Real Music & Real Estate . . .

Yiddishe Cup’s bandleader, Bert Stratton, is Klezmer Guy.
 

He knows about the band biz and – check this out – the real estate biz, too.
 

You may not care about the real estate biz. Hey, you may not care about the band biz. (See you.)
 

This is a blog with a gamy twist. It features tenants with snakes and skunks, and musicians with smoked fish in their pockets.
 

Stratton has written op-eds for the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Washington Post.


 
 

IT’S NOT ABOUT THE RACKET

 
From today’s Cleveland Plain Dealer . . .

It’s not about the racket

by Bert Stratton

CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, Ohio — When I trounced my friend Jimmy in tennis, he blamed it on his racket. His racket — his good racket — was in the shop for restringing. Jimmy said he was hitting the ball longer than usual with his back-up racket, and he didn’t have his usual deft touch on drop shots. I was surprised by the kvetching; Jimmy is usually stoical about his game and has never been an equipment freak.

Lance Armstrong said it best: “It’s not about the bike.” Or, it’s not about the racket. For example, I have a childhood friend who is a tennis pro in Israel, and he occasionally comes back to Cleveland to visit relatives and beat me in tennis. My friend, Shelly Gordon, doesn’t even bring a racket with him from Israel; he borrows one of mine. Shelly and I grew up playing tennis on the public courts at Bexley Park in South Euclid. The dress code then, in the 1960s, was Bermuda shorts, Jack Purcell tennis shoes and T-shirt (optional). Shelly never took private tennis lessons; nevertheless, he made the Ohio State University tennis team.

I took about 10 private lessons at the Cleveland Skating Club in Shaker Heights. My dad paid a nonmembers’ rate for the lessons. The club pro called me “Tiger.” I think he called all nonmembers “Tiger” because he didn’t want to learn their names.

At a recent high school reunion, a former Brush High tennis player was still mad at me — and envious of me for my private lessons. Hotshot players like him, from all over the East Side, would schlep down to Cain Park in Cleveland Heights, where the best public-court players hung out. There was a Cleveland Heights High player, Rich Greenberg, who was so into tennis he would shovel snow off the courts in the winter. He eventually played for the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Bert Stratton, age 16, 1967, Brush High courts

Rich taught me an important life lesson: how to wait. Every winter, I had to wait six months for good weather to come around again, so I could play tennis. I wasn’t going to shovel courts. Think about it: No snow blowers in the 1960s, and the courts had to be perfectly dry. And right after you shoveled, it would snow again. (And we didn’t have access to indoor courts.)

When I played my friend Kvetchin’ Jimmy — the man with the bad racket — he muttered unintelligible things to himself and fiddled with his strings. I beat him 6-2, 6-2. He usually beats me. Funny, I, too, had a handicap. But did I complain? No, I didn’t. My left hand (my dominant hand) tingled from having played a steel-string acoustic guitar the night before. I didn’t mention that to Jimmy. Probably because I won.

In tennis, it’s all on you. There’s usually nobody else to blame. Here’s a useful rule: If you lose, blame the wind. That’s less offensive than blaming your racket.

Yiddishe Cup performs 2-3 pm this Sun. (June 16). Father’s Day. Free. Beachwood Branch, Cuyahoga County Library, 25501 Shaker Blvd. (corner of Shaker Boulevard and Richmond Road). Indoors.

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June 12, 2024   3 Comments

GERSHY AND TOBY

 

Toby Stratton (1917-1986). Photo 1984.

My father, Toby, took me to a lightning-round tutorial with Cousin Gershy. (Gershy is short for Gershon.) Gershy looked horrible — three strokes and two heart attacks. My dad didn’t look any better. My dad died of leukemia two months later.

Gershy had shotguns, a steer horn and a shalom plaque over the mantle. Gershy said, “You wouldn’t believe it, but I used to be a shtarker (strong guy/bully). Now I’ve got this little curl in the tail — that little something different — that something the new treatment doesn’t cure. You’re in trouble, they say. They say, ‘We can’t straighten out your tail. You’re dead.’ That’s what the doctors tell me.”

My dad didn’t chime in. (The docs guessed my dad had another two years. They were wrong.)

A gun dealer had sold Gershy the steer horn for $50, and now the gun dealer wanted the steer horn back. “Gun dealers is a funny ballpark,” Gershy said. “He could shoot me, but a deal is a deal. That’s the way it is.”

