Papa’s Place

Originally published in Northern Ohio Live magazine, 2003

by Judah Leblang


My mother often said, “Your grandfather’s gonna die in that store,” and now it appears she may have been right. I press the accelerator hard and careen down Harvard Avenue, propelled by the scribbled note left on the kitchen counter.

“Papa rushed to St. Alexis ­ collapsed at store. Hurry!” she wrote, and I do, a nervous 18-year-old steering Papa’s rusted out Chevy Bel-Air through Mt. Pleasant toward Slavic Village. I inhale the smell of tobacco that clings to anything he touches, his special scent of Camels mixed with musk.

On special Saturdays, I would ride with him to Harvard and East 71st street where we entered the dusty recesses of Harvard Drug, Papa’s pharmacy. Once he told me of his arrival in this close-knit Polish community in the 1920s, when Jews were no more welcome than rabid dogs. But after decades of mixing medicines for the factory workers and their hard-working wives ­ the store was open every day for 53 years ­ they’d made him an honorary member of the Union of Poles.

As I near the hospital, I am 12 again, peering out from behind the front counter of the store. I stand next to the gold-plated cash register, turn its useless crank, and make change off the top, carefully counting the coins of Papa’s customers as they buy their Polish newspapers, their Clark bars, their packs of Winstons. The front door is propped open; a ceiling fan stirs the thick mill-dusted air. Old folks come in for coffee, sit at the front table with my aunt as Papa and Uncle Itz fill their prescriptions. Papa works, his sleeves rolled up. I hear my name mentioned, and one by one, the customers come over to say hello, to shake my hand or grasp my shoulder. “Your grandfather’s a fine man,” one says, and I nod shyly.

As I race past Odziemski Hardware, Holy Name Church, and Kormorowski’s Funeral Home, I picture Papa laid out at Berkowitz-Kumin, the Jewish funeral home in Cleveland Heights, but know his soul will be wandering here among the fading double-decker houses of “The Neighborhood.” In the hospital waiting room my mother and grandmother sit huddled on a couch. Above them a gold cross gleams in the dim light. I know I am too late.

Papa was buried in a new cemetery out in Chesterland, far from his home in Beachwood and his store in the city. Most of the locals didn’t come to the funeral. They came to the store instead, recalling him over cups of coffee and Polish pastry, the older men smoking, their shirts sweaty in the summer heat, the women respectfully clad in babushkas. Uncle Itz sat at the small table in front, weak from grief and his recent stroke.

No one wanted to buy Papa’s little business. After a month, my parents brought in an auctioneer to strip the old store clean. A grizzled West Virginian with a no-nonsense manner, he had me empty the bottles of their precious liquids; soon the floor was covered with sea-green and purple glass shining in the dusky light. Sometime later the building was destroyed, and with it all traces of my grandfather.

Today a Rite-Aid pharmacy occupies the site. They don’t sell Polish newspapers.

Judah Leblang grew up in Beachwood. He is a research associate at Lesley University in Boston, a sign language interpreter, and a freelance writer.