Fire in the Hole

By Ed Staskus

   By the time Dave Bloomquist set foot on Prospect Avenue the street had been there for more than a century. It is one block south of Euclid Ave, which between 1870 and 1930 was known as Millionaire’s Row. Nearly 250 houses ran along its 4 golden miles. Some of them were as big as 50,000 square feet on lots of 6 acres. One of them owned by Sam Andrews kept 100 servants to make sure the mansion made it through the day.

   On Sundays everybody paraded to church dressed in their best. At the time it was called “The Most Beautiful Street in America.” High-spirited sleigh races in winter attracted thousands, lining the 30 blocks between East 9th and East 40th Streets to watch. In the spring children busted out to the many small parks within running distance.

   Prospect Avenue was a second cousin, but the cousins were well-to-do. It housed the upper middle class, lawyers, doctors, and businessmen. Rowhouses were built between 1874 and 1879 near East 36th Street in Gothic Revival, Italianate, and Second Empire styles. A grand house was built in 1883 for Sarah Benedict, the widow of Cleveland Herald publisher George Benedict. The five-story Plaza Apartments was built in 1901.

   Dave Bloomquist grew up in Sandusky, in northern Ohio on the shores of Lake Erie, midway between Toledo and Cleveland. Back in the day the Wyandots called the spot Soundustee. It means cold water. 

   “I was recruited my senior year in high school by Findlay University on a basketball scholarship, but was disciplinarily dismissed after the winter semester of 1968,” he said. He quickly pulled up his dorm room stakes and went to Colorado. “I was avoiding arrest on a possession and sales charge but was eventually picked up and extradited back to Ohio. When I got out on bond I petitioned for probationary enrollment to Cleveland’s Tri-C.” 

   It was one of the only higher education schools of any kind in Ohio that offered that kind of re-entry opportunity. Keeping his nose clean and finishing with a 3.5 GPA he was able to later transfer to Cleveland State University. In the meantime, in between classes, he needed a job. When the Auditorium Hotel posted a stock boy position on the community college’s job board, he went downtown.

   “The manager’s assistant assumed I was there for another positing, for night auditor, since I showed up in a jacket and tie. I fabricated math and accounting skills on the spot and was hired.”

   The 10-story hotel built in 1927 was on the corner of East 6th Street and St. Clair Ave. There were 420 rooms. It was close to everything because everything was close-by.

   “Most of the rooms stayed mostly empty, except when the Metropolitan Opera came to town,” Dave said. “That’s when my limited skills with the NCR auditing machine and the Lilly Tomlin-style switchboard became obvious. The three manual elevators were operated by retired prostitutes. The second shift bell captain was a city supervisor during the day, but at night became the procurer for all the shady desires of the guests. The hotel had off-duty policemen moonlighting as security, who were good at raiding the restaurant refrigerators for steaks and regaling me with crook stories.”

   He was the last night auditor at the Auditorium. Six months after he started the hotel closed. Soon after it was demolished. Married and with an infant son, he dropped out of a school for a quarter to work full-time. When he went back to Tri-C, he worked as a student assistant in the Art Department and the night shift at a local psychiatric hospital. When he moved on to Cleveland State University, he again found work in the Art Department and became director of the university’s daycare, as well.

   The psychiatric hospital hadn’t driven him crazy. Infant crying and irritability weren’t going to, either. When he became the janitor at the Plaza, it didn’t test his mental and physical health overmuch.

   “Ruby and David, the janitors at the Plaza, moved out and Betty Basil, the manager, offered me the job. I had to sweep the halls, shovel the snow, cut the grass, and empty the three big trash barrels. I was also paid $50 for every room that I painted.”

   The work is messy, and the mess is always back the next day. It can drive a good man crazy. Janitors work odd hours and are prone to a high risk of trips slips falls, repetitive motion misery, and musculoskeletal injuries caused by overexertion. More than 46,000 janitors suffer work-related mishaps every year requiring time off, according to a report by the National Safety Council.  

   “Overall, most things were dutifully and patiently taken care of.” When you have the patience to do simple things well you get the hang of doing the dirty work.

   Keeping the grounds and premises clean gave him a window into the workings of the building. When he met Allen Ravenstine, he knew as much about the Plaza as anybody. Allen was mulling over what to with the inheritance he received after both his parents died in an accident. He had abandoned collegiate life and was re-making himself as a musician.

   “He was working with EML synthesizers and jamming with others engaged in experimental music,” Dave said. “But he was keen on being more personally engaged with his recent windfall. He was concerned that it was helping IBM and other blue-chip corporations that were supporting a government and a war.”

   The Vietnam War had gone full-scale big sky extravaganza. The ten-day Christmas Bombing of 1972, targeting Hanoi and Haiphong, was accomplished by B-52s. They were the biggest bomber strikes launched by the United States Air Force since the end of World War II. Other than blowing up lots of “major target complexes,” it didn’t get anything done. 

