By Ed Staskus
Frank Laukaitis took a short pull on the bottle of Schlitz in front of him. He didn’t pay any attention to the talking and low-hanging cigarette smoke from one end of the bar to the other end. All his attention was focused on the two men at a table at the back, their heads huddled together, up to no good. He kept his looking at them secret. There were two of them and only one of him. He was sure both men were armed, maybe even better armed than him, but he was also dead sure he could shoot straighter than the two of them put together. He had his Colt Detective Special on his belt. His badge was in his wallet in his back pocket.
The police detective wasn’t tall or short. He wasn’t thin or chunky, either, except when he wore a bulletproof vest, which made him look chunky. He was able-bodied, although he was near-sighted. The closer something was to him the better he saw it. When he had to, he wore black brow line glasses to see far away. He was half-Lithuanian and half-Russian. He kept his hair not-too-neat and didn’t shave too often. He read the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper every morning except Sunday when there was too much of it. There was hardly anything about him likely to draw anybody’s attention. When he was in a bar at the bar with a beer in front of him, a Lucky Strike smoking itself at his elbow, nobody ever gave him a second look. He worked out of the third floor of the Cleveland Police Department’s Central Station at East 21st St. and Payne Ave.
The Central Station had been in business for fifty years. It had replaced the Champlain Street Headquarters. When it did the Plain Dealer reported, “The minute the new station opens, the ancient Champlain Avenue mausoleum of crime and rats which has been functioning as a police headquarters for perhaps twenty-five years too long will start to crumble before the wrecking engines.” Fifty years later the Central Station was in the same boat, overflowing with crime and rats.
Frank took another look at his bottle of beer. It was getting lukewarm. It didn’t matter to him. It was only in front of him so he could hide behind it. He loosened his tie and the top button of his shirt. Mitzi Jerman was working the bar. She asked if he wanted more peanuts. “Thanks, but no,” he said. He hadn’t touched the bowl. The bar didn’t serve food, just peanuts, pretzels, and pickled eggs. He hadn’t touched anything, yet, although he might if the two gangsters stayed long enough. He was getting hungry. He knew the goon with jug ears doing all the talking had worked the numbers for Shondor Birns. He was sure enough the other one had been up to the same thing. He wondered why they were near downtown and not the near east side where the Negroes lived. That’s where their bread and butter was this time of night.
Jerman’s Café was on East 39th St. and St. Clair Ave., although it wasn’t actually on any street. It wasn’t in a storefront like most corner bars, and it wasn’t on a corner, either. It was on the ground floor of a house. It was set back from St. Clair Ave. with a parking lot on the side. If a drinker didn’t know the bar was there he might end up high and dry. It opened in 1908 when a Slovenian immigrant and his wife opened it. It had lived through World War One, the New Deal, World War Two, and the 1956 Cleveland Indians World Series win, when the celebrating didn’t stop for days. It stayed open as a speakeasy during Prohibition, not missing a beat. Mitzi’s uncle smuggled booze from Canada those years, making the run across Lake Erie in a speedboat by himself. Mitzi’s mom and dad hid the rum and whiskey with neighbors whenever Elliot Ness was on the loose.
Mitzi came back to where Frank was sitting and parked herself in front of him. “Working tonight, handsome?” she asked, drying freshly washed glasses with a bar towel. Frank wasn’t handsome, just like he wasn’t young anymore.
“I’m working right now,” he said in a low voice.
Mitzi had been born upstairs in the apartment above the bar. It was where her parents lived all their working lives. She slept in the same room she had been born in. There was a piano and a juke box in the bar. A pool table squatted near the rear. She watched Tribe games in living color on a TV set placed high up on a wall. Her pooch Rosco slept at her feet. The bar Frank was sitting at was oak, and the ceiling above him was zinc. Mitzi served Pabst, Stroh’s, and Budweiser on tap. Everything else came in a bottle and cost more. Frank fiddled with his bottle of Schlitz.
One of the men at the back table snapped his fingers. Mitzi looked at them. They were looking at the neighborhood girl who worked nights with Mitzi. She was a looker. Some men wanted to hang their hats on her. Mitzi sent her to their table. They ordered two more glasses of Pabst and gave her a pat on the behind for her trouble.
“Are you working those two bums?” Mitzi asked.
“I only work bums, and it looks like they are the only two of their kind in this place right now.”
“Is anything going to happen in my place tonight?”
“Not if I can help it,” he reassured her.
Shondor Birns had run the numbers racket for years, until he was blown up on Easter Saturday outside of his favorite strip club three and a half months ago. “SHONDOR BIRNS IS BOMB VICTIM” the Cleveland Plain Dealer headline in block letters blared on March 30, 1975. The big news out of Vietnam that day was below the lead story. “Communists capture Da Nang.” The go-go club was Christie’s Lounge, where Shondor Birns had spent the evening drinking and ogling the strippers. When he was good and drunk he staggered to his Lincoln Continental parked in a lot across from St. Malachi’s Catholic Church. When he turned the key in the ignition the dynamite wired to the ignition blew up. He was blown in half, his upper body catapulted through the roof of the car. Some of him landed in the parking lot. Some of him was sling shot into the webbing of the surrounding chain link fence. Celebrants at the Easter Vigil rushed out of the church when the explosion rattled the stained-glass windows.
