Blood in the Aisles

By Ed Staskus

   The last summer we lived in the jam-packed immigrant neighborhood around Eddy Rd. was the last year my friends and I took Cleveland’s Rapid Transit downtown every Saturday to mess around and go to the movies. It was 20-some years after the city-owned bus and train system, what everybody called CTS, got rolling. It was 1963. The news was all about civil rights and Vietnam, two issues we barely knew anything about and cared about even less. What we cared about were slot cars, riding our bikes, and summer camp.

   Stevie Wonder released his first live album, “The 12 Year Old Genius.” We were all 12 and 13 years old. None of us were geniuses, not by a long shot, although some of us went on to be able to think more or less clearly.

   Push-button telephones were new, 1st class postage cost 5 cents, and President John Kennedy visited West Berlin, delivering his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. We went around calling each other Berliners and saluting Nazi-style. All of us had voted for JFK in a mock election at St. George’s Catholic School. Our nuns told us to stop saluting and focus on JFK’s good deeds, but they need not have. He was young energetic handsome while Richard Nixon had been shifty old with a five o’clock shadow. 

   The Rapid Transit was a light rail system, what we simply called the train. Tens of millions of riders rode it every year, especially on Saturdays, when it seemed like all of them were riding it at once. We had to stand most of the time. Even when we got a seat, we had to give it up to pregnant women, crippled men, and old folks. Standing and swaying and holding on to a pole didn’t matter. We had ants in our pants for roaming around downtown and seeing a big-time movie.

   All we had known in our earlier years was the Shaw-Hayden Theater, which we could walk to. They showed monster movies, cowboy movies, and space adventure movies on Saturday afternoons. Cartoons and a double bill cost 50 cents. We ignored the newsreels. Popcorn cost 15 cents, and since we were chronically short on hard cash, we brought our own in paper bags hidden under our jackets. Sometimes we stopped at Mary’s Sweet Shoppe and bought penny candy.

   There was a playground behind the neighborhood fire station with Saturday Sandbox contests, but we never went, being too old for sandboxes. There were dances at the Shaw Pool every Saturday night, but we never went to those either, being too young to care about girls.

Before the matinee there was a drawing for prizes. One of my friends won two thousand sheets of paper on a winter afternoon. He was beside himself hauling the reams home in the snow. He complained about frostbite, but he was a whiner at school and in our scout troop, so we ignored him. The theater was big, more than a thousand seats. We usually went early so we could sit in the front row, stretching our legs out, horsing around, kicking each other.

   Going downtown we barnstormed from where we lived off St. Clair Ave. down East 128th St. to Shaw Ave. to Hayden Ave. and followed an unnamed unmapped foot path to the CTS Windermere station. We scrambled up the embankment, crossed the tracks at the rear of the station, and waited on the platform for the downtown bound train. Windermere was the end of the line for the Red Line.

   When the rails rolled into home plate, we dusted ourselves off and ran upstairs out of the station, running through the Terminal Tower lobby and bursting outside, rain or shine. We made tracks around Public Square until we were tired. We liked walking to the movies on one of the three main avenues, which were Prospect, Euclid, and Superior. Our parents warned us about staying away from Prospect Ave., where there were prostitutes, smut stores, and burlesque houses. It was because of their words of wisdom that we took Prospect Ave. to East 14th St. most of the time, although we never talked to the whores and never went into the sketchy bars and clubs. We weren’t interested in smut and besides we didn’t have the money to pay for cheap thrills. All the money we had, we hoarded for the train, the movie, and snacks.

   There were five theaters clustered between East 14th and East 17th. Four of them faced Euclid Ave. while one faced East 14th St. The three blocks were known as Playhouse Square, although none of us knew that. We didn’t pay attention to signs unless they had something to do with food or the movies. All of us had our own money, cobbled together from stingy allowances, paper routes, altar boy service at weddings, and even thievery, if push came to shove and our Saturday was threatened.

   The Ohio and State theaters were built by New York City plutocrat Marcus Loew in the early 1920s, followed by Charles Platt’s Hanna Theater. It was named for Mark Hanna, Cleveland’s big-time wheeler-dealer senator in Washington. The Pompeiian-style Allen Theater opened a few months later.

