Behind the Mask

By Ed Staskus

   Most law enforcement agencies like the FBI and Interpol thought Dr. Mabuse was long gone and never gave him another thought. They were glad to see him go. They believed he died in 1933 in Dr. Baum’s asylum outside Berlin. They didn’t know that he had been controlling Dr. Baum’s mind for years before his death. Many years earlier, minutes before the minute he went to meet his maker, he had used his powers of body transference to become the asylum’s head honcho.

   Before Dr. Baum died he used those same powers and made a new Dr. Mabuse. The Reign of Crime didn’t miss a beat. It kept up the drumbeat until it crossed the Potomac River. When it did the snare drums played rat-a-tat-tat for his new soulmate, at least until Dr. Mabuse belatedly realized the face on the dollar was chump change. The criminal mastermind hated wasting his time with flat tires who spent all their time complaining and explaining. He was going to have to find somebody new, especially after the ill-fated attack on the U. S. Capital.  

   Dr. Mabuse was able to project his spirit into the bodies of other people. If things got too hot to handle, he could escape his host, leaving him alive but insane, and move on to a replacement. If need be, he could inhabit several people at once and whip up a crime wave. In the 1890s he became Professor James Moriarty, the master criminal running riot in London. “He was a man of good birth endowed by nature with a phenomenal mathematical faculty,” said Sherlock Holmes. “But he had tendencies of the most diabolical kind. A criminal strain ran in his blood. He was the Napoleon of crime. He was the organizer of half that was evil and of nearly all that was undetected in this great city.”

   Dr. Mabuse was sad to see the evil professor go when Sherlock Holmes bested him at the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. “If you are clever enough to bring destruction upon me, rest assured that I shall do as much to you,” the professor had warned the consulting detective. “I want to end the world, but I’ll settle for ending yours.” When push came to shove, however, at the end of their hand-to-hand grappling, it was Professor Moriarty who went over the side of the waterfall, and it was Sherlock Holmes who went back safe and sound to Baker Street.

   In 1920 the criminal mastermind briefly body transferred into Dr. Caligari, a hypnotist who employed sleepwalkers to commit murders. Dr. Mabuse was himself a master hypnotist. It didn’t work out, though. Dr. Caligari went off the deep end, got himself strapped into a straight jacket, and became an inmate in his own clinic.

   The next year Dr. Mabuse transferred into Al Capone, where he stayed for more than decade. He was pleased with the ruthless man’s ruthlessness. He especially liked the timing of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. He bid Scarface a fond farewell when he was convicted of tax evasion and sent to Alcatraz. He was later disappointed to hear that Public Enemy No. 1 had taken up playing a banjo with the prison band at their Sunday concerts for other inmates.

   He was looking for somebody new when all hell broke loose. He had to put his plans and ambitions on the back burner during World War Two. He didn’t have the firepower to fight good on that scale, no matter how much he admired the strong men of the Axis Powers. He thought Adolph Hitler was Wagnerian, even in his toothbrush mustache. He thought Mussolini’s chin wag was big and bold. In any  event, he knew when to lay low, and stayed close to home for the duration. When the war ended he got busy again.

   In 1947 Dr. Mabuse body transferred into Tony Accardo, who had become the Boss of the Chicago Outfit, where he stayed until the gangster’s death in 1992. The gang was the most successful crime organization in the country for many years. They realized profits of $1 billion annually and controlled Las Vegas. He never spent a minute in jail. He spread misfortune far and wide. Who says crime doesn’t pay? He lived in the lap of luxury.

   Dr. Mabuse didn’t care about cement overshoes, or the needle and the damage done. What he cared about was creating a Society of Crime. “When humanity, subjugated by the terror of crime, has been driven insane by fear and horror and when chaos has become supreme law, then the time will have come for the Empire of Crime,” he said. If there was anything he believed in, it was that. “I am everywhere and nowhere at once,” he liked to say. It was no childish boast. Everybody walks in the garden of good and evil, light and dark.

