Our neighborhood centered around St. Hyacinth Catholic School and Church, Todd elementary public school, Meyer Dairy, Republic Steel and the Dandee Potato Chip plant. It was bordered by Francis Avenue on the north, Bessemer Avenue to the south, E. 55th Street on the west and the Kingsbury Run section of the rapid transit tracks on the east. Yes, the same area of the Kingsbury Run torso murders of the 1930's.
Every block, it seemed, had a small mom & pop storefront with a house attached in the back. They were places for life's stuff: bread, milk, eggs, soda pop, candy, cigarettes and beer. Some had fresh deli meat, sausage and fresh bakery. Each store had its own smell and its own vibe and every sign posted on the window were done so in at least two- languages, usually Polish or Czech and English. All in the shadow of the smoke and grit of the steel mills and manufacturing that followed the Cuyahoga River in the industrial "Flats" of Cleveland, Ohio.
You didn't have to look far to find people of all creeds, colors and religions from around the world as well as different parts of the United States. World War II ended just twelve years before my first run-in with her. In the time after the war and especially during the 1950's immigrants from Europe arrived in numbers not previously seen since the turn of the 20th Century at Ellis Island.
From the southern states people moved to cities like Cincinnati, Dayton, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago and Pittsburgh for good paying factory jobs. My father worked for Republic Steel at the time, then for Meyer Dairy and was within walking distance from home from both places for lunch.
I mentioned there were all kinds of people in my neighborhood. There were. My family was from West Virginia. Others were from Kentucky, Tennessee and exotic locales like Alabama. We were just one of many hillbilly families in the area but my best friend, George was born in Germany.
Nearby were Poles and Italians (Dagos or Wops depending on what state you were from), Croatians, Hungarians, Czechoslovakians (all bo-hunks), and southerners of all persuasions looking for the same opportunities. I doubt the census could had determined for sure how many people from around the world (it seemed) were coming to the 7th largest city in America. All of them looking for a better life despite the smoke, the bitter winter cold and hardships known to all too many, young and old.
The common thing about our little corner of Cleveland is that nobody appeared to have any more money than the next - except for the fellow that owned Smokey's Tavern. Smokey's had a constant flow of drinkers, gamblers and women that wore too much make-up, if you catch my drift.
Other than the owner of Smokey's bar and the mysterious people that came and went through his door the people we had contact with certainly had one thing in common - we were scraping by as best we could.
To our neighbors I'm sure our family met all the expectations of every stereotype a northerner could find about people from the south. There were (eventually) six children in our household, meeting the first criteria - a bunch of kids. None of the Smith's spoke a language other than English and the King's English it was not.
More often than not you would find our dinner table displaying an abundance of southern comfort food including corn bread, buttermilk, grits, gravy, cream style corn, hominy and pinto beans with an ample supply of hot dogs and fish sticks. The menu was cheap and satisfied the unrefined palate. Nutritious? Maybe not. My go to steady diet consisted of hot dogs, tuna and grilled cheese sandwiches. Admittedly, on occasion my mother would make mash potatoes with real meat and vegetables - we weren't totally barbaric.
If you wanted homemade sausage, pierogies, chicken noodle soup or homemade cheesecake it was George's house you wanted to be at. I caught on, accidently, that the delicious chicken noodle soup George's mother made was actually his dad's racing pigeons that failed to win races.
George's dad showed me his prize racer one day and a few days later I noticed it was not in the coop. After asking where it was, George interpreted his father's explanation spoken in German, as, it just never came back from the race. As the three of them exchanged information back and forth in several languages, I saw his mom's eyes glancing back and forth from her husband to George as if to say that's the story and we are sticking to it. Chick soup any one?
George and I were inseparable for much of our child hood. His good- nature was tolerant and accommodating of my irreverence and ill temper. It was a friendship destined to be. He was the good boy and I was the … well, you get the picture. To illustrate, one summer morning George and I set off to explore the abandoned warehouse buildings in our neighborhood and was still within sight of my house when a stray dog came within sight. It wasn't aggressive nor necessarily friendly and made no attempt to growl or show its teeth. It was just a stray dog minding its own business looking for food or its owner.