Gershy owned a shopping strip center on Mayfield Road in Cleveland Heights. (The building had Gable Pharmacy and Bass Lock & Key.)

Gershy’s price was too high, Toby said.

“If the kid is interested,” Gershy said, looking at me. “I’d come down.”

“It’s up to the kid,” Toby said.

“I’ll work with him,” Gershy said.

On the drive home from Gershy’s, Toby said to me, “Gershy has mellowed.”

Mellowed?  Gershy did not seem mellow to me — not part of the Donovan, mellow-yellow ethos.

“And he’s a gonif,” Toby said. “Don’t buy anything from him.”

I didn’t. Instead I bought an apartment building in Lakewood a year later. I bought the Lakewood building because I wanted to prove to myself I could pull the trigger — buy a piece of investment property — without my dad telling me what to do. My dad was dead. I was 36. I bought the apartment building from a man named Chisling. Odd name, right? My dad’s advice would have come in handy.

Yiddishe Cup is part of the Shavuot celebration 7:15-8 pm Tues. (June 11), Park Synagogue, Pepper Pipes, Ohio. We’re doing a 45-minute concert. For more info, click here.

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June 5, 2024   1 Comment

BIKING BACK

 
I live two miles from where I was born. Every 60 years or so, I bike back to Kinsman – the area my parents lived pre-1951. St. Luke’s Hospital — where I was born — abuts Kinsman. Kinsman used to be a mix of Italians, Jews and Slovaks.

The first time I left home on my own steam was when I biked to Cermak Drug at East 93rd Street and Union Avenue. This was about 1962. I went with Cermak himself — the son of Cermak, actually. The Cermak family lived across the street from us in South Euclid. John Cermak (around age 12 at the time) and I used red city map books to navigate to the city. What were those books called? Street Atlases. Cermak and I made it to the drugstore and back.

Last fall I biked to a different Kinsman drugstore to get a Covid booster. I couldn’t get it in my neighborhood, so I found a CVS at East 108th Street and Kinsman Road. I mapped out my route. It was like I was going to a foreign land. I biked by Benedictine High and boarded-up Audubon School and Woodland Hills Park, which is now Luke Easter Park. (Easter was a Cleveland Indians player.) The pharmacist at CVS said, “You’re the third person today who said he came from Shaker or the Heights.”

I’ve been through Kinsman many times in a car, but my recent bike thing was the most memorable excursion. I doubt I’ll bike through Kinsman again. I’ll go to Europe.

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May 29, 2024   3 Comments

WHAT SMELLS?

 
Last week Ms. Seif, a tenant of mine, claimed she needed to move out because she’s allergic to the smell of Indian food, which was coming from the restaurant below her apartment. She is on the second floor, above the restaurant. Her text to me read: “I am allergic to the Indian restaurant spices. I keep smell it everywhere especially in the toilet.” She also said she went to her doctor, “and he asked me if I can leave my apartment.”

She phoned me:,“I’ve been stuck in bed for a month. It smells in the toilet.” She’s a foreigner and her English is bit peculiar.

I said, “There are a billion Indians in India and they’re not allergic. One-eighth of the world! You were aware there was a restaurant when you moved in. We have a good venting system here.”

Ms. Seif has been a tenant for only three months, and she has been late with her rent twice, and she tried to install a bidet herself and ruined the coupling, so the toilet leaked into the Indian restaurant.

Four years ago, when the Indian restaurant opened, I was concerned about possible odors coming from the restaurant. That’s why we have a good exhaust fan. Nobody else has complained so far. Just her.

How can you be allergic to a smell? Don’t you have to eat something to be allergic to something? Or at least have particles in the air, like hay fever. Strange: Indian spices make you sneeze and put you in bed for a month.

Ms. Seif is 27. I’m probably going to let her out of her lease, but she definitely is not getting her security deposit back, and I’ll try to get an extra month’s rent from her. She’s got nine months to go on her lease!

. . . A relative of hers just called. He said she is recently divorced and has a kid, and he feels sorry for her.

I just stopped by her apartment. She seems friendly enough. I said, “Ms. Seif, to change the subject, you sound like you have a Spanish accent but have an Arabic name.” I was hoping she was Lebanese from South America, so I could practice Spanish with her. She’s Egyptian.

