal, after which there was hell to pay. It is a large heavy book that includes all the words and prayers the priest uses during the mass, except for the readings. 

   “I was low man, so I got to get up in the middle of the night to serve at 5:30 mass,” he said. “While transporting the giant book I dropped it and it bounced down the stairs all the way to the communion rail. Father Andrel chewed me out in front of the congregation, which was ten elderly women in the front pews, all wearing babushkas. When he was done spewing, I quit. After that all the nuns at school mean mugged me like I was the Antichrist.”

   My tour of duty ended at the end of sixth grade, when my parents moved out of the neighborhood and I transferred to another Catholic school. They already had a full complement of altar boys, so my services weren’t needed there. I was happy enough to go back to being a spectator. I was glad to be flying kites in the park.

   When St. George closed in 2009 it was the oldest Lithuanian parish in North America. 

   At the last mass three priests presided and there was a host of altar boys and girls. Back in the day we would have welcomed girls to our ranks. They were better at cleaning than us and we knew we could boss them around, although they were also getting to be nice and sweet friendly to have as friends.

   The altar was given away to another church. The playground and parking lot were sold, and the grounds converted to greenhouses. The rectory was boarded up. The convent was long gone, since the school had closed long before. A chain link fence was set up all around the building, and that was that. There were no more dragons real or imagined for the soldier saint to slay. The day of the Trophy Bearer was done. George took a knee.

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

Down to the Waterline

By Ed Staskus

   The summer Jeff Saghy and I went to New York City for a working weekend it is doubtful we would have gone to see the Twin Towers. They were just two more office skyscrapers in skyscraper city. We would not have gone to eat at Windows on the World, the restaurant on the 106th and 107th floors of the North Tower, either. But we were staying next door, at the Marriott, it had been a long Saturday, so we walked over and took one of the jumbo elevators up into the sky.

   The hotel had been collateral damage eight years earlier. Diehard towelheads parked a rental truck loaded with 1,500 pounds of explosives in the North Tower’s parking garage below the ballroom. They weren’t interested in being martyrs, so they set the timer and left for their jihadi snacks of halvah and qahvah. The explosion mangled the lower and sub levels of the World Trade Center complex. It was more than a year before the Marriott reopened. 

   The restaurant opened 25 years before we ever set foot in it, in 1976, as a private club. Everybody not a member had to pay $10.00 in dues on the spot before eating there. New York magazine called it the “most spectacular restaurant in the world.” They put the food makers on a pedestal and gushed about the view.

   “Every view is brand-new, a miracle. In the Statue of Liberty Lounge, the harbor’s heroic blue sweep makes you feel like the ruler of some extraordinary universe. All the bridges of Brooklyn and Queens and Staten Island stretch across the restaurant’s promenade. Even New Jersey looks good from here. Down below is all of Manhattan. Everything to hate and fear is invisible.”

   We were wearing pressed slacks and our monogrammed trade show shirts. The slacks were OK, but our shirts sans jackets were verboten. The maître d’ rustled up spare sports jackets for both of us. Mine was several sizes too small. It was loud checked, the kind a burlesque comedian might once have donated to the Salvation Army.

   “All you have to do is wear it walking to your table,” the front of the room man said when I gave him an unhappy look. “Once you’re in your seat you can take it off and your server will bring it back to me.”

   I squeezed into it, making like Mr. Magoo, enduring the local yokel looks on the way to our table. It was set inside a curved half wall. The tablecloth was cloth. The waiters wore white jackets and black pants. They were soft-spoken. The dining room was large and fancy. I had a slab of salmon. The charge we put on the company credit card would have paid most of my home mortgage for the month back in Ohio.

   After we knocked back a bottle of fine wine, we stepped over to the nearest window to take in the vaunted view. There wasn’t any panorama, however. All we saw was an inky sky above us and thick gray clouds below us, down ten-or-so floors. There wasn’t a gap in them for us to see any part of the world anywhere. We ate tortes sprinkled with ground nuts and had coffee. Jeff did most of the talking. He wasn’t interested in anything I had to say, although he was ladylike about it.

   I woke up in the middle of the night with an upset stomach. The booze at Windows on the World had been good, the dinner better, and dessert even better, but something wasn’t agreeing with me. It might have been something greasy I grazed on at the trade show. I dressed and went downstairs, where I drank a ginger ale. I went for a walk. It was big-city lukewarm dark. The streets smelled bad, but I felt better. I walked down to the waterline on Liberty St., ending up at Pumphouse Park. 

   It wasn’t listed in my New York City Parks Department guidebook. It was just there, next to a marina, lots of trees and flowers around an oval-shaped lawn. I walked to where there was a grove of shrubs and birch trees. I kicked back on one of the benches. In a city of eighteen million people, I didn’t see another person for the next hour, although a tough-looking black and white cat limped past without even giving me a sideways glance.

   Jeff and I and Chris Hayes and Doug Clarke, who was the big cheese at Efficient Lighting, landed at JFK International Airport in Queens on Thursday. Construction of the people-mover system was still going on, three years along, so we walked. We checked into the Marriot and took a cab to the Jacob Javits Convention Center in Hell’s Kitchen. It was enormous, more than three million square feet of floor space. We had come to New York City for the annual International Beauty Show.

   “Stock up on all your salon needs at show-special pricing,” was the way the razzmatazz went. “Top notch education to boost your skills and business. Products and tools that will boost your business and streamline your craft. Network with like-minded colleagues and professionals.”

   We were there to showcase a new tanning bed the branch of the business under the name of Ultraviolet Resources International had developed. Chris Hayes was the nominal brains behind the Sunsource. Doug Clarke was married to Kathy Hayes, second-in-command. She was the louder by far of the couple. Her other brothers Kevin and John Hayes, and sister Maggie Hayes, were the rest of the in-charge team. Maggie was sneaky mean and always bore watching. Some more brothers and sisters from the family of thirteen came and went, hardly making a dent, except when they were at each other’s throats.

   Doug Clarke had built a state-of-the-art 45,000 square-foot multi-million-dollar warehouse and offices on nearly three acres in Brook Park, next to Holy Cross Cemetery, the year before, after ten years of leasing and outgrowing space in the Lake Erie Screw building in Lakewood. It was a new building for a new millennium. The enterprise sold lots of stuff under lots of names, commercial lighting to restaurants and municipalities, saltwater fish lights, sign lights, disinfectant lighting, but its bread and butter was tanning bulbs. We sold gazillions of the fluorescent tubes every quarter, to dealers and end users. The phones never stopped ringing. Doug and Kathy built a McMansion in North Ridgeville on the back of the bronze look.

   Doug’s wine cellar at his mansion looked like it was worth more than he was willing to pay me in my lifetime if I continued working for him the rest of my life. I didn’t like it, but I bit my tongue. I was surprised the wine he poured wasn’t better. It tasted bitter to me.

   The trade show boomed, although we didn’t. Our last-minute space was near the back of a dead-end walkway. We spent more time talking to the other vendors around us than we did talking to prospects. The end of the day Friday didn’t come soon enough. Jeff could talk all day and night, but I had long since run out of anything to say to our neighboring nail and hair folks, who weren’t selling anything, either.

   Doug and Chris were busy with other big shots, the guys who called the shots at Wolff and Light Sources, so Jeff and I went to dinner in Greenwich Village by ourselves. We didn’t know one place from another. All of them were busy. We found a table at Pico, a Portuguese eatery. The inside of the place was exposed brick and beams. We sat next to a six-foot tall wire sculpture of a rooster. Our waiter told us it was a Portuguese good luck symbol. 

   We were staring at our pemeiro prato, which included bacalao cakes with blood orange-radish salad, steamed cockles, and foie gras, when our waiter came back. He asked if we would mind sharing our table with two young women, since space was at a premium. Jeff said he didn’t mind and the next thing I knew there were two more chairs squeezing in at our table. 

   The women were in their mid to late 20s, both blonde, one of them from London and the other one from South Africa. We shared our appetizer with them while we got acquainted. The gal from London was working in NYC and living at a YWCA and the other one was visiting her friend. The South African’s family had emigrated to Savannah, Georgia from the dark continent after the Afrikaners lost their argument with the African National Congress.

   The London native had been to Pico before and recommended the Segundo prato. I ordered the dish. It included duck braised in terra cotta and roast saddle of rabbit with chickpea cake. Our newfound friends told us more about themselves, and Jeff told them all about himself. Even though he and I had worked in the same office for about ten years some of it was new to me.

   We ordered another bottle of wine midway through dinner. Before I knew it, it was after eleven. We ordered coffee and sonhos, miniature doughnuts, cinnamon-dusted puffs of dough dipped into molten chocolate and fruit fondues, for dessert. Sonhos mean “beautiful little dream” in the lingo. Nobody needs to speak Portuguese to describe their goodness.

   Jeff had been looking and talking up the cutie-pies non-stop. I didn’t like the gleam in his eye, wondering if he was angling after a farmer’s daughter in the city that never sleeps. I wasn’t a back door man, though. Besides, tomorrow was another working man’s day. I hailed a cab and coaxed Jeff into the back seat. 

   Saturday was more of the same at the trade show. We finished up mid-afternoon on Sunday. We had brought our suitcases and were ready to go as soon as soon as the whistle blew. Unfortunately, everybody else had the same idea and by the time we were out the door the plaza in front of the convention center was swarming with people. There wasn’t a cab to be had for love or money.

   We were standing around like orphans when a black man with bloodshot eyes and wearing a black suit approached us. He was wearing a white shirt, a black tie, and a black newsboy cap. He was a gypsy cabbie, driving a four-door black Volvo. 

   “Airport?” he asked.

   “JFK,” I said. 

   “$50.00,” he said.

   “Let’s go,” I said, dragging a protesting Jeff behind me. He didn’t like the black man, the black car, and the black hole of no license no regulations no insurance of the pirate transport. The man was from Nigeria. “They call our kind of driving kabu kabu there,” he said. He drove more than sixty hours a week and drove fast. He stopped some distance from the cab stand at the airport and helped carry our bags. 

   “I got to be careful about the medallion guys,” he said.

   It was just getting dark when we took off, circling northwest back over Manhattan, the lights of the city twinkling in the dusk. We flew through a booming thunderstorm that had rumbled over Ohio hours earlier and landed at Cleveland Hopkins, where our wives picked us up.

   The summer heated up, getting ungodly hot and humid on Lake Erie. I went to the office Monday through Friday and did my service work catch-as-catch-can. I would have quit my day job long since if I could have, but I needed both jobs. The office work was easy enough, and so long as I kept to myself, I could put up with my salaried co-workers. The rest of the guys and girls who punched the clock were no problem.

   My job wasn’t especially high paying since I worked for a family firm, but it was steady. Their motto was “Family First.” It meant the immediate family. We had first-class health insurance, though, and I was socking money slowly but surely away in a 401K. I got two weeks paid vacation. We went to Prince Edward Island in late August, chilling out on the north coast. Manhattan is 96 times smaller than PEI, but the borough is home to 12 times as many people as the province. We didn’t have any trouble keeping ourselves to ourselves on the ocean shore.

