Swimming With the Fish

By Ed Staskus

   There are thousands of restaurants in Cleveland Ohio. Captain Frank’s isn’t one of them. It used to be and when it was it was one of the best places to eat if you liked seafood and Lake Erie waves and wind and waves shaking the building on the East 9th St. pier. Every so often somebody full of cheer and careless after a hearty meal or drunk as a skunk drove off the pier into the lake. 

   “It was my last stop after a night of drinking in the Flats,” said Nancy Wasen. “Every night I was surprised no one fell off the pier and drowned.” It wasn’t for want of trying.

   In 1964 Mary Jane Jereb was 16 years old. She was in a car with her cousin and a neighbor and a driver’s ed instructor. “He took us downtown, to prepare for city driving. I wasn’t driving, my neighbor was. He directed her to this particular parking lot.” It was Captain Frank’s parking lot. They drove straight to the edge of the slick slimy pier. Spray from the Great Lake spotted their windshield.

   “The instructor told my neighbor to turn around and head back to Parma. My short young life flashed before me as she pulled into a parking space and backed out and headed home.” They slowly carefully left the dark deep behind.

   Captain Frank’s was a “Lobster House” or a “Sea Food House” depending on the signage of the year. It changed now and then. There was a panhandler who called himself Captain Frank who hung around outside the restaurant day and night, his hand stuck out. Demoted cops who kept quiet about hidden rooms in gambling joints and pocketed cash in job-buying schemes were assigned to seagull patrol on the pier, always in the dead of winter. They ignored the panhandler and did their best to walk the chill off. Sometimes they helped the innocent just to stay on the move.

   Francesco Visconti was the Captain Frank who ran the restaurant. He was a Sicilian from Palermo whose parents beat it out of Europe the year World War One started. At first, as soon as he could handle a horse, he sold fish from a wagon. After that he operated the Fulton Fish Market on East 22nd St. He was 40 years old in 1940 and lived with his wife, Rose, a son, as well as three daughters.

   He bought a beat-up passenger ferry building on the East 9th pier in 1953 and opened Captain Frank’s. I was a baby living the easy life in Sudbury, Ontario at the time and missed the grand opening. Kim Rifici Augustine’s grandfather was the original chef at Captain Frank’s. “The wax matches he used for flambé caused a fire back in the late 1950s,” she said. The fish shack burned down in 1958. Frank Visconti built it back bigger and better the next year.

   By the late 1950s my family had emigrated from Canada to Cleveland Ohio. We lived nearby, but never went to the restaurant. My parents were Lithuanians and ate bowls of beetroot soup and plates of potato pancakes and zeppelins at their own table. They didn’t know a Mediterranean Diet from Micky Mouse.

   In the Old Country they had feasted on pigs and crows. My mother’s father was a family farmer who kept porkers, slaughtering them himself, and smoking them in a box he built in the attic of the house, the box built around their fireplace chimney.

   “It was the best bacon and sausage I ever had in my life,” my mother said eighty years later.

   They hunted wild crows. “Those birds were tasty,” my mother said. The younger the birds the better. Those still in the nest and unable to get away were considered delicacies. Their crow cookouts involved breaking necks and boiling the birds in cooking oil over a bonfire, serving them with whatever vegetables they had at hand.

   Since I was part of the family, I ate with my parents my brother and sister. My mother prepared every meal. I ate whatever she made, even the fried liver and God-awful ethnic headcheese, although we never, thank God, had carrion-loving crows. Even if I had wanted to go to the Lobster House, I didn’t have a dime to my name

   Captain Frank’s boomed in the 1960s and 1970s. There were views of the lake out every window. There was an indoor waterfall. If you had water on the brain, it was the place to be. The food was terrific. Judy Garland, Nelson Eddy, and Flip Wilson ate there whenever they were in town doing a show. The Shah of Iran and Mott the Hoople partied there, although not at the same time. They weren’t any which way on the same wavelength, other than under the spell of Frank. He never asked them to leave, no matter how late it was.

