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.

 

My Early Career

Yes, That’s Me at the Age of 18 Months

Now that you’ve seen me without a stitch of clothing on, and facing you with the situation, I thought I’d bring you up to date about the second home of my young life. When I was only a little over a year old, my Mom, Dad, and I moved to Lake Worth, Florida. As I was much too young at the time, I have no memory of my first trip to the Land of Sunshine. My Dad worked for the city, which is a southern suburb of West Palm Beach, and my Mom had her hands full with the above illustrated hedonist.

Unfortunately, my father did not have the best of times in Florida. His job was to remove the bodies of dead and rotting alligators. Now Dad had a tricksy stomach, so instead of job satisfaction, he was mostly involved in projectile vomiting at the time. The move to Florida was declared a failure, so Dad insisted that the family relocate to the Hungarian neighborhood of Cleveland, on the East Side’s Buckeye Road. Which is what we did.

My third home was the second floor of a duplex at 2814 East 120th Street. I was able to put down some roots there, as we were to remain there until 1951, after my brother Dan was born. Since I didn’t know a word of English, Mom and Dad figured we should relocate to the suburbs, a few miles east of Buckeye Road. It was time for me to learn English and become a red-blooded American. Which I proceeded to do, with such dispatch that after three more years, I was no longer regarded as a problematical retard with a funny accent.

BTW: My Mom adored the above picture. She showed it to all my girlfriends….

 

A Budding Artist

My Oldest Surviving Kid Drawing

The notation at the top right was written by my Mom in Hungarian: “Jimmy drew this 1949 March.” I was a little over four years old at the time. I had not yet entered school only to find that I was a retard who couldn’t speak English. (Of course, now I would prefer to think I was smart because I could speak a foreign language.) In fact, this ratty little pencil drawing is probably the oldest thing I have, and the only thing dating from my early years in the Hungarian neighborhood on Buckeye Road.

At the time, Mom liked to take me to the library on East 116th Street and pick a book to read to me. As the children’s books were all in English, she would pick something with nice illustrations and make up her own stories in Hungarian to fit the pictures, more or less. I have fond memories of that library. Was it perhaps because there was a great doughnut shop next door?

I just checked a map. Not only is the library no longer there; but Harvey Rice Elementary School, where I had my traumatic introduction to the American educational system, is likewise gone. They seem to have been replaced by healthcare facilities, which makes sense as St. Luke’s Medical Center is nearby. That’s where I was taken a year later because my parents thought I was too skinny. The doctors there told my parents, “Don’t worry: He’ll wind up eating you out of house and home.”

My memories of life at 2814 East 120th Street were for the most part good ones. I had good friends, like András and Joycey—Hungarians like me. We had not yet been introduced to television: That was to come a year later. And it was probably television that taught me English as much as anything else. I remember the TV station started broadcasting around 4 PM with the Kate Smith Hour, followed at 5 PM by the Howdy Doody Show, which I dearly loved.

 

Loser City

Clevelanders Parade, Flaunting Their NFL Team’s 0-16 Record

It was almost always thus. In most years, Cleveland teams piled up a dismal win/loss record. Not that I give a fig for professional sports, but while I was living there, I would have given much for a winning season. In 1959 the Indians won the American League baseball pennant (but lost the series ignominiously to the White Sox). And in 1964, the Cleveland Browns shut out Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts 27-0. That was when Frank Ryan was quarterback and Jim Brown was at fullback and gary Collins and Paul Warfield were the ace receivers. After that, it was not until 2016 when a Cleveland team, the Cavaliers, won the NBA championship.

I actually had a personal stake in the Cleveland Indians doing well. As a straight-A student, I received seven pairs of free Indians tickets every summer—mostly to see them go down to defeat. Acutely, I felt that Seymour Krebs’s “The Monster That Devoured Cleveland” from The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis had struck. I was in a major dudgeon until I could leave “The Mistake on the Lake,” which I did in 1962, when I went to college in New Hampshire. Thereafter, when I came home from Dartmouth, I could watch my father stew in his juices as his teams traduced his efforts at fandom.

Cleveland’s Terminal Tower (How Appropriately Named!)

Sometimes I think my great love of travel comes from feeling stuck in Cleveland and wanting to get out at any cost. It’s a pity, because at one time it was a fairly nice place. It did not, however, fare well economically and demographically. When I was in the lower grades of grammar school, it was the seventh largest city in the U.S. Now it ranks fifty-first, behind Oakland, Tulsa, and Wichita.

Sigh!

 

“A Hundred Windows Opened on All Sides of the Head”

Old Building on Buckeye Road

Old Building on Buckeye Road

This morning, I started reading G. K. Chesterton’s Autobiography, and it set me to thinking. I thought it would be fun to put all my earliest memories in one place, lest I forget. Chesterton had it right:

What was wonderful about childhood is that anything in it was a wonder. It was not merely a world full of miracles; it was a miraculous world. What gives me this shock is almost anything I really recall; not the things I should think most worth recalling. This is where it differs from the other great thrill of the past, all that is connected with first love and the romantic passion; for that, though equally poignant, comes always to a point; and it is narrow like a rapier piercing the heart, whereas the other was more like a hundred windows opened on all sides of the head.

