Category Archives: Accidental Realism

Over a Barrel

By Ed Staskus

The summer day in the late 1960s when I walked across the Rainbow Bridge was stormy. I had gotten there by leaving the driving to Greyhound. The driver wore a uniform. It made him look like a mix of state trooper and doorman. Since the bus had no acceleration to speak of, he drove all-out all the way from Cleveland, Ohio to Niagara Falls, New York. We passed sports cars and muscle cars.

   The driver sat high up with a vista vision view of the highway. The transmission was a hands-on four-speed. There were four instruments on the other side of the steering wheel, a speedometer, air pressure gauge for the brakes, oil pressure gauge, and a water temperature gauge.

   When I stepped foot on the Canadian side it wasn’t raining, yet. The Border Service officer asked me where I was from, where I was going, for how long, and waved me through without any more fuss. I found the bus station and bought a ticket for Toronto, where I was going. I was going to visit a girl, Grazina, who I had met at Ausra summer camp on Wasaga Beach a couple of years earlier.

   It rained hard all the way there, past Hamilton and Mississauga on the Queen Elizabeth Way, until I got to the big city, when the clouds parted, and the sun came out. Everything smelled clean. I picked up a map of the bus and subway system and found my way to my friend Paul’s house. His family was friends with my family.

   The Kolyciai lived in a two-story brick row house off College St. near Little Italy. I was polite to his parents and ignored his two younger sisters. I roomed with Paul, but ditched him every morning after breakfast, hopping a bus to Grazina’s house. It wasn’t far, 5-or-so minutes south near St. John the Baptist. Lithuanians bought the church from Presbyterians in 1928 and redesigned it in the Baltic way in 1956.

   Grazina met me on the front porch and took me on a guided tour of Toronto. We went by foot, red and white streetcar, and the underground. We looked the city over from the observation deck on top of City Hall and went to the waterfront. We strolled around Nathan Philips Square. We had strong tea and scones at an outdoor café. Grazina popped in and out of shops on Gerrard St. checking out MOD fashions. At the end of the day, I was so tired I begged off a warmed-over dinner back at my home away from home and fell into bed.

   The next morning Grazina had a surprise for me. We were going to a funeral. 

   “Who died?” I asked.

   “Nobody I know and for sure nobody you know,” she said.

   She was dressed for death, all in black. I wasn’t, wearing blue jeans and a madras shirt. We stopped at a second-hand clothes store. I bought a black shirt, so I wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb.

   “Why are we going to this funeral?” I asked.

   “Because it’s Friday and it’s a Greek funeral.”

   I was an old hand at funerals, having doled out incense at many of them when I was an altar boy at St George’s in the old neighborhood in Cleveland. I had only ever been to Lithuanian services. Because it’s a Friday and a Greek funeral were obscure reasons to me, but I was willing to go along.

   Toronto was full of immigrants. Immediately after the war war-time brides and children fathered by Canadian soldiers showed up. Post-WW2 DP Italians, Jews, Poles, Ukrainians, Balts and Central Europeans poured in. In 1956 after Soviet tanks rolled through Budapest, Hungarians came over. During the next decade there were many family reunification arrivals. Throughout the 1950s and 60s the old-stock British-Canadianism of Toronto was being slowly transformed.

   The church, Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox, in the former Clinton Street Methodist building, was back up Little Italy way. We got on a bus. A priest sporting a shaggy beard, Father Pasisios, was at the helm. He wore a funny looking hat. The church was small on the outside but big on the inside. We sat quietly in the back. When it was over, I finally asked Grazina, “Why are we here?”

   “For the repast.”

   “What’s that?”

   “Food, usually a full meal.”

   “Doesn’t your family feed you?”

   “It’s not that,” she said. “I went to a Romanian funeral with a friend a few months ago, and they served food afterwards, and it was great, food I had never had before. After a while I started going to different funerals whenever I could, always on Fridays, Sicilian, Czechoslovakian, Macedonian, so that I could taste their national food.”

   “How do you know where to go?”

   “I read the death notices in the newspaper.”

   I had heard of wedding crashers, but never a funeral crasher.

   The repast was at a nearby community hall. When asked, Grazina told both sides of the family she was distantly related to the other side, speaking out of the side of her mouth. “Memory eternal” is what she said next, shaking a hand. She knew the lingo. The lunch was delicious, moussaka, mesimeriano, and gyros. We had coffee and baklava for dessert. By the time we left we were loaded for bear.

   We went to Yorkville and hung around the rest of the day. There were coffee houses and music clubs all over Yonge and Bloor Streets. The neighborhood went back to the 1830s when it was a suburban retreat. Fifty years later it was annexed by the city of Toronto and until the early 1960s was quaint quiet turf. Then it morphed into a haven of counterculture.

   “An explosion of youthful literary and musical talent is appearing on small stages in smoky coffee houses, next to edgy art galleries and funky fashion boutiques offering trendy garb, blow-up chairs, black light posters and hookah pipes, all housed in shabby Victorian row houses,” The Toronto Star said.

   It was fun roaming around hopscotching ducking in and out, even though a police paddy wagon was parked at the corner of Hazelton and Yorkville. There had been love-ins, sit-ins, and so-called “hippie brawls” in recent years. Some of the town’s poohbahs were up in arms. The politician Syl Apps said the area was a “festering sore in the middle of the city.” There were wide-eyed teenagers and tourists, hippies and bohemians, hawkers and peddlers, and sullen-looking bikers.

   We weren’t able to get into the Riverboat Coffeehouse, which wasn’t really a coffeehouse, but a club with the best music. We peeked through the porthole windows but all we saw were shadows. The Mynah Bird featured go-go dancers in glass cases outside the second floor. We saw Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins do back flips across the stage doing guitar solos at Le Coq d’Or.

   Starvin’ Marvin’s Burlesque Palace was somewhere upstairs, but we didn’t go there. All the clubs were small, and most of the doors open. We sat on curbs and heard a half-dozen bands. We stayed until midnight. By the time I got back to Paul’s house I was dead tired again and fell into bed.

   The sky Saturday was clear and bright over Lake Ontario, so we went to the Toronto Islands. We took the Sam McBride ferry and rented bikes. There were no cars or busses. We stopped at the new Centreville Amusement Park on Middle Island and rode the carousel. When we found a beach we changed, threw down a towel, and spent the remainder of the afternoon in the sun. We had bananas and threw the peels to the seagulls, who tore them apart and downed them like it was their last meal.

   Grazina invited me over for dinner. She told me her mom was a bad cook, but I went anyway. She set the table while her mom brought platters of cepelinai, bacon and sour cream on the side, serving them piping hot and covered with gravy. They were fit for a king.

   The next morning was Sunday. After going to mass with Grazina and her family I caught a bus for home. At the border I waited my turn to answer the Border Patrol man’s questions. I had all the answers except one. When he asked me for I. D., I said I didn’t have any.

   “How did you get into Canada?”

   “I walked over the bridge.”

   “Didn’t they ask you for I. D.?”

   “No,” I said.

   “Jesus Christ! Well, you can’t come into the United States without identification.”

   I was born in Sudbury, Ontario, and had been to Canada many times since for summer camps. But I never concerned myself with the legalities. I left that to whoever was driving the car, my parents, or somebody else’s parents.

   I was speechless. Distress must have showed on my face. The Border Patrol man told me to call my parents and ask them to bring identification. It sounded like a good idea, except that it wasn’t. My father was out of town on business and my mother worked at a supermarket. Even if she was willing, she had never driven a car that far alone in her life.

    “Is there any place I can stay?”

   “Do you have any money?

   “Just enough for a bus ticket home.”

   He said Jesus again a few times and finally suggested what he called a “hippie flophouse” on Clifton Hill. He gave me directions and I found it easily enough. I used the pay phone to call my mother, reversing the charges. After she calmed down, she said she would send what I needed the next morning by overnight mail. I was in for two nights of roughing it.

   The flophouse was an old motel advertising “Family Rates.” It was next to a Snack Bar selling hot dogs and pizza by the slice. There were young guys and gals loitering lounging smoking pot in the courtyard. One of them offered me a pillow and the floor. I accepted on the spot before he drifted down and out. It was better than sleeping in the great outdoors.

   I spent the next day exploring Niagara Falls. There were pancake houses and waffle houses. There were magic museums and wax museums There were arcades and Ripley’s Odditorium. I took a walk through the botanical gardens and to Horseshoe Falls.

   The Horseshoe Falls were tilting water over the edge like there was no tomorrow. The American Falls had been shut down by the Army Corp of Engineers to study erosion and instability. They built a 600-foot dam across the Niagara River, which meant 60,000 gallons of water a second were being diverted over the larger Canadian waterfall. It was loud and mist floated up into my face. 

   The Niagara River drains into Lake Ontario. We lived in Cleveland half-a-block from Lake Erie. If I threw myself into the river, I would have to swim upstream all the way to Buffalo before I could relax and float home. The practical side of me discarded the idea.

   Lots of people go over the falls. The first person to not do it was Sam Patch, better known as the Yankee Leaper, who jumped 120 feet from an outstretched ladder down to the base of the falls. He survived, but many of the daredevils didn’t.

   The first person to successfully take the plunge in a barrel was schoolteacher Annie Taylor in 1901. Busted flat, she thought up the stunt as a way of becoming rich and famous. The first thing she did was build a test model, stuff her housecat into it, and throw it over the side. When the cat made it unscathed, she adapted a person-sized pickle barrel and shoved off. It was her birthday. She told everybody she was 43, although she was really 63.

After she made it with only bumps and bruises, she became notorious, but missed out on riches. Everybody said she should have sold tickets, but it was Monday morning quarterbacking. She never tried it again. Two years later the professional baseball player Ed Delahanty tried it while stinking drunk and died.

   About thirty people perish going over the falls every year. Most of them are suicides. 

   The last person by 1969 to go over the falls with the intention of staying alive was Nathan Boya in 1960 in a big rubber ball nicknamed the “Plunge-O-Sphere.” When it hit the rocks at the bottom it bounced and bounced, but he was uninjured. Nobody but the absolutely serious about ending it all had tried it since then. 

