Memories of Cleveland

The Cleveland Museum of Art

When I was growing up on the East Side of Cleveland, there were some areas that I really grew to like. Probably I was most drawn to the area around the Cleveland Museum of Art and Case Western Reserve University. I used to take the 56-A bus from home to East 105th Street, where I transferred to another bus that took me to Euclid Avenue. There was a drugstore at the corner of 105th and Euclid that featured a drink at their soda fountain called a “fresh lime rickey.” I would eat lunch there and walk over to either the Cleveland Museum of Art or the Western Reserve campus (it had not yet merged with Case Institute of Technology).

I would take art appreciation classes on Saturdays at the art museum, afterwards walking around the collections of medieval armor and 19th century art, including a Van Gogh that became my favorite painting: “The Starry Night.” I wonder if Cleveland still has that painting.

Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”

After I had started at Dartmouth College, I took a course on tragedy in literature at Western Reserve University by a professor named, as I recall, Tom MacDonald. At times, I would walk over to the Museum of Art after classes before getting on the buses home.

Other than the “University Circle” area that I frequented, I was not overly impressed by Cleveland. The Downtown area was rather grim. I had saxophone lessons near the center of town. The only places there I felt I could hang out were the Public Library on Superior and Schroeder’s Bookstore on Public Square. To the west were the Flats with their large factories, through which flowed the Cuyahoga River. It was this river which had made news once for being so polluted that it had caught fire.

 

At the Fish Market

The Fish Market at Pike Place in Seattle (2009)

Sometimes I think a new anti-social Me is coming into existence. Not really so much anti-social as unfriendly to strangers. Martine and I had visited a historical site in Long Beach called the Rancho Los Cerritos National Historical Site. On the return trip to West L.A., we stopped at Captain Kidd’s Fish Market and Restaurant in Redondo Beach where we indulged our love of fresh seafood.

As we checked out the raw fish on ice, a stranger wearing khaki shorts, a T-shirt, sneakers, and those unambitious socks that never quite make it up to one’s ankles, started talking to me about the salmon in the case.

I looked at him. “Are you talking to me?” I asked.

“Yes,” he answered.

With what must have been a puzzled look on my face, I asked, “What on earth for?”

And that shut him up.

This is the type of situation when I normally switch to Hungarian. I couldn’t well do that here because I had to order two fish dinners in English within the next couple of minutes.

What a snarky character I am turning out to be!

 

An American Heroine

Megan Rapinoe, the Star of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team

She was nowhere near the biggest bruiser on the field (that honor goes to France’s Wendie Renard, who at 6’ 1” was the biggest in the entire tournament). But when there were a few inches of daylight between her and the net, Megan Rapinoe found a way to corkscrew the ball between the defenders and past the goalkeeper and onto the scoreboard.

I don’t watch sports on television much, but I have a soft spot in my heart for what the world calls football and we Americans call soccer. That is because my Dad played for a Czechoslovakian club in the 1920s and for various nationality teams in Cleveland during the 1930s. When I was a child, he would occasionally take me to Moreland Park, where he was widely recognized by the old hands at the game. Elek and Emil Paris were the Terrible Twins of the Cleveland clubs. I heard all the stories about the players whose legs were broken by my father’s powerful kicks. These stories may have been slightly embroidered, but I ate them all up with a feeling of family pride.

The fact that Donald Trump is highly critical of her makes me admire Megan Rapinoe all the more. When asked by a reporter whether she would grace the White House with her presence, she replied that “she was not going to the f—ing White House.” That set the Donald off, he being rather thin-skinned by any kind of criticism.

There was a follow-up to that, however. “I stand by the comments that I made about not wanting to go to the White House with exception of the expletive,” Rapinoe told reporters. “My mom will be very upset about that.”

Still, during the Star Spangled Banner, all her teammates stood with their hand to their hearts—except for Megan, who had her hands at her sides. I like this girl: She’s a rebel!

 

 

Influence Numero Uno, 1960s Style

R. Crumb Was My Guru in Dem Days

The 1960s were a difficult time for me. I was all set to start graduate school in film history and criticism in September of 1966, when, quite suddenly, I was in a coma at Fairview General Hospital, with my body surrounded by ice to bring my temperature down. It was then that my pituitary tumor decided to make a major incursion on my optic nerve and brain that almost carried me into the next world. Somehow, I struggled back to consciousness, received the last sacraments of the Catholic Church (the aptly named Extreme Unction), and was ready to remove a “cyst” (that’s what the doctor called it) from my pituitary.

Did I even know what the pituitary gland was? Not really. Within a few days, my brain was hinged back to allow a surgical suction device to remove the enlarged and inflamed gland. When later I saw my neurosurgeon and asked how big the tumor was, he answered, “About the size of a grapefruit.”

When I finally made it to Los Angeles after Christmas in 1966, I noticed some changes to my ways of thinking:

  1. I felt that because of my weird ten years of illness that I was, for all intents and purposes, from Mars.
  2. Quite suddenly, I lost my faith in religion.
  3. I found myself with a really weird sense of humor.

Self Portrait of Cartoonist R. Crumb

Since I was now in Los Angeles, I drifted toward certain local influences, such as The Los Angeles Free Press, an underground newspaper that mirrored my own sense of disillusionment. Then I made the discovery of R. Crumb, whose Zap Comics, Fritz the Cat, and other series were required reading. There was Mister Natural, Flakey Foont, and a whole galaxy of characters. Admittedly, there was a lot of misogynistic sexuality, which was a Crumb trademark, but that was the way I was feeling  about myself. It rubbed me the wrong way that women seemed to lie so casually and hurtfully. It was years before I understand that was a defense mechanism from weirdos like me.