   When Dr. Mabuse first became aware of Donald Trump, all he knew about the man was that he was a notorious womanizer and much-rumored fraudster. He didn’t care about the womanizing, but he liked the rumors of shady dealing and crooked doings. He liked the gambling. He had himself once been known as “The Gambler.” He explained to an associate, “Nothing is interesting in the long run, except for one thing, which is gambling with the fates of people.”

   He liked Donald Trump’s braggadocio. Bragging about untruths was a stroke of genius. He was disappointed in himself for not having thought of it first. He went to New York City the summer of 2015 to hear the mogul’s presidential campaign announcement speech. He sat in the front row at Trump Tower. Hardly a soul noticed him.

   “Whoa, whoa, this is some group of people, thousands,” Donald Trump said. “It’s great to be here at Trump Tower. There’s never been no crowd like this. Some of the other candidates, they didn’t know the air-conditioning wasn’t working. They sweated like dogs. Our country is in serious trouble. When was the last time anybody saw us beating China in a trade deal? They kill us! I beat China all the time, all the time. When Mexico sends us its people, they’re rapists. They’re sending us not the right people.”

   “He is going to be silly putty in my hands,” Dr. Mabuse chortled, trying to keep ahead of the big wig’s stream-of-consciousness. “I can finally realize my dream, so long as he doesn’t run off the rails. He knows how to point the Finger of Blame, though. I will give him that.”

   “Hey, I know what I’m doing,” Donald Trump whined.

   “Just remember,” Dr. Mabuse said. “There is no love. There is only desire! There is no happiness. There is only the will to power!”

   “Damn right!” the presidential candidate exclaimed, making small fists with his small hands. His face got red. Flecks of spit landed on his tie. “Humanity’s soul must be shaken to its very depths, frightened by unfathomable and seemingly senseless crimes, crimes that benefit no one, whose only objective is to inspire fear and terror,” Dr. Mabuse said, his thumb on the button. There was a big thumb’s up from the would-be Caesar with the trifling hands. Dr. Mabuse wormed his way into Donald Trump on the spot.

   Dr. Mabuse never committed any crimes himself. He was more careful about that than even Donald Trump. The mastermind’s network of agents carried out his schemes. They never knew they were doing what he wanted them to do. “About to make a fuss, you swine?” he sneered whenever his henchmen screwed up. “What am I paying you for if you flounder around like schoolgirls?” He saw himself in Donald Trump, a real estate wheeler-dealer bred on greed and deceit, who portrayed himself being more sinned against than sinner. Dr. Mabuse liked the topsy turvy nature of the man. What he especially liked about the man was that no matter what, no faultfinding ever stuck to him. He huffed and he puffed, and everything blew away in a cloud of swamp gas.  

   Donald Trump believed he was a Nietzsche-like Superman who could rip open the social fabric of society. He was childish that way in his red tie and smug smile. He wore a MAGA baseball cap at his airport rallies, proclaiming his greatness, whipping crowds into a frenzy, dreaming up straw men and excoriating them. He was going to expose and drain the swamp, he said. His mind was a jack-in-the-box. Confusion and mayhem were the tools of his trade. He was opportunistic and unrepentant. He swallowed Delmonico steaks whole whenever he saw one on somebody’s plate. 

   The Donald’s Loyalty Street was notorious for being a one-way street. He had nothing on Dr. Mabuse, though. The doctor had the market cornered on my way or the highway. The mad mogul was always ready with Twitter in hand to destroy a man. Dr. Mabuse, on the other hand, was always ready with a Heckler & Koch. Insults are one thing. Hot lead is another thing.

  The test of Donald Trump’s reign came when COVID-19 arrived early in 2020. Dr. Mabuse could not have been more pleased. Epidemics and the fear they arouse were part of his game plan. The World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control were urging social distancing and wearing masks in public. Donald Trump waved them away. He had his own ideas. He made sure everybody knew what his ideas were.

