By Ed Staskus
My father Abe first spied my mother Olive through his second-floor window at the Majestic Hotel. She was standing waiting on the corner of Central Avenue and East 55th Street for the CTS streetcar. It was a sunny summer day. My mother did pantry work and was on her way home.
He spotted her from behind his venetian blind.
“I had just gotten back from Woodland Cemetery, where I did patrols on foot, whenever my sergeant thought there was something I did he didn’t care for. She was a sight for sore eyes and sore feet. I put my Colt Positive away in the dresser drawer and stepped outside.”
During the winter the Majestic allowed my father, who was a policeman, to have a small room on the East 55th Street side of the hotel. His room door was steps from a secret door beside the drug store, in case he saw anything bad happening. After a few years he kept the room in the summer, too.
The Majestic was called the apartments, but it was a hotel. My father started going there when he was in his early 20s and the jazz club off the lobby was called the Furnace Room.
“Meeting your mother was a lot like jazz, it was improvised,” he said. “That was it, the way to go, go ahead and see what happens.”
The club had dancers and crooners and bands that came through on tour. The restaurant that served food all around was Mammy Louise’s Barbeque Café. Their house specialty was braised beef short ribs in gravy. The ribs were like soul music in your mouth.
My father was from a small town in the Florida Panhandle and never thought twice about eating chicken fried steak, candied sweet potatoes, and cheesy grits. He ran it off when he was a boy. He walked it off when he was a cop.
“We went to Mammy Louise’s for dinner and then next door to the club,” he said. “The International Sweethearts of Rhythm were there the night we stepped out. They were an all-girl all-color orchestra. ‘Slick Chicks and Hot Licks’ was what it said on the billboard outside the doors. They raised the roof and we danced up a storm.”
The Furnace Room later became Elmer Waxman’s Ubangi Club, but when my father first took me there in the 1950s, when I was twelve years-old, it was the Rose Room Cocktail Lounge. Before the Hough race riots and Glenville shoot-outs in the 1960s, even though it was already a colored neighborhood, the audiences were every which way. Judges and politicians from downtown brought their wives to the Rose Room. It was the black and tan saloon scene.
But by then no one danced to jazz anymore. That had already changed. It wasn’t the jazz changing, it was the music and dancers changing.
When my father applied to the Cleveland Police Department after high school the merit system broke down, like it always did, because he was a Negro, a man of color. They said he had poor eyesight, never mind he didn’t start wearing glasses until he was in his 70s, almost fifty years after joining the force.
He had to ask for help from his ward leader to have the rejection overruled.
He hunted moonshiners in the 1930s, which was dangerous work, before they gave him his own beat. He had to prove himself. He said you could always tell whether the moonshine was good if you set it on fire and blue flames came up.
“That’s when you knew it wouldn’t make you go blind.”
There weren’t many men of color on the police force, and most of those who made the department had to get certification from outside doctors to overrule the official exam of the police doctor. Jim Crow was sneakier smooth in the North than it was in the South. They kept separate eligibility lists, so that when one Negro died, resigned, or retired, his replacement was always another Negro patrolman.
Duke Jenkins and his group was the house band at the Majestic. They were the first jazz band I ever heard. On Tuesday nights there was Cha Cha Night and on Thursdays there was Mambo Night. But the big attraction was the early morning Blue Monday Parties.
“People lined up to get into those jam sessions. Sometimes you couldn’t even get a seat. All the players, the girl singers, the quartets, entertainers like Erroll Garner and Arthur Prysock and Nancy Wilson, they’d be there performing. People went crazy when Nancy Wilson was there because she was so good.”
I stayed overnight with my father in his hotel room on Sundays and went to the Blue Monday parties with him when they started, which was at five in the morning. Afterwards he drove me to school. If we stayed too late at the jam session he would sometimes call and ask for a squad car to take me, with its lights flashing and siren whooping.
There were only a handful of Cleveland hotels listed in the Negro Travelers’ Green Book. The Majestic was one of them. All the rooms had two beds and a radio in every room, although my father had only one bed. He had the other one removed so we could have a table to eat at on Sunday nights. I slept on a folding rollaway he kept in the closet.
When I was a baby my mother kept my playpen next to the upright piano in the front room. It was so she would know where I was. As long as she heard me picking out notes she knew I wasn’t getting into anything else. When I was in third grade, I found out they had music classes at my school. I was already eight years-old.
“I’d like to do that,” I told my mother. I lived with her and my grandmother, and it was a surprise to both of them, although it shouldn’t have been. That’s just how things were. That’s just what my place was.
