Making the House

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 downtown to Public Square. The ghetto was uptown. The house was its own 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 into the Plaza, 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.

   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 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 raucousoutrageous 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 found 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 said. 

   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 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 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 half there.

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

   I lived in a back apartment on the second floor, 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 have 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. We visited one another and chewed the fat.

   “Friends would just drop in,” said Virginia.

   One Siberian Sunday 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 up and got some air under their sled.

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

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

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.”

Hot Room Badass

brian-paquette-chair-pose-chagrin-yoga.jpg

By Ed Staskus

“I’ll have the whole grain pancakes and coffee,” said Barron Cannon.

“Cream and sugar?” asked Chris, the bartender, wearing a “Best Burgers” black sweatshirt.

“Black,” said Barron.

He was a vegan.

“And you?”

“Three eggs easy over, sausage links, whole wheat toast, cream for my coffee,” said Frank Glass.

He was not a vegan.

Barron and Frank were sitting at the bar at Herb’s Tavern in Rocky River for a late Saturday morning breakfast. “Add a lemon slice to the iced water, and no straw,” said Barron. “If you’re over three years old, or not disabled, you shouldn’t be drinking out of a straw. On top of that, whoever thought of disposable plastic straws should be horse whipped.”

“What got into you today?” Frank asked, changing the subject. Something was always getting into Barron. When it came to the environment and climate change, he wore blinders, always ready to get into it.

“I don’t know,” said Barron. “I was feeling good alert, just feeling it.”

They had come from Barron’s warm flow yoga class earlier that morning. Both of them, and probably everyone else in the class, had worked up an appetite. Barron owned and taught at a yoga studio on the east end of Lakewood, a ten-minute drive away.

“It reminded me of the way Kristen Zarzycki used to teach her Sunday afternoon five-dollar classes at Inner Bliss.”

“Is she still teaching?” asked Barron. “I thought she had gone into biotechnology sales.”

“I don’t know, but when she was teaching, she was a tiger by the tail.”

Frank Glass had gone to three yoga classes a week for three or four years, and then twice a week Bikram Yoga classes for two more years. He had a herniated disk in his lower back. Almost nothing helped. A hot water bottle helped, a daily NSAID helped, and yoga helped. He had attended a dozen-or-so workshops in his time. He practiced at home now, only going to Barron’s studio once or twice a month to stay in touch.

“That way you can stay in touch with me,” said his wife, Vera.

“There would be a eighty ninety people crammed into the class, you know how Inner Bliss is, some of them in trim, most of them trying as hard as they could to keep up, sucking air, it was a fast flow, and Kristen would be on her mat, doing all the poses, and doing the dialogue, cheerful and upbeat, while half the class was dying, just trying to make it to the end. In the summer, even with the windows open, it could get hot in there.”

“My classes are fun yet challenging, taught from a base of gratitude and commitment to taking care of your body so that students can shine in their space on the mat,” says Kristen. “On the mat, I have learned that as in life, each person has areas where they struggle and those where they shine, and that the collaboration of all of our gifts is what makes our world so amazing.”

When asked what was in the backpack she carried to and from class, she said, “Gum, lip gloss, and binkie.”

Whether she meant a baby’s pacifier, the high hop a rabbit performs when happy, or a stuffed animal, was unclear.

“Was she your toughest teacher?” asked Barron, a flapjack shard on his fork dripping maple syrup.

“No, Deanna Black was a boat load. She was freelance, thank God, so I only ran into her when she was subbing. She drove her classes at breakneck pace, and every few minutes we had to do ten push-ups, or twenty sit-ups, or some damn thing, and then it was back to the flow.”

“Push-ups are good for you,” said Barron.

“Never mind about your two cents’ worth,” said Frank. “The thing is, if you faltered, say you collapsed in a push-up, she would come over and do twenty push-ups right next to you, smiling like a wolf. She didn’t actually do the class, instead she prowled around, explaining cajoling threatening, but one look at her was all you needed to know she could it, all the physical stuff, and another class after that, with no problem. She was incredibly fit.”

“Climb every mountain, ford every stream,” Barron sang, lilting.

“She did that in the off-season.”

“The benefits are more than meet the eye,” says Deanna. “Your reactions to the challenges in your physical practice often reflect and carry over to those from the challenges of daily living.”

“OK, so she was lusty and tough as nails, good for her,” said Barron.

“But she wasn’t the toughest teacher I ever met,” said Frank. “That would be Brian Paquette.”

