On Thin Ice

By Ed Staskus

   When I lived on the west end of North Collinwood there wasn’t anything unusual about a dog barking. What was unusual was barking that never stopped. The dog was an American pit bull chained all day long to a stake in a front yard two houses down. He was a full-grown pooch, tan with a white chest. At night he vanished and the street was quiet.

   Nobody liked the barking, but nobody worked up the courage to say anything.

   I walked my brother’s dog every day and night and avoided the barker, going the other way. There was no point to messing with a bad attitude. One day I was absent-minded and there we suddenly were in front of him. He was so surprised he didn’t make a peep. We crossed the street. He started barking up a storm. Before I knew it, he jerked lunged and pulled the stake out of the ground. In an instant he was running across the street at us snarling and raging, the metal stake on the chain kicking up sparks behind him on the concrete.

   The west end of North Collinwood butts up to Bratenahl, which is its own posh enclave six miles from downtown Cleveland. The two neighborhoods couldn’t be more different. In the mid-1970s Bratenahl’s median household income was wondrous and North Collinwood’s median household income was lousy. 

   A thousand-some people live in Bratenahl within one shady square mile. Twenty thousand-some people live in North Collinwood within three close-knit ethnic square miles. A two-bedroom two-bath unit in the Bratenahl Towers nowadays sells for between 300 and 400 hundred thousand dollars. There is a $1,000 monthly maintenance fee. A three-bedroom three-bath house in North Collinwood sells for a hundred thousand and change. Maintenance is up to you.

   Bratenahl is a village on the south shore of Lake Erie. It is one of Cleveland’s oldest streetcar suburbs, strategically cut off from the city to the south by railroad tracks and the Memorial Shoreway, bordered by Gordon Park on one side and the Northeast Yacht Club on the other side. The village police station is on the road that dips under the highway and becomes East 105th St, the main north south artery in Glenville. Bratenahl is 98% white while Glenville is 98% black. The neighborhood is notorious for the late-60s Glenville Shootout, back when bussing was making headlines and racial tensions were boiling over.

   Bratenahl’s famous sons are too many to count, although they are trumped by Collinwood’s George Voinovich, 54th mayor of Cleveland, 65th governor of Ohio, and two-time United States Senator. Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel lived in Glenville when they were creating Superman. My neck of the woods was sketchy. There were infamous men in the shadows.

   I could have used Superman when the pit bull charged us. I had a Great Dane, though, who was no dud of a Clark Kent. I let him loose, he whirled on the pit bull, got behind and on top of him, and clamped his jaws on the back of the loose cannon’s neck. When Stu the dog’s owner came running out of his house it was all over in a minute.

   He apologized up and down. I knew he was sincere because he was in the crime business and never went out of his way to apologize to anybody about anything. My best friend sat on his haunches looking out into the distance while we talked. The pit bull smoldered, his eyes getting narrow and red.

   Stu was in his late 20s, single, although plenty of young women came and went. He drove a black 1973 Pontiac Luxury LeMans. It was one of the biggest cars on the road, the size of a living room, rolling down the road like a Barco lounger. He never went into details, but everybody knew he worked for the Cleveland Mob. Stu didn’t call it the Mob or the Mafia. He called it the Group. He made it sound like a fraternal outfit, getting together with the guys to chew the fat.

   John Scalish was the top dog. He took control in 1944 and stayed on the throne of blood for thirty-two years, taking his last breath in 1976 after hardened arteries got the better of him. His gang was allies of the Chicago Outfit and the Genovese crime family. Nobody asked what Stu did during the day, but we all knew he worked nights at the unlicensed not-so-secret members-only nightclub around the corner on Lakeshore Blvd.

   It was a squat one-story building with a flat roof and no sign. There was a no fooling around steel entrance door. A hand-written square of cardboard taped to the back door said, “Keep Away” in block letters. A burly man in a blue Dodge Coronet lay low in the back of the parking lot from dusk to dawn, keeping his eyes open. The joint jumped with babes and booze. Stu worked inside, making sure everybody stayed happy and keeping a semblance of order.