   I got my official papers on Tuesday, proudly displayed them at the border, and walked into the United States. I sat in the back of the Greyhound bus and stretched my legs out. When it roared off, I took a look back, but it was all a blur.

   Grazina and I wrote letters to one another that winter until we didn’t. We slowly ran out of words and by the next summer were all out of them. She was enrolled in university full-time while I was working half the year and going to Cleveland State University the other half of the year. She found a boyfriend and I found an apartment on the near east side of town.

   A few years later Henri Rechatin, his wife Janyck, and friend Frank Lucas went across the Niagara River near the downstream whirlpool on a motorcycle, riding the cables of the Spanish Aero Car. The friend piloted the motorcycle while Henri and Janyck balanced on attached perches. Since they didn’t have passports, when they got to the far side, they hauled the motorcycle and themselves into the aero car and rode back in comfort.

   The police were waiting. They were arrested for performing a dangerous act, but formal charges were never filed. For my part, I made sure to always have something official with my picture on it whenever I went anywhere. Getting stuck in no man’s land is captivating for only so long..

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.”

Katya in Asia Town

By Ed Staskus

   The Chinese started settling in the United States in the 18th century. Wherever whenever there were enough of them, they lived close to hand, building their own neighborhoods, appropriately called Chinatowns. There are more than 50 of them across the United States, including at least 16 in California alone.

   There are several of the towns within cities in New York City, the most famous one being in Manhattan. It’s the largest Chinatown in the country, spread out over 40 blocks and home to more than 150,000 Chinese-speaking residents.

   Cleveland, Ohio used to have a Chinatown, a colony at Rockwell Ave. near downtown. Immigrants settled in the area starting in the 1920s. After the Communist takeover of the mainland and into the 1960s more than 2,000 lived in the neighborhood. There was a row of Chinese restaurants, among them the Three Sisters, Golden Coin, and Shanghai, as well as two grocery stores between East 21st and East 24th. Storehouses in the district supplied native eateries one end of the city to the other. There was a temple and a meeting hall.

   Chinatown went into sharp decline in the early 1970s and a few years later, when I moved into what was becoming Asia Town, there wasn’t much left. Most of the residents moved to the suburbs and by the 1980s there were only two half-empty restaurants holding on, catering mostly to business folk and occasional tourists looking for the city’s historic Chinese quarter.

   Asia Town is roughly from East 18th St. to East 40th St. and from St. Clair Ave. to Perkins Ave. It has the highest percentage of Chinese, Koreans, and Vietnamese in Ohio. When I lived on East 34th St. between Payne Avenue and Superior Ave. in the mid to late 70s, there weren’t as many yellow faces yet but they were everywhere. There were dirt poor whites, dirt poor blacks, and a recent influx of college students. It wasn’t as present-day as it would become after the 1990s when Asia Plaza was built at East 30th St. and Payne Ave., when it became a business as well as a residential community.

   My roommate Carl Poston was tall, walked with a lanky slouch, and wore a mop of twisty black hair. Everybody called him Erby. He never said why, and I never asked. He liked to read, tearing through the Plain Dealer newspaper every morning, and liked to play chess, like me, but was better than me. He had a bad-ass motorcycle and several bad-ass friends with motorcycles. He worked downtown for the city helping crunch numbers and delivering bad news as Cleveland went under.

   In 1978 the city became the first one in the United States to go bust since the Great Depression. After the bankruptcy it became known as the Mistake on the Lake, a nickname nobody in the hometown liked. When Mayor George Voinovich showed up at a Cleveland Indians game against the New York Yankees in the 1980s wearing a t-shirt under his sports coat, the t-shirt said, “New York’s the Big Apple, but Cleveland’s a Plum.” Only the Asians liked the plum thing, since plums represent purity and perseverance to them. Nicknames come and go but when Cleveland later became ‘The Land,’ nobody shook their heads in despair. It was far better than the mistake and the plum.

   Our house on East 34th St. was behind another house. There was no backyard or garage. Almost all the houses on the west side of the street were that way. The houses across the street had backyards and most of the houses in the neighborhood had backyards. But there were some houses so tucked away one had to be looking right at them to see them. Our rent was more than reasonable, and my half was even better. The landlord lived in Strongsville. His grandmother lived in Asia Town, like me. In return for checking up on her at the beginning of the week and taking her to Dave’s Grocery at the end of the week, I lived almost rent-free.

   Her name was Katya, and she was hundreds of years old. She was five foot four something short and hunchbacked on top of that. She was always in her kitchen when I knocked on the side door, she always croaked “Come in, honey,” and when I went in, she always asked me what I wanted.

   She had three cats who I never saw. She kept a pan of water next to the door for them but no food bowls or litter. They were freeloaders, running down grub in the wild. She had a stack of old newspapers in a corner and the linoleum kitchen floor was usually covered with them. It was sketchy walking inside. The unfolded papers piled haphazardly on top of each other slid every which way. I had to walk like a duck to stay upright.

   “I keep my kitchen floor clean that way.” she said, peeling back the corner of a newspaper and showing me.

   She bought her clothes from third hand stores but bought her shoes new. She was crazy frugal, but she wasn’t crazy. She was built to last, and her feet had to lead the way.

   Katya was from Slovenia, from sometime back in the 19th century. Her parents were peasants from a village nobody ever heard of southeast of Ljublijana. They came to Cleveland to work in the steel mills in the 1890s. At first, they lived in Newburgh, but when a community started forming along East 30th St., from Lake Erie south to Superior Ave., they moved, finally landing on East 38th St. She still lived in the small house her parents bequeathed her.

   By 1910 there were so many Slovenes in Cleveland that it would have been the third-largest Slovenian city in the world if it was in Slovenia. The immigrants opened enough taverns to drown their New World blues and enough churches to repent their drinking. St Vitus was established in 1893, St. Lawrence in 1901, and St. Mary in 1906. Each had its own school. They published their own newspapers in their mother tongue and formed debating drama and singing clubs.

   The singing clubs were stamping grounds, as well. The Lira Singing Society, located in the St. Clair neighborhood, and adamantly Catholic, was opposed by the Zaria Singing Society, sponsored by atheists and socialists. Everybody knew what the arguments were about.

   Katya was married long enough to have two sons before her husband was shot by mistake by a policeman outside a Collinwood bank during a botched robbery. He bled to death before an ambulance could reach him. She buried him in Woodlawn Cemetery, never married again, raising her sons by herself. She took in sewing days and worked nights during World War Two. Her oldest son moved to Seattle and she never saw him again. Her younger son moved to the west side and had a family, but they didn’t want to visit her.

   “We aren’t going to your crazy grandmother’s house in that terrible neighborhood, and that’s final,” his wife said. What the woman didn’t know was that Katya kept a loaded Colt Pocket Hammerless in her kitchen table drawer. It was a single action blowback .32 caliber handgun.

   “Nobody going to shoot me by accident,” she said.

   Her eldest grandson loved her and made sure she had what she needed to stay afloat. She had a small pension and some social security, too. She told me she had silver dollars buried in the backyard, but quickly shot me a wily look.

   “Forget I say that.”

   When Katya’s husband Janez was buried in Woodlawn, it was the oldest cemetery in Cleveland, the first man being inhumed there in 1853. It was the worst cemetery in Cleveland, too. The Depression wrecked its finances. There were sunken graves, toppled headstones, grass never mowed, piles of rotting leaves, and broken tree branches all over the place. That was before the city found out Louise Dewald, who worked in the finance office, had stolen almost half a million in today’s dollars from the coffers as the Depression picked up steam.

   After that it got worse.

   The cemetery chapel roof and the rest of it collapsed in 1951 and was hauled away. The next year City Council thought about digging up and moving all the bodies somewhere else, but the public outcry was too great. Katya never stopped visiting Janez, no matter what, no matter what it took to get there. 

   One Friday walking her home from Dave’s Grocery she asked me if I could take her to the Slovenian National Home the next afternoon for a luncheon. 

   “I don’t have a car anymore, Katya, sorry.” My 1962 Rambler Custom Six, that I had gotten for free, was no more. When I got it, the car was already on its last legs. It was now rusting peacefully away in a junk lot somewhere up on Carnegie Ave.

   “Oh,” she said. “Maybe you walk with me there?”

   “It’s pretty far,” I said. I didn’t mention taking a bus. She distrusted the metropolitan buses getting to where they were going, ever since the city’s rail tracks had been torn up and the electric cars replaced with diesel transport. She believed half the drivers were addled from the fumes.

   The Home was almost thirty blocks away on East 64th St. and St. Clair Ave. At the rate she walked we would have to start as we spoke. After the luncheon we would have to walk the whole night to get back.

   “Oh, that too bad. Janez and I dance there all the time before he die.”

   “Let me see what I can do.”

   I asked my roommate Carl, in return for my washing the dishes, cleaning the house, and mowing our grave-sized plot of grass, if he would take her there and back.

   “It’s a deal,” he said.

   The next day he schlepped her to the Slovenian Home on his Harley, waiting outside smoking cigarettes and shooting the bull with passersby. She was a big hit with her cronies when they spilled outside after the gabbing and feedbag and saw her climb on the back of the hog, wrap her stumpy arms around Carl’s waist, and glide away.

   The Slovenian Home was where my Baltic kinsmen booked their big wedding receptions and celebrations. The Lithuanian Hall on Superior Ave. was too small in the 1960s and the new Community Center in North Collinwood wasn’t built yet. The Home opened in 1924, with two auditoriums, a stage, bar restaurant kitchen, meeting rooms, a gym, and a Slovenian National Library.

   The main auditorium was plenty big enough for any get together and the stage was plenty big enough for any band. The bar was big enough for even Lithuanians. Europeans drink more alcohol than anybody else in the world and Lithuanians are number one in Europe. Whenever I accompanied my parents to the Slovenian Home for a reception or gala, it was always a long night. There was a big dinner at big round tables, speeches, chatting it up, dancing, drinking, and as the drinking went on, singing. My father and his friends would booze it up well into one and two in the morning, singing “In the Sea of Palanga” and “The Old Roofs of Vilnius” and “Oh, Don’t Cry, Beloved Mother.”