“Who is Brian Paquette.”

“He taught Bikram Yoga at Chagrin Yoga, although they didn’t call it that because they weren’t one of the Brainiac’s licensed studios.”

Bikram Yoga was masterminded by Bikram Choudhury, practiced in a carpeted room heated to 105 degrees with a humidity of 40%, like India even before climate change. The walls were covered in mirrors. Instructors were taught to be high-handed and to teach from a hands-off literal platform at the front of the class.

“That man was a nut,” said Barron.

“He was a nut, but if you wanted to climb the mountain of posture yoga, his 26 postures in the torture chamber was the mountain.”

Bikram Choudhury’s philosophy of yoga was making pupils work through pain. “I am a butcher and I try to kill you, but don’t worry, yoga is the best death,” he told his followers.

“You took classes in Chagrin Falls? That’s a forty-minute drive one way.”

“Twice a week for two years, until I had enough of the most unrelenting remorseless cramps I have ever had in my life. I couldn’t drink electrolytes fast enough to replenish. I got a vicious cramp driving home one night and had to pull off on the shoulder before I killed myself and everyone around me. That was the beginning of the end, although by then the economics of taking classes wasn’t making sense to me anymore.”

“Whoa, there, my friend,” said Barron. “You’re talking about my bread and butter.”

“It wasn’t just that, although bread and butter played a part. It dawned on me there wasn’t any magic, not that yoga teachers aren’t magic, most of them are, any magic in going to classes anymore. Sure, it was engaging to practice in a collective atmosphere, but I knew enough by then to stand on my own two feet. What I didn’t know, I knew I could just ask you over breakfast or lunch. Can you pass the butter?”

“What made him so tough?” asked Barron

“What made Brian tough was that he didn’t come across as tough, at all. He came across as a good-natured guy. And he was a good-natured guy, patient affable understanding. Most Bikram Yoga teachers, not if but when you had to stop, always wanted you to stay in the room.”

“Just sit down on the mat for a minute,” the apostle on the platform would say. “It’s cooler at floor level.”

“That sounds like Bugs Bunny physics,” Barron laughed.

“It was maybe one half of a degree cooler on the floor,” said Frank. “Brian let people leave the room. He told us, if you have to, you have to. Try to come back if you can. He encouraged us to drink as much water as possible. I had one teacher, she trotted out the harebrained idea that water weighed you down and we should only be taking a missionary-sized sip once in a while.”

“He sounds like a simpatico kind of guy. Is he from Ohio, from here?”

“I’m not sure, although I don’t think so. When I was taking classes in Chagrin Falls, he told me he lived nearby, maybe even within walking distance. One night, after class, we were standing around, he mentioned he had gone through some hard times. He had been a professional gambler, something like that, for a while, and had fallen into a downward spiral. He got connected to yoga, somehow scraped up enough cash for Bikram Yoga teacher training, and trained in Las Vegas, of all places.”

Bikram Yoga teacher training is learning the world-famous system and learning to teach it, according to Bikram HQ.  They are dedicated to teaching trainees the precise nature of yoga. Everyone is nurtured in a challenging, but safe environment, no kidding.

Trainees learn how to greet students professionally and jawbone intelligently about the mental and physical benefits of yoga. Everyone is encouraged to develop a dedicated hatha practice. They are taught how to speak clearly and how to teach the sequence confidently, correcting students appropriately and compassionately, no fooling.

They learn how to grow their own personal yoga practice, sans steam, since it impractical in most apartments condos homes anywhere. There’s no kidding about that.

The training takes about four weeks and costs between $12 and $15 thousand, depending on what paradise on earth the training is set. The total costs include tuition, hotel accommodation, transportation, lectures, classes, towels, and all the water you need to complete the training in one piece.

Even though Bikram Choudhury has recently fled the United States after losing a multi-million-dollar civil suit for sexual shenanigans, he continues to stage his tent show around the rest of the world.

“Brian taught hot yoga, but he was more engaged with Kriya Yoga, which was crazy at odds with the Bikram way of life, which was fancy cars and fancy girls and cash on the barrelhead. He didn’t ever say much about Bikram Choudhury, although he once said yoga had been around a long time and no one had a proprietary claim to it.”

“So, he was more a Kriya kind of guy than a fancy pants?”

