By Ed Staskus
It was noon on the dot when President Eisenhower greeted more than nine hundred invited guests to the Sales Executive Group Luncheon in the Main Ballroom of the best and biggest hotel in downtown Cleveland. He spoke briefly, walked out of the hotel, and crossed the street to the Speaker’s Platform next to the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. He was giving a speech at twelve-thirty.
He was in the middle of two months of pressing the flesh kissing babies and giving speeches. His mouth had gone dry and palms chapped. Flecks of baby spit littered his suits.
A dozen black and white Cleveland Police cars blocked off Euclid Avenue, Superior Avenue, Ontario Street, and Rockwell Avenue.
Bert Mert and Luke scampered out of the Memorial Room of the monument out to the roof and down to the base of the polished black stone column. They could have climbed to the top, one hundred and twenty-five feet to the top, wending up the six foliated bronze bands listing the names of the thirty battles in which soldiers from Cuyahoga County fought, if they wanted to. Their eyesight wasn’t the best, not like their sense of smell, but their perch was more than view enough.
Since it was only a month to the election, President Eisenhower got right to the point.
“The opposition say that they alone truly care for the working men and women of America, and that the Republican party is really a vague kind of political conspiracy by big business to destroy organized labor and bring hunger and torment to every worker in America,” he told the overflow crowd.
Secret Service agents watched from the roofs of the May Company and Higbee’s, and from inside the twin steeples of the Old Stone Church. The Berea sandstone of the church had long since turned black from air pollution rising up from the Flats, the nearby industrial valley that sprawled on both sides of the curvy Cuyahoga River. The sun gleamed on the white terra cotta façade of the May Company. The faces of shoppers were pressed against upper story windows of the two department stores.
The pastor of the Presbyterian church sat in a lawn chair outside his front doors, his sleeves rolled up, warm in the warm October day. He had a ploughman’s sandwich, cheese and pickle, wrapped in wax paper in his lap. He unwrapped his sandwich. He took a bite and chewed, slowly, methodically. The sky above Public Square was dappled with small passing clouds. He stretched his legs out.
His father had been a pastor. He grew up in the church. He served on all the church committees, was a volunteer at all the events, and made all the hospital and home care visits.
Thank God for Dwight D. Eisenhower, he thought, a day off on a sunny day.
“Ike Campaigns in Cleveland” was the caption beneath a picture of the Chief Executive waving from the window of his train pulling into the Terminal Tower. Stan Riddman got the Post and Daily News delivered. The Daily News was big on pictures, calling itself “New York’s Picture Newspaper.” It was their kind of doorstep reporting.
“Did you see that the president is in Cleveland, your dad’s hometown?” Vicki asked Dottie.
“I saw it,” the girl said, flipping through the tabloid, ignoring her breakfast.
“Have you got your lunch?” asked Vicki, a Wirephoto away from the Soldiers and Sailors Monument
Dottie held up it up. It was a metal Roy Rogers and Dale Evans lunch box with wood grain printed sides. On the front Roy was riding away on Trigger, and Dale, in a red dress, was waving goodbye from underneath the Double RR Bar Ranch sign.
“Let’s go, hustle it up.” said Vicki.
Dottie went to the Sacred Heart of Jesus School on West 52nd Street. It was an all-children school, all boys and girls. It was the reason Stan had taken their apartment on West 56th Street, so that Dottie could walk to school. It was a large school, more than a thousand students, most of them Irish kids, and growing. A new convent for the Sisters of Charity had been built a few years ago. The Congregation of Christian Brothers, who had a reputation for strong-arm discipline, had their own residence on West 51st Street.
“If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of a cross,“ Stan and Vicki heard Lenny Bruce crack at one of his shows.
Dottie didn’t wear a crucifix.
Bert and Mert were Tremont twins. Luke was an orphan. All his friends called him Eaka Mouse. They usually slept during the day and foraged at night, avoiding birds, but this was a special occasion. They had never seen the top man of the Grand Old Party up close. The birds were staying away because of the hullaballoo, but the mice couldn’t contain their curiosity.
“This is more than political bunk,” said President Eisenhower. “Those men are fretting fear and worried doubt. It is wicked nonsense. We have given to our nation the kind of government that is living witness to a basic virtue in a democracy, public morality, public service, and public trust. There is no special favoritism, cronyism, or laxity in our administration.”
Luke had the best sense of smell of the three of them. He led the way when they went searching for food, which was fifteen, twenty times a day. Their favorite foods were seeds and grains, which made the monument a 24-hour dream diner for mice. It was visited by hundreds, sometimes thousands of people, many of whom left behind crumbs of whatever they were snacking on.
The pickings today were going to be out of this world.
None of them liked cheese. No mouse they knew liked cheese. They snickered at the traps filled with shavings of it. Besides, they could smell the hand of the crafty man on carefully prepared cheese, and they knew to beware.
In Brooklyn, Bumpy Williams followed the two men who were following the boss and Girl Friday. When they got to Ebbets Field, the men parked across the street from the main entrance to the ballpark. Bumpy passed them, doubled back, and parked a block behind them. He turned off the engine and got comfortable.
