The Cleveland Limited

New York Central Passenger Train

I have been set musing by watching Satyajit Ray’s film Aparajito, with its hero Apu who goes off to school in Calcutta, leaving his widowed mother alone with a relative in rural Bengal. When I left home to go away to college, it was because my parents’ marriage appeared to be heading for the rocks; and I didn’t want to have to be in the middle of it. Plus, of course, I was proud to have a full scholarship to an Ivy League school.

When school started in the fall, my parents drove me to Dartmouth College and would stay for several days at the Chieftain Motel which was situated north of Hanover on the banks of the Connecticut River. But for the most part, I took public transportation to and from Hanover, New Hampshire, where my college was located.

There were three legs to the journey:

  • Between Cleveland and Albany, New York, I took a New York Central train called the Cleveland Limited Train #57 (Westbound) and #58 (Eastbound), which was all coach.
  • Between Albany and Rutland, Vermont, I took a Vermont Transit bus that originated in New York or Burlington, Vermont.
  • Between Rutland and Hanover, I took two White River Coaches, one to White River Junction, Vermont, and the other to Hanover, a scant five miles farther on.

In both directions, the Cleveland Limited was an overnighter. It was fiercely uncomfortable, especially in the winter when the same coach could be blisteringly hot and freezingly cold on the same trip. It was impossible to get a good night’s rest, because of the lights and noise whenever the train stopped at Utica, Rochester, Syracuse, Buffalo, and wherever else it stopped.

In Albany, I had to wait (in both directions) for several hours at the once grandiose Union Station. I remember writing a poem in which I called it “oldgold in decrepitude.” There was no place to get a meal at the station, so I had to munch on candy bars and drink sodas.

The Vermont Transit bus was a nice ride, except for its passage through Troy, New York, which I then thought was the ugliest city I had ever seen. And that from a resident of Cleveland!

There was a much better connection at Rutland to the White River Coach, which went along the banks of the Ottauqueechee River to White River Junction and with a quick transfer to Hanover.

I would travel both ways during my Christmas vacation (which lasted 2½-3 weeks) and the spring break (about 1½ weeks). If I was lucky, we would see the sun in Cleveland for upwards of twenty minutes during the whole vacation.

A World Class Art Museum

The Cleveland Museum of Art

One would think that I would praise the Los Angeles Museum of Art to the skies. I don’t. (Too much non-representational modern garbage.) Instead, I think back to the Cleveland Museum of Art as reflected in the lovely lagoon which leads to the main entrance. It was surrounded by two universities which have since joined into one: Case Western Reserve University used to be the Case Institute of Technology and Western Reserve University.

As a high school student, I used to take the bus down to University Circle and take an art appreciation class taught by the museum staff. After each class, I would stroll around the galleries, especially the one dedicated to the French Impressionists. There was a particularly beautiful Van Gogh there. And, as a kid, I loved the medieval armor gallery, the like of which I have never seen in any other art museum.

The Armor Court at the Cleveland Museum of Art

There wasn’t a whole lot of abstract expressionism around, though I suspect there is more now. The closest I came to liking modern art was a moody painting by the American Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917). It was called “Death on a Pale Horse.” I am happy to hear the painting is still there.

“Death on a Pale Horse” by Albert Pinkham Ryder

Each time I went to the museum, I would have lunch at a soda fountain by East 105th Street, always ordering a lime rickey, which was pretty much like a lemonade except it was made with lime. Back then, I thought of lime as an exotic fruit instead of an accompaniment to my tequila.

Places like the Museum meant a great deal to me. It was a way I could get away from home on a Saturday and enjoy myself and learn something at the same time.

Allergy

What It Looks Like When You Don’t Cover Up a Sneeze

When I was a child, I was an allergic mess. I would both look forward to and dread visits to my uncle and aunt, because they not only had a dog, but cats as well. My eyes would start to itch and swell up, I would sneeze, and I would constantly blow my nose into one of the two handkerchiefs I always had on my person. I even saw an allergist named Myron Weitz once a week for the better part of a year. He performed numerous scratch tests on me, indicating that I was allergic to tomatoes, oatmeal, tobacco, and a few other things. Then I would get a shot each week which was supposed to make me immune to allergens. It never did.

