Cooking Up Trouble

By Ed Staskus

“Mom, you know it’s not dinner without a napkin,” Matt said. He was on the third floor on his cell phone calling his mother who was in the kitchen on the first floor. She answered on the land line. She had made a 3-course dinner for him and taken it upstairs a minute earlier. She made dinner and took it upstairs to him every night, at least on those nights he was at home. When he wasn’t, my mother-in-law caught a break. She quick fried some chicken for herself and kicked back in front of the TV. She liked B & W movies, mostly comedies and melodramas. Her husband worked split shifts. She had the house to herself those nights to yuk it up and cry at the sad parts.

My mother-in law Terese was a self-taught chef and taught herself well enough that she could make anything, including cakes for millionaire weddings and potato salad for picnics. She only ever glanced at manuals when she had to. No matter that she was intrepid, having created and managed several restaurants, as well as working as a pastry chef and a caterer, she had to play dumb waiter once a day.

“I’ll bring one right up to you,” Terri said.

Matt lived on carry out dinners except they were carry up dinners. His mother Terri did the cooking and carrying. She had been a professional cook for many years. Matt did the eating. When he was done he brought his dishes downstairs. My father-in-law Dick washed all the dishes by hand every day. They had a dishwasher, but he preferred to stand at the sink and get his hands dirty. He had been a military policeman in Vietnam before becoming a bartender.

The house was on East 73rd St. at the corner of Chester Ave. in the Fairfax neighborhood. It was built in 1910, three stories, four bedrooms, two baths, two fireplaces, and a full basement. The third floor was originally servant’s quarters. The foundation was sandstone quarried in nearby Amherst by the Cleveland Stone Company. Amherst was the ‘Sandstone Center of the World’ at the time.

There were stores, churches, and schools everywhere then. There were light industries and warehouses. Street cars ran east and west day and night on Euclid Ave. one block north. The Karamu House Theater opened in 1915. Langston Hughes developed and premiered some of his plays at the playhouse. Sears, Roebuck & Co. built a flagship store in 1928. 40,000 people lived in Fairfax in the 1940s. Sixty years later, when my mother-in-law showed up, 5,000-some people lived there.

By the 1950s the servants were long gone and so were the wealthy families who raised their children in the house. They moved away to the suburbs. Urban renewal was in full swing. As 1960 rolled around the neighborhood was nearly all-black and low-income. The home was divided up and converted into a boarding house. By the 1980s it had gone to hell.

Terri and her husband were living in Reserve Square in a 17th floor three-bedroom corner apartment overlooking Lake Erie on East 13th St. and Chester Ave. when they bought the house and brought it back to life. They were living well. They owned and operated a bar restaurant on the ground floor. When they moved it was the biggest mistake they made in their lives. They didn’t realize how much trouble they were asking for.

The neighborhood they moved to was less than three miles from their digs in downtown Cleveland. The Fairfax neighborhood was located on the edge of University Circle, where most of the city’s major educational institutions and museums were. The northern part of the locality was dominated by the Cleveland Clinic, which was growing by leaps and bounds. The Hough neighborhood was just to the north and the St. Clair — Superior neighborhood was north of Hough. Past that was Lake Erie where yellow perch and walleye lived rent-free.

The house was being flipped when Terri and Dick first saw it. The flipper put the house back together as a single-family, putting in a new central staircase, a new kitchen, and a new two-car garage. He stopped there. He bought the house for pennies on the dollar. He sold it to my in-laws for dollars on the dollar. Terri and Dick paid $135,000.00 for the house, more than double nearly triple what almost all other houses in Fairfax were priced at. A weedy vacant lot next door was thrown in. There was another vacant lot across street. There were several others within sight. The neighborhood was more ghost town than not.

Hough was where race riots happened in 1966, when Terri was in her mid-20s, married to her first husband, with a child and another one in the making. They lived on the border of the Euclid Creek Reservation, bounded by North Collinwood and Richmond Hts. It was a family friendly neighborhood with good schools. All the men drove to work in the morning. The kids walked to school. Their backyard was a forest. On clear days in the fall and winter they could see Mt. Baldy in the distance.

The Hough Riots started when the white owner of the Seventy-Niners Café on Hough Ave. and East 79th St. said “Hell, no” after being asked by a passing black man for a glass of water on an oppressively hot day. One thing led to another, an angry crowd gathered, there was some rock throwing which led to looting and vandalism, arson and sniper fire followed, and two days later the Ohio National Guard rolled in with .50 caliber machine guns mounted on Jeeps and live ammunition.

Terri and Dick opted for the Fairfax house because Terri wanted a house on the near east side near where she had grown up. She grew up in a Lithuanian family of two parents and four sisters in a two-bedroom bungalow where she slept on the sofa. It didn’t matter to her that she was on the wrong side of the racial divide. Dick wanted what his wife wanted. They lived for each other. He cashed in his 401K to make the down payment on the house. The next summer they took out a second mortgage for $85,000.00 to replace the roof, replace all the early 20th century windows with vinyl windows, blow liquid polyurethane insulation into the walls, and vinyl side the exterior. They painted the interior.

The floors were hardwood from back when there were man-sized forests. They had them refinished. When the floors were finished they sparkled like the clock had been turned back a century. Everything was once new.