   There was a luncheonette behind the restaurant that doubled as a custard stand in the summer. When the Shah or Mott the Hoople stayed later than ever, they could sit in the back in the morning in the breezy sunshine with a cup of custard while lake freighters went back-and-forth. “I never went inside Captain Frank’s, but I remember the ice cream shop in the back well,” recalled Bob Peake, a homegrown boy who was a frozen sweets connoisseur.

   Frank Visconti was a made member of the Cleveland Mob. His criminal record dated back to 1931, including arrests for narcotics, bootlegging, and counterfeiting. The restaurant was frequented by high echelon hoods and politician pals alike. Many family meetings were held there. 

   “It was the hangout for Cleveland Mafia Enterprises,” said Tom James on Cleveland Crime Watch.

   Longshoremen went to Kindler’s and Dugan’s to drink before and after work, but between their double shifts went to Captain Frank’s for power cocktails. When they were done it was only a short walk back to the docks. When the weather was bad, they were warmed up and sobered up by the time they clocked back in.

   The restaurant was a football field’s length from Lakefront Stadium, where Chief Wahoo and the Browns played. The ballpark sat nearly 80,000 fans. The Indians were always limping along, their glory days long gone, but the Browns were exciting, and on game day crazy loud cheering rocked the windows of the restaurant. Cold biting winds blew into the stadium in spring fall and winter. In the summer under the lights, swarms of midges and mayflies sometimes brought baseball games to a standstill.

   In 1966 the Beatles played the stadium and after that the Beach Boys, Pink Floyd, and the Rolling Stones showed up to rock the home of rock-n-roll. In the 1980s U2 brought its big show to town, raking in millions singing about lovesickness.

   Even though I was grown-up by the 1970s, I still didn’t dine at Captain Frank’s. I was living in a rented house in a forgotten part of town, and it was all I could do to feed myself at home. I didn’t have pocket money to eat out. When I finally joined the way of the world and could afford to go whenever I had some spare change and wasn’t too tired from working with my hands all day long, I ate out. Most of my friends were racing to the top. I was starting at the bottom.

   There was a kind of magic eating at Captain Frank’s at night. I watched the lights of ships making their way slowly into Cleveland’s harbors while munching on scampi and warm rolls swimming in garlic butter. They served steaks the cooks seared, but the seafood was usually just threatened with heat and served. That’s why it was good. Students from St. John College on East 9th and Superior Ave. walked there to have midnight breakfast because it was good.

   The Friday night in September 1984 my friend Matti Lavikka and I treated my brother to dinner on his 31st birthday at Captain Frank’s was almost the last birthday he celebrated on this earth. We didn’t know Frank Visconti had died earlier that year, but in the car on the pier after dinner we thought my brother was dying. He was choking for air. The dinner had been very good, but he looked very bad. We were afraid he might end up swimming with Frank.

   He was getting over a marriage to a Columbus girl that had lasted 56 days. We picked him up in Mentor, where he was living alone, and went downtown. It was a starry late summer evening. We ordered a bottle of Chianti, some pasta, and lots of shellfish. We didn’t know, and he didn’t know, that he was allergic to shellfish. 

   “I don’t know why, but I hardly ever eat fish,” he said. “It doesn’t usually agree with me.” Our dinner at Frank’s that night included scallops, oysters, shrimp, and lobster. He might not have been allergic to all of them, but he was allergic to one of them, for sure.

   Halfway through coffee and dessert, which was sfogliatelle, layers of crispy puff pastry that bundle together in a lobster-like way, he was itching wheezing and his head was swelling. His lips, tongue, and throat were like silly putty. He was breaking out into hives. He was getting dizzy and dizzier. It was like he had eaten a poisoned apple.

   Shellfish allergy is an abnormal response by the body’s immune system to proteins in all manner of marine animals. Among those are crustaceans and mollusks. Some people with the allergy react to all shellfish. Others react to only some of them. It ranges from mild symptoms, like a stuffy nose, to life-threatening.

