Excerpts from the Book    




The Wonders of Cleveland

By Judah Leblang

My mother steered our brown Pontiac through suburban Beachwood-our upper middle class town--toward Nanny's house, on the edge of working-class Cleveland. I fidgeted on the vinyl seat, my body an unspoken, Are we there yet? Finally, we passed into the city and my mother stopped in front of the tall maple that dominated my grandmother's postage-stamp sized front lawn. Nanny's tiny bungalow sat in a row of identical white houses thrown up just after World War II when Cleveland was booming, years before my birth.

My mother waved to Nanny and told me, "I'll be back at 5 o'clock sharp. Keep an eye on the time and stay with your grandmother."

I mumbled, "OK, Mom," and began to salivate like one of Pavlov's dogs, knowing that Nanny would have baked the long sweet poppyseed rolls she calls "mun," a taste of her native Hungary.

My grandmother pulled me in as I reached the front steps, her blue-gray eyes beaming. I felt the soft warmth of her flesh, smelled her scent of Vick's lemon cough drops mixed with baby powder.

"So Nanny, are we going into town?" I asked, and a smile dusted her face like powdered sugar.

"No sure not," she said, Hungarian-English for 'of course.'

I knew my parents didn't like to go into the city. My mother saw Cleveland as a cauldron of riots, crime and burned out neighborhoods, a place to avoid. Still, on a sunny day in May 1968, I was an eleven-year-old boy who knew that Cleveland was full of wonders like planes and trains and buildings that pierced the sky, miracles my grandmother and I would share like her warm pastry. And so my grandmother and I stood quietly as my mother drove off, back to the safety of the eastern suburbs.

Waiting for the bus, Nanny's maple tree rustling above us, I thought of other times, other adventures with my grandmother, when I was five, seven, eight. On special weekends, she would baby-sit for my brothers and I, bringing her pastry and her Jewish rye bread, her cough drops and powdery scent into our suburban home. At five, before the accident, I'd sing and dance for her entertainment, repeating rhymes I'd learned in nursery school-"Mary had a little lamb," "Humpty Dumpty," and later, "My Country 'Tis of Thee," which I'd warbled at a school assembly in Kindergarten in my thin childish voice. Later, I'd tell my grandmother she was beautiful, promise to marry her when I grew up. According to my mother, I was a little khnifenik, Yiddish for a "flatterer."

Soon we boarded the CTS Windemere-bound bus, where we'd catch the "rapid-transit" train, and Nanny greeted the driver. Sitting on the front bench seat, I felt the weight of my grandmother's presence-thick arms and legs, skin lined and freckled, her thick wrist encircled by a gold watchband, feet encased in sensible black wide-heeled shoes. I imagined here as the young, determined woman who pushed my grandfather to leave Hungary after the First World War. "I was the one who wanted to leave Europe-he wanted to stay home and ride horses," she said, shaking her head at the silliness of the idea. I never met my grandfather, but my mind filled with images of a Hungarian-Jewish cowboy, Roy Rogers with a skullcap.

An hour later we were at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. I roamed among the ticket counters, picking up timetables for Mohawk, Allegheny and United Airlines. Later, we stood on the observation deck, breathed in the heady aroma of jet fuel, and craned our necks as the metallic tubes threaded the clouds. The scent powered my dreams of a trip to Florida-my parents had promised me my first "flying vacation" the following December. "Enough noise!" my grandmother yelled above the din as she pulled me back inside the terminal.

Another Rapid train deposited us into the flurry of downtown Cleveland, at Euclid Avenue and Public Square. A haze drifted over from the steel mills down on the Cuyahoga River, coating the air with fine dust and ashes. Hungry, I led the way down Euclid Avenue, Cleveland's bustling main street, toward the lunch counter at Woolworth's. There I'd have my favorite lunch-two slices of pepperoni pizza and an orange drink.

When we arrived, Nanny started up a conversation with another gray haired lady sitting on a nearby stool. "Yes, this is my grandson, we're exploring for the day," she says, emphasizing the word as if we're on a secret assignment for LBJ. The other lady nodded, impressed, and blood rushed to my face. I looked down and mumbled, "Let's go Nanny." I knew I'm not that special.

A five-minute walk back down Euclid brought us to the faded art-deco splendor of the Terminal Tower, the tallest building in all of Cleveland. As we walked among the half-empty stores on the Terminal's ground floor, we come upon the old train station, its yellowed wooden benches empty, hallways echoing. The station, according to my grandmother, was once "packed with people." Now, just a handful sat on the pale wooden benches, a few travelers to the "Best location in the nation." That's what we were, according to the Illuminating Company, our local utility.