   By then I was snoozing sprawled out in the balcony.

   Unlike our no backyard house Katya had a backyard where she grew Brussels sprouts cauliflower broccoli onions potatoes and anything else she could squeeze in. She liked prosciutto and bread for lunch. Sundays she made loads of yota with turnips beans cabbage and potatoes and a slab of meat loaf with hardboiled eggs in the middle. She kept it in the fridge all week, dinner at her beck and call.

   That fall I had to tell Katya that once the school quarter at Cleveland State University was over, I was going to have to take the next quarter off. I had found a job with an electrostatic painting outfit that was going to send me on the road, expenses like food and motels paid, for a couple of months. We were going to start in Chicago, swing out to the west coast, end up in Texas, and be back in time for the spring quarter at CSU. It was chance for me to earn good money and save almost all of it.

   “I going to miss you,” she said.

   We traveled in three-man crews and worked nights, from about 5:30 to about 1 in the morning. We worked in offices, painting office furniture like metal filing cabinets, desks, bookcases, and storage cabinets. The paint was loaded with a low voltage positive charge and the metal items magnetized negative. The finish was like new, no runs, no brush or roller marks, and there was almost no overspray.

   When I got back from my two-and-a-half months on the road, I picked up my cat Mr. Moto from my parents, did my laundry, and registered for classes for the spring quarter at CSU. I went to visit Katya that evening, but she wasn’t there anymore. The house was vacant. A “For Sale” sign was posted. I asked one of the neighbors, but he said he didn’t know much, just that a moving truck pulled up one morning and by the end of the day she was gone.

   I peeked through the windows. The ground floor rooms were all empty. The only thing left was a stack of old newspapers in a corner of the kitchen.

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.”

Brand New Plan

By Ed Staskus

   The year my class graduated from St Joseph’s High School was the high point of the Vietnam War. It was the low point of the American War, which was what the North Vietnamese called it. It was 1968, the year nearly 600,000 American troops were fighting Victor Charlie up and down the country and the year 80,000 Victor Charlies struck back during the Tet Offensive. They hoped to ignite a popular uprising. It didn’t happen. During the month-long battle for the city of Hue, the city was destroyed.

   In 1964, nine years after the start of the Cold War-era undeclared proxy war, it got roaring with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Just ten-some years since the end of the Korean War, the United States military began bleeding back into Asia in force. By the time the war ended in 1975, nearly 60,000 servicemen lost their lives, along with 250,000 South Vietnamese troops, as well as a million Viet Cong and North Vietnamese fighters, and more than two million civilians.

   There was no use trying to count the maimed fractured shrapnel-scarred napalmed and dismembered. Eight million tons of bombs, two-and-a-half times as much as was dropped on Europe from 1940 to 1945, was dropped by the US Air Force. Who knows who was down there?

   I didn’t know the Gulf of Tonkin from the man in the moon the summer before my freshman year. I barely knew anything about the Vietnam War. I had a vague idea where Vietnam was, which was somewhere near China. I had never heard of the domino theory or the idea of dying for it. Four years later I knew more, although sometimes it did me more harm than good. I knew enough to stay away from the dean’s office and the kind of trouble officialdom could bring to bear, which was at least something.

   Many of my friends at St. Joe’s, on the east side of Cleveland, were Lithuanian Americans. The neighborhood was crawling with us. We were all Roman Catholic and the school was Roman Catholic, within walking distance for most of us.

   We were taught math history religion science civics and English. There were vocational classes and there was an honors program. The football team was big and bad, playing for titles. We were taught to be good Catholics and good citizens, God and country.

   None of us worried about the Vietnam War as freshmen and sophomores. We had other things to worry about, like getting to the next class on time, homework, pep rallies and school assemblies, dances in the gym, our status and looks, part-time jobs, outside activities, and summer vacation. The greasers had cars and we could only look on enviously. The jocks had good looks and never mind getting a good look at their girlfriends. The smarty pants had brains and were looking towards the future.

   It changed fast our junior and senior years. President Lyndon Johnson’s State of the Union address in 1967 was bleak. It was bad no matter if you were the parent of a draft-age young man or if you were the young man.

   “I recommend to the Congress a surcharge of 6 percent on both corporate and individual income taxes, to last for 2 years or for so long as the unusual expenditures associated with our efforts in Vietnam continue. I wish I could report to you that the conflict is almost over. This I cannot do. We face more cost, more loss, and more agony,” he said.

   Nobody liked the cost part. He proposed a record-breaking $135 billion-dollar federal government budget. My father, an accountant, was shocked. I didn’t know how to count that high and kept quiet. I didn’t like the agony part.

   Our last two years in high school, nobody wanted to not be going to college. A student deferment wasn’t a sure thing, but it was better than nothing. In 1965 Lyndon Johnson ordered the country’s young men to get up stand up and fight. It didn’t matter that twenty-five years earlier LBJ had largely avoided WW2. What mattered was what he said now.

   Lewis Hershey, the head of the Selective Service, ordered draft boards to stop granting deferments so that more men would have to join up. College students found themselves being reclassified. When the Selective Service Qualifying Test came into play for everyone who wanted to keep their deferments, students took to the streets. The next year “Hershey’s Directives” ordered draft board to punish anyone who protested against the Vietnam War.

   After that the shit hit the fan until the Paris Peace Agreement was signed in 1973.

   The year after we graduated was the year the Selective Service started drawing lottery numbers determining who would or would not be drafted. The drawing was televised live. Everybody aged 19 to 26 stayed glued to the tube. If you were born on September 14th, your number was number one and you were going to be drafted the next day, or sooner. If you were born on March 14th, like me, your number was 354 and you weren’t going to be drafted and weren’t going anywhere more dangerous than your own backyard. No Victor Charlies were going to be firing 1,800 MPH lead-filled dominoes at you in dozing your hammock.

   I was dismayed when I found out the lottery in 1969 didn’t apply to me. I entered high school early and wasn’t quite 19 years old. I would have to wait a year. I was worried that lightning might not strike twice. Was it possible to replicate the luck of a number like 354 out of 365?

   Two of my friends, John Degutis and Algis Karsokas, were shipped to Vietnam as riflemen for tours of duty fighting Commies in God-forsaken jungles. They didn’t know what they were getting into until they got there. When they came back, they weren’t the same. Another one of my friends, John Skardis, a National Honor Society student, enrolled in Columbia University and joined Students for a Democratic Society, later splintering off into the radical Weathermen, and then the even more extremist bomb-throwing Weather Underground. If he ever came back from the anarchist trenches to Cleveland it was under lock and key. He thought he knew the plan for fighting the man, but he was wrong.

   When Mark Rudd, a national leader of the Weathermen, snuck into Cleveland for a February 1970 meeting with the local boys and girls, he said they were going underground for “strategic sabotage against all symbols of authority” according to an informer.

   He called for urban guerilla warfare.

   From 1965 to 1972, 150,000-and-more men of draft age lived in Cleveland and within surrounding Cuyahoga County. About 60,000 of them served in the military, many of whom enlisted, the others drafted. More than 90,000 never served in the armed forces. Nearly 4,000 of them were draft dodgers and the rest deferred, exempted, or disqualified from service. Of those who served 47,000 never went to Vietnam, 3,000 were stationed in Vietnam but saw no fighting, and some 10,000 experienced combat. 427 of them were killed and more than 2,000 were wounded.

   The odds weren’t bad, but who wants to roll snake eyes in the crap game of a meaningless war? 

   Kent State happened in May 1970. The spring quarter was coming to an end. Warm weather was busting out all over and everybody wanted to be out in the sun. Some three hundred students were protesting the war when Jim Rhodes, the four-term “Get It Done” governor, had enough and ordered the Ohio National Guard to put down the fanfare. When they had enough, they started shooting. Four students were killed and nine wounded. 

   Before the shooting the Tower of Rhodes said the squawkers were “the worst type of people that we harbor in America.” After the shooting he said, “We deeply regret those events and are profoundly saddened by the deaths of four students and the wounding of nine others.”

   The bloodshed turned the mess into a place on the map busting out across the country. Crosby Stills Nash & Young wrote a song about it.

   “Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming,
   We’re finally on our own,
   This summer I hear the drumming,
   Four dead in Ohio.”

   Gerald Casale, who later became lead singer and bassist for the rock band Devo, was there. 

   “All I can tell you is that it completely changed my life. Two of the four people who were killed, Jeff Miller and Allison Krause, were my friends. I was a hippie boy and then I saw exit wounds from M1 rifles on two people I knew. We were all running our asses off from those motherfuckers. It was total, utter bullshit. Live ammunition, none of us knew, none of us could have imagined. They shot into a crowd that was running away from them. I stopped being a hippie and started to develop the idea of devolution. I got real, real pissed off.”

   The shootings ignited outrage on campuses around the country. More than 4 million students participated in walk outs at hundreds of high schools, colleges, and universities. It was the largest student strike in the history of the United States. Everything at Cleveland State University, where I was a student, stopped dead in its tracks. Kent State University was 30-some miles southeast of our downtown campus.

   We all thought it was a horrible thing. Everybody knew Kent State was a chill campus, and even though somebody had burned down the ROTC building the night before, the demonstration was restrained as far as riots go. Coarse words and billy clubs would have done the trick.

   I was shocked the next week when a Gallup Poll revealed that 58% of respondents blamed the students, 11% blamed the National Guard, and 31% expressed no opinion. I was surprised that one of three people didn’t know what to think about it. Many people confuse feeling with thinking. Didn’t they even feel bad about what happened?

   The tabloids sided with the soldiers, but the national press didn’t agree.

   “The National Guard insisted that their men fired as they were about to be overrun by the students. But if the troops were so closely surrounded, how was it that nobody closer than 75 feet away was hit? And if the rocks and bricks presented such overwhelming danger, how did the troops avoid even one injury serious enough to require hospital treatment?” wrote Newsweek magazine.