   Matti was a fireman and paramedic in Bay Village. Looking at my brother he didn’t like what he was seeing. We frog-marched him to the car and made a beeline for the nearest hospital. Matti put the pedal to the metal. The Cleveland Clinic wasn’t far, and we had him at the front door of the emergency room in ten minutes. Five minutes later a doctor was injecting him with epinephrine and a half-hour later he was his old self.

   “Thanks, guys,” he said when we dropped him off at his bachelor pad in Mentor.

   After Frank Visconti died the restaurant limped along. The service and food got worse and worse. The tables and chairs and walls looked like they needed to be scrubbed down. Fewer and fewer people went downtown for any reason other than work. I was working downtown near the Cleveland State University campus, where Matti and I had started a small two-man business. One evening when I got off work, I called my girlfriend fiancée wife-to-be, who was living in Reserve Square, and invited her to dinner at Captain Frank’s.  I had seen her eat buffets of seafood. She had a hollow leg. I knew she wasn’t allergic to any of it. When we got there, however, the pier was dark in all directions. There were no parked cars in the lot and no lights in any of the windows.

   Rudolph Hubka, Jr., the new owner the past five years, gave up the ghost and declared bankruptcy in 1989. Nobody said a word. Hardly anybody noticed. The building was demolished in 1994. The only thing left was litter blowing around in the wind.

   We drove to Little Italy and snagged a table at Guarino’s, a woman out front pointing the way. Sam Guarino had died two years earlier, but his wife Marilyn was carrying on with the help of Sam’s sister Marie, who lived upstairs and helped with the cooking in the basement kitchen.  “Marilyn sat in front, and she was like the captain on a ship, making sure everything was just right,” said Suzy Pacifico, who was a waitress at the eatery for fifty-two years.

   We had a farm-to-table dinner before there was farm-to-table, red wine, and coffee with tiramisu. Mama Guarino asked us how we liked the cake. We didn’t see any fishy characters. When I drove my gal home, we were both happy as clams.

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.”

Dead Man’s Curve

By Ed Staskus

   Maggie Campbell was almost 22 years-old the morning she drove face first into a cement truck. She was driving a yellow rust-bucket 1970 Caprice Coupe a girlfriend of hers at the Bay Deli, where they both worked, had sold her for one hundred and ninety-five dollars in cash.

   “Thank God it was a big car,” she said. The Caprice in the early 1970s had one of the longer front hoods Chevrolet had ever produced. It went from here to tomorrow. Only the Monte Carlo front hood went from here to someday.

   She had gotten up late that frosty spring morning and shoveled down a Fudgsicle, a hot dog, and a cup of joe for breakfast. “I better go,” she said to herself, throwing the Fudgsicle stick in the trash.

   Her roommate and she were sharing a small house on Schwartz Road behind St. John’s West Shore Hospital in Westlake. She was late for class at the Fairview Beauty Academy. She bolted out to the car.

   When she got into the Chevy, she couldn’t wait for the front window to defrost more than the small square absolutely needed to look through. She was squinting through one square inch of windshield taking the curve at Excalibur Ave. and listening to Jan and Dean on the radio when she hit the cement truck head on.

   “It’s no place to play, you’d best keep away, I can hear ’em say, won’t come back from Dead Man’s Curve.”

   “I never touched the brakes,” she said.

   The truck was parked on her side of the street, the front end facing her. That was the first surprise. She knew she was on the right side of the street as she came around the curve since she could see full well out her driver’s side window. At first, Maggie didn’t know what happened. The second surprise was that when she tried to get out of her car she couldn’t. When she looked down to see why she couldn’t move she saw the steering wheel between her legs. She was sandwiched between the wheel and the seat.

   Some days you are the dog and other days you are the fire hydrant.

   She finally got out of the car by swinging one and then the other leg over the steering wheel. Standing next to her Caprice, looking at the man suddenly standing in front of her, she realized why no one had come to help her. He was white as a ghost. The rest of the cement men behind him looked like they were looking at a ghost, too. They thought she had died in the car, which had instantly turned into junkyard scrap. 

   “I tried to wave you off,” one of them said.

   “Hey, here’s a little clue, I didn’t see you and I didn’t see the truck,” she said. “Thanks for the heads up, but I didn’t see anything.”