“That’s right. You’d ask him what his favorite pose was, and he’d say, ‘Meditation posture, straight spine, because it brings peace.’ His favorite books were the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible, Holy Science, and Autobiography of a Yogi. If you asked him what made him happy, he’d say, ‘Meditation, singing the names of God, and spending time with my family.’ His favorite quote was, ‘Read a little. Meditate more. Think of God all the time.’ I forgot to ask him who said that, but it was probably some old-school yogi.”

“My God, he sounds like a saint, not a badass,” said Barron. “I mean, one of my favorite quotes is, ‘You better take care of me Lord, because if you don’t, you’re gonna have me on your hands.’ What does that make me?”

“Who said that?”

“Hunter S. Thompson.”

“Fear and Loathing?”

“Right-o.”

“Brian wasn’t like that,” said Frank. “He wasn’t a saint, just a regular guy, really, although he did a hell of a lot of meditation. I mean, hours of it. What I mean about him being a badass is the way he went about his business in the hot room. He always came in last, wearing mid-thigh compression shorts, no shirt, and carrying a jug of water. He ran the class like a grade-school teacher. He wasn’t like a drill sergeant, which was a persona most Bikram teachers took on in some way shape or form.”

“Why did he need water?” asked Barron. “I thought Bikram Yoga teachers just shouted out the poses from their soapbox. Why did he need a jug?”

“He did just about the whole thing, which is why he needed it. That’s why he takes the gold medal of badass yoga teacher, in my eyes, at least. Every class there were plenty of people who had to take a break or leave the room. A lot of them were young and fit. Brian did it day after day, no sweat. Getting through ninety minutes of the torture chamber wasn’t any walk in the park, man, it was hard.”

“How hard can it be?”

“Believe me, beyond hard,” said Frank. “You don’t see me doing it anymore.”

“You finally accept an offer to go to a class thinking, easy, I can do this.” said Benny Johnson about his first Bikram class.

“I played real sports for a few years, so how hard can it be? You arrive at the class thinking, let’s do this! But then you walk into the class and the heat hits you. It is ninety-one thousand degrees. You set up your mat in an open space. Little do you realize the hell awaiting you. The poses are relatively easy but holding them is hard. And you actually really start needing water, but it does not help! By the final stretches, you’re just limping along. Then the torture ends, and you lay down in a haze and total defeat.”

“More iced water?” asked Chris, walking up to the bar.

“Yes, please,” Frank and Barron both said.

They drank their water, paid the bill of fare, and left Herb’s Tavern.

“How did Brian reconcile Kriya with Bikram,” Barron asked as they walked to the back of the parking lot. “The two seem mutually exclusive. Kriya is about selflessness and Bikram was only in it for himself.”

“I don’t know, we never talked about it, but his actions, how he did things, seem to say he did. He was both a badass and one of the more sincere people I ever met. He was a quiet sparkplug. If you asked him what inspired him, he would say, ‘My guru, my wife and my children.’ If you asked him who sees the real you in this sketchy world, he’d say God.”

“It sounds to me that the way he practiced in the studio was the test of his sincerity,” said Barron. “He was melding the two, but not selling out.”

“He’s a religious guy in a secular world, a spiritual guy teaching a totally incarnate practice,” said Frank. “He was always urging us to meditate, even though we were all there for the crazy boot camp workout because all of us needed it for our own almost always physical reasons. He was hard to make out.”

“The good of the body depends on the goodness of the spirit, and the other way around,” said Barron.

They got into Frank’s Hyundai Tucson and pulling up to Detroit Road, a black squirrel built like the tailback Barry Sanders, crazy quick and elusive as the all-Pro, vaulted over the brick wall surrounding the outdoor front terrace with a chuck of stale bagel in his mouth. Frank feathered the brakes, but there was no need. He wasn’t the kind of squirrel who ran in circles and got run over. He dashed to the bushy endzone at the back of Century Cycles and disappeared into the trees.

“Have you ever noticed squirrels never say things like, if I had my life to live over, I would do whatever?” asked Frank.

“I know what you mean,” said Barron, chewing on a fresh bagel he had squirreled away in his pocket before leaving. “They’re just rats in better clothes, but they’ve got it going, for sure. They’re not vegans, but what’s more free and right in the head than a squirrel?”

They might get run over by us, squashed flat like pancakes by car after car, but they never fall out of trees into a world not of their making. They are second to none at planting their own trees, too. They bury their acorns, but often forget where they put them. The forgotten acorns become oak trees.

Ed Staskus posts a feature story monthly on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com.