All posts by Edward Staskus

Edward Staskus is a freelance writer from Sudbury, Ontario, and lives in Lakewood, Ohio.

Ace in the Hole

By Ed Staskus

   By the time Dave Bloomquist set foot on Prospect Avenue the street had been there for more than a century. It is one block south of Euclid Ave, which between 1870 and 1930 was known as Millionaire’s Row. Nearly 250 houses ran along its 4 golden miles. Some of them were as big as 50,000 square feet on lots of 6 acres. One of them owned by Sam Andrews kept 100 servants to make sure the mansion made it through the day.

   On Sundays everybody paraded to church dressed in their best. At the time it was called “The Most Beautiful Street in America.” High-spirited sleigh races in winter attracted thousands, lining the 30 blocks between East 9th and East 40th Streets to watch. In the spring children busted out to the many small parks within running distance.

   Prospect Avenue was a second cousin, but the cousins were well-to-do. It housed the upper middle class, lawyers, doctors, and businessmen. Rowhouses were built between 1874 and 1879 near East 36th Street in Gothic Revival, Italianate, and Second Empire styles. A grand house was built in 1883 for Sarah Benedict, the widow of Cleveland Herald publisher George Benedict. The five-story Plaza Apartments was built in 1901.

   Dave Bloomquist grew up in Sandusky, in northern Ohio on the shores of Lake Erie, midway between Toledo and Cleveland. Back in the day the Wyandots called the spot Soundustee. It means cold water. 

   “I was recruited my senior year in high school by Findlay University on a basketball scholarship, but was disciplinarily dismissed after the winter semester of 1968,” he said. He quickly pulled up his dorm room stakes and went to Colorado. “I was avoiding arrest on a possession and sales charge but was eventually picked up and extradited back to Ohio. When I got out on bond I petitioned for probationary enrollment to Cleveland’s Tri-C.” 

   It was one of the only higher education schools of any kind in Ohio that offered that kind of re-entry opportunity. Keeping his nose clean and finishing with a 3.5 GPA he was able to later transfer to Cleveland State University. In the meantime, in between classes, he needed a job. When the Auditorium Hotel posted a stock boy position on the community college’s job board, he went downtown.

   “The manager’s assistant assumed I was there for another positing, for night auditor, since I showed up in a jacket and tie. I fabricated math and accounting skills on the spot and was hired.”

   The 10-story hotel built in 1927 was on the corner of East 6th Street and St. Clair Ave. There were 420 rooms. It was close to everything because everything was close-by.

   “Most of the rooms stayed mostly empty, except when the Metropolitan Opera came to town,” Dave said. “That’s when my limited skills with the NCR auditing machine and the Lilly Tomlin-style switchboard became obvious. The three manual elevators were operated by retired prostitutes. The second shift bell captain was a city supervisor during the day, but at night became the procurer for all the shady desires of the guests. The hotel had off-duty policemen moonlighting as security, who were good at raiding the restaurant refrigerators for steaks and regaling me with crook stories.”

   He was the last night auditor at the Auditorium. Six months after he started the hotel closed. Soon after it was demolished. Married and with an infant son, he dropped out of a school for a quarter to work full-time. When he went back to Tri-C, he worked as a student assistant in the Art Department and the night shift at a local psychiatric hospital. When he moved on to Cleveland State University, he again found work in the Art Department and became director of the university’s daycare, as well.

   The psychiatric hospital hadn’t driven him crazy. Infant crying and irritability weren’t going to, either. When he became the janitor at the Plaza, it didn’t test his mental and physical health overmuch.

   “Ruby and David, the janitors at the Plaza, moved out and Betty Basil, the manager, offered me the job. I had to sweep the halls, shovel the snow, cut the grass, and empty the three big trash barrels. I was also paid $50 for every room that I painted.”

   The work is messy, and the mess is always back the next day. It can drive a good man crazy. Janitors work odd hours and are prone to a high risk of trips slips falls, repetitive motion misery, and musculoskeletal injuries caused by overexertion. More than 46,000 janitors suffer work-related mishaps every year requiring time off, according to a report by the National Safety Council.  

   “Overall, most things were dutifully and patiently taken care of.” When you have the patience to do simple things well you get the hang of doing the dirty work.

   Keeping the grounds and premises clean gave him a window into the workings of the building. When he met Allen Ravenstine, he knew as much about the Plaza as anybody. Allen was mulling over what to with the inheritance he received after both his parents died in an accident. He had abandoned collegiate life and was re-making himself as a musician.

   “He was working with EML synthesizers and jamming with others engaged in experimental music,” Dave said. “But he was keen on being more personally engaged with his recent windfall. He was concerned that it was helping IBM and other blue-chip corporations that were supporting a government and a war.”

   The Vietnam War had gone full-scale big sky extravaganza. The ten-day Christmas Bombing of 1972, targeting Hanoi and Haiphong, was accomplished by B-52s. They were the biggest bomber strikes launched by the United States Air Force since the end of World War II. Other than blowing up lots of “major target complexes,” it didn’t get anything done. 

   After the titanic struggles of the past ten years, 1973 dawned with a new peace agreement. It was repeatedly violated by both sides as the struggle for power and control in South Vietnam continued. Nobody knew that by the end of the year there would hardly be any American combat forces left in the country and after that it was just a matter of time before Charlie won the war.

   “With the help of some wine and some smoke Allen and I discussed a wide variety of investments,” Dave said. “We talked about publishing and selling stories and poetry like City Lights, opening an art gallery, and getting an experimental music venue in the works. But as these interests were unlikely to go beyond a hobby that drained his resources, which were meant to sustain him into full adulthood, and some kind of career, one by one they were tabled.”

   After more talk and more ideas tabled as no good, Dave floated the notion of buying the Plaza Apartments and using the revenue from it to support their art enterprises.  At the time it was owned by the family who also owned Blonder Paints at East 39th St. and Prospect Ave. Blonder went back to 1918 when a cigarmaker and a paperhanger got it off the ground. They sold paint, varnish, and paperhanging supplies, both wholesale and retail. By the 1950s it was the country’s 6th largest wholesaler of wallpapers. 

   “We learned the family might be open to a purchase offer, so we got started. It was the days of red lining and white flight. We had difficulty finding an appraiser who would even look at the building. Of course, no banks would talk to us.”

   Working with Everett Pruitt, Sr, a black realtor and appraiser with an office on East 86th St. and Cedar Ave they got a number on which to base an offer. “Everett helped us draft a land contract that was reviewed by Allen’s attorney and his older brother, who both thought we were nuts. We then manned up, dressed up, made a call and made an offer. After a little back and forth we struck a deal. We got the Plaza, the Victorian house next door, and the parking lot for $62,500.  I put in every penny my wife Ann and I had, which was $1,000, and Allen contributed the remaining amount, which was $9,000. The balance was amortized over 15 years. We formed Corona Unlimited, a partnership agreement based on a handshake and a toast.”

   They paid themselves $75.00 a week and lived rent-free. When a six-room front apartment on the top floor came open, Dave, Ann, and their son moved up from their small second floor rooms.

   “Mike Roccini was living in that suite,” Dave said. “He was a writer, some magazine articles and a novel. He graduated from the University of the Americas in Mexico City in pharmacy with a taste for tequila and cigars. After coming down with a heart ailment he retired from dispensing drugs and spent most of his time in what he called his Moose Hall writing, with breaks to check the mail and report to his office at the bar of the Sterling Hotel. His wife Speedy was a schoolteacher.”

   She kept him flush in pencils and paper. It was when the fourth-floor walk-up became too much for Mike that he and Speedy moved to a farm east of Cleveland. None of the chickens complained about his cigar smoke, fearing for their heads.

   To make ends meet Dave tended bar weekends at the Viking Saloon, helped out at the Mistake, and filled in at the Library when they were short-staffed. The Library was popular with CSU students and local bohemians. It was at East 37th and Prospect, in what had been the Benedict House, long past its glory days. The students drank too much and got into fights and the bohemians argued too much, even though it never mattered who won or lost.

   He went to work at the Round Table, an old downtown German restaurant. 

   “It had become a tired-out attorney’s bar with most of the grand old rooms empty. A young hustler from Lakewood convinced the owner to convert all three floors to a music venue. It was wildly successful. But bar tending was tailor made for my increasingly flagrant infidelities. After we purchased the Plaza, Ann grew tired of it and found sympathy and comfort from Allen.”

   Even so, the partnership continued for a dozen-and-more years. They used the rental income from the 48 apartments for operating expenses and renovations. With a 30% vacancy rate, a mortgage at 17%, insurance for an old building, taxes and utilities, it ate up most of the income. Renovations meant DIY for almost everything.

   “There was an old hardware store on Euclid just east of 55th Street, owned by Mr. Weiss. Before buying the Plaza, I got to know him and his helpmate Jimmy in my role as janitor of the building. Their stock of plumbing and building supplies dated back at least 50 years, which is a great resource when keeping an 80-year-old building alive. Since I was limited in my knowledge of trade skills it meant I would frequently go to Mr. Weiss or Jimmy for information on how to sweat pipe or wire a switch. They were very generous with their knowledge, if sometimes humored by my ignorance. They knew we were committed to the neighborhood.”

   The rigors of living it up on the late-night rock ‘n roll bar life roller coaster finally proved to be too much. He left his accustomed haunts to tend bar at the Elegant Hog on Playhouse Square. “It had an older crowd that tipped much better, and they closed much earlier.” He put his nose to the grindstone and the Plaza got better month by month. The vacancy rate went down, and the waiting list went up.

   Dave wasn’t lord of the manor, not by a long shot. Upper Prospect wasn’t anybody’s magic kingdom. Those days were done and gone. He was more like the Prince of Prospect, a hammer, wrench, and screwdriver part of his coat of arms. When the roof leaked or the boiler faltered, he put on his coat and went to work.

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.”

Seven in the Bag

By Ed Staskus

When Stan Riddman walked up from the guts of the Flatiron Building it wasn’t dark, not new dark yet. The sky was lemon and pale blue.  It was the first day of the second week of fall, but felt more like the middle of summer, except for the shorter autumn days. He wore a short sleeve shirt and linen trousers. The thin wallet in his back pocket was flush with more fives and tens than it was with one-spots. 

   He gave his wallet a friendly pat. The seven-card stud they played in the basement next to the furnace room had been good to him. I can buy the kid some new clothes, get up front on the office rent, and score tickets for the Series, he thought.

   The Socialist Labor Party used to have offices in the Flatiron Building, but not down in the underground. He wondered if they would have banned gambling, making it out like it was exploitive, if they had ever come to power. You took your chances at poker, but it was only exploitive if you had no skill at it. You deserved to be taken if you played dreamland cards.

   He walked down 22nd Street to Lexington Avenue, turned right, walked through Gramercy Park to Irving Place, and looked for a phone booth

   The Yankees were in and the Indians were out, that was for sure. The Redlegs were running on an outside track, but the Braves were neck and neck with the Dodgers. Sal the Barber had no-hit the Phils earlier in the week at Ebbets Field and the Cardinals were going hard at the Braves out in the boondocks. It was all going to come down to the weekend as to whether there was going to be a subway series, the same as last year, or not.

    Last year it went seven games, and the oddball thing was the Yankees won three at Ebbets Field and the Dodgers won their four at Yankee Stadium. Neither team won on their home field. Nobody won that bet. Nobody took the backside odds on the seventh game, win or go home, either, especially since Jackie Robinson wasn’t penciled in to play the deciding nine.

   Nobody but Stan and Ezra, and anybody else who flipped a coin.

   Who would have thought the Cuban would be the difference-maker when he took over right field in the sixth inning? Stan was in the upper deck with his sometime partner, Ezra Aronson. The Yankee dugout was on the first base side, so most of the Bum fans were on the third base side. A client who was a Yankees fan, after Stan had gotten him the black and white’s he needed to get his divorce done, gave a sudden pair of passes to him, so they were on the wrong side.

   “Beggars can’t be choosers,” Ezra said, sitting in a sea of Bronx Bomber fans.

   When Yogi Berra hit an opposite field sure double, Ezra sprang out of his seat, like everyone else, but the lightning fast Sandy Amoros caught it coming out of nowhere. He fired a pill to Pee Wee Reese, who relayed it to Gil Hodges, who doubled up the retreating Gil McDougald off first, ending the last threat Stengel’s Squad made that afternoon. 

   Casey Stengel managed the Yankees. Back in his day, when he still had legs, he had been a good but streaky ballplayer. Good glove, fair bat.

   “I was erratic,” he said. “Some days I was amazing, some days I wasn’t.” When he wasn’t, he played it for laughs, catching fly balls behind his back. One afternoon he doffed his cap to the crowd and a sparrow flew out of it. Another day, playing the outfield, he hid in a drainage hole and popped out of it just in time to snag a fly ball.

   When he stood leaning over the top rail of the dugout, he looked like a cross of the scowling Jimmy Durante and Santa Claus in pinstripes. He managed the Braves and Dodgers for nine years and chalked up nine straight losing seasons. But after the Bombers hired him in 1948, the only year he hadn’t taken them to the World Series was 1954.

   Stan and Ezra were the only men in their section who hadn’t fallen back into their seats, stunned, after Sandy Amoros snagged Yogi Berra’s liner. Stan had to pull Ezra down so there wouldn’t be any hard feelings. As it was, Ezra was so excited there were hard feelings, and Stan had to drag him away to a beer stand.

