Laying Low on East 4th Street

By Ed Staskus

   It never mattered what time I stepped into Otto Moser’s, morning noon or night. Somebody was always dead drunk at the bar. If they were quiet enough everybody ignored them. If they got unruly, they ended up being tossed out on the sidewalk.

   Otto Moser’s was a bar restaurant downtown on East 4th St. in Cleveland, Ohio. When I was cutting classes at Cleveland State University it had been there about eighty years. It hit the century mark before its time came due. It was a narrow deep place between a Woolworths and a shoe store. A civil defense shelter was between the general-merchandise store and Otto Moser’s, in case an atomic bomb war broke out.

   Europeans drink more alcohol than anybody else in the world and Lithuanians are the heaviest European drinkers. The Lithuanian community I belonged to was swimming in it, even though they put their faith in God and country. I wasn’t much for strong drink, though. A couple of beers put me under the table, so I nursed whatever was in front of me. Most of the times I went to Otto Moser’s it was to hang out. The price of a chair for the afternoon, between the lunch and dinner crowds, was a cup of coffee and a grilled cheese sandwich.

   The restaurant’s grand opening was in 1893 when East 4th St. was called Sheriff St. The Euclid Avenue Opera House was across the street and there were five theaters and two burlesque houses within the blink of an eye. Many actors and personalities stopped in for a bite and hootch. Otto collected their autographed portraits, framed them, and hung them on the walls of his saloon. It got so there were more than a thousand of them. There were six mounted animal heads, also, including a moose named Bullwinkle.

   When Otto Moser died in 1942 two of his employees, Max A. Joseph and Max B. Joseph, took over. They didn’t change anything. Sometimes they closed their doors to the public, when the cast of a big show took the place over, or the Metropolitan Opera was in town. When it was, they closed nights for most of that week so the singers could kick back and relax at their leisure.

   When I went there in mid-day the waitress was Norma Bunner, who had been there since 1955. She never brought a menu or wrote my order down. The coffee was always fresh and the sandwich hot, with extra pickles on the side. I liked to read when I was by myself, which was most of the time.

   I often stopped at Kay’s Books beforehand to pick up a used paperback that didn’t have anything to do with my college studies. I was majoring in film and literature, so I made sure it was sans the movies or the classics. I read the John Carter of Mars series, Jim Thompson’s hard-boiled pulp, and Jorge Luis Borges’s short stories about knife fights in the shabby Palermo district of Buenos Aires.   

   Kay’s Books was on Prospect Ave, or what some folks called Prostitution Ave., and East 6th St. There were adult movie houses, hookers and pimps, and other questionable morals on both sides of the street. There were several wig stores and rotgut bars. If I was going there in the morning, I got off my bus at Public Square, walked through the May Company, left by the back door, and slipped past the Domino Lounge, its jukebox blasting, right into the bookstore.

   There was a raised platform just inside the front door of the store on the right. A big gay man who went by the name of Harry Condiles worked behind the counter, looming over everybody, wearing white button-down shirts with the sleeves ripped off. “Get out of here, you creep,” Rachel Kay shouted whenever his boyfriends stopped in to visit. He knew where everything was, was quiet and patient, although he could lose his temper if questioned one time too many. One day when a customer couldn’t find a book for the third or fourth time he snapped, “Oh, it’s up there, over there by those damned books, over by that fucking thing there.” 

   He had a keen eye for shoplifters. He knew when a purse or bag didn’t look right. Mrs. Kay was always somewhere in the three-story building her shoes click clacking on the mosaic tiled floors, keeping order as best she could.

   The place was stuffed full of books and magazines. I never saw the basement said to be filled to the brim with them but what I saw upstairs made me think they had a copy of every book ever printed. The aisles were narrow and the shelves floor to ceiling. There were rows of books behind the first row of books. It was sort of organized. New hardcovers were up front. Poetry was on the mezzanine. Mass market paperbacks were on the second floor. The upper level was porn and health magazines full of female nudists. Everything else sprawled all over.

