By Ed Staskus
My father, Abe, first spied my mother, Olive, through his first floor window at the Majestic Hotel. She was waiting on the corner of East 55th Street and Central Avenue for the CTS streetcar. It was a sunny summer day. My mother did pantry work and was on her way home.
My father spotted her from behind his venetian blind.
“I had just gotten back from Woodland Cemetery, where I did walking tours whenever my sergeant thought there was something I had done he didn’t care for. She was a sight for sore eyes and sore feet. I put my Colt Positive away in the dresser drawer and stepped outside.”
During the winter the Majestic allowed my father, who was a policeman, to have a small room on the East 55th Street side of the hotel. His room door let out onto a secret door beside the drug store, in case he saw anything happening. After a few years he kept the room in the summer, too.
The Majestic was called the apartments, but it was always a hotel. My father started going there when he was in his early 20s and the jazz club off the lobby was called the Furnace Room.
“Meeting your mother was a lot like jazz, it was improvised. That was it, to go ahead and see what happened.”
The club had dancers and crooners, too, and bands that came through on tour. The restaurant that served food was Mammy Louise’s Barbeque Café. Their house specialty was braised beef short ribs in gravy. Their ribs were like soul music.
My father was from a small town in the Florida Panhandle and never thought twice about eating chicken fried steak, candied sweet potatoes, and cheesy grits.
“We went to Mammy Louise’s for dinner and then next door to the club. The International Sweethearts of Rhythm were there the night we stepped out. They were an all-girl all-color orchestra. ‘Slick Chicks and Hot Licks’ was what it said on the billboard outside the doors. They raised the roof and we danced up a storm.”
The Furnace Room later became Elmer Waxman’s Ubangi Club, but when my father first took me there in the 1950s, when I was twelve-years-old, it was the Rose Room Cocktail Lounge. Before the Hough race riots and Glenville shoot-outs in the 1960s, even though it was already a colored neighborhood, the audiences were all races. Judges and politicians from downtown brought their wives to the Rose Room. It was the black and tan saloon scene.
But, by then no one danced to jazz anymore. That had already changed.
When my father applied to the Cleveland Police Department in the 1930s the merit system broke down, like it always did, because he was a man of color. They said he had poor eyesight, even though he didn’t start wearing glasses until he was in his 70s, almost fifty years after joining the force. He had to ask for help from his ward leader to have the rejection overruled.
He hunted moonshiners in the 1930s, which was dangerous work, before they gave him his own beat. He said you could always tell whether the moonshine was good if you set it on fire and blue flames came up.
“That’s when you knew it wouldn’t make you go blind.”
There weren’t many men of color on the police force, and most of those who were had to get certification from outside doctors to overrule the official exam of the police doctor. Jim Crow was subtler in the North than it was in the South. They kept separate eligibility lists, so that when one died, resigned, or retired, his replacement was always a Negro patrolman.
Duke Jenkins and his group was the house band at the Majestic. They were the first jazz band I ever heard. On Tuesday nights they had Cha Cha Night and on Thursdays they had Mambo Night. But, the big attraction was the early morning Blue Monday Parties.
“People lined up to get into those jam sessions. Sometimes you couldn’t even get a seat. All the players, the girl singers, the quartets, entertainers like Erroll Garner and Arthur Prysock and Nancy Wilson, they’d be there performing. People went crazy when Nancy Wilson was there because she was so good.”
I stayed overnight with my father in his hotel room on Sundays, and went to the Blue Monday parties with him when they started, which was at five in the morning. Afterwards he drove me to school. If we stayed too late at the jam session he would sometimes call and ask for a squad car to take me, with its lights flashing and siren whooping.
There were only a handful of Cleveland hotels listed in the Negro Travelers’ Green Book. The Majestic was one of them. All the rooms had two beds and a radio in every room, although my father’s had only one bed. He had the other one removed so we would have a table to eat at on Sunday nights. I slept on a folding rollaway he kept in the closet.
When I was a baby my mother kept my playpen next to the upright piano in the front room. It was so she would know where I was. As long as she heard me picking out notes she knew I wasn’t getting into anything else. When I was in third grade I found out they had music classes at my school. I was already eight-years-old.
“I’d like to do that,” I told my mother. I lived with her and my grandmother, and it was a surprise to both of them, although it shouldn’t have been. That’s just how things were.