   “I think the virus is going to be, it’s going to be fine,” he said in February. “It looks like by April, when it gets a little warmer, it’s going to disappear, like a miracle.” In March the United States had the most confirmed cases in the world. By the end of April POTUS was promoting Hydroxychloroquine as a cure-all. It treats malaria caused by mosquito bites. It does nothing for COVID-19 unless you’re a mosquito. After the national death toll passed 40,000 he recommended trying bleach and shining UV light on people’s insides. He had ideas up the wazoo. “I am the hardest working president in history,” he said.

   “This is going to go away without a vaccine,” he declared while pharmaceutical manufacturers worked around the clock to develop a vaccine. “We’re doing a great job on COVID response. We are in a good place.” Deaths passed 130,000 in May. “It is what it is,” he said. As the year ended, the death toll passed 330,000. 

   “I think we’re rounding the corner very much,” the Donald concluded. He thought he was rounding the corner on a second term, too, but it wasn’t to be. Joe Biden beat him at the polls in November. Dr. Mabuse was disappointed. The still-warm officeholder reassured him, saying he had some tricks up his sleeve. Dr. Mabuse agreed to be patient. When the trick popped its top he found himself more disappointed than ever.

   Early in January POTUS fomented a riot among his supporters to overturn the 2020 election results and put him back in power. “Stop the Steal” was their chant, although the lack of firepower they brought to bear was their downfall. The weapons they brought to the fray were stun guns, pepper spray, and  baseball bats. One of them wielded a flagpole as a club. They stormed Congress. There were Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, and Three Percenters.  QAnon was there in disguise. Jacob Chansley, a QAnon shaman, sported a bearskin headdress, horns, and red, white, and blue face paint. “I came with other patriots at Donald Trump’s request,” he said, heating up an old slice of pizza with a cigarette lighter.

   It made Dr. Mabuse sick. He had done consulting work for the Gestapo back in the day. He knew the feeble goings-on at the Capital weren’t going to accomplish anything. They should have burned it down like the Reichstag had been torched in 1933. Then they could have blamed it on the liberal elite and suspended everybody’s constitutional rights. They had taken the capital lawmen by surprise, but by the end of the day they were being chased away and rounded up. Those who weren’t immediately arrested had filmed their antics and posted them on social media. The cops went on social media and wrote down their names. All Dr. Mabuse could do was shake his head. How had he ever believed in the silver spoon boy? The boy had been born on third base and gone through life pretending he had hit a triple.

   Dr. Mabuse swallowed his pride and stuck with his namesake until the 2022 mid-term elections. They didn’t go well for his man. It looked like his kingmaker days were over. After the elections mis-fired he entertained Nick Fuentes, a white supremacist poobah, and Kanye West, a celebrity antisemite, at his mansion on the Florida coast. Dr. Mabuse like that. He floated a plan to rip up parts of the Constitution. Dr. Mabuse liked that, too. But his handpicked candidate for the Senate in a run-off Georgia election stumbled and fumbled. Dr Mabuse didn’t like that. His business corporation was convicted on all 17 counts in a tax-fraud case. Dr. Mabuse didn’t like that, either.

   “I know a lot of people in our party love the former president,” Senator Mitt Romney said in Washington, D. C. “But he is, if you will, the kiss of death for somebody who wants to win a general election. And at some point, we’ve got to move on and look for new leaders that will lead us to win.”

   When he heard that, Dr. Mabuse knew for sure it was time to move on. He hastily body transferred down the throat of a Camp Fire Jewish Laser Beam conspiracy theorist, on the assumption the congresswoman was so dim-witted she wouldn’t notice, biding his time until he found the right host. “Mein Gott, this woman has bad breath,” he muttered. When he became aware of Vladimir Putin, he realized his mistake of taking a flier on the Donald. He asked Tucker Carlson for advice, which the gab show host was happy to supply, for a price. The Russian Federation’s top dog was the man to cozy up to. Dr. Mabuse jumped on the first plane to Moscow. He was greeted with open arms. He was hoisted on to the back of a missile and immediately rocketed to the Kremlin.