They blew through their second mortgage fast. When Terri’s downtown diner in the National City Bank building on East 9th and Euclid Ave. slipped out from under her feet, her partner getting the better of her, they started living partly on Dick’s paycheck, partly on Terri’s freelancing, and partly on their credit cards. It wasn’t long before they were making only the minimum payment on their multiple cards.

My brother-in-law Matt moved in with his parents after briefly living in both Cleveland Heights and Lakewood. He was working full-time for General Electric and going part-time to graduate school to get a second high tech degree. He paid some rent for his third-floor space. He helped out around the house. He played lead guitar in a local rock ’n’ roll band and kept his eyes open for girlfriends.

My wife landscaped their front yard and Dick put in a sizable garden in the back yard. Terri liked herbs and fresh veggies where she could get her hands on them in a jiffy. They adopted a handful of stray cats. They invited Terri’s sisters and their husbands over for holiday dinners. Dick’s family lived in New York a long drive away. The house was spacious and cozy at the same time. It was pretty as a postcard when it was lit up and full of people on Christmas.

They had barbeques in the summer, opening the garage door and wheeling out a grill. Dick wasn’t a chef, but he was a master at charcoal-broiling when it came to hot dogs, hamburgers, and steaks. We played horseshoes in the vacant lot where there was plenty of room for the forty-foot spacing. Dick was a big man with a soft touch and almost impossible to beat when it came to pitching. He was King of the Ringers. Even when he didn’t hit a ringer or a leaner he was always close. The game is deceptively simple, but hard to master. When I vented about losing to him repeatedly, he said, “You can’t blame your teammates for losing in horseshoes.”

We brought skyrockets, paper tubes packed with gunpowder, on the 4th of July and shot them off from the vacant lot when it got dark. One of them went haywire and flew into the garage through the open door. Dick was standing at the grill but ducked in the nick of time. The cats went running every which way. They stayed away for two days, until they got hungry.

Their garage got broken into. They installed a security system. They lost their front porch patio furniture to thieves. Terri saw the thieves dragging it down the street in broad daylight, but there wasn’t anything she could do. She called the Cleveland Police Department but there wasn’t anything they could do either. The crime rate in Fairfax was high and the cops had better things to attend to. They replaced the furniture, chaining it down to the deck of the porch. They went on litter patrol most mornings, picking up empty wine and beer bottles, and sweeping up cigarette butts and plastic bag trash.

What few neighbors they had watched out for each other. A mailman lived in a newer house catty corner to them where Spangler Ct. met East 73rd St. He let them in on the workings of Fairfax, what to watch out for and what didn’t matter, and after they took the measure of the neighborhood they got as comfortable with it as they were ever going to get. Terri started watching some of the kids who lived in the four-story run-down walk-up apartment building behind them. She made lunch for some of them, took some of them on day trips to nearby museums, and drove some of them to school when their parents were incapacitated.

Some condos and McMansions had been built in both Hough and Fairfax, but they were far and few between. Police cars and ambulances sped up and down Chester Ave. every hour on the hour sirens blaring. There was an occasional gunshot in the dark.

One day, sitting on the steps of their front porch, I watched three men tie a rope around a dead tree in the vacant lot across the street. They were going to try to yank it out of the ground. The first time they tried the rope snapped. The second time they tried they used two ropes. They put their pick-up truck in low gear and tugged. The rear bumper got pulled off and the truck shot forward, the driver slamming on the brakes, tearing up the turf. They came back with a bigger truck. When the tree started to lean it fell over fast, cracking, the roots ripping loose, barely missing them. I thought they were going to saw the branches off and section the trunk, but they didn’t. The tree lay rotting on the ground all summer.

Neither Terri nor Dick lived to see their house taken away from them. If they had they would have seen their one asset in life reduced in value by 90% in 2008. All the money they had was tied up in the house. They would have been left with nothing. They could see it coming and it made them miserable. Their health started to fail. The wise guys who blew up the housing bubble until the bubble blew up walked away free and clear. Alan Greenspan, who ran the Federal Reserve Bank for nearly twenty years, said the meltdown was due to a “flaw in the system.”

Terri died on New Year’s Eve 2005 and Dick died on Easter Saturday 2006. She collapsed on the landing of their staircase. She was dead by the time 911 got her to the nearby Cleveland Clinic. Dick collapsed in the front room of the house in the middle of the night four months later while working on a crossword puzzle. He never used a pencil. He always filled the open squares in with a pen. When Matt found him head down in the morning he had almost finished the puzzle. His pen was on the floor.

It was right then that house prices started to slip and the housing collapse that was going to push the United States into recession picked up speed. Matt stayed in the big house for a few years, taking in Case Western Reserve University student boarders, but it was no good. When he walked away it was for good. My wife and I helped empty it, giving most of everything that wasn’t a personal effect to whoever could use it.

Matt never went back and whenever he found himself driving through the Fairfax neighborhood he avoided the crossroad at East 73rd St and Chester Ave. He had no taste for what he might see. Or not see.

Ed Staskus posts on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Made in Cleveland http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com.

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Ed Staskus

Ed Staskus is a freelance writer from Sudbury, Ontario, and lives in Lakewood, Ohio.