   The average distance from the soldiers to those killed and wounded was the length of a football field. It was a turkey shoot, especially since the students didn’t have two derringers to rub together. In the end, none of the triggermen took the dead undergraduates home for their roasting pans, turkey shoot or not.

   “It took 13 terrifying seconds last week to convert the traditionally conformist campus into a bloodstained symbol of the rising student rebellion against the Nixon Administration and the war in Southeast Asia. When National Guardsmen fired indiscriminately into a crowd of unarmed civilians, killing four students, the bullets wounded the nation,” wrote Time magazine.

   Less than a week after the shootings, 100,000 people demonstrated in Washington, D.C., protesting the war and the killing of unarmed if unruly students.

   “The city was an armed camp. Mobs were smashing windows, slashing tires, dragging parked cars into intersections, even throwing bedsprings off overpasses into the traffic down below. That was the student protest. That’s not student protest, that’s civil war,” said Ray Price, Richard Nixon’s chief speechwriter from 1969 to 1974.

   President Nixon was whisked away to Camp David for two days for his own protection.

   John Skardis went on the run after he and a gang of Weathermen rampaged through a new indoor mall in Cleveland Heights, smashing plate glass windows and terrorizing mid-day shoppers. He was arrested but after his parents made bail for him, fled the state. The FBI got involved, naming him a Federal fugitive charged with Unlawful Flight to Avoid Prosecution. 

  “Attended Columbia University in 1968 and 1969 and was involved in student disorders. Joined the revolutionary Weatherman group and took part in several violent Weatherman demonstrations in Chicago and Ohio. Entered the Weather Underground in early 1970. He has used the alias Jonas Rytis Skardis,” said the dryly worded wanted man poster.

   In 1975 he was named by United States Senate investigators as one of 37 members of the Weather Underground who the FBI were still looking for after 19 politically motivated bombings since 1970. The year before the group had managed to plant a bomb in the State Department building in Washington. Although they avoided blowing people up, they scared the hell out of a lot of people in power suits.

   When John Skardis and a companion surrendered the following year, they had been traveling for many months in several European countries under U.S. passports issued in false names on false ID’s. After he was extradited, he disappeared down the rabbit hole. 

   Although I went to an anti-war demonstration on Public Square, I avoided the clouds of tear gas and confrontations with the Cleveland Police Department, especially the cops on horseback. I bided my time until next December and the next Selective Service drawing. When the time came, I found my hopes for another draft-defying lottery number were fool’s gold. My number came up 12. I was going to Vietnam to fight in a failing war that most people, whether they said so or not, didn’t believe in anymore. In 1965 about 80% of the American public supported the war. Six years later it was down to 40%. By the end of the war, it was 30%.

   I had to appear at my draft board for a physical, which went well, thanks to my having been a Boy Scout for many years. But I was determined to not go to Vietnam. “Hell No! We Won’t Go!” was the handwriting on the wall. I was willing to volunteer if the Viet Cong invaded the United States, but I wasn’t willing to put myself in harm’s way in anybody else’s civil war, especially not insurgents nine thousand miles away in Southeast Asia who had been fighting for self-determination since 1943. It didn’t seem like they were about to give up anytime soon.

   Young men were burning their draft cards coast to coast. I was hoping it wouldn’t come to that. I didn’t even have a lighter.

   I had to pull out all the stops. First, I declared myself a conscientious objector. The draft board laughed it off. Then I told them I had been an altar boy and objected on religious grounds. They laughed that off, too. Finally, I told them I was just as likely to shoot an officer as I was to shoot a gook if I was shipped overseas. That was no laughing matter to them.

   They sent me to a Master Sergeant who chewed me out, who sent me to psychiatrist, who finally wrote me up as hopeless. He gave me a 4F deferment, meaning I was “physically, mentally, or morally unfit to serve.”

   I was OK with the snub.

   In the meantime, my father a God-fearing faithful Republican, and I got into several mean- spirited arguments and I moved out. I dropped out of Cleveland State University for half-a-year and discovered the bohemian beatnik hippie enclave on the city’s near east side. I had grown from one end of high school to the other, but I hadn’t grown up as much. Cooking and cleaning, making the rent, and meeting folks in my new haunts outside of my old world started me up that road.

   I hoped Johnny came marching home, but I got to thinking the lockstep mindset might not be the best and brightest way for me to go when catching a ride at the crossroad.

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.”

Leave of Absence

By Ed Staskus

   The morning Arunas Petkus and I left for California 2500-some miles from Cleveland, Ohio, the Summer of Love was over. It had been a social phenomenon in 1967 when as many as 100,000 people, mostly young, mostly hippies, converged on the neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, hanging around, listening to music, dropping out and chasing infinity, and getting as much free love as they could.

   We were both in high school at the time and stumbled into the 1970s having missed the hoopla. 

   The Mamas & the Papas released “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” that year and it got to number four on the Billboard Hot 100. It stayed there for a month, a golden oldie in the making, while the parade across Golden Gate Bridge went on and on. The vinyl single sold more than 7 million copies worldwide. 

   Arunas found a bucket of bolts, a 1958 VW Karmann Ghia, somehow got it going, brush painted it parakeet green, and was determined to hit the open road to see what all the excitement had been about. He also wanted to visit the spot at Twin Peaks where Chocolate George’s ashes had been scattered.

   George Hendricks was a Hells Angel who was hit by a car while swerving around a street cat on a quiet afternoon in 1967 as the Summer of Love was winding down, dying 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, usually spiked with whiskey. He was a favorite among the hippies because he was funny and friendly. His goatee was 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. Arunas was an art student and liked the way the bus was decked out.

   The Karmann Ghia was a two-door four-speed manual with an air-cooled 36 horsepower engine in the back. The trunk was in the front. Unlike most cars it had curved glass all the way around and frameless one-piece door glass. My friend’s rust bucket barely ran, unlike most of the sporty Karmann Ghia’s on the road, but it ran. There was still some magic left in it.

   When Arunas asked me if I wanted to join him, I signed up on the spot. The two of us had gone to the same Catholic boy’s high school and were both at Cleveland State University. We threw our gear and backpacks in the front trunk of the car, sandwiches apples and pears in what passed for a rear seat, a bag of weed in the glove compartment, and waved goodbye to our friends at the Plaza.

   The Plaza was on Prospect Avenue, on the near east side, near CSU. It was an old but built to last four-story apartment building. Secretaries clerks college students bohemians bikers retirees and musicians lived there. Arunas was still living with his parents in the old neighborhood, while I was a part-time undergraduate part-time manual laborer trying to keep my head above water in a one-bedroom on the second floor.

   We got almost as far as the Indiana border before an Ohio State trooper stopped us.

   “Where do you think you’re going in that thing?” he asked us after Arunas showed him his driver’s license. He wrinkled his nose looking the car’s no-primer paint job up and down.

   “California.”

   “Do you know you’re burning oil, lots of it?”

   We knew full well. That was why we had a case-and-a half of Valvoline with us. We had worked out the loss of motor oil at about a quart every two hundred miles and thought our stockpile would get us there.

   “All right, either get this thing off the road or go back to Cleveland,” the trooper said, waving us away with his ticket book.

   On the way back home, we decided to go to Kelly’s Island, since we had sleeping bags and could more-or-less camp out, staying under a picnic table in case of rain. We took the Challenger ferry out of Sandusky, leaving the VW behind. We landed at East Harbor State Park and stayed here until the end of the week. There were a campground, beach, and trails at the park, all we needed. We bought bags of homemade granola and a couple of gallons of spring water at a small store and settled down on a patch of sunshine. We met a gaggle of high-class girls from Case Western Reserve University and played volleyball with them.

   When we got back to Cleveland everybody marveled at our quick turnaround from the west coast and attractive tans.

   “We didn’t actually make it to California,” we had to explain to one-and-all.  “We didn’t even make it out of Ohio.” We had to endure many snarky remarks. When Virginia Sustarsic, one of my neighbors at the Plaza, said she was going to San Francisco and abruptly invited me to try again, joining her, I jumped at the chance. My feet got tangled up coming down when she said she was hitchhiking there.

   “You’re going to thumb rides across the country?”

   “Yes,” she said, in her detached but friendly way. She was a writer photographer cottage craftsman. Virginia was a raconteur when she wanted to be one. She made a living dabbling in what interested her. She lived alone.

   “How about getting back?”

   She explained she had arranged a ride as far as Colorado Springs. She planned on going knockabout the rest of the way, stay for a week-or-so with friends on the bay, and hitchhike back. When I looked it up on a map, she was planning on hitchhiking four thousand-some miles. I didn’t know much about bumming my way on the highway. When I asked, she confessed to having never tried it.

   Our ride to Colorado Springs was a guy from Parma and his girlfriend in a nearly new VW T2 Microbus. Although it was unremarkable on the outside, the inside was vintage hippie music festival camper. It was comfortable and stocked. We stopped at a lake in Illinois and had lunch and went for a walk. I veered off the path and got lost, but spotted Virginia and our ride, and cut across a field to rejoin them. I tripped while running, fell flat on my face, but was unhurt.

   We got to Colorado Springs in two days. The next day I found out what I had fallen into in Illinois was poison ivy. An itchy rash was all over my calves, forearms, and face. I tried Calamine lotion, but all it accomplished was to give me a pink badge that said, ‘Look at me, I’m suffering.’” Virginia’s friends who lived in ‘The Springs’ let me use their motorcycle to go to a clinic. They prescribed prednisone, a steroid, and by the time we got to San Francisco I was cured.

   In the meantime, leaving the clinic, since it was a warm sunny summer day, I went for a ride on the bike, which was a 1969 Triumph Tiger. I rode to the Pikes Peak Highway, 15 miles west, and about half the way up, until the bike started to dog it. What I didn’t know was at higher altitudes there wasn’t enough air for the carburetor. By that time, anyway, I had gotten cold in my shorts and t-shirt. It felt like the temperature had dropped thirty degrees. I turned around and rode carefully down. There was a lot of grit and gravel on the road. I found out later that Colorado snowplows spread sand, not salt, in the winter. The last thing I wanted to happen was dumping the bike. 