   “What can I do for you?” Vladimir Putin asked.

   “It’s not what you can do for me but what I can do for you,” Dr. Mabuse replied. The tyrant slapped the master criminal on the back. They laughed heartily at the inside joke. They both hated idealistic rhetoric, especially from the 1960s. They both knew they were going to be the best of friends, and it was going to be bread, water, and barbed wire in Siberia for their enemies.

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

Advertisement

Snow Globe

By Ed Staskus

   When I was a kid growing up in Sudbury, Ontario it started snowing the last day of summer, snowed through Halloween Thanksgiving Christmas, and got down to business on New Year’s Eve. The next day barreling into the new year it snowed some more. It kept up its business until mid-April with a fire sale now and then in the month of May. All told between 100 and 140 inches of snow fell every winter during my childhood. 

   My father built an igloo in the back yard so that when we were snowballing, we would have someplace to shelter if a blizzard roared down from the Northwest Territories. My brother sister and I sat inside on crates looking out of windowless windows as heavy clouds lowered the boom on us. When Canadian Pacific trains hauling nickel rumbling past on top of the cliff face behind our house on Stanley Street wailed, we wailed right back. 

   Snow cover in Sudbury starts to get deep in December and remains deep through most of January to mid-March. By the end of April, the snow is usually gone. The city is free of snow every year in July and August. Extreme cold and winter storms kill more Canadians than floods, lightning, tornadoes, thunderstorms, and hurricanes combined.

   A year before I was born the Great Appalachian Storm struck. It was Thanksgiving weekend. It dumped nearly a foot of snow on my hometown every day for a couple of days. A blustery wind made sure everybody got their fair share. Ramsey Lake froze solid. My father-to-be went skating. He wasn’t able to get to the INCO mine where he worked as a blaster, but he was able to get to the lake with his ice skates. When the snowfall was finally cleared away, it was December.

   After we moved to Cleveland, I sent a postcard to my friends back on Stanley Street saying Americans were snowflakes when it came to snow. “They complain about a couple of inches. Most days there isn’t nearly enough of it to make a decent snow angel.” It wasn’t exactly true, but it was true enough. In general, snowfall in northern Ohio is about 50 inches a year. 

   Twenty years later I had to eat my words. The Blizzard of 1978 started in Indiana near the end of January. The Hoosiers might have kept it to themselves, but they didn’t. The day after the storm buried their state it buried Ohio. More than a foot of snow fell in one day, on top of a foot-and-a-half that was already on the ground. The wind huffed and puffed. Snowdrifts buried cars trucks homes businesses. The wind chill made it feel like 60 below zero. East Ohio Gas pumped record amounts of natural gas to needy furnaces.

   My parents were living in Sagamore Hills. When the weather cleared, they called me about the snow on the roof of their ranch-style house. My father was afraid the snow load would damage the roof, maybe even make it cave in. I thought he was exaggerating, until my brother and I climbed a ladder to see for ourselves. The roofline was long and low-pitched. We found ourselves thigh-deep in heavy snow. We spent the rest of the day slowly shoveling and pushing it over the side of the eaves.

   “My dad made me shovel a path out the back door for our dachshund so he wouldn’t do his business in the house,” Joe Bennett said. “I got about two feet out and called it a day.” The storm was characterized by an unusual merger of two weather systems. Warm moist air slammed into bitter ice-cold air. “The result was a very strong area of low pressure that reached its lowest pressure over Cleveland,” the National Weather Service reported. That day’s barometric pressure reading of 28.28 inches is the lowest pressure ever recorded in Ohio and one of the lowest readings in American history.