   We got back the second weekend of September. I took Monday off to unpack and unwind from the 22-hour drive home. The next morning, I was in line at a Drug Mart cash register when I looked up and saw the Twin Towers on a TV mounted on the opposite wall. One of the buildings was gushing smoke and the newscaster was gushing alarm.

   “Christ,” I thought. “How did that happen?”

   By the time I got to work everybody was crowded into the lunchroom eyes glued to the flat screen mounted on the wall. We found out what happened was that passenger jets slammed into both buildings. We watched the 110-floor towers collapse. The Marriott Hotel where Jeff and I stayed disappeared into a pile of rubble. It looked surreal to all of us, even those of us who didn’t know what surreal meant. Doug walked in looking somber and told everybody to go home. It was just after 11 o’clock in the morning. The last fires at the World Trade Center site were finally extinguished in December, exactly 100 days after the terrorist attacks.

   It was a sunny day, mild and pleasant. My wife and I watched the grim news on TV the rest of the day. We had never seen anything like the Twin Towers disaster happen. Even Snapper our cat sensed something wasn’t right and spent the day sleeping in the basement.

   The next day I rode my mountain bike on the all-purpose trail in the Rocky River Metropark. The only people I saw were an older couple chatting strolling aimlessly. There were no fitness walkers, baby carriages, rollerbladers, runners, or any other bikers besides me. There were no cars on the parkway. I could have ridden down the middle of the road blindfolded. I saw flashing red and blue lights of police cars on every bridge I rode under. There were military jets screaming overhead, not that it mattered. The horse was out of the barn.

   I stopped on the far side of Tyler Barn, on the other side of a small bridge, where I spotted a fisherman going after steelhead trout. I rode through the parking lot to where he was walking out of the river. He was wearing flesh-colored waders and carrying an eight-foot rod. I could see some big fish in the creel bag slung over his shoulder. He sat down at a picnic table and started gutting them on a copy of yesterday’s newspaper. 

   He was wearing a baseball cap and a week’s worth of whiskers. His left forearm, hand, and fingers were heavily tattooed. The letters ‘CALM’ were tattooed on the back of his four fingers. We shot the bull for a minute and talked about the terror attacks in New York City. I told him about having stayed at the no more Marriott.

   “I’ll tell you what partner, if folks concentrated on the important things in life, there would be a shortage of fishing poles, not no shortage of skyscrapers,” he said, sucking on a Lucky Strike without taking it from his lips. He stuck his knife into the top of the picnic table. A gust of wind wafted cigarette ash away into the early end of summer.

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

Working Up an Appetite

By Ed Staskus

   New York City’s George Washington Bridge is the busiest bridge in the world. More than 100 million cars and trucks cross it every year. The double decker suspension bridge spans the Hudson River. It opened in 1931, was widened in 1946, and a lower deck was added in 1962. Since then, billions of drivers have sat on the overpass, chewing the cud, their engines idling.

   The speed limit on the bridge is 45 MPH. During rush hour, when my wife and I drove across it, on our way north from Virginia to Cape Cod, it was 0 MPH, or less. There are innumerable stops and starts that stretch time out like silly putty and test a man’s patience. We were glad we had empty bladders, a full tank of gas, and weren’t on any kind of schedule.

   We were on a 2-week end of summer road trip. We first drove from Cleveland, Ohio to Chincoteague Island, planning on Cape Cod the second week. Chincoteague is a barrier island, floating on the Atlantic Ocean shoreline due east of Richmond. We did it in one day, leaving early and getting there late. All the roads in town have signs saying “Evacuation Route” in capital letters and red arrows pointing one way. When we pulled in the lady at the front desk of the Waterside Inn told us the only place still open to get a bite to eat was the Ropewalk. When we walked up to it most of the wait staff and some of the kitchen staff were on the front steps kicking a group of unruly patrons out.

   We waited for the fuss to die down and found a table. It was a sports bar with flat screens everywhere. We had walked in blind, and it looked like we were going to be blind-sided. Our waitress was from New Jersey, there for the summer with her boyfriend. She was friendly enough but hard to see, hidden behind tattoos and piercings.

   “I might stay here,” the young lady said, “except nobody can live here. It’s too expensive.” She lived on the other side of the causeway near Wattsville on Route 175. She wasn’t the first or last person to tell us there wasn’t enough island housing, and what there was of it was too expensive. There were plenty of retirees who had cashed in and old hippies who had cashed out. They had snapped up the real estate from Archie Cove to Hammock Point.

   Ropewalk was on the water. “How cute it would be to sit by the bay,” my wife said, pointing to the side deck. “The deck is closed,” our waitress said. We ate at a table next to a window. Our pints of eastern shore IPA were good, and the appetizer crab egg rolls were tasty. It went downhill from there. “This poke bowl tastes like nothing,” my wife said. Our poke bowls were tuna, corn, rice, and avocadoes. “The corn looks weird, too.” It was about as bland as could be, which was surprising in the home of cornpone.

   We went to Assateague Island the next day. My wife went running on the Wildlife Loop that goes around Swan Goose Pool while I walked some of it. I was breaking in an after-market hip and could only go so far. “No running,” my surgeon had told me. The next day, when we went back, somebody warned us not to hike on the Marsh Trail. “Too many bugs,” he said. While my wife went back on the Wildlife Loop for another 3-mile run, I tried the Marsh Trail. That was a mistake. I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt. I didn’t know one hundred mosquitoes could land on a human being’s arms and legs all at once and all start biting at once. I didn’t know I could walk back to our car as fast as I did, hop-a-long hip and all.

   We went to Captain Zack’s that night. Their motto is “Yum Yum Getcha Some.” The deck was full of diners, so we stepped to the side where there was a take-out window. The kitchen was behind the slide-to-the-side glass. The man in line in front of us said, “Honestly, everything is good.” An older woman in a Mother Goose dress took our order. “I’ll call your cell phone when it’s ready,” she said. We waited at a picnic table on the dark side of the gravel parking lot.

   The soft-shell crabs were good. The sides were too much, literally. There was enough to feed a troop of marching men. We nibbled on some of it, although most of it was disappointing. They had somehow messed up the hush puppies. “How can something soggy be so dry?” my wife asked, adding, “They are supposed to be crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside.”

   We ate at Bill’s on Main St. two nights later. It’s been there for more than sixty years, a squat brick building with windows on three sides and raised slightly up from the sidewalk. The tablecloths and napkins are cloth and the waitresses come dressed in black and white. Our waitress had apple cheeks. “I’ve worked here since I was 21-years old, which was 21 years ago,” she said. She was a single mother and lived on the other side of the causeway. 

   We had oyster stew soup, which was oysters, country ham, butter, and heavy cream. The heavy cream set the tone. The richness of the food on Chincoteague Island was by now not a surprise. It may not always have been tasty, but it was rich, for sure. My wife had crab imperial stuffed shrimp and I had flounder. The crab died drowning in the mayonnaise. The waitress brought twice as much tartar sauce as I needed. By the time we were done and looked around we discovered we were the last patrons still in the restaurant. We waddled back to our lodgings.

   We spent the next afternoon on the beach at Tom’s Cove. The parking lot butts up to the dunes and the dunes slope down to a long beach. We eventually went for a walk, picking up rocks and spiral seashells. We met a German lady from Hamburg who had moved to Virginia forty-some years earlier. “The beach is washing away,” she said. “It’s the storms. The park service brings sand in on barges most years now to keep it from disappearing.”

   Before we left, as we were brushing sand off our feet and getting into our car, a seagull walked up and started squawking. It sounded like maniacal laughter.  We had a half-bag of waffle cone bits and pieces in the back seat, and I emptied them in front of the bird. When I did the food fight was on. Twenty or thirty more birds swooped in out of nowhere and the waffles were gone in seconds. The gulls were crying for more as we drove away.

   We had coffee and croissants several mornings at the Amarin Coffee Shop on Maddox Ave. The other thoroughfare on Chincoteague Island is Main St. The coffee shop was where the causeway from the mainland joins the island. At the other end of Chincoteague Island is another causeway that leads to Assateague Island, which is mostly a sanctuary for migrating birds, wild ponies, and a standing army of mosquitoes. We were sitting on the front deck of the coffee shop when a fit trim man in his 50s sporting a couple weeks’ worth of beard asked us how we liked the coffee. He turned out to be the freeholder.

   His name was Bernard and he had been in the armed forces, specializing in counterterrorism, until he retired. He served in the Middle East and the Far East. “I was in the swamps in the south of Iraq for a while,” he said. “Our job was nabbing foreign fighters trying to sneak into the country from Iran.” He spoke fluent Arabic and knew full well how to say, “Hands up.”

   He met his wife-to-be in Vietnam, got married, and went into his new family’s coffee-growing business. It’s labor-intensive work, grown from seed. Trees take about 5 years to bear fruit. The family grew beans in the Central Highlands, north of Ho Chi Minh City. The French introduced coffee in 1857 when a priest brought one arabica tree into the country. After the Vietnam War ended the newly unified nation became one of the world’s largest coffee producers.     

   Bernard was from Grand Rapids, but when he came back to the USA he settled in Virginia, working for NASA near Chincoteague Island. When he and his wife started importing the family’s coffee beans, he set up a roasting operation. They had a food truck, too, parked in a gravel lot behind the coffee shop. Oz made the Vietnam-themed sandwiches.

   Oz was a stocky man in his 40s who had lived in Vietnam, where his father went to run a furniture factory. Oz had advanced degrees in philosophy and history. “What that means is I know all about unemployment lines,” he said. He taught English as a second language in Vietnam until the 19 virus and his impending divorce back in the homeland brought him back home. He was pining to return to Southeast Asia.

   “It’s my beautiful place,” he said, bringing us spring rolls and a crispy pork belly sandwich on a ciabatta roll. The sandwich was the best food we had in the land of cotton, even though it was the land of corn and crabs. There wasn’t a road without a field of corn planted alongside it and there wasn’t a pit stop without crab cakes.

   The food in the south wasn’t bad, except when it was, but it was too rich for our northern palates. Everything seemed to revolve around butter and mayonnaise. When we went to Steamers for our last supper, we knew enough to split the plates. 

   Steamers wasn’t anything to look at. The front of the house had a hostess station and some desultory tables. Farther inside was a bar and lots more tables. It sounded like a party was going on back there. We sat outside on a slab of concrete surrounded by aluminum fencing. Our waitress was a middle-aged black woman who had lived there her whole life. “I live across the causeway,” she said. We had littlenecks on the half-shell with breadcrumbs and bacon. Then we had flatbread topped with clam dip. We took the waitress’s recommendation and finished up sharing deep-fried rock fish. 

   The day we left Chincoteague Island we saw a Mennonite woman in a cape dress ride by on Main St. on a bicycle. We had seen them every day here and there, usually with a civilian husband in tow. Three of them with digital cameras and long lenses were on Tom’s Cove taking pictures of the surf one windy afternoon, tugging on their haubes to keep them in place on top of their heads. The weather was the same the day we left as it had been the past six days, 80 degrees, sunny, and humid.

   When we finally crossed NYC’s George Washington Bridge the traffic jam didn’t get any better. There were too few lanes and too many cars. We inched forward like snails. I started seeing pairs of Central American-looking women on the shoulders on both sides of the roadway hawking mangoes in large, lidded plastic cups. They had coolers at their feet. When our turn came, we got a cup of them. They were the right refreshment at the right time.

