Tag Archives: Allen Ravenstine

Ace in the Hole

By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”