The Wonders of Cleveland

The Wonders of Cleveland,  By Judah Leblang/2003

My mother steered our brown Pontiac through suburban Beachwood-our upper middle class town–toward Nanny’s house, on the edge of working-class Cleveland. I fidgeted on the vinyl seat, my body an unspoken, Are we there yet? Finally, we passed into the city and my mother stopped in front of the tall maple that dominated my grandmother’s postage-stamp sized front lawn. Nanny’s tiny bungalow sat in a row of identical white houses thrown up just after World War II when Cleveland was booming, years before my birth.

My mother waved to Nanny and told me, “I’ll be back at 5 o’clock sharp. Keep an eye on the time and stay with your grandmother.”

I mumbled, “OK, Mom,” and began to salivate like one of Pavlov’s dogs, knowing that Nanny would have baked the long sweet poppyseed rolls she calls “mun,” a taste of her native Hungary.

My grandmother pulled me in as I reached the front steps, her blue-gray eyes beaming. I felt the soft warmth of her flesh, smelled her scent of Vick’s lemon cough drops mixed with baby powder.

“So Nanny, are we going into town?” I asked, and a smile dusted her face like powdered sugar.

“No sure not,” she said, Hungarian-English for ‘of course.’

I knew my parents didn’t like to go into the city. My mother saw Cleveland as a cauldron of riots, crime and burned out neighborhoods, a place to avoid. Still, on a sunny day in May 1968, I was an eleven-year-old boy who knew that Cleveland was full of wonders like planes and trains and buildings that pierced the sky, miracles my grandmother and I would share like her warm pastry. And so my grandmother and I stood quietly as my mother drove off, back to the safety of the eastern suburbs.

Waiting for the bus, Nanny’s maple tree rustling above us, I thought of other times, other adventures with my grandmother, when I was five, seven, eight. On special weekends, she would baby-sit for my brothers and I, bringing her pastry and her Jewish rye bread, her cough drops and powdery scent into our suburban home. At five, before the accident, I’d sing and dance for her entertainment, repeating rhymes I’d learned in nursery school-“Mary had a little lamb,” “Humpty Dumpty,” and later, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” which I’d warbled at a school assembly in Kindergarten in my thin childish voice. Later, I’d tell my grandmother she was beautiful, promise to marry her when I grew up. According to my mother, I was a little khnifenik, Yiddish for a “flatterer.”

Soon we boarded the CTS Windemere-bound bus, where we’d catch the “rapid-transit” train, and Nanny greeted the driver. Sitting on the front bench seat, I felt the weight of my grandmother’s presence-thick arms and legs, skin lined and freckled, her thick wrist encircled by a gold watchband, feet encased in sensible black wide-heeled shoes. I imagined here as the young, determined woman who pushed my grandfather to leave Hungary after the First World War. “I was the one who wanted to leave Europe-he wanted to stay home and ride horses,” she said, shaking her head at the silliness of the idea. I never met my grandfather, but my mind filled with images of a Hungarian-Jewish cowboy, Roy Rogers with a skullcap.

An hour later we were at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. I roamed among the ticket counters, picking up timetables for Mohawk, Allegheny and United Airlines. Later, we stood on the observation deck, breathed in the heady aroma of jet fuel, and craned our necks as the metallic tubes threaded the clouds. The scent powered my dreams of a trip to Florida-my parents had promised me my first “flying vacation” the following December. “Enough noise!” my grandmother yelled above the din as she pulled me back inside the terminal.

Another Rapid train deposited us into the flurry of downtown Cleveland, at Euclid Avenue and Public Square. A haze drifted over from the steel mills down on the Cuyahoga River, coating the air with fine dust and ashes. Hungry, I led the way down Euclid Avenue, Cleveland’s bustling main street, toward the lunch counter at Woolworth’s. There I’d have my favorite lunch-two slices of pepperoni pizza and an orange drink.

When we arrived, Nanny started up a conversation with another gray haired lady sitting on a nearby stool. “Yes, this is my grandson, we’re exploring for the day,” she says, emphasizing the word as if we’re on a secret assignment for LBJ. The other lady nodded, impressed, and blood rushed to my face. I looked down and mumbled, “Let’s go Nanny.” I knew I’m not that special.

A five-minute walk back down Euclid brought us to the faded art-deco splendor of the Terminal Tower, the tallest building in all of Cleveland. As we walked among the half-empty stores on the Terminal’s ground floor, we come upon the old train station, its yellowed wooden benches empty, hallways echoing. The station, according to my grandmother, was once “packed with people.” Now, just a handful sat on the pale wooden benches, a few travelers to the “Best location in the nation.” That’s what we were, according to the Illuminating Company, our local utility.

Clevelanders laughed at the slogan, replacing it with one the comedians used: “The mistake on the lake.”

Hmm. I gazed at the grand WPA mural that filled a wall of the waiting area-a dramatic drawing of the men who built the Terminal, steelworkers sitting on metal beams, strong men with bulging muscles, their faces proud. They erected this 700-foot tall building-the tallest between New York and Chicago–that looked out over Lake Erie, complete with an observation deck on the 42nd floor. I felt a twinge of jealousy, knowing I’d never see a new Terminal Tower or feel the excitement of a championship baseball team, only air tinged with coal dust and losing teams in our old industrial city.

Our last stop was at the May Company Department Store for a “frosty.” A thick ice cream and chocolate milkshake served in a narrow Coke-style glass, the frosty was the coup de grace of our visits to downtown Cleveland. Leaning against the Formica counter in the basement of the old store, I guzzled the thick liquid beige liquid and rubbed my forehead as my ice cream-induced headache begins to spread. Nanny shook her head, laughed, and sipped her frosty, an adult who knew better.

T he day rolled to a slow gentle end as we rode the train and bus back toward my grandmother’s house. I rocked to the rhythm of the CTS Rapid train, my mouth still buzzing with the taste of cold chocolate. Near Windemere, my head nodded forward and I shook myself awake, determined not to miss one minute of our time together.

Sometime later, the bus pulled up in front on Nanny’s bungalow. My mother waited, sitting in our brown station wagon, tapping the steering wheel. Her auburn hair was teased into a bangy-bouffant ’60s style, so in contrast to the thin gray curls of my grandmother. Nanny waved to her daughter-in-law and rushed into the house. Before I reached the front steps, Nanny returned with two packages wrapped in aluminum foil. I knew the log-shaped one was filled with the black nectar of poppyseeds, the smaller with nut cookies for my brother.

“Thank your grandmother,” my mother called out from the car. I shrugged, knowing I didn’t need to say anything, that we were connected in a place beyond words. I hugged Nanny once more, smelling her lemon and baby powder smell, careful not to let her crush my packages. Then I walked toward my mother, who was chewing a fingernail, anxious to leave.

As we drove away, Nanny stood on the front stoop, unsmiling. I watched her standing there as we rode home, following me with her blue gray eyes, guarding me until I was out of sight.