Hough Avenue was already old when the city laid down an asphalt coating over the red brick pavers. The cauldron of tar bubbled and steamed by the curb, and workers warned us away from the hellish fumes as the rolling machinery pressed the black tar out, like a rolling pin presses pie dough, obliterating the inlaid red brick pattern.
Someone said that tar made a passable chewing gum, so we children waited until the goo had cooled at the curb edges before we braved a burnt finger to pry out a soft sample.
A single bus line plied a lethargic route up and down Hough Avenue to more exciting places in Cleveland. Those last 20 or so blocks, from the East 80s down to Rockefeller Park at East 105th Street were my home territory.
A brisk walker could cover the distance in under half an hour, and yet, contained in that easy mile was my whole world of the late '40s.
The World in Miniature
Hough was bordered on both sides by apartment buildings, stores, a bank, library and schools.
Tiny side streets radiated off the main artery. They were quiet little streets of small lawns with "pom-pom" bushes and pillared porches.
The neighborhood also had its share of people who lived behind torn window shades, who pulled up their chairs to the sidewalk and sat all day. There were people who drank hootch from paper bags-- in broad daylight, too.
Always lurking in any childhood were fears-both the imaginary ones of the child and the ones indoctrinated by parents: Never shortcut through alleys or vacant lots; never go to the store where the owner was "funny" Never chase animals-- they could be rabid.
Within those boundaries most dangers seemed containable, and childhood flowed placidly. Most of the people seemed a lot like us, an uprooted family looking for work in the city, grabbing a tenuous hold on an apartment and counting pennies for that someday dream, a house of our own.
An Apartment with a View
For now, the fourth floor, four-room apartment was home. The rooms were papered in silvery feathers on a gray background, and periodically they were cleaned of city grime with a pink rubbery compound used like a giant eraser on the aging paper. Up and down, knead and fold, the pink eraser became gray, then black, and the wall a little less sooty.
Tall steam radiators flanked the walls, hissing and puffing in their bronchial insides, either too hot or too cold, but never just right. Garbage, wrapped in yesterday's newspapers, was dropped into a chute on the open back steps to some nether world below.
Other tenants of the building were faceless shadows, recognized only by their footsteps. Below us lived The Lady With The Broom. She would use the broom handle to pound on her ceiling to notify us of noise we were to STOP IMMEDIATELY.
Our furniture had limped through many moves. Lace doilies dotted the worn arms of chairs, and dime store knicknacks were positioned to hide scarred tabletops. Our finest new purchase was an oak dining room "suite"-one table, four chairs.
Reflecting the patriotic fervor of World War II, the backs of the chairs were emblazoned with a spread-winged eagle, its feathers painted red, white and blue.
Aunt Amelia's embroidered cottage hung on the wall. French knots became pink hollyhocks, and a lazy-daisy stitch of ivy hung over the cottage door. The inscription read: "Here let us live life at its best, Here let us find comfort and rest."
The tiny living room had a single blessing, a huge bay window that jutted out to the street. From that splendid view, you could see almost forever.
Below stretched the endless sandstone sidewalk, where a piece of filched chalk from school could pattern hopscotch boundaries or tic-tac-toe games. Roller skates emitted a satisfying hiss-plop, hiss-plop, as I glided over the silky smoothness of those walks.
Traffic was steady but uncrowded, for few people owned cars. On one side street lived an old woman who still had an electric car. As she drove by, slowly and silently, she sat bolt upright like a storefront dummy.
Her occasional appearances caused everyone to stop and stare. As the boxy, black vehicle glided by, it looked like a tiny traveling parlor, with its Austrian shades and glass bud vases at the windows. From my own window, I could see the old curiosity slip down Hough until it disappeared at the bend of Crawford Road.
Hot on the heels of spring cleaning would come the Paper Rags Man. His old wagon would creak by, the wheels groaning under a load of used goods. He hunched, half asleep, over the slack rains, giving them an occasional ripple as he urged the tired horse along. "Pay-pah, Rahgs," he would call out in a rolling voice, and the horse's head nodded in rhythm with the call.