   The paperbacks I bought were fifteen cents, maybe a quarter. Some of them had been priced so long ago I knew I was coming out way ahead when adjusted for inflation. Cockroaches that ate the glue were rampant, so I learned to check the binding. Mrs. Kay didn’t always stick to the sticker price. She wasn’t above saying a book costing $3.95 was worth more, crossing out the price, and writing $5.95 in black crayon in its place. Whenever anybody argued with her about being highhanded, they didn’t get the book, and were told to take their business somewhere else.

   I was reading “Ernie’s War: The Best of Ernie Pyle’s World War II Dispatches” one afternoon when one of the barflys got up, limped over to my table, and plopped himself down in the chair opposite me.

   “Whatcha reading?” he asked.

   “Are we getting acquainted,” I asked.

   “You betcha,” he said.

   I thought before I spoke, wary of anymore cha cha cha’s.

   “It’s about World War Two.”

   “I was in that war, fella,” he said. 

   “Is that right?”

   “You don’t believe me?”

   “I’ll take your word for it.”

   “All right, all right,” he said, reaching for his billfold. “I gotcha.”

   He pulled out a five-pointed gold star attached to a faded red, white, and blue ribbon.

   “What is it?” I asked.

   The Silver Star,” my newfound neighbor said. “It’s awarded for gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States.”

   “What did you do to get it?

   “I was on Tarawa.”

   “What’s that?”

   “It’s an island in the Pacific. We landed there in 1943. I got shot twice, but I killed my share of slant-eyes. Those sons-of-bitches were tough.”

   The battle for Tarawa was fought in late November, part of Operation Galvanic, the invasion of the Gilbert Islands. More than 6,000 Japanese and Americans died during the three-day fighting, mostly on and around the 300-acre bird-shaped island of Betio, southwest of Tarawa Atoll. It was the first American offensive in the central Pacific. The nearly 5,000 Japanese defenders were well-prepared. They fought almost to the last man. It was all over in three days.

   “The island was the most heavily defended atoll that ever would be invaded by Allied forces in the Pacific,” said Joseph Alexander, a Marine amphibious officer who later became an historian. One combat correspondent who landed with the fighting forces called it “the toughest battle in Marine Corps history.”

   “It was flat as a pancake” the barfly said. “There was nowhere to hide. We dug holes in the sand fast as we could.”

   “Every place on the island was covered by direct rifle and machine gun fire,” Marine Colonel Merritt Edison said.

   “We landed on amphibious tractors,” the man said. His hair was thin and unkempt. His teeth were bad, and his fingernails were yellowish. He smoked Lucky Strikes incessantly. He wasn’t wearing a wedding ring, but his watch was a Rolex, and his shoes were new soft fancy leather. He was down but not out. He waved towards the bar for his drink to be refreshed. “It was one goddamned snafu after another.”

   Shelling from the American warships was disjointed. The landing time was delayed twice. Headwinds pushed the landing craft between the devil and the deep blue sea. Scaling the seawall was more deadly than anybody thought it would be.

   “Those who were not hit wading ashore would always remember how the machine gun bullets hissed into the water, inches to the right, inches to the left,” wrote Robert Sherrod, a correspondent for Time Magazine.

    The Japanese used their grenades to good effect once the Marines started landing. Corporal John Spillane, a major league baseball prospect before the war, caught two of them barehanded and threw them back before a third exploded in his hand.

   “You got shot two times? Is that how you got the medal?” I asked.

   “Hell, no,” he said. “It was when the Japs counterattacked the third night screaming and yelling running right at us out in the open. Our artillery opened up until they were so close to us that they had to shut down. It was hand to hand after that.”

   “How did you get the medal?

   “A squad of gooks got low with their Type 99 machine guns, the kind that had armored shields, and were spraying us. We had to take them out. Five of us went with grenades. Another one of us had a flame thrower. We took them out, but I was the only one who made it back. I got plugged in the shoulder and my leg, right here near the hip. The medics jacked me up with morphine and a bottle of sake and that was the end of the war for me.” 

   After the ferocious battle, which saw only 17 Japanese soldiers surrendering, the island was awash in carnage. “Betio would be more habitable if the Marines could leave for a few days and send a million buzzards in,” Robert Sherrod wrote afterwards. Marine General Julian Smith declared the enemy “wiped out” and it was on to the next island.