There were classroom piano lessons at the Miles Standish School. I learned to play a Chopin waltz beneath a painting of Miles Standish, after who the school was named. He was a soldier for the Pilgrims when they came to the New World. In the painting he wore an ascot and armor and carried a matchlock rifle.
I played the piano and organ because my grandmother wanted me to. She was the matriarch of the family and conservative about most things. She didn’t believe in bell house music. She was strict about church music, too, so she had a man, who was the organist at the New Liberty Hill Baptist Church, come to our house and give me lessons. When I was older, I played there myself.
Paul John was the man who came to our house. He worked in the steel mills in the Flats. He knew my grandfather, who sang in the male chorus in the mill that John led on a cheap five rank pipe organ.
“Mr. John could play Rachmaninoff, and all, but he was ahead of his time, so he gave lessons,” my father said. “That was the incentive for him when he came to your mother’s house and got you started.”
I played sacred music for the rest my life and jazz music for the rest of the other part of my life. The sacred music came from my mother and grandmother, and the jazz music came from my father, who took me to the Majestic and later to uptown clubs like the Tijuana Café Society.
“When the Four Sounds came to audition at the Tijuana, they were just re-opening, and they didn’t even have a piano on the stage. It was in the corner. I helped them lift it up on the stage to do the audition.” My father was a big strong man. “They had been the Four Sounds until they asked me to talk to the saxophone player one night. He had a habit of carrying a gun in his horn case. When he said he didn’t want to leave it behind, they left out the saxophone and became the Three Sounds.”
Some days you could hear a single trumpet through an open window down the street from Doan Square, where all the action was, a jazz musician reading their lines in the afternoon. Hotels weren’t open to musicians of color, so they stayed in rooming houses.
You couldn’t even go to the Five and Dime store and have a quiet lunch. My grandmother went to buy a hat one Saturday and when she tried it on, she had to buy it. She had put it on her head to see if it fit and when a salesclerk saw her, she had to pay for it. My grandfather was a mulatto from Cuba. Whenever a white man came to our house, selling something, or on some errand, my grandfather was polite, but as soon as the white man left the porch and was out of earshot he would spit and call him a cracker.
We lived on Pierpont Avenue in Glenville, what we called the Gold Coast, before Glenville fell apart and the Gold Coast moved to Lakewood in the 1960s. My grandmother died in 1968 and my mother sold the house, moving to Lost Nation Road in the suburbs. By then I had finished my studies at the Boston Conservatory and was playing the big organ at the Christian Science Mother Church. In the summer I played at jazz clubs on Martha’s Vineyard and in Provincetown.
When I was a boy Glenville was crowded with immigrants, people of color, and Jews. There were orthodox Jews all over the place. I thought they were Santa Claus’s in black suits. There were churches, too, like the Cory United Methodist Church, which had been the Park Synagogue, and the Abyssinia Baptist Church, which had also been a synagogue. There were clubs, movie houses, and department stores.
There were little restaurants run by the Jews. There were no bad sandwich shops in Glenville, but my father always ate at Pirkle’s Deli. He said if he ever spied a Jewish woman from his room at the Majestic he was going to go after her so he could get up Sunday mornings and stroll out to the deli with her.
“Those folks never invented anything so fine as deli food,” he said. “The corned beef at Pirkle’s is as tender as a young lady’s leg.”
My father and mother were never together. There were two different families, his and ours. They had their room at the Majestic some nights, but in later years she felt he betrayed her. My father said he wanted to marry my mother, and she thought he was going to divorce his wife, but he didn’t do that. Afterwards she had a hard time seeing my father in the light of a soul mate, or the light of any kind of mate.
“Your mother shot a hole in my soul,” he said.
I lived with my mother and after she married another man, she bore two more boys who were my brothers because we shared her. My father came to our house many times, often in his police car, which was exciting. He parked in the driveway. It wasn’t as if we were separated from him.
He was one of the first colored farmers in Twinsburg, where he kept turkeys and pigs. Every Monday in November we got a turkey. He had a smokehouse, too, and when it came time to slaughter some of the fattening pigs, he would do that himself. He always castrated the male pigs a month beforehand. We would have bacon and ham all winter and into the spring.
My father picked me up Friday and Saturday nights to help him forage for feed. We drove up and down Euclid Avenue, on the south side of Glenville, from E. 110th to E. 95th Street, picking up refuse from the barrels and dumpsters behind the clubs and restaurants on the strip. He would stick his hands into the slop and feel around the mash for metal and glass before filling up our barrels.