The horse wore blinders, so he wouldn't startle. Sometimes the horse's long face was covered up to the eyes in a canvas feedbag, so he could eat while he pulled the wagon.
With summer, the produce man drove up and down in his old truck calling "Strawberries, nice red strawberries. Peaches, peaches." Bushel baskets heaped with succulent fruit lined the truck sides, and a superstructure of pipe supported an awning over the truck to shade the vegetables and fruit.
A hanging scale was suspended from the rear support, and it swung merrily as the driver chugged and stopped, chugged and stopped.
The Ice Man Cometh
Great-Grandma was one of many people who still had an old-fashioned ice box where she lived. Every child knew the iceman's route, and if not, could follow the trail of the melting water, which leaked down the street from under the canvas flaps of the wooden-bottomed ice truck.
The iceman, a necessarily burly fellow, was gruffly kind to his coterie of followers. He allowed generous chunks of ice to fall from his stiletto pick as he carved up the huge blocks for delivery.
Following the ice truck for several blocks was an accepted summer pastime, and the unhygienic gritty ice had a flavor all it own-perhaps because it was free.
With a low, grunt, the iceman impaled the block with those murderous tongs, hefting the ice block to his shoulder, and trundling into the house. Customers were given a cardboard square to hang in their windows. In each corner of the square were the numbers 25, 50, 75, 100, to indicate how many pounds were wanted on ice day.
The square was hung in the window with the correct amount at the bottom, and the iceman could see from the window how much was needed without making extra trips. Woe to the child who played with the card and turned up the wrong number...the iceman was not happy to have to haul ice back and forth, then.
In wintertime, Great-Grandma didn't use the icebox, she had another marvelous invention instead, a metal box which fit into the windowsill. The window frame was lowered to the box's edge, and the little sliding doors faced into the room.
The metal box hung out over the windowsill, similar to air conditioners today, and it kept the butter rock-hard and the milk bottle crusty with frost. She stuffed newspapers around the cracks to keep out drafts.
Winter and Coal
With the coming of winter, the paper-rags man, the fruit peddler and the iceman were gone. The iceman then became the coal man. His truck was a high-sided grumbling thing, which backed up to the basement window. A long chute was attached to the sliding door at the back of the truck, and when the door was raised, the shiny chunks of coal came tumbling down the chute, clanging and banging, raising clouds of black dust as the chunks clattered through the open basement window into the wooden coal bin in the cellar.
Nobody hung laundry to dry in the basement on coal day, for it took forever for the gritty dust to settle. The hungry maw of the furnace never seemed to be filled as it belched and blared and fumed and fussed. The "clinkers" the uncombustible parts of the coal which fell to the bottom of the furnace, were collected and thrown on the icy sidewalks for balance.
The Neighborhood Stores
The traveling tradespeople came and went with the seasons, but the stores stayed, and changed with the seasons, too.
Across the street was the shoe store. The arrival of spring was announced with pastel shades of delicate shoe confections, and shiny black patent leather Mary Janes nestled among paper honeycombed Easter Eggs.
The proprietor had a new-fangled fluoroscope machine, "guaranteeing a perfect fit." You stepped up and onto the conning tower of the machine (every bit like the submarines at the movies) and inserted the front of your foot into the slot at the bottom. An eerie green skeleton of your front foot and toes were revealed as you peered down the viewing sight.
In summer, the laundry on the corner emitted a humid steamy cloud to add to the city heat outside. The ladies stared out toward the open windows and the sunshine as they counted, "down, two three, up, two three" at the pressing machines, performing a monotonous waltz with starched shirts.
On the opposite corner was the bank, were the men who wore the starched shirts presided. The hushed marbled interior was like a cool crypt on hot summer days.
Angry flies buzzed around the porcelain pans of meat in the butcher's window, and in the fall, the butcher displayed someone's hunting trophy on a huge hook outside the the shop.