 . . . She moved. She left the place “pristine,” says the on-site building manager. She left the bidet. Our new rental ad will read “toilet has bidet attachment.” Maybe that’ll help rent the apartment.

I didn’t get the extra month’s rent.

What smells?


Seif is a pseudonym.

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May 22, 2024   1 Comment

I GOT A GIG . . .

 
I landed a gig. Other musicians wanted in on it. We played for a Russian immigrants’ club at the Mayfield Road JCC, in 1988. The Russians liked the waltzes. Screw klezmer. I had hired two musicians who played with the Kleveland Klezmorim, Alan Douglass and Joel O’Sickey; and a Swiss jazz bass player, Francois Roland.

For the next gig, I hired a black jazz guitarist. All his Dm chords came out like Dm7’s (jazz chords). His name was Jewish though: Larry Ross.

Those were the first two paying Yiddishe Cup gigs. The very first Yiddishe Cup gig was non-paying. We played on John Carroll University’s Jewish hour. The radio show host — a cantor, my cantor — couldn’t turn down a fellow congregant. Also, he often requested Jewish musicians stop by John Carroll to play on his show, and few did. John Carroll is a Jesuit school. Does Yeshiva University have a Catholic hour? The line-up for the John Carroll radio gig was Sandy Starr, fiddler from Indiana U.; Francois the Swiss; and me.

The rest is  . . . whatever.

Here’s my essay that was in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Friday:

Keeping Faith with Israel

CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, Ohio — I’ve been hearing bad things about Zionism since at least 1975. That was the year I wore a sticker which read “I Am a Zionist.” I got the sticker at the El Al ticket counter at Ben Gurion Airport. The United Nations had just passed the Soviet-sponsored “Zionism is racism” resolution. (The U.N. revoked that conclusion in 1991.) I wore the sticker in Greece — my next stop after Israel. I was 25. In Greece, a slightly drunk Greek man kissed the sticker, mistaking it for the blue-and-white Greek flag.

Back home, several of my friends were into edgier causes than Zionism. One friend said he was going to Cuba to harvest sugar cane. He didn’t go to Cuba, but he talked about it. I took a Hebrew class at Hillel at Case Western Reserve University to pick up basic Hebrew expressions, which I then used in Israel. I had grown up attending The Temple (also known as The Temple-Tifereth Israel and Silver’s Temple) in University Circle, and hadn’t learned much conversational Hebrew. (The Temple in University Circle is now the Maltz Performing Arts Center.)

”The Temple” — the name — sounded snobby, and it was. One Shaker Heights boy got a ride to temple in a limo. The driver wore a chauffeur’s cap. The limo wasn’t a Rolls; it was a Buick station wagon. The Temple was founded in 1850 by German Jews. The Temple moved to Beachwood 25 years ago. The Temple is not snobby these days.

Last century, The Temple wore its Zionism elegantly, in a Theodor Herzl, well-bred, top-hat way. Abba Hillel Silver was the senior rabbi. He was God-like –or at least Moses-esque –with a mane of silver hair and a booming voice. Rabbi Silver — along with Rabbi Stephen Wise of New York — were the two most prominent rabbis in post-war America. In 1947, Silver addressed the U.N. General Assembly. Silver said, “We are an ancient people and though we have often on the long, hard road which we have traveled been disillusioned, we have never been disheartened. We have never lost faith in the sovereignty and the ultimate triumph of great moral principles.”

The Temple, in the 1950s, sometimes held Sabbath services on Sundays instead of Saturdays, in a nod to their congregants’ acculturation into mainstream Christian-dominated America. My family put out Easter eggs, and I got Christmas presents. (No Christmas tree, though.) On the Jewish High Holidays, my mother wrote to my teachers: “Please excuse Bert’s absence from school due to religious observances.”

In the run-up to the 1967 Six-Day War, my parents attended an Israel Bond rally for the first time. They, and a lot of other Jews, thought there might be a second Holocaust. But after the quick Israeli victory, my parents began to utter “Jew” — the word — in public places in, for instance, restaurants, not caring whether other diners overheard them. In 1967, several of my high school friends wore “Jewish Power” buttons, purchased via mail order from a hippie button shop in Greenwich Village. I didn’t wear the button. The button-wearing kids had grown up in the Jewish section of South Euclid, near Cedar Center, not with the Italians like I had, closer to Mayfield Road. That Italian bread at Alesci’s, on Mayfield Road, was my go-to purchase on my walks home from elementary school.