   By the end of the month, a few days later, Cleveland recorded 43 inches of snowfall for the month, which is still a record. It was called “The Storm of the Century” or simply “The Superbomb.” The wind averaged nearly 70 MPH the day it started. Gusts hit 120 MPH-and-more on Lake Erie. Ore boats coming from Lake Superior hunkered down, and crewmen stayed close to oil heaters. “I was a deckhand on a lake freighter,” said August Zeizing. “We were stuck in ice about 9 miles off Pelee Point when the storm hit. We had steady 111 MPH winds gusting up to 127 MPH for about six hours. Our orders were to stay below decks and keep our movements to a minimum.” 

   More than 50 people died, trapped in wayward cars and unheated houses. A woman froze to death walking her dog. There was more than $100 million in property damage, what many said was a conservative estimate. The governor called up more than 5,000 National Guardsmen, who struggled to reach the cities they were assigned to. The Guardsmen used bulldozers and tanks outfitted with plows to clear roads streets highways and rescue the stranded.

   “My dad and I drove down I-71, which was closed, to get to our farm in Loudonville,” said Paula Boehm.  “We had chains on all four tires of our Buick station wagon.” The only other traffic was National Guard M113 personnel carriers. “We made it.” Car owners stuck homemade signs saying “Car Here” on top of mounds of snow. It alerted snowplow drivers to what was under the pile of white. Motorists abandoned their cars and pick-ups helter-skelter. It was a three-dog Siberian day night and the next day. In some places it went on and on, often in the dark, as power wires were blown loose or broke off poles from the weight of ice.

   I was in Akron the morning the storm struck. I had no idea a blizzard was on the way. The forecast the night before didn’t sound awful. “Rain tonight, possibly mixed with snow at times. Windy and cold Thursday with snow flurries.” I was visiting a friend, had stayed overnight, and was driving my sister’s 1970 Ford Maverick. I needed to get the car back to her that day.

   National Weather Service Meteorologist Bob Alto got to work at six in the morning Thursday at the Akron-Canton Airport. He was able to go home late Sunday night. “Nobody could get in and nobody could get out,” he said. “The roads were all closed. There were three of us and we had to ride it out there at the airport.” Cessna and Beechcraft two-seaters were flipped over like paper airplanes. Meteorologists didn’t call the storm a “Superbomb.” They called it a “Bombogenesis.” It was their term for an area of low pressure that “bombs out.” 

   I got up early and got going. When I did the temperature started falling fast. By the time I got coffee and an egg sandwich and got on I-77 to go home the temperature had fallen from the mid-30s to the mid-teens. It was a fast cold snap. The rain turned to ice and snow, snowing like there was no tomorrow. I couldn’t see any lane markers and could barely see the road. The Maverick was a rear wheel-drive with no traction to speak of. I kept it at a steady 25 MPH unless I slowed down, which I did plenty of. Jack-knifed tractor trailers littered the shoulders. One truck and its trailer were upside down. There were spun-out in the lurch cars everywhere. When I passed the Ohio Turnpike, I saw it was closed, the first time that had ever happened in the history of the turnpike. I found out later that I-77 was the only highway that didn’t close. 

   Marge Barner’s husband-to-be drove a yellow bus full of kids to school as the blizzard started. He dropped them off. Not long afterwards he got a call saying the school was closing. He went back and that afternoon started plowing parking lots. “He was out for 13 hours in an open tractor and ran out of gas several times. He didn’t have a radio to call for help,” Marge said. He had to help himself, walking with a can to gas stations. “He lost feeling in his arms when he got home, which finally came back as he warmed up. His ears were frostbitten.”

   I kept on slow poking north. I had plenty of gas, having filled up the tank the night before after noticing I was driving on fumes. The car radio was no help, broadcasting the same bad news over and over. The car heater wheezed and groaned but stayed alive. Driving in the swirling snow hour after hour straining to see and stay on the road was nerve-wracking. I kept my gloves on and my eyes glued to the road.

   “I was 7 years-old and we lived in a drafty, old farmhouse in Fremont,” said Susan Beech. “The power went out, so the furnace went out, but our oven ran on propane, so it still worked. My dad set up cots and sleeping bags in our kitchen, and stapled blankets over the doorways. We ran the stove around the clock, leaving the oven open so the heat filled the room. It was like winter camping in the kitchen.” 