   “This beer is bitter,” Ezra scowled, looking down at the bottle of Ballantine in his hand. Ballantine Beer was on the Yankee Stadium scoreboard, its three-ring sign shining bright, flashing “Purity, Body, Flavor.” Whenever a Yankee hit a homer, Mel Allen, the broadcaster, hollered, “There’s a drive, hit deep, that ball is go-ing, go-ing, gonnne! How about that?! It’s a Ballantine Blast!” 

   The Brooklyn Dodgers, Ezra’s home borough baseball team, played at Ebbets Field. Their scoreboard boasted a Schaefer Beer sign, with the ‘h’ and the ‘e’ lighting up whenever there was a hit or an error. Below the Schaefer Beer sign was an Abe Stark advertisement. 

   “Hit Sign Win Suit”.

   “That’s some super beer, that Schaeffer’s,” said Ezra, polishing off his bottle of Ballantine and spitting. 

   Stan Riddman didn’t have a home borough, even though he favored the Bums. He had an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, up from Times Square and down from the Central Park Zoo. He wasn’t from New York or New York City. He was from Chicago, although he wasn’t from there, either. He had been born in Chicago, but when his mother died two years later, in 1922, his father moved the family, himself a new Polish wife two boys two girls two dogs and all their belongings a year later to a small house behind St. Stanislaus Church in Cleveland, Ohio, in the Warszawa neighborhood south of the steel mills, where his father worked the rest of his life.

   Stan wasn’t working on anything he thought would bring him free Series passes this year. As long as I put most of this away, he thought to himself, walking down Irving Place, thinking of the jackpot in his pocket, I can blow some of it tonight, and still have enough for ballgames and more card games.

   Dottie was at Marie’s for the weekend. That happened about as often as the Series. It wasn’t too early or too late, and if Vicki hasn’t taken any work home, and is at home, and picks up the phone, maybe she could meet him for dinner.

   He found the phone booth he’d been looking for and called her. It rang once almost twice before Vicki answered. That’s a good sign, he thought.

   “Hello.”

   “Hey, Vee, it’s Stan.”

   “Stan, my man,” she laughed.

   “How’s Stuy Town tonight?” he asked.

   “Hot, quiet, lonely,” she said.

  “How about meeting me at Luchow’s for dinner?” he asked. “I’m buying.”

   “Stan, I love you for the dear German or Polack or whatever you are, but the food at Luchow’s is not so good, even if you can ever get though that insanely long menu of theirs.” 

   “That’s what I’m here for,” he said. “Only a dog-eared investigator like me will look into everything the kitchen’s got to offer.”

   “All right, but the other thing is, since they seat more than a thousand people, how am I going to find you? And if I do, with that strolling oompah band of theirs, if we do bump into each other and maybe get a table in that goulash and Wiener schnitzel palace, we’ll only be able to make ourselves heard some of the time and not the rest of the time.”

   “We can always take our coffee and their pancakes with lingonberry over to the square after dinner and chew the fat, it’ll be quiet there,” he said.

   “Chew the fat? What it is I like about you, sometimes I just don’t know.”

   “I’ll take that for a yes.”

   “Yes, give me a few minutes to change into something fun,” she said gaily. “I hope there’s no goose fest or beer festival going on.”

   “Meet me at the far end of Frank’s bar, he’ll find a low-pitched spot in the back for us. Frank says the new herring salad is out of this world.”

   “Don’t push your luck, Stan, don’t push your luck,” she said.

   Luchow’s was a three-story six-bay building with stone window surrounds, pilasters, and a balustrated parapet on top, while below a red awning led to the front door. The restaurant was near Union Square. It looked like the 19th century, or some more earlier century, heavy Teutonic, North German. A titanic painting of potato gatherers covered most of a wall in one of the seven dining rooms. Another of the rooms was lined with animal heads, their offspring being eaten at the tables below them, while another room was a temple of colorful beer steins. 

   There was a beer garden in the back.

   “Welcome back to the Citadel of Pilsner,” said Frank. He gestured Stan to the side.  “Did anybody tell you Hugo died?”

  “No, I hadn’t heard, although I heard he wasn’t feeling well,” said Stan. Hugo Schemke had been a waiter at Luchow’s for 50 years. He often said he wasn’t afraid of death. He had firmly no ifs ands or buts believed in reincarnation.

   “Did he say he was coming back?”

   “He did say that, but I haven’t seen him, yet,” said Frank. 

   “How’s Ernst doing?” asked Stan. Ernst Seute was the floor manager, a short stout man both friendly and cold-hearted. He had been at Luchow’s a long time, too, since World War One.

   “He took a couple days off,” said Frank. “Remember that parade back in April over in Queens, they’ve got some kind of committee now, he’s over there with them trying to make it an annual thing here in Little Germany, calling it the Steuben Parade.”

    “You going to be carrying the cornflower flag?’

   “Not me, Stan, not me.” Frank was from Czechoslovakia. “I’m an American now.”

   Frank led Vicki and Stan to a small round table at the far end of the bar. He brought them glass mugs of Wurzburger Beer and a plate of sardines. Vicki ordered noodle soup and salad. “Hold the herring,” she commanded. Stan asked for a broiled steak sirloin with roasted potatoes and horseradish sauce on the side.

   “I saw Barney the other day,” she said, cocking her head. “He told me you’ve made progress.”

  “I didn’t think there was anything to it the first day I saw him, that day you brought him over to the office,” said Stan. “I didn’t think there was much to it all that first week the top of the month. But then there was all that action, and Bettina finally got it worked out, that it was the shrink. So, I know who did the thing to get Pollack to drive himself into that tree. I know how they did it. What I don’t know is why they did it.”

   “Do you know who they are?’

   “No, I don’t, even though one of the two, a psychotic by the name of Ratso Moretti, who roughed up Ezra, is being held at the 17th. He doesn’t seem to know much, but what he does know says a lot. The shrink is going to tell me all about it. He doesn’t know about the talk we’re going to have, yet, but that doesn’t matter.”

   “You don’t think Jackson Pollack had anything to do with it?”

   “He was the wrong man, that’s all, if you look at it from his point of view. Bettina and I think he was a test run. We think they’re up to something bigger. It’s hard to figure. We can’t see the pay-off in it. You know Betty, though. She’ll piece it together.”

   After dinner they looked at the dessert menu, but it was only a peek. Vicki shook her head no.

   “How about coffee at my place?” asked Stan. “We can stop and get pastry at that Puerto Rican shop on the corner, sit up on the roof.” It was a clear sky night.

   “I can’t pass up that pass,” said Vicki.

   They hailed a Checker Cab. 

   “Take us up 5th to 59th, the corner of the park,” said Stan.

   The cabbie dropped them off at the Grand Army Plaza and they walked into the park, following the path below the pond towards the Central Park Driveway and Columbus Circle. He liked her loose breezy walk. They didn’t notice the two greasers, as they strolled on a quiet wooded path south of Center Drive, until the two of them were in front of them, blocking their way.

   One was taller and older, the other younger and thinner, their oiled hair combed back. Both of the dagos were wearing high tops, jeans, and white t-shirts, one of them dirtier than the other. The younger boy, he might have been fifteen, had a half-dozen inflamed pencil-thick pencil-long scratches down one side of his face and more of them on his forehead. Small capital SS’s topped with a halo drawn in red ink adorned the left sleeve of his t-shirt. The older dirtier dago had LAMF tattooed on his neck above the collar line to below his right ear.

   Stan knew what it meant. It meant ‘Like a Mother Fucker.’  He kept his attention on LAMF.

   “Hey, mister, got a double we can have for the subway, so we can make it back home,” he asked, smiling, his teeth big and white as Chiclets.

   They were part of the Seven Saints, thieves whose favorite easy pickings was holding back the door of a subway car just before it was ready to leave the station, one of them grabbing and running off with a passenger’s pocketbook, while the other released the door so the woman would be shut tight in the train.

   “Where’s home?” asked Stan, stepping forward a half step, nudging Vicki behind him with his left hand on her left hip. 

   “You writing a book?”

   Stan asked again, looking straight at the older boy.

   “East Harlem, where you think?”

   “Why do you need twenty dollars? The fare’s only some cents.”

   “The extra is for in case we get lost.” 

   “It’d be best if you got lost starting now. “

   “I mean to get my twenty, and maybe more,” he said, smiling smirking mean, reaching into his back pocket.

   Stan took a fast step forward, his right foot coming down on the forefoot of the boy’s sneaker, grabbing his left wrist as it came out of the back pocket a flash of steel, and broke his nose with a short hard jab using his right elbow. Stepping away he let him fall backward and turned toward the younger boy, flipping the switchblade its business side face front.

   “Go,” he said. “Go right now.”

   The boy hesitated, looked down at the other Seven Saint on the ground, splattered with blood, and ran away like a squid on roller skates.

   Stan let the switchblade fall to the ground and broke the blade off the knife, stepping on it with his heel and pulling until it cracked at the hinge, and threw it at the older boy getting up. It hit him in the chest and bounced away. 

   “The next time I see you,” he spluttered, on his feet, choking, his mouth half-full of blood.

   “The next time I see you, you fill your hand with a knife, I’ll break your face again,” said Stan. 

   He took a step up to the boy and spoke softly to him. “Actually, it won’t matter what you do, nosebleed, what you’re doing, who you’re with, where you are. The minute I see you is when I’ll stack you up. Make sure you never see me again, make sure I never see you.”

   He took Vicki by the arm, shoved the teenager to the side, and they walked away.

   “You didn’t have to do that,” said Vicki. “You won plenty of hands. You might have tossed them a dollar-or-two.”

   “I know,” said Stan. “But they were working themselves up to be dangerous and that had to stop. The sooner the better.”

   “They were just kids.”

   “You saw the scratches on the face of the kid who ran away.”

   “Of course, the whole side of his face was gruesome.”

   “The Seven Saints have an initiation to get into the club,” Stan said. “They find a stray cat and tie him to a telephone pole, about head high, and leave the cat’s four feet free. The kid getting initiated has his hands tied behind his back and he gets to become a Seven Saint if he can kill the cat, using his head as a club.”

   “Oh, my God!” Vicki gasped, stopping dead in her tracks. “How do you even know that?”

   “I make it my business to know, so I don’t get taken by surprise.”

   Stan paused, then said, “I didn’t want them near me. I don’t give a damn about them. I care about you, Dottie, Ezra, Betty, the crew, what we do, not who we do it for or whatever they think it’s all about. I care about getting it done and getting paid. I like playing cards. Throw in a dinner, a dance, a drink with you, I’m all done. I don’t need anymore.”

   They passed the USS Maine Monument.

   “I don’t want greaser punks in my face.”

   They walked out of the park under a quarter moon, crossing Columbus Circle and strolling down Ninth Avenue. At West 56th Street they turned towards the river, stopping in front of a four-floor walk-up with a twin set of fire escapes bolted to the front of the flat face of the brick building.

   “Anyway, maybe it will do them some good,” said Stan, fitting his key into the door lock. “Not everyone is as nice as I am. Someday somebody will go ballistic on them.”

   “Ballistic?” she asked.

   “Like a rocket, a missile that goes haywire.”

   “I wish we had a rocket to take us upstairs” she said, as they took the stairs up to the fourth floor. “We forgot our pastry.”

   “Another time,” he said.

   At the door of the apartment Stan fitted his key into the lock, opened the door, reached for the light switch, and let Vicki go around him as he did. In the shadow of the back of the front room there was a low menacing growl and a sudden movement. It was Mr. Moto. He crossed the room fast. He lunged at Vicki’s lead leg as she stepped across the threshold.

   Hey, watch out for my stockings,” she cried out. Vicki was wearing Dancing Daters. “I’ll smack you right on your pink nose if you make them run.”

   Mr. Moto skidded to a sudden stop a whisker from her leg.

   “That’s better,” said Vicki, bending down to rub his head.

   The big cat arched his back and purred.

Excerpted from the crime thriller “Stickball” at http://www.stanriddman.com.

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.”

Gone to German Land

MOM ALPS 1947

By Ed Staskus

“The bishop fixed it up for us,” said Angele Jurgelaityte

When Angele, 16 years old, Ona Kreivenas, her aunt, and Ona’s four children, Mindaugas, Carmen, Ramute, and the youngster Gema, got off one of the last trains the Prussian Eastern Railway ran from East Prussia to Berlin in late 1944 they were met at the station by Bishop Vincentas Brizgys.

The clergyman was Ona’s husband’s cousin. Her husband, a policeman, had been arrested by the Soviets Communists in 1941 and deported to Siberia, where he was still in a labor camp. Bishop Vincentas Brizgys had been the assistant to the archbishop of Kaunas. In the summer of 1944, he and the archbishop and more than two hundred other Lithuanian priests fled the country with retreating German forces.

In the fall a multitude of other Lithuanians followed as the Red Army swarmed the Wehrmacht and overran the Baltics. The fighting was thick tenacious terrible. Wartime losses of Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians were among the highest in Europe.

Ona had somehow located the bishop by telephone, and he arranged to meet them at the train station. He was wearing a dark suit and a homburg. He was carrying a basket of hot buns. He didn’t look like the churchman he was.