   The last theater opened at the end of the next year in the Keith Building, the tallest skyscraper in the city. The biggest electric sign in the world was fabricated and turned on the night of the Palace Theater’s opening. The movie house was billed as the “Showplace of the World.” The opening night entertainment was headlined by a famous mimic. Everybody said it was “the swankiest theater in the country.” 

   It wasn’t swank anymore when we started going to matinees, but we didn’t notice. It had wide seats and a gigantic screen and that was all that mattered. The movies cost 75 cents and we were glad to pay it. It was where we saw “Son of Flubber” and afterwards pretended to defy gravity like Fred MacMurray. We saw “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and laughed until we cried. We loved stories about buried treasure. It was perpetual motion and shouting. Ethel Merman was the most likable loudmouth we ever heard. We saw it three times and it seemed new every time.

   We saw “Cleopatra,” but agreed afterwards that Elizabeth Taylor wanted to be first fiddle so bad we got sick of her. “Why is she even in the movie?” we wondered. Rex Harrison and Richard Burton were more like it. Thousands of Romans with swords and spears fighting among themselves was even more like it. Swords and sandals in banshee mode were what we had paid to see.

   We wanted to see “Psycho” but weren’t allowed to buy tickets. We were warned it was too intense and inappropriate for boys our age. We were offended, but when we heard what it was about, we asked each other what all the fuss was. It sounded like a sicko stabbing people, which was right up our alley. We had all seen plenty of horror movies, like “Carousel of Souls” and “Village of the Damned.”

   When “The Raven” was playing we saw it right away, even though none of us knew Edgar Allen Poe from the Man in the Moon. There’s a black bird. There’s a tapping at the door. The night is dark and howling. When the door is opened there’s nobody there.

   “Watch your back,” we yelled at the screen.

   The Big Three in the movie were Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, and Peter Lorre, even though Peter Lorre was a midget. He had a sinister voice, hooded eyes, and a dodgy way about him, which made up for his lack of height. Vincent Price was disappointing, even though he was the tallest. He spoke and acted like a sissy Gentleman Jim, even though he was supposed to be a big bad magician. In the end the whole business was disappointing. It was more funny than scary, and once we realized how it was going, we enjoyed it for the laughs. The Big Three turned out to be the Three Stooges in disguise.

   We took a chance and asked for our money back, which we hardly ever did, but a grouch in a blue suit ushered us out and told us where to go.

   We heard about “Seven Wonders of the World” on the radio, on WERE-AM, before we ever saw it on the marquee of the Palace Theater. We didn’t go see it, even though we saw it on the marquee week after week and even though it was in Cinerama. We saw everything in Cinerama, anyway, since we always sat in the front row. A wide screen made a bad movie twice as good.

   Our own hometown was where we went to see the wonders of the world. We wandered around in the Flats amazed, stargazing up at the steel plants, looking down on the greasy Cuyahoga River, watching the up and down bridges go up and down as freighters hauling ore slowly made their way upstream. Six years later the river caught on fire, flames and plumes of black smoke turning day to night. We walked along the shoreline of Lake Erie where fishermen pulled perch and walleye out of the dirty water.

   We snuck into Municipal Stadium, called The Mistake on the Lake, whenever we knew the fire-balling lefty Sam McDowell was pitching. He was 20 years old and tall as a tree. Hardly anybody went to see the middle to back of the pack team and we often had most of the 81, 000 seat stadium to ourselves, whooping and hollering it up. When ushers asked to see our ticket stubs, we hemmed and hawed and changed sections. Whenever we ended up in the bleachers there were never any ushers to roust us. If it was hot, we pulled our shirts off. We threw popcorn to the pigeons and pebbles at them when they stooped over their free goodies.

   The movies were magic to us. They were like a dreamland in waking life. It didn’t matter if the story was real or unreal. We were dazzled by the moving images and the music. It was disorienting coming out of the dark auditorium after a matinee into bright sunlight, like after a midday nap when dreams come fast and furious.

