March 27th, 2007
“The South Side, the Tremont area, is a hillcrest neighborhood five minutes south of downtown Cleveland. North, south and east of it is The Flats, the industrial valley of the city.
The South Side was home. It was immediate family. It was aunts, uncles and cousins. It was schoolmates whose parents were Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, Slovak, German, Irish, Greek and Syrian. It proved to be a stage deep and wide enough for any dream.
The South Side was St. Augustine’s Catholic Church, St. Theodosius Russian Orthodox Church, Pilgrim Congregational Church—and fourteen others. It was Tremont Elementary School and Lincoln High. It was the Merrick House, one of the oldest settlement houses in the city. It was the Dinky, a yellow trolley pretty in memory as a toy. It was Lincoln Park, a square block of grass, trees, playgrounds and benches. A man named Dominic used to sit on a bench, smoke his pipe and talk about the old country, dream about it, as he must have talked and dreamed about the new. It was Fairfield Hill with three and sometimes four layers of children on a sled whistling down the January dark. It was the Jennings Theatre with nickel movie matinees every Saturday and Sunday afternoon; with love and innocence conquering all in double features every night; with dishes on Wednesday; with Banko and cash prizes on Saturday.
The South Side was the men who worked in The Flats. It was the men who worked on the railroad, the men who worked in the mills, forges and foundries. It was the women who worked to make ends meet. It was Father Walsh at St. Augustine. It was Miss Bloomfield and Miss Alexander at Tremont Elementary. It was Miss Glick, Miss Palmer and Miss Dickerson at Lincoln. It was the grocer, John, who extended credit like a hand all through the Depression. It was Angelo the Jeep, who used to say, even at weddings and funerals, ‘Where is everybody?’ It was TT, who had traveled with the cirsus, who had survived two wars and two marriages, a solid keg of a man who delighted friends by turning sudden backflips and shouting, ‘Yo’. A woman said, ‘One of these days you might land on your head’. ‘That’s the least of my worries’, he said. It was Alex, the owner of a small confectionary, a man who took on all comers at two-hand pinochle. Alexander the Greatest, he was called. It was Pete, who now and then during the week before the Fouth of July tossed a cherry bomb in the stovepipe opening of the confectionary, a bomb that exploded with such force in that store it seemed to blow everyone out the door. ‘What happened’? he would say, innocently. ‘Ain’t you going to grow up, ever’? Alex would say. It was Romeo, an aspiring actor who tried his luck in Hollywood. He tested for the lead in Golden Boy but lost the role, he said because he was two inches shorter than William Holden. Long afterward he was hearing, or overhearing, remarks like, ‘An inch taller and I’d be dancing with Ginger Rogers’. Or, ‘Three more inches and I’d have been governor’. It was Danny, who for two years enjoyed one of the sweetest of political plums, a job emptying the wastepaper basket and dusting the desk, chairs and sofa in the City Hall office of Commissioner Paul, a former shipmate on an ore carrier. Danny would catch the trolley on the South Side at four in the afternoon, hop off in front of City Hall, dash in while the trolley continued its downtown round, do what he was supposed to do, and be out in time to catch the trolley on its way back to the South Side. He would be home by five-thirty. Sometimes he took his wife, Vicki, to keep him company and do the dusting. Vicki used to say things like, ‘Haste makes hurry’. Or, ‘A bird in the bush’. Or, ‘Mary in Rome: she had an audition with the Pope’.
The South Side was a midsummer night a long time ago with plumes and pillars of smoke in the sky; with flags of blue fire; with a throbbing red glow from the steel mills that could be seen thirty miles away. It was people sitting on porches, porches generous enough for friends as well as family.
The women were saying: ‘She outgrew all her clothes’.
‘I can’t do anything with him. He’s like a wild animal. I can’t wait till school starts’.
The men were saying: ‘Things are picking up at the mill. I put in three days this week’.
‘There’s going to be a war’.
‘We’ll get in. Mark my words now’.
Mike started playing his harmonica. It was forlorn, at first, a threadbare weave. Pretty soon it was different. Pretty soon it was If You Knew Susie. People did, of course and so for a while some were able to relax a little in the heartbeat glow, a glow insistent, profound, like the hope that brought them to this country.
“The South Side” is a written remembrance by, and used with permission from, Raymond DeCapite.
Entry Filed under: Oral/written Histories