Animal Crackers

By Ed Staskus

   Dave Bloomquist ran the show at the Plaza Apartments, trying to make it work on the near east side, on the fringe of Cleveland State University. What we called the house was on Prospect Avenue, a $.25 fare on a creaky CTS bus ten minutes to Public Square. The ghetto was both uptown and downtown. Liquor porn deadbeats beat-up cars broken bottles boarded-up windows were the order of the day. The house was its own alive place.

   Dave was from Sandusky. “The town, which is sluggish and uninteresting, is something like an English watering-place out of season,” Charles Dickens wrote after visiting it. A hundred years later it was known for Cedar Point, a big amusement park on a peninsula jutting out into Lake Erie. After high school Dave moved to Cleveland to study visual and fine arts at CSU.

   “Art held a natural attraction for me, and it was something I wanted to pursue,” he said. “My dad was an electrician, and I helped him run wires and other simple tasks. I also worked during college, renovations, painting, things like that. After graduation, my business partner and I scraped together a down payment on the 48-unit Victorian-style Plaza. We decided to restore it ourselves.”

   Dave was always in in and around the building. Whenever anything went wrong, it didn’t take long to find the owner superintendent maintenance man. If he wasn’t nearby, his ex-wife-to- be, Annie, tall slim, her hair done up in braids, was right there cooking cleaning taking care of their baby boy. Built in 1901 for middle-class residents, something was always making trouble at the Plaza.

   “We learned to sweat pipe, patch the roof, and fix windows,” Dave said. “We had to operate with just rent money. We couldn’t afford to call on anyone for help.”

   Back in the day Upper Prospect was the second most prestigious place to live in Cleveland, next to Millionaire’s Row on Euclid Avenue. Prospect and Euclid were where to be, smoking rooms of the city’s economic and social elite. Most of the homes on Prospect were brick two-story single-family houses in the Italianate style. The street was lined with elm trees.

   By the time I moved onto Prospect Ave. as the 60s were leaking into the 70s, all the rich folks were long gone, and Dutch elm disease had killed most of the trees. It was killing most of the elms in all but two states east of the Missouri River. What hadn’t died was being sprayed with DDT or removed.

   The entry point for the bug was Northeast Ohio in 1929, on a train bringing in a shipment of elm veneer logs from France. The train stopped south of Cleveland to load up on coal and water. Not long afterwards elm trees along the railroad tracks started to die. The elm bark beetle doesn’t hurt the tree, but the fungus it carries is deadly.

   There were rowhouses scattered among the single-family homes, which included the Prospect Avenue Rowhouses, still there, that Dave was throwing his eye on. He had more than enough work on his hands, but he was a no slouch go-getter. Preservation and restoration efforts on Upper Prospect were just beginning to pick up steam.

   I walked to Mecca Keys on Rockwell Ave. off East 9th St. and had a key for my apartment made. The Plaza was home to students secretaries hippies machinists artists bikers clerks musicians court reporters anarchists activists warehouse men and writers, some in full swing, some shaking and baking away the wolf at the door, everybody coming and going.

   “We were urban pioneers before the term was coined,” said Scott Krauss, a drummer for the art-rock band Pere Ubu. “Like the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead had their band houses, we had the Plaza.”

   “There were scores of wonderful community dinners, insipid and treacherous burglars,” Dave Bloomquist said years later when it was all over. “Innocence was lost. There were raucous outrageous parties. Families were formed and raised and there were tragic early deaths of close friends. But music, art and life were in joyful abundance all the time.”

   There was an abundance of old-fashioned seediness, too.

   “I remember coming home at four in the morning and there would still be people in the courtyard drinking beer and playing music,” said Larry Collins. “We would watch the hookers and their customers play hide-and-seek with the undercover vice cops.”

   One of the first friends I made was Virginia Sustarsic. I had seen her around Dixon Hall up the street before I moved to the Plaza. She was close to John McGraw, a trim bohemian who lived alone on the third floor, read obscure European poets, drank Jack Daniels from the bottle, and drove a 1950s windowless black Chevy panel truck.

   Virginia had interned at the Cleveland Press, worked on CSU’s student newspaper, and wrote for the school’s poetry magazine. Since she was settled in at the Plaza, was friendly, and worked for herself, she made friends easily, and I subsequently made friends by hanging around with her.