There were class piano lessons at the Miles Standish School. I learned to play a Chopin waltz beneath a painting of Miles Standish, after who the school was named. He was a soldier for the Pilgrims when they came to the New World. In the painting he wore an ascot and armor and carried a matchlock rifle.
I played the piano and organ because my grandmother wanted me to. She was the matriarch of our family and was conservative about most things. She didn’t believe in bell house music. She was strict about church music, too, so she had a man, who was the organist at the New Liberty Hill Baptist Church, come to our house and give me lessons. When I got a little older I played there myself.
Mr. Paul John was the man who came to our house. He worked in the steel mills, where he knew my grandfather, who sang in the male chorus in the mill that Mr. John led on a cheap five rank pipe organ.
“Mr. John could play Rachmaninoff, and all, but he was ahead of his time, so he gave lessons. That was the incentive for him when he came to your mother’s house and got you started.”
I played sacred music for the rest my life and jazz music for the rest of the other part of my life. The sacred music came from my mother and grandmother, and the jazz music came from my father, who took me to the Majestic and later to clubs uptown like the Tijuana Café Society.
“When the Four Sounds came to audition at the Tijuana, they were just re-opening, and they didn’t even have a piano on the stage. It was in the corner. I helped them lift it up on the stage to do the audition. They had been the Four Sounds until they asked me to talk to the saxophone player one night. He had a habit of carrying a gun in his horn case. When he said he didn’t want to leave it behind, they left out the saxophone and became the Three Sounds.”
Some days you could hear a single trumpet through an open window down the street from Doan Square, where all the action was, a jazz musician reading their lines in the afternoon. Hotels weren’t open to musicians of color, so they stayed in rooming houses.
You couldn’t even go to the Five and Dime store and have a quiet lunch. My grandmother went to buy a hat one Saturday and when she tried it on she had to buy it. She had put it on her head to see if it fit and when a sales clerk saw her she had to pay for it. My grandfather was a mulatto from Cuba. Whenever a white man approached our house, selling something, or on some errand, my grandfather was polite, but as soon as the white man left the porch and was out of earshot he would spit and call him a cracker.
We lived on Pierpont Avenue in Glenville, what we called the Gold Coast, before Glenville fell apart and the Gold Coast moved to Lakewood in the 1960s. My grandmother died in 1968 and my mother sold the house, moving to Lost Nation Road in the suburbs. But, by then I had finished my studies at the Boston Conservatory and was playing the big organ at the Christian Science Mother Church. In the summer I played at jazz clubs on Martha’s Vineyard and Provincetown.
When I was a boy Glenville was crowded with immigrants, people of color, and Jews. There were orthodox Jews everywhere. I thought they were Santa Claus’s in black suits. There were clubs, movie houses, and department stores. There were churches, too, like the Cory United Methodist Church, which had been the Park Synagogue, and the Abyssinia Baptist Church, which had also been a synagogue.
There were little restaurants run by the Jews. There were no bad sandwich shops in Glenville, but my father always ate at Pirkle’s Deli. He said if he ever spied a Jewish woman from his room at the Majestic he was going to go after her so he could get up Sunday mornings and stroll out to the deli with her.
“Those folks never invented anything so fine as deli food. The corned beef at Pirkle’s is as tender as a young lady’s heart.”
My father and mother were never together. There were two different families, his and ours. They had their room at the Majestic, but in later years she felt he betrayed her. My father wanted to marry my mother, and she thought he was going to divorce his wife, but he didn’t do that. Afterwards she had difficulty in seeing my father in the light of a soul mate, or the light of any kind of mate.
“Your mother shot a hole in my soul, ” he said.
I lived with my mother and after she married another man she bore two more boys who were my brothers because we shared her. My father came to our house many a time, often in his police car, which was exciting. It wasn’t as if we were separated from him.
He was one of the first black farmers in Twinsburg, where he kept turkeys and pigs. Every Monday in November we got a turkey. He had a smokehouse, too, and when it came time to slaughter some of the fattening pigs he would do that himself. He castrated the male pigs a month beforehand. We would have bacon and ham all winter and into the spring.
My father often picked me up Friday and Saturday nights to help him forage for feed. We drove up and down Euclid Avenue, on the south side of Glenville, from E. 110th to E. 95th St, picking up refuse from the barrels and dumpsters behind the many clubs and restaurants on the strip. He would stick his hands into the slop and feel around the mash before filling up our barrels.
