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 that it was an American pit bull chained all day long to a stake in a dusty front yard. He was a full-grown well-fed pooch, tan with a white chest. At night he disappeared and was quiet.

   I walked my brother’s dog 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 being 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 pulled jerked lunged and yanked the stake out of the ground. In an instant he was running across the street right at us snarling and raging, the metal stake on the chain raising sparks behind him on the concrete.

   The western border of North Collinwood butts up to Bratenahl, which is its own exclusive enclave six miles from downtown Cleveland. The two neighborhoods couldn’t be more different. In the mid-70s 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 breezy 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 southern 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 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 the city neighborhood 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.

   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 Lou the dog’s owner came dashing out of his house it was 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 man’s best friend sat on his haunches looking out into the distance while we talked. The pit bull smoldered, his eyes getting narrow and red.

   Lou was in his late 20s, single, although plenty of girls came and went, and 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.

   Lou didn’t call it the Mob or 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 bossman. 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 Genovese crime family. Nobody asked what Lou did during the day, but we all knew he worked nights at the probably 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.” A burly man in a dark 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. Lou worked inside, making sure everybody stayed happy and keeping a semblance of order.

   I lived 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, rather becoming Waterloo Rd. I was within spitting distance of Bratenahl, upstairs in a Polish double. Ray Sabaliauskas owned the house, living 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 in Mentor, and he moved out after the funeral. I stayed because I could sort of afford to live on my own, I was within walking distance of Lake Erie, and the RTA 39B bus stopped on Lakeshore Blvd., slowly but surely getting me downtown to Cleveland State University.

   The Great Dane’s legal 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 stretch his legs. We crossed Lakeshore Blvd to the long 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.

   One overcast February evening, already as dark as midnight, we were some one hundred feet from the shore when Sly cracked 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 more. 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 already frozen icicles.

   I got on my belly and crawled slid to where he was. I had to be careful. If I fell in, we might both go down to the locker room. I grabbed his collar. He didn’t like it and pulled away. I got a better grip, tugged and snatched as hard and fast as I could, and got 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 crabbled our way to land. I was wet and cold. Sly was wetter and colder. On the way home he stopped several times and shook himself all over trying to get dry.

   Inside the house it was warm. I dried Sly off 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 helpings of Bil-Jac in one sitting.

   In the winter Lou’s pit bull lived indoors. I hardly ever saw the dog. I saw Lou 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 Lou’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 newer car. The garage door lock was Fort Knox’s best friend. He dressed well and carried himself with confidence. He always had a fat roll of twenty-dollar bills kept together by a rubber band snug inside his pants pocket.

   What the Group was up to in Cleveland was loansharking, bookmaking, narcotics, prostitution, gambling, 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. Leo “Lips” Moceri was known to be one of the most violent and ruthless criminals in the country. John Nardi meant to take over the whole shebang, no matter what he had to do, bombs or no bombs.

   John Nardi controlled Teamsters Local 410. One day Leo Moceri walked into the council hall on East 22nd Street. 

   “Keep your hands off the Akron rackets and get rid of Danny Greene,” Lips blared.

   “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. He was last seen at the Feast of Assumption in Little Italy. Two weeks later his car was found abandoned in the parking lot of an Akron motel. The spare tire was missing, and the trunk was drenched in blood. Nothing was ever seen of Leo Moceri again, dead or alive.

   One morning I noticed the pit bull had been outside all night, was panting in the sun, and his water bowl was empty. It was still empty when I got home from CSU. I filled it keeping a wary eye on the beast. He slurped it down. The next day it was empty again. I filled it 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 Lou. What was left of him was deposited in a closed coffin. The funeral was at Holy Rosary Church on Mayfield Rd.

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

   After the mass and the carrying away to the cemetery, I was lingering at the base of the flight of stairs to the street. A tight-knit group of men in black suits was nearby. They were smoking cigarettes and talking.

   “What’s the word on what happened?”

   “It was the niggers in Glenville. They stabbed him some and 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 took from him, and then for what they did to him.”

   “Who’s on it?”

   “Shon is on it.”

   Shondor Birns was a racketeer contractor for the Group. Even though he specialized in loansharking, he was the enforcer of the numbers in the black neighborhoods. By the time he was 13 and settled in the USA he already had a reputation, the neighborhood toughs steering clear of him as somebody not to be fooled with. He lived by his wits and violence. When he was later arrested and indicted as an enemy alien he beat the rap, but the deportation order against him remained in play. No other country agreed to admit him, however, so he stayed in Cleveland.

Lou’s Luxury LeMans and that day’s betting loot were lost and not found. I never found out if his associates resolved the issue, whether Shondor Birns made anybody pay up. By 1972, homicides in Cleveland set a record with 333 murders. Ten years earlier there had only been 59. There were still too many going around to pay attention to another one.

   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 it up but thought better of it. He romped on the shoreline, instead, flailing up and down snow drifts. There was little sense in putting himself in harm’s way on thin ice.

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

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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