Clevelanders laughed at the slogan, replacing it with one the comedians used: "The mistake on the lake."

Hmm. I gazed at the grand WPA mural that filled a wall of the waiting area-a dramatic drawing of the men who built the Terminal, steelworkers sitting on metal beams, strong men with bulging muscles, their faces proud. They erected this 700-foot tall building-the tallest between New York and Chicago--that looked out over Lake Erie, complete with an observation deck on the 42nd floor. I felt a twinge of jealousy, knowing I'd never see a new Terminal Tower or feel the excitement of a championship baseball team, only air tinged with coal dust and losing teams in our old industrial city.

Our last stop was at the May Company Department Store for a "frosty." A thick ice cream and chocolate milkshake served in a narrow Coke-style glass, the frosty was the coup de grace of our visits to downtown Cleveland. Leaning against the Formica counter in the basement of the old store, I guzzled the thick liquid beige liquid and rubbed my forehead as my ice cream-induced headache begins to spread. Nanny shook her head, laughed, and sipped her frosty, an adult who knew better.

The day rolled to a slow gentle end as we rode the train and bus back toward my grandmother's house. I rocked to the rhythm of the CTS Rapid train, my mouth still buzzing with the taste of cold chocolate. Near Windemere, my head nodded forward and I shook myself awake, determined not to miss one minute of our time together.

Sometime later, the bus pulled up in front on Nanny's bungalow. My mother waited, sitting in our brown station wagon, tapping the steering wheel. Her auburn hair was teased into a bangy-bouffant '60s style, so in contrast to the thin gray curls of my grandmother. Nanny waved to her daughter-in-law and rushed into the house. Before I reached the front steps, Nanny returned with two packages wrapped in aluminum foil. I knew the log-shaped one was filled with the black nectar of poppyseeds, the smaller with nut cookies for my brother.

"Thank your grandmother," my mother called out from the car. I shrugged, knowing I didn't need to say anything, that we were connected in a place beyond words. I hugged Nanny once more, smelling her lemon and baby powder smell, careful not to let her crush my packages. Then I walked toward my mother, who was chewing a fingernail, anxious to leave.

As we drove away, Nanny stood on the front stoop, unsmiling. I watched her standing there as we rode home, following me with her blue gray eyes, guarding me until I was out of sight.


What a Fellowship

By Judah Leblang

In August 1997, I made a special visit back to Cleveland to represent my family at a memorial service for my godmother Donna's son Lonnie, who had died two years earlier. Since Lonnie had been a member of the little church where Donna was a 'mother' and senior member, the service was doubling as an afternoon fundraiser. The goal of the congregation-one they were moving toward in tiny increments, year by year--was to connect their modest sanctuary with the warehouse-like building next door, tearing down the wall between them. The second building, which served as a reception hall, was really just a large concrete-floored room, looking desperate for paint and a makeover, like the ugly duckling at a high school dance.

The day before the big event, Donna asked me to say a few words at the service. Though I didn't know Lonnie well, I could speak of knowing Donna, who had worked for my family as a "cleaning lady" from the time I was 8 until I was pushing 40. I told her that I'd think of something to say if it would please her. She nodded and said it would, and I started to perspire-heavily. Donna's grandchildren-Lonnie's children--would all be there, folks I'd heard of but had met only once or twice. How would they feel about my presence at their father's memorial service?

But I could hardly say no. I knew that Lonnie was Donna's treasure, a boy she'd raised into a man during the hard years of the Depression and World War II, when opportunities for black women ranged between slim and non-existent. After Lonnie's sudden death from a heart attack back in 1995, Donna seemed to fade into herself, her mahogany skin grown darker with loss. One thing that kept her going, she said, was her love for my brother Alex and me. Over the course of 35 years, we'd bonded with her in a way strong as blood. During my weekly phone calls she'd remind me that "I love you just like one of my own," and I'd feel her words surge through the telephone line, connecting Cleveland to Boston to Cleveland in a circuit of something stronger than electricity.

As a child, I hadn't always appreciated the love and discipline she dished out with her cooking. A religious, conservative woman, she ruled with an iron hand. One morning when I was in high school, I plopped down at the kitchen table and reached for my Frosted Flakes, keeping conversation to a minimum, so as not to disturb my sleep-induced fog. Donna, never one to mince words, said, "You get in the bathroom and wash your hands before you sit down to eat-and you playin' with yourself all night long." This was something men and boys did-and they damn sure wouldn't be eating at her table until they had gotten themselves right. There was no point in arguing; I meekly did as I was told.

