High Wire Act

By Ed Staskus

When your back is to the wall, you’ve only got one place to fall, which is flat on your face. I didn’t want to do that. I had gotten married the year before and it was time to knuckle down. I called Doug Clarke and asked if I could see him.

“Absolutely,” he said.

“What’s a good time?”

“Anytime.”

We made a time on the following Monday.

I met Doug Clarke when he was in a small building on Linda St. in Rocky River. It was going on the late 1980s. Doug had been set up in business by his father, who worked for Philips Lighting. He was selling commercial lighting and had lately gotten a head start on tanning bulbs. Philips had developed the 10R, 09, and 09R fluorescent UV tubes for the European market and Doug was selling them like gangbusters. There were three of them, Doug, his friend and salesman Marty Gallagher, and Chuck Pampush, who did the warehouse work and driving. The company truck was a red F150 Econoline. It was called the Lightmobile.

Doug had an office, but Marty’s desk was in a hallway leading to the warehouse. They weren’t going to stay friends long. As tanning bulb sales grew by leaps and bounds Marty took the leap and set up his own distributorship. It went to court, there were claims and counterclaims of theft of trade secrets, but in the end, they both stayed in business, personal enemies, and business rivals.

Randy Bacon, Chuck’s brother-in-law, helped in the warehouse now and then. He had a tattoo inside his mouth under his front lip. It said, “Fuck You.” I gave him a wide berth whenever I saw him. I gave his junkyard dog a wide berth, too. The pooch was unusually mean.

By the time I met Doug on Monday he wasn’t in Rocky River anymore. He had fast outgrown it. He was in Lakewood on the third floor of a hybrid industrial commercial building, renting space and then more space.

“What can you offer us?” he asked.

“I can offer you 20-some years. After that it’s up for grabs.”

“Steady Eddie.”

“That’s right.”

“All right, you’re hired.”

In the end it amounted to twenty-two years.

When Doug was still in Rocky River I had teamed up with a friend of mine and set up a small tanning salon across the street from the Cleveland State University campus. We were in a five-story brick building at East 21st St. and Euclid Ave. The Rascal House Saloon was across the street. It was where concert goers at Peabody’s Down Under would go after shows for a gorge fest. The Plain Dealer called it “Cleveland’s Best Pizza.” I went whenever I was famished and down to a couple of bucks.

“Man, I spent a lot of book sale money there!” Carla Wainwright, a graduate of CSU, said. “You never got much for used books, but it was a win if you got enough for a beer and a slice.”

We were on the lower level. Bill Stech, an architect and the landlord, was on the top floor. He always wore the same dark suit, white shirt, and dark tie. He had black hair that looked laid on. He always made promises and usually broke his promises. After a while I stopped taking it personally. Whenever he didn’t want to see me, his receptionist said he wasn’t in, even though his car was parked in the back in its customary space. Sometimes I could see him in his office, his back turned to me.

My business partner was a full-time fireman in Bay Village, so I did most of the work at the tanning salon. I drummed up additional work at other salons, trying to make myself useful, doing repairs, selling delivering installing bulbs, and whatever else needed a handyman. I kept my head above water, but I was treading water. When Doug hired me for part-time sales, I opened a savings account.

Doug had moved to the Screw Factory on Athens Ave in Lakewood. Madison Park was in front of the building and Birdtown was all around us. One day after work, as I walked to my car, I saw a dead bird stuck headfirst in my front grill. I hadn’t heard or felt him hit the car that morning. He was stiff and there were flies buzzing around him. I pulled him out, wrapped him in a newspaper, and took him to the park, where I laid him down in a pile of autumn leaves.

The brick pile was going on a hundred years. It was on 18 acres with plenty of parking. From 1917 to 1924 it was the Templar Automotive Plant. They built cars, trying to compete with Detroit.

Dave Buehler, a Lakewood native, collected cars and had more than dozen of the Templars. He had restored them and kept them on display on the same floor where they were first assembled. I sat in one of them one day. It was sizable enough but uncomfortable. The steering wheel was huge, and the mirrors were tiny. It looked like it would transition into a coffin at the first whiff of an accident.