“He gave one to each of us,” Angele said. “I was so happy.”

What the bishop had fixed up was for them was passage to Bavaria. They landed in the north of the southeastern state. Bavaria shares borders with Austria, Switzerland, and the Czechoslovak territories. The Danube and Main flow through it, the Bavarian Alps border Austria, and the highest peak in Germany is there. The major cities are Munich and Nuremberg and the Bavarian and Bohemian forests are in the south.

“The bishop found a pig farm for us, people he knew. We lived in a two-room apartment above the slaughterhouse. There was another Lithuanian with us, a woman in her 20s, a fancy woman,” said Angele.

One of the two rooms was a kitchen. They lived and slept in the larger room, two adults, two teenagers, and three children. There was barely room to stand. The fancy woman kept to herself.

“We slept on cots. We worked, helping with the cows, and cutting clover. There was no town, just country everywhere. The German family we stayed with fed us. They were good people.”

There was no combat in their corner of the world. “We didn’t see any fighting all winter long,” said Angele. “The war ended when the Americans came. They wore nice uniforms, not like the Russians, who were filthy. They were friendly, completely different. They threw candy to us as they went past.”

Bavaria was one of Adolf Hitler’s favorite places during the twelve years of the one thousand year Third Reich. He had a lavish residence at the Obersalzberg. Bavaria had been the scene of protests against Nazi rule in the late 30s, but it didn’t matter to the Fuhrer. He had his own SS security force. After the war was over Nuremberg was chosen for the military tribunals trying Nazi war criminals because it had been the ceremonial birthplace of the party and their annual propaganda rallies were held there.

Allied air forces bombed the hell out of it in 1944 and 1945. In January 1945 521 British bombers dropped six thousand high-explosive bombs and more than a million incendiary devices on the city. The historic old town was destroyed. Half of the rest of the city was destroyed. What wasn’t blown to bits or burnt down was damaged. Surviving the bombardment meant you had to then try to survive. The city was left with almost no heat no electricity no water supply in the middle of winter.

The Palace of Justice and the large prison that was part of the complex were spared. It was a sign of what was in store. It was spared because retribution was in the air.

“In the fall after the war ended, we had to leave the pig farm and go  to an American refugee camp near Regensburg. We had two rooms, but there was a Lithuanian man in the other room, so we had one room. We lived there and didn’t do anything.”

Before the Red Army closed the borders, padlocking the Baltics behind the Iron Curtain, about 70,000 Lithuanians were able to escape the country, almost all of them ending up in Germany. When the war ended about 11 million refugees had flooded into Germany, more than the total population of Austria. Many of them ended up in Displaced Persons camps in Bad Worishofen, Nordlingen, and Regensberg.

in the spring of 1946, Angele, Ona, and the children moved to a new camp.

“It was a castle that you got to down a long road through a forest in front of a lake. There was a big chapel and two big barracks. There were no owners anymore, and no workers, nobody. There were only the Americans and refugees. We were more than two thousand. We were all Lithuanians.”

The Schwarzenberg castle on the outskirts of Scheinfeld in Bavaria is northwest of Nuremberg. From 1946 until 1949 many thousands of Lithuanians were housed at the DP camp there while they waited for their chance to get to Australia, Canada, the United States, anywhere else.

“There was no future for us in Germany,” said Angele.

There were no repatriation plans, either. There was no going back. The system of revolving displacement would have meant the end for many of them, suspicion and persecution for the rest. The Russians had no plans on letting returning Lithuanians off easy. They had no plans on letting any Lithuanians of any kind, unless they were natives who had converted to Communism, off easy.

The camp outside Nuremberg was administered by an American Army officer of Lithuanian descent. The military’s concern was providing shelter, nutrition, and basic health care. Although the Americans looked after vital supplies, everybody in the camp lent a hand, The DP’s prepared their own food, sewed new clothes from cloth and old clothes donated by the Red Cross, and published their own daily newspaper. They printed their own money. The currency could be earned by working around the camp and spent at the canteen, where you could buy shaving cream, combs, and cigarettes.

“We had our own doctors, our own church, and even a school. My best friend was Maryte. Her parents were teachers. They taught the high school classes in the camp. Her mother knew how to sew, too. She would take old clothes that had been donated to us, take them apart, and make new dresses. Whenever she made a dress for Maryte she made one for me, too.”

Angeles’s aunt talked to her about learning to become a seamstress.

“She wanted me to learn how to sew, like my older brother Justinas, so I would have some way to make a living. I said no.” She had turned down her aunt’s advice at home about becoming a farmer. She had no plans sewing for a living either. She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, but she knew for sure what she didn’t want to do.

After her friend Maryte moved to Nuremberg, taking classes in x-ray technology, and was on the way to becoming a nurse assistant at the Army Hospital there, she wrote Angele.

“She told me about it, told me it was a 10-month course, and told me to come join her.”

Angele packed a satchel with her clothes and slipped away as the weather warmed one morning in 1947. She said goodbye to Ona and her four kids. “By then mamyte was teaching kindergarten at the camp and she had her children around her.” Mindaugas was grown a few years older, now a teenager, and could take care of his three sisters. When Angele left, she left more space for them in their quarters. She walked and hitchhiked the forty miles to Nuremberg. Even though there were travel restrictions, a German government barely existed to enforce its own laws, and the only thing she had to worry about was an over-zealous American officer in a Jeep.

When she got to Nuremberg she asked where the hospital was and found her way there. It had been rebuilt after the ferocious bombardments two years earlier. She was assigned a bed in a small room, twelve feet by twelve feet, sharing it with three other women.

“There were four of us, me, Ele, who was 24 and tall, Koste, who was 28 and stocky, and Monica, who was the oldest and had been a nurse in Kaunas. One of our teachers was a Lithuanian and she helped me. I lived in the barracks at the hospital. I worked in the hospital, cleaned, changed beds, and did whatever they told me to do. I studied whenever I could. There wasn’t time to do very much else.”

They had to do something, though. Many of them were young. They staged dances at the hospital. “Somebody would play the accordion.” Whenever they could they went into town on Saturdays.

“We took a train, went to the movies, and the music shows. We loved it. Everything was so clean. It was all smashed during the war but two years later you wouldn’t have believed there had even been a war.”

There had not only been repeated bombing and shelling of the city, especially the medieval part of it, there had been street-by-street house-to-house room-to-room fighting in April 1945. The city was rebuilt after the war and was partly restored to its pre-war aspect. “The Americans did it,” said Angele. “You could see them doing it every day.”

The German government was being resurrected, as well, and order was the order of the day.

“One day we were waiting in line for the movies, eating grapes, and spitting the seeds on the sidewalk. When a policeman saw us, he came over, and told us it was our responsibility to keep the city clean. He made us pick up all the seeds.”

The circus was even better than the movies or musical theater. It is in the movies and theater that people fall in love. It is the circus that leaves a fantasy memory.

“Whenever it came to town, none of us could sleep.”

The Nazi era was good for circuses since they were not considered subversive. They were left alone by the regime. Between the two wars, through the 1930s, Germany was the epicenter of the European companies and their large tents. There were more than forty travelling circuses with their clowns, acrobats, and animals. They were mostly family-run enterprises.

The last years of the Second World War, however, were bad for business, many circuses losing all their equipment and animals. The postwar years boomed again after 1946. Circus Europa toured Germany in 1947.

“I loved the circus. I would have gone alone if I had to,” Angele said.

In mid-summer 1948 Angele got a week’s vacation from the Army Hospital. She and her friend Benas, his friend Porcupine, and two of the Porcupine’s friends took a train the 170 miles to Zugspitze on the border of Germany and Austria. On two sides of the Zugspitze are glaciers, the largest in Germany. Mountain guides lead climbers up three different routes to the summit at nearly ten thousand feet.

“Benas had thick dark hair and his father was a minister back home. He was a good friend to me. Everybody called his friend Porcupine because Koste called him that. He thought he was Koste’s boyfriend, even though that’s not what she thought.”

They got there at night and stayed in a small hotel.

“There were two rooms at the end of the corridor. We three girls went into one of them. There were two beds, so we pushed them together and slept together. The boys took the other room. In the morning I went to the big window and threw open the heavy drapes. I had to take a step back. The mountain was right there. I was astonished and afraid. For a second I thought it was going to fall in on us.”

They rode a rack railway the next day up the northern flank of the mountain. “It went around and around.” At a landing they sunned themselves. “Even though there was snow everywhere, and people were skiing, looking like ants below us, we lay in the sun before going farther up.” They took the Eibsee cable car to an observation deck. “The gondola was all glass. You could see the whole world.” From the deck at the top a path led to a cross.

The 14-foot gilded iron cross had been lifted to the peak of the Zugspitze in 1851 by twenty-eight bearers under the direction of Karl Kiendl, a forester, and Christoph Ott, a priest. Father Ott was the brainstorm behind the cross, motivated by a vision of the mountain, “the greatest prince of the Bavarian mountains raising its head into the blue air towards heaven, bare and unadorned, waiting for the moment when patriotic fervor and courageous determination would see that his head too was crowned with dignity.”

The Porcupine and his two companions wouldn’t go to the cross. The path was icy and narrow. “Only Benas and I went. There was a ladder attached to a rock face you had to climb to get to it, where it stood on a flat space.”

In 1888 the cross had to be taken down and repaired after being struck numerous times by lightning. It was leaning and scarred, holes gouged out by the lightning. A year later it was taken back to the top, onto the East Summit, where it had stayed ever since.

The side rails of the metal ladder were secured by bolts to the rock.

“I was near the top when a bolt came loose and the ladder jerked free there,” Angele said. “I stopped and couldn’t go up or down. I stayed as still as I could. I was scared to death.”

She had survived a Russian invasion, her mother’s death, a subsequent German invasion, followed by another Russian invasion, making tracks out of Lithuania, implacable separation from her family, landing in DP camps in Bavaria, the American invasion of Germany, the collapse of the German government, and finding her way to work at the Army Hospital In Nuremberg, all in the last 8 years, all by the time she was 19 years old.

She was determined a broken ladder was not going to break her, not be the end of her. Benas helped her from the top, extending his belt, and another pilgrim helped her from beneath, coming partway up and slowly carefully easing her down. Benas quickly slid down the side rails without incident.

Faith can be churchy, or it can be personal. There isn’t anything that’s a matter of life and death except life and death. Life and death at ten thousand feet is personal, cross or no cross. They took their time on the icy path back to the observation deck.

The rest of the week they hiked, took local trains to nearby alpine towns, ate drank smoked talked had fun while it lasted.

At the end of their vacation they went back in Nuremberg. In her room, alone for a few minutes, Angele thought about the two men, Vladas the soldier and Vytas, working for a relief organization, both refugees from Lithuania, like her, who wanted to marry her. Vladas brought her food and Vytas played cards with her.

Getting married may not be a matter of life and death, except when it is. She thought she was probably going to marry one of them, and thought she knew which one it would be, but she knew for sure she wasn’t going to be staying in Europe. Making her way somewhere where there was a future was the most important thing on her mind.

She wanted a bright future, not a dark past. She had to go and find it. The man she married would have to be the man who wanted to go with her. No matter what, she was going to have to fix it up for herself.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com. Click “Follow” on a site to get the monthly update in your in-box.

Son of a Gun

By Ed Staskus

   Godzilla and his grandson Goo Goo Godzilla looked out over the flat Caribbean Sea and leaning on their elbows lay down on the warm sand. The sun was rising bright and big all shades of orange. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

   “The secret to a good morning is watching the sunrise,” Godzilla said.

    They were on the uninhabited island of Chacachacare. It was once named Caracol by Christopher Columbus, which means snail in Spanish. It is part of the Bocas Islands spread out between Trinidad and Venezuela. It has an automated lighthouse along with a radar dish. It was where nuns nursed lepers long ago. 

   It was also where Godzilla battled tooth and nail and beat down Anguirus before Goo Goo was born. Since then, nobody wanted to go there anymore. Some Bocas islanders said the ghost of Anguirus roamed the beach at night, complaining it hadn’t been a fair fight.

   Goo Goo yawned. They had been laying around in the sun for a week. It was their last day of vacation in the tropics. Godzilla was planning on flying east to visit his archenemy and best friend King Kong on Skull Island. Goo Goo was flying up to Perry, Ohio to visit his pal Oliver, the Unofficial Monster Hunter of Lake County, and then taking off for home in Japan.

   “It’s been a blast, pops,” he said.

   “I wish you wouldn’t call me that,” Godzilla sighed.

   They didn’t have any packing to do or travel arrangements to make so they stayed lazy sand bound until the afternoon, snoozing and snorting in their sleep. When the time came to go Godzilla unleashed a mighty bellow of fire and rocketed backwards up into the sky. Outside a small circle of friends few knew the monsters could fly. He wagged his tail goodbye. Goo Goo got going and headed north.

   He landed in Oliver’s backyard, which butted up to a wide deep field where there was a small evangelical church and a 140-foot-high cell phone tower. That’s an eyesore, Goo Goo thought. He wasn’t as tall as the tower, but he was getting there.

   After high fives Oliver and Goo Goo caught up, sat down to orange juice and PB&J sandwiches, and took a nap. After they woke up Goo Goo asked Oliver if he wanted to go for a ride.