   She knew all about art. I didn’t know anything. When she showed me a picture of an American flag by Jasper Johns, I found a big used flag and thumbtacked it to the wall at the head of my bed. When she showed me a picture of a Jackson Pollack painting, I thought, what a mess.

   Virginia made candles, incense, and roach clips for a head shop on the near west side. The owner of the shop, Jamie, was a little older than us and square-jawed. He wore a red checked bandana and liked to go barefoot. He pulled up in a mid-60s VW T2 bus, Virginia delivered the goods, he would say he had a great idea for going someplace fun, as many people who could fit would pile into the Splittie, and he would drive to a park a beach or a grassy knoll overlooking a cemetery.  

   Jamie always played The Who’s “Magic Bus” at least once every trip, there and back. “Thank you, driver, for getting me here, too much, Magic Bus, now I’ve got my Magic Bus.” The speakers were tinny, but the volume made up for it.

   We went to see “Woodstock” the movie, since none of us had gone to the music festival, at a drive-in. Virginia’s roach clips came in handy. The Splittie’s back and middle seats could be pulled out. It was groovy at drive-ins, backing the bus in to face the screen, some of us in the seats on the ground, others in the open rear of the bus, and Jamie with his gal on top, an umbrella at the ready. 

   Nobody wanted to be sitting behind Mike Cassidy, who was skinny enough, but had a massive head of long fuzzy electrified red hair.

   Virginia was hooked on photography and showed me the ropes, letting me use her camera. When a photography contest was announced at Cleveland State University, she entered a picture she had taken in San Francisco, and I entered a picture of Mr. Flood.

   Bob Flood lived on the second floor, like me. None of us knew what he did, exactly, although he wore a hat suggesting he was a locomotive engineer. Virginia thought he was a professor of some kind. Everybody called him Mr. Flood. Nobody knew why. He was a lean careful man, sported a shaggy looking beard, was divorced, but had visitation rights to his two kids, who came and played in his apartment weekends.

   My picture was a portrait and Virginia’s a full-scale shot of two homeless men in Golden Gate Park, passing a bottle of booze between them. The trees in the background disappeared into a triangle. After I won the blue ribbon, Virginia went to the art department and talked to one of the judges.

   She told him she had been trying to conjure the Pointillism of Georges Seurat.

   “Well,” he said. “The portrait and your picture were our top picks. But yours was kind of grainy.”

   “That was the whole point,” she groused. 

   Virginia’s best friend at the Plaza was Diane Straub.

   Diane had a straight job. She was a secretary downtown. She got up every morning, got on the bus, went to work, and came back at night. Monday through Friday she took care of her apartment and her cats. But, on weekends she got psychedelic. She also got up as Bogie’s old lady.

   Bogie was Diane’s live-in boyfriend. He was rangy and always wore black, tip to toe. He had a Harley Davidson he kept in the back lot. Nobody ever tried to steal it, because everybody knew that would be a big mistake.

   He was one of the Animals, although he and the other Animals had been forced to go freelance. They used to have a clubhouse, its walls pockmarked with bullet holes, on Euclid Avenue in Willoughby, until the day the Willoughby police raided it.

   “The police couldn’t get anything on us, so they hot-wired the landlord to force us out,” one of the Animals, Gaby, told the Cleveland Press. “We never did anything worse than use the clubhouse walls for target practice.”

   Gaby knew there was more to the story. His biker clubmate Don Griswold had been arrested the day before for being involved in a shooting with members of Cleveland’s Hells Angels that left two dead. “The Angels were going to take care of me if the cops didn’t do it first,” he said. “Misery loves company.”

   The spring before my first full summer at the Plaza, Cleveland’s Breed and Violators got into it at a motorcycle show at the Polish Women’s Hall southeast of the Flats. The 10‐minute riot with fists clubs knives and chains left 5 men dead 20 Injured and 84 arrested.

   The dead were buried, the hurt rushed to hospitals, and the arrested hauled away to the Central Police Station on Payne Avenue. The Black Panthers were always demonstrating outside the front doors, but they had to make way. Extra armed guards were posted in hallways and doorways as a precaution. When the injured bikers recovered, they were arrested.

   Art Zaccone, headman of the Chosen Few, said the fight broke out because of trouble between the two groups going back to a rumble in Philly two years earlier. The biker gangs didn’t ride on magic busses. They rode hogs. They made their own black magic. They had long memories and never forgotten never forgiven grievances.