   My living quarters were on Westropp Avenue, a few blocks away. It runs parallel to Lakeshore Blvd. from East 140th St. to East 152nd St. It doesn’t end at East 152nd, where it becomes Waterloo Rd. My front porch was within spitting distance of Bratenahl. I stayed snug as a bug upstairs in the Polish double. Ray Sabaliauskas owned the house, living it up with the pint-sized Asian wife he brought back from the Vietnam War.

   Although I had never had a dog and didn’t want one, I had a dog. He had been left behind when my brother’s fiancée was killed by a drunk driver out in the suburbs, and he moved out after the funeral. I stayed because I could sort of afford to live on my own and liked being within walking distance of Lake Erie. The 39B bus stopped right on Lakeshore Blvd., slowly but surely getting me downtown to Cleveland State University.

   The Great Dane’s name was Sylvester. Everybody called him Sly. I walked Sly and the Family Stone in the morning and again in the evening. Our morning walk was so he could do his business and the evening walk was so he could do his business and stretch his legs. We crossed Lakeshore Blvd. to the open field between Bonniewood Dr. and Overlook Park Dr. Once there I removed his lead, and he ran around like a nut. When he got it out of his system, we walked to the beach. In the winter, if the lake was frozen, we walked on the ice.

   Early one overcast February evening, already as dark as midnight, we were some one hundred feet from the shore when Sly broke through the ice and fell into Lake Erie. He couldn’t get up and out, although he was able to keep his head above water. When I tried to walk to him the ice started cracking under my feet. I stopped. There wasn’t anybody anywhere except us. I had to get him out of the water. It was windy and his whiskers were going frozen icicles.

   I got on my belly and crawled to where he was. I had to be careful. If I fell in, we might both end up in Davey Jones’s locker. I grabbed his collar. He didn’t like it and pulled away. I got a better grip and yanked as hard and fast as I could, getting him halfway out. He got the idea and heaved himself out the rest of the way. When he tried to stand up his legs splayed apart, and he flopped. I gripped his collar and we slowly on all fours made our way to land. I was wet and cold. Sly was wetter and colder. On the way home he stopped and shook himself all over trying to get dry.

   Inside the house it was warm. I rubbed Sly with bath towels, spread one on the floor in front of the living room space heater, and he lay down, licking the big wet spot he was. I filled the tub with hot water and took a long soak. The next day neither of us showed any aftereffects, except that Sly ate two big helpings of Bil-Jac in one sitting.

   In the winter Stu’s pit bull lived indoors. I hardly ever saw the dog. I saw Stu coming and going. He seemed to be on the go day and night. I thought he might be a runner for the Italian lottery in Hough and Glenville, picking up the bets and doling out the winnings. The Ohio Lotto was still more than a decade away.

   Even though Stu’s house and yard was bare bones, it was clear he had dough to burn. The lock on his front door was Fort Knox. He had a big car. The garage door lock was Fort Knox’s best friend. He dressed well and carried himself with confidence. He always had a roll of twenty-dollar bills held together by a rubber band inside his pants pocket.

   What the Group was up to in Cleveland was loansharking, bookmaking, prostitution, gambling, narcotics, and labor racketeering. They were also shooting and blowing each other up. Cleveland was known as Bomb City USA. Danny Greene found and disarmed bomb after bomb targeting him until he didn’t find the last one. John Nardi meant to take over the whole shebang, no matter what he had to do, bombs or no bombs.

   The mobster controlled the Teamsters Local 410. He wanted to control more. Leo “Lips” Moceri was known to be one of the most violent and ruthless criminals in the city. One day he walked into the council hall on East 22nd Street. “Keep your hands off the Akron rackets and get rid of Danny Greene,” Lips shouted at John Nardi.

   “I’ll do what I damn well please!” Nardi shouted back.

   “Do you know who I am?” Lips exploded. “I’m Leo Moceri and no one pushes me around!” 