   The weekend before our summer vacation was done and we had to go back to school we saw our last movie at the Ohio Theater. It was “Lord of the Flies” and was about boys our age who were marooned on a desert island. We thought we were experts about everybody like us and didn’t know anybody who ever did what they did. We suspected movies were some kind of art form but didn’t like grown-ups making up art about us. We appreciated great trash but not great art. We wrote it off as highfalutin science fiction.

   Going home on the train we saw a fight break out. Two men had been talking, then shouting, then shoving each other in the aisle, until one of them pulled a knife and stabbed the other one in the arm. Real blood gushed and stained his clothes. A real woman screamed. Two real men grabbed the knifer and held him down, while another man took his tie off and tied a tourniquet on the upper arm of the stabbed man. When we got to Windermere there were police cars and an ambulance there. We watched, fascinated, until a policeman told us to “break it up and go home.”

   We went home more marveled breathless than any movie had ever made us.

   John Kennedy was shot and killed that fall, which put a pall over everything. A fire broke out in the Ohio Theater the following year and the other theaters were hit by vandalism. All of them closed between the summers of 1968 and 1969 except the Hanna. We were juniors and seniors at St. Joseph’s High School, and the only pictures we went to were at the LaSalle Theater in our North Collinwood neighborhood. But by then when we went to the movies, we were more interested in our girlfriends than whatever was playing, although we found out horror movies were the way to go. 

   There was never any doubt about what to do with your hands when you were out with your main squeeze and the scary parts started.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Bird On the Wing

By Ed Staskus

Some men are good at farming. Other men are good at fishing. Storekeepers keep them in gear and goods. A few men are good for nothing. William Murphy wasn’t a man practiced at doing nothing. He didn’t know fishing or farming but was experienced at raising horses. He was going to have a horse farm and make his way that way.

   He stayed on the cove where he had landed, building a rude shelter. He cut limbed sawed trees by hand and split blocks with an axe. The wood would be ready for a stove and fireplace next year. In the meantime, he bought a load of coal from a passing schooner. He found dampness nearby and looked for an underground spring. When he found it, he dug it out, saving himself the work and expense of digging a well. Whenever he could he cleared land. Sometimes it seemed like it was all he did.

   “The islander making a new farm cut down the trees as fast as possible until a few square yards of the blue sky could be seen above. Roots and branches lying on the ground were set on fire and sometimes the forest caught fire and hundreds of acres of timber were burned,” is how Walter Johnson, a Scotsman who came to Prince Edward Island to start Sunday schools, described it.

   Bill Murphy put enough salted cod away to feed a family of Acadians. When the weather changed for the worse, he smoked read ate slept through the season, living in his union suit. The dead of winter arrived near the end of January and kept at it through February. The daytime high temperatures were below zero, and the overnight low temperatures were negative double digits. After spring arrived and the Prince Consort proved true to his word and his land grant was signed sealed and delivered, he continued clearing land and building a house.

   He wasn’t a farm hand, but he had to eat. His first task was putting in a root garden of beets turnips carrots and potatoes. They would store well the next winter. He made sure there were onions. They added flavor to food and were a remedy to fight off colds. Whenever he started coughing or sneezing, he stripped and rubbed himself all over with goose grease and stuffed a handful of onions into his underwear. He always felt better afterwards. Corn peas beans could be dried and stored for soup. A bachelor might even live on it. 

   Rhubarb was a perennial and one of the earliest to come up in the spring. After a long winter it was the first fresh produce. He planted plenty of rhubarb. The island had a short although rapid growing season. He woke up before sunrise and worked until dusk. He kept at it every day. The Sabbath meant nothing to him.

   The Prince of Wales visited Prince Edward Island that summer during his tour of British North America, arriving in a squadron consisting of the Nile, Flying Fish, and three more men-of-war. The Nile grounded trying to enter Charlottetown’s harbor. Once the tide lifted it, the unhappy boat sailed away towards Quebec. Spectators cheered Bertie’s progress to Government House on streets decorated with spruce arches. 

   “The town is a long straggling place, built almost entirely of wood, and presents few objects of interest.”

   It was a cloudy afternoon, but when it cleared, he went horseback riding. That evening there was a dress dinner and ball at the Province Buildings. The Prince of Wales took a moment to step out onto a balcony.