   After I passed another overturned truck I thought, if that happens dead center on the road somewhere in front of me, I am a goner. I am going to end up in a miles long traffic jam. ODOT’s plows won’t be able to get around the mess. Wreckers won’t be able to get to the wreck to move it out of the way. We will all be at a standstill and run out of gas and either freeze or starve to death. I saved half my egg sandwich for later. I checked my gas gauge and was relieved to see I still had more than half a tank.

   “I was a teenager living four miles from the nearest town during the 1978 Blizzard,” said John Knueve. “We lost power the first night and had to rely on a small generator, which could power just one appliance at a time.” They fed the generator drops of gasoline at a time. “A two-lane state highway ran in front of our house, but even when they finally managed to clear it, an 18-wheeler would pass by, and we’d never see it for the thirteen fourteen-foot drifts which encircled the entire house. We were trapped for most of a week before my brother-in-law made it down with his tractor to break through.” In some parts of the state massive snowdrifts as high as 25 feet buried dog houses sheds garages and two-story homes.

   I got close to Cleveland before nightfall. I-90 looked closed, so I took St. Clair Ave. to Lakeshore Blvd. to North Collinwood. I lived two blocks from Lake Erie. When I pulled into my driveway the Maverick got stuck immediately. I didn’t try digging it out. My sister would have to wait for her car. Spring was only a few months away, anyway.

   It was even windier and colder in our neighborhood on the lakeshore than the rest of the world. The furnace was trying hard, but the house stayed cold no matter how hard it tried. I wrapped myself up in a comforter. The windows rattled and the house shook whenever a hurricane-like blast of wind hit it. 

   “Oh, that was awful,” Mary Jo Anderson said about the howl of the wind. “Nobody slept much that night. We had never heard that kind of noise. You know, how your house shakes and squeals.” Her husband, Rich, set off in his Ford Pinto for work that morning. The Pinto wasn’t the ugliest and most unsafe car ever made, but it was a close call. The seats made for sore asses after an hour-or-so and God forbid getting rear-ended. The gas tank had a design flaw that made it prone to exploding on impact. Two years earlier news had broken that Ford’s company policy was that it was cheaper to pay the lawsuits of the car’s fire victims rather than re-design the problem. After that news flash there was hell to pay.

   Rich was about a mile up the road in his Pinto when he was brought to a standstill. He couldn’t drive any farther because the wind was ferocious. The car was a lightweight, barely breaking two thousand pounds. “The ice was on the window of his car, and he was trying to reach his arm out and scrape the ice off,” Mary said. “He opened the car door, and the wind almost ripped it off. The car spun around in a circle. The door wouldn’t close. It was broken. He had to hold it shut while he drove home with the other hand. He was happy to make it back.”

   That night I watched the WEWS Channel 5 news show. There wasn’t a lot of footage of the storm even though a film crew had gone searching for news on downtown streets. “It was impossible to see. Wind howling. Bitter, bitter cold,” Don Webster the weatherman said. “They couldn’t shoot anything because of the cold and wind. I couldn’t even talk because I got so cold. I couldn’t say anything.” When I changed the station to WJW Chanel 8, Dick Goddard called it a “white hurricane.”

   Susan Downing-Nevling drove a Chevy Chevette to work. It was a basic reliable car. Her boss was mad because she hadn’t made it in to work on Thursday, even though she told him people couldn’t get to their cars because the wind was knocking them down as they tried to walk to their vehicles. “So, on Friday I got up, dug my Chevette out, and drove to work on W. 44th St. and Lorain from Middleburg Hts. I didn’t stop once but it still took me four hours. When I got to work, it was closed. My boss was stuck at home. A couple of others who made it like me and I went to the Ohio City Tavern for the afternoon.” They cheered the bartender who had walked over from up the street.