Some of Crumb’s Early Misogyny

Oddly, I never outgrew my admiration of Crumb’s work. I no longer accept all of Crumb’s own neuroses and psychoses, but I believe he was a great cartoonist, and that his work will be remembered long after I am gone.

 

The Lomita Railroad Museum

The Lomita Railroad Museum

One does not expect to see a railroad museum on a residential suburban street, yet there it was. Plus it was not built at the site of an old station or railroad yard. The station building is a built-from-scratch replica of the station in Wakefield, Massachusetts. It was built on 250th Street because that’s where Irene Lewis lived. The Lomita Railroad Museum is her creation, in memory of her late husband Martin, and it is a tribute to the love that the Lewises had for railroading.

Today was a prototypical June gloom day, so Martine paged through our copy of Passport 2 History: Your Guide to 83 Historic Sites in 9 Counties of Central and Southern California, an occasionally revised booklet that has resulted in a number of fun day trips for the two of us.

In addition to the station building with its numerous exhibits, there is a 1902 Southern Pacific steam locomotive with tender and a 1910 Union Pacific caboose. On adjoining properties, there is a Santa Fe caboose, a 1923 Union Oil tank car, and a 1913 outside-braced wood box car.

Martine with Locomotive Exhibit (Notice the Engineer’s Hat)

It’s always fun to see a real labor of love come to life the way the Lomita Railroad Museum has. Los Angeles is full of little corners where some person’s dream has resulted in a fun place to visit and be informed.

Especially now that the Los Angeles to San Francisco High Speed Railroad is in doubt because of funding woes, railroading is becoming more and more a thing of the past. Although they seem to be thriving in Europe and parts of Asia, the railroads in North America have given way to trucks (for freight) and buses (for passengers).

I will never forget the awe I felt as a cub scout waiting for a passenger train to take members of my “den” to distant Ashtabula, Ohio. As the giant steam locomotive pulled up to the station, I felt a frisson of terror at such power as we were enveloped in steam.

 

Why No Children?

Southern California Schoolgirls

Yesterday, as I was sitting in an armchair in the literature department of the L.A. Central Library when a group of Mexican school children—all holding hands—trooped by with their teacher. For a moment, I had a good feeling about the future. Los Angeles has thousands of attractive school children of all races, ethnicities, and creeds. That is one of the things that makes me love my town. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Cat’s Cradle:

Nice, nice, very nice
So many people in the same device.

So then why do I have no children? It all goes back to my childhood during which, for a period of ten years, I had a pituitary brain tumor without knowing it. When I graduated from college in 1966, I looked like an eleven-year-old, as my growth hormone, along with all my other hormones, was not functioning. As you may recall, the pituitary gland, which lies midway between the ears and under the brain, is the master gland. All my other glands were fine, except that they were not given any orders from the pituitary to produce any hormones, so they didn’t, at all.

It was not until I was well into my sixties that my endocrinologist said, “You know, you can now have children if you want.” I had lived my entire adult life with the sure knowledge that I could not have children, and I live with my girlfriend, who most certainly does not want to bear or raise children. For some forty plus years, that worked out fine for me. Dr. Sladek’s offhand comment just reminded me how old I was.

Please allow me to cringe as the following five words make their appearance: “But you can always adopt!” I have never been interested in adopting, though some of my friends have gone in for this with mostly good results. What I wanted, though, were children that were my true biological descendants. At times, I have been abrupt with people who suggested this, answering them, “I am not interested in raising other people’s mistakes.”

That is an awful thing to say, I know. But I feel that adoption was never for me.

So do I not like kids? Far from it. I have accustomed myself to thinking of myself as the last of my line. Those were just the cards I was dealt in this life.

 

The Book Collector

Me in My Library in Palmier Times

Ever since I was very young, I wanted to live surrounded by books. And I did, spending hundreds of dollars a month on books—hardbounds, paperbacks, even e-books. There is a tendency for accumulations to get out of hand. I have known collectors who lived in fear of being crushed under their film collections, movie poster collections, book collections. Collections can grow so out of bounds that they become a kind of illness, related to hoarding. When Martine and I moved from room to room, we had to take prescribed paths, because the floor was piled high with books. It was frequently a bone of contention between us.

Beginning late last year, I started donating books to the Mar Vista Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. In a twelve-month period, I have given well over a thousand books to the library. Some will be sold by the library at one of their bimonthly sales, some will be sold for a dollar a book at the branch, some (the cheaper ones) will just be given away. Who knows? Perhaps some of them might even be incorporated into he library’s own collection. A lot of them are great titles in prime condition.

If you look at the books behind me in this picture, I would have to say that about 30-40% are no longer in my possession. Twice a week, a put together a box of books for donation, with Martine’s eager cooperation.

Now that I am living on a fixed income, I buy relatively few books, and then only if I intend to read them in the near future. Today, for example, I purchased a nice harbound copy of Paul Theroux’s Sir Vidia’s Shadow, about the author’s decades-long friendship with V. S. Naipaul.

Do I read as much as ever? Of course I do—perhaps even more so. It’s just that I no longer feel I have to own all the books I love. I just have to read them.