   “You bet I do, big fella,” Oliver said.

   “Bundle up, buddy, it’s cold up there.”

   Oliver tucked himself under the armored scales covering Goo Goo’s second brain, where his tail was attached, and they blasted off. Looking for warmer air Goo Goo headed south. He turned right over Tennessee, planning on looping over Oklahoma before heading back to Ohio. When they were over Tulsa Goo Goo noticed a huge gathering at the fairgrounds. He swooped lower to get a better look.

   It was the Tulsa Arms Show, the largest firearms show in the world with over 4,000 tables inside a gigantic 11-acre air-conditioned room. The show featured old and modern guns, flintlocks and repeaters, Peacemakers and troublemakers. American flags were flapping all over the place. It was a super spectacle.

   Goo Goo didn’t like guns. None of the Godzilla’s did, even though guns were useless against them. It was a personal thing with the family. When Goo Goo landed with a mighty thump men and women came running out and when they saw him, started yelling and blazing. The bullets ricocheted and bounced away. Goo Goo was annoyed. He swept his tail in an arc and everybody fell every which way.

   A tall man waving his fist ran at him firing a non-stop Colt AR15. Goo Goo picked him up and tossed him into a garbage dumpster. The man popped up covered in old grease and filth.

   “I’m Wayne LaPierre,” he shouted. “I run the National Rifle Association and you’re going to pay for this! I’ve killed 10,000-pound elephants, you un-American oaf.” Goo Goo didn’t like that. He wasn’t an oaf and elephants weren’t dangerous unless you messed with them. All they wanted to do was find and eat their 200 pounds of food a day.

   You’re more like Wayne Pepe le Pew in my book, Goo Goo giggled. When more angry men and women wearing tinny NRA badges rushed him shooting their guns, he flung them into the dumpster, too. It was a mess in there. The hometown rats jumped ship and ran away.

   “I’ll show them some guns,” he muttered.

   He flew off towards Japan, the dumpster firmly in his grip. He forgot all about Oliver. When he landed in Godzilla Town, he turned the dumpster upside down and everybody fell out. Goo Goo herded them towards the Museum of Useless Weapons. It was where many of the peashooters used against the Godzilla’s were on display. There were handguns machine guns grenades mortars recoilless rifles flamethrowers artillery more artillery rocket launchers and jet fighters. None of them had ever made a dent.

   Oliver peeked out from Goo’s Goo’s tail.

   “I’ve never seen so many guns in my life, not even on TV,” Oliver tapped out in Morse code on the giant’s second brain. It was how all monsters talked to each other.

   “How many do you have?” Goo Goo asked.

   “I don’t have any.”

   “How do fight monsters if you don’t shoot them?”

   “I use negotiation, persuasion, coercion, hypnosis, sleight of hand, bushwhacking and booby traps, a knock on the head, and if worse comes to worse, my friend the honey badger in the back woods helps me out.”

   “Homey badger? What can a honey badger do?”

   “Honey badgers eat poisonous snakes for breakfast. They can do anything because they’re not afraid of anything. Once a honey badger has you in its sights, it’s every man for himself.”

   “I could squash him with my little toe.”

   “I wouldn’t try it if I were you,” Oliver said, a sly smile on his face.

   Goo Goo made a mental note to find out more about honey badgers. There was no sense in tempting fate. Maybe one of his kith and kin had run into them and knew what their secret powers were.

   Oliver was listening in on Goo Goo’s brain. “No secrets,” he tapped out. “They don’t have any weaknesses, either.”

   After touring the museum Oliver said he had to go home. His mom and dad would be worried. He was only six years old, after all. Goo Goo frog marched the NRA gang back to the garbage dumpster. They climbed in, grumbling. When Wayne Pepe le Pew hesitated, Goo Goo gave him a kick, sending him flying. He landed in the dumpster. Goo Goo slammed the lid shut.

   “Good riddance to bad rubbish.”

   Halfway back to the USA he got tired of the mad men banging and hollering inside the dumpster. He dropped it on Pitcairn Island, an isolated volcanic hunk of limestone about 1,000 miles east of Tahiti. He and Oliver were back in Perry, Ohio in record time. The evening was happening on the shores of Lake Erie.

   “See you later, old buddy,” Oliver said. His sister Emma came running with a hot dog in one hand and pink lemonade in the other. Goo Goo Godzilla fired up his atomic breath, winked and waved so long muchacho, and hit the road, the sky gone nonchalant in the approaching sunset. 

The Unofficial Monster Hunter of Lake County stories can be found at http://www.theunofficialmonsterhunteroflakecounty.com.

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.”

Walking the Line

By Ed Staskus

   When I was in my twenties finding a job was easy as pie as long as it was the most thankless job known to man in Cleveland, Ohio, work like grit blasting, jackhammering, and tearing roofs off. None of it was a bed of roses, not that anybody ever said it was going to be. It was more like a crown of thorns with the only salvation at the end of the day being the end of the day.

   The only good thing about grit blasting was that the work was indoors, in an all-metal walled room out of the sun and rain. The worst thing about it was being in an all-metal walled room in a haze of abrasive dust hoping the hose wouldn’t bust a gut or simply explode. The blasting room measured 20 feet wide by 50 feet long by 15 feet tall. It was all business, no windows, no distractions, no escape.

   The metal finishing shop was off Brookpark Rd. near the airport. Starting time was 7:30 AM, no ifs ands or buts. God forbid I miss my bus. They did shot-peening, deburring, and metal polishing. The only thing I did was blasting with steel grit or crushed glass. Sometimes, if the object was small, I worked at a sandblasting booth.

   I wore a thick canvas long-sleeved blast suit, gloves with gauntlets, and steel-toed safety boots. When I was ready, the last thing I put on was an air-fed blasting helmet with a shawl protector. I could hardly move, which was all for the better. My boss was adamant that I go slow, never stopping at one spot, keeping the same pace, which was a crawl.

   The shop was noisy and hot, dusty and dingy, although when we got finished with whatever we had been working on it looked resurrected. After three months, though, I felt like I was down for the count and quit in the middle of my shift. I took a bus to Edgewater Park, stripped off my shirt, and lay on the sand in the sun the rest of the day.

   I didn’t think jackhammering could be worse. I was wrong. It was much worse. The pneumatic t-shaped beast weighed a hundred pounds and was ear-shattering. It was louder than a jet engine. I was given Willson earmuffs to save my hearing. I didn’t wear them my first five minutes on the job. After five minutes I never took them off.

   Charles Brady King, an engineer who built and drove the first motorized carriage in the United States in 1896, created the first air-powered jackhammer for the mining industry. Before that, miners labored in misery, breaking up rock with sledgehammers.

   Jackhammers are percussive tools. They pound and pound rock and concrete with thousands of hits a minute. Once it’s been broken into smaller pieces it’s time to take a step back and start pounding again. For basic breaking I used a basic point bit. The old hands used a flat bit for better control.

   We wore face masks and sprayed the concrete with water to keep the dust down. Since shrapnel wasn’t unusual, I wore heavy-duty pants and a long-sleeved shirt. I still had my steel-toed boots. Even though I was young and fit, I took breaks all the time. The shock waves were too much to stand. Whole-body vibration is fun and games for only so long. 

   The warhorses knew the score but still complained about fatigue, headaches, and lower back pain. They sometimes took five to lay down flat on the ground. It was hard work controlling the heavy powerful tool. We rotated on and off. Everybody said jackhammers were better than sledgehammers in the hot sun, but it struck me as making a fine distinction to no purpose.

   I didn’t last long. I was neither strong nor sizable enough for the work. After my last day I went home to my apartment and slept for a day-and-a half. My lumpy mattress felt like a bed of roses. 

   It was still summer, so I signed on with a roofing company. It wasn’t hard to learn, since I was dragooned to be one of the guys who tore roofs off, but it was hard to do. I didn’t know it was the most physically demanding contractor work of all time. I didn’t know it was the fourth most dangerous job in the country, either.

   “It’s big risk, hard work,” my boss said. “You need to be proud of what you do. It’s good stuff.”

   The other guys said don’t slip and fall. I said I would watch out for that. They said, don’t get electrocuted. I agreed to watch out for that, too. Everybody said the company was a storm chaser, even though we never worked during storms. I found out what it meant soon enough. After that I wasn’t proud of what I did, although I didn’t do it over long.

   If it was 90 degrees on the street, it was 900 degrees on the roof. If it was a black or metal roof, it was even hotter. After I got a sunburn my first day, I wore sunscreen and a baseball cap. I got heat rash and learned to never wear jeans or dark-colored clothing. I got heat cramps and learned to drink gallons of water. 

   There were two of us at the bottom of the totem pole. We were responsible for cleaning up. The rolling magnetic sweeper was my favorite. Sweeping for loose nails and screws was incredibly easy and meant the end of the job was at hand.

   The pay was good, but I didn’t like going up and down ladders. Once I got on the roof, I settled down, but ladders made me jumpy. I finally had enough of them and called in sick. I stayed sick until the office manager stopped calling me.

   Summer started collapsing after Labor Day. I applied for work at the nearby Collinwood Rail Yards and was hired as a temporary for as long as they needed me. The railroad yard and diesel terminal had been there for about one hundred years, after a machine shop and roundhouse were built to repair locomotives. Stock yard rail was laid for freight trains coming and going. By 1930 there 120 miles of track handling 2,000 cars daily. During World War Two the Collinwood Yards became one of the major switching and repair facilities for the New York Central, and after that for Penn Central.

   My job description was Extra Clerk. I thought it meant a cushy office job. What it actually meant was I had to work wherever they wanted me to, filling in when somebody was sick or on vacation. I found out soon enough that nobody in the offices ever got sick or went on vacation.

   A warehouse had been built northeast of the roundhouse. There was a smaller storehouse with two offices next to it. The front office was for whoever wanted to sit around in it. The back office was for my boss. He was Isaiah Wood, a short older man who always wore an Irish scally cap indoors and outdoors, rain or shine. He was a rabble rouser for the Nation of Islam. He always had stacks of their newspaper “Muhammed Speaks” on the floor. When it became “Bilalian News” he had stacks of those.

   He sold them to African Americans who worked in the yard. They trooped in, plunked down their dough, and walked out with the newspaper stuffed into a coat pocket. Nobody who was white ever trooped in and plunked down anything. He was disliked by every white man to whom I let out what dismal dead-end I was stuck in.

   He had a poster on the wall of the Nation of Islam kingpin Elijah Muhammed wearing sunglasses and a funny hat with stars and crescent moons emblazoned on it. The poster said, “If you think the white man isn’t the devil like I have taught you, then bring me your devil and I will show you that the white man has no equal.” Whenever I had to go into his office the poster was right behind him right in my face.

   He liked to say things like, “Whenever you look at a black man you are looking at God.” Then he would tell Wally and me that there were two or three gondalas with rail wheels on them that needed unloading. He tried to make it sound like orders from the mouth of God, speaking low and slow.

   Ozor Benko was Wally. Nobody ever called him Ozor or even Ozzie. Everybody called him Wally. He was shorter and older than Isaiah. He had been married for almost fifty years. His wife put together his lunch pail, sandwiches, apples, oranges, and grapes. The sandwiches were always Hungarian since they were Hungarian. He especially liked black bread smeared with cream cheese and topped with black cherry jam.

   Wally and I worked together. Every morning at 7 AM when it got wintry, we collected wood from broken pallets and built a bonfire. Some days the fire was as big as Isaiah’s hatred of white folks. We stood around it once it got roaring and warmed ourselves up. Anybody passing by was welcome to stake a spot. Whenever we had to unload a gondola, we made sure to have a 55-gallon steel drum nearby with a fire going in it. We dried our gloves and thawed our hands there.

   When we were unloading rail wheels the two of us stood in the gondola with a crane on a flat car at hand. The crane operator swung his block to us, one of us wrote a number on the wheel with a thick yellow crayon, while the other one attached a sling to the wheel. The crane lifted it, setting it down in a row of them, and swung back to us. It wasn’t hard work, except when it was cold snowy slippery. There wasn’t as much snow that winter as there would be a few years later during the Blizzard of 1978, but it was icy enough.

   Wally started taking days off when his wife got sick. I didn’t mind because another Extra Clerk like me, who was about my age, filled in. One week Wally didn’t come to work at all. At the end of the next week Isaiah told me Wally’s wife had died and he would be taking a few weeks off. When he came back, he looked terrible. He started going to one of the taverns just outside the yard for lunch, eating pickled eggs, greasy sandwiches, and swigging bottles of P.O.C. Even still, he lost weight, getting thinner. His clothes hung loose on him. His skin got gray.

   He passed away a month-and-a-half later. He missed his wife so much he didn’t want to go on living. He had a heart attack and died on the spot. We thought he died of a broken heart. Isaiah didn’t say much, although he went to Wally’s funeral.

   When spring came, I was assigned to be a tracker in the switching yard. I was given a clipboard and a pocketful of pencils. Boxcars flat cars and gondolas were busted up a cut and sorted by railway company, loaded or unloaded, destination, car type, and whether they needed repairs. The black snakes hauling coal, unloading across the street, weren’t on my beat. I walked miles a day every day, noting and writing it all down and delivering the paperwork to an office in the shadow of the terminal.