In the end, I think I was allergic to Cleveland. Once I moved to Southern California after graduating from college, my allergies lessened—especially after I learned to stay far away from cats. There was a time in the 1970s when I developed asthma and had to take a horrible medication called Tedral which kept me awake all hours.

Now I come down with allergic reactions for only a few days each year. Unfortunately, this is one of those times. Something is in bloom that disagrees with me. My nose is stuffed up, I’m sneezing, and my eyes feel as if I had sandpapered them. It could be that the winds are blowing something in from the desert. I just don’t know.

I checked the pollen reports, and supposedly there currently is no major threat. Yeah, but tell my nose and eyes that!

Buckeye Days

Szent Erzsébet (Saint Elizabeth) Church, Where I Was Baptized

I have written before about my formative years living in Cleveland’s Buckeye Road Hungarian neighborhood. (See the links below.) For some reason, Cleveland was for many years—and still might be, for all I know—the most Hungarian city in America. Well before the Second World War, it became a magnet for Magyar immigrants. On Buckeye Road, there were Hungarian churches, butcher shops, bakeries, bars (Oroszláni’s tavern was at our corner of East 120th and Buckeye), and restaurants. The ,most famous was the Gypsy Cellar, which I never went to because it didn’t cater to children, followed by Settlers’, which I saw only years after I had left Cleveland for good.

The Gypsy Cellar Restaurant on Buckeye Road

In the late 1940s-early 1950s, Buckeye Road was a safe neighborhood and remained so until it was “blockbusted” by unscrupulous realtors in the 1960s trying to precipitate white flight by selling properties to black families. Today, it is a largely black neighborhood. When I visited with my father in the 1960s, a big Irish cop warned us to leave the area before the “niggers started waving their spears.”

We moved out in 1951, the year my brother was born. I had been having trouble in school, because it seems I didn’t understand English very well and caused a ruckus with my friend András by kicking our kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Idell in the ankles. By that time, my Dad felt more financially secure, so he bought a bungalow on East 176th Street in the Lee-Harvard area, just one block away from his twin brother.

I’ve always been afraid to go back to Buckeye Road because I never really finished first grade at Harvey Rice School. I was pulled out after one semester and immediately started Catholic school at Saint Henry’s in second grade. I paid a price for that, being considered something of a dunce and troublemaker until I made it to fourth grade.

This Is a Book I Need to Find

In the above photo, you can see the Regent Theater, where I was taken by my parents to see movies. Actually, I just ran up and down the aisles and messed around with the soda machine. At my age, there I was no way I could sit through an entire movie. That was a few years in the future.

Fanatical About Libraries

The LA Central Library Flower Street Entrance

I have always depended on public libraries for much of my reading material. When I lived on the East Side of Cleveland, I went to the Cleveland Public Library branch on Lee Road, where a fellow Hungarian, Mr. Matyi, was the librarian. He also played the oboe for the Cleveland Philharmonic Orchestra.

They had a summer reading program in which I participated for so many years that they had to invent a participation certificate at my advanced level. (I wish I still had them.)

Even then, I also visited the main library on Superior Avenue in downtown Cleveland:

It was really quite beautiful, being funded by Andrew Carnegie’s vast fortune. (Can you imagine a modern billionaire doing something like that?)

When I came out West, I started by going to the main library in Santa Monica at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and 6th Street:

Although it was fairly large with two stories full of books, I actually outgrew it. I found that they got rid of too many of their classical titles, replacing them with more recent … well … dreck.

I was elated with the Expo Line connecting Santa Monica to Downtown LA opened in May 2016. At once, I signed up for a senior pass which enabled me to go from the Bundy Station (about a mile south of I lived) to the 7th Street Metro Center, which was three blocks south of the Los Angeles Central Library—for a mere 50¢.

Even with the library building being closed due to the coronavirus, the LA Library has started a “Library to Go” program which enabled me to put a hold on the books I want to read. Within a few days, I get an e-mail saying they are holding them for me, and I just take the train downtown to pick them up.