   After Bogie moved out, Diane took up with Igor, a math wizard. He was tall, had long dark wiry hair, and played air guitar. Even though he was egg-headed about numbers, he often looked like he was only half there.

   “We all thought he was tripping a lot,” Virginia said.

   I lived in a back apartment on the second floor. I avoided the back stairs and porches. They were falling apart in their old age. Virginia lived in a side apartment on the same floor and an older Italian couple Angeline and Charlie Beale lived in the front. They always had their apartment door open. Charlie was short and stocky, a retired mailman. He read newspapers and magazines all day long. Angie was stout with wavy hair. She stayed in the kitchen all day long cooking in a black slip. 

   They had a parrot. Whenever Angie spied Virginia walking by, she called out, “Oh, honey, honey, come in, let me see if I can get him to talk to you.” She would coo and try to convince the parrot to talk. He never did, even when she poked him with a stick. When she did, he whistled and squawked. He sounded offended and tone-deaf.

   “How long have you had that parrot?” Virginia asked, thinking they were still training him.

   “Oh, we’ve had him for sixteen years, honey.”

   Angie and Charlie went shopping for foodstuffs a few times a week. They walked down Prospect Avenue to the Central Market. “They started out together, but ended up a block or more apart,” Dave said. They both carried handmade cotton shopping bags, one in each hand.

   The Central Market was on East 4th St., nearly two miles away by foot. The only people who went there were people who couldn’t get to the West Side Market. It was grimy, and the roof leaked. “Some panels are out, and when it rains, we got to put plastic tarp down. That looks like hell,” said produce stall owner Tony LoSchiavo.

   “She always walked twenty feet behind him,” Virginia said. “A couple of hours later, same thing, both of them their two bags full, he would be walking twenty feet ahead of her as they came back to the Plaza.”

   He waited at the front door, holding it open for her. She trudged up, he followed her, and the parrot every time said, “Welcome back!” when they stepped into their apartment. Angie returned with vegetables like asparagus and nuts like filberts for the thick billed brightly colored bird.

    Most of the tenants at the Plaza were on good terms with one another. Many of us were single and sought out company up and down the floors and down the hallways, especially in January and February when snow piled up in mounds. We swung by paid calls and chewed the fat.

   “Friends would just drop in,” said Virginia.

   One Siberian Sunday afternoon Mr. Flood’s kids were visiting and went exploring in the basement. They found a red metal and wood Flexible Flyer. Their father bundled them up and carried the sled outside. When they got tired of pushing each other back and forth in the parking lot, they found a shovel and scooped snow onto the back stairs as far up as the first landing. They shoveled enough snow on the stairs to make a ramp and spent the rest of the day running across the landing, throwing themselves on the sled, racing down the ramp and zooming across the icy lot.

   Mr. Flood and I watched them from the second-floor landing.

   “They’re up to snow good,” he joked laconically when they hit bottom bumped upwards and got some air under their sled. Bob Flood talked low talked slow and didn’t say much.

    “They’re on their own magic carpet ride,” I said.

   “It takes one to snow one,” the kids whooped back at us, living it up.

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.”

Fixing Frankenstein

By Ed Staskus

   The day Frankenstein walked into Barron Cannon’s yoga studio in Lakewood, Ohio, Barron could tell he wasn’t a happy monster. He walked as though he had never gotten over the rigor mortis of what should have been his one and only death before being resurrected by Victor Frankenstein. He was dirty as all get out and wet. His boots were caked with muck and mire. He needed a haircut and a shave. He looked like he could use ten or twelve square meals all at once.

   “You look like hell,” Barron said. 

   “I feel like hell,” Frankenstein said.

   “I thought you were dead and gone, and only left alive in the movies,” Barron said. “The story is you killed yourself up on the North Pole after Victor died. That would have been a couple hundred years ago.”

   After being chased and pelted with rocks, flaming stave torches shoved into his face, shot at and thrown into chains, Frankenstein had sworn revenge against all mankind. They hated him so he would hate them. He had hated himself, as well, for a long time.

   “I was going to end it all when I floated off on an ice floe, but I froze solid, and it wasn’t until twenty summers ago that I defrosted.”

   An unexpected consequence of global warming, Barron thought to himself.