There was no reason for me to pick up a stone and throw it at the dog but I did. I found two other stones and offered one to George. He declined. As I drew to throw the second stone, he put his hand on my arm and asked me to not throw it. He told me his mother said God comes in many forms and asked me to consider if that dog might be God - would I throw the stone at him?
"Even if it's just a dog, it's just not a kind or nice thing to do." He hammered in the point by telling me his mom was familiar with a boy in Germany that was cruel to animals and God disfigured his face because he tortured one. "That might happen to us," he said. I put the stone down. I didn't believe a word of it, but said nothing on the off chance it might be true and I was reluctant to express my disbelief because doing so would have been the same as calling his mother a liar.
What did register with me was the fact that George wondered about things I had not. From then on, I wanted to know more about God. So, when the old priest showed up in my front yard, I was ripe for the picking.
There was always a gang of boys playing in our street or in my yard. We were loud, obnoxious and rowdy. The only boy I knew that attended church regularly and didn't mind doing so was George. The rest of us were just heathens as Mrs. Garrett called us, until one day, the old priest that walked by most Saturday mornings stopped and gathered us around. I noticed he always watched us as though he was reminiscing about his youth. This day he stopped and spoke to us. "What church do you boys go to?
George proudly spoke up to inform him he attended St. Hyacinth's. The old priest was diminutive in build and appeared to be frail beyond his age but was actually spry in his walk and possessed a joyful persona.
He pointed to me and asked "what about you?" I don't go to church Father." Several of the other boys chimed in, "Church(?), we don't go to church."
The next thing we knew Ms. Garrett called to him and they spoke privately over the railing of her porch - he turned and looked right at me as though she pointed out the one that needed it the most. Thanks a million, lady. "Come here son," he said. "Go get your mom or dad for me, will you?" Hesitantly I did and he spoke with my mother for a while in a huddle with Mrs. Garrett. Conspirators, obviously planning my demise, or worse, my salvation.
Our fun was interrupted by the little old man with the funny hat and collar. Don't get me wrong, we all knew he was a priest and deserved respect and even reverence for who he was and what he did. But we were kids and wanted to play and even I knew if he was going to bring anyone of us to Jesus it certainly would be a waste of time to try and convert me or my family. Disinterested, the other boys wandered home and about looking for a play area that did not have a priest poking around.
That day however was the beginning of a friendship with an old man, like it was too with Mrs. Garrett, a friendship that was destined to provide something bigger to a kid that didn't know what he wanted or how to get it.
Father Martin allowed me to visit him regularly at the chapel at St. Alexis hospital where he was assigned upon his retirement as a parish priest. He allowed me access to the hospital library and taught me to play chess. He would often sit and visit with Mrs. G, his new friend, and me on his Saturday morning walks.
Ms. Garrett again played a role in pointing out the one that needed a nudge in the right direction and perhaps the one that would appreciate it as well. In the coming years the old priest never asked me to become a practicing catholic, although eventually I did. It goes without saying he inspired me to be better than I was and to know the difference. He was a kind and gentle holy man and was my friend until his death in the mid 1970's.
The intersection of 55th & Broadway was the economic center of our life, as it was for those that lived within a mile or so in all directions. It was a small town in and of itself. The area didn't have a moniker or historical marker to designate any particular heritage or way of life back then as it does now, it was just known as 55th & Broadway.
Everything one needed was there, including the S.S. Kressgee 5 & 10 store, the Carnegie Free Library, Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, Fisher's clothing store, an abundance of mom & pop shops, banks, pawn brokers, lawyer offices and thank God almighty for the Olympia movie theater and the #4 bus that could take you downtown without a transfer.
Part 3 of Mrs. Garrett's Front Porch
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