My “I Am a Zionist” sticker is long gone, but I recently picked up a Jewish-star pin at a benefit for the American Friends of Magen David Adom (Israel Red Cross). I have played klezmer music at many community events and dozens of Israeli Independence Day celebrations. This year’s Israeli Independence Day celebration is Tuesday, and my band will be there.

Non-Jews, intrigued by the music, sometimes come up to me after performances and ask me some tough questions: “Do Jews believe in Jesus?” “How do you say c-h-a-l-l-a-h?” “Is Israel going to make it?”

My answers are: a) Jesus was a great man, but Jews don’t consider him the son of God; b) “Challah” is pronounced with a guttural “ch,” like you’re clearing your throat; c) It’s always a bad bet to count the Jews out. We’ve been around a long time.

The Jewish community in Cleveland numbers about 80,600. A Cleveland State University professor, Samantha Baskind, recently wrote an essay about Cleveland’s Jewish community for Tablet, an online magazine. She mentioned how Cleveland sent 1,700 Jews to Washington on buses for a pro-Israel rally in Washington last year. The headline of the article was “Cleveland’s Jewish Community Punches Above Its Weight Class.”

Here in Cleveland, we hope and pray that Israel punches above its weight, too. On Tuesday, my band will play the tune “Am Yisrael Chai” for Israeli Independence Day. “Am” means “people” in Hebrew. “Yisrael” means “Israel,” but in a biblical sense, as in “children of Israel,” meaning the Jews of Israel, Cleveland, and everywhere else. “Chai” means “lives.” Put it all together and you get: The Jewish People Lives.

Bert Stratton, a frequent contributor, lives in Cleveland Heights and has also written for The Wall Street Journal and New York Times. He writes the blog “Klezmer Guy: Real Music & Real Estate.”

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May 15, 2024   2 Comments

DICK FEAGLER, COLUMNIST

 
Dick Feagler, the late Cleveland newspaper columnist, wrote about World War II, the Korean War and similar good-old-days topics. When he ran out of material, he made stuff up. He invented a fictitious West Side coffee shop where he and his buddies would hang out and reminisce. He didn’t tell his readers the coffee shop wasn’t real. The coffee shop’s non-existence was revealed on Feagler’s last day of work, in 2008, via the Cleveland Plain Dealer ombudsman.

Dick Feagler

I wrote the ombudsman: “Dick Feagler has been writing fiction all these years about characters in a made-up coffee shop on the far West Side? Hey, is there a real Heinen’s in Bay Village, or did Feagler make that up, too? I’m an East Sider. I need to know.”

The omsbudsman wrote back: “No matter what you think of the way he handled the boys in the coffee shop, Feagler has been the Mike Royko of Cleveland for longer than Royko was the Dick Feagler of Chicago, and we have been lucky to have him.”

True.

Royko, in Chicago, telegraphed his made-up columns with character names like Slats Grobnik and Dr. I.M. Kookie. Feagler’s coffee-shop people were Jim, Frank, and Loraine — a waitress. Funny, those names weren’t funny. Feagler should have asked one of his made-up character, Mrs. Figment, to nickname the gang in the coffee shop.

This major criticism aside (about Feagler making stuff up), he was very readable, good at nostalgia, and amusing. I miss the man’s writing. He died in 2018 at 79.

I ran into an alter kocker former journalist the other day who started name-dropping PD writers like they were old car models. (DeSoto, Packard, Studebaker) . . . Mary Strassmyer, Karen Sandstrom, Dick Feagler, Doug Clarke.

Here’s my addendum: Tom Green, Alfred Lubrano and Jim Parker. These guys weren’t around long but they could write. Terry Pluto is my favorite these days.

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May 8, 2024   3 Comments

UNCLE BOB

 
Uncle Bob sat in his backyard in Athens, Georgia, and talked about Cleveland. He told me he had had dreams about long-gone Cleveland streetcars. And he said he periodically checked out the Cleveland obits to see who died. (Bob was born in Cleveland in 1924 and died in Atlanta in 2011.)

Bob Kent, 1962, Mill Valley

Bob said he had wanted to join the Haganah. But for some reason that never happened. He did, however, serve during World War II and Korea. Bob was an artist and one of the first gringos to head down to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico — around 1949. San Miguel was an artists’ colony packed with former GIs. Then Bob taught art at Tamalpais High School (Mill Valley, California) in the 1950s and early 1960s. He said he saw Kesey in the Haight but never saw Kerouac in North Beach.