“Pigs will eat anything you give them. They can be stinky and filthy, even though their sausages smell great. I would rather cut myself than injure my animals.”
When our barrels were full we drove the pick-up to his farm. The pigs would hear the truck coming and know it was time to eat. They would start doing what pigs do, getting greedy and feisty. He would dump their food in the trough and they would go at it. That was why, knowing how they behaved, he picked through the slop, because they would have cut themselves, biting into anything.
I stopped gleaning slop when my mother told me I had to start being careful about hurting my hands.
I learned more sacred music and fewer blue notes after my mother put me in Empire High. Miss Bishop, my music teacher, had been there since the school opened. She had a nice hourglass figure and the only thing that gave her away was that she wore old lady comforters. But, she was spry and walked fast.
She was an old maid because she had become a teacher and couldn’t marry, and by the time that idea changed it was too late for her. One afternoon I found a dedicatory book for Empire, which was built in 1915. I took it to Miss Bishop’s office
“I see your name in this book, and your picture.”
She looked at me.
“Is this you?”
“But, you’re old.”
I’m sure she wanted to pinch me.
But, Miss Bishop made sure I practiced my piano and later helped me get a scholarship to Ohio University, where I studied the organ. After that I never lived in Glenville again.
I lived in Chicago, New York, and Boston. I learned to live alone, like Duke Ellington, who said music was a mistress. I lived in my own world, detached, so I could practice. I had friends who kept me in tune, but on Saturday nights I didn’t go anywhere. I had to be ready for Sunday services. That kept me out of mischief. I tried it a few times, but it’s bad when you’re not feeling well in a church setting. I decided I had to do it alone.
I saw little of my mother, who had moved to California to live with my brother, a minister, and my father only when I was passing through the Midwest on my way to Chicago or St. Louis. We visited and had lunch at one or another deli in Cleveland Heights, where all the Jews had moved. Pirkle’s Deli had burned down.
My father was an industrious man his whole life. When he retired and his wife passed on he bought the last commercial building, next to Whitmore’s Bar-B-Q, on Kinsman Road before it snakes up into Shaker Heights. It was a barbershop and beauty salon and he lived upstairs in a one-bedroom apartment. He could have lived in a house, since he owned five of them, but he didn’t want to.
“I don’t want to get too comfortable because I may not be here long.”
His apartment had one bedroom, one bathroom, and one closet. It looked like no one lived in it.
He was industrious, but he became a less tidy custodian of his properties over the years. He would patchwork instead of getting things done the best way, so they deteriorated. He wasn’t willing to pay the price to get things done the right way. When you have that mindset you end up losing more money than you spend.
He lost his eyesight while he was visiting my brother in Texas. He stepped on a splinter and after a few days his big toe got infected. He had surgery for it, but in the end they had to amputate the toe. Afterwards he lost feeling in his leg. While he was still in the hospital convalescing he woke up one morning and had gone blind. He stayed in Texas for a month, and when he came back he moved in with my sister on his side, who took care of him.
He never recovered his eyesight, which was hard for him because he had always lived by his senses. The biggest problem, though, were the hallucinations he suffered, which were part of the side effects from medication he was taking. He would have them at night. He heard things and saw craziness and wasn’t able to sleep.
I never got my father and mother together, even at the end, when I was staying with him, playing old jazz records together. He listened to music all day towards the end. He stopped eating, drinking cold lemonade, instead. The last time my mother visited us my father was near death. I took her around to many of the places in Glenville that weren’t there anymore and tried to get her to go to the facility on Rockside Road where my father was. She fought me all the way and in the end wouldn’t go.
She just didn’t want anything to do with him.
My mother, Olive, and father, Abe, did what they had to do. I was just a cameo on that team of theirs. When my father died there was nothing left to do in Glenville and I moved back to Boston for good. In the summer I play jazz and popular tunes in clubs on Cape Cod. On Sunday mornings when the weather is good I brew a pot of strong coffee and toast a plate of spiced hot cross buns.
On my balcony sitting in the warmth and light of the rising sun I look for what is behind the brightness, on the other side of it, the blue note side of the Majestic my father peeked out of to spy on my mother.
A version of this story appeared in Literary Heist.
Ed Staskus posts a feature story monthly 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.