When I was in middle school and my father was felled by a massive heart attack, Donna helped my mother nurse him back to health. Over the years, she had always been there for my family and I. But as she aged, the tables turned a bit. Later, my brother and I (along with her grandchildren) made sure that Donna had what she needed-a new winter coat for Christmas, or a trip to Boston to see her "grandbabies" (my brother Alex's children). As I drove down through East Cleveland's Forest Hills neighborhood toward the church, I felt honored to be escorting Donna to the special service for Lonnie and the building fund.

Greater St. John's Missionary Baptist Church is the grand name of a small storefront chapel that stands on Euclid Avenue in East Cleveland. The two yellow-brick buildings would look unimpressive to a toddler, crouching low on the edges of Cleveland's East Side ghetto. I entered the sanctuary with Donna leading the way, her face a mask of determination to see the service "went right." She'd planned it all, had arranged for a reception afterward, had recruited friends from far and wide.

Sitting in one of the front pews, I fidgeted on the orange velour cushions. Donna was on my left, decked out in one of her '40's-style feather hats and matching shoes. The hat's gray feather shot outward from her head, streaking up toward the dropped ceiling of the sanctuary. The service began as the elders welcomed the small congregation.

They were aptly named; the youngest was about 75, with gray hair and a deep voice that echoed in the small room. And being a Baptist church, folks didn't just sit around and quietly murmur their prayers, as I soon discovered. This particular congregation fervently sang a hymn called "What a Fellowship," with the chorus of "What a fellowship, what a fellowship, what a fellowship we have in Jesus" in a call and response pattern, at various points in the service.

The Minister, a distinguished-looking man with cocoa-colored skin and a gray natural, called the congregation to prayer in a rich, melodious voice. "We trust you Lord, we thank you Lord." There were about 50 people in the chapel, most elderly, all various shades of tan and brown. And one pinkish-colored gay Jewish man, trying to keep a low profile. It wasn't easy.

Donna's grandchildren were there too, all grown and ranging in age from 35 to 50. I chatted with them before the service, hoping they'd be all right with my little speech. Sitting next to Donna, I was praying for divine inspiration-though I doubted God's existence at the time-when I heard the minister call out in his musical voice-"And we are blessed today with the presence of Donna's other son, who has come all the way from Boston, just to be here for Mother Donna." My face turned hot; I hadn't expected such a build up. Donna often told me that Alex and I were her "other sons" but I didn't know she'd shared that tidbit with the minister.

I mumbled "speak from the heart" to myself as I made my way to the pulpit and looked out on a sea of strange faces. Two minutes felt like twenty as I told the congregation of the love I felt for their "Mother Donna." Tapping in to a centeredness that surprised me, I said that though I didn't know Lonnie well, I did know he was a source of pride for my godmother, and that "the apple didn't fall far from the tree."

I stumbled and quavered a few times, and finally floated back to my pew with a relieved sigh. Sitting down, breathing again, and flanked by Donna and Larry--Lonnie's son-I felt the warm embrace of family enfold me in that storefront Baptist church.

Then the minister threw open the floor for other "testimonies" and I waited for Lonnie's children to get up and share. It didn't happen. There was a long silence instead, while I muttered epithets under my breath, cursing myself for being the only speaker. Just as I was about to crawl under my pew, Lonnie's cousin Sandra called out to testify.

"Jesus is in charge of my life," she said, and a chorus of "amens" bubbled up from the congregation. "I want to praise the Lord and thank God for our brother Lonnie's life, and to remember his spirit." Heads nod, Donna smiled and the service rolled on. The Elders shared, a few more hymns ensued, and after several more calls of "Praise Jesus!" it appeared the program was about to end.

Unfortunately, the minister decided to throw in a short sermon, since he had a captive audience. The theme of the sermon was, "The end of the world is coming so y'all better get right with Jesus." I started to sweat again, since my people and I had never been "right with Jesus." I'd never even visited a Baptist church before. But I respected the minister for his sincerity and faith.

I really started to tremble when the minister launched into those "abominations" that warn us of an impending judgement day. "The end of the world is near," he said, and my ears pricked up.

"There are abominations takin' place in the land!" the minister shouted, his facing clouding over with anger. Abomination number one was, "Men are laying with men." After hearing that, I didn't pay much attention to numbers two and three. Instead, I reminded myself that I was surrounded by family, and my ordeal was almost over anyway.