I dreaded walking by the hapless deer, swinging upside down in the breeze. Blank, soulful eyes stared into nothingness and blood from his gutted underbelly ran in drying rivulets down to the street, blending into the dust of the curb.
Apothecary jars filled with rainbows of colored water lined the window of the drug store, In the fall, Mother stocked up on cod-liver oil, milk of magnesia, and sweet oil for earaches.
Sometimes she brought back oil of cloves from the drug store for a troublesome tooth, a remedy that exceeded the pain of even a touchy molar. Behind the pharmacist's cage was a large water-filled jar full of ugly black leeches. When applied to a black eye, they were supposed to suck out the discoloration. Yuck!
Shoes were among the many items rationed during the war, so the shoe repair shop was important in the effort to make shoes last longer. The place smelled of leather and rotating rubber belts on the machinery.
In the window an orange tabby cat curled up in the sunbeam around an old dusty high-button shoe, the tiniest shoe I had ever seen.
Further down the street was the five-and dime, crammed with useful and useless items. The best part of the school years started in the dime store aisles, smelling all the clean, inked pads of paper, the "Vanilla"
drawing tablet, the Campus writing tablets, the Laddie pencils. That was where I always wished for the big box of Crayola Crayons, but had to be content with the 16-count box.
Crisp September mornings brought the promise of a more successful school year as I waited for the crossing guard's whistle to sound and pass me down Hough Avenue. Mrs. McCarthy was a plump little woman who ruled the Crawford Road corner. She bravely fought approaching old age by dyeing her hair a brassy blond and applying liberal circles of rouge to her papery cheeks.
Her constant companion was a snotty Pekingese. She tied him to a street sign, and from that post he snarled and snapped at everyone. In the winter, he sat in a little cardboard box inside a doorway and muttered under his breath.
Safely across the intersection, it was a short block to the school. At the heavy door of Hough Elementary School my dreams of scholarship quickly faded. It was a stone building of three stories, blacked from factory soot. The high ceilings sucked up the sighs of cramped classes and endless recitations.
The teachers fought a brave battle against ignorance. Slowly, miracles of reading and writing became everyday events, but long division at the mile-long blackboard under a hundred eyes took longer.
Girls were very good in lines, they only tittered and pinched a little. Boys pushed and shoved and tried to get you in trouble I wish they had given a grade for "lines"-- I would have gotten an "A".
Then came blessed Friday, which held the promise of a long weekend and which also heralded the arrival of the traveling music teacher.. We would gallop through an hour of songs as she banged merrily on the old piano.
From the big bay window of our apartment, the marquee of the Astor Show could be seen, and ushers on long ladders arranged the big black letters to announce the movies for the week.
For a dime, I joined the noisy lines of kids waiting for the box office to open. Inside the darkened theater with the scratchy blue seats, an idle afternoon could be spent spitting popcorn hulls at the villains on the screen.
Movietone News ground out world events in black and white, but the color cartoon that followed blurred the reality of the world around us. A serial thriller ran for many weeks, luring us back each Saturday to find out if the hero had escaped "The Clutching Hand."
Then came the Roy Rogers westerns, and much clapping and stomping and whistling as Roy headed off the rustlers at the pass.
Customers (kids) could stay through several showings if they chose, but the manager had devised a clever way to induce kids to leave after a complete showing so their seats could be sold to new customers.
With the end of the first showing, a huge candy bar appeared on the screen, a reward awaiting you outside the theater doors. Once you were outside and unable to reenter, an usher dropped a tiny replica of the huge bar you had been shown on the screen into your hand. For some reason, we fell for this trick every week.
If the Astor Show was one fantasy world, the Crawford Road Library was another.
The high ceilings of the library made it seem like a special kind of temple. An attendant priestess-
librarian ruled her sanctuary with silent frowns and pursed lips. Children with grubby hands were banished to the washroom to scrub up before handling the sacred relics.