   Mangoes are the national fruit of India. Apples are New York’s official fruit. We didn’t see any apples in the Big Apple. Mangoes are a stone fruit. The name comes from the Portuguese word manga from back in the 16th century. The ones we ate were red, although they also come in yellow and orange.

   “Don’t sit at home and wait for the mango tree to bring mangoes to you,” Israel Ayivor once said. “It won’t happen.” He was right. We had driven a long way to get our mangoes. The Central American women had gone far out of their way to sell their mangoes. They stood on the sides of the road breathing in rubber tire fumes and exhaust fumes and dealing with tempers fuming.

   A few months earlier, on Mother’s Day, a woman by the name of Maria Falcon was arrested for selling mangoes in a New York City subway station. She didn’t have a permit to vend. “She’s served her customers for more than 10 years,” her supporters said. “Those permits can be near impossible to obtain. There’s even an underground market where permits go for up to $20,000 each.” The police threw her fruit away and let her go. “She took a few days off to recover from her ordeal but is back out there today because she can’t stop working,” said another supporter of the mango rank and file.

   It was sunny and cool when we pulled into North Truro on Cape Cod. We stopped at a fish shack and bought a pound of scallops. We cut corn kernels off the cob, sauteed them in olive oil with diced Portuguese sausage, added seared scallops, drizzled squeezed lime juice with maple syrup over the top, and sat down to eat. We had white wine with dinner. The next night we boiled a pot of fresh linguine, sauteed a bag of clams, and tossed the linguine, sliced garlic, and a handful of parsley into the frying pan with the shellfish. The following night we had pan-fried cod filets with redskin potatoes. We didn’t mix up any fat-based sauces of any kind that week. We didn’t even have salad so that we wouldn’t have salad dressing. We had cleansed our palates on the George Washington Bridge and were keeping it that way.

   We watched the sun go down into Cape Cod Bay. My wife and I had been swimming upstream like fish out of water down in Dixie but were back in the Yankee groove. When the red sky sank that night, we went to bed snug as fishermen cruising in with their holds full to the gills with fruit of the sea. 

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

Public Enemy No. 1

By Ed Staskus

   There were five of us on the big elevator going up to the 4th floor of the Global Center. One of us asked the others if we were all on the way to jury duty. All of us said yes, or something along those lines. “This is a pain in the ass,” one young man grumbled.

   “Better to be on this side of things than the other side,” the man next to him said.

   “You got that right, brother,” another man said.

   The Global Center is at the corner of Ontario St. and St. Clair Ave. It is across the street from the Justice Center. It is part of the Medical Mart and Convention Center that made history in 2011. Six buildings were demolished to make way for the development. Half a million tons of debris were removed, and more than 12,000 tons of new steel was used to create the infrastructure of the new complex. It was the most steel used on any one project in Cleveland’s history.

   When we got off the elevator I immediately regretted being on time. The line snaked from the elevators backwards then forwards to the sign-in tables. It looked like everybody was in line all at once. I took my place and shuffled forward like everybody else. If I need to come back tomorrow, I thought, I’m showing up late. The next day, when I did arrive late, there was hardly anybody in line.   

   The Global Center is mostly about conventions and industry conferences. It was the media center for the 2016 Republican National Convention, held in downtown Cleveland, when the far-right spun fantasies and the fantastic happened. The Grand Old Party put a bunko artist at the top of its ticket. The 4th floor is where those called for jury duty report every Monday morning every week of every month. The pool of jurors is usually between 300 and 400 people.

   Before I went through the full-body scanner, I told one of the policemen, “I’m breaking in an after-market hip, so I’m going to set off your fire alarm.” He said all right and told me to go ahead. When I did, nothing happened, except the light blinked green for GO. The high-tech scanners are supposed to detect a wide range of metallic threats in a matter of seconds. “Essentially, the machine sends waves toward a passenger’s insides,” said Shawna Redden, a researcher who studies the devices. “The waves go through clothing and reflect whatever might be concealed, and bounce back a signal, which is interpreted by the machine.”

   “Do you want me to try again?” I asked. 

   “No, go ahead,” the policeman said, barely paying any attention to me.

   Six feet apart and masks were back in effect, even though there was no official ruling in the city, where hardly anybody was paying attention to the pandemic anymore. Only the odd man and woman wore a mask in the lobby or anywhere else. All the hard-backed chairs in the big room were in rows a social distance apart and everybody wore a mask. You can’t fight City Hall. Almost everybody kept their heads down looking at their cell phones. Some people read books. A few went to sleep on the sofas lining the walls.

   When the jury pool bailiff stepped to the front of the room everybody perked up. The boss lady looked casual but was anything but, even though she sprinkled in some stale jokes. She wore a short-sleeved blouse, and her forearms were tattooed. The first thing she did was thank us for coming.

   She explained since we were on the voting rolls we had been randomly selected. She thanked us for opting into our civic duty. She showed a video about the history of juries and what jury duty amounts to. A judge from Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court showed up and thanked us some more. She was wearing a dark skirt. I didn’t know judges could be so friendly and good-looking. When she was done everybody went back to their cell phones and books. The sleepy heads went back to their napping.

   The bailiff said she would be calling groups of 8 for civil cases and groups of 20-and-more for criminal cases. I didn’t mind serving on either kind of jury but was hoping I wouldn’t be called to serve on a criminal case. I didn’t want to be on the jury that was going to convict Tamara McLoyd for shooting and killing Shane Bartek, a Cleveland policeman.

   What would be the point? She seemed to be as guilty as Machine Gun Kelly. Somebody matching her description had been caught on surveillance video pulling the trigger. Her DNA was on the .357 Magnum. She confessed to the crime after being arrested. Why she pled not guilty and was demanding a jury trial was beyond me.

   I brought my Apple tablet with me and read “Empire of the Scalpel” on it all morning. It was about the history and advancement of surgery. No matter their newfound skills of restoring life and limb, there was no bringing Shane Bartek back to life. He was gone to stay. Several groups of jurors trooped out when their names were called. When lunch was announced, I went for a walk on Lakeside Ave.

   The criminal complaint against Tamara McLoyd said she walked up to the off-duty Shane Bartek on Cleveland’s west side on New Year’s Eve and robbed him at gunpoint. He was outside his apartment on his way to a Cleveland Cavs game. When he tried to take her gun away, she shot him twice during the struggle. After the shooting, she stole the policeman’s civilian car and fled. Shane Bartek was taken to Fairview Hospital and pronounced dead. He was 23 years old. She was 18 years old.

   Tamara McLoyd gave the stolen car to a no-good companion of hers who was hunted down later that night by a swarm of suburban police. After a high-speed chase he lost control of the car and slammed into a fence. He didn’t bother saying he was innocent. The police didn’t bother being polite. They tracked the shooter by following videos she was posting on Instagram. She was nothing if not clueless about crime and punishment. She was run to ground, doing her best to curse her way out of capture, and was hauled away to a jail cell. Her handgun was found hidden in the back seat of the not so joyful joy ride. 

   She was Public Enemy No. 1 for a day. The next day she went back to being just an enemy to herself. She never interrupted that side of her whenever it was making a mistake.

   The young woman had been on a crime spree most of the year. Two months earlier, five days after she was sentenced to probation in Lorain County on firearms and robbery charges, she and two accomplices robbed a man in Lakewood, robbed a woman in Cleveland Heights, and robbed Happy’s Pizza in Cleveland. They had worked up an appetite robbing people.

   City Hall and the Cuyahoga County Court House are both on Lakeside Ave. I took self-guided tours during lunchtime and walked around Mall C. I looked down at the Cleveland Browns gridiron and the Science Center across the railroad tracks on the other side of Route 2. There are small parks beside both City Hall and the Court House. I checked out Claes Oldenburg’s rubber stamp sculpture in Willard Park. I checked out John T. Corrigan’s statue in Fort Huntington Park. The over-sized stamp sculpture is whimsical. The life-sized Corrigan statue is stone-faced.

   Tamara McLoyd made her first court appearance on murder charges two days after New Year’s Day. “I didn’t know he was a cop,” she explained, even though nobody was asking for explanations. The cops are like the armed forces, who don’t leave their wounded or dead behind. Killing a policeman is a one-way ticket to the Big House, if not Old Sparky. A city prosecutor read into the record her admission to shooting Shane Bartek. The judge set bail at $5 million dollars and told her to find a lawyer. She hadn’t stolen enough money to make bail. She stayed locked up in the Justice Center the next seven months.

   While there she talked to her friends and mother by jailhouse phone, telling them exactly what happened, and saying she expected to be famous for shooting a policeman. Her lawyers tried to suppress her original confession, but after hearing recordings of her phone calls, nixed the idea. “After consulting with our client, she has authorized and instructed us to withdraw the motion to suppress,” her lawyers said at a hearing.

   John T. Corrigan was Cleveland born and bred, graduating from a local high school and university and law school. He served in the Army during World War Two, losing an eye during the Battle of the Bulge. He was elected Cuyahoga County’s prosecutor in 1956 and re-elected repeatedly, serving for thirty-five years. “It is a large office with more than 300 employees. It’s the second largest public law firm in the state of Ohio,” said Geoffey Means, a former federal prosecutor. John T. was a stern man when it came to law and order. He sent his former law partner to jail. Hoodlums knew there wouldn’t be any sympathy coming their way from the one-eyed legal eagle.

   Nothing had changed since his retirement. When murder was the charge, the office was no-nonsense going forward. When the murder of a policeman was the charge, the office was bound and determined to get it done.

   Tamara McLoyd was bound and determined to say it was an accident. “This shit wasn’t no aggravated,” she told her mother after she was charged with aggravated murder. “This shit was an accident.” Later in the month she told a friend, “We was tussling, he reached for the gun, he fell, and then pow.” She made it sound like a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

   When Monday came to an end at 3 o’clock and I went home, well more than a hundred of us had been picked for actual jury duty. The rest of us came back on Tuesday. More of us were picked, lunchtime was again announced, and I went for another walk. We filtered back at 1 o’clock. I dove back into my sawbones book. A few more of us were picked for a civil trial. Just after 2 o’clock the bailiff cleared her throat.

   “The last judge has just sent word that his trial has been postponed until next week,” she said. “Thank you for coming and you are free to go.”

   We all cheered, collected our certificates of appreciation, and marched away to the elevators. I walked to the lot on W. 3rd St. where I had left my car. It was a cloudless day. There weren’t many people on the sidewalks. The tables and chairs of downtown’s Al Fresco dining were empty. Everybody had gone back to work after eating.

   Al Fresco comes from the Italian and loosely means “in the cool air.” Unlike everybody else, Italians don’t use the term for eating outside. In Italy it means “spending time in the cooler.” When they say cooler, they mean jail.

   Tamara McLoyd was found guilty of theft, grand theft, aggravated robbery, felonious assault, murder, and aggravated murder. It didn’t take the jury long. The courtroom was packed with Cleveland police officers and Bartek’s family. Some of the dead man’s relatives broke into tears. Tamara McLoyd turned 19 during the trial. She was a cold fish, standing unblinking when the verdict was read. 