   I discovered small beat-up shacks tucked in all over the place where workmen hung out, making hay, killing time, reading the daily papers, listening to the radio, playing cards and drinking. A lot of drinking went on in the yard and at the bars on East 152nd St. just outside the main entry gate. Even more drinking happened on payday, when many men cashed their checks at the bars and drank part of it before their wives could get their hands on what was left.

   By the beginning of summer, I was out of a job. Conrail was taking over, cutting costs, and laying workers off. When the 1980s rolled around they closed the diesel locomotive repair facilities and sold off most of the rail yard. By that time, I didn’t care. I had squirreled away the hard cash I made and gone back to college so I could make my way.

   My father had been a miner in Sudbury, Ontario in the 1950s until he finally saw the light. We emigrated to the USA where he worked days and studied nights at Western Reserve University, graduating with a degree in accounting. He was determined to work with his head not his hands.

   I had my father’s looks, but we didn’t always look at things the same way. He had a way of threatening me with the world, with what was out there. Even though he and I didn’t routinely see eye to eye, after a year of punching the working stiff clock, I started thinking he was on to something. I didn’t want to end up digging graves in the land of plenty.

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.”

Wising Up to the Plaza

By Ed Staskus

   When I moved into the Plaza on Prospect Avenue at East 32nd Street, which wasn’t even a street since the other end of it dead-ended into a parking lot, it was by accident, including a car accident and bumping into Arunas Petkus a few days later. 

   I was living at Dixon Hall up the road, a stone’s throw from East 40th Street. A little more than a decade after I moved out it was designated a legacy building and historic location but when I lived there it was a rat’s nest, full of students, day laborers, and deadbeats. It was a solid four-story stone and brick apartment but was going to seed.

   Hookers and boozers roamed Prospect at night after the blue collars and shop owners went home. The junkies stayed in the shadows, harmless. I avoided the suburban toughs on the prowl.

   My roommate Gary was exactly ten years older than me and was drinking himself to death, day by day from the bottom of his heart. I first met him the day before moving in, when I answered a worse for wear note on a bulletin board at Cleveland State University, a ten-minute walk away. He was stocky, bearded, and sullen, but I needed a cheap room, and his second bedroom was available.

   It wasn’t any great shakes of an apartment, a living room, walk-in kitchen, and two small bedrooms. There were more cockroaches than crumbs in the kitchen. The sofa and upholstered chairs were a flop. Gary kept cases of beer stacked up by the back door and his whiskey under lock and key.

   I didn’t know much about spirits except that all the grown-ups I knew, who were most of them Lithuanian, drank lots of it, some more than others. I didn’t know why Gary was going booze off the bridge, but he was and wasn’t in much shape to do much more than sit around and drink.

   The day he told me he was going out to pick up his car surprised me, since he was living on some kind of inheritance and almost never went out. I didn’t even know he knew how to drive. I was even more surprised when he asked me if I wanted to go along.

   “Where is it?” I asked.

   “Down by 36th and Payne,” he said.

   We could walk since it was a sunny day and 36th and Payne Avenue was only about twenty minutes away by foot.

   “All right,” I said, my first mistake.

   The car was a 1963 VW Beetle with a new engine block and repainted a glossy lime. He paid cash and we drove off, down East 55th to the lake, up East 72nd to St. Clair, and back to Dixon Hall. When he pulled up to the curb, he asked me if I knew how to drive a standard shift.

   “Sure,” I said.

   “Do you want to try it?”

   “Sure,” I said, my second mistake.

   I didn’t get far, about a quarter mile. As we were approaching the intersection of East 30th and Prospect a flash of sunshine glancing off the glossy yellow-green hood of the car distracted me. I turned my head to the left. That was my third and last mistake.

   I didn’t see the four-door sedan going through the red light to my right and never touched the brake. He smashed into the front fender of the VW, sending us spinning, and a car behind us smashed into the rear engine compartment. The opposed 4 made a last gasp and went dead.

   When we came to a stop the VW Beetle was finished and I was finished as Gary’s roommate. I was just barely able to talk him into giving me a few days to scare up another roof over my head. The fall quarter at CSU was rolling along and winter wasn’t far away.

   I was playing beggar-my-neighbor with friends in the Stillwell Hall ground floor cafeteria when Arunas Petkus joined us, snagging a card game in his free time. He was Lithuanian like me. We had gone to St. Joe’s together, a Catholic high school on the east side, and he was an art major at CSU. He had a deft hand drawing and painting. He piped up when he heard about my predicament.

   “Try the Plaza,” he said. “There’s a one bedroom on the second floor that’s come open. Somebody I know had to move out in the middle of the night.”

   The Plaza was just down the street from Dixon Hall. I had never paid much attention to it, but when I gave it a closer look, I liked what I saw. It was built in 1901 in an eclectic style, on a stone foundation, with some blocks of the same stone in the exterior, and yellow brick in front and all around the courtyard. The top of the five stories was crenellated. It had a cool vibe when I walked around it, eyeballing the stamping ground.

   Dave Bloomquist and Allen Ravenstine, who was the synthesizer player for the Cleveland-based art-rock band Pere Ubu, owned and ran the building

   “I grew up at the Plaza. It’s where I became an adult,” said Allen.

   “I was a kid from the suburbs. When we bought this building in 1969, we did everything from paint to carpentry. When it was first built, it had 24 apartments. When we bought it in a land contract, there were 48 apartments. We tried to restore it unit by unit.”

   I knocked on Dave Bloomquist’s door. His apartment was at the crown, in the front, facing north, looking out across Chinatown, Burke Lakefront Airport, to Lake Erie. When he answered the door, I don’t know what I expected, but what I got was a large young man, maybe six and a half feet of him, a thick mop of black hair and a thick black beard.

   “I’m here about the apartment on the second floor,” I said.

   He led me through the kitchen, down a hallway, and into an office full of books records a big desk and sat me down in a beat-up leather armchair.

   I didn’t blanch when he told me what the rent was because it wasn’t much, but I didn’t have much. I could make the first month, maybe the second.

   I hemmed and hawed until he finally asked me if I was short.

   “More or less,” I said.

   “Would you be willing to work some of it off?”

   “Yes, you bet.”

   “Good, we can work that out. Do you play chess, by any chance? You look like you might.”

   “I know how to play,” I said, but didn’t say that I read books about chess openings.

   “Great, do you want to play a game?”

   “Sure.”

   He had a nice board, nice pieces, and played a nice game, but I finished him off in less than twenty moves.

   “Beginner’s luck,” I said.

   “After you’ve moved in stop by, we’ll talk about some work for you, and play again,” he said.

   I went down the front steps, out the door, and sat down on what passed for a stoop. A young woman stuck her head out a basement apartment window next to me.

   “I haven’t seen you around here before,” she said. “Are you moving in?”

   “Yes, in the next couple of days.”

   “Do you have a car?”

   “No.”

   “Good, I’ve lost two cars living here,” she said.

   “That’s too bad.”

   “I love living here, but it drives me crazy at night,” she said. Her name was Nancy, and she was studying art. She wanted to be a teacher. “The junkies sit right here on this ledge and party all night long. They never see anything happening.”

   The dopeheads didn’t have the wherewithal to steal cars. They didn’t have the smarts, either. The making off was happening when bad guys on a mission came down Cedar Road looking for easy pickings.

   I moved in over the course of one day, since I didn’t have much other than my clothes bedsheets kitchen dishes utensils pots and pans schoolbooks and a dining room table and chairs my parents bought for me. I lived on pancakes pasta and peanut butter. The apartment wasn’t furnished, but whoever had left in a hurry left a queen bed, a dresser, and a livable sofa. 

   A man by the name of Bob Flood, who lived on the same second floor, but in the front, not the back like me, helped me carry the table and chairs up. He was dressed in denim, wore a denim cap, making him look like a railroad engineer, had a little shaggy beard and bright eyes, and was on the rangy side. He walked in a purposeful way, like an older man, even though he was only twenty-or-so years older than me.

   Everybody called him Mr. Flood.

   I found out later he was divorced and had two nice kids who visited him, but I never found out if he worked for a railroad or what he did, not for a fact. He was either at home for days or he wasn’t. I had worked at the Collinwood Yards the winter before as a fill-in, sometimes unloading railcar wheels, sometimes walking the yard with a pencil and waybill clipboard. I didn’t remember ever seeing him there.

   “What kind of people live here?” I asked him.

   “All kinds,” he said. “There are a lot of musicians, artists, writers, some students and even a couple of professors.”

   “It’s an energy house,” said Scott Krause the drummer for Pere Ubu.

   “Not everybody’s in the arts,” Mr. Flood said. “There are beauticians, bartenders, and bookstore clerks, too.” 

   “If you want to stick your head out the window and sing an aria, someone might listen, and someone might even applaud,” said Rich Clark from his window.

   I found out almost everybody was younger than older, except for the Italian couple and their parrot. The old parrot never sang or spoke outside the family, no matter how much the Italians coaxed and cajoled him. The bird was as stubborn as a mule.

   Once winter was done and spring was busting out all over, I was reading a book for fun in the courtyard when Arunas Petkus stepped up to the bench I was sprawled out on. He wanted to know if I wanted to go to California with him once classes at Cleveland State University were finished.

   “All that tie dye is finished there,” I said. “Even the hippies say so.”

   “I thought we could visit Chocolate George’s grave.”

   “Who’s Chocolate George?”

   Charles George Hendricks was a Hells Angel in the San Francisco chapter who was hit by a car while swerving around a stray cat one August afternoon in 1967 as the Summer of Love was winding down. He was thrown from his motorcycle and died later that night from his injuries. He was known as Chocolate George because he was rarely seen without a quart of his favorite beverage, which was chocolate milk.

   “He drank chocolate milk because he had an ulcer,” explained Mary Handa, a friend of his in the 1960s. “He spiked it with whiskey from time to time.” He snagged nips all day long.

   Charles George Hendricks was a strapping 34-year-old when he died. He was a favorite among the hippies in Haight-Ashbury because he was funny and friendly. Sometimes he sported a Russian fur hat, making him look like a Cossack. His mustache and goatee were almost as long as his long hair, he wore a pot-shaped helmet when riding his Harley, and his denim vest was dotted with an assortment of round tinny pin badges.

   One of the badges said, “Go Easy on Kesey.”

   The writer Ken Kesey had been the de facto head of the Merry Pranksters. Much of the hippie aesthetic traced back to them and their Magic Bus.

   “I bought a used car,” Arunas said.

   It was parked in the back next to the nerve-wracking back stairs. The stairs were sketchy. Going up and down them felt like it might be the last time all the time as they twitched and shook and seemed on the verge of yanking themselves off the brick façade. I avoided them whenever I could.

   The car was a two-door 1958 VW Karmann Ghia. 

   “You know how the Beetle has got a machine-welded body with bolt-on fenders,” Arunas said.

   I didn’t know, but I nodded agreement keeping my distance from the car. It looked like a soul mate to the stairs. It was pock-marked with rust and seemed like it might fall apart any second.

   “Well, the Karmann Ghia’s body panels are butt-welded, hand-shaped, and smoothed with English pewter.”

   I didn’t know what any of that meant, either, but nodded again.

   “Does it drive?”

   “It got me here.”

   “From where?”

   He bought the VW at a used car lot on East 78th and Carnegie. It was two or three miles away, on the Miracle Mile of used car lots.

   “Where is Chocolate George buried, exactly?” I asked.

   “He’s not buried, not exactly,” Arunas said.

   Five days after his death more than two hundred bikers trailed a hearse and the family car up and down San Francisco’s narrow streets, pausing and revving their engines at the Straight Theater, near where the accident happened. Two quarts of chocolate milk got warm slowly next to the cold body in the back of the hearse. The funeral ceremony was performed at the Cypress Lawn Cemetery, Chocolate George was cremated, and his ashes scattered over Twin Peaks, which are in the center of the city.

   The funeral procession became a motorcycle cavalcade, roaring to Golden Gate Park where, joined by hundreds of hippies from Haight-Ashbury, a daylong wake erupted. Big Brother & the Holding Company and the Grateful Dead were the live music send-offs. There was dancing and tripping.  

   “Sometimes the lights all shining on me, other times I can barely see, lately it occurs to me, what a long strange trip it’s been,” Jerry Garcia sang in his mid-western twang.   

   There was free beer courtesy of the Hells Angels and free food supplied by the Diggers.

   The Haight Street Diggers were said at the time to be a “hippie philanthropic organization.” They used the streets of San Francisco for theater, gatherings, and walkabouts. The organization fed the flock that made the scene in the Panhandle with surplus vegetables from the Farmer’s Market and meat they routinely stole from local stores.

   Two months after Chocolate George’s funeral the Diggers announced “The Death of the Hippie” by tearing down the store sign of the Psychedelic Shop and secretly burying it in the night.

   “So, do you want to go?” Arunas asked, his hand on the hood of the Karmann Ghia.

   “Sure,” I said, short on memory and long on summer.

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.”

Never Trust a Lithuanian Driving a Hot GTO

By Ed Staskus

   Antanas Kairis was a year-or-two older than me, good-looking, and quick on the uptake. I met him at a party at a large house on Magnolia Dr. in University Circle, close to the Music Settlement. Dalia and Algis Nasvytis, who were near my age and who I knew through the community, lived there with their younger sister, Julia, and their parents. It was a week before Christmas.