   The man an arm’s length away had been a hero once. Watching him I thought of Marcel Proust, my least favorite French writer, who I had been forced to read for one of my classes. “Remembrance of Time Past” is one and a half million words long. During a Q & A session I asked our professor how many times he estimated a person would need to go to the bathroom getting through the interminable magnum opus. He gave me a sour look. Proust scribbles words words and more words about his day-to-day life society manners friends enemies boys and girls courtesans and love and love lost and the love of love and, above all, jealousy and recrimination. After a while it just makes you want to puke.

   I couldn’t finish it. It didn’t seem like there was a pay-off in store. Cliff’s Notes were created because of that book.

   Just as I was about to ask what happened, how he went from hero to tosspot, my companion said, “I gotta go to the john.”

   There was one thing about Proust that I recalled. He wrote that we think we are living in the world when we are really only living in our minds. Everything is inside us, not just now but all of the past. We are a house of mirrors. I realized my confidante had no doubt told his WW2 story to countless listeners, some willing, some procured like me. My booze hound was staring in the same mirror day after day. Otto Moser’s was a way station and a confessional.

   When he came out of the bathroom, he walked past me like he either didn’t see me or didn’t recognize me or I didn’t exist. He went out the front door. It was for the best. I had a four o’clock class and needed to get going. I stuffed my stuff into my backpack, paid the bill of fare, and walked out into the bright afternoon.

   VFW was outside, three sheets to the wind, supporting himself leaning on the fire hydrant at the curb with an outstretched arm. He was standing in a patch of sunshine. He was a ship in a bottle.

   “Are you all right?” I asked.

   “Sure, man, I’m OK,” he said.

   “Where’s home?”

   “Old Brooklyn, up by the zoo.”

   “You might want to go home and dry out.”

   “I’d probably die if I tried drying out,” he said.

   “There’s always tomorrow morning. Otto’s opens early.”

   “I know the order of business here, son, theirs and mine.”

   “In the meantime, maybe don’t lean on that fire hydrant,” I said. “Guys are always peeing on it.”

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.”

When Hell Freezes Over

By Ed Staskus

   “The Hells Angels are so much aware of their mad-dog reputation that they take a perverse kind of pleasure in being friendly.”  Hunter S. Thompson

   When Frank Glass pulled his Hyundai into the back lot of Barron Cannon’s pop-up yoga class, on the border of Lakewood and Cleveland, Ohio, getting out with his rolled-up mat under his arm, he was brought up short by a fleet of Harley Davidson motorcycles parked outside the door. Inside, he peeked into the practice space, where a mob of muscled-up bare-chested men was in awkward cross-legged poses on rental mats. The denim vests and jackets hanging on coat hooks bore the Hells Angels colors and moniker, red lettering displayed on a white background.

   The bikers are sometimes called “The Red and White.” They are also known as “The Filthy Few.” Inside the club house among themselves they are “The Club.”

   The Angels are the best known of what are known as outlaw motorcycle gangs. The name comes from the P-40 squadrons of Flying Tigers who flew in Burma and China during World War Two. The pilots were known as “Hells Angels” because the combat missions they flew were dangerous courageous literally death-defying.

   Skulls scowled from the middle of the back of the biker vests and jackets.

   Frank took a seat, instead of taking the class, seeing he was late for it, anyway, and the room was full. He might as well, he thought, read the book he was halfway through, and go to lunch with Barron, as they had planned, when the class was over. The book he was reading on his iPhone was David Halberstam’s “The Fifties.” Even though the Hells Angels were formed at the turn of the decade, and ran riot in the 1950s, there wasn’t anything about them in the book.

   Yoga in the United States got going in the same decade, although it didn’t run riot. It kept a low profile until the next decade, the 1960s, when hippies made the scene, and adopted yoga as one of their motifs. Even so, from then until now as yoga has grown exponentially, it has never run riot.

   The Hells Angels and yoga have diametrically opposing outlooks on duty focus liberty life in general. The bikers are noted for violence, brawling, and fighting with fists pipes guns. They are notorious for being ruthless. They will cut the legs out from under you at the slightest provocation. One of the legs yoga stands on is ahimsa, or non-violence. Yoga stands up for its own values but doesn’t go out of its way to chop anyone else down to size.