   “What would you think after being found guilty of aggravated murder?” her lawyer Jaye Schlachet offered up, even though she didn’t seem to be thinking about anything special. Shane Bartek was probably the last thing on her mind.

   “The tragedy is that this individual who committed this crime was on a spree of violence through our community,” Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael O’Malley said. “We see it every day in our county. She had opportunities to get on track. At every crossroad she could have turned her life around. She declined that opportunity. She was a terrorist on our streets, and for our community’s sake she is going to face the music for all the crimes she committed over those several months.”

   A sheriff’s deputy put the convicted killer in handcuffs. She was led away. She was facing a life sentence. The judge would decide at her sentencing the following month whether there was going to be the possibility of parole after 25 or 30 years, or whether it was going to be life without parole.

   “We are quite confident that the only thing she will see for the rest of her life are bars,” police union chief Jeff Follmer said.

   Tamara McLoyd tried to explain away the shooting of Shane Bartek. I was glad I wasn’t there to hear it. After a while it’s sickening having to listen to lies. Murder is inherently wrong. She thought she was just offing somebody who was getting in her way, like brushing away a bug. She didn’t realize she was committing suicide as well as murder. She was 1-2-3 down for the count. She was going to Marysville Prison where nobody cared whether jailbirds lived or died, where she could kill time day-in and day-out.

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

Don’t Scare the Fish

By Ed Staskus

   I never thought I would be spending two weeks in East Texas in the middle of a blast furnace summer but there I was. I was deep in the heart of Dixie. It rained every afternoon for a half hour and was bone dry a half hour later, racing right back up to 100 degrees in the shade. But by that time, we were on our way to work.

   Tyler, Texas was the second last leg of a month-long job. The last leg would be Louisiana and then back home. I was working for American Electro Coatings, a Cleveland, Ohio outfit that refinished desks, files, and cabinets on site. We traveled in three-man crews in white Ford Econoline vans, carrying our gear and luggage. There were two bucket seats and a custom-made bunk that doubled as storage behind the seats. The van was big enough for a sofa if we wanted to. One of us was always sleeping. We rotated the driving.

   We started in Chicago, went to Des Moines, OK City, Tyler, slowing down in Louisiana for crawfish, and then got on the hillbilly highway back to the Buckeye State. Our ride never broke down because Ralph, the crew leader and painter, made sure it never broke down. He did an all-points inspection beforehand, had it tuned up, oil changed, and confirmed the steel belts were on the newer side. He didn’t believe in 4-60 air conditioning, four windows open going 60 MPH, and made sure our on-board AC was in perfect working order. The van looked like a creeper on the outside but ran like an angel.

   Our workday started when everybody else’s workday was ending. We worked from about six to about two in the morning. Ralph was an old hand. He always got a motel as close as possible to where we would be working to cut down on drive time. “Efficiency is doing things right,” he said. Effectiveness is doing the right things. Ralph was both, not that anybody could tell by looking at him. He looked like a skinny chain-smoking Jackie Gleason.

   I wasn’t a full-time employee and didn’t work with the same crew all the time. I always asked for Ralph, though. He was fifteen-some years older than me, testy but steady, smoked too much, but drank less than he smoked. He had a wife and two kids and was as stingy as Scrooge. He didn’t spend much of his own money on the road. When we got back to our motel room in the middle of the night it was lights out, Ralph’s orders. In the afternoon we were free to do whatever we wanted, but he expected us to be ready to go at five o’clock.

   Some of the employees were Americans at American Electro Coatings. The rest weren’t. They were from Mexico and Central America. Some of them got paid cash on payday. Jose was Ralph’s right hand man. We always got a room with two beds which meant, since I was the odd man out, I always slept on a rollaway. Some of them were better than others. The first thing Ralph and Jose did when they woke up was hack up a storm and have a cigarette. They shared an ashtray on the bed stand between them. 

   When they asked me if I wanted to join them in a smoke, I said, “Thanks, but I don’t need one of my own. I’ll just breathe the air.”

   Our job in Chicago was smooth sailing, some old-time law office, but we hit a bump in the road in Des Moines. It was a downtown bank and the first day we started on the first floor, which was the lobby. Jose and I were cleaning and taping desks. He called me over to one of them. There was a kind of fancy doorbell button screwed to the well of the desk and wires coming and going to it. 

   “What we gonna do about this?” Jose asked.

   We were going to have to do something to be able to move it to the painting tarp. There were several screws that the wires were attached to. “Let’s make a drawing of where the wires go, unscrew them, and put them back later,” I suggested.

   “OK,” he said

   Five minutes later three police cars screamed up to the front doors and five seconds later a half dozen cops with guns drawn were bellowing, “Down on the floor, face down!” We couldn’t go flat fast enough. It got straightened out after a while but not before a stern warning from the peace officer in charge to stop messing around with alarm wires.

   Every night we drove down East Grand Ave. back to our motel near the State Fairgrounds. The streets were always deserted. We could have burgled anything we wanted. We navigated by the lit-up gold dome of the early-20th century Iowa State Capital building.

   OK City was a two-day job like Chicago. We didn’t like short jobs, so when we got to Texas, we were glad to unload our gear and settle in for two weeks. We were going to be working at the Kelly Springfield tire plant. The factory went back to 1962 and was on the order of a million square feet. A rail spur ran alongside an inside platform from one end to the other end of the factory, bringing raw materials in and hauling new tires away.

   The front offices were routine, all of them together, and no fuss about setting up and getting it done. The other offices were on the factory floor on raised platforms. It was where foremen worked. We had to wheel our gear there and carry it up. We got a platform-or-two done a night. We met Barry and Skip on one of them. They kept their eyes open on the down below. They got us acquainted with Tad, another one of the foremen, a friend of theirs who worked at ground level. He had gotten his legs shot out from under him at the Battle of Xuan Loc, the last major battle fought during the Vietnam War. He was discharged with a Purple Heart and a wheelchair.

   One night we had lunch just past midnight in the cafeteria with the three of them. I noticed all the white men were sitting at one end of the eatery and all the black men were sitting at the other end. The brown men and yellow men sat where nobody else wanted to. I knew black people were held in low esteem in Cleveland. They were held in no esteem in East Texas. If they weren’t outright hated, they were disliked and shunned. 

   “We can’t call them niggers no more, so we don’t,” Barry said. “But we don‘t got to eat with niggers. They can’t make us do that. Besides, they don’t want to eat with us either.” Their racism was a great time saver. They were busy men at work, home, and church. They could stick to their long-held beliefs without bothering about the facts.

   Barry invited us to go night fishing with them on their next day off. We had been at it at the plant for seven days and were ready for a day off. Barry picked us up in his GMC Sierra Grande pick-up. It had plush carpeting, a padded front seat, and an AM/FM radio. The only stations in town were AM. We listened to a radio minister whoop it up. Ralph sat up front with Barry and Skip and the gun rack. Jose and I hung on to Tad’s wheelchair strapped down to the bed of the truck.

   Their 28-foot deck boat was docked at Lake Palestine, west of Tyler. Besides rods and reels hooks bobbers sinkers and bait, they brought lots of ice and a couple hundred cans of Lone Star beer. They did their best to drink it all. We helped out but couldn’t keep up. 

   We fished for crappie and catfish. Tad was deadest on crappie and used minnows. There were more catfish than anything else. We drift fished for them using worms and chicken livers. Skip was targeting blue catfish using cut fish as bait. The best catfishing is done at night. Flats, river bars, shorelines, and weeds are good places to find them. 

   Everybody caught a load of everything, tossing them into five-gallon buckets half full of water. Tad forgot to chock his wheels and almost went over the side before Barry grabbed him by the nape, saving his neck.

   “We can’t have him yelling and splashing,” Barry said. “The number one rule of fishing is to be quiet. Don’t scare the fish!” We did some firefly and star gazing and lots of mosquito swatting. There was a full moon. I looked carefully and steadily for the Swamp Thing to surface, but he never did.

   The next day was Sunday. Barry invited us to his house for a fish fry. We ate our fill. The fish was fresh and tasty. The catfish weren’t as scary dead as alive, their heads cut off. Ralph had a Lone Star, but Jose and I had sworn off it for the Lord’s Day. The Texans were unfazed and drank their fill. Barry brought his family Bible out to the backyard. It was as big as a suitcase and had all the names of his known forebears inscribed on the inside cover.

   It was hot and swampy the day later. The tire factory was noxious, like it was every day. We were lucky to be working in the air-conditioned offices. There were enormous exhaust fans for the working men, but the only fresh air was the air that flowed from one end of the railroad tracks to the other through the big bay doors.

   The plant reeked of rubber, special oils, carbon black, pigments, silica, and an alphabet soup of additives. Banbury mixers mixed the raw materials for each compound into a batch of black material with the consistency of gum. It was processed into the sidewalls, treads, or other parts of the tire. The first thing to go on the building machine was the inner liner, a special rubber resistant to air and moisture penetration. It takes the place of an inner tube. Next came the body plies and belts, made from polyester and steel. Bronze-coated strands of steel wire, fashioned into hoops, were implanted into the sidewall of the tires to form a bead, so there was an airtight fit with the rim of the wheel. The tread and sidewalls were then put into position over the belt and body plies, and all the parts pressed firmly together. 

   The result was a green tire. The last step was to cure the tire. Working at the Kelly Springfield factory for two weeks cured me of any inclination I might have ever had about working for a tire manufacturer.

   The day before we were due to be done and gone, Barry found us and led us to the open west end of the track platform. He and Skip had rigged up a sail and mounted it to the back of Tad’s wheelchair. There was a stiff breeze blowing through the bay door heading due east from the other open bay door. “We got him some new rubber on those wheels of his,” Barry explained. “He wanted to give them a good test, so we arranged a scoot.”

   They pivoted the sail, Tad let go his chokehold on the wheels, and set off rolling down the platform. He picked up speed and we started walking fast. He picked up more speed and we started jogging. He picked up even more speed and we started running. Before long we couldn’t keep up and watched him becoming a crazy fast speck in the distance. 

   Then he disappeared.

   When we got to the other end of the plant and looked down from the platform to the railroad tracks below, we gawked at the runaway. He and his wheels were a mess. Tad had old rail grease all over his work shirt. He rolled off the overturned wheelchair and cursed up a storm. Barry and Skip jumped, got Tad back up to the platform, lifted his dented wheelchair, and set him back to rights. The sail was a shambles. They left it where it lay.

   “You sons of bitches ain’t going be doing that again anytime soon, believe you me,” Tad grumbled.

   We loaded up the next day and headed for Louisiana. It was a three-day job. We stayed at a motel with a pool and ate crawfish at a roadhouse next door. “You got to suck on the head first thing, before you peel the tail, honey,” our waitress said. We drank Falstaff beer kept cold in galvanized bins full of ice water and salt. We stayed an extra day for more crawfish and to hear a zydeco band everybody said was the best in the parish.

   The day we left for home was the hottest most humid day in the history of the world. We rolled up the windows and cranked up the air conditioning. Jose tucked himself in on the bunk behind us and was asleep in no time. I glanced back at him as we drove north up through Mississippi.

