By Ed Staskus
Little Italy was a fifteen-minute drive from the Central Station. Frank Gwozdz drove slightly under the speed limit and didn’t try to time the lights. It took them twenty minutes. He parked at the intersection of Euclid Ave. and Ford Dr. on the border of city life and Case Western Reserve University. Downtown was its own world. The school was its own world. Little Italy was up Mayfield Rd. It was its own world, too.
“We’ll leave the car here,” Frank said. “We can walk the rest of the way.”
“No respect for the law where we’re going?” Tyrone Walker asked.
“Let’s just say it’s better to leave the car here where the school kids are,” Frank said.
They walked to Corbo’s Dolceria on Mayfield Rd. at the corner of Murray Hill Rd. After sitting down at one of a handful of small tables in the front, Frank ordered a caffe normale and Tyrone ordered a coffee with cream and sugar.
“Do you want to try a cappuccino instead?” Frank asked.
“Whatever that is, no,” Tyrone said.
Frank ordered a cassata for himself and another one for Tyrone.
“Do you want it the Sicilian way or the American way?”
“What’s the difference?”
“The Sicilian way is with cannoli filling and maraschino cherries. The American way is with fresh strawberries and custard.”
“I’ll take mine the American way.”
“Suit yourself,” Frank said, ordering the Sicilian way for himself. Antoinette Corbo, who owned the bakery with her husband Joe, brought them their coffees and cassata cakes. She gave Tyrone a sidelong glance.
“Did you know the macaroni machine was invented in this neighborhood 70 years ago?” Frank asked Tyrone.
“No, I didn’t know. I don’t know anything about this neighborhood.”
“It’s kind of like an Italian hill town,” Frank said. “Cleveland is down there and Cleveland Hts. is up there at the top of Mayfield Rd. It’s been here nearly a hundred years. Most of the first immigrants, who were from around Naples, worked at nearby marble works. They were stone cutters. Their women went into the garment trades, mostly lacework and embroidery.”
“Why are we here?” Tyrone asked.
“We’re here for you to see the neighborhood,” Frank said.
“Is this the hot bed of dynamite?”
“This is one side of the bed. The other side of the bed is the Celtic Club.”
“I’ve been boning up on the files.”
“Not here, not now,” Frank said. “After we finish our drinks we can take in the sights and sounds and then walk up to the cemetery. We can talk there. The walls have ears here. The dead don’t care there.”
“Lakeview Cemetery. You can’t see it from here, but we’re sitting right next to it. That why all the Italian stone masons came here in the first place.”
After finishing their cups of coffee Frank and Tyrone walked two blocks down the hill to the Holy Rosary Roman Catholic Church. It was a Baroque-style building. The house of worship stood four-square on the incline of the street.
“The dagos weren’t here but a few years before they started building this church,” Frank said.
“Don’t call them dagos,” Tyrone said.
“I agreed to not call you a Negro,” Frank said. “That’s all the agreeing I’m going to do for one day.”
“All right then,” Tyrone said under his breath.
“Where was I?”
“Christian charity,” Tyrone said.
“I didn’t agree to listen to wisecracks, either.”
“All right,” Tyrone said under his breath again. Frank was his partner but partner or not, he was still his superior officer. There was no point in making an enemy of him his first day on the job. That could wait for later. He followed Frank up one of the flights of concrete stairs to the double front doors. There were two large arched windows above the doors. There were statues of saints at the top of the façade. A domed bell and clock tower anchored the eastern corner of the church. There was a parochial school in the back run by nuns of Maestre Pie Filippini. Boys and girls were forbidden giving them any lip. The nuns were not above giving them a hard crack. Their parents did worse than that whenever they heard excuses from their children about their misbehavior in school.
“Since all the Italians back in the day here were stone cutters, like you said, how come this church is built of brick?” Tyrone asked.
“The foundation is stone,” Frank said.
“I guess that’s good enough,” Tyrone said.
“Are you a church-goer?” Frank asked as they stepped inside.
“Yes, but Baptist, not Roman,” Tyrone said. “How about you?”
They went inside. It was quiet as a moonbeam. The church was empty. The sanctuary was brightly colored, but the nave was musty. It felt like a tomb. The police detectives looked around. Frank spoke low and slow.
“This where the dagos get baptized, get married, and get buried,” he said. “We are always here for the funerals, to make sure whoever is in the casket is the man we won’t miss seeing, making sure he’s really dead, and check out what other hoodlums are in the crowd.”
“Do you take pictures of them?”
“No, we show some respect when we’re here. Beside, we know who’s who.”
“It sounds like routine enough work.”
“It’s not the kind of work you’re going to be doing anytime soon, not with your face.”
“My badge is the same color as everybody else’s,” Tyrone said.
“The men we’re talking about don’t have any respect for badges, no matter what color they are. They have even less respect for black men carrying badges.”
Back on Mayfield Rd. they went across the street again. Frank slipped back into Corbo’s and came out with a cold bottle of San Pellegrino. He looked back at the church. “They have a weekend here called the ‘The Feast of the Assumption’ every summer. It’s some kind of fundraiser. They hoist the Virgin Mary up on a platform, march her around, and everybody pins dollar bills on her. There are so many people nobody can move.”