The building became Lake Erie Screw in 1946 when John Wasmer took it over and started manufacturing fasteners. In the 1970s they added large bolts to their line-up and growth accelerated. When most fastener manufacturers disappeared into China, the Wasmer family kept up the beat of the hometown maker and their growth continued apace. By the mid-90s the company was doing about a hundred million dollars in annual sales, all of it in cap screws and structural bolts.

In the beginning my job was as thankless as it gets in the world of commerce. I had a cubicle the width of a toilet and was expected to cold call until I got sick of it. I got sick of it every day. There were few busy business owners who wanted to talk to an eager beaver trying to sell them something. The other salesmen sat back and waited for calls to come to them. They racked up commissions while I racked up zeros.

It took longer than I wanted, but I finally got a desk and got to answer in-coming calls. I sat between Betty the Typist and Jim Bishop. Betty was a looker who never looked at me, except when she had something sharp to say. She was doe-eyed on Doug. Even though Doug had a girlfriend who was going to be his wife soon enough, the talk was that he and Betty were close.

He had a bedroom behind what passed for his office, which was a large desk at the back of our shared bullpen. There was a waterbed and a fridge. There were posters of hot cars and hot girls on the walls. There were piles of clothes and old mail everywhere. He wasn’t especially tidy.

One day when I was on the phone with a customer, Betty broke into her song and dance about what I was doing wrong and what I should be doing to win friends and influence people enough to make them buy our stuff. She didn’t stop even when I finished the call and was writing up the sale.

“Look, shit for brains,” I finally said loud enough for anybody listening to hear. “You take care of your business at that typewriter over there and I’ll take care of mine over here.” Nobody dropped a pin in case I had anymore to say. Betty sniffed and went to the bathroom. I went over to Doug’s desk and apologized for the outburst. He laughed it off. I never apologized to Betty. She wasn’t ever going to become Mrs. Doug Clarke, anyway.

We were riding the wave of the tanning craze. We had more sales than we knew what to with. Doug rented additional space for warehousing our bulbs and hired more packers. Trailer loads of bulbs from Cosmedico, Wolff Systems, and Light Sources rolled in every other week. We sent small orders out by UPS and pallet orders out by LTL.

Doug started out as Efficient Lighting selling run-of-the mill commercial lighting. Tanning bulbs sold under the name of Ultraviolet Resources were making him rich, but we still sold all kinds of incandescent, fluorescent, and high-pressure bulbs. I got into the swing of it and lent a hand, even though the commissions were less. Jim Bishop was the lead man. He sat on the other side of me. Betty hated him more than she hated me. He never stopped baiting her, no matter what.

I couldn’t make him out. He looked like hell, even though John Elias, another salesman one desk down, told me he was trying to “hold on to his youth.” That horse was out of the barn. He lived in the Warehouse District, in the Bradley Building, an early pioneer of downtown’s revitalized housing. He wore his hair long, down to his shoulders, dressed better than anybody else in the office, and only took calls when he wanted to. He snorted coke on his lunch hour and was always more personable when he got back to the office.

He liked to stop at Betty’s desk and stare down at her without saying a word.

“What do you want now?” she asked, breaking the silence.

“What if I told you I was gay?” he asked.

“Just go away, please,” she said.

Kathy Hayes was Mrs. Doug Clarke in the making. There was no mistake about that. She brought her sister Maggie into the business, then her brothers Kevin and John. Kathy came from a family of thirteen. More brothers and sisters came and went as the need arose. Maggie, Kevin, and John stayed. They became Beavis and the Buttheads. Maggie was Beavis. Kathy was the Queen of Mean.

She was a mix of go-getter, speed and greed, and a hair trigger temper. She calmed down after her children arrived, but never lost the mean streak. She was my immediate boss, so I watched my step. I was fake polite to Beavis and the Buttheads.

After I cold called myself into the good graces of the kingfish, I settled into a routine of Monday through Friday. It wasn’t what I wanted to do but it was what I had to do. The only concession I was able to wrangle was a starting time of 11 AM to be able to work at my part-time job, which was more remunerative but not as steady. I would be getting a paycheck every two weeks, making good on my bills, and paying into a 401k, which were good things. I never worked overtime and never volunteered for anything. They didn’t pay me enough for that.