The librarian examined the titles of the books as they were checked out, and sometimes she wouldn't let you have one. She was sort of a self-appointed censor for the neighborhood, acting with all the authority of a parent.
Sometimes we walked all the way to East 105th and Euclid Avenue to the Farmer's Market. The high ceilinged building full of vendor's stalls echoed with the spice of accents and strange tongues, all vying for your attention.
The cheese and butter counter was a study in yellow. Wheels of Gouda, Cheddar and other more exotic cheeses sent up pungent signals to beckon the customer. At the bakery, a hot crusty loaf was inhaled all the way home until the heel could be slathered in butter.
The fish counter was a dark, briny-smelling world. Live green-black lobsters crawled across the seaweed and ice display tub, their stalks of eyes retating and their claws working like nutcrackers..hobbled nutcrackers. Schools of staring fish lined up in orderly rows, their scales glistening dully in the artificial lighting.
Separated from the market proper in a small building right beside it was the chicken market. If you couldn't see it, you certainly could hear it. Crates of chickens were stacked five feet or more high, and the suspicious birds bobbed and pecked at the bars, perhaps sensing their imminent reduction into fryer parts.
Inside, strange things happened to assist in their final departure in white paper wrappings under the arms of customers, but I was always willing to wait outside and get my information secondhand.
Apparently, one step in the process was tossing the birds in a rotating drum that took off their feathers. Chicken eggs for breakfast, chicken noodle soup for lunch, fried chicken for dinner, with the added bonus of a feather pillow for bed.
As I rolled over to sleep at night, it seemed a very clever way to do things, and how nice of God to work it out that way.
Green Grass and Class
Just down the road from the market was Rockefeller Park, an oasis of space, a lush curve around the stark stone of the city. Picnic tables and swings dotted the grass, and here and there bronze statues rose like exclamation points.
Kosciuszko's statue was my favorite place to pose for snapshots; dandelions were free for the taking, and could be draped in a profusion of chains and crowns.
On summer days, sunbathers baked on blankets around the slopes of the pond. For 50 cents, we would rent a rowboat for an hour and blister our hands going in endless circles. When the pond was frozen, galoshes made an almost passable substitute for skates.
On the other side of East Boulevard rose the glimmering white Museum of Art. In the lagoon below it, ducks waddled away from young duck-stalkers, but the imperial swans gliding by, so remote, so graceful, were always to be avoided.
Parents had ingrained the morality story of the little boy who teased the swans and had A) his finger B) his thumb or C) his whole hand bitten off.
I tiptoed reverently into the museum, and if timing was right, could arrive in the room with the marvelous clock. It chimed the hours, half hours, quarter hours, showed the phases of the moon.
Under the visors of helmeted knights painted eyes peered out to frighten me in the Armor Room, and if you listened carefully, the echo-chamber of the place would bring the faint sounds of clashing halberds, pikes and lances.
The Mummy Room was best, only the mummies weren't there anymore, just their painted cases, and little canopic jars that had held the mummy's innards.
I loved to read the little printed cards in the cases, sounding out the rich syllables of alabaster, onyx, amber and lapis lazuli. A gong announced the museum's closing. Home, then, before dark.
In Memory Alone
All this was twenty thousand days ago-before Korea and Vietnam, before rock-and-roll and lunar landings. It was 20 years before Hough exploded into rioting and headlines.
Somewhere in an apartment with a bay window may sit another little girl watching her world go by, seeing things that someday will become her own memories of the "old" neighborhood.
Someday soon she will discover that she can't go back again, for her "old" neighborhood won't be there anymore. It was there only for that brief moment in childhood when terror and delight were equally portioned to the imagination, for that short span when life was full of certainties and there were never any gray areas.
Only in my own time zone of memory does Mrs. McCarthy blow her whisle at the school crossing, the Paper Rags man urge his horse along, the ice truck trundle by with free chips.
Soon, the little girl's memories will be layered over mine own, just as smoothly as the asphalt covered the red brick pavement of the old neighborhood.
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