   They sometimes threw their house open, clearing the big room in the back for kids teenagers young adults to dance to records. The grown-up adults mingled, smoking and drinking and chatting. It was cold and had snowed for days beforehand. The house was brick, two stories with a front facing slate roof and gables, and windows galore. All lit up it sparkled going up the walk in the frosty night.

   Andy was from Boston and had come to Cleveland, Ohio, to see his girlfriend, who was from Dearborn, Michigan. When I called him Tony, the lingo for Antanas, he said, “Call me Andy.” Aida was blonde and beautiful and visiting friends. She didn’t know the Nasvyciai, but her friends did, and she knew Andy.

   I didn’t know I was standing next to him until Aida sauntered off to dance with another boy. 

   “What do you know, I drive all day, and she slips off with somebody else,” he grumbled smiling devilishly.

   It took me a second to realize he was talking to me. I was wall flowering more than dancing. At least he had a girl to complain about. I didn’t often strike up conversations with strangers. Andy was more silver-tongued than me, by a long shot.

   He wanted a cigarette. We went out on the back terrace, and he lit up. I didn’t smoke. He did most of the talking. By the time we went back in it seemed like we were fast friends. I didn’t see much of him the rest of the night. He only had eyes for Aida. He clapped me on the back when I was leaving with my ride, saying he hoped we would meet again. I said sure, even though I didn’t expect to ever see him again.

   I don’t know how Andy got my number but just after the first of the year I found myself on the phone with him. He was driving to Dearborn to see Aida the next weekend and wanted to know if I wanted to go along. I cleared it with my parents, even though they didn’t know his family or him, and he picked me up the next Friday morning. He looked like he had driven all night.

   He was driving an almost new two-door GTO hardtop coupe. It was silver-gray, what Pontiac called Spring Mist. It was a hot car inside a cool color. I waved goodbye and piled in. When we got to the corner of our street, he asked me if I minded driving. I said I didn’t mind and drove all the way to Dearborn while he slept.

   Dearborn was 170 miles away. We made it in record time in the smooth as silk muscle car. The engine had a throaty sound and handled like doing simple arithmetic.

   Henry Ford was born on a farm in Dearborn and later built an estate there. He pioneered the mass production of automobiles, and his world headquarters was based there. He forged the River Rouge Complex there, the largest factory of his empire. He had a reconstructed historic village and museum built, immortalizing his youth. The open land is planted with sunflowers and his favorite crop, which was soybeans. The crops are never harvested.

   There were lots of Poles Germans Italians and Lithuanians in Dearborn. If there were any African Americans, I didn’t see them. “Negroes can’t get in here. Every time we hear of a Negro moving in, we respond quicker than reporters do to a fire,” said Orville Hubbard, the mayor from 1942 to 1978. “As far as I am concerned, it is against the law for a Negro to live in my suburb.” The Michigan Civil Rights Commission in 1965 found Mother Hubbard guilty of posting racist newspaper clippings on City Hall bulletin boards. However, he was never taken to court on the issue. He was an equal opportunity bigot. He complained that “the Jews own this country,” that the Irish “are even more corrupt than the Dagos,” and when Middle Easterners started moving into Dearborn after the Six-Day War that “the Syrians are even worse than the niggers.” In 1970 his son John Jay Hubbard ran for mayor against him but got beaten to a pulp.

   The unofficial slogan of the lily of the valley burg was “The Sun Never Sets on a Negro in Dearborn.”

   We found Aida’s house without too much trouble, except for stopping at several gas stations and asking for directions. Her parents were suspicious of Antanas but brushed me off as a harmless sidekick. They agreed to let us sleep in their furnished basement that night and Saturday night and fed us lunch. It was hot beet soup with black rye bread and kugelis. I wasn’t surprised it wasn’t burgers and fries.

   We went out on the town, visiting the Automotive Hall of Fame. We went to the Henry Ford Museum and rode in a Model-T. We went to the Fairlane and sat in an old bus. We went to the movies and saw “In the Heat of the Night.” We stopped at a tavern with a neon sign in the window saying “EATS.” Andy explained I was with him, and they let me in. We had burgers and fries. Andy had a beer. Aida and I had Sprite.

   On the way back Double A sat in the back seat making out. We were at a stop light minding our own business waiting for the green to go when a car pulling up next to us got too close and broke off the GTO’s sideview mirror. There wasn’t one to begin with on the passenger side which meant now I didn’t have any. The young woman driving the white Chevy Corvair, one of the worst cars on the road, looked at me, looking chagrined. She put the car in park and got out. I noticed her compact car didn’t have side mirrors from the get-go.

   The Corvair is on most lists of “The Ten Most Questionable Cars of All Time.” 

   I was standing beside the driver’s door looking at the broken mirror lying in the road when I noticed Andy bolting out of the back seat and making a beeline to who-knows-where. He hit the pavement running and disappeared down a side street. When the police appeared, I pointed to the broken mirror and explained what happened. Aida and I sat in the car while they went about their business. They wrote a ticket and gave it to the guilty girl. She drove away in her Corvair waving goodbye.

   “We’ve called your parents and they’ll be here to pick you up soon,” one of the policemen told Aida. She looked worried. “Are your parents strict?” I asked. She nodded yes.

   “What about me?” I asked.

   “You’re coming with us,” the policeman said.

   “Where are we going?”

   “You’re going to jail,” he said.

   “Why? I didn’t do anything.”

   “This is a stolen car,” he said.

   The city hall the police station and the district court were all in a row on Michigan Ave. I was taken to the police station, photographed and fingerprinted. They put me in a holding tank. It smelled bad, like a toilet with a dead rat in it. A man in a suit showed up and took my statement. 

   “I didn’t steal that car,” I said. “Find Antanas. He’ll tell you.”

   “We already found him.”

   “And?”

   “He said you stole the car.”

   “What! That’s not true. Why did he run away if he didn’t steal it? I didn’t steal anything, he did.”

   “Have you ever been to Massachusetts.”

   “No, except once a couple of years ago when there was Boy Scout Jamboree there.”

   “All right, sit tight,” he said.

   I sat tight that night and the next night and the night after that until my court appearance on Monday. I was shuffled into a cell with three other men, two of them there for drunk and disorderly and one of them, an African American, for being in Dearborn after the sun went down. He called us honkies. We ignored him.

   “I don’t trust anyone that hasn’t been to jail at least once in their life. You should have been, or something’s the matter with you,” John Waters once said.

   I didn’t trust the two drunks and slept with one eye open. My fears were put to rest the next day when they sobered up. They built Ford Mustangs at River Rouge. The complex included 93 buildings with nearly 16 million square feet of factory floor space. It had its own docks on the dredged-our Rouge River, 100 miles of interior railroad track, its own electricity plant, and an integrated steel mill. It was able to turn raw materials into running vehicles within its own space. 

   “You leave your brain at the door,” one of them said. “Just bring your body, because they don’t need any other part. It’s a good thing, otherwise I would lose my mind. They tell you what to do and how to do it.”

   “Hey, there ain’t a lot of variety in the paint shop either,” the other one complained. “You clip on the color hose, bleed out the old color, and squirt. Clip, bleed, squirt, clip, bleed, squirt, clip, bleed, squirt, scratch your nose. Only now the bosses have taken away the time to scratch my nose.” 

   “Yeah, the line speed used to be 40 or 45 cars an hour twenty years ago but now it’s working its way up to a 100. A lot of the time I have to get into the car and do my job sitting on raw metal. I was always going home with black and blue marks on the back of my legs. I made a padded apron to wear backwards so I would be more comfortable.”

   “I was a two-bolt man for a while,” the painter said. “There were two bolts and I put in one and secured it. Then I put in the other one and secured it. They came pretty fast, so it’s time after time. I always had a sore shoulder. It just wears you down in your bones.”

   A rolling rack of paperback books came by, and I grabbed a couple of Perry Mason mysteries. We were fed morning noon and night. I took naps whenever I wanted to. By Monday morning I had gained a pound or two, easing into my motel tan, and was well rested.

   On the way to the courtroom, I saw Dandy Andy in another group and jumped him, only to be separated from him in no time flat. I spit out he was a rotten goddamned fink. He gave me the finger and that ended our so-called friendship on the spot. In the courtroom I saw my father, who had taken the day off and driven to Dearborn. When my turn came a police detective and an assistant district attorney talked to the judge first. When they were done the judge crooked his finger at me to approach the bench.

   “Your friend has admitted stealing the car in Boston to go joyriding and so we are dropping the charges against you,” he said.

   “He’s not my friend,” I said.

   “In any case, you’re free to go.”

   Automobile theft was rampant all over the country, with almost a million of them going missing every year. Michigan was one of the states that led the way. My case was open and shut, thank God. Stealing cars was a trap door to prison. I left with my father, who wasn’t happy, but happy I had been sprung loose.

   “I still can’t believe another Lithuanian would do that to me, especially lying about stealing the car,” I said on our way home.

   My father brushed my naivete aside.

   “In Lithuania whenever anyone is driving, they are cautious of people on the side of the road trying to flag them down, trying to get them to pull over,” he said. “More often than not it’s a trick to get you out of your car so that a second man can either steal what’s in your unattended car or drive off with it. Everybody knows if you absolutely must leave your car, say you are involved in an accident, be sure to turn off the ignition, take the keys, and lock the car. Lietuviai are no saints, believe me.”

   He tapped out a Pall Mall, lit it, and drove in silence while he smoked.

   “What do you think the moral of your lost weekend might be?” he asked ten minutes later stubbing out his cigarette.

   I looked at the pivoting globe compass and small painted statue of St. Christopher on top of the dashboard, wiggling slightly on their magnetic bases. Even though the compass told him what direction he was going in, my father was terrible with directions, often getting lost. He didn’t like asking for them, in any case, and relied on St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers. Unfortunately, St. Christopher never said a word about anything.

   I couldn’t think what the moral might or might not be.

   “Never trust anybody driving a stolen car, not even yourself,” he said.

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.”

Kitchen Party

HOMESPUN.jpeg

By Ed Staskus

Some years later living in a Polish double in Cleveland, Ohio, the last winter they lived in the old neighborhood before moving to the new neighborhood where a school and convent adjoining the Lithuanian church had just been built, Eddie Staskevicius watched his 9-year-old sister Rita walk up the stairs in her new American winter coat and remembered the blimp-style snow suit his mother made for her earlier in Sudbury, Ontario.

“She looked like one of the astronauts in ‘Destination Moon,’” the 12-year-old boy said. He had seen the Technicolor sci-fi movie on a 15” black and white “Atomic Age” Zenith. It had a sharp picture, at least until it warmed up, when it would sooner or later start arcing and hissing.

it was space, the new frontier, brought to life by space the old frontier, at least until the TV fritzed off. Rockets were hot. Project Mercury was gone and done, launching the first American astronaut on a suborbital flight in 1961. John Glenn lifted off on an Atlas rocket in 1962 to become the first American to orbit the Earth.

Rita wore her space suit winters in Sudbury. It was where Angele Jurgelaityte married Vytas Staskevicius in 1949 and gave birth to Edvardas in 1951, Ricardas in 1952, and Rita in 1954. It was the trifecta. When she did, she gave up her job as a nanny for the Lapalme’s, known as “The Largest Family in Sudbury,” and went to work raising her own family in her own house.

“I spent all my time cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, and watching my kids,” she said.

The day she got married she knew how to boil pork and make soup. “I didn’t know how to make any other food.” The first time she bought ground meat for a meatloaf, she bought too many pounds of it. “We didn’t have a refrigerator at first and I had to ask one of our neighbors to keep it for me.” She stuck to the basics, fruit in season, fresh meat from a butcher shop, eggs, cheese, bread, milk, and coffee.

“No matter how much I ate I couldn’t put on weight,” Angele said. “I was thin as a pencil.” She saw a doctor who told her not to overthink nor overeat her slender figure. “You’ll want it back some day.” he said.

They rented an upstairs room to a German couple recently arrived, Bruno and Ingrid Hauck, in order to bring in a little income. Vytas charged $11.00 a week and soon converted a second upstairs bedroom to accommodate boarders. There was a half bath.

“I don’t know where they went for a real bath,” said Angele. The Staskevicius family lived on the ground floor. They had a full bath.

“I loved having kids, but we still had to go out sometimes,” Angele said. Vytas bought her a fur coat after Rita’s birth. Fur was more a necessity in Sudbury than some kind of big city luxury, and didn’t cost an arm and a leg, especially since it wasn’t mink and came from the nearby outdoors.

They couldn’t afford a babysitter but made friends with the Hauck’s. “Ingrid loved the kids, especially Rick. She watched them so we could go out.” They walked to the movie theater on Elm Street on Saturday nights. After the movie they took a stroll.

Angele worked for the Laplame’s as a mother’s helper one winter, spring, and summer. J. A. Lapalme, a local businessman, had promised Angele he would help get Vytas Staskevicius out of Germany and into Canada. He went to his office every day and she waited for word about the sponsorship.

“One week he was in Montreal,” she said. “When he got home, he didn’t say anything about it. I was in the kitchen washing dishes. I asked him if he had done it, sponsored Vytas, but he said he forgot. I got so mad I threw the washcloth on the floor.”

She ran upstairs, down the hallway to the back, into her room, slammed the door, and threw herself on the bed.

