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.

 

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!