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?”
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?”
“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.”
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 Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com 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.”