They went up the hill. They stopped when they got to the New Mayfield Repertory Cinema. “Opening Soon – Classic and Foreign Films” an a-frame sidewalk sign announced. “It’s some Jew who lost his job teaching English out in the suburbs,” Frank said pointing at the sign. “He got a year’s pay in the downsize and is re-opening this place. He thinks between the arty college crowd down on Euclid Ave. and the grab bag hippies up on Coventry Rd. he can turn a hobby into a business.”
Tyrone wanted to say something about calling Jews Jews but wasn’t sure what to say. It was dawning on him that Frank was less mean mouthed than missing a sense of properness. He wasn’t a babe in the woods by any means but for a big city cop he was somehow more country than big city. He was like white men in Alabama who couldn’t help themselves. A glass encased poster for the opening movie said “La Strada.” It was an Italian movie with Anthony Quin and Richard Basehart in it. Anthony Quinn looked musclebound. Richard Basehart was wearing angel wings and walking a tightrope. The love interest was somebody by the name of Giulietta Masina. She wore a bowler hat and had a clown’s dot on the tip of her nose. She didn’t look like any leading lady Tyrone had ever seen. The director was somebody by the name of Federico Fellini. Tyrone had never heard of him.
“The funny thing about it is, he had to talk to Blackie first about getting this place,” Frank said.
“Who’s that?” Tyrone asked.
“That’s Jim Licavoli, one of the mob bosses here. They had lunch together and he finally gave the Jew his blessing to lease the Mayfield, even though he didn’t have any ownership in it. It used to be a vaudeville theater that closed six or seven years ago. The way Blackie looked at it, strippers were OK but foreign movies were immoral.”
“Why do you call him Blackie? His name came up in a file, but it said he’s called Jack White.”
“He’s almost as dark as you, which is why we call him Blackie. He calls himself Jack White, God knows why. We never call him by that name.”
“How do you know they had lunch together?”
“We were nearby and heard the whole thing, although it was more a waste of time than anything else. The Jew had curly hair and was sincere as Shirley Temple. He wouldn’t stop talking about how much he loved movies. We thought he was a faggot. I think Blackie gave him his blessing just to get rid of him.”
“You go to the movies?” Tyrone asked.
“Not since I was in the academy,” Frank said. “’The Music Man’ might have been the last movie I saw.”
“What do you do to relax?”
“Fight with my wife,” Frank said.
“She can’t be all bad.”
“She comes the closest.”
“That’s too bad.”
“Yeah, it’s too bad.”
They continued walking up Mayfield Rd. When they got to E. 126th St. they turned left. At a dead-end past half-a-dozen houses they walked through a line of trees into the cemetery. Frank led the way, zig zagging to the James Garfield Monument.
“It’s a tragedy what happened to him,” Frank said.
“It’s a tragedy any time somebody gets shot, president or no president” Tyrone said.
“No, I mean it’s too bad about how he died. He had the best doctors in the country, but they didn’t believe in disinfecting their hands and instruments. So, he didn’t die of the gunshot wound. He died of infection. He had only been president four months. He was six feet tall and had been a two-star general. It took him almost three months to die.”
They stopped to look at John D. Rockefeller’s grave, but Tyrone didn’t want to stay. “He was the richest man in the world, selling his black gold, but he wouldn’t give the black man a chance. His kids did better later, but not John D. He was a son-of-a-bitch.”
They crossed the cemetery’s Hillside Rd. before coming to the Haserot Angel.
“What is that?” Tyrone asked looking at it. It was a life-sized bronze angel sitting on a marble gravestone. She held an extinguished torch upside down. Her wings were outstretched. She seemed to be crying black tears.
“They call it ‘The Angel of Death Victorious’ because of the torch that is out,” Frank said. “Some people call it the weeping angel because it looks like she’s crying. It was put up about fifty years ago by a local man who made his fortune in canned goods.” The name ‘Haserot’ was chiseled into the base of the gravestone. “The man who sculpted it is buried in this same boneyard. Lots of people say this place is haunted, especially this spot right here.”
They heard a cough and rustling behind the angel. There was a bad smell in the air. Frank put a finger to his lips and signaled Tyrone to step back. Tyrone slipped his Colt into his hand with the barrel pointing to the ground. Frank stepped to the side of the monument. The angel stayed where it was, looking deadpan.
“All right, come out of there, with your hands where we can see them.”
What stumbled out from behind the marble angel was a small swarthy man who reeked of booze. There was a pint bottle of it peeking out from his back pocket. It was emptier than fuller. He slapped dirt off his hands and shrugged loose grass off his shoulders. One of his shoes was untied. His shirt was checked, and his eyes were fly belly blue. His zipper sagged at the crotch of his pants. All of him smelled worse the closer he got to them.
“That’s close enough,” Frank said. “What are you doing here?”
“Visiting old friends,” the man said.
“Let me introduce you to Joey Bag of Donuts, one of the bomb makers for the dagos,” Frank said to Tyrone, pointing to the man. “Does Danny Greene know you’re here? He might show up with a shovel.”
“It takes an earlier bird than that dumb-ass paddy to get the better of a worm like me,” Joey said smiling slyly.
Excerpted from “Bomb City.”
Ed Staskus posts on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Made in Cleveland http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”