In his youth, Bob was a bit of a brawler and had a broken nose to prove it. He said he had regularly crashed Jewish weddings at the Cleveland Jewish Center on East 105th Street and the Temple on the Heights on Mayfield Road. High-class shuls. Bob grew up in Kinsman — working class. He married my mother’s sister Celeste Zalk, also of Kinsman.

Bob got a PhD while teaching high school in California and wound up as an art-education professor at the University of  Georgia. Athens — in the mid-1960s — was no San Francisco, but it was a job. Bob was adept at slinging the prof lingo: “existential,” “seminal,” and “cognitive.”

Bob changed his last name from Katz to Kent. I don’t know when. I think my father had something to do with the name change. Speaking of Kent, I knew a Winston who had previously been a Weinstein. Are there other Jews named after ciggies? Old Gold? (Herb Gold.) I miss cigarettes — the names. Tareyton, Benson & Hedges.

This isn’t the whole story of Bob. Bob’s children — my first cousins — know more, and they ain’t going to tell it!

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May 1, 2024   3 Comments

SEWING MACHINE GUY

 
My parents stopped hanging around with  rich people because my parents couldn’t afford to. One of my dad’s childhood buddies built shopping centers. My father was not going to spend money at fancy restaurants with him for no good reason. My parents socialized mostly with self-employed business people — a hardware store owner, the sewing machine guy and a shoe store guy.

(R) Alex Kozak, 1962. Stratton backyard.

The sewing machine person, Alex Kozak, sold record albums to me. Appliance store owners used to sell records. Mr. Kozak was a World War II Red Army veteran — a Hungarian Jew who escaped the Nazis and fought with the Russians. I borrowed his cavalry boots for my high school Canterbury Tales presentation. Mr. Kozak was a big man — one-and-a-half Isaac Babels. Mr. Kozak sold me Bechet of New Orleans and Be-Bop Era., both RCA Vintage Series LPs.

My dad liked hanging around with the Holocaust survivors; many of the men knew baseball, and they were for the most part no-nonsense. What was there to talk about — the good old days?

Yiddishe Cup gigs for Holocaust survivors’ luncheons were difficult. The crowds often wouldn’t pay attention. They would kibitz during the music. Another thing, the organizers would sometimes say “just a short program for the survivors.”  How long was a “short program” exactly?

I had a classmate, Gary (not his real name), who re-told his parents’ Nazi horror stories for the Cleveland Press. This was in the 1960s — pre-“Holocaust,” the term. Gary’s father worked at a kosher poultry market. Gary was religious. He often stayed home for obscure (to me) Jewish holidays, like Succot. Some of the Jewish kids teased him when he came back. The non-Jews were oblivious.

I emulated Gary’s “Let’s go, Jews!” writing style. I wrote a letter to the Cleveland Press protesting the first U.S. Christmas stamp with a religious symbol (Madonna and child), 1966. I said the stamp violated the separation of church and state. I got letters. One reader said, “Go to Vietnam where men are men and not homosexual like you.” That motivated me — not to go to Nam but to write more letters. I wrote about Poland expelling its last Jews in 1968. What would the Poles do when they ran out of Jews? That letter, too, got some play. I vied with Gary for champion Jewish teenage letter writer. All I had to do was write “Jew” and I would get half-baked, vitriolic feedback. I had been through so little and wanted to experience World War II (without the pain). Then go home and eat some Jell-O.

Sewing machine guy:  About 20 years ago, at a klezmer concert in Detroit, I ran into Mr. Kozak’s older daughter for the first time in decades. She told me her nephew had the cavalry boots now — the ones Mr. Kozak had worn as he rode through Prague with the Soviets in 1945, and the ones I had worn in high school English class.

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April 24, 2024   4 Comments

MEMORY LOSS FLOOR

 
Alan Douglass and I played for six people in the memory loss unit. I asked for names and nobody gave one, except Bobbie. And nobody clapped.

“God Bless America.” Alan knocked that one out of the park. And maybe we did “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Can’t remember.

Alan Douglass. Yiddishe Cup gig, 2011.

Something funky? Alan did “Will It Go Round in Circles.” He told me to add a C harp, crossed position.