It was inside of fifteen minutes that the young man on the passenger side of the late model black panel truck got out, walked down the street, turned into a corner store, and came back with a brown bag wrapped around a bottle of Sneaky Pete.
“Dumb asses,” Bumpy said to himself.
He understood when the pie isn’t perfect, cut it into wedges, but if it was him, he would throw the two slices of stupidity out of the hoodlum roll call and send them back to Sicily where they came from.
The one-year sale on fresh blood from the homeland had been going on for seven years. It was getting thin back in southern Italy. On the other hand, Bumpy thought, it isn’t like I’ve got to reinvent the wheel with them.
When Stan and Bettina walked out of the ballpark and hailed a cab, the two hoodlums in the panel truck didn’t follow them. Instead, the man on the passenger side got out again, sauntered to a phone booth outside the corner store, and made a call.
“All right, and you’re sure they didn’t make you?”
“And no one was on your tail?”
“All right, I’ll pass it on to the boss. You two go to the house and lay low. Stay handy, stay straight, don’t boost anything, stay out of trouble, but stay heavy, just in case we need you, understand?”
“I got it,” the man in the telephone booth said.
The man on the other end of the line hung up.
The mobster errand boys sat in the panel truck and finished their Sneaky Pete.
“The men of the opposition know perfectly well that one of the main reasons they were thrown out of office four years ago was their tolerance of the fire of inflation,” said President Eisenhower. “Just in the final seven years of their tenure of office this economic fever had cut the value of the dollar by almost one-third, damaging the livelihood of the aged, the pensioned, all salaried workers.”
Luke had recently chewed up the front page of the Cleveland Press for bedding. He noticed an article about last month’s government index showing living costs had gone up to a record high point.
“The cost of living has been remarkably stabilized,” the trim balding man in a brown suit below them said earnestly. “During the previous Democratic administration, the cost of living increase was twenty times as great.”
Mert gave Bert and Luke the high sign. They had heard the lying life on the stump come pouring over them before. They couldn’t go down to look for food, but the speechifying was making them sleepy. It was a lot of cutting corners and trying to corner the other guy. The three mice stretched, groomed themselves briefly, efficiently, curled up together, and were soon napping.
Ezra met Stan and Bettina when they got to Brighton Beach.
“He’s gone,” said Ezra.
“The lady of the house says he left yesterday, with a couple of guys, had an overnight bag with him. She saw the truck, thinks it might have been black, but doesn’t know the make, much less the plates. I asked around, talked to some of the neighbors, nobody saw anything, so that’s a dead end. My guess is they’re guessing we’re on to him and have got him on ice somewhere until Wednesday.”
“That sounds about right,” said Stan. “We’ll have to snag him at the ballpark. We’ve got tickets for the game, so getting in won’t be any problem.”
“No, no problem and we can get in early, spread out,” said Ezra.
“Are we still keeping this to ourselves?”
“Yes,” said Ezra. “The Secret Service is always on high alert, so our ruffling their feathers won’t make any difference. Besides, they don’t trust anybody. Whatever we tell them is likely to get us in a jam.”
“I’m on the same page,” said Stan.
“What if we don’t get our man and he gets to Ike?” Betty asked.
“We’re not anybody’s bodyguard,” said Ezra. “He’s got all the bodyguards he needs.”
“But we know who is and what he looks like,” she said. “They don’t.”
“Yes,” said Ezra. “That’s how the biscuit crumbles.”
They walked down to Brighton Beach Avenue.
“Did you read that tawk from Ike on Stevenson?” one man asked his companion as they strolled past the Duluc Detective operatives going the other way.
“Yeah, just more smoke and mirrors from the Republicans.”
“The thing is, how do you even know he’s telling the truth, when you know you’d lie about it if you was him?”
“Fawget about it.”
“Yeah, yeah, I got that. Let’s stop in here.”
They were approaching a diner.
“Let’s get some cawfee and a bite.”
“That’s a good idea, I’m with you.”
“We can’t be sure we know with one hundred percent certainty what our man is up to,” said Stan.
“No,” said Ezra.
“It puts us in a bad spot.”
“Yes,” said Ezra.
“OK, we’ll play it the way we have been. It might be a squeeze, but I don’t want to get in the middle of a political assassination, if it is an assassination, and everything that would bring down on us, hell in a hand basket.”
“No good deed goes unpunished,” said Ezra.
“We’re getting paid to find out what happened to Jackson Pollack, not anything else,” said Stan.
Bettina wanted to argue, but when she remembered some of the things Pete had told her, after their ping-pong games, or out for a drink, she bit her tongue. TF is what Pete always muttered when what he said fell on deaf ears. She didn’t want to be the deer in the headlights with the Feds at the wheel. She knew Pete was right about the high and low.
Two teenagers slouched past them. Both of them were wearing big bright medal medallions. One of them had a girl’s ear-clip stuck onto an earlobe.
“You going to the skin battle tonight?” asked one.
“Diddley bop, I’m all in,” the other one said.
“You got your stenjer ready?”
He had wet his Alpine-style hat, his stenjer, under a faucet the night before, rolled the narrow brims tight, and dried it on a radiator.