The American Dream is only true blue for those who say so.

Towards the end of the millennium Doug broke ground on a new state of art warehouse and offices in Brook Park. He spared no expense. It was 45,000 square feet next door to the 230-acre Holy Cross Cemetery. There were dedicated loading docks and a separate dock for the delivery services. There were skylights in the warehouse. The head honchos had sizable offices with windows. There was a gym and a party center on the second floor. The lunchroom was all stainless steel and a huge flat screen. Christ on the Cross was fixed to the wall above the front entrance doors. The cross looked like a cactus.

It rained money. One day a young Middle Eastern man walked in with a paper bag stuffed with more than 50 grand in tens and twenties. He was setting up a salon. We were outfitting it. I wrote up the sale but didn’t bother counting the loot. I left that to Beavis, who scowled mightily when I poured the cash out on her desk.

We moved into our up-to-date nerve center at the beginning of the new century. It was the beginning of the end at the other end of the glad handing. It took five or six years but Light Sources, whose tanning bulbs were Doug’s meal ticket, decided they wanted a bigger slice of the pie. They offered Doug a choice. He could sell the tanning division to them, they would send somebody from headquarters to run things, or he could decline their offer, in which case they would open their own operation somewhere else, bypassing him. Doug went with the flow. Everything stayed put.

It didn’t do any good. Inside a few years Light Sources moved themselves to Westlake, Beavis and the Buttheads jumped ship and went with them, and Doug was left holding the bag. He lost a ton of money in the stock market downturn of 2007. As the second decade of the century dawned, he had to shed most of his remaining staff, including me, sell his new building, find an older, smaller building, then find something even smaller, until he ended up in a strip of mom-and-pop shops in Avon selling whatever he could. His kids didn’t re-enroll at their private schools. He lost his McMansion in North Ridgeville.

In life he bore a resemblance to the late-night TV host Johnny Carson. He had a warm smile and went out of his way to make most people feel good, even though he was as oriented to the bottom line as a manhunter. He had been president of the Brook Park Chamber of Commerce. He spent money on himself and his family like he had money to burn. The money ran out slowly but surely. By the time he died there wasn’t much left.

“I feel bad for the victim,” Dan Darko of nearby Elyria said. “It sucks to feel pushed to that point. But I feel worse for the driver. One person’s choice will affect him for the rest of his life to the point where he may never be able to do his chosen profession again.”

It happened so fast the driver didn’t have a chance to touch his brakes. I couldn’t believe it was an accident, but I had a hard time believing Doug had deliberately done it. He was a Roman Catholic, taught Sunday School at his church, and was a member of Religious Readiness. According to Rome, death by suicide is a grave matter. It holds that one’s life is the property of God, and to destroy that life is to wrongly assert dominion over God’s creation. I never knew how sincere Doug was about his faith. I knew he sincerely valued prosperity. I don’t know if he had lost his faith. I knew he had lost his prosperity.

The funeral was at St Clarence Church in North Olmsted. He left a wife and four kids behind. All the in-laws and good friends who had bailed out on him when Light Sources swallowed up his golden goose were there. They said all the right things. I didn’t go to the service. I had never been close to Doug or Kathy, keeping my distance. His in-laws always talked loud trying to tell you what they didn’t like. They had their faults, but changing their tune wasn’t one of them. The less I saw of them the better. I felt sorry for his fatherless kids.

If Doug walked in front of the semi-truck trailer on I-90 on purpose, I wondered if he did it for them. He probably had a loaded life insurance policy. It might have had a suicide clause limiting the payment of benefits. He might have thought he could kill two birds with one stone if it looked like an accident. He could stay in the good graces of the church and provide for the future of his family.

Nobody never does not have a good reason for committing suicide, especially if they believe hope is gone and not coming back. The problem is that the glow of how Doug lived his life is dulled by how he died. The first thing I now remember about him is how his life came to an end on a stretch of godforsaken go for broke concrete.

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

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Ed Staskus

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