   They went their separate ways after spitting in each other’s faces. Lips got the better of it since he had more to work with. That weekend he went to the Feast of Assumption in Little Italy where he snacked on cannoli’s and pawed the bottoms of passing teenage girls. He disappeared on Monday. Two weeks later his car was found abandoned in the parking lot of an Akron motel. The spare tire was missing, there were a pair of new shoes in the back seat, and the trunk was drenched in blood. Nothing was ever seen of Leo Moceri again, dead or alive.

   One morning I noticed Stu’s pit bull was panting in the heat of the sun and his water bowl was empty. It was still empty when I got home from Cleveland State University. I filled it up keeping a wary eye on the beast. He slurped it down. The next day it was empty again. I filled it up again and brought a bowl of dried kibble. The dog and I made a separate peace.

   The next day a truck from Animal Control Services pulled up to the curb. Two men got out, one of them threw treats to the side of the dog, and when he turned that way, the other man got a slip lead around his neck. They loaded him into the back of their truck. It was the last I saw of him. It was also the last I saw of Stu. What was left of him was deposited in a closed coffin a week later. The funeral was at Holy Rosary Church on Mayfield Rd.

   Even though many of Holy Rosary’s pioneer members were immigrant stone cutters, the church is built of brick. There are life-size saint statues on top of the facade and the east corner is topped by a domed cupola. It was the first Italian parish in Cleveland.

   After the mass and the procession to the burying ground, I was lingering at the base of the flight of stairs to the street. A tight-knit group of men in black suits were talking nearby. They were smoking cigars and cigarettes. There was a white gray cloud over their heads.

   “What’s the word on what happened?”

   “It was the niggers in Glenville. They stabbed him bad and then emptied a Saturday night special into his face. He was a mess.”

   “Anybody on it?”

   “Yeah, the coons are going to pay, first with what they stole from him, and then for what they did to him.”

   “Who’s on it?”

   “Shon is on it.”

   Shondor Birns was a gangster from the homeland. Even though he specialized in loansharking, he was also the enforcer of the numbers on the black streets. By the time he was 13 and settled in the United States he already had a reputation. The neighborhood toughs steered clear of him as somebody not to be fooled with. He lived by his wits and by violence. When he was arrested and indicted as an enemy alien he beat the rap, but the deportation order against him remained in play. No other country would admit him, however, so he stayed in Cleveland.

   Stu’s car and the loot he was carrying were lost and not found. I never found out if his confederates resolved the issue, whether Shondor Birns made anybody pay up, or not. By the early 1970s homicides in Cleveland set a record with more than 300 of them. Ten years earlier there had been about a murder a week. There were too many going around to pay attention to another one.

   I forgot about Stu and put his homeless dog out of my mind.

   The next winter was just as cold as the one before it, and even snowier. I took Sly and the Family Stone for walks to the beach, but we stayed off the lake. The Great Dane sniffed up the ice but thought better of it. He romped on the shoreline, instead, flailing up and down snow drifts. There was no sense in putting himself and me in harm’s way on thin ice.

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


One thought on “On Thin Ice”

  1. Wow , that was some recollection of those days in North Collinwood. I lived on Groveland Club Dr. 1 street west of Bonniewood in that group of private streets. Dalwood being the 4th one. We lived in the last house about 200ft from Lake Erie. Moved there in 1973 from the other end of Collinwood over by Green Rd off Euclid Ave. Finished up Grade school at St. Jerome. Actually went to Bratenahl High School for Freshman year. . Yes , they had a high school back then. Then off to St. Joes where I graduated. My dad was a Cleveland Police officer back in the 60’s and early 70’s. The Glenville Riots ended that career. He survived 7 gunshots , but going back on the force just wasn’t realistic. He had some interesting police stories from back then. Seemed like he was most intrigued by Danny Green and Edward Kovacic CPD. I was too young to understand all of this back in those days. I like how you represent Bratenahl as this wondrous land surrounded by poverty , which anyone who knows that area knows that’s an extremely accurate account. The 39-B . That was the ride home from St. Joes if we didn’t want to walk home. What was the bar you were describing with the guy in the Coronet watching the place at night from the parking lot ? Zeke’s , The Brother’s Inn or one of those places up by Waterloo and E156 ? Take care , I enjoyed reading this.

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