“Don’t forget to pull it down over your ears.”
“Ain’t that like punking out?”
“No, it’s going to be tight fighting, but you still want to take care of your South Brooklyn Boy ears.”
“I got it.”
“You’ve got to have heart, though.”
“I’ll tell you who’s got heart, Blood’s got heart.”
“You got that right. He ain’t afraid of anything or anybody. He will do absolutely anything. If he has to fight five against one, he’ll fight five against one. He’s a butcher, man. If you need someone to pull the trigger, he’ll pull the trigger.”
“Get that man a stenjer.”
“Fast, faster, disaster!”
They both laughed, taking their own sweet time.
Stan, Bettina, and Ezra walked in silence.
“Anybody hungry?” asked Betty.
“I’m dog hungry,” said Ezra.
“Same here,” said Stan.
“How about H & S? We could walk, it’s not far.”
They passed an apartment house. At the top of it an inscription in block letters read MOTHER JONES. Bettina knew who she was, which was Mary Harris Jones, a labor organizer for the Socialist Party of America, fifty or sixty years ago. A district attorney had called her “the most dangerous woman in America.”
Pete said, laughing, that women couldn’t even vote in her day, which was what made them especially dangerous, pivoting into the 20th century.
“When you want something bad enough is when you get dangerous,” he said.
Stan, Betty, and Ezra walked to the deli on Sheepshead Bay Road.
President Eisenhower wrapped up his speech, stepped down from the platform, and was in his limo in his motorcade on its way to Cleveland Hopkins Airport by one o’clock. He and Mamie boarded the Columbine and were airborne to Lexington, Kentucky by one-thirty. In two days, at about the same time of the day, Dwight Eisenhower would be tossing out the first pitch of the 1956 World Series at Ebbets Field instead of tossing out half-truths.
“There it is,” said Bettina, pointing to the blue and white H & S Hebrew National Deli porcelain sign across the street.
She had mushroom barley soup and toasted challah, while Ezra and Stan ordered pastrami sandwiches. Betty winced at the tongue offerings on the menu. One of them touted itself as center cut tongue, better than the other parts of the tongue.
“Look at this,” said Stan. He pointed to a sign on the wall
“Instant Heart Attack.”
It was a three-quarter pound meat sandwich, your choice of animal, with potato latkes instead of bread.
“Our food is delicious, but it can kill you,” said the waiter.
After they had finished, and were having coffee, Ezra said, “I didn’t want to mention it while we were eating, but some of the deli’s I eat at, you can’t find what they offer anywhere else. There’s a place, they have something called pitcha, which is made by cooking calves’ feet and making a big gel block of it, chilling it, with bits of meat in it.”
“That sounds like the Dark Ages,” said Betty.
“I’ve never been there,” said Ezra.
“Thank God for that!” said Betty.
Outside, on the sidewalk they heard a man in the distance, a man coming their way.
“Ice cream! Get your Good Humor ice cream here, ice cream, orange drinks. Get your Good Humor ice cream here.”
He was a black man wearing black shoes and khaki pants. He had two large boxes slung over his shoulders. One was filled with ice cream and the other one with orange drinks. His face was shiny.
Stan asked if he had vanilla.
“Yes sir,” the man said.
“I’ll have one, too, “said Betty.
“What other flavors do you have?” asked Ezra.
“Strawberry, chocolate, eclairs, fudge.”
“I’ll take a strawberry,” said Ezra.
When the ice cream man opened his box, white smoke from the dried ice spilled out. After they paid him, he grunted when he lifted the two boxes up, slinging them back over his shoulders, and wiped his face with a handkerchief.
“Ice cream, ice cream, get your Good Humor ice cream here.”
His voice trailed off as he went down the sidewalk.
The mice avoided ice cream. They preferred Canadian bacon. Most days, Monday through Saturday, as long as the weather was good, they looked forward to the nut lady, the woman who looked more-or-less like Doris Day and Mammy Two Shoes, a middle-aged Slovenian woman with dark skin dark hair dark eyes, to take their mid-day break on the steps of the monument. She worked across the square, at Morrow’s Nut House, near the revolving doors of the May Company.
The nut woman worked behind the glass counter display case, selling fresh warm lightly salted cashews and redskin peanuts, Spanish peanuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pecans and walnuts. Morrow’s was on the corner, on the intersection, on a CTS bus stop. They pumped the smell of roasting nuts out onto the sidewalk all day long.
Bert Mert and Luke weren’t waiting for her today. There was a horn of plenty waiting for them on all sides of the Sailors and Soldiers Monument. Who said the GOP never did anything for the little man?
The three mice had girlfriends, Mary Suzy and Perla waiting in the wings.
“Hey guys, let’s rake it in, and go to the submarine races,” said Bert.
Eaka Mouse knew what that meant. It was feedbag and hanky-panky time. They weren’t three blind mice.
“Come on, snake, let’s rattle.”
Stan Ezra Betty wiped their lips clean and went back to business, looking for their man mouse on the loose.
Excerpted from “Stickball” at http://www.stanriddman.com.
Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com. Click “Follow” on a site to get its monthly feature in your in-box.