   “After defrosting I lost track of time,” the creature said. “It’s either all day or all night almost all the time. I built an igloo and learned to hunt seals. I caught and beat their brains out with my bare hands. I meant to go back to Geneva. But after living on the ice safe and sound, I changed my mind. There wasn’t anybody anywhere trying to kill me, which was a blessing. But then I got lonely.”

   “How did you get here?” Barron asked.

   “I walked.”

   “It’s got to be three, four thousand miles from the pole to here. How long did it take you?”

   “I meant to go back to Europe, but I took a wrong turn at the top of the world. Canada looked like Russia until I got to Toronto. By then I didn’t want to turn around. I had been at it for five months. I kept walking until I reached Perry, on Lake Erie. I met a boy and girl there. They were riding pedal go-karts on the bluffs. The girl said her brother was the Unofficial Monster Hunter of Lake County. It was hard to believe. He is a small skinny shrimp. When I asked him whether he thought I was a monster, he said I looked monstrous, but was sure I wasn’t a monster.”

   Frankenstein had seen his reflection in water. He was aware of what he looked like. He didn’t like it any more than passersby did throwing him wary nervous glances and scuttling away. 

   “Was his name Oliver?”

   “Yes.”

   “You didn’t throw him and his sister down a well, or anything like that, did you?”

   “No, and I’m glad I didn’t. They helped me. They gave me some of their homemade granola bars.”

   “Don’t underestimate the boy. He’s taken on banshees and trolls, the 19 virus, Bigfoot, Goo Goo Godzilla, and the King of the Monsters himself. I don’t know how he does it, but he’s no ordinary child to mess with.”

   “He told me to come here and talk to you, that you were a yoga teacher and could unstraighten me. I’m stiff as a board all the time.”

   “I can see that,” Barron said.

   “I want to be able to touch my toes. I want to be a better person.”

   “I can help you with that,” Barron said. “Except the better person part. That’s up to you.”

   “I was benevolent and good once,” Frankenstein said. “Misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.”

   “I’ll do my best.”

   For once, Frankenstein had the feeling he had found a true friend.

   After Barron got back from the Goodwill store with XXL shorts and muscle t’s, pants and shirts, and threw away Frankenstein’s clothes, which hadn’t been washed in centuries, they got started on the yoga mat. Barron told him to get barefoot. When he did the smell was bad. Barron turned on the studio’s fans and opened both the front and back doors. He took the creature’s boots outside and tossed them in the dumpster. The dumpster burped and spit the boots back out. They landed in the parking lot with a clomp. Barron doused them with gasoline and burned them.

   “We’ll start with the twelve must-know poses for beginners,” Barron said.

   Frankenstein had no problem doing the mountain and plank poses, but that was the beginning and end of what he could do. He couldn’t do down dog or a lunge to save his life. Triangle, dancer’s pose, and half pigeon pose might as well have been rocket science. When he tried seated forward fold, he folded forward an inch or two, and farted.

   “More roughage in those granola bars than you’re used to?”

   “I lived on seal blubber for a long time,” Frankenstein said.

   He could do some of the hardest poses easily, like headstand. He balanced on his flat head like nobody’s business. He chanted like a champ, his deep baritone rich and heart felt. He did dead man’s pose like he was born to it. 

   When the lesson was over, however, he wasn’t able to get up out of laydown. His muscles were in knots. Barron pulled out his Theragun and went to work. It took all the percussion device’s battery power to get Frankenstein on his feet and into the storeroom, where Barron prepared a bedroll.

   “It doesn’t look like you’re in any condition to go anywhere, but make sure you stay here. I have three classes back-to-back-to-back. I don’t want you barging through the door and causing any heart attacks.”

   Frankenstein groaned and rolled over. He slept the rest of the day, that night, and part of the next day. Barron took him to the barber shop next door. Frankenstein had never gotten a haircut. His hair was halfway down his back and his beard down to his belly button. The barber gave him a taper fade crew cut and a shave. He trimmed his eyebrows and the tufts of hair growing out of his ears. He unscrewed the electrodes in the creature’s neck.

   The incisions around his neck, wrists, and ankles had long since healed. Barron found a pair of size 34 sneakers and second-hand bifocals for him. Frankenstein was out of practice, but he enjoyed reading. Barron bought two dozen thrillers biographies histories at the Friends of the Library sale.