I didn’t know it was a memory loss unit. It only dawned on me a couple tunes in; there was absolutely no applause, except one aide clapped for “My Girl.” Usually people will clap for everything even if it’s bad.

A couple people sang along to “Tumbalalaika.” Bobbie was the most enthusiastic. She got up frequently, but the aide told her to sit. Bobbie was shaky. So were Alan and I. We did shaky tunes. It’s enervating playing for people who don’t respond much. But who knows, maybe they did respond deep-down. And don’t forget, “Tumbalalaika” kind of hit.

(Bobbie a pseudonym.)

Here’s an essay I had in the Cleveland Plain Dealer last Wednesday:

I Like Refrigerators

CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, Ohio — The plumbing-supply rep tried to sell me water-savings toilets. And another guy tried to sell me small refrigerators (less than 12 cubic feet) to fit in tiny apartment kitchens. There was a door-buzzer salesperson, too. This was downtown at a trade show for landlords. My wife had encouraged me to go. She had said, “You’ll have fun.”

I didn’t have fun, but it wasn’t painful. I ran into some fellow landlords I hadn’t seen much of. Landlords don’t meet up at the office; we’re out looking for late rent payers and plumbers who will actually show up. There were a lot of middle-class guys in sweaters and slacks. Some had on work boots. They probably owned duplex houses. Many of the landlords were mom-and-pop, owning a few buildings, like me. Some landlords wore bomber jackets and T-shirts. They were the big-time operators.

One landlord said he owned 900 units and “a dumpy shopping center in Amherst. You want to buy it?”

“No thanks,” I said.

He also said he owned five or six other shopping centers. Landlords will tell you what they own, as well as what they used to own. The bigger the number, the better. Lou owned doubles in Cleveland Heights and said he wouldn’t mind selling some. John managed and owned apartment buildings in Lakewood. I said to him, “I haven’t been to a trade show in years.” “You haven’t missed much,” John said. But I had missed him – slightly. And I had missed refrigerators.

I like refrigerators, in real life and in brochures. Refrigerators don’t often screw up, and you can occasionally get a few beers and pops from a refrigerator after a tenant moves out. Definitely some half-open ketchup.

Hotpoint is the value brand of General Electric Appliances / Haier. A Hotpoint refrigerator can last 20 years. That’s what you want in a refrigerator: 15-to-20 years. I once bought a refrigerator made in Spain. It was a Welbilt. The spelling said it all. It was good for only nine years. Now I buy appliances from a small-time distributor out of Stow. I could go with Lowe’s or Home Depot, but Josh — my refrigerator man in Stow – is very reachable and friendly. He even quotes Bible verses in his invoices.

I attended my first trade show, back in the 1970s, with my dad. He would ramble on about radiator valves and radiator air vents. He had started the family investment-property business. I said to him: “I wouldn’t mind being the next Cannonball Adderley.” I was in my 20s.

“Are you pulling my leg, son? Tell me, so I won’t get mad!”

I was half-pulling his leg. I liked to upset him — not drive him crazy, just rile him.

My dad said, “The arts are one big ego trip.”

That was a flesh wound. All quiet on the father-son front. I had played alto sax in the college jazz band.

My dad insisted I go to a landlord association get-together at the Theatrical Grill on Vincent Avenue, aka Short Vincent. This was the mid-1970s. My father and I met garbage haulers, real estate brokers, boiler guys and bankers. I heard jazz wafting into the dining room from the piano bar. Instrumental jazz was the background track for random dinnertime conversation about real estate. The big question — directed mostly at my dad — was: “You buying?” (Buying buildings? Compactors? Flushmates?)

My dad said, “Depends on the kid.” That meant me.

Now, to this day, I carry water-saving showerheads. You never know when a tenant might rip out a water-saving showerhead and replace it with an Old Faithful, water-guzzling gusher. (I pay for the water at my buildings.)

And I still play the sax (and clarinet). That doesn’t pay the rent.

Bert Stratton, a frequent contributor, lives in Cleveland Heights and has also written for The Wall Street Journal and New York Times. He writes the blog “Klezmer Guy: Real Music & Real Estate.”

 

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April 16, 2024   No Comments

THE ARTS: MUSIC, LIT, VISUAL

 
Musicians probably get more ego satisfaction in one night than most people get in a year. When I don’t have a gig, I mope around the house like a guy in rehab. Where are my gigs? My cigs? My booze? Where’s my heroin? Do I want to see a movie? No, I don’t.