   After the titanic struggles of the past ten years, 1973 dawned with a new peace agreement. It was repeatedly violated by both sides as the struggle for power and control in South Vietnam continued. Nobody knew that by the end of the year there would hardly be any American combat forces left in the country and after that it was just a matter of time before Charlie won the war.

   “With the help of some wine and some smoke Allen and I discussed a wide variety of investments,” Dave said. “We talked about publishing and selling stories and poetry like City Lights, opening an art gallery, and getting an experimental music venue in the works. But as these interests were unlikely to go beyond a hobby that drained his resources, which were meant to sustain him into full adulthood, and some kind of career, one by one they were tabled.”

   After more talk and more ideas tabled as no good, Dave floated the notion of buying the Plaza Apartments and using the revenue from it to support their art enterprises.  At the time it was owned by the family who also owned Blonder Paints at East 39th St. and Prospect Ave. Blonder went back to 1918 when a cigarmaker and a paperhanger got it off the ground. They sold paint, varnish, and paperhanging supplies, both wholesale and retail. By the 1950s it was the country’s 6th largest wholesaler of wallpapers. 

   “We learned the family might be open to a purchase offer, so we got started. It was the days of red lining and white flight. We had difficulty finding an appraiser who would even look at the building. Of course, no banks would talk to us.”

   Working with Everett Pruitt, Sr, a black realtor and appraiser with an office on East 86th St. and Cedar Ave they got a number on which to base an offer. “Everett helped us draft a land contract that was reviewed by Allen’s attorney and his older brother, who both thought we were nuts. We then manned up, dressed up, made a call and made an offer. After a little back and forth we struck a deal. We got the Plaza, the Victorian house next door, and the parking lot for $62,500.  I put in every penny my wife Ann and I had, which was $1,000, and Allen contributed the remaining amount, which was $9,000. The balance was amortized over 15 years. We formed Corona Unlimited, a partnership agreement based on a handshake and a toast.”

   They paid themselves $75.00 a week and lived rent-free. When a six-room front apartment on the top floor came open, Dave, Ann, and their son moved up from their small second floor rooms.

   “Mike Roccini was living in that suite,” Dave said. “He was a writer, some magazine articles and a novel. He graduated from the University of the Americas in Mexico City in pharmacy with a taste for tequila and cigars. After coming down with a heart ailment he retired from dispensing drugs and spent most of his time in what he called his Moose Hall writing, with breaks to check the mail and report to his office at the bar of the Sterling Hotel. His wife Speedy was a schoolteacher.”

   She kept him flush in pencils and paper. It was when the fourth-floor walk-up became too much for Mike that he and Speedy moved to a farm east of Cleveland. None of the chickens complained about his cigar smoke, fearing for their heads.

   To make ends meet Dave tended bar weekends at the Viking Saloon, helped out at the Mistake, and filled in at the Library when they were short-staffed. The Library was popular with CSU students and local bohemians. It was at East 37th and Prospect, in what had been the Benedict House, long past its glory days. The students drank too much and got into fights and the bohemians argued too much, even though it never mattered who won or lost.

   He went to work at the Round Table, an old downtown German restaurant. 

   “It had become a tired-out attorney’s bar with most of the grand old rooms empty. A young hustler from Lakewood convinced the owner to convert all three floors to a music venue. It was wildly successful. But bar tending was tailor made for my increasingly flagrant infidelities. After we purchased the Plaza, Ann grew tired of it and found sympathy and comfort from Allen.”

   Even so, the partnership continued for a dozen-and-more years. They used the rental income from the 48 apartments for operating expenses and renovations. With a 30% vacancy rate, a mortgage at 17%, insurance for an old building, taxes and utilities, it ate up most of the income. Renovations meant DIY for almost everything.

   “There was an old hardware store on Euclid just east of 55th Street, owned by Mr. Weiss. Before buying the Plaza, I got to know him and his helpmate Jimmy in my role as janitor of the building. Their stock of plumbing and building supplies dated back at least 50 years, which is a great resource when keeping an 80-year-old building alive. Since I was limited in my knowledge of trade skills it meant I would frequently go to Mr. Weiss or Jimmy for information on how to sweat pipe or wire a switch. They were very generous with their knowledge, if sometimes humored by my ignorance. They knew we were committed to the neighborhood.”

   The rigors of living it up on the late-night rock ‘n roll bar life roller coaster finally proved to be too much. He left his accustomed haunts to tend bar at the Elegant Hog on Playhouse Square. “It had an older crowd that tipped much better, and they closed much earlier.” He put his nose to the grindstone and the Plaza got better month by month. The vacancy rate went down, and the waiting list went up.

   Dave wasn’t lord of the manor, not by a long shot. Upper Prospect wasn’t anybody’s magic kingdom. Those days were done and gone. He was more like the Prince of Prospect, a hammer, wrench, and screwdriver part of his coat of arms. When the roof leaked or the boiler faltered, he put on his coat and went to work.

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.”

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