   “I’ll take the next turn at the wheel,” I told Ralph. “Jose is sleeping like a baby.”

   “That’s because he doesn’t have his baby here with him,” Ralph said. “He’ll be making noise on his old squeezebox soon enough.”

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

Over a Barrel

By Ed Staskus

   The summer day in the late 1960s when I walked across the Rainbow Bridge was stormy. I had gotten there by leaving the driving to Greyhound. The driver wore a uniform. It made him look like a mix of state trooper and doorman. Since the bus had no acceleration to speak of, he drove all-out all the way from Cleveland, Ohio to Niagara Falls, New York. We passed sports cars and muscle cars.

   The driver sat high up with a vista vision view of the highway. The transmission was a hands-on four-speed. There were four instruments on the other side of the steering wheel, a speedometer, air pressure gauge for the brakes, oil pressure gauge, and a water temperature gauge.

   When I stepped foot on the Canadian side it wasn’t raining, yet. The Border Service officer asked me where I was from, where I was going, for how long, and waved me through without any more fuss. I found the bus station and bought a ticket for Toronto, where I was going. I was going to visit a girl, Grazina, who I had met at Ausra summer camp on Wasaga Beach a couple of years earlier.

   It rained hard all the way there, past Hamilton and Mississauga on the Queen Elizabeth Way, until I got to the big city, when the clouds parted, and the sun came out. Everything smelled clean. I picked up a map of the bus and subway system and found my way to my friend Paul’s house. His family was friends with my family.

   The Kolyciai lived in a two-story brick row house off College St. near Little Italy. I was polite to his parents and ignored his two younger sisters. I roomed with Paul, but ditched him every morning after breakfast, hopping a bus to Grazina’s house. It wasn’t far, 5-or-so minutes south near St. John the Baptist. Lithuanians bought the church from Presbyterians in 1928 and redesigned it in the Baltic way in 1956.

   Grazina met me on the front porch and took me on a guided tour of Toronto. We went by foot, red and white streetcar, and the underground. We looked the city over from the observation deck on top of City Hall and went to the waterfront. We strolled around Nathan Philips Square. We had strong tea and scones at an outdoor café. Grazina popped in and out of shops on Gerrard St. checking out MOD fashions. At the end of the day, I was so tired I begged off a warmed-over dinner back at my home away from home and fell into bed.

   The next morning Grazina had a surprise for me. We were going to a funeral. 

   “Who died?” I asked.

   “Nobody I know and for sure nobody you know,” she said.

   She was dressed for death, all in black. I wasn’t, wearing blue jeans and a madras shirt. We stopped at a second-hand clothes store. I bought a black shirt, so I wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb.

   “Why are we going to this funeral?” I asked.

   “Because it’s Friday and it’s a Greek funeral.”

   I was an old hand at funerals, having doled out incense at many of them when I was an altar boy at St George’s in the old neighborhood in Cleveland. I had only ever been to Lithuanian services. Because it’s a Friday and a Greek funeral were obscure reasons to me, but I was willing to go along.

   Toronto was full of immigrants. Immediately after the war war-time brides and children fathered by Canadian soldiers showed up. Post-WW2 DP Italians, Jews, Poles, Ukrainians, Balts and Central Europeans poured in. In 1956 after Soviet tanks rolled through Budapest, Hungarians came over. During the next decade there were many family reunification arrivals. Throughout the 1950s and 60s the old-stock British-Canadianism of Toronto was being slowly transformed.

   The church, Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox, in the former Clinton Street Methodist building, was back up Little Italy way. We got on a bus. A priest sporting a shaggy beard, Father Pasisios, was at the helm. He wore a funny looking hat. The church was small on the outside but big on the inside. We sat quietly in the back. When it was over, I finally asked Grazina, “Why are we here?”

   “For the repast.”

   “What’s that?”

   “Food, usually a full meal.”

   “Doesn’t your family feed you?”

   “It’s not that,” she said. “I went to a Romanian funeral with a friend a few months ago, and they served food afterwards, and it was great, food I had never had before. After a while I started going to different funerals whenever I could, always on Fridays, Sicilian, Czechoslovakian, Macedonian, so that I could taste their national food.”

   “How do you know where to go?”

   “I read the death notices in the newspaper.”

   I had heard of wedding crashers, but never a funeral crasher.

   The repast was at a nearby community hall. When asked, Grazina told both sides of the family she was distantly related to the other side, speaking out of the side of her mouth. “Memory eternal” is what she said next, shaking a hand. She knew the lingo. The lunch was delicious, moussaka, mesimeriano, and gyros. We had coffee and baklava for dessert. By the time we left we were loaded for bear.

   We went to Yorkville and hung around the rest of the day. There were coffee houses and music clubs all over Yonge and Bloor Streets. The neighborhood went back to the 1830s when it was a suburban retreat. Fifty years later it was annexed by the city of Toronto and until the early 1960s was quaint quiet turf. Then it morphed ed into a haven of counterculture.

   “An explosion of youthful literary and musical talent is appearing on small stages in smoky coffee houses, next to edgy art galleries and funky fashion boutiques offering trendy garb, blow-up chairs, black light posters and hookah pipes, all housed in shabby Victorian row houses,” The Toronto Star said.

   It was fun roaming around hopscotching ducking in and out, even though a police paddy wagon was parked at the corner of Hazelton and Yorkville. There had been love-ins, sit-ins, and so-called “hippie brawls” in recent years. Some of the town’s poohbahs were up in arms. The politician Syl Apps said the area was a “festering sore in the middle of the city.” There were wide-eyed teenagers and tourists, hippies and bohemians, hawkers and peddlers, and sullen-looking bikers.

   A young man was slumped on the sidewalk, leaning dazed against a storefront. An old woman wearing a babushka and walking with a cane walked slowly carefully past him. I couldn’t tell who was more over a barrel.

   We weren’t able to get into the Riverboat Coffeehouse, which wasn’t really a coffeehouse, but a club with the best music. We peeked through the porthole windows but all we saw were shadows. The Mynah Bird featured go-go dancers in glass cases outside the second floor. We saw Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins do back flips across the stage doing guitar solos at Le Coq d’Or.

   Starvin’ Marvin’s Burlesque Palace was somewhere upstairs, but we didn’t go there. All the clubs were small, and most of the doors open. We sat on curbs and heard a half-dozen bands. We stayed until midnight. By the time I got back to Paul’s house I was dead tired again and fell into bed.

   The sky Saturday was clear and bright over Lake Ontario, so we went to the Toronto Islands. We took the Sam McBride ferry and rented bikes. There were no cars or busses. We stopped at the new Centreville Amusement Park on Middle Island and rode the carousel. When we found a beach we changed, threw down a towel, and spent the remainder of the afternoon in the sun. We had bananas and threw the peels to the seagulls, who tore them apart and downed them like it was their last meal.

   Grazina invited me over for dinner. She told me her mom was a bad cook, but I went anyway. She set the table while her mom brought platters of cepelinai, bacon and sour cream on the side, serving them piping hot and covered with gravy. They were fit for a king.

   The next morning was Sunday. After going to mass with Grazina and her family I caught a bus for home. At the border I waited my turn to answer the Border Patrol man’s questions. I had all the answers except one. When he asked me for I. D., I said I didn’t have any.

   “How did you get into Canada?”

   “I walked over the bridge.”

   “Didn’t they ask you for I. D.?”

   “No,” I said.

   “Jesus Christ! Well, you can’t come into the United States without identification.”

   I was born in Sudbury, Ontario, and had been to Canada many times since for summer camps. But I never concerned myself with the legalities. I left that to whoever was driving the car, my parents, or somebody else’s parents.

   I was speechless. Distress must have showed on my face. The Border Patrol man told me to call my parents and ask them to bring identification. It sounded like a good idea, except that it wasn’t. My father was out of town on business and my mother worked at a supermarket. Even if she was willing, she had never driven a car that far alone in her life.

    “Is there any place I can stay?”

   “Do you have any money?

   “Just enough for a bus ticket home.”

   He said Jesus again a few times and finally suggested what he called a “hippie flophouse” on Clifton Hill. He gave me directions and I found it easily enough. I used the pay phone to call my mother, reversing the charges. After she calmed down, she said she would send what I needed the next morning by overnight mail. I was in for two nights of roughing it.

   The flophouse was an old motel advertising “Family Rates.” It was next to a Snack Bar selling hot dogs and pizza by the slice. There were young guys and gals loitering lounging smoking pot in the courtyard. One of them offered me a pillow and the floor. I accepted on the spot before he drifted down and out. It was better than sleeping in the great outdoors.

   I spent the next day exploring Niagara Falls. There were pancake houses and waffle houses. There were magic museums and wax museums There were arcades and Ripley’s Odditorium. I took a walk through the botanical gardens and to Horseshoe Falls.

   The Horseshoe Falls were tilting water over the edge like there was no tomorrow. The American Falls had been shut down by the Army Corp of Engineers to study erosion and instability. They built a 600-foot dam across the Niagara River, which meant 60,000 gallons of water a second were being diverted over the larger Canadian waterfall. It was loud and mist floated up into my face. 

   The Niagara River drains into Lake Ontario. We lived in Cleveland half-a-block from Lake Erie. If I threw myself into the river, I would have to swim upstream all the way to Buffalo before I could relax and float home. The practical side of me discarded the idea.

   Lots of people go over the falls. The first person to not do it was Sam Patch, better known as the Yankee Leaper, who jumped 120 feet from an outstretched ladder down to the base of the falls. He survived, but many of the daredevils didn’t.

   The first person to successfully take the plunge in a barrel was schoolteacher Annie Taylor in 1901. Busted flat, she thought up the stunt as a way of becoming rich and famous. The first thing she did was build a test model, stuff her housecat into it, and throw it over the side. When the cat made it unscathed, she adapted a person-sized pickle barrel and shoved off. It was her birthday. She told everybody she was 43, although she was really 63.

   After she made it with only bumps and bruises, she became notorious, but missed out on riches. Everybody said she should have sold tickets, but it was Monday morning quarterbacking. She never tried it again. Two years later the professional baseball player Ed Delahanty tried it while stinking drunk and died.

   About thirty people perish going over the falls every year. Most of them are suicides. 

   The last person by 1969 to go over the falls with the intention of staying alive was Nathan Boya in 1960 in a big rubber ball nicknamed the “Plunge-O-Sphere.” When it hit the rocks at the bottom it bounced and bounced, but he was uninjured. Nobody but the absolutely serious about ending it all had tried it since then. 

   I got my official papers on Tuesday, dutifully displayed them at the border, and walked into the United States. I sat in the back of the Greyhound bus and stretched my legs out. When it lumbered off, I took a look back, but it was all a slow-motion blur.

   Grazina and I wrote letters to one another that winter until we didn’t. We slowly ran out of words and by the next summer were all out of them. She was enrolled in university full-time while I was working half the year and going to Cleveland State University the other half of the year. She found a boyfriend and I found an apartment on the near east side of town.

   It was a few years later that Henri Rechatin, his wife Janyck, and friend Frank Lucas went across the Niagara River near the downstream whirlpool on a motorcycle, riding the cables of the Spanish Aero Car. The friend piloted the motorcycle while Henri and Janyck balanced on attached perches. Since they didn’t have passports, when they got to the far side, they hauled the motorcycle and themselves into the aero car and rode back in comfort.