“Pigs will eat anything you give them. They can be stink and filth, even though their sausages smell great. I would rather cut myself than injure my animals.”
When our barrels were full, we drove the pick-up to his farm. The pigs would hear the truck coming and know it was time to eat. They started doing what pigs do, getting feisty and greedy. He dumped the food in the trough and they would go at it. That was why, knowing how they behaved, he picked through the grease fruit vegetables meat leftovers, because they would have cut themselves, biting into anything.
I stopped gleaning garbage when my mother told me I had to be careful about my hands. She didn’t want me hurting them, hurting myself.
I learned more sacred music and fewer blue notes after my mother put me in Empire High. Miss Bishop, my music teacher, had been there since the school opened. She had a nice hourglass figure and the only thing that gave her away was that she wore old lady comforters. But she was spry and walked fast. She could catch bad boys anytime.
She was an old maid because she had become a teacher and couldn’t marry, and by the time that idea changed it was too late for her. One afternoon I found a dedicatory book for Empire, which was built in 1915. I took it to Miss Bishop’s office
“I see your name in this book, and your picture.”
She looked at me.
“Is this you?”
“But, you’re old.”
I’m sure she wanted to pinch me.
But she didn’t put any mind to what I said. She made sure I practiced my piano and later helped me get a scholarship to Ohio University, where I studied the organ. After that I never lived in Glenville again.
I lived in Chicago, New York, and Boston. I learned to live alone, like Duke Ellington, who said music was a mistress. I lived in my own world, alone and detached, so I could practice. I had friends who kept me in tune, but on Saturday nights I didn’t go anywhere. I had to be ready for Sunday services. That kept me out of mischief. I tried mischief a few times, but it’s bad when you’re not feeling well in a church setting. I decided I had to do it my way.
I didn’t see much of my mother, who had moved to California to live with my brother, a minister, and my father only when I was passing through the Midwest on my way to Chicago or St. Louis. We visited and had lunch at one or another deli in Cleveland Heights, where all the Jews had moved. Pirkle’s Deli had burned down. Our neighborhood was gone.
My father was an industrious man his whole life. When he retired and his wife passed on, he bought the last commercial building, next to Whitmore’s Bar-B-Q, on Kinsman Road before it snakes up into Shaker Heights. It was a barbershop and beauty salon and he lived upstairs in a one-bedroom apartment. He could have lived in a house, since he owned five of them, but he didn’t want to.
“I don’t want to get too comfortable because I may not be here long.”
His apartment had one bedroom and one bathroom. It had one half-empty closet. It looked like no one lived there.
He was industrious but became a careless stingy custodian of his properties over the years. He would patchwork instead of getting things done the best way, so it all slowly deteriorated. He wasn’t willing to pay the price to get things done the right way. When you have that mindset, you end up losing more money than you spend.
He lost his eyesight while he was visiting my brother in Texas. He stepped on a splinter and after a few days his big toe got infected. He had surgery for it, but in the end, they had to amputate the toe. Afterwards he lost feeling in his leg. While he was still in the hospital convalescing, he woke up one morning and had gone blind. He stayed in Texas for a month, and when he came back, he moved in with my sister on his family side, who took care of him.
He never recovered his eyesight, which was hard for him because he had always lived by his senses. The biggest problem, though, were the visions and nightmares he suffered, which were part of the side effects from medication he was taking. He would have them at night. He heard things and saw craziness and wasn’t able to sleep.
I never got my father and mother together again, even when he was dying, when I was staying with him, playing old jazz records together. He listened to music all day towards the end. He stopped eating, drinking cold lemonade, instead. The last time my mother visited me my father was near the darkness. I took her around to many of the places in Glenville that weren’t there anymore, and tried to get her to go to the facility on Rockside Road where my father was. She fought me all the way, and in the end wouldn’t go.
She just didn’t want anything to do with him.
Olive and Abe did what they had to do. I was just a cameo on that team of theirs. When my father died there was nothing left to do in Glenville. I said goodbye to my mother and moved back to Boston for good.
In the summer I play jazz and popular tunes in clubs on Cape Cod. On Sunday mornings when the weather is good, I brew a pot of strong coffee and microwave a plate of spiced hot cross buns. On the balcony on the bay sitting in the warmth and light of the rising sun I look for what is behind the brightness, on the other side of it, the blue note side of the Majestic.
A version of this story appeared in Literary Heist.
Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com. Click “Follow” on a site to get its monthly feature in your in-box.