He knocked on the door, came in, and said, “I’ll fix it tomorrow.”

“He did it the next day,” she said.

Vytas went to work in the nickel mines. Sudbury was a mining town, where work meant not seeing the light. Either you worked in the mines or you worked in an ancillary business. He wasn’t low man on the totem pole, like pick-axe men, but he had to watch his step in the 3,000-foot-deep hot dim damp mineshafts. A wrong step could be a last step. His first job was packing black powder. He worked as a blaster, the man responsible for loading, priming, and detonating blastholes, breaking rock for excavation, creating rock cuts.

Sudbury is the regional capital of northeastern Ontario, 230 miles north of Toronto and 140 miles east of Sault Ste. Marie. It lays in a 200-million-year-old crater, surrounded by the Canadian Shield, and has hundreds of lakes within its boundaries. Lake Wanapitei is the largest city-contained lake in the world.

Sudbury’s mining economy went boom and bust through the years as demand for nickel fluctuated. It was high during World War One, bottomed out when the war ended, and rose again in the 1920s and 30s. It was one of the richest and fastest-growing cities in Canada through the 1930s. During World War Two one mine alone accounted for all the nickel used in Allied artillery. With the advent of the Cold War Sudbury supplied the United States with most of its military grade nickel.

Angele and Vytas lived in an old two-story clapboard house on Pine Street after their wedding and five-hour afternoon honeymoon at a nearby lakeshore park. They saved everything they could and couldn’t afford, and with the help of a loan from J. A. Lapalme, were able to buy a new house on a new dead-end length of Stanley Street.

Stanley Street stretched four blocks from Elm Street, the commercial thoroughfare, past Pine Street to Poplar Street. When it was extended to the nearly sheer rock face on top of which railroad tracks ran, it became five blocks. Several new homes were built.

“There were three on our side of the street and three on the other side when we moved in,” said Angele. There were no sidewalks. “One of the houses on the other side was bigger. It was the builder’s home.”

He neglected to install storm windows on their new house, regardless of the long winters.  “We hadn’t signed for the house, yet, and Vytas insisted he put in second windows. He put them in.” They might have been recent settlers, DPs from Eastern Europe, but they didn’t need a weatherman to know which way the winter storm systems blew.

The builder had four children, two of them boys. Angele’s sons played with them in the summer, climbing the sloping rock hills behind their house, and planning on how to someday climb the steep rock cliff at the end of the street. Their parents forbade them the fantasy.

Angele spoke Lithuanian fluently, Russian and German competently, English just barely, and French not at all. Everybody in Sudbury spoke English and French. It was grapevine with the neighbors and listen some more for her to be able to go shopping.

“I listened to people. I learned English by talking to them.”

The first Lithuanians came to Canada in the early 1900s to work in Nova Scotia’s mines. They established a parish and built a church in 1913. A wave of immigration, tens of thousands, took place after World War Two. Most of them went to Ontario. They spread out to London, Hamilton, and Toronto. Some of them went to Sudbury. There was ready employment there.

For all its work and prosperity, the mining town was known as one of the ugliest cities in Canada. Logging for the purpose of roasting ore on open fires and the smoke that resulted despoiled the landscape, leaving behind scattered poplars and birches, the only trees able to endure the harm. The small city and its vast environs were often compared to the landscape of the faraway moon.

What birds there were carried their nut and seed lunch boxes from tree to tree because the trees were so far and few between. They never said goodbye, though. The nest is where the heart is.

“The summers were short and hot,” Angele said. “There were no trees anywhere. The rock would get hot and make everything hotter. The winters started in October and they were cold.”

When spring came, there wasn’t much to it. Decades of indiscriminate logging, massive mining operations, and smelter emissions wiped out almost all of the vegetation. The pollution poisoned lakes and streams. The dearth of trees meant a dearth of mulch, leading to widespread soil erosion. As a result, frost was severe in the winter and it was too hot in the summer.

It was colder than cold in winter. The average temperature was below zero. “Our best friends, Henry and Maryte Zizys, had to go home on the bus one weekend after visiting us and it was 45 degrees below zero.” The average snowfall was above average for northern land. The last frost in spring was in late May. It came back the second week of autumn.

In the winter, once she got the hang of it, Angele sewed clothes. When she started, she had sewn little except a button back on a shirt or skirt. “But when you have to do something, I did it,” she said.

She learned to sew the same way she learned to speak English. She rummaged cheap clothes from second-hand stores and took them apart to see how they had been put together. She cut up adult pants, reusing the zippers, and made children’s pants. “The zipper in pants was hard to figure out.” She learned by doing what she was doing.

“I found out it was just common sense,” she said.

She bought an old foot-powered Treadle Singer sewing machine in good condition. A rubber belt operated it. The belt stretched from the balance wheel to a flat metal bigfoot pedal at the bottom. The power came from the rhythm of the sewer’s feet. The stitch length couldn’t be adjusted. Only a single straight stitch is possible with treadle machines. But once you get into the swing of things, both delicate and durable stiches are more than workable.

Within a few years she was making curtains and tablecloths for herself and their neighbors.

She sewed dresses for her friends. She made a dress for Irma Hauck. “I sewed a coat for Maryte Zizys.” She learned to make pants for the men, cuffs and all.

She sewed winter suits for her kids. Eddie got a German army winter field coat and matching wool pants. Rick got a Space Cadet zip up one-piece suit. Both boys wore snug form-fitting hats based on “Atomic Rulers of the World.”  Rita’s snow suit was puffed up like a dirigible, cinched at the waist, and paired with a white rabbit furry hat. She was “The Thing from Stanley Street.”

Eddie and Rick chased her with ray guns.

When Vytas learned how to ice skate at a local rink, he bought his kids skates. He flooded the front yard with hose water, and when it froze solid in seconds taught them how to skate. Whenever Rita fell down, she never felt a thing, her puffy suit protecting her. But sometimes she couldn’t get back up, lacking leverage, the stiff winter wind rolling her over and over.

She never got hurt, reassuring her mother that the puffiness was serving its purpose.

“When I lived in Nuremberg, at the Army Hospital, one of my roommates, Monica, read my palm, and said I would have three children, but one of them would die young. When it was time to take the taxi to the hospital for Rita, my third child, I was so scared I fell down on the living room floor and couldn’t go.”

Vytas got her to her feet and inside the car. In the event, Rita survived, fortune teller or no fortune teller, ray guns or no ray guns, rock solid ice or not.

In the spring, between pregnancies and births, Angele performed in plays resurrected from Lithuania. She danced with a folk-dance group. They practiced in the church hall and did turns on local stages, once going to Sault Ste. Marie for an outdoor dance jamboree.

“Rimas Bagdonas was always my partner,” she said. “He was tall and a good dancer.”

Vytas and Angele met Rimas and Regina Bagdonas in Sudbury. They met everyone they knew in Sudbury, since everyone else they had known in Lithuania was either stuck fast in the homeland behind the Iron Curtain or had emigrated to one corner of the wide world-or-other or had died in the war.

Rimas worked for Murray Mines and hosted a Lithuanian radio program Sundays in his spare time. He sang and danced and played the piano, violin, harmonica, accordion, and organ. He was one of the church organists and one of the accordionists for folk dancing performances.

He worked underground for eight years. In 1957 he was told in order to be promoted he would have to change his last name. A manager suggested Rimas Bags or Rimas Bagas. He didn’t like the idea. He worked in the dark but was starting to see the light.

“My dad told them he was born a Bagdonas and would die a Bagdonas,” said his daughter Lele. “So, a family decision was made that he would leave to find a job. We stayed in Sudbury. That November after he found work, we moved to Hamilton. My dad’s first job was at the Ford plant in nearby Oakville.”

By 1957 most of the Lithuanians in Sudbury were thinking about talking about planning on leaving or had already left for greener pastures. They were moving to Toronto Montreal and the northern United States. Vytas had already made a foray south of the border, exploring where they might go to live and work.

Mining has been and is one of the most dangerous occupations in the world. Some of the worst workplace disasters ever have been collapses and explosions. Hard rock mining is hazardous work. The most common accidents are the result of poisonous or volatile gases and the misuse of explosives for blasting operations. Especially dangerous below ground is mine-induced instability. It is a major threat for all diggers. None of the DP diggers wanted to be tunneling the rest of their lives.

At the start of the 1950s Sudbury had a population of about 40,000 and of the 14,000 men in the labor force more than 8,000 of them worked in mining and smelting. Ten years later, due to the high demand for labor, the population of the city doubled. But at the outset of the new millennium Sudbury had the smallest proportion of immigrants of any city in Ontario, the Italians, Ukrainians, and Lithuanians almost all gone.

In the meantime, Sudbury modernized its mining and reclaimed its landscape. Nearly 9 million trees were planted over a 30-year period. It was one of the largest re-greening projects in the world.

“I hated my husband having to work in the mines,” said Angele. “Whenever a miner died, you never heard it on the news or read about it in the newspaper. We only ever found out by word- of-mouth, one to the other.”

Rita’s godfather moved to Chicago. Rick’s godfather moved to San Diego. Ed’s godfather moved to Los Angeles. Henry and Maryte Zizys moved to Montreal. The Hauck’s moved to Detroit. Almost everyone who had come to Sudbury for the chance to get out of Europe and for the available work went somewhere else.

“Vytas worked nine hours a day for two weeks and then nine hours a night for two weeks,” said Angele. His days of getting up, shoveling coal into the furnace cold mornings, having breakfast, walking or hitching a ride to the mine, working his shift, getting home, having dinner, seeing his kids for few minutes, took most up most of his day. “When he worked nights, we hardly saw him. He would come home in the morning, have a bite to eat, and go to bed.”

Refugees displaced people immigrants believe in hard work as the way to get ahead. It’s often the only thing to believe in. Everything else has been left behind.

“When the men were working day shifts, we had parties on weekends at our house,” Angele said. “We had a big living room and the Simkiai, Povilaiciai, and Dzenkaiciai would come over.” The kids got shoved into a bedroom to fend for themselves.

The men played bridge in the kitchen long into the night, drinking beer and homemade krupnickas, which is a kind of Lithuanian moonshine, smoking Export “A” and Pall Mall cigarettes until the card table was under a cloud of smoke. The women put food out, mixed cocktails, and kibitzed the card players. They danced to records. They kicked back and talked.

“We didn’t have TV’s, so we talked.”

They talked about their kids, their neighbors and friends, their baznycia and bendruomene, other women, who was getting married and who was getting dumped, the movies, shopping cooking the butcher baker and candlestick maker. They talked about local doings. The men talked about their jobs, who knew and didn’t know what they were doing. They put the kids to sleep. They talked long into the night in the living room.

Outside when it got dark, and started snowing, the black rock face of Sudbury got muffled in white. When the wind picked up drifts built up against the side of the house. After that there wasn’t much to see. They didn’t talk about what had been, so much, but about what was going to be.

“One day a door will open and let the future in,” Angele said. In the meantime, she made sure the front door was securely latched. There was no sense in letting Old Man Winter crash the party.

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.”

Pedal to the Metal

By Ed Staskus

   Looking down at the Great Lakes Goo Goo Godzilla wondered what they were and where he was. He had flown past a whopping big one and could see four more, each one smaller than the one before. The two he was over were like kidneys facing each other and the one ahead reminded him of home. It was shaped like Japan. He swooped lower to get a better look.

   When he saw the 500-foot-tall cooling towers of the Perry Nuclear Generating Station, his eyes got wide, and he dove straight for them. One of them was billowing steam, but the other one looked quiet. He knew exactly what they were. He didn’t like their looks. The Godzilla’s had a love hate hookup with fission.

   Oliver knew what they were, too. He lived nearby. He didn’t pay them much mind, though. As long as the lights worked he was happy.

   Goo Goo couldn’t fly, not exactly, but he could launch himself like a rocket with his atomic breath. Once he was up and away, he was able to glide the jet stream for hours, adjusting his course with bursts of red-hot. His grandfather had taught him.

   “It was fifty years ago when I was battling Hedorah that I first flew,” Godzilla said. “I was beating him into mashed potatoes with my tail but then he morphed into a flying saucer and escaped. I was helpless but wouldn’t give up. I ran as fast as I could, but he just got farther and farther away. At the last minute I got a brainstorm and took off using my atomic breath. I caught him, wrestled him down to the ground, and knocked him for a loop.  When I was done, I blasted off again and went home.”

   “Can you teach me?” Goo Goo asked.

   “I will, but don’t tell your grandmother,” Godzilla whispered. “She thinks flying is dangerous.”

   “What about Mothra and Rodan?” Goo Goo said. “They will always have the upper hand if you don’t go airborne. There’s King Ghidorra, too, he never stops giving you fits.”

   “I know, I know,” Godzilla said, the memory getting on his nerves. “Let’s just keep the flying to ourselves, OK?”

   “OK pops.”

   When Oliver heard the emergency siren coming from the direction of Lake Erie, he ran to the TV and turned it on. He suspected Goo Goo Godzilla was roaming around and feared the worst. Sure enough, it was the boy mountain circling the power plant on the lakeshore. He ran upstairs where his mother was brushing her teeth.

   “Mom, can I borrow your cellphone?”

   “Of course,” she said, spitting out Colgate and a mouthful of water. “What is that sound out there?”