   All the way back to town, as dusk approached, I saw walloping jumbo elk deer and antelope. Even the racoons were enormous. I stayed slow and watchful, not wanting to bang into one of the beasts.

   We stayed a few days and hit the open road when my rash was better. There was no sense in scaring anybody off with my pink goo face. We had a cardboard sign saying “SF” and finally hit the jackpot when a tractor trailer going to Oakland picked us up.

   The Rocky Mountains, left behind when the glaciers went back to where they came from, were zero cool to see, although I wouldn’t want to be a snowplow driver assigned to them. It was fair but cold with a high easterly wind the day we crossed them. Every switchback opened onto a panorama.

   Virginia’s friends in San Francisco lived in Dogpatch, east of the Mission District and adjacent to the bay. It was a working class partly industrial partly residential neighborhood. They lived in a late nineteenth century house they were restoring. They went to work every day while we went exploring.

   We stayed away from downtown where there was an overflow of strip clubs peep shows and sex shops. Skyscrapers were going up, there were restaurants offices department stores, but it looked like the smut capital of the United States. Elsewhere, rock-n-roll, jazz fusion, and bongo-drum players were in the air, especially the Castro District and Haight-Ashbury. Dive bars seemed to be everywhere.

   Virginia went to Golden Gate Park and took pictures of winos, later entering one in a show at Cleveland State University. She had a high-tech 35mm Canon. When her photograph was rejected with the comment that it was blurry, she said, “That was the point.” I went to Twin Peaks and took a picture of the spot where Chocolate George’s ashes had been strewn. When Arunas saw it, he said there wasn’t much to see.

   Twin Peaks is two peaks known as “Eureka” and “Noe.” They are both about a thousand feet high. They form a wall to the summer coastal fog pushed in from the ocean. The west-facing slopes get fog and strong winds while the east-facing slopes get more sun and warmth. The ground is thin and sandy. George was somewhere around.

  I showed Arunas some pictures from the summit facing northeast towards downtown and east towards the bay. “Those are nice,” he said, being polite. My camera was a Kodak Instamatic.

   We stayed for more than a week, riding Muni busses for 25 cents a ride. No matter where we went there seemed to be an anti-Vietnam War protest going on. We rode carousel horses at Playland-at-the-Beach and went to Monkey Island at the zoo. We ducked into Kerry’s Lounge and Restaurant to chow down on French fries. We stayed away from all the Doggie Diners. We listened to buskers singing for tips at Pier 45 on Fisherman’s Wharf. Jewelry makers were all over the place. Virginia was on Cloud 9, being an artisan herself.

   When we saw “The Human Jukebox” we went right over. Grimes Proznikoff kept himself out of sight in a cardboard refrigerator box until somebody gave him a donation and requested a song. Then he would pop out of the front flap and play the song on a trumpet. I asked him to play “Purple Haze,” but he played “Ain’t Misbehavin’” instead.

   “I don’t know nothin’ about Jimi Hendrix,” he said.

   Everywhere we looked almost everybody was wearing groovy clothes made of bright polyester, which looked to be the material of choice. Tie-dye was on the way to the retirement home. Virginia dressed classic hippie style while I dressed classic Cleveland-style, jeans, t-shirt, and sneakers. I didn’t feel out of place in San Francisco, but I didn’t feel like I belonged, either. There were no steel mills and too many causes to worry about.

   When we left, we started at the Bay Bridge and got a ride right away. By the time we got to the other end of the bridge the man at the wheel had already come on to my companion. We asked him to drop us off. When he stopped on the shoulder and I got out of the back seat, he pushed Virginia out the passenger door, grabbed her shoulder bag, and sped away. She didn’t keep her traveling money in it, but what did he know? We saw the bag go sailing out the car window before he disappeared from sight and retrieved it. We smelled a brewery on the breath of the next driver and turned him down. After that a pock-marked man asked us if we were born again, and when I said I had been raised a Catholic, he cursed and drove off.

   We liked talking to the people who gave us rides but avoided talking about race religion and politics. I carried a pocket jackknife but wasn’t sure what I would do with it if the occasion ever arose. We never hitchhiked once it got dark, because that was when creeps lowlifes imbeciles were most likely to come out.

   We went back the way we had come, to Nevada, through Utah Nebraska and Iowa to Chicago and returning in the middle of the day to the south shore of Lake Erie. We thumbed rides at entrances to highways, at pay toll gates, and especially at off-the-ramp gas stations whenever we could. Gas stations were good for approaching people and asking them face-to-face if they were going our way. 

   One of the best things about hitchhiking is you can take any exit that you happen to feel is the right one. One of the worst things is running into somebody who says, “I can tell you’re not from ‘round these parts.” We avoided big cities because getting out of them was time-consuming. We avoided small towns because we didn’t want to be the new counterculture niggers in town. We got lucky when a shabby gent in a big orange Dodge with a cooler full of food and drink in the back seat picked us up outside of Omaha on his way to Kalamazoo. He listened to a border blaster on the radio all the way. We ate the sandwiches he offered us.

   Our last ride was in an unmarked county sheriff’s car. He picked us up near Perrysburg on his way to Cleveland’s Central Police station to pick up a criminal. It was the same joint where Jane “Hanoi Jane” Fonda was put behind bars a couple of years earlier. She wasn’t a real criminal and didn’t stay long.

   “They said they were getting orders from the White House, that would be the Nixon White House,” she said. “I think they hoped the ‘scandal’ would cause my college speeches to be canceled and ruin my respectability. I was handcuffed and put in jail.” When she was arrested at Cleveland Hopkins Airport, she pushed Ed Matuszak, a special agent for the US Customs Bureau, and kicked Patrolman Pieper in a sensitive place.

   The city cop later sued her for $100,000 for the boot that made him “weak and sore.” The federal cop shrugged off the shove. The charges and suit were later dropped.

   The Wood County sheriff was a friendly middle-aged man who warned us about the dangers of hitchhiking and drove us all the way to our hometown. When we got out of the car, he gave us ten dollars. “Get yourselves a square meal,” he said. We walked the half dozen blocks to the Plaza, dropped off our stuff, and walked the block and half to Hatton’s Deli on East 36th St. and Euclid Ave. where Virginia worked part-time. 

   There was an eight-foot by eight-foot neon sign on the side of the three-story building. It said, “Corned Beef Best in Town.” We had waffles and scrambled eggs.

   Our waitress lingered pouring coffee, chatting it up while we dug into apple pie. We split a slice. The butter knife was dull, so I used my jackknife. She asked how our cross-country trip had gone. I gave her the highlights while Virginia went into details. When she asked why we hadn’t gone Greyhound, Virginia smiled like a cat, but I put my cards on the table.

   “I had an itch to go, no matter which way got me there.”

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.”

Making the House

By Ed Staskus

   Dave Bloomquist ran the show at the Plaza Apartments, trying to make it work on the near east side, on the fringe of Cleveland State University. What we called the house was on Prospect Avenue, a $.25 fare on a creaky CTS bus ten minutes downtown to Public Square. The ghetto was uptown. The house was its own place.

   Dave was from Sandusky. “The town, which is sluggish and uninteresting, is something like an English watering-place out of season,” Charles Dickens wrote after visiting it. A hundred years later it was known for Cedar Point, a big amusement park on a peninsula jutting out into Lake Erie. After high school Dave moved to Cleveland to study visual and fine arts at CSU.

   “Art held a natural attraction for me, and it was something I wanted to pursue,” he said. “My dad was an electrician, and I helped him run wires and other simple tasks. I also worked during college, renovations, painting, things like that. After graduation, my business partner and I scraped together a down payment on the 48-unit Victorian-style Plaza. We decided to restore it ourselves.”

   Dave was always in in and around the building. Whenever anything went wrong, it didn’t take long to find the owner superintendent maintenance man. If he wasn’t nearby, his ex-wife-to- be, Annie, tall slim, her hair done up in braids, was right there cooking cleaning taking care of their baby boy. Built in 1901 for middle-class residents, something was always making trouble at the Plaza.

   “We learned to sweat pipe, patch the roof, and fix windows,” Dave said. “We had to operate with just rent money. We couldn’t afford to call on anyone for help.”

   Back in the day Upper Prospect was the second most prestigious place to live in Cleveland, next to Millionaire’s Row on Euclid Avenue. Prospect and Euclid were where to be, smoking rooms of the city’s economic and social elite. Most of the homes on Prospect were brick two-story single-family houses in the Italianate style. The street was lined with elm trees.

   By the time I moved into the Plaza, all the rich folks were long gone, and Dutch elm disease had killed most of the trees. It was killing most of the elms in all but two states east of the Missouri River. What hadn’t died was being sprayed with DDT or removed.

   The entry point for the bug was Northeast Ohio in 1929, on a train bringing in a shipment of elm veneer logs from France. The train stopped south of Cleveland to load up on coal and water. Not long afterwards elm trees along the railroad tracks started to die. The elm bark beetle doesn’t hurt the tree, but the fungus it carries is deadly.

   There were rowhouses scattered among the single-family homes, which included the Prospect Avenue Rowhouses, still there, that Dave was throwing his eye on. He had more than enough work on his hands, but he was a no slouch go-getter. Preservation and restoration efforts on Upper Prospect were just beginning to pick up steam.

   The Plaza was home to students secretaries hippies machinists artists bikers clerks musicians court reporters anarchists activists warehouse men and writers, some in full swing, some shaking and baking the wolf at the door, everybody coming and going.

   “We were urban pioneers before the term was coined,” said Scott Krauss, a drummer for the art-rock band Pere Ubu. “Like the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead had their band houses, we had the Plaza.”

   “There were scores of wonderful community dinners, insipid and treacherous burglars,” Dave Bloomquist said years later when it was all over. “Innocence was lost. There were raucousoutrageous parties. Families were formed and raised and there were tragic early deaths of close friends. But music, art and life were in joyful abundance all the time.”

   There was an abundance of old-fashioned seediness, too.

   “I remember coming home at four in the morning and there would still be people in the courtyard drinking beer and playing music,” said Larry Collins. “We would watch the hookers and their customers play hide-and-seek with the undercover vice cops.”