Over the last week I have been busy reading these three books:

  • Kōbō Abe’s Inter Ice Age 4, a 1958 sci-fi novel about global warming
  • Ivan Klíma’s Waiting for the Darkness, Waiting for the Light, about Czechoslovakia’s rocky path from Communism to Capitalism
  • Tim Butcher’s Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart, about an English writer who re-traces Henry M. Stanley’s journey along the length of the Congo River in the 1870s.

Buckeye Road

Cleveland’s Terminal Tower, Once the Tallest Building West of NYC

In my youth, there were two Clevelands. First there was Buckeye Road, which was my world between the ages of one and six. (There had been a brief interlude in Florida, which I will describe in a later post.) Then, when I was sent home from kindergarten with a note from my teacher pinned to my shirt asking what language I was speaking (it was, of course, Hungarian), my parents planned for a move to the suburbs. That happened in 1951, shortly after my brother Dan was born. I will describe the Harvard-Lee Area tomorrow.

Buckeye Road was after World War Two the most vital Hungarian neighborhood in the United States. I have never been able to figure out why, unless my people had an affinity for hot, humid summers and dark, icy winters.

An Exhibit About Buckeye Road at Cleveland’s Hungarian Heritage Museum

We lived at 2814 East 120th Street, a short block from the main drag and only a short walk from ritzy Shaker Square—not for us penny-pinching Hunkies. There were two movie theaters within walking distance: the Moreland and the Regent. On nearby East 116th Street were Harvey Rice School, where I was to be a problem to the non-Hungarian teachers; the local library, the College Inn, whose French Fries I adored; the Boulevard Lanes where my Dad bowled (he was pretty good); and a very tasty doughnut shop not far from St. Luke’s Hospital. The residential streets were filled with two-story duplexes, on the second floor of one of which we lived.

Just before we moved out to the ’burbs, the city built a nice playground on nearby Williams Avenue, which I had just begun to enjoy.

There was a Hungarian Reformed Church on Buckeye, where the Reverend Alex Csutoros preached. His services were broadcast—in Hungarian—each Sunday on a local radio station to which my Mom listened. Dad didn’t, because he was a Catholic, like his two sons. The deal was that any girls born into the family would be Protestant; the boys, Roman Catholic.

My earliest memory was listen to my parents argue about money, while I lay anxiously in my crib. Both Dad and Mom worked, and my great grandmother Lidia Toth took care of us during the day. She spoke not a word of English her whole life long.

Still, my memories of Buckeye Road are probably seen mostly through rose-tinted glasses. There were hard times, but they didn’t leave me with many bad memories.

 

Born in Cleveland

Sci-Fi Writer Harlan Ellison (1934-2018)

The city of my birth—Cleveland, Ohio—has given birth to few celebrities. Among actresses, there were the meltingly lovely Halle Berry and Dorothy Dandridge. Among literary figures, there was only one: Science Fiction author Harlan Ellison. During his career, Ellison has won eight Hugo Awards, four Nebula Awards, five Bram Stoker Awards, and two Edgar Awards.

More to the point, he has written some of the most striking and memorable stories in the sci-fi, horror, and mystery genres. These include “’Repent, Harlequin!“ Said the Tick-Tock Man” (1965) and “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” (1968). He edited two famous sci-fi collections of stories in Dangerous Visions (1967) and Again, Dangerous Visions (1972). And he wrote what was probably the most remembered episode of the original “Star Trek” series entitled “The City on the Edge of Forever” (1967).

Most of his oeuvre consists of short stories which are as eye-popping today as when they first came out. I am slowly working my way through these stories.

This afternoon, I saw a 2007 film by Erik Nelson about the writer entitled Harlan Ellison: Dreams with Sharp Teeth, which includes multiple instances of the author’s abrasive style. During his heyday, that abrasiveness won him many enemies. In the end, however, what will be remembered are his stories.

It’s good to know that at least one great writer came from my home town.

 

 

My World 1951-1962

Where I Spent My Elementary and High School Years

I had a Proust moment this afternoon as I bit into a chocolate nonpareil, which is a round piece of chocolate covered with little white dots of sugar candy (see picture below). It took me back to my visits to the old Shaker movie theater, which was demolished forty-odd years ago. When I lived on East 176th Street, I used to ride my bicycle down to the theater, which was located on Lee Road just south of Chagrin Blvd, which used to be called Kinsman Road back then. The pictures I saw were all Saturday matinees, complete with serials, cartoons, and the usual kiddie foofaraw. There, I would buy some popcorn and, if I had enough money, some nonpareils.