   Monday morning dawned snug and bright. Barron and Frankenstein walked to Lakewood Park, where they could unroll their mats outdoors on the shore of Lake Erie. Barron had sewn two mats together for the big guy. Barron’s one goal was to make the creature more flexible. His unhappiness with the human race would have to wait. He wasn’t killing anybody anymore, at least. Frankenstein’s problem wasn’t a desk job and never exercising. He wasn’t rigid with chronic tension. He had been on an all-blubber diet for decades but enjoyed the plant-based diet Barron was converting him to. They started having breakfast at Cleveland Vegan. 

   He had never stretched in his life, which contributed to his stiffness and pain. His poor muscles were as short as could be. On top of everything else he was close to three hundred years old, counting his own lifetime and the lifetimes of the men he was made of. His synovial fluid was thick as mud.

   Barron and Frankenstein worked on standing forward bend hour after hour day after day. At first the creature could only bend slightly, placing his hands on his thighs. He did it a thousand times. He huffed and puffed. When he was able to touch his knees, he did it two thousand times. He broke out into a sweat. One day Barron brought blocks, setting them up on the high level. Frankenstein folded and got his fingertips to the blocks. The day came when Barron flipped them to their lower level.

   “Don’t be a Raggedy Ann doll, just flopping over,” Barron told him. “Do it right.”

   The gold star moment finally arrived when Frankenstein folded forward without blocks. His upper back wasn’t rounded, his chest was open, his legs were straight, and his spine was long. He was engaged but relaxed. He took several steady breaths as the space between his ribs and pelvis grew.

   “Great job, Frank,” Barron said, encouraging him.

   Frankenstein did the pose three thousand times. He was looking lean and not so mean. His skin was losing its yellow luster. He was getting a tan in the sunshine at the park.

   According to B.K.S. Iyengar, Uttanasana slows down the heartbeat, tones the liver spleen kidneys, and rejuvenates the spinal nerves. He explained that after practicing it “one feels calm and cool, the eyes start to glow, and the mind feels at peace.”

   They walked to Mitchell’s Homemade Ice Cream in Rocky River. Barron had a scoop. Frankenstein had eight scoops. Children gathered around him asking a million questions, asking for his autograph, and asking for selfies with him in the picture. He was a ham with glowing eyes and never said no.

   From standing forward bend it was on to more beginner poses, then intermediate poses. By the end of the month Frankenstein wasn’t a yogi, yet, but he was more human than he had ever been. He joined Barron’s regularly scheduled classes. He was two and three feet bigger than anybody else. Barron put him in a back corner by himself where he wouldn’t accidentally clobber anybody while doing sun salutations.

   When the time came for Frankenstein to move out of Barron’s storeroom into his own apartment, Barron made him a gift of B.K.S. Iyengar’s book “Light on Yoga.”

   “This is the book that will make you a better person, Frank. I’ve read it twice.”

   “I’ll read it a hundred times,” Frankenstein said.

   “What do you plan on doing?” Barron asked.

   Frankenstein thought about becoming a barber like the man who tended to him but bending over the tops of heads all day long would lead to lower back pain sooner or later. He knew full well he had arthritis. He threw that idea away. He thought about becoming a house painter. He could reach more areas compared to a shorter man. He could cut in walls and ceilings without using a ladder. That would save hours over the course of a job. The downside was having to paint low, like skirting boards. Stooping would do a number on his back. He threw that idea out the window, too.

   When he finally decided what to do, he was surprised he hadn’t thought of it earlier. It was a natural. It was how he had been granted a second life. He would be an electrician.

   An electrician is a tradesman who repairs, inspects, and installs wires, fixtures, and equipment. Much of the job involves installing fans and lights into ceilings. Being tall would free him from the need to go up and down a ladder for every install. It turns the work from a two-man job into a one-very-tall-man job.

   Homeowners in Lakewood were always restoring and upgrading their houses. He would advertise himself as “Call Frank – He Knows the Power of Electricity and Will Save You Money.”

   If he ever made a mistake, he knew he could absorb the bust-up of voltage. He had already been hit with more of the hot stuff than any mortal man and lived to tell the tale. He would look for another Bride of Frankenstein, too, a nice girl with a slam-bam bolt of lightning in her hair.

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.”