The service rolled to a rollicking conclusion with another call to Jesus and we adjourned to the "reception hall" for a modest reception. Donna's friends and family brought out bowls of punch, cookies, macaroni and tuna salad. I met assorted friends and relatives, her 65-year-old goddaughter, and various great and great-great grandchildren. Everyone was gracious; many began by saying, "I've heard so much about you." I looked around the simple room with its concrete floor and folding chairs and thought of all the fancy churches and synagogues I'd seen in my lifetime. Even without the decorations I was used to, this room seemed to contain more love than most.

Whenever I go back to Cleveland, I stop by Donna's house. We go to lunch and talk about old times. If the weather is fine and the season is right, I take her to an Indians baseball game. Saying Donna is an Indians fan is akin to saying the Pope has a mild interest in religion. Over the years, as my family connections have waned due to death and my own apathy, my devotion to Donna has deepened. A few years ago, I called to tell her I was planning to visit Cleveland in August.

"That's wonderful!" she crowed. "I'm having another service for Lonnie. You can take me." I gulped, feeling like I had given my all back in '97.

"Well you know I'll be there," I said, mustering my enthusiasm.

And I was. I came, I saw, and while I didn't conquer and I didn't speak, I did enjoy the moment. Most of Donna's immediate family didn't show; it had been four years since Lonnie's death, and they'd had enough of memorial services. But I was there, sitting next to my Godmother in her '40's style hat and matching shoes. When the congregation rose, I rose. When they prayed, I prayed. "What a fellowship," they sang. What a woman, I thought.


Papa's Place

by Judah Leblang

1975, CLEVELAND'S SOUTHEAST SIDE

My mother often said, "Your grandfather's gonna die in that store," and now it appears she may have been right. I press the accelerator hard and careen down Harvard Avenue, propelled by the scribbled note left on the kitchen counter.

"Papa rushed to St. Alexis °© collapsed at store. Hurry!" she wrote, and I do, a nervous 18-year-old steering Papa's rusted out Chevy Bel-Air through Mt. Pleasant toward Slavic Village. I inhale the smell of tobacco that clings to anything he touches, his special scent of Camels mixed with musk.

On special Saturdays, I would ride with him to Harvard and East 71st street where we entered the dusty recesses of Harvard Drug, Papa's pharmacy. Once he told me of his arrival in this close-knit Polish community in the 1920s, when Jews were no more welcome than rabid dogs. But after decades of mixing medicines for the factory workers and their hard-working wives °© the store was open every day for 53 years °© they'd made him an honorary member of the Union of Poles.

As I near the hospital, I am 12 again, peering out from behind the front counter of the store. I stand next to the gold-plated cash register, turn its useless crank, and make change off the top, carefully counting the coins of Papa's customers as they buy their Polish newspapers, their Clark bars, their packs of Winstons. The front door is propped open; a ceiling fan stirs the thick mill-dusted air. Old folks come in for coffee, sit at the front table with my aunt as Papa and Uncle Itz fill their prescriptions. Papa works, his sleeves rolled up. I hear my name mentioned, and one by one, the customers come over to say hello, to shake my hand or grasp my shoulder. "Your grandfather's a fine man," one says, and I nod shyly.

As I race past Odziemski Hardware, Holy Name Church, and Kormorowski's Funeral Home, I picture Papa laid out at Berkowitz-Kumin, the Jewish funeral home in Cleveland Heights, but know his soul will be wandering here among the fading double-decker houses of "The Neighborhood." In the hospital waiting room my mother and grandmother sit huddled on a couch. Above them a gold cross gleams in the dim light. I know I am too late.

Papa was buried in a new cemetery out in Chesterland, far from his home in Beachwood and his store in the city. Most of the locals didn't come to the funeral. They came to the store instead, recalling him over cups of coffee and Polish pastry, the older men smoking, their shirts sweaty in the summer heat, the women respectfully clad in babushkas. Uncle Itz sat at the small table in front, weak from grief and his recent stroke.

No one wanted to buy Papa's little business. After a month, my parents brought in an auctioneer to strip the old store clean. A grizzled West Virginian with a no-nonsense manner, he had me empty the bottles of their precious liquids; soon the floor was covered with sea-green and purple glass shining in the dusky light. Sometime later the building was destroyed, and with it all traces of my grandfather.

Today a Rite-Aid pharmacy occupies the site. They don't sell Polish newspapers.

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