   The next thing she knew a woman walked up to her and shoved Kleenex up her nose.

   “You better sit down,” she said.

   “That’s OK,” Maggie said. “I’m good. Besides, I’ve got to get to school.”

   “No, you better sit down. I’ve called an ambulance. They should be here in just a minute.”

   “Seriously, thanks, but no. I just bumped my nose.”

   She sat Maggie down and when she did her skirt rode up and she saw her mangled knees.

   The convertor radio underneath the dash had slammed into them. Even though she couldn’t feel anything bad, not yet at least, she could see shinbones and a thighbone. “That doesn’t look right,” she thought. It had only been a minute since she had gotten out of the car. The front end was jack-knifed. There was bloodshed all over the front seat. 

   It was after the excitement was over that she went for real. Then she lost her eyesight. It was the last surprise. She blinked. It didn’t help.

   “Everything’s gone fuzzy, like an old TV on the fritz.”

   “Just close your eyes. The paramedics are here.”

   “OK, open your eyes,” one of the paramedics said.

   “Are they open?” she asked.

   “Yeah,” he said.

   “Are you sure? Because I can’t see anything.”

   “Is it like in a closet, or more like the basement, with the lights all out?”

   “A closet or a basement? What kind of as question is that? Oh, my God, this guy is such a smart ass. Who sits in a dark closet except crazy people?”

   They laid her down and out in the ambulance and, suddenly, her sight came back.

   “It was just the shock,” she told them.

   “Stop self-diagnosing,” the medic said.

   “I was a lifeguard at the Bay Pool. I know my stuff!”

   St John’s West Shore Hospital must have thought she was younger than she was. Underage is what they thought, so they called her parents.

   “You did what? You called who? I’m 21-years-old. You didn’t need to call my parents.”

   “It’s done.”

   “You rat bastards!”

   Maggie was beyond mad. She hadn’t talked to either of her parents for more than a year.

   “Fuck off and die” had been the last thing she had said to them.

   She planned on moving out as soon she turned 21, but her dad didn’t want her to grow up or move out. Maggie wanted both, to be 21 and gone. Her parents wanted her out, too, but they didn’t want her to go, either. When she told them she would be leaving the day of her birthday, first, they slapped the crap out of her, and then threw her out of the house. She had no money, no clothes, and nowhere to go.

   She called her dad from a phone booth about picking up her clothes.

   “If you come grovel for them, you can get them out of the trash,” he said.

   “You keep them, dad, because I’m not going to grovel.”

   “At the very least they raised a true-blue Scottish kid,” Maggie thought. She never knew if her dad really threw her clothes in the trash because she never called or went back, at least not for the clothes.

   Her mom burst through the emergency room door at St. John’s at the same time as her dad got her on the phone. Before that she had been joking with the doctors, saying she cut her legs shaving.

   “Oh, my God, look at her legs!” her mom started shouting.

   “Who let that woman in here?” Maggie blared.

   “Who’s the president?” her dad asked over and over on the phone until the line went dead. The next thing she knew her whole family, sisters, brother, her dad rushing in from work, were all in the room, and then the adrenaline started to wear off fast. She had been laying there, not too panicked, and suddenly her constitutional joy juice was all gone. She went banshee.

   AAARRRGHHHHHH!!

   Her younger sister started crying and everybody got so upset about her crying that they put her in her dad’s lap. Her mom stroked her hair. Maggie was left on her back on the table in pain and agony, ignored and all alone until a nurse finally wheeled her away to surgery.

   No one noticed she was gone.

   At the end of the day, what happened wasn’t off the charts. She broke her nose and had two black eyes along with a concussion. She hurt both of her knees. One of them had to be operated on. She was released three days later. A policemen told her afterwards if she had hit the back of the cement truck instead of the front she would have been decapitated.

   If that had happened and she had been driving a rag top instead of her hard shell, then “HEADLESS GIRL IN TOPLESS CAR” would have been the headline on the front page of the next day’s West Life News. As it happened, she ended up on page seven.

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.”