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The Kid From Cleveland

Posted on Friday, February 13, 2009 in Essays, obsessions

Cleveland, Ohio — I know. You don’t have to tell me. You can’t go home again. But just for the hell of it, I’m gonna give it a try. I’m on a mission here, you see. A sort of Proustian pilgrimage back to the place where I grew up. I haven’t been here for almost 30 years. Now I’m a man. And yet, over those years this place has —in some strange and very powerful way — inhabited my being. For no matter what guises I’ve assumed, underneath it all, I’ve always felt like I was really, well — a kid from Cleveland.

It’s funny. Everybody I meet here says the same thing. “Oh yes, you really must see…blah blah blah.”  How do I explain to them that I don’t care about how Cleveland has progressed, that I don’t want to see anything new. That the new is my enemy.

What’s important to me aren’t really even so much specific places. It’s more intagible things: smells, colors, a particular street corner, certain angles … perhaps the way the shadows are cast at a particular time of day.

First, I drive to the corner of Kinsman and Lee streets, a personal landmark. I am in shock. What was once the place where I used to spend countless, lazy Saturday afternoons is now nothing but a burnt out array of second-hand stores, grubby burger joints, and empty shopfronts.

I am mortified. I can feel my heart sink. But wait! There —across the street. My first school — Moreland Elementary. Aside from a slight sense of having shrunk, it looks uncannily the same as I remember it.

I hotfoot it across the street, and walk across the grass over towards the playground. Something about the way the grass is shaped into little hillocks — the roundness of everything — causes a wave of nausea to pass over me.

A large rock embedded in the grass gets my attention. Of course! Hey you … rock! Remember me? The kid that used to go to school here in the first grade. Yeah, that’s right … I’m back!

Though it looks positively forbidding, I go inside the building. The  polished emptiness of the corridor hits me. I recognize the smell. There’s a huge knot in the pit of my stomach. What is it? Then I recognize the sensation. It’s that  old, sickening feeling of being in school on the first day.

For a few seconds I am deliciously seven years old again. I look around the halls, terrified. Afraid that a teacher will come out and scold me. Giddy with the sensation, I split.

I drive down Van Aken Boulevard to Shaker Square. My God, there it is! Pristine. Untouched. That wonderful circle of neat brown and white shops where I spent so many countless boyhood hours.

I park my car, and begin walking. Immediately, the memories come flooding back.

Drinking cherry cokes in the Colony Drugstore. Reading movie star
magazines and comics books while sucking on poppinf Pez into my mouth. Buying my first very first record (“Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots”) in the record shop (now gone). Getting caught for throwing tomatoes in Higbee’s department store(they called my parents). Sitting in the rapid transit coffee shop listening to “Don’t Be Cruel” on the jukebox.

As I walk around the square, every archway … every brick … seems pregnant with meaning. They seem to tease, not quite willing to reveal themselves to me.

How odd. How strange that world has gone on — that people have walked in space, wars have been fought, people been born, people have passed on— and through it all, these buildings have been right here. At the moment, the sense of that seems nothing short of miraculous. For one magical moment — time has stopped. It has ceased to exist.

Sitting on a bench, I spy a wizened old bum, who, over the next three     days, I will constantly see here. As is my custom, I give him a name. Thus he is christened (what else?) the Shaker Square Bum. For some reason I can’t put my finger on, this guy bothers me. Some bums, you see, are happy being bums — but this fellow ooks like somebody that wasn’t a bum once and doesn’t like being one now. Worse, his eyes are yellow. He looks like death warmed over. I want him to go away. Somehow he’s a bad omen.

Back in my hotel room, I leaf frantically through the phone book,   trying to look up names of old friends. Wait a second! What are you …    crazy? You’re talking 30 years, man!  Naturally, none of the names that pop into my skull is listed. Still, somehow I keep expecting the phone to ring. To hear a voice saying, “Hey, kid…is it really you? Are you really back?”

But the phone doesn’t ring. This depresses me. I comfort myself by consuming massive doses of junk food from the machine in the hall.

The next day, I’ve arranged to go back to Ludlow, my second elementary school. Here, I make the rounds of the classes, being greeted in each one by kids anxious to meet the “famous writer” from L.A. A gap toothed kid sitting in what used to be my desk in my old fifth grade classroom stares up at me.

“YouSean Penn?” he asks.

“No. I’m Goldman.”

The kid eyes me warily. “If I come t’Hollywood, kin you get me in the movies?” he asks

“Call me when you get to town, pal,” I say, handing him my card.

From the school, I trace the old route I used to take home. As I walk, I seem to remember every crack in the sidewalk. My God, will you look at those cracks. The very same cracks I used to walk over with these very feet!

What fantastic cracks! Hey, you — crack! It’s me…your old pal. The kid  who used to walk over you on his way home from school. Yeah, yeah, I know. How time flies.

Passing the houses. Remembering. There! The house of the evil John Stone, my crazy friend who threw up on the rug while watching Howdy Doody and who later tried to set my house on fire when my mom banned him from the premises. And another! The house of my best friend, Jeff. I always loved his house because his mom made better hamburgers than mine and because we got to stay up late and watch Sid Ceasar on (the very first) color TV.

In Jeff’s driveway a black kid is playing basketball. He eyes me warily  as I pass. Hey, Negro lad! It’s me! Yeah, me … who used to play in the very driveway where you now stand. So know this, my young friend; someday, someone shall play in your driveway! Yes, know this, and tremble with the knowledge, my dear young chublet, for I, the Kid From Cleveland, have spoken!

Finally, I reach end of the street. And there it is. My old house. 14112  Becket Rd. Oddly, as soon as I see it, I recall my phone number; Wyoming 1-4021. Weird that all that stuff stays locked in the brain.