   When the storm moved on that weekend it moved northeast, hooked up with a nor’easter, and walloped New England, as well as New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Instead of “Superbomb” it was called “Storm Larry” up and down the east coast. Philadelphia got 16 inches of snow, Atlantic City got 20 inches, and Boston was buried by 27 inches. The ice snow wind killed almost 100 people and injured about 4,500. It caused more than $500 million in damage.

   Once it was all over local stores started selling t-shirts that read, “I Survived the ’78 Blizzard!” I didn’t buy one. What would have been the point? It wasn’t going to keep me warm and dry if the blizzard came back. I bought a puff coat. I was hedging my bets. The Blizzard of 1978 might have been “The Storm of the Century,” but there were 22 more years left in the century. I wasn’t expecting to see it’s like anytime soon, but you never can tell. If you want to see the sunshine you have to weather the storm.

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

Stand and Deliver

By Ed Staskus

   It was supposed to be a ten-thousand-dollar door, but I got lucky, and got in and out for two hundred fifty dollars. I never went back. One shake down is more than enough. There weren’t that many apples on my apple tree that I could afford to give bushels of them away for nothing in return.

   When I first started going to Toronto by myself in my late teens it was by Greyhound. I rode the bus to Buffalo and walked across the Peace Bridge. When I got to the Canadian side, the border police asked me where I was from and for identification. I showed them my driver’s license. They waved me through. When I went home I did the same thing. The American border police waved me through.

   After I got married my wife and I often went to Canada, to Wasaga Beach, to Penetanguishene, to Nova Scotia, and finally to Prince Edward Island, which we liked and made a habit of returning to. We did, at least, until a band of towelheads went nuts and flew jetliners into the Twin Towers. We had just gotten back from PEI a few days earlier. After that, crossing borders slowly but surely became more officious. We found out soon enough we would need passports to get into Canada and back into the USA.

   My wife applied for and got her passport in five weeks. I didn’t apply at first because I wasn’t sure of my citizenship status. I had never been sure, no matter how sure I sounded at the border, asserting I was an American citizen. My parents grew up in Lithuania, fled the Red Army to Germany in 1944, emigrated to Canada after the war, and finally settled in the United States in the late 1950s. They were naturalized in the mid-1960s. I knew my brother and sister were citizens, but I wasn’t certain where I stood because of my age when my parents became citizens.

   We spent a few summers vacationing on the Eastern Seaboard, but when we decided Prince Edward Island was the place to be, I resolved to settle my body politic issue. Push came to shove, and I asked one of our ethnic community’s poohbahs if she knew anybody she could recommend to help me out. She gave me a tip about a friend of hers who was a lawyer. The lawyer had been in the import export business for more than 30 years and was herself an immigrant. 

   I made an appointment and went to her office. The lobby was sizable and almost full, full of colored people sitting and waiting their turn. Most of them looked like they were from Asia or the Indian sub-continent. The citizenship business seemed to be booming. When my number was called I was shown into the boss lawyer’s office. That was my first surprise. I had not thought I would be talking to the main man, even though he was a woman. 

   She was round with a round face. Her lips were dolled up. She looked at the paperwork and documentation I had brought with me and said, “I will be your helping hand.” She shot me a cherry bomb smile. “All right,” I said. I thought she would be working on my behalf going forward. I found out she was working me over.

   She told me I had a problem with my citizenship and might be deported at any time. She said she wanted to get started right away. She explained the initial consultation fee was going to be $250.00 and the balance to resolve my problem was going to be $9,750.00. 

   “This is going to cost me ten thousand dollars?” I asked, incredulous. It was my second surprise. It was an unwelcome bombshell. Back in the day highwaymen stuck a gun in your back and hissed, “Stand and deliver, your money, or else.” Nowadays they stick a fountain pen in your back.