   One of the first friends I made was Virginia Sustarsic. I had seen her around Dixon Hall up the street before I moved to the Plaza. She was close to John McGraw, a trim bohemian who lived alone on the third floor, read obscure European poets, drank Jack Daniels from the bottle, and drove a 1950s windowless black Chevy panel truck.

   Virginia had interned at the Cleveland Press, worked on CSU’s student newspaper, and wrote for the school’s poetry magazine. Since she was settled in at the Plaza, was friendly, and worked for herself, she made friends easily, and I subsequently found friends by hanging around with her.

   She knew all about art. I didn’t know anything. When she showed me a picture of an American flag by Jasper Johns, I found a big used flag and thumbtacked it to the wall at the head of my bed. When she showed me a picture of a Jackson Pollack painting, I thought, what a mess.

   Virginia made candles, incense, and roach clips for a head shop on the near west side. The owner of the shop, Jamie, was a little older than us and square-jawed. He wore a red checked bandana and liked to go barefoot. He pulled up in a mid-60s VW T2 bus, Virginia delivered the goods, he would say he had a great idea for going someplace fun, as many people who could fit would pile into the Splittie, and he would drive to a park a beach or a grassy knoll overlooking a cemetery.  

   Jamie always played The Who’s “Magic Bus” at least once every trip, there and back. “Thank you, driver, for getting me here, too much, Magic Bus, now I’ve got my Magic Bus.” The speakers were tinny, but the volume made up for it.

   We went to see “Woodstock” the movie, since none of us had gone to the music festival, at a drive-in. Virginia’s roach clips came in handy. The Splittie’s back and middle seats could be pulled out. It was groovy at drive-ins, backing the bus in to face the screen, some of us in the seats on the ground, others in the open rear of the bus, and Jamie with his gal on top, an umbrella at the ready. 

   Nobody wanted to be sitting behind Mike Cassidy, who was skinny enough, but had a massive head of long fuzzy electrified red hair.

   Virginia was hooked on photography and showed me the ropes, letting me use her camera. When a photography contest was announced at Cleveland State University, she entered a picture she had taken in San Francisco and I entered a picture of Mr. Flood.

   Bob Flood lived on the second floor, like me. None of us knew what he did, exactly, although he wore a hat suggesting he was a locomotive engineer. Virginia thought he was a professor of some kind. Everybody called him Mr. Flood. Nobody knew why. He was a lean careful man, sported a shaggy looking beard, was divorced, but had visitation rights to his two kids, who came and played in his apartment weekends.

   My picture was a portrait and Virginia’s a full-scale shot of two homeless men in Golden Gate Park, passing a bottle of booze between them. The trees in the background disappeared into a triangle. After I won the blue ribbon, Virginia went to the art department and talked to one of the judges.

   She told him she had been trying to conjure the Pointillism of Georges Seurat.

   “Well,” he said. “The portrait and your picture were our top picks. But yours was kind of grainy.”

   “That was the whole point,” she said. 

   Virginia’s best friend at the Plaza was Diane Straub.

   Diane had a straight job. She was a secretary downtown. She got up every morning, got on the bus, went to work, and came back at night. Monday through Friday she took care of her apartment and her cats. But, on weekends she got psychedelic. She also got up as Bogie’s old lady.

   Bogie was Diane’s live-in boyfriend. He was rangy and always wore black, tip to toe. He had a Harley Davidson he kept in the back lot. Nobody ever tried to steal it, because everybody knew that would be a big mistake.

   He was one of the Animals, although he and the other Animals had been forced to go freelance. They used to have a clubhouse, its walls pockmarked with bullet holes, on Euclid Avenue in Willoughby, until the day the Willoughby police raided it.

   “The police couldn’t get anything on us, so they hot-wired the landlord to force us out,” one of the Animals, Gaby, told the Cleveland Press. “We never did anything worse than use the clubhouse walls for target practice.”

   Gaby knew there was more to the story. His biker clubmate Don Griswold had been arrested the day before for being involved in a shooting with members of Cleveland’s Hells Angels that left two dead.

   “The Angels were going to take care of me if the cops didn’t do it first,” he said. “Misery loves company.”

   The spring before my first full summer at the Plaza, Cleveland’s Breed and Violators got into it at a motorcycle show at the Polish Women’s Hall southeast of the Flats. The 10‐minute riot with fists clubs knives chains left 5 men dead 20 Injured and 84 arrested.

  The dead were buried, the hurt rushed to hospitals, and the arrested hauled away to the Central Police Station on Payne Avenue. The Black Panthers were always demonstrating outside the front doors, but they had to make way. Extra armed guards were posted in hallways and doorways as a precaution. When the injured bikers recovered, they were arrested.

   Art Zaccone, headman of the Chosen Few, said the fight broke out because of trouble between the two groups going back to a rumble in Philly two years earlier. The biker gangs didn’t ride on magic busses. They rode hogs. They made their own black magic. They had long memories and never forgotten forgiven grievances.

   After Bogie moved out, Diane took up with Igor, a math wizard. He was tall, had long dark wiry hair, and played air guitar. Even though he was egg-headed about numbers, he often looked like he was half there.

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

   I lived in a back apartment on the second floor, Virginia lived in a side apartment on the same floor, and an older Italian couple Angeline and Charlie Beale lived in the front. They always had their apartment door open. Charlie was short and stocky, a retired mailman. He read newspapers and magazines all day long.  Angie was stout with wavy hair. She stayed in the kitchen all day long cooking in a black slip. 

   They had a parrot. Whenever Angie spied Virginia walking by, she called out, “Oh, honey, honey, come in, let me see if I can get him to talk to you.” She would coo and try to convince the parrot to talk. He never did, even when she poked him with a stick. When she did, he whistled and squawked. He sounded offended and tone-deaf.

   “How long have you had that parrot?” Virginia asked, thinking they were still training him.

   “Oh, we’ve had him for sixteen years, honey.”

   Angie and Charlie went shopping for foodstuffs a few times a week. They walked down Prospect Avenue to the Central Market. “They started out together, but ended up a block or more apart,” Dave said. They both carried handmade cotton shopping bags, one in each hand.

   The Central Market was on East 4th St., nearly two miles away by foot. The only people who went there were people who couldn’t get to the West Side Market. It was grimy, and the roof leaked. “Some panels are out, and when it rains, we have to put plastic tarp down. That looks like hell,” said produce stall owner Tony LoSchiavo.

    “She always walked twenty feet behind him,” Virginia said. “A couple of hours later, same thing, both of them their two bags full, he would be walking twenty feet ahead of her as they came back to the Plaza.”

   He waited at the front door, holding it open for her. She trudged up, he followed her, and the parrot every time said, “Welcome back!” when they stepped into their apartment. Angie returned with vegetables like asparagus and nuts like filberts for the thick billed brightly colored bird.

   Most of the tenants at the Plaza were on good terms with one another. Many of us were single and sought out company up and down the floors and down the hallways, especially in January and February when snow piled up. We visited one another and chewed the fat.

   “Friends would just drop in,” said Virginia.

   One Siberian Sunday Mr. Flood’s kids were visiting and went exploring in the basement. They found a red metal and wood Flexible Flyer. Their father bundled them up and carried the sled outside. When they got tired of pushing each other back and forth in the parking lot, they found a shovel and scooped snow onto the back stairs as far up as the first landing. They shoveled enough snow on the stairs to make a ramp and spent the rest of the day running across the landing, throwing themselves on the sled, racing down the ramp and zooming across the icy lot.

   Mr. Flood and I watched them from the second-floor landing.

   “They’re up to snow good,” he joked laconically when they hit bottom bumped up and got some air under their sled.

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

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

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Lay of the Land

By Ed Staskus

   When I moved to Carpenter, Ohio the post office had been gone more than ten years. The Baptist church was still there, but the minister didn’t live in town. He drove in on Sundays, performed his mission, and drove away after shaking a few hands. I went to the service one morning, but the minister looked like a talent scout for a graveyard, and it was the last time I went. The general store had closed even before the post office, which was good for Virginia Sustarsic and me, because that is what we moved into, staying the spring summer and into the early fall.

   The post office was opened in 1883 and stayed there until 1963. Nobody knew who the town was named for, although three men who had been natives of the place took credit. There was Amos Carpenter, an old geezer who talked too much, Jesse Carpenter, a farmer who hardly ever talked, and State Senator J. L. Carpenter, who only talked when it counted. He brought tracks and a railroad station to the town. Those were long gone, too.

   It wasn’t my idea to go live local yokel on the banks of Leading Creek, but Virginia argued living in the country was the way to go. She was a hippie and wore its ethos of going back to the roots on her sleeve. I countered that the hippies happened in coastal cities like San Francisco and New York, flowered in college towns like Austin and Ann Arbor, and were trucking along in cities like Omaha, Atlanta, and Cleveland. We were both from Cleveland, born of immigrant stock, she Slovenian and me Lithuanian.

   My reasoning fell on deaf ears.

   A friend of ours with a van drove us and our stuff to Carpenter, dropped us off, and waved goodbye. I had never been there before. Virginia had been there twice, having a friend who lived in that neck of the woods. It took less than ten seconds to look the town over. There wasn’t much to see. We stashed everything away in the sturdy but dilapidated 19th century-era store and walked up Carpenter Hill Rd. to Five Mile Run, detouring down what passed for a driveway to a small house where Virginia’s friend and his bloodhound lived.

   He was somewhere between not young and middle-aged, lean and scraggly, literate and friendly. He was the kind of man who was a hippie long before there were hippies. He read lots of books and smoked lots of weed. There was a Colt cap and ball pistol on his coffee table, laying there as relaxed as could be. It was a Walker .44. It was big, old as dirt, spic-n-span workable. 

   “That’s an imposing handgun,” I said.

   “They call it the Peacemaker,” he said. “Even though it can get you into a load of trouble the same as not.”