The current owners have painted the place a hideous shade of blue. Nonetheless it’s still a magnificent place. I let my eye trace every shingle, every window, every archway. And as I do it all comes back, all the many wonderful and terrible things that took place during the three years we lived there. How odd that the people living here now know nothing of these stories. How could this be?! And then I realize that every house contains a multitude of strange and wondrous tales. How they must ache to tell them!

I walk around the corner and onto the next street. Suddenly the neighborhood grows shabby. Sullen looking blacks sit on stoops, staring out at nothing. I walk down the street. It’s getting dark now. Suddenly it strikes me that this neighborhood might not be so safe at night. But safety be damned! Don’t these fools know who they’re dealing with? Don’t they realize that I, The Kid From Cleveland, have risen from the dead, that I can smote them them with a mere flick of my wrist! That I carry doom and destruction within the very fiber of my being!

From the other end of the street a lone man approaches. I knot my fists, readying myself. C’mon sucker. Try something. I’ll bite a hole in your throat! I’ll rip your eyeballs out and eat them if you so much as look at me cockeyed! Come on! Make a wrong move, and meet your death!

The guy is nearer now. As we get close to one another, I see that he’s an old Jewish man of perhaps 80 or so. Still, I emit a tiny growl as he passes.

Night is fallen. The lights inside the houses are on now. Everything looks magical.

I stop in front of one house, a handsome, white, three-story affair. God, how many times did I stand here just like this, looking up at the second-story window. Hoping upon hope to catch a glimpse of my true love (though she never knew it), the wonderful, the ever-lovely Wendy Bergman. I’d been completely crazy for her — that is until the day after Elvis made his first apperance on the Ed Sullivan show. The following day in school, when I spoke excitedly of Elvis’ appearance, Wendy’s pretty face suddenly turned terrible.

“Eeeewww. He’s ugly!” she scoffed. “He looks like a drug addict.”

Ugly?! Drug addict?!  Why, you pathetic little greaser! You brainless sausage-eating bimbo! You preposterous pile of putrefied pig feces!  A curse on you, I say! Yes, you evil whore of Babylon. I pray that your mustache grows, and that all your children are cursed with large nostrils like yours!

Needless to say, it was the end of a beautiful romance.

For the next day (my last), I’ve saved a ritual that was most prized to me: Taking the rapid transit to downtown Cleveland. From Shaker Square, the ride used to cost a quarter. Now it’s a buck. I plunk four quarters into the little box next to the driver, and take a seat — just like I used to — at the very back of the trolley.

But once I reach my destination, there’s more heartache in store. What used to be a magical  place is now just another depressing downtown, populated by assorted bums, winos, and guys with no legs.

But then, as I cross the street I spot an incredible old guy wearing a straw  hat, a blue alpaca sweater, a gigantic red tie, and sandals with socks. He’s bearing a hand lettered sign proclaiming Jesus as the savior. Somehow I like this guy. I dunno … somehow he’s different from the rest of the downtown freaks. I approach, and ask him if he minds me taking his picture. He says no, and preens properly as I snap away.

Then something really strange happens. As I’m about to round the corner, I’m struck by a sensation so powerful it almost knocks me over. I’m so dizzy that I actually have to sit down on a bench. It takes me awhile to realize what’s happened.

How to describe it? It’s like the opposite of deja vu. I’ve seen this place before. But not really. That’s it — I dreamed it! And by dreaming it, I’ve somehow created it in reality!

In my dream I’ve come close to this corner many times. Yet I’ve never rounded the bend, because somehow I know instinctively that if I do, something terrible will happen. You’d enter this long, grey corridor and then, before you know it, you’d take one step too many and you’d fall off an edge — the edge of the world — and then you’d just keep falling down and down and down.

And now, I am at this very spot. Incredible! I’m sorely tempted to walk around the corner. Yet a voice, a sense insideme tells me that I I must not. In fact, I must leave the Dream Corner immediately, for it is a border never to be crossed.

Back in Shaker Square, dusk is setting. The place has an odd, surreal quality about it. Timeless Negroes saunter around the square, gazing into shop windows. Nobody seems to be going anywhere special. Nobody’s in a hurry. It’s as if they have all the time in the world. As if they have always been here and always will be.

As I’m basking in this nether-reality, suddenly I hear a terrible sound behind me:

HAWWWWWWCH!”

I turn around to see the Shaker Square Bum. He’s adjusting a piece of newspaper on his little bench, to keep his skinny old butt from getting cold. Something about the guy makes me extremely nervous. I don’t want to look at him because I know he’s dying, and I don’t want him to know that I know.

The signs are clear.

It’s time to leave.

I walk one more circle around the square. The sun has almost set now. Some pigeons dart crazily across the sky. The red glow from the Colony Theater comes on. It seems to me I can smell the popcorn. God, it’s so pretty here …

For another moment, time ceases.

So, goodbye Shaker Square. Goodbye bum. Goodbye kids. Goodbye house. Goodbye rapid transit. Goodbye lawns. Goodbye sidewalks. Goodbye rock. Goodbye lights. Goodbye trees. Goodbye schools. Goodbye drugstore. Goodbye movie theater. Goodbye comic books. Goodbye Elvis. Goodbye Wendy Bergman. Goodbye Jesus Man. Goodbye Dream Corner. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.

And may God bless you, each and every one.

(c)  Stuart Goldman

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  1. […] DM wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptI stop in front of one house, a handsome, white, three-story affair. God, how many times did I stand here just like this, looking up at the second-story window. Hoping upon hope to catch a glimpse of my true love (though she never knew … Why, you pathetic little greaser! You brainless sausage-eating bimbo! You preposterous pile of putrefied pig feces! A curse on you, I say! Yes, you evil whore of Babylon. I pray that your mustache grows, and that all your children are … […]

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