   “Yes,” she said mildly and ushered me out. I had been in her office for five minutes. It took me fifteen minutes to drive home, where I mulled over the problem of finding ten thousand dollars. It was winter and we weren’t planning on going back to Canada until the next summer, so there was no rush on that account. But what she had said about being deported was worrisome. I had fond memories of my hometown of Sudbury, Ontario, but being uprooted was not what I wanted to happen. We had bought a house which we were renovating, and I had both full-time and part-time jobs. We had a mortgage and friends and family in town. We had a cat who would miss roaming the backyards of our neighborhood.

   I went back to the law office the next month. I was introduced to an associate and escorted to a small room in the back. A table and two chairs were in the room. I sat in one of the chairs and the young associate sat in the other chair. He handed me a contract for the work they were going to be doing. I handed him the same paperwork and documentation I had shown the top dog. I started to peruse the contract. After a few minutes he looked up, cleared his throat, and said, “I don’t exactly know why you’re here. According to what I am looking at, you already are a citizen.” It was my third surprise.

   “Are you sure?” I asked.

   “I think so, but I better doublecheck with my boss,” he said, backtracking, but the cat was out of the bag.

   “All right,” I said, and as soon as I said it I wanted to be gone.

   “I can’t stay,” I said white lying and standing up. “I’ve got to get to work. Let me know what you find out and in the meantime I will read this contract.” We shook hands, I gave him a cold smile, got into my car, and drove away.

   The next day I drove to a post office where I knew they processed passport applications. When the line in front of me thinned out and I found myself at the counter, I said I wanted to apply for a passport. A middle-aged woman in a drab uniform walked up from the back and motioned me towards a chair and a camera. She handed me an application and told me how much applying for a passport was going to cost. It was ninety-seven dollars.

   “All right, but would you look at my birth certificate and this other paper work first. I was born in Canada and I’m not sure I am actually an American citizen.” She spread everything out on the counter and looked it over. It didn’t take her long. Five minutes into it she said, “Sure, honey, you’re a citizen, no doubt about it.”

   I filled out the application, got my picture taken, paid the fee, and thanked the woman for her help. I got my passport in the mail about a month and a half later. The passport had my stone-faced picture in it and was good for ten years. I could go anywhere in the world with it.

   A few weeks later the associate called. He wanted to know if I had read the contract and was ready to go ahead with it. “No, I am going to pass on that.” I had thrown the contract away long since.

   “That could mean a lot of problems for you,” he cautioned. “The State Department is cracking down, what with all this terrorism.”

   “I don’t think so,” I said, and hung up when he kept it up.

   Somebody else from the firm called me the following week. I told her goodbye the minute she started into her song and dance. After that the phone calls stopped. We went to Prince Edward Island for two weeks the following June. Except for the long lines at the border crossings, everything went off without a hitch. The Canadian border police said, “Welcome to Canada.” The American border police said, “Welcome back to the United States.”

   My wife and I bumped into the poohbah at a get together a few years later. I mentioned the immigration attorney. My wife tugged on my sleeve. I told my tipster how her legal beagle had tried to pull the wool over my eyes. I told her about getting my passport with no run around. I told her ten grand was hard cash and how fortunate it was I hadn’t lost more than the consultation fee, never mind the dodge that made me cross. Most of the time the only way to beat a lawyer is to die with nothing.

   “I know her well, she’s a friend, and she would never do anything like that,” the woman explained and complained. She might as well have called me a liar. “She’s nationally known for helping immigrants. She’s helped thousands of people and is one of our city’s leading citizens. Don’t say bad things about her.”

   She wasn’t somebody who listened to anything I ever said, so I didn’t argue. What would have been the point? It was a swinging door, in one ear and out the other. It was her way of letting you know you didn’t matter much. After that, though, I never took anything she said at face value, just how I learned to never take what any lawyer ever says at face value.

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

From Here to Someday

By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “Mind your own business,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “Especially the Jews,” I said.

   “Who was right?”  

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

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

   “What is the point?”

   “Just trying to touch on something metaphysical here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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.”

On the Working Side of the Rail

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 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.”

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.”