Music is a different than than writing and painting; music is the laying on o’ hands. Have you tried laying on o’ hands with writing or painting? You’re in a room by yourself. That’s called solitary confinement.

Street festivals, parties, simchas, nursing-home soirees, concerts — all feel-good situations. Humans like hubbub. Noise is life. Deaf people like music; they like the vibrations.

In writing and painting, it’s a shush scene. America needs about 100 decent novelists and 100 painters. There is no minor league for writers and painters (except academia). Musicians — they’re playing in every city.

I’m in the Ohio Musicians League. That’s a minor league operation, but still, satisfying.

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April 9, 2024   1 Comment

ERIC CARMEN

 
Pop-rocker Eric Carmen graduated a year ahead of me at Brush High in Lyndhurst, Ohio. He was the leader of The Raspberries (post-high school). Here’s why I didn’t know Eric:

  1. I was a tennis guy in high school, not a music guy.
  2. Carmen lived in Lyndhurst — super-goy land. I lived in South Euclid. I knew a handful of kids from Lyndhurst. My friend Ron, who grew up in Lyndhurst, said it was no picnic being a Jew in Lyndhurst in the 1960s.

Carmen was Jewish. Carmen, the name –vaguely Italian.  Lyndhurst was vaguely Italian, too. This, just in: carmen is Latin for song. [Thanks to Ted Stratton for the Latin lore.] Eric Carmen attended a Jesuit college, John Carroll University. Strange.

There’s a Facebook page called “I Grew Up in South Euclid/Lyndhurst Club,” which saw a lot of action when Carmen died last month. Nobody on the FB page talked about where Eric Carmen went to temple. I bet he went nowhere. Maybe Eric was “unaffiliated,” as the Jewish-continuity surveyors say. Some press obits said Carmen was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. The New York Times wrote: “[Carmen was] from a family of Jewish immigrants from Russia.” Yeah, so am I. So is nearly every Jew in Cleveland. Enough with the Jewish stuff. Or not . . .

Carmen’s grandfather was Hector Camingkovich, according to Findagrave.com. The Cleveland Jewish News, 20 years ago, mentioned that Carmen’s father worked at Gould Ocean Systems, and his name was Elmer Carmen. Eric’s mother was Ruth (nee Berns). Do the names Elmer and Ruth sound immigrant to you? They shouldn’t. A 2007 CJN obit said Elmer “enjoyed golf and travel, and was a graduate of Glenville High School and Western Reserve University.” Elmer wound up in a gentile cemetery.

Eric Carmen played sock hops at Brush High. I didn’t cotton to sock hops. (I liked bowling and miniature golf.) Alan Douglass, from Yiddishe Cup, saw Carmen a couple times. I’ll ask Alan about that.

Several commenters on the South Euclid/Lyndhurst FB site segued into naming other well-known Brush grads. For example, there was Steve Stone, a Major League pitcher who won the Cy Young Award while playing for the White Sox, or was it the Cubs? (I gotta look that up . . . Orioles.) Stone’s sister was in my homeroom. Does that count for anything? It better, because I’m sorry I (Brush’68) have no Eric Carmen reminiscences for you. (**please see addendum, under photo)

Brush High yearbook, 1966. Carmen’s junior year. (Photo courtesy of Ken Goldberg)

** Alan Douglass, of Yiddishe Cup, ran into Carmen many times at a convenience store in Mayfield Heights in the early 1980s. Alan worked there; Carmen shopped there. Alan said, “He was a ‘has been’ at that point — pre-Top Gun.” Alan had a 45 rpm record of “All By Myself,” which he brought to work for Carmen to sign, but for some reason, the “All By Myself” record and Carmen were never in the store at the same time. Alan said, “I liked everything by The Raspberries and all his solo stuff. He was power pop before there was power pop.”

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April 3, 2024   2 Comments

MUSHROOMHEAD HEAD

 
I give musician-tenants a little slack. One musician — he specialized in electronic music, and when he moved out didn’t leave a forwarding address. I wrote “please forward” on his security-deposit refund envelope. I sent it about two months after he moved. Some tenants plain forget to claim their deposits. (About 1 tenant in 200.) I never got a thank you from the guy. He should have sent a thank-you.