The street fighter had been arrested more than fifty times since 1925, but hardly ever convicted. He had killed several men, but no charges ever stuck. He ran a theft ring. He ran the vice resorts. He became one of Cleveland’s ‘Public Enemy Number 1.’ When he got into the protection racket many small businessmen discovered they needed protection. “He was a muscleman whose specialty was controlling numbers gambling on the east side, keeping the peace among rival operators and getting a cut from each of them,” was how the Cleveland Press, the city’s afternoon newspaper, put it. “He was a feared man because of his violent reaction to any adversary.”
What little was left of Shondor Birns was buried in Hillcrest Cemetery on April Fool’s Day. He was gone. They had taken his picture down from the top row of the big board at the Central Station. Somebody had taken his place, even though his picture wasn’t on the board, yet. The policy games weren’t going to stop with the flashy clothes man gone. His fast fists hadn’t been fast enough to save him. The next boss was taking care of business. Frank wanted to know who that was.
When the two men at the back table got up and left, Frank got up and left, too. They got into a green Plymouth Duster. He wasn’t going to have any trouble following it. He got into his unmarked Ford Crown Victoria. The dark blue car wasn’t much to look at, since it looked like every other unmarked police car in the country, but no other car was going to outrun it if it came to a chase. The Duster drove to East 55th St,, turned on Euclid Ave, and at Mayfield Rd. turned again going up the hill to Little Italy. They parked behind Guarino’s Restaurant and went in the back door. Frank parked five spaces away, near the entrance to the lot.
He turned the car off. He was hungry but didn’t go inside right away. He thought about going home. Nobody had assigned him this shadow job. He had taken it upon himself. He could go home anytime he wanted to but he didn’t want to go home. He wanted to see his kid but didn’t want to see his wife. She had been getting unhappier by the day since the day she stopped nursing their boy. That was three years ago. She was miserable at home and had taken to drinking. Frank threw away every bottle he found hidden away somewhere, but he never found the last bottle. He could smell it on her breath every day.
She was eleven years younger than Frank. He knew it was a mistake but at the time he hadn’t been able to control himself. She had gotten to be sneaky and condescending. She complained about him being a policeman. She complained about his unpredictable hours. She complained about his pay and how he dressed. When he tried to explain the dress code behind going undercover, she was patronizing about it, calling him “you poor dear man.” They didn’t kiss anymore, much less talk much. She complained about her housework, even though she did less and less of it. She had started to neglect the kid, leaving the boy with a babysitter afternoons when she went to the Hippodrome.
“What’s at the Hippodrome?” he asked.
“Movies,” she said.
The Hippodrome had the second largest stage in the world when it was built in 1907. It was in an eleven-story office building with theater marquees and entrances on both Prospect Ave. and Euclid Ave. in the heart of downtown. It hosted plays, operas, and vaudeville until the movies took over. After that it was all celluloid. It became the country’s biggest theater showing exclusively big screen fare. A new air conditioning system pumped in water from Lake Erie, keeping everybody cool on sweltering summer nights.
Frank tailed her there one day. She went to the Hippodrome but didn’t go to the movies. She went downstairs to the lower-level pool hall. She walked to the back and through a door marked “Private.”
“What’s behind that door?” he asked one of the pool players.
“The boss is behind that door,” the pool player said.
“Would that be Danny Vegh?”
“Naw, this is Danny’s joint, but Vince runs the place. Why all the questions?”
“No reason, just curious.”
“If you want to see Vince, you don’t want to right now. He’s got a woman in there and it’s going to be some time before they finish up their business.”
“Thanks pal,” Frank said. “How about a game of nine ball?”
An hour later and twenty dollars the worse for wear, Frank gave up. His wife was still in Vince’s office. The door was still shut tight. He walked out and up the stairs to Euclid Ave. He crossed the street, leaned against a light pole, and lit a Lucky Strike. His wife walked into broad daylight a half hour later. A car pulled up to the curb and she got into the front seat. Frank followed the car to their home in North Collinwood. The car pulled into the driveway. His wife got out and went in the front door. The car drove away.
“Son of a bitch,” Frank muttered to himself. It was looking to him like she was a gal looking for action. She had once promised him more than he was getting. He wasn’t getting much of anything anymore. He wasn’t getting any of her love, for sure. He could kill her for what she was doing, except for the kid. He might kill her anyway. There was more than enough room in the backyard for an unmarked grave.
Frank’s stomach grumbled. He was hungry as a flatfoot at the end of a long day. He hadn’t popped even a single peanut into his mouth at Jerman’s Café. He could eat here up on Little Italy and keep an eye on the two goons at the same time. He got out of the Crown Victoria, locked it, and walking through the vineyard patio went into Guarino’s. The restaurant had been around since before the 1920s. A Sicilian family ran it then and the same Sicilian family ran it now. It had been redecorated in a Victorian style in 1963, but the décor didn’t affect the food. Mama Guarino led him to a two-top table. He ordered veal saltimbocca. The waitress brought him half a carafe of chianti. He took his time eating, making sure his wife would be asleep when he got home.
He had always thought there was nothing more romantic than Italian food. He wasn’t feeling romantic tonight, but at least the food was delicious. He took a bite of veal and gulped down a forkful of angel hair. No man could love a cheater and not pay the price for it. Things fall apart when they’re held together by lies. He filled his wine glass with dark red romance and drank it slowly thoughtfully.
Excerpted from “Bomb City.”
Ed Staskus posts on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Made in Cleveland http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”