   He shot rabbits with it for his stew pot. The large percussion revolver could have taken deer in season. He let me shoot it at a tree later that summer. It was heavy when I lifted it. I shot it stiff-armed expecting more recoil, which turned out to be modest. What I didn’t expect was the “BOOM!” at the end of my arm. I was glad I missed the tree. Even though it was a full-grown maple the ball hitting it might have put it on the woodpile.

   We spent a week sweeping dusting cleaning arranging the ground floor front room of the general store. There were two storerooms in the back and an upstairs we didn’t mess with. Two long broad oak tables served as platforms for working and preparing food. We ate in rocking chairs we set up at one of the windows. We found a braided round rug in a closet, beat the hell out of it, and rolled it out in the middle of the floor.

   After laying in a garden, we stuck Grace Slick on a stick to guard the plot. The scarecrow, however, fell down on the job. Birds shat on her and rabbits ran riot. We ended up hunting and gathering.

   A kitten walked in out of the blue one morning, worn out and hungry as a horse. He was white with a black blob on his chest and a masked face. Virginia gave it a bowl of water, but we didn’t have cat food. “We should go into town, get some, and some food for us, too,” I said.

   Virginia was a genius at living off the land, but we still needed some store-bought stuff, salt pepper coffee pasta peanut butter and pancake mix, as well as toilet paper. The outhouse was bad enough without the comfort of Charmin.

   There were two municipalities within driving distance, Athens, which was 15 miles northeast of us, and Pomeroy, which was 17 miles southeast. Ohio University was in Athens, had several grocery stores, and plenty of citizens our own age. Pomeroy was on the Ohio River, was notorious for being repeatedly destroyed, and there was nobody our age there. We never went to Pomeroy except once to look around.

   The town was consumed by fire in 1851, 1856, 1884, and 1927. The floods of 1884, 1913, and 1937 were even more disastrous. 1884 was an especially bad year, what with fire and flood both. Why the residents kept rebuilding the place was beyond us, although we speculated they must have been plain stubborn.

   We stopped at the courthouse to lay eyes on the excitement. We had read in “Ripley’s Believe or Not!” that there is a ground floor entrance to each of its three stories, the only one of its kind in the world The sight of the phenomenon wasn’t all that exciting. A plaque explaining that the courthouse served as a jail for more than 200 of Morgan’s Raiders after their capture in the Battle of Buffington Island during the Civil War caught our attention. It was exciting to learn that Ohio boys had gotten the better of Johnny Reb when they ventured north.

   The county seat of Meigs County is mentioned in Ripley’s a second time for not having any cross streets. We took a stroll and didn’t see any. It didn’t seem deserving of mention in Ripley’s, but what did we know?

   Once he had a steady supply of food, out kitten got better and bigger. He spent his days outside and after sunset inside. He learned fast there were plenty of hungry owls, racoons, and coyotes in the dark. At first, when he was a tyke, he slept on top of my head at night. As he grew, I had to move him to the side. It was like wearing a Davey Crocket racoon hat to bed. 

   Meigs County, in which Carpenter lay, is 433 square miles with a population of around 20,000, or 54 people per square mile. Where we came from, Cuyahoga County, it was more like 3,000 people per square mile. At night in the middle of Meigs County it often seemed like 2 people per square mile, Virginia and me.

   There wasn’t much crime in the county, thank goodness, because the law enforcement amounted to one sheriff, one lieutenant, one sergeant, and six deputies. We had been in town a week-or-so when the sheriff stopped by to say hello. He was a pot-bellied man with fly belly blue eyes. He made sure we had the cop and fire department phone numbers even though we didn’t have a phone. He warned us not to mess around with the marijuana market. Virginia made roach clips for sale in head shops, but didn’t smoke much, and said so. 

   “No, I don’t mean that girlie,” he said. “I don’t care what you do on your own time. What I mean is, don’t mess with the growers. They’ve got it tucked in all around here. Some of them have been to Vietnam and back, and they learned a thing or two from Charlie. Even the DEA is careful when they chopper around these hills spraying their crop.”

   He pronounced Vietnam like scram.

   Meigs County is on the Allegheny Plateau. It is especially hilly where we were. The soil isn’t the greatest. The top crop by far is forage, followed by soybeans and corn. Layers and cattle are the top livestock. The marijuana growers hid their fruitage in corn fields, where it was hard to spot.

   Moonshine was made from the first day Meigs County was settled, for themselves and for whenever a farmer needed hard cash in a hurry, as long as they were near water and could haul a barrel of yeast and a hundred feet of copper line to the still. The yeast is stirred with sugar and cracked corn until it ripens. When the mash is ready it’s poured into an airtight still and heated. When it vaporizes it spirals through copper pipes, is shocked by cold water, returns to its original liquid form, and drips into a collection barrel.

   After that it is ready to go and all anyone needed was a fast Dodge to get it to market.

   The marijuana growers were young, a loose-knit group known as the Meigs County Varmits, which was also the name of their championship softball team. They drove Chevy and Ford pick-ups. They stopped by and said hello, just like the sheriff. One of them told us to keep our heads down the middle of October.

   “What’s that all about?” I asked.

   “That’s when we harvest our green and that’s when the state cops and Feds get busy. You’ll see their cars and spotter planes. They ask you any questions, play dumb. You hear any noise, ignore it.”

   Meigs County Gold was high quality highly sought weed. It was the strain of choice for the Grateful Dead and Willie Nelson when they toured Ohio and West Virginia. Meigs County folk learned to not lock their cars and to keep their windows partly rolled down when they went to the Ohio State Fair in Columbus or Kings Island near Cincinnati.

   When I asked why, a man said, “Because people see the Meigs County tag and it’s almost for sure you’ll have busted windows if you don’t. They will be looking for your pot.”

   Our pots and pans were always filled with grub Virginia gleaned in the forest lands where she found nuts greens fruits and tubers. She collected walnuts chestnuts papaws raspberries blueberries and strawberries. She dressed up salads with dandelions fiddleheads and cattails. In the late summer she hunted for ginseng, selling it to a health food store in Athens.

   She kept two goats in a shed. I fed them and cleaned up after them. They were more trouble than they were worth, especially after one of them head butted the minister who walked over late one Sunday morning inquiring about my spiritual frame of mind. The goat lowered his head and got him from behind, in the butt, knocking him down. He scuffed up his hands breaking his fall and got mad as the devil. He told the sheriff about it and the sheriff had to stop by and warn us to keep our goats civil.

   “Yes, sir,” I said.

   Carpenter was the kind of place where tomorrow wasn’t any different than a week ago. But it had its moments. A week-or-so after the sheriff paid us his official visit, we watched him drive slowly past our grocery store summer home on State Route 143 dragging an upright piano on rollers behind him, chained to his rear bumper. A deputy was walking beside the piano trying to keep it from falling over. It looked like a bad idea on the way to going wrong. We waved but didn’t ask any questions.

   Our nearest neighbor was Jack, his two brothers, and their mother, on the other side of Leading Creek, a quarter mile down the state route. Velma looked like she could have been their grandmother, but Jack Jerome and Jesse called her mam. It was a one-story house with a front porch. They had running water and a bathroom, but no cooking stove or furnace. Velma did the cooking in the fireplace and they heated the house with the fireplace and a cast-iron potbelly stove. It was more than we had, which was just the potbelly thing.

   “Food cooked in a fireplace tastes better than food cooked any other way, including charcoal grills,” Velma said. It was big talk, but she backed it up. She might not have been able to whip up a cake or a souffle, but she made just about everything else. We never turned down an invitation to dinner.

   There were always half-dozen-or-more barely alive cars and trucks in their backyard, which was more like a field. There was a chicken house and a pen for pigs. They slaughtered and smoked their own pork. There was a big deep pond near enough to the house and they let us go floating and swimming in it whenever we wanted. They had an arsenal of rifles and shotguns, even though they didn’t mess around with marijuana. Moonshine might have been a different matter. 

   “How come you’ve got all those guns?” I asked Jack.

   “That’s how our daddy raised us,” he said.

   They were born and bred right there. The folks in the ranch-style houses up Carpenter Hill Rd. avoided them. Sometimes when we went swimming the sheriff’s car was there. I had the impression he wasn’t there on lawman business, but rather visiting.

   By the end of summer, we realized we couldn’t stay. The Velma family already had enough cords of dried wood beside their house to keep themselves warm if winter went Siberian in Ohio. We didn’t even have a pile of twigs. We could have ordered coal, which was plentiful, but neither of us had ever started and stoked a coal furnace. We didn’t know anything about air vents. All we knew was dial-up thermostats for natural gas furnaces.

   Our friend returned with his van and helped us move back to Cleveland. We said goodbye to Virginia’s hippie friend and his bloodhound, and to Jack up the hill. Jerome and Jesse had gone hunting waterfowl, the first day for it. Velma gave us an apple pie for the drive home.

   The cat, who was left-handed and so named Lefty, decided to stay. He wasn’t a city boy. He wouldn’t have been able to make sense of the Cuyahoga River catching fire. Lefty had made friends with all the cats and dogs a half-mile in every direction, knew how to sneak into the grocery store closed doors or no doors, and had grown up enough to take care of himself. We slit open the 20-pound cat food bag and opened it like a book. We left it on the floor so he and his friends could have a party.

   When we drove away, he was sitting on his haunches on the gravel in front of the store’s double front doors. I watched him in the rearview mirror and Virginia waved goodbye through the open passenger window. The last I saw of him he was sauntering into the high yellow grass.

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.”

Summertime Blues

By Ed Staskus

“Well, I called my congressman, and he said I’d like to help you, son, but you’re too young to vote, there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues.”  Eddie Cochran

   “Mom said you’re not leaving and you’re coming to my birthday party this year,” Maggie said, putting down her ear of corn, her lips peppered with flecks of salt and smeary with   butter.

   “That’s right,” said Frank Glass.

   Vera Glass’s brother, sister-in-law, nephew and niece, Frank’s sister and her new boyfriend, a policeman who lived nearby, were visiting on the Fourth of July, in the backyard, a breezy sunny day in the shade, crowded around a folding table-clothed table doing double duty, food and drink and board games.