I once rented to a blues guy who didn’t pay a couple months’ rent. He should have known that a 12-month lease means 12 months, not six months. Youngsters (22-to-30 year olds) — they don’t know what 12 months means, but the blues guy was over 30. Young people — they try to weasel out of their leases. They say they need to move back home to help Grandpa, who broke his hip. They need to help Grandpa drink his beer and watch The Three Stooges! That’s the real story.

Musicians are sensitive to noise; I get that. If they want to move out, I sometimes let them out early. (I once lived in an apartment building and barely survived.) Several years ago I rented to a musician in the heavy-metal band Mushroomhead. I thought he might wreck the place. No, he was clean, stayed a couple years, and was never a problem. He left behind some band merch or band paraphernalia (not sure which) for the next tenant, who was a Mushroomhead head. That worked out well. The Mushroomhead head is still a tenant.

Mushroomhead

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March 27, 2024   3 Comments

YIDD LORE

 
Yiddishe Cup got its first paying gig in 1988, at the old Jewish Community Center on Mayfield Road in Cleveland Heights. After that, we started playing Booksellers at the Pavilion Mall in Beachwood. We did well at Booksellers. So well, in fact, the store manager kicked us out. He said, “We sometimes don’t ask back popular groups. The books are the main attraction, not the music.”

I didn’t grasp that; we were drawing a crowd of book-buying Jews. But the manager booted us. He said book browsers were dancing in the aisles, knocking down books. I suggested he put the band in the mall’s atrium. He did that once. Then he re-booted us.

Yiddishe Cup got in a book, not just a bookstore — Merging Traditions, Jewish Life in Cleveland, a coffee table book (2002). The book has a photo of the band leading a Torah procession up Taylor Road to a new shul. In the book’s index, “Yiddishe Cup” is next to “Yiddishe Stimme” (a newspaper) and Young Israel (a synagogue).

I hope Booksellers — the long-defunct bookstore — gets in a history book, because Booksellers was one of the first mall bookstores to have a café and live music. This was in the mid-1980s. It was unusual back then to walk into a mall bookstore and get a muffin and music. I remember the store was written up on the front page of the Wall Street Journal in the quirky column.

Alan Douglass (L) and Bert Stratton. 2022. (Photo by Lloyd Wolf)

There are two original members, still, in Yiddishe Cup: Alan Douglass (keys, vocals) and me. We’ve seen it all. Wait, here’s something we hadn’t seen until last month. Alan and I — and the rest of the band — played a Yekkie Orthodox Jewish wedding in Beachwood. Yekkie is Yiddish for  “German Jew.” The groom’s family was originally from Frankfurt. The Yekkies held two back-to-back wedding ceremonies. The first was a German ceremony, called chuppa main. Then an hour later, we did the standard-issue OJ (Orthodox Jewish) ceremony. Even the OJ caterer said he had never seen a Yekkie doubleheader before. Also, there were no shouts of “mazel tov” after the smashing of the glass. The cantor sang Psalm 128 after the glass-smash, at which point the Yekkies shouted “mazel tov,” and we escorted the bride and groom out.

Booksellers, again . . . The Kleveland Klezmorim played Booksellers before Yiddishe Cup did. The Kleveland Klezmorim pioneered klez-jazz fusion.  The Kleveland Klezmorim were in founded in 1983 by marimba player Greg Selker. The Kleveland Klezmorim wouldn’t play “Hava Nagilah.” We would, so we got a lot of their gigs. The Kleveland Klezmorim disbanded in 1990. (Footnote: Alan Douglass was a founding member of the Kleveland Klezmorim.)

Yiddishe Cup’s next free, public gig is Purim at Park Synagogue, Pepper Pipes, Ohio, this Sat. (March 23). 7:45 pm. Still kickin’ out the jams.

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March 20, 2024   1 Comment

ON THE SCENE (1975)

 
I auditioned for a soul band at East 91 Street and Union Avenue. I had on red Adidas tennis shoes. The bandleader, Amos, liked the colors: the red shoes and my white skin. He said, “Ain’t no Holiday Inn going to hire no band without a white guy, and right now there ain’t nary a grain of salt in this room.”

I wasn’t too good on sax but I could play harmonica. Amos was intrigued by the harp; he considered the harmonica “country” — not a respectable axe for a black man but OK for a white guy. He said, “We can use that harp. You hip to Tower of Power? They got a bad white dude on harp. You hip to War? Another bad brother of yours on harp.”

The keyboard player had doubts, not about me so much, but