   The police were waiting. They were arrested for performing a dangerous act, but formal charges were never filed. They were free to go. For my part, I made sure to always have something official with my picture on it whenever I went anywhere after that. Getting stuck in no man’s land is captivating for only so long. 

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

Mexican Stand-Off

By Ed Staskus

   My nephew Wyatt was smart enough to get admitted into St. Edward High School and scatterbrained enough to get suspended. He made it to graduation day by the skin of his teeth. He wasn’t so lucky at Cleveland State University. After one thing and another they told him he had to find another school. When he left, he forgot to take his “Get Out of Jail” card with him.

   St Ed’s is a Catholic high school in the Holy Cross tradition in Lakewood, Ohio. Thousands of young men apply to get in every year. A couple of hundred make it. Cleveland State University is a state school. So long as your high school grades make the grade you can get in, no problem. After he left, leaving his student housing apartment a disaster relief scene, he started looking for another place to live.

   He camped out at his sister’s apartment until she said he had to go. His father suggested an uncle. He stayed with his uncle until he told him he had to go. He stayed at my mother’s house, throwing parties for his friends whenever she broke a leg or had a stroke and was recovering at the Welsh Home in Rocky River. 

   When my brother asked me to throw some work his son’s way, I was of a mind to say no. It was almost the first thing I said. It was what I should have said. I had agreed to hire him to waterproof our basement walls and repaint the concrete floor a few months earlier. In the end it was such a makeshift effort that I spent almost as much time in the basement as he had patching things up.

   Every time I looked, he was easing himself down onto one of our lawn chairs and lighting up. He liked to smoke weed and cigarettes rather than attend to the work at hand. When he wasn’t blazing, he was talking on his cell phone. When I was done taking care of the splats runs and misses, I thought, that’s the last time.

   What I said, though, when my brother asked, was OK.

   I worked more-or-less full-time for Light Bulb Supply in Brook Park. There were no brooks or parks anywhere. The biggest greenspace was Holy Cross Cemetery, 240 acres of it, across the street. I went there for walks instead of taking lunch sometimes when the day was warm dry and sunny. The office work more-or-less paid the bills. It was a family business, however, and I wasn’t a part of the family. I wasn’t going to get anywhere by relying on their good will, of which there was little. It was like my paycheck, on the stingy side.

   I got ahead by repairing tanning equipment part-time, on my own time, stand-ups and beds at tanning salons, beauty salons, gyms, and people’s homes. Tanning was booming. I taught myself how to do it. My hourly rate was more, by far, than what Light Bulb Supply paid me. If it was an insurance job, I raised the price.

   Allstate Insurance sent me to Dearborn, Michigan to inspect a tanning bed that had been under water for a few days in a family’s basement rec room. They found out their sump pump had failed when they got home from vacation. I drove there on a Saturday, since it was going to be an all-day job getting there and back.

   Dearborn is just west of Detroit. and home to the most Muslims in the United States. It is also home to the largest mosque in the country. I got my signals crossed, missed the turn-off off I-75., and missed the mosque. When I got to Detroit and saw an exit for Dearborn St., I took it. When all I saw were bars churches funeral parlors beauty shops empty littered lots more bars and no white faces, I parked, found a phone booth, and called the folks with the soggy tanning bed.

   I told them where I thought I was.

   “Get back in your car and drive away from there right now,” the man of the house said. “It’s not safe.” There was no sense in tempting fate. I got back into my car, counted my blessings, and followed the Rouge River to Dearborn.

   I had a job at a big tanning salon in North Royalton south of Cleveland. There were some repairs involved and re-lamping 9 or 10 tanning beds. It was going to take Wyatt and me two or three days and nights. It took me closer to a week of nights and the weekend. Wyatt was supposed to re-lamp during the day while I did the repairs at night, except he only showed up once and didn’t finish even one of the tanning beds.

   One day he wasn’t feeling well. His stomach hurt. Another day his garage door broke with his car inside it. Another time he said he needed a mental health day. The last day before I told him not to bother anymore, an asteroid smashed through his roof. In the end I chalked it up to experience.

   “Nobody wants to hire me,” he complained, one of his many Millennial complaints. He thought he could get the job done without going to work. He liked to say, “I don’t want to be tied down.” He didn’t want to be another cog in the wheel. There was little chance of that.

   My mother and brother both asked my sister to let him move into her house. They knew well enough to not ask me. She had the space but was reluctant. She and her husband had split up. He moved out and stayed out on the road working as a long-haul trucker. Her daughter had left for Miami University and after graduation struck out on her own. There were two empty bedrooms.

   She told my brother she had reservations, especially since everybody knew Wyatt wasn’t just popping pills and smoking weed. He was selling pills and weed to anybody and everybody. She didn’t want a drug dealer in her house.

   “He doesn’t have anywhere else to go,” my brother said.

   “What about your house?”

   “Sharon doesn’t want him in our house.” Sharon was my brother’s wife, Wyatt’s foster mother. She was a schoolteacher. Wyatt had been in her class during middle school. She knew what he was up to.

   Wyatt was arrested in 2015 strolling down Detroit Rd. on the Cleveland side of the border in the middle of the night. He was puffing on a stogie-sized spliff. He was packing pills in his pockets and having a high old time. A year later he went to court and was rewarded with intervention instead of jail time. My brother spent a fortune sending him to assessment counseling treatment and prevention classes. I drove Wyatt to the classes now and then. He was as repentant as a cottonmouth.

   When he moved into my sister’s house, he brought clothes, shoes, and a safe. He moved into one of the vacant bedrooms. My brother paid his $200.00 rent occasionally. He kept his clothes within easy reach and his shoes on display.

   “He thought nothing about buying $150.00 tennis shoes,” my sister said.

   She didn’t ask what he kept in the safe. She didn’t want to know. One day she noticed one of the floorboards had been pried up and put back in place. When she looked under the board, she saw a stash. She put the board back in its place. Boys and girls drove up to her curb day and night. When they did Wyatt ran outside, handed them something through their open car window, and they gave him something in return.

   He texted his girlfriend a photograph of tens twenties fifties fanned out across his bed cover. “Top of the world,” he seemed to be saying. When he was done, he neatly packed the dough up and put it back in his safe.

   My sister had told Wyatt, “No friends in the house.” A week later, pulling into her driveway after work, she saw more than twenty boys and girls on her front porch and front steps. Two of them were sprawled across a railing. They were waiting for Wyatt. My sister called my brother.

   “Get over here and tell your son’s friends to leave.” 

   I happened to be driving by and stopped to see what was going on with the crowd on the front porch. When I asked if they were waiting for somebody, one of the youngsters on the railing said, “We are the ones we’re waiting for.” I assumed it was a smarmy Millennial trope and left when I saw my brother’s car coming down the street.

   When Wyatt came home, she asked him, “What do you not understand about no friends?”

   He was terrific about explaining and apologizing. Before he was done my sister cried uncle. “Just don’t let it happen again,” she said. It happened again and again. Wyatt was sincerely insincere when he had to be.

   The driveway was defined by the two houses on its sides. It wasn’t a wide driveway by any means. There was a grass strip on the neighbor’s side but no buffer on the other side. Fortunately, Wyatt drove a compact car. Unfortunately, he had forgotten what he learned in driver’s ed. He bounced off the house several times, denting his car, and ripping siding off the side.

   He liked to text my sister, asking if she needed anything done around the crash pad. When he mixed up the driveway and house he texted her, promising to fix it right away. He never did. He never did anything else, either, except breaking in through the back kitchen window whenever he locked himself out. Every time he did my sister had to replace the screen. One of the neighbors called the Lakewood Police Department when he saw one of the break-ins, but Wyatt was able to explain it away.

   After the intervention went bust, Wyatt was arrested again and charged with drug possession, possessing criminal tools, and a trafficking offense. He pled guilty since the cops had the goods on him. His charm good looks and a sharp enough lawyer carried the day. He was ordered to be drug tested on a week-to-week basis. It was what saved the day for my sister.

   She wanted Wyatt gone but didn’t know how to get it done. He was a blood relative and needed a place to live, even though he wasn’t willing to do what it takes to possess an apartment and stock the shelves. It was a stand-off. My mother and brother insisted there wasn’t anywhere else he could go. He had burned one bridge too many. She bit the bullet, but it tasted bitter.

   The magic bullet turned out to be the court-mandated drug-testing Wyatt was obliged to undergo. When spring turned to summer and summer turned to fall, Wyatt fell over his tennis shoe laces and tested positive. It might mean the slammer. It meant he was packing up, shoes and safe and all. It meant my sister could slam and lock the door the minute he left, which is what she did, for good reason.

   Ohio law enforcement has the power to seize cash and property involved in drug trafficking. Asset seizures and forfeitures are a crime deterrent and a tool to take down drug trafficking, policemen say. “We generally seize assets that are believed to be the fruits of drug trafficking or used to facilitate the crime of drug trafficking,” Paul Saunders, a senior police official, said. “The courts have a litany of rules that are applied to each case to determine whether assets will be forfeited.”

   The last thing my sister needed was to have her home taken away from her because of somebody else’s bad behavior. Fortunately, no searchlights were searching for her. She went back to watering her lawn, walking her dogs, and watching “Law and Order” on TV. When the crime drama wrapped everything up on a happy note, she went to bed snug as a bug with nobody to bug her.

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

Back to the Mosh Pit

By Ed Staskus

   It wasn’t breaking news that Prince Edward Island was an island. It was old news that it hadn’t always been one. It was news that didn’t matter to many folks who lived on the island. They weren’t overly concerned with the past. They cared about right now. They cared about heating oil being delivered on time. They checked the time the school bus was scheduled. They cared about the flat tire that stopped them dead in their tracks on the way to the grocery store. They cared about putting food on the table that day, but not about what made the tire go flat. They worried that prices were so low for lobster that fishermen were getting only 50 cents a pound for it. 

   It wasn’t news to the lobsters who lived in the ocean. They had been around much longer than the fishermen, farmers, and townsfolk who plied their trade on sea and shore. The crustaceans had seen it all, although they hadn’t seen amnesic shellfish poisoning before. The new toxin was killing Canadians who ate shellfish. No lobster ever went to any of their funerals. “That’s a dose of your own medicine,” Louie the Large said, chuckling to himself that the toxin wasn’t bothering his kith and kin.

   Lobsters didn’t have a trade or much else to do, other than eat anything and everything they could all day and night. They hated crabs and crabs hated them and it was the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s whenever the shellfish ran into each other. The lobsters were bigger badder more determined and three of their five pairs of legs were outfitted with claws. They usually carried the day. Might makes right.

   The number one rock ‘n’ roll band among the island’s lobsters was the B-52’s. They were the house band in their part of the world. Every lobster knew the lyrics to their ‘Rock Lobster’ song. The band had released it ten years earlier and when they did it shot up the charts, even though every single crab scorned it as the devil’s music.

   “We were at the beach, everybody had matching towels, somebody went under a dock, and there they saw a rock, it wasn’t a rock, it was a rock lobster!” 