   Oliver ran downstairs without answering and called school. He begged off his first-grade class. The lesson that day was going to be about the difference between living and non-living things. He didn’t have any trouble with that kind of mental grasp of things.

   “Do the best you can,” the vice-principal said. “We are all counting on you. Oh, and tell your mother we won’t need a note this time.”

   Oliver was the Unofficial Monster Hunter of Lake County. Even though he was only six years old he had a sixth sense about monsters. He knew when they were under his bed. He knew when they were in the basement. He knew when they were lurking in the woods.

   “Emma, can you skip school today?” he asked his older sister.

   “You bet I can!”

   “It might get dangerous.”

    I’m right behind you,” she said.

    They tossed monster hunting gear in their backpacks, strapped them on, and jumped on their pedal power go karts. Oliver’s was built for business while Emma’s was raked for style. They pedaled alongside Lane Rd, through front yards and backyards, through crop fields and nurseries, past Lane Grove and Birchfield Meadows, and at North Ridge Rd. stopped at the Dairy Queen for ice cream. Pressed for time, they had to lick down their cones on the go, zipping under Rt. 20 to Lake Erie, where they took a right and raced to the nuclear plant.

   They followed the shoreline past the bluffs. Goo Goo was stomping around the cooling towers, unleashing bursts of fury. They saw him plain as day. Police cars were everywhere, but what could they do? Goo Goo’s skin was a kind of battle armor that bullets and bombs bounced off of.

   When the police chief saw Oliver coming, he waved for him to hurry.

   “What’s your plan of attack?” he asked.

   “All Godzilla’s have two brains, one in their head and one down their back where the tail starts,” Oliver said. “I’m going to climb up his tail and go after his second brain.”

   “That sounds good. We’ll swing around to the front of him and try to distract him.”

   Oliver and Emma scrambled behind Goo Goo, who was snorting at the policemen. Oliver stopped at the tip of his tail and started climbing up. When he reached the spot where Goo Goo’s second brain was, Emma tossed a small ballpeen hammer up to him. Oliver peeled back the scales that covered the brain and started banging out a message with the hammer in Morse code.

   All monsters know Morse code, although they never tell anybody who isn’t a monster. Since most of them don’t know how to talk, only roar growl and holler, the code was their way of talking to each other. The Godzilla’s had their own secret language, but they knew Morse code, as well.

   “Stop messing with those reactors.” Oliver tapped. “That’s an order. Scram!”

   Goo Goo stopped dead in his tracks. He whirled in all directions, almost sending Oliver flying, looking for the buttinsky trying to be the boss of him. Where was he? Was it an invisible monster? That could be real trouble. Maybe he had better fly back to Japan and tell his grandfather about this. He would know what to do.

   Before leaving he bellowed and tail-thumped a police car. Oliver had already scrambled off Goo Goo. He and Emma dashed a safe distance away while the junior lizard dinosaur lifted up into the sky with a mighty roar. Before they knew it, he was gone.

   The police chief thanked Oliver and clapped him on the back, almost sending him sprawling. “You saved the day. Whatever you did took care of that stinkweed. We owe you a debt of gratitude.”

   “C’mon bud, we better beat it back home, otherwise we’ll be late for dinner,” Emma said.

   “All right,” Oliver said, and they slid into their go karts and in a split second left the power plant behind them.

   By that time Goo Goo was far to the west, gliding over Sandusky, where he spied a Laser Wash car wash. He had flown almost ten thousand miles and hadn’t taken a bath in days. He was sure lasers would clean him up like nobody’s business. But when he landed, he discovered there were no lasers, just water. It was a scam! He was vexed and stamped his feet. When he noticed an American Pride car wash across the street, he liked what he saw. He lay down at the entrance of it, exhaled getting skinny like a snake, tucked in this legs and arms and let the roller conveyor pull him. The water was cold, so he heated it up with a short blast of hot fire. When he came out the other end he felt like a new man and zoomed away.

   Oliver and Emma didn’t stop for anything on their way home and walked in through the back patio door just as their mother was setting the table. Their father was playing his new old-school Legend electric piano in the living room.

   “Ollie, Emmie, dinner’s almost ready,” their mother said looking at them over her shoulder. The kitchen was warm and smelled wonderful. “Make sure you wash up, you’re both dirty as can be. Where have you been and what have you been doing?”

The Unofficial Monster Hunter of Lake County stories can be found at http://www.theunofficialmonsterhunteroflakecounty.com.

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.”

All My Best Friends

By Ed Staskus

   When Nick Goga met Wayne Biddell, the burly man had two bum knees, although they were the least of his problems. He had been a Cleveland Police Department detective for fifteen years and a uniformed officer before that. He told Nick in all that time he only drew his service handgun three times and never once fired it. He lived with the same bullets on his belt all his life.

   He had bad knees from playing handball at the downtown YMCA.

   “I probably never should have played that game, but I loved it, although it and my job cost me my legs and my marriage,” he said.

   Nick met Wayne after his marriage fell apart and he lost his house, which was a lot like what happened to Wayne. They met on the grassy courtyard of the apartment complex on East 222nd Street in Euclid, where they both lived, when Nick saw him messing around with his golf clubs on a warm dry spring day. The ex-cop was retired and living alone.

  Nick wasn’t retired, not exactly, but he lived alone, too.

  They played golf together for the next three years. He was the best friend Nick ever had, even more than Mattie Haylor, even though Mattie ended up doing more for him later on. Wayne was affable and did many things for him that he never even asked him to do. After Nick moved to Lakewood, Wayne got him a car, convincing his lady friend to give him the old Ford she was planning on trading in when she got her new car. He later mailed him a check for five hundred dollars, to live on, knowing Nick was strapped, knowing his ex-wife had taken him to the cleaners.

   It wasn’t his fault the Ford’s transmission blew out, stranding him in Tremont, and his son-in-law wouldn’t lend him the money to get it repaired.

   “Fixing it will cost more than the car is worth,” he said. “You’re better off sending it to the scrap yard.”

   He knew Jack was right but knew he didn’t want to lend him even one dollar, at the same time. He could tell Jack didn’t trust him, even though he had always been an honest man. All his friends said so. He wasn’t sure what his daughter Agnes thought, whether she was just backing her husband up, or not.

   He junked the heap and got a hundred bucks for it.

   After that he had to walk to the Lakewood Library and McDonald’s, the grocery and the bus stop all that winter, the winter Wayne blew his head off, and all the next spring until Mattie died and left him a hundred thousand dollars, after all was said and done. The trust sold Mattie’s house and old furniture and threw everything else out. He was able to buy a new car, a two-door Suzuki that never ran out of gas.

   When his wife Eva Giedraityte walked out on him, and took all the money out of their joint accounts, swooping up the kids and talking him into taking a second mortgage out on their house so she and her new boyfriend from Rochester could open a restaurant, and Palmer Bearings went bankrupt, putting him out of the only work he had ever done since getting shipped home from the Korean War with a Purple Heart, it was then he played more golf than he ever played in his life, and waited to be thrown out of his house.

   When he finally got the boot and moved out of Indian Hills, down the hill to Euclid, he was in his late 50s.

   “I was hanging on, waiting to get to 62, so I could get my Social Security early. I needed the money bad. When I worked for Palmer Bearings, they gave me a new car every year, with an expense account no one ever questioned, and I was in line to be made a vice-president, up to the day the Shylocks closed the doors without a word of warning to me.”

   Nick had a chip on his shoulder about it. He was aggrieved and bitter. Sometimes he went for a walk to cool down.

   “There were years when I almost always had a thousand dollars, or more, in cash in my pockets every day. Those days were gone. I had made the day for the Jews who ran the business. In the end they took it all away from me, just like my wife did. Eva broke me down inside.”

   When he moved to Euclid he moved into a no-rent apartment, an apartment that Angelo, the maintenance man at the apartment complex, who he met through Stan, a Pole he often had breakfast with at the railroad car diner on Green Road, not far from the giant Fisher Body and TRW plants, got for him when he was hired to be his helper.

   “Stan and I talked all the time over cups of coffee. We got to be good friends, even though he was a thick Polack. He was a hell of a bowler. He was good enough to bowl in tournaments, and I went to a couple of them to watch him. It was hop, skip, and glide to the line. He was always pounding out strikes. It got old, though, and I stopped going, except when the beer and pretzels were free.”

   Angelo was from Texas and was a Korean War veteran, like Nick. He talked the man who was the boss, who owned the apartment complex, into hiring him. Nick didn’t like the man, didn’t like his shrewd face, but he kept his mouth shut.

   “He was Hebrew, and that’s who runs the country. They run the money, which means they run everything else, too. They own most of the gold in the world. They marry inside the family, keeping it all together for themselves.”

   He shoveled snow, did some of the gardening, and vacuumed the hallways. He cleaned apartments when they went vacant and got paid extra whenever he had to clean kitchens, scrubbing the stove and emptying out the fridge, throwing away spoiled food. He made a few bucks here and there, one way or another. He stayed quick on the uptake. He kept his head above water.

   The apartment complex had been built during the Second World War for government workers. It was built like a tank, sturdy as a fort. The brown brick buildings were three stories with garages in the back. Fox Avenue intersected the complex and ran all the way to Babbitt Avenue, where there was a golf course. Wayne and he shuttled to it on good days, getting in eighteen holes.

   “He wasn’t any good, and complained about the walking, but we got along. I always went looking for the balls he shanked.”

   Wayne worked part-time at night, in a booth selling betting slips at the Thistledown horse track in North Randall. He was on his own during the day, which was how he and Nick were able to go golfing together whenever Nick was free to go. They went to tournaments in Akron, to watch the professionals. Stan went with them once, but he wasn’t used to hiking more than a bowling lane and got worn out.

   After Nick lost his car Wayne always drove. He had gotten a new dark blue Mercury four-door sedan. “He loved that car and talked his lady friend into getting one, too. That was how I got her old Ford.”

   When he moved to Lakewood, on the west side, to a no-frills apartment across the street from St. Ed’s High School, Wayne visited him a few times, even though he didn’t like the small apartment or the building.

   “It’s a dump,” he said.

    Nick took him to Joe’s Diner for breakfast. “I could tell he was suffering. It wasn’t just his knees. He had prostate cancer and was hurting. It was just a matter of time. I called him on Christmas Eve and wished him happy holidays. He didn’t sound good, but he didn’t sound bad, either. At least, that’s what I thought. I was dead wrong.”

   Wayne’s son was a pre-law student at Miami University. He had tried out for the football team as a walk-on and made the cut. That fall he saw playing time as the team’s back-up quarterback when the starter was injured. “He was a hell of an athlete,” Nick said. He drove up to Euclid from Oxford to see his dad the Christmas weekend. Wayne told him all about his new Mercury.

   “Take my car and give it a little ride,” he said. “I haven’t driven it for a while. It needs to be out on the road.”

   His son got the car and drove it up and down Lakeshore Boulevard. It had snowed overnight, but not much, and what snow there was had been plowed to the side. When he got back, he found his father in bed. Wayne had put a pillow over his head and a gun in his mouth. When he pulled the trigger, it was the first and last time he ever shot a gun at a human being.

   After the funeral Nick hoofed it around Lakewood until summer, when Mattie, his golfing buddy for many years, who was in his 80s, got sick. He was taken to Fairview Hospital, and when there wasn’t anything else the doctors could do, they moved him to the Welsh Home in Rocky River.

   “Mattie was a great guy and great friend of mine, my other best friend for a long time. He was on our golf team in the Cleveland Metropolitan Golf Association. We had about ninety members and most of us were friends. We played golf until it was too cold to walk the courses. After that, any of us who could afford it went south to play. I went to sunny parts of the country to play golf many times, when I was married, in the clover, and even afterwards, until I couldn’t afford to go anymore.”

   Mattie passed away in his sleep and a month after his funeral Nick got a registered letter from a lawyer saying he had been included in the will. “He left me his house. It surprised me but didn’t surprise me. I was the only person who ever listened to what he had to say, who stuck around when he lost track of his thoughts, who waited for him to reminisce about something else he was bound to remember sooner or later, even though it was a lot of nothing. After the house was sold, I got a check for a bundle.”

   He bought his new car, paying cash for it. He paid off his credit card debt, the plastic he had been living on, and bought a new laptop computer, so he didn’t have to always go to the library to work on his get-rich schemes. He stopped sending e-mails to his son-in-law when Jack exploded about them one day, saying he was sick of the schemes. He told his father-in-law he was never going to buy in to any of them.

   “I always was a good friend with different people, including Wayne and Mattie, who were my two best friends. It’s good to be best friends with your friends. Otherwise, you end up with duck eggs. My ship is coming in one day. When it does, I’ll dump the Suzuki in the blink of an eye and get an Audi convertible.  I’ll go to Florida every winter. I’ll play golf in the sunshine again.”

   He bought new shirts and shoes and ate better. After squirreling the rest of Mattie’s money away he was in good shape. He stayed in his dog-eared apartment to keep costs down. He thought about buying birthday presents for his grandson and granddaughter, even though he hardly ever saw them, and when he did, hardly paid any attention to them.  He didn’t work at much of anything and played golf all the next summer at new nicer courses. He went to both Wayne and Mattie’s graves and paid his respects. He only went once, but it was enough.

   He made some new best friends.

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.”