   “Some Micmac Indians grouped themselves on the lawn, dressed in their gay attire, the headgear of the women recalling the tall caps of Normandy.”

   When the squadron embarked towards the mainland it was in a heavy rain. No one who didn’t need to be on deck wasn’t on deck. There were no spectators in the harbor waving hats and kerchiefs. Even the Indians stayed away.

   “Our visit it is to be hoped has done much good in drawing forth decided evidence of the loyalty of the colonists to the Queen.”

   Their loyalty and the Queen’s confidence were soon to be tested.

   Bill Murphy didn’t bother making the long trip into town, having already gotten what he wanted from the royal family. The Prince of Wales was a playboy. There wasn’t anything he could do for him. When he was able to at last inhabit the house against the elements, he started on a horse barn. It would be large, large enough for stabling animals, milking cattle, and storing tools. The haymow would hold more than forty tons to feed his animals during the winter.

   At the same time, he started looking for a wife. He needed help indoors so he could work the outdoors. He needed help planting crops to feed himself and a family. He needed help clothing the body. Life without a woman on Prince Edward Island was a hard life. He found her the same time his work bee was finishing the barn.

He met her in the cash provision store in Cavendish. Siobhan Regan was 19 years-old, a few years older than half his age. She wasn’t pretty or well off but looked sturdy and round bottomed. He was sure she could bear children without killing herself or the child. She could read, although she seldom did, except for the Good Book. She was ruddy cheeked with big teeth and was a quiet woman, suiting him, who used the spoken word only for what it was worth.

   They were married and snug in their new house, home from the wedding in a buggy retrofitted with sleigh runners, the night before the last big snowfall in April. She got pregnant on Easter Sunday and stayed more-or-less pregnant for the next ten years, bearing six children, all of whom survived. Her husband refused the services of the village’s midwives, refused the services of the doctor, and delivered the children himself. He threw quacksalvers out the door with a curse and a kick. They peddled tonics saturated with moonshine and opium. He had had enough of a taste of both to know they were no good for the sick or healthy, more likely to kill than not. He never drank port, punch, or whiskey, rather drinking his own homemade beer. He liked to wrap up the day with a pint.

   He knew cholera and typhus had something to do with uncleanliness, although he didn’t know what. He had seen enough of it on ships, where straw mattresses weren’t even destroyed after somebody died from dysentery while laying on them. He ran a tight ship, keeping his house and grounds in working order. He didn’t let his livestock near the spring at the house, instead taking them downstream. He had seen the toll in towns where garbage was thrown into the street and left there for years. He and his wife had both been inoculated against smallpox, and as the children got on their feet, so were they.

   The Irishman wasn’t going to throw the dice with the lives of his children. Six out of his ten brothers and sisters died before they reached adulthood in the Land of Saints and Scholars. Their overlords had something to do with it, famine had something to do with it, and their rude lives the rest of it, putting them in early graves. One of them died on the kitchen table where a barber was bleeding him. He bled to death.

   Siobhan Murphy took a breather towards the end of the decade. Her husband and she went to Charlottetown twice that summer to see shows at St. Andrew’s Hall. They saw “Box and Cox” and “Fortune’s Frolic,” both directed by the lively and eccentric Mrs. Wentworth Stevenson, an actress and music teacher trained in London who had formed the Charlottetown Amateur Dramatic Club. 

   They stayed at Mrs. Rankin’s Hotel, having breakfast and dinner there, walking about the city, stopping for tea when the occasion arose, and spent their otherwise not engaged hours making a new baby. When they were done, they went home. The children weren’t surprised that another one of them was on the way.   

   Every farm on Prince Edward had a stable of horses for work and transport. Most farmers used draft horses for hard labor, the nearly one-ton animals two in hand plowing fields, bringing in hay, and hauling manure. It was his good fortune to know horses inside and out, big and small. The carrying capacity of his land was well more than a hundred horses. He wasn’t planning on that many, but a hundred would suit him well if it came to that. He was going to grow most of his own food and sell horses for the rest of life’s essentials and pleasures.   