   Whenever a crab heard the song, it kicked sideways and cursed. They were happy to see the island’s fishing boats go after their country cousins in the spring. They showed up at every harbor for the blessing of the fleet on Setting Day and shouted “Godspeed!” when the boats broke the waves. There was no love lost between crabs and lobsters. “We don’t need no skunks at our lawn party,” the crabs said.

   Even though lobsters could be bad as the wrong side of a Hells Angels bed, all they really wanted to do was eat and have some fun afterwards. They were always on the move, looking for a party.

   “Havin’ fun, bakin’ potatoes.”

   Prince Edward Island was known as Spud Island. It was no small potatoes when it came to the tuber. It was the smallest province but the top potato producing province in the country. Mr. Potato Head lived around every corner.

   “Boys in bikinis, girls in surfboards, everybody’s rockin’, everybody’s fruggin’.”

   Lobsters couldn’t move nearly fast enough to frug, but it didn’t matter. They got into the spirit of the song. They lived in concord among themselves ten months out of the year, except when one of them happened to eat another one of them. Two months of the year all bets were off. That’s when the island’s lobster boats went hunting for them. That’s when the angels sang. They didn’t like it, but they had to take their lumps like everybody else.

   There were about 1200 boats sailing out of 45 harbors. More than three dozen boats came out of the North Rustico harbor alone. Every one of them was out to get them. Once they got them their fate was sealed. Every lobster knew it in its bones, even though all they had was an exoskeleton. Their inner selves had no bones. They were going to be boiled alive and there was nothing they could do about it.

   “Double double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble.”

   Traps have escape vents to let shorts get away while still on the bottom. The under-sized lobsters who overstayed their welcome were thrown back into the ocean. Egg-bearing females were also thrown back. The female carried her eggs inside of her for about a year and then for about another year attached to the swimmerets under her tail. When the eggs hatch, the larvae float near the surface for a month. The few that survive eventually sink to the bottom and develop as full-fledged shellfish. For every 50,000 eggs generated two lobsters survive to grow up and go rocking.

   Some diners wearing bibs argue that lobsters don’t have a brain and so they can’t and don’t feel pain. They have probably never seen their tails twitch like the mosh pit at high tide when they get thrown into a pot of boiling water. They weren’t twitching to the beat of the B-52’s. Their brains might not amount to much, but they had a nervous system. They reacted to pain physically and hormonally. The hormone they released when dying was the same one that human beings release when hurt. Cortisol is cortisol. They would have screamed if they could.

   “How about coming down here with the rest of us,” they wanted to scream from the red hot mosh pit.

   The Prince Edward Island seafood industry considered lobster to be their crown jewel. It was a gourmet delicacy known for its tender juicy meat. But that was like getting the Medal of Honor when you weren’t around anymore. Who needs to bask in that kind of glory? The only consolation lobsters had was that harvesters took care to manage their resource. They didn’t pull up over many of them in their traps. They were learning their lesson from what was happening to cod, which were disappearing fast.

   It was a small consolation for Louie the Large and his clan. It only meant fishermen were in it for the long haul and weren’t going to change their minds about snatching them up anytime soon. The only consolation a lobster ever got was when somebody reached for it and the lobster was able to get the outstretched hand in its crusher claw.

   “We were at a party, his earlobe fell in the deep, someone reached in and grabbed it, it was a rock lobster!”

   When that happened, there was no quarter given. The lobster was going to sell its life dear. The hand was going to pay dear for sticking its nose where it didn’t belong. It should have stayed where it was before it ever came to the island. Why didn’t they stay in the Old World? What lobsters didn’t know was that fishermen came from the same place they came from way back when. They came from way down in the ocean. They weren’t ever going back. It was the New World. The sooner they got that through their thick heads the better.

   “Lots of bubble, lots of trouble, rock lobster.”

Excerpted from “Blood Lines” at http://www.redroadpei.com.

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

Surprise House

By Ed Staskus

   Everything happened when Eva and Nick got out of whack and the adventure rides burned down, although most of it happened before that. It started when Eva Giedraityte, who grew up one of four Lithuanian girls in the family in a two-bedroom house, married Nicolae Goga, a handsome Romanian man. She turned 18 the day of the wedding. He was 28. She made up her own mind about it. They had to elope, crossing the state line, finding a justice of the peace in a used-up roadside Indiana town.    

   Afterwards, the day after the fire, Eva and Sammy and Agnes walked to Euclid Avenue and flagged down a three-wheel bicycle peddling Louie Kaleal’s Checker Bar ice cream. When the skinny black man opened the box on the back of the bike white smoke from dry ice poured out. Agnes made sure she ate all of her ice cream while it was still cold in the sugar cone.

   Two years later on Christmas Eve, while Sammy and she stood on the lip of the front walk, below the light in the window of the upstairs front bedroom, she remembered the night when the Surprise House burned down, and how Sammy and Eva and she looked over the tops of the trees, watching the fire on the far lakeshore.

   They didn’t know what was going up in oily clouds of orange-gray smoke, finding out only the next morning when Eva showed them a front-page photograph about it in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

   Agnes snuck a peek at her mother getting out of the car across the street where she had parked and let them out, walking flatfooted on the icy driveway, and knocking on Anna MacAulay’s side door. She glanced back over her shoulder, waving them towards the house with black shutters and red front door where she and Sammy had grown up. Eva wanted them to talk Nick into giving her a divorce, even after he had said no more than a thousand times. She wanted to marry somebody else, an ex-military policeman from Rochester who was their father now, more-or-less.

   Eva’s grandparents from the old country didn’t approve of Nicolae from the beginning, even though he got medals for shooting Commie’s in Korea. That’s why Eva and Nick had to elope. Grandma and grandpa were stern and unforgiving. When they made tracks out of Lithuania during the war, not dying of bombs bullets hunger exhaustion, they made it. They never talked much about it, about the hardships they faced. They stayed stone-faced about it.

   When they were growing up, Agnes and Sammy didn’t see their grandparents for a long time. They had disowned Eva. Even when they were finally allowed, they hardly ever saw them because they still didn’t want to see their faithless daughter. It didn’t look like their new man was in the running either, even though he was Catholic instead of Lutheran.

   “Come on, bub,” Agnes said, starting up the walk.

   “Don’t call me bub,” Sammy said, slouching behind her with a long face.

   “I told you I don’t like you doing that,” she said, tugging him up hard by the back of the collar.

   “You’re a stick,” he grunted, pulling away.

   “What does that mean?”

   Agnes was upset when she thought of the Surprise House burning down, the signal flags on top of the roof on fire, and sick to her stomach when she remembered not knowing Euclid Beach Park hadn’t closed for the season when she was ten years old but closed for good. She found out the next summer, the summer before the fire, when school let out and Eva told them, and later said they would go to Williamsburg for a family vacation, instead.

   But they didn’t go to Williamsburg, so they never saw the reenactments she heard about from Sandy next door, who had gone there three times, just like they never went back to Euclid Beach Park. They went to Fredericksburg, instead, where Nick played golf at the country club while Sammy and she dragged after Eva sightseeing sunburned Civil War battlefields and staring up at the fancy plaster ceilings of the Kenmore Plantation.

   When Sammy complained the long four-day weekend that his head was hot and his neck hurt, Eva pointed to the plank floor in a dusty corner of the plantation house beneath a high window.

   “Lay down for a few minutes,” she said.

   When Agnes and she got back from the foursquare garden behind the house, he was curled up on his side asleep.

   “Did you know this was George Washington’s older sister’s house?” Agnes said as they walked to the car.

   “She wasn’t older,” he said.

   He ran after mom, reaching for her hand.

   The winter before Sammy was born her mother told Agnes she was making a little friend for her to play with. By the time summer came she was ready to tell her mother he wasn’t what she really wanted.

   “I can’t play with him. Can you take him back?”

   But Eva never did, even though Agnes asked again.

   “I’m hungry. Can’t we go to Williamsburg? I don’t like it here, eating dried strawberries all the time,” Sammy said.

   “Your father told you it’s too far,” Eva said.  

   Agnes remembered thinking, why are we in Fredericksburg? Everybody goes to Williamsburg, not Fredericksburg. Why didn’t we go there?

   Eva was born in Noorkoping, south of Stockholm, after her parents made their getaway from Lithuania. The Germans were invading and since there was Jewish blood in the family, and since everybody knew what the Nazis were doing to Jews, they stepped on the gas. Their grandfather was an import export up-and-comer and had a car. Their grandmother was a high school teacher. They left everything behind, drove to Estonia in the middle of the retreating Red Army, and from there found a boat to Sweden.

   When the family got to America after the war, they first lived in Pittsburgh, but it was too dirty. They had to keep all the windows in the house closed all the time. They moved to Cleveland the next year. Grandpa got a job in the Collinwood Rail Yards and worked days there the rest of his life. Grandma got a job at Stouffers making frozen food and worked nights there the rest of her life.

   One of them was always at home to watch the kids.

   Nick worked for Palmer Bearings, downtown on Prospect Avenue, on the backside of the angle before E. 46th St. He was vice-president of sales, which meant he went to all the steel factories in the Flats and to lunch most days on Short Vincent. When he wasn’t working, he was on golf courses on all three sides of town. He played afternoons with clients and weekends with clubhouse men and his private friends, but not with their neighbors. 

   He said they were different, the neighbors. Eva didn’t know what he meant. He never invited them over for dinner, either.

   By then Eva’s first-born sister was getting to be a big wig around town, but she never invited them over for picnics or holidays. She had grandpa and grandma blood in her. They had four children, all around Agnes and Sammy’s age. They hardly ever saw them. One day Eva went to their house to pick something up and she took Sammy and Agnes with her in their Mercedes convertible. It was a fun ride, the ragtop down. Their aunt made them wait in the garage, shuffling in the half-light, while she found whatever she was looking for. It turned out to be a Lithuanian relic she wanted Eva to deliver to an old lady who lived near them.

   When Agnes saw her at the door, Eva handing her the box, she thought, “She’s like a relic herself, why does she need more old stuff?”

   Eva got married on the first day she could, the year after she was Miss Boat Show of 1959. She and Nick met on the main stage of the Karamu House, auditioning for an amateur production of a play called “The Glass Menagerie.” They didn’t get the parts but got each other.

   She got hitched because her three sisters slept in the second bedroom while she slept on a daybed in the kitchen, because her mother was always telling her what to do, and because she was a free spirit. She had to get away from it all. She meant away from her stiff-necked mom and dad and her no bedroom and the old neighborhood, the church, and the community hall where she wasn’t happy anymore.

   Sammy and Agnes hardly knew their grandparents, although they knew a little, about how grandma’s sense of humor was top-secret, and grandpa was missing in action because he worked nights for the New York Central.

   Eva loved Nick the minute they met, and only waited until the day she was one minute older than she had to be to get married. She wanted her own bed in her own room. She wanted her own family.

   Nick’s parents weren’t alive anymore. His father was shot dead by robbers and his mother died after Eva put her foot down and she had to move out of their house to an old folk’s home. They were buried in Woodland Cemetery where Nick left plastic flowers every spring.