Nonpareils

My world at that time did not stretch far from the map shown above. Occasionally, I would go downtown on the old 56A bus, boarding at at East 177th Street, a block from home. I went to elementary school at Saint Henry’s, shown on the above map as Archbishop Lyke school (now closed). My high school was a bus ride away in Bedford, Ohio at Chanel High School (now closed). I played at JoAnn Playground, trying to avoid the usual run of bullies who wanted to establish their dominance.

I had a difficult but happy childhood. The difficulty came with allergies and the start of the brain tumor that would result in surgery in the distant future year of 1966. My little brother and I were six years apart, but I did not really begin to appreciate him until after I graduated from college.

The Only Picture I Could Find of the Shaker Theater

The world in which I lived back then is completely unrecognizable today. For one thing, the tiny trees in the postwar housing that dominated are now enormous. And most of the businesses I recognized, such as the New York Bakery on Lee Road, are now a fading memory. I used to go there weekly on my bike to pick up an unseeded Jewish rye (the caraway seeds got stuck in my Dad’s teeth).

It was an interesting world in which to grow up.

 

Poles Apart

Chanel High School R.I.P.

A strange memory from the past popped into my mind this afternoon as I was heading for the exit of the Century City parking garage. I thought back to our old high school cheer, which was openly contemptuous of Poles. Chanel High (later renamed St. Peter Chanel High) belonged to the North Central Athletic Conference, which consisted of a handful of Catholic high schools, including St. Edward, Elyria Catholic, and—most particularly—St. Stanislaus. I say “most particularly” because we had chosen St. Stan’s to be our official enemy. It was only a few miles away and located in a largely Polish Catholic neighborhood.

When our cheerleaders revealed the following chant, there were a few hard feelings:

OOH sah sah sah!
OOH sah sah sah!
Hit ’em in the head with a BIG KIELBASA!
Put ’em in a barrel
Roll ’em down the street
FIREBIRDS, FIREBIRDS
Can’t be beat!

We, of course, were the Firebirds. Fortunately, during my years at Chanel (1958-1962), we mostly prevailed over St. Stan’s. And it didn’t keep us Hungarians, Slavs, and Italians from enjoying Kielbasa sausages.

Back Then, All Our Cheerleaders Were Male

Once I graduated from Chanel, big changes happened. The biggest of them was the admission of girls. Then, there were a number of black students. Finally, the school was ceded to the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland and was no longer controlled by the Marist order of priests. Around the same time, the name was changed from Chanel to St. Peter Chanel.

Unfortunately, it’s all moot now, as Chanel closed its doors a few years ago and has, I believe, been subjected to the wrecking ball. Sic transit gloria mundi!

 

Favorite Films: A Christmas Story (1983)

Scott Schwartz as Flick and Peter Billingsley as Ralphie

It’s refreshing that a film produced as late as the 1980s has become a legitimate Christmas classic. Seeing it repeatedly has not diminished its appeal, even when seen in bits and pieces on TV channels that played the film for 24 hours straight.

The director of A Christmas Story, Bob Clark, is a filmmaker who has not produced anything else that comes up to the standard of this, his masterpiece. I have read Jean Shepherd’s In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash and loved it. As good as the original story was, the film was better. The direction of the actors, particularly the child actors, was as good as anything I have ever seen.

Peter Billingsley Faces Jeff Gillen as Santa

There is another reason I love the film. Although the story is set in Indiana, scenes were set on Public Square in Cleveland, Ohio, where I spent most of my childhood. I remember the Christmas parades there, and particularly the Christmas display windows at Higbee’s Department Store, which is clearly identified in the film. Other scenes may have been shot elsewhere, but most of the exteriors reminded me of Cleveland. Even Ralphie’s school looked exactly like Harvey Rice Elementary School, where I attended kindergarten and half of first grade. (I never finished first grade, but let that be our little secret.)

If I were the one scouting locations for A Christmas Story in such a way as to reflect my own childhood, I would not have done any differently than the producers of the film. That’s why every time I see this film, I am taking a trip down memory lane.