   By 1867 when Prince Edward Island rejected the idea of Confederation, even though it hosted the Charlottetown Conference in 1864 where it was first proposed, he was well on his way to making his horse farm a going concern. Confederation didn’t concern him, one way of the other. Many islanders wanted to stay part of Great Britain. Others wanted to be annexed by the United States. Some thought becoming a distinct dominion on their own was best. He kept his eye on the prize, his family and farm.

   John Macdonald, the country’s first Prime Minister, always worried about American expansionism, tried to coax the island into the union with incentives, but it wasn’t until they were faced with a major financial crisis that its leaders reconsidered Macdonald’s various offers. It was when they put themselves into a hole that his efforts paid off.

   A coastline-to-coastline railway-building plan gone bad put Prince Edward Island into debt. It spawned a banking crisis. Parliament Hill agreed to take over the debt and prop up the financing needed to resume railway construction. There was a demand for year-round steamer service between the island and mainland. Parliament Hill agreed to the demand. The province wanted money to buy back land owned by absentee landlords, and Parliament Hill agreed to that, too.

   The horse trader was better off than many people on the island. He had a small amount of hard cash while most islanders had no amount of cash to speak of and bartered almost everything. When the chance arose to make a killing during the horse disease of 1872, he took it. The pandemic started in a pasture near Toronto. Inside the year it spread across Canada. Mules, donkeys, and horses got too sick to work. They coughed, ran a fever, and keeled over exhausted getting out of their barns and stables. Delivering lumber from sawmills or beer to saloons killed them outright.

   “There are not fifty horses in the city free from the disease,” a newspaper editor in Ottawa wrote. Another editor in Montreal wrote, “We have very few horses unaffected.” The only place the pandemic didn’t reach was Prince Edward Island.

   “When the disease was raging in the other provinces, our navigation was closed, and our island entirely cut off, in the way of export or import from the mainland, which in fact must have been the reason it did not cross to our shores,” wrote the editor of The Patriot newspaper.

   Bill Murphy drove sixty horses to Summerside where they were loaded on two ships for crossing the Northumberland Straight. Once on shore they were walked to the railhead in New Brunswick and shipped by railcar to Montreal, whose money for the horses was better than all others. When he was paid, he secreted the money inside his shirt with his jacket buttoned up to the collar until he got back home.

   In 1873 the island’s voters were given the option of accepting Confederation or going it alone and having their taxes raised substantially. Most voters chose Confederation, voting their pocketbooks, the same as he did. Prince Edward Island officially joined Canada on July 1, 1873. 

   The weather that day was foul and then a storm rolled in. Thunderbolts lit up the low clouds followed a split second later by sonic booms. The fox in the fields lay low in their foxholes. It wasn’t fit for man or beast.

   It was the same evening, as lightning slashed the sky, that the prize horse on Murphy land spooked and kicked him in the head, breaking his jaw, knocking an eye out, and fracturing his skull. Everything he knew about the animals, as well as the money from the sale of them the year before, which he had squirreled away behind the barn, flew out the window with his soul. The gates of the Underworld and Heaven both opened wide to admit him to eternity. He tossed the Devil’s invitation away.

   Canadian flags flew everywhere on the island that summer. Siobhan Murphy folded hers and buried it with her husband in the village’s cemetery. Alone after the burial, her children gathered around her, she gazed out on the sparkling Atlantic Ocean from the top of Church Hill Road. Her husband had crossed the briny deep at peril to himself to make his fortune, no matter what it might be. He was gone now but the land was still theirs. She would never give it up. It would always be theirs.

   Siobhan had no intention of going anywhere, no matter whether it was Canada or the United States or anywhere else on Prince Edward Island. She couldn’t raise the dead but could raise her children on the farm her husband made. She was determined none of them would ever forget their father. Murphy’s Cove would stay what it was, Murphy’s Cove.

   She started the slow walk with her sick at heart brood back down the red road to the cove and their farm. The smallest of them, a girl her pigtails flapping, pulled at her mother’s dress.

   “Mommy, I have a secret to tell you.”

Excerpted from the crime thriller “Red Road.”

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”