   The summer Sammy and Agnes started going to Euclid Beach Park, their grandparents went on vacation, and when no one else could watch their dog, Eva volunteered. She fed watered walked the dog every day. One day her older sister stopped by and when she opened the side door, the dog, surprised, ran out. Eva chased him down the street to Lakeshore Boulevard, but it was too late. A car hit the dog and he died. Her parents didn’t speak to her even more than they hadn’t before that for even longer.

   When they went to Euclid Beach Park, racing down Lakeshore Boulevard since Eva had a lead foot, she dropped them off, and told them exactly when she was going to be back. They were to wait for her just outside the main entrance gate arch, which looked like a gigantic letter H, so she could pick them up without having to get lost in the parking lot.

   The arch was underneath an old dusty giant pin oak tree. They knew it was an oak because acorns littered the grass, and knew it was a pin oak because it had pointy leaves. Sammy said it was five hundred years old, but what did he know?

   Admission into the amusement park was free. They just walked in, like magic. Eva always gave them enough money for fizzy drinks, popcorn balls, and two-dozen rides. She gave them bananas, too.

   “A banana is the best snack,” she said, pushing them down into their pockets with quarters dimes nickels.

   The first thing they did was run through the park to the Rocket Ships. Moving fast through the arch, they could see the tops of the cranes above the shade trees and hear the band organ that was beneath the second-floor platform.

   “Just in case we lose all our money, or something bad happens, this way at least I’ll know I was on my favorite ride,” Sammy always said.

   The Rocket Ships were three shiny aluminum spaceships that flew fifty feet up in the air over Lake Erie as they whirled around a twice high tower. Sammy said it was a great view and cooled you off on hot days, but Agnes wouldn’t ride the silver ships because she heard one of them had broken its support chains once and been hurled into the lake.

   None of the riders was ever seen alive again.

   After Sammy was finished flying around and cooling himself off, they rode the coasters together, starting with the Thriller. At first, Agnes was afraid of them, of the sickening hills and valleys, until the VW bus neighborhood hippie boys took them to the amusement park one afternoon.

   “It’s not what you think, it’s not the giant slide,” they said. “On the slide you can see everything ahead, everything that might happen, and that’s scary. On a roller coaster you never know what’s going to happen next. You can’t see that far ahead. It’s like a Zen pop. It’s the best ride because it’s always right now.”

   The Thriller was an out-and-back coaster with part of it running along Lake Shore Boulevard. They could see the tiny roofs of the cars on the road from the top of the first rise, just before they tipped plunging and screaming. The last hill was so steep they couldn’t help not standing up as they careened down, pressing against the lap bar.

   It was hair-raising because it might crash anytime. Everybody knew so. Coming into the station once the train behind came in too soon and rear-ended the other, and the cargo of boys and girls got banged up. The next day the platform was fixed, and it looked like nothing had happened. Sammy and Agnes found out they stored different shades of secret paint so that when they repaired the coasters and tracks, they could paint them so they all looked worn the same way, and no one could tell that anything bad had ever happened. 

    The more Agnes rode the coasters the more she liked them. They were like the peanut butter maker at Holiday Sands, twisting in the sky but bigger. She loved the sound of the wood trestles groaning and heaving on the turns. Even though she thought the riding might take her somewhere, it only ever took her back to where she started.

   The Racing Coasters were next to the Thriller. They were a double out-and-back, running beside the first leg of the Thriller, and there were two separate continuous tracks, the blue cars racing against the red cars. The ride ended on the other side of the station, everybody screaming their last go-go-go’s as it slowed down.

   The Flying Turns were the highest of the rides. They were scary loose nerve-wracking. The trains were freewheeling. “It’s a coaster without tracks!” Sammy liked to tell anyone who would listen, even though he had to sneak on, since he was smaller than the yardstick beside the gate.

   The cars weren’t attached to the track. The train careened in a bobsled trough, threatening to overturn at any second. There were only three toboggan-like cars for every train and only two rode in any one car, one directly in front of the other, white-knuckling the snap-of-the-whip turns.

   On “Nickel Days” they rode the Tea Cups between turns on the coasters, which were a four-table cup ride, like a Crazy Daisy. They spun in circles and looked like they would slam into each other any minute, but always missed by a sliver. Getting into a teacup one day Sammy found a plastic baggie tucked into the bench seat. A man with a ponytail came back before the ride started and asked if they had found anything.

   “It’s my happy weed,” he said when Sammy handed it to him.

   Walking around the park they munched on Humphrey’s Candy Kiss salt-water taffy and bought pictures of their favorite stars at the movie star photo booth. They yukked it up riding the black-light Laff-in-the-Dark and got soaked to the bone on Over the Falls.

   They steered clear of the Surprise House until the end of the day, not because it was bloodcurdling, which it was, but because of Laffing Sal, right outside the entrance, cackling her face off inside a glass case. Her hips gyrated like a hula hoop and she never stopped her nutty squeaky helter-skelter laughing talking.

   She had blazing red hair and shiny dead eyes in a head that jerked side-to-side back-and-forth. They tried to not look at her bloated painted face. It was too much.

   The front of the Surprise House was painted lime green and purple. It glowed lurid-like in the sun. The sign above the arch framing the doors was yellow with black letters. They had to give seven tickets to the bow-tied operator at the booth. He put the tickets on a conveyor belt that carried them to a chopper that shredded them.

   Once they walked in, through a fog cloud, right away around the corner was a screen door puzzle. Only one of all the doors was really a door and while they searched for it, all the doors banged open and shut so loud all around them it was baffling.

   When they found the right one, they walked into a narrow room full of rock formations and wild animals running up-and-down the rocks. The floor suddenly became a moving floor, zooming up and down and sliding side to side. The wall beside the moving floor was glass and people outside the Surprise House watched and laughed as they struggled to not fall down, much less walk.

   At the far end of the floor was a giant Grandfather Clock. When they got to it a spotted snake sprang at them from cuckoo doors beneath the clock face. Jumping away sideways from the ugly thing they had to run through a rolling barrel to get away.

   Most of the Surprise House was a maze of moving floors and stairways leading to elevated platforms, creaking doors, and dead ends. One room was so weirdly slanted sideways that just standing was all-in-all defying gravity.

   Pitch-black hallways led from one room to the next. Excruciating screams filled the air and loud knocking on the floors and ceiling overhead drummed in the darkness. There were siren whoops and unexpected clangs near and far. Blasts of air from secret holes hit them in the face coming around corners, and they never knew when a wind gust would blow up their shorts from the floor.

   At the end of one passageway were three porky sailor boys with tin whistles in their mouths. When they stepped up to them, they blew their whistles in their faces. When they stopped at a window to see a fireman with a hose, he whirled around and sprayed, except the spray hit the window, not them, jumping back in alarm. At a wishing well when they looked down into the water, they could see themselves as though they were looking at themselves from behind. 

   At the far end was a distortion mirror maze they had to find their way through to get out of the Surprise House. The curved mirrors stretched and squeezed them like screwball bubble gum.

   After all the strange moving floors and dark and noise it was a shock to step through the exit on the quiet side of Laffing Sal and suddenly stand blinking in the sunlight with people strolling by not knowing anything about what they had just been through. Sammy and Agnes were sad and excited at the same time, not sure what to do next.

   When the park announced closing time and everyone was on their way out an army of skunks came waddling up from the beach palisades, hard on their heels, eating the litter and discarded goodies. They threw banana peels at them and watched the skunks drag the peels away. They meowed like cats with sore throats.

   They didn’t know the last time they stumbled out of the Surprise House and tossed their leftovers away as they walked to the arch and Eva’s convertible that it was the last closing time at Euclid Beach Park. They didn’t know Eva was going to leave soon and not come back, either

   She and Nick started arguing when she started going to college. When she got a job, it got worse. After that it never got better.

   “Why do you need to work?” he asked her. “We have enough money. You don’t need to work. Stay home and take care of the family, for Christ’s sake.”

   But Eva was sick of asking him for money all the time, not just for groceries, but for everything, for her clothes, nice things for the house, and just everything. She got sick of him, too, of him always telling her what and what not to do.

   They argued more and more that winter, even in the morning at breakfast and over dinner and late at night when the Sammy and Agnes were supposed to be asleep. One night they had an argument in the living room because Eva had stayed out the day before until four in the morning.

   “We were at Reuben’s house,” she explained. “Nothing happened. I just lost track of time.”

   She meant Reuben Silver, who was the showman at Karamu House, where Nick and Eva had first met. He was a friendly man with a black beard and slicked-back thinning black hair. His wife wore purple turtlenecks and always took Agnes’s hand when she saw her backstage.

   “Nothing went on,” Eva said. “We went to the Playhouse and saw “Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds,” that’s all, and then we were at their house afterwards, talking.”

   “Gamma Rays? What are you talking about?” Nick went to the movies sometimes, but he didn’t go to theaters anymore. That was all over.

   He thought Eva had done something behind his back. He didn’t say what, although Sammy and Agnes could tell from his face it must have been wrong. When Eva went into the kitchen Nick followed her.

   She stepped into the hall and went up the stairs. They could hear them in their bedroom, screaming at each other in different languages. Suddenly there was a loud crash. Eva came running down the stairs out the front door and to Anna MacAulay’s house. Nick came downstairs after she was gone and told them everything was all right. He sat by the back window the rest of the night and stared into the ravine. He looked unhappy, like he had lost his golf clubs and fancy spiked shoes.

   When they went upstairs, they looked into their parent’s bedroom and saw a hole in the wall. A potato masher was lying on the floor. They found out later Nick had thrown it at Eva but missed. It lay on the floor until the next day when Eva came home. She cleaned up the dinner table, did the dishes, and put the potato masher away. Agnes liked that about her mom, keeping the cleanest house anyone ever saw. She vacuumed twice a day and they could eat off the floor if they wanted to.

   Their father said he was going to call Sears about fixing the bedroom wall, but he never did. He just left the hole to fester. Maybe it was like their marriage by then, not worth fixing.

   Anna MacAulay came over the next day when Nick was at work. She always just walked into the house. Nick hated that. She and Eva talked for a long time. When they were done talking Eva packed her bags.

   Looking up across the sidewalk at their house on Christmas Eve, Agnes thought she had probably known all along that her mother was going to leave her father, but back then surprises still upset her. Eva was going to marry the new man from Rochester, one way or another. There was no surprise about that. Agnes was going to do her best to help out.

   “If I can get my divorce,” Eva said, “we’ll have enough money to send you to Germany when you’re done with junior high.” Agnes hated her junior high and was sure she would hate high school. One of her aunts had gone to Vasario 16-osios, the Lithuanian high school in Germany.

   “You can stay summers with your grandfather’s sister in Diepholz,” her aunt Banga, Eva’s youngest sister, said. “She enjoys bringing food to the table. She’ll fatten you up a little. You can go to Italy with your friends. You’ll love it. When you come back, I’ll take you to Dainava.”

   She could go to summer camp the talk of the town, not a nobody, not like the first time, when they told her to leave. Agnes knew she would keep her word. She was her favorite aunt. She was her mother’s favorite sister. Banga means “Little Wave,” washing over you but not knocking you down.

   Going to school in Europe would be the kind of surprise Agnes could handle.

   “Come on, bub,” she said, taking Sammy’s hand when he reached for hers, and they started up the icy chancy sidewalk.

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