   When the class ended the Hells Angels filed out of the studio. It had only been them in Barron Cannon’s morning class. They slugged back bottled water, toweled off, and got back into their denims and Red Wings.

   “I’ll be damned if that was a beginner’s class,” one of them said.

   The biker standing next to him, his bald mottled head glistening, said, “That was a hell of a workout.”

   “Workout?” another one exclaimed. “That was some kind of a torture.”

   The Hells Angels are the biggest biker gang in the world. There are 444 chapters on six continents. They are banned in some countries, like the Netherlands, where they have been labeled as a “menace to public order.” The Angels don’t give a fig about the Dutch, so it’s a wash. 

   There are only a few requirements for becoming a Hells Angel. First, you have to have a driver’s license and a seriously badass motorcycle, preferably a chopped Harley Davison. Second, you have to ride it a minimum of 12,000 miles a year. Third, if you were ever a policeman, or even ever thought of being a policeman, you cannot join the club. Fourth, you have to undergo a semi-secret initiation, resulting in being “patched.” Being patched is like getting tenured at a university. Lastly, you have to be a man, and a renegade, to boot, no women allowed.

   It’s best to be a white man when applying for membership.

   In 2000, Sonny Barger, one of the sparkplugs of the gang, said, “if you’re a motorcycle rider and you’re white, you want to join the Hells Angels. If you’re black, you want to join the Dragons. That’s how it is whether anyone likes it or not. We don’t have no blacks and they don’t have no whites.” When asked if that might ever change, he answered, “Anything can change. I can’t predict the future.” He was being sarcastic.

   As many Hells Angels as there are, there are many more folks who practice yoga, about 300 million worldwide. It’s easy to do, too. You don’t need a $20 thousand-dollar two-wheeler, you don’t need to ride it all day and night, and there are no initiation rites, half-baked or otherwise. You can be whatever race creed color gender you want to be. You don’t have to be amoral bloodthirsty ungovernable, either, although yoga is good for resolving those problems.

   “What did you say?” asked one of the Hells Angels.

   “Who, me?” asked Frank

   “Yes, you,” the biker said, looming over him.

   “I didn’t say anything. I’m just sitting here reading, thinking.”

   “Keep your thinking to yourself,” the Hells Angel said, stalking out of the pop-up. Some of the other bikers glared at him but left without incident. One of them gave him a friendly wave and a wink. Frank breathed a sigh of relief.

   There was a roar of 1690 and 1870 cc engines starting up in the parking lot. In a minute the bikers were swaggering down Clifton Boulevard towards downtown Cleveland. Frank had overheard one of them mention the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. He wondered whether there was an exhibit commemorating the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont, where the Hells Angels had been hired to provide security, and 4 people were killed during the show.

   Barron Cannon stepped out of the studio space, wearing loose black shorts and a tight-fitting Pearl Izumi jersey. He looked cool as a cucumber. Frank jumped up.

   “What in the goddamn Sam Hill was that all about?” he asked blurting it out.

   “Missionary work,” said Barron, as unflappable and insufferable as a post-graduate in philosophy can be. Barron had a PhD, although he eschewed academics in favor of his own leanings, which were economic Marxism, idealistic anarchy, vegetarianism, and yoga. He had grown up on the other side of Lakewood, camped in a yurt in his parent’s backyard while he was in school, been briefly married, and lived in a small 80-year-old vaguely modernized apartment close by Edgewater Park, a short bike ride away.

   Barron owned a Chevy Volt, but often rode his bicycle, shopping for groceries, visiting nearby friends, and training aerobically on the multi-purpose path in the Rocky River Metropark.

   “Missionary work? What do you mean?”

   “Let’s go across the street to Starbucks, get some coffee, some wraps or egg and cheese protein boxes,” said Barron.

   Sitting down inside the Starbucks, which had transformed a vacant Burger King the year before, their food and coffee in front of them, Frank again asked Barron, “What are you up to?”

   “Off the mat into the world.”

   “The last time that came up you derided the idea, saying yoga had to stay close to the individual, close to its roots, and not try to reform the world.”

   “Times change, bud,” said Barron.