   Independence Day has been a federal holiday since 1941, but the tradition goes back to the American Revolution. Since then it’s been celebrated with festivities like fireworks parades concerts big and small and family barbecues. This year the fireworks parades concerts were scratched.

   Maggie was born seven almost eight years earlier. She was due to officially come to life the third week of September, four five days after Frank and Vera expected to be back from Atlantic Canada but was born on the first day of the month.

   She was a once in a blue moon baby. To do something once in a blue moon means to do it rarely. It is the appearance of a second full moon within a calendar month, which happens about once every three years.

   “Where do you go in the summer?” Maggie asked.

   “We go to Prince Edward Island, a small town called North Rustico, but we stay in a cottage in the National Park, a family owns the land, they’ve been there for almost two hundred years. We leave in mid-August and stay through the first couple of weeks of September, which is why we miss your birthday party.”

   “You always send me a present. I like that. But last year you sent me a sweatshirt with a red leaf on it that was ten times too big.”

   “You’ll grow into it,” said Frank.

   “Maybe I will, but maybe I won’t,” said Maggie. She was a genial child but could be a testy cuss. She thought she knew her own mind rounding out her seventh year, although it could go both ways.

   “Do you like it there?”

   “Yes, we like it a lot.”

   “Why aren’t you going? Is it the virus?”

   The 20th century was the American Century. The United States led the way socially economically brain-wise learning-wise and in every other wise way. In 2020 it led the way in virus infections, far outpacing the next two contenders, Brazil and India. The flat tires in charge nowadays can’t get anything right, from building their useless wall, all three miles of new wall, to securing a useful virus test.

   North Korea and Iran keep making atom bombs, there’s no China trade deal, the deficit has skyrocketed, and race relations have gotten worse. All that’s left is for the other shoe to drop. On top of that, Hilary Clinton still isn’t in jail.

   “Yes, the bug,” said Frank. “The Canadian border is closed, and even if we could get into Canada somehow, the bridge to the island is closed except for business.”

   In May President Trump said, “Coronavirus numbers are looking MUCH better, going down almost everywhere, cases are coming way down.” In June he said the pandemic is “fading away. It’s going to fade away.” On July 2nd he said, “99% of cases are totally harmless.” Four days later, on July 6th, he said, “We now have the lowest Fatality Rate in the World.”

   John Hopkins University subsequently reported that the United Sates has the world’s ninth-worst mortality rate, with 41.33 deaths per 100,000 people. It was a bald-faced report. They didn’t capitalize the numbers.

   “Are you sad that you can’t go?”

   “Yes.”

   “They built a new bridge to our house. I know all about it, we drove over it two weeks ago. Mom was so happy. It’s a big bridge, too, the other one was small and always breaking.”

   “You know the bridge you go across from downtown, when you go up the rise past the baseball stadium where the Indians play ball, on your way to Lakewood?”

   “That’s a long bridge.”

   “It’s called the Main Avenue Bridge and it’s two miles long. The bridge that goes from Canada to Prince Edward Island is almost 5 times longer than that. It’s as long as the distance from downtown to our house.”

   “That’s far!”

   “That can’t be,” Frank’s nephew Ethan blurted out. “That bridge is too long!”

   “How do you know, Bud, you can hardly count,” said Maggie. She called Ethan Bud. They were buddies, although they didn’t always see eye-to-eye.

   “I can so count, I know all the dinosaurs, there are a million of them,” said Ethan.

   “I’m going into third grade and we’re going to learn division. You’ve been learning to finger paint.”

   “What’s a million and a million?”

   “2 million.”

   “OK, what’s the biggest dinosaur ever?”

   “The Brontosaurus.”

   “No! It’s the Argentinosaurus, and he weighed a million pounds.”

   “That can’t be,” said Maggie.

   “My math is my math,” Ethan simply said.

   “If you can’t explain it simply you don’t understand it well enough,” said Albert Einstein.

   As of July, there were more than 300,000 cases of the virus reported in children since the start of the pandemic. The Executive Office of the Federal Government has repeatedly maintained it poses almost no threat to them. “The fact is they are virtually immune from this problem,” President Trump said.

   “How do you know about the virus?” Frank asked.

   “Everybody knows about it. The whole world knows.”

   “They even know in Antarctica,” said Ethan.

   “Do you know anybody who got it?”

   “A girl in school got it from her mom,” Maggie said. “I took piano lessons with her.”

   “That’s too bad,” Frank said.

   “Are there going to be fireworks tonight?” Maggie asked.

   “No, the city cancelled them.”

   “Where we live, too.”

   “Here there were fireworks last night, we sat on the front porch, until after midnight, but it was just people in the street or their yards. There were some big pops over there by Madison Avenue. I think they were shooting them off from the empty lot. We could see bottle rockets over the trees.”

   “Wow!”

   “You said you knew about the virus, but how do you know?” asked Frank.

   “The news about it is on every day on TV,” said Maggie.

   “That’s right,” said Ethan.

   “We have a TV, but we don’t have TV,” said Frank. “We only have a couple of streaming services for movies.”

   “We have real TV,” said Maggie, “and it’s on all the time. The news is on every single hour every single day and all the news is about the virus.”

   “Do you watch TV all the time?”

   “We don’t watch TV, but we watch it all day,” said Ethan.

   “We don’t really watch it, but it’s always there,” said Maggie.

   Parents are urged to pay attention to what their children see and hear on radio online television. They are cautioned to reduce screen time focused on the virus since too much information on one topic can lead to anxiety in kids. Talk to them about how stories on the web might be rumors and wildly inaccurate.

   “That’s OK, it’s all in your head, anyway,” said Maggie.

   “All in your head?”

   “That’s what dad says.”

   “Well,” Frank said, “your father knows best.” He wasn’t going to get into a no-win argument with his brother-in-law. His sister’s boyfriend was a policeman at Metro Hospitals. Frank didn’t want his ears pricking up. He wouldn’t understand it’s all in your head.

   “Are you worried about the virus?” Frank asked.

   “Would that help?” Maggie asked, biting into a burger. “This is yummy good.”

   “No, it would probably just make you crazy.”

   “Dad said your name wasn’t always Frank Glass.”

   “Yes and no,” said Frank. “My given name has always been Frank, which is short for Francis, like we call you Maggie even though your name is Margaret, but my family name, what they say is your surname, used to be Kazukauskas.”

   “What happened to it?” asked Maggie. “Why is it different now.”

   “When my father came here, to America after World War Two, the immigration people said he should change it to something other people could pronounce, that they could say without too much trouble, so he changed it to Glass.”

   “Where did he come from?”

   “Lithuania, a little country, north of Germany.”

   “That’s a nice name,” Maggie said. “I like Glass.”

   “At least he didn’t have to climb another brick in the wall once he got here.”

   “What does that mean?”

   “I’ll tell you when you’re older. Are you staying home more because of the virus?”

   “Yes!” both of them exclaimed.

   “Do you have to wear a mask when you go somewhere?”

   “We cover up,” Maggie said. “My face gets hot, my head gets hot, and my hair get hot. It makes my glasses fog up.”

   “I have a tube mask with rhino’s and bronto’s on it,” Ethan said. “But I can’t breathe, so I just rip it off until mom sees.”

   There was a box of Charades for Kids on the table. “Three or More Players Ages Four and Up.” Frank pointed at it.

   “Are you ready to play?”

   Maggie rolled around on the lawn, flapped her arms, rolled her eyes, and hugged herself. Nobody had any idea what she was doing.

   “Going to bed!” she yelped.

   Ethan did a somersault.

   “Somersault?”

   “Yes!”

   Maggie rolled on the ground holding her head and grimacing like a mad chipmunk. Everybody watched with blank faces, stumped.

   “Headache!” she blared.

   Ethan slashed the air with his hands.

   “Karate?”

   “Yes!”

   Maggie jumped, waved her right arm in circles, flapped it back and forth, and licked her lips. As the one-minute hourglass dropped the last grain of sand to the bottom, she fell down on the grass. Everybody was stumped again.

   “Frosting a cake! I can’t believe nobody got it.”

   Ethan got on all fours like an anteater, pretended to be eating something with great chomping motions, and clomped to the driveway and back.

   “Argentinosaurus?”

   “Yes!”

   Summer signals freedom for children. It’s a break from the structure of school days, a time for more days spent at the pool, a time for more play, for exploring the outdoors.

   One day his mom asked Ethan if he wanted to go out on his scooter.

   “So much,” he said. “I have got to get out of this house.”

   “Every single day I see the Amazon truck and the FedEx and the white trucks go past me,” said Maggie. “They turn around at the cul-de-sac thing, they just rush back, driving crazy. I run to the backyard.”

   “There’s a big field and woods past our backyard,” Ethan said.

   “We’re stuck at home but it’s summer, it’s nice outside, the sun is shining, and we all go for walks,” Maggie said.

   She hadn’t been to school since April, studying remotely. Ethan hadn’t been to pre-school for just as long.

   “Are you going back to school in the fall?” asked Frank.

   “I hope so,” said Maggie. “I miss it.”

   “I’m supposed to start first grade,” said Ethan.

   About two months away from hopes there will be a return to school, many parents were looking to new findings which suggest children are less likely to get and spread the virus. In late June the American Academy of Pediatrics, which advocates for “having students physically present in school,” published reopening guidelines. They stated that children “may be less likely to become infected” with the coronavirus and to spread the infection.

   Living and breathing in-person face-to-face time is what makes school a school. “Better than a thousand days of diligent study is one day with a great teacher,” is what a Japanese proverb says.

   “I want to play something else,” Maggie said. “Can you teach us how to play Pictionary?”

   “Sure,” Frank said.

   They put the never-ending news of the pandemic away, cleared one end of the table, and unfolded the game board, setting out the pencils note pads special cards. “Quick Sketches, Hilarious Guesses” is what it said on the yellow box, and that is what they did the rest of Independence Day, the clear sky going twilight, lightning bugs flashing on off on off, and neighborhood kids shooting off Uncle Sam Phantom fire flowers in the alley behind them.

   There wasn’t a dud in the caboodle, not that they saw. Uncle Sam got it right, rockets red glare.

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 Car

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.”