I was born in a house on East 177th Street, a few houses north of Glendale. Because we moved shortly after I was born, all my earliest memories are tied up with 2814 East 120th Street, just off Buckeye Road. We lived on the second floor of a duplex. I remember lying in my crib. One of my first memories was of an argument between my mother and father about money. Both were working, my father at Lees Bradner & Company, my mother at the Cleveland Woolen Mill.

Like most toddlers, I was fairly rambunctious. Mrs. Nebehaj kept shouting from her first floor rooms, “Missus, the ceiling is coming down!”

From a very early age, I was cared for by my great grandmother Lidia and great grandfather Daniel. As Daniel died when I was one, I do not remember him. I was always told he wanted to live long enough for me to buy pipe tobacco for him at the grocery store on Buckeye Road. It was not to be.

My oldest friend was Joyce. Now for the sex: I was fixated on the crook of her knees, which to me was smooth and lovely. There wasn’t too much I could do about it, but I remembered it nonetheless. Once, when I was playing with her, I lost control of my bladder, and the pee ran down my leg. My landlord saw me and asked why I was dripping. I said I stepped in a bucket of water, and it was running down my leg. Was that my first lie?

On Buckeye Road, near East 120th, there was a ramshackle old building that sold furnace pipes and such like. I remember playing in the small yard that fronted the building. There were a number of tree stumps on which I could play with my toy soldiers.

Of course, everybody spoke Hungarian. So did I. It was almost a 100% Hungarian neighborhood, and we didn’t have a television set until 1949. Broadcasting would begin around 4:00 PM with the Kate Smith Hour, followed by the Howdy Doody Show, which I watched religiously.

Once, I remember going with my father to pick up Mom at the Woolen Mill, and there was a big fire in a nearby building.

My life changed when I attended kindergarten beginning in January 1950. Trouble emerged at once when my teacher, Mrs. Idell, refused to understand my Hungarian. My friend András, who was similarly afflicted, and I began kicking her shins. Also, my brother was born in April 1951. It was time to move, and that signaled a new epoch in my life.

Poor Cleveland

I Have Many Happy Memories of the Place

I Have Many Happy Memories of the Place

No, this is not about the Oompa-Loompa coronation ceremony taking place in my old home town, nor of GOP dumpster fire that threatens to engulf the United States. This is about my happy memories of Cleveland going back to my childhood.

No one outside the Chamber of Commerce would think of Cleveland has a happening sort of place. But I did when, as a student at Saint Henry School on the East Side. Back then, the metro area was the seventh largest in the nation, with a population of approximately 900,000. There were huge auto plants, and the city was a major machine tool building center. That’s the industry my Dad worked in, building giant gear-hobbing machines for Lees-Bradner. My Uncle Emil ran a small factory in the Flats of the Cuyahoga River.

The symbol of Cleveland was the Terminal Tower—oh, how unfortunately symbolic!—on downtown’s Public Square. (You can catch glimpses of it in the movie A Christmas Story (1983), many of whose exteriors were shot in the area.) It was during those school years the largest building in the country outside of New York.  Underneath was a large concourse and the main rail passenger terminal for Northeastern Ohio.

When I graduated from high school in 1962, I marveled that so many of my classmates were leaving town. And, it turned out, never to return. By then blight had set in, the auto industry was beginning to tank, and many machine-related industries were moving to Asia. Worst of all, people were starting to laugh at Cleveland. The Cuyahoga River caught fire from the pollutants flowing downstream from the factories in the Flats, and one mayor—Ralph Locher—was photographed with his hair on fire when he refused to wear a hard hat when visiting a steel mill. Worst of all was Maynard G. Krebs (Bob Denver) on the “Dobie Gillis” show always going to see a film called The Monster That Devoured Cleveland.

Until the Cavs won the NBA championship this year, the records of local sports teams have been dismal. For a while, we even lost the Cleveland Browns NFL franchise, until they re-formed in 1999.

I wish Cleveland well, and I hope they survive this week’s political onslaught.

 

The Monster That Almost Devoured Cleveland

Le Bron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers

LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers

I never write about sports, and yet here is my second consecutive posting about sports. The day before yesterday, the subject was Muhammad Ali. Today, it is the comeback of my native city, Cleveland, Ohio, in winning the NBA championship after being down 3 games to 1. No, I didn’t watch the game—Martine controls the TV remote in our household—but I followed the sports news on the net and in the Los Angeles Times.

The last time Cleveland won any sports championship was the 1964 NFL championship, in which the Browns slammed the Baltimore Colts 24-0. And that was 2 or 3 years before the first Super Bowl. That was the great team that featured Dr. Frank Ryan at QB and Jim Brown at FB. I remember listening to the game on radio because it was blacked out in the Cleveland TV market.

It took 52 years before Cleveland won another championship … in anything. In the meantime, it became the butt of jokes, such as from Maynard G. Krebs (played by Bob Denver) of “The Dobie Gillis” show always going to see a movie called The Monster That Devoured Cleveland.

Well, the monster did not devour Cleveland this time. Although I would have to have my head examined before I ever went back to live in what we called The Mistake on the Lake, I retain a strong affection for the people who live in my old home town.

When I was in grade school, Cleveland was the 7th largest city in the United States. No more. After much of its industry went to Asia to stay, it is now 31st and still falling. Although they have been uniformly miserable in sports rankings over the years, I hope they start a new tradition of winning, so that the devoted sports fans of Northeastern Ohio have something to look forward to.