   “Trying to teach yoga to Hells Angels isn’t a hop skip and jump.”

   “No,” said Barron. “It’s a great leap forward, man.”

   Barron Cannon took secret pleasure in conflating things like the moon landing and Chairman Mao, as though the past was play dough.

   “How did it go?”

   “Not bad, they got engaged in what we were doing. I think they might follow up on the class.”

   “When hell freezes over,” thought Frank.

   Barron Cannon laughed.

   “That’s mostly true, but not entirely true,” he said. “No one is absolutely unsuited for yoga practice.”

   “Are you reading my mind?”

   “Sometimes.”

   “Are you sure they weren’t just grandstanding?”

   “If there’s anything uncertain about yoga, it’s certainty,” said Barron.

   Many law enforcement agencies worldwide consider the Hells Angels the numero uno of the “Big Four” motorcycle gangs, the others being the Pagans, Outlaws, and Bandidos. They investigate and arrest the bikers for engaging in organized crime, including extortion, drug dealing, trafficking in stolen goods, and violent battery of all kinds. They raid their clubhouses and haul the Filthy Few off to jail.

   The police never bust up yoga studios, which are generally spic and span.

   Members of the Hells Angels say they are a group of enthusiasts who have bonded to ride motorcycles together, organizing events such as road trips, rallies, and fundraisers. They say any crimes are the responsibility of the men who committed them and not the club as a whole, despite many convictions for racketeering, riots, mayhem, and shootings.

   One of their slogans is, “When in doubt, knock ‘em out.”

   “How did you get them into the studio in the first place?”

   “I was at the Shell station up on the corner, filling up, when a Hells Angel pulled in behind me. He moved like a wooden Indian. He had to lean on the gas tank getting off his motorcycle.”

   “And you suggested yoga?” 

   “You should try yoga,” Barron said to the biker. “It’s good for your back.”

   “What the fuck?” said the biker, his arms tattooed from wrist to shoulder. “Who the hell are you?”

   “I teach yoga just down the street. You should come in for a beginner’s class. You might be surprised what a big help it can be.”

   “Fuck off,” said the biker.

   “So, what happened?” asked Frank. 

   “The next thing I knew, there they were this morning. They took over the class, one of them standing outside turning everyone else away, saying the class was full, until I got started.”

   “How did it go?”

   “They wouldn’t chant, and they didn’t want to hear much beforehand. They told me to get down to business, so what happened was that it turned into a plain and simple asana class.”

   “How did they do?”

   “They’re strong men, but most of them can’t touch their toes to save their lives. They tried hard, so I will give them that. They were terrific doing the warrior poses, but things like triangle, anything cross-legged, and some of the twists were beyond them. Most of them were stiff as boards.”

   Yoga plays an important role in reducing aggression and violence. It helps you by becoming more thoughtful about your actions. It makes you more flexible in tight spots. The brain-addled in prisons have been specifically helped by the practice.

   “Attention and impulsivity are very important for this population, which has problems dealing with aggressive impulses,” says Oxford University psychologist Miguel Farias about inmates

   Simple things like pranayama breathing techniques release tension and anger. Doing headstand is a good way to get it into your head that you can’t stay mad when you’re on your head. Mindfulness and awareness flip the misconceptions of anger.

   “We can see anger in terms of a lack of awareness, as well as an active misconstruing of reality,” says the Dalai Lama.

   Even the yoga concept of non-attachment can be a big help. No matter what patches you wear, you aren’t that patch. You are an individual who is free to make individual choices. The Hells Angel skull’s head is a reminder of the transitory nature of life. Make the most of it. Don’t be always punching your way out of a paper bag.

   Frank and Barron finished their coffees and stepped outside. At the crosswalk they paused at the curb. The traffic was light on Clifton Boulevard, but a biker was approaching. He was a trim young man on a yellow Vespa. He pulled up and stopped at the painted line of the crosswalk. He was wearing a turquoise football-style helmet. Both his arms up to the sleeveless of his black t-shirt were heavily tattooed. He waved at them to go. They went over the edge of the curb into the street.

   Stepping up to the curb on the other side, Barron said, “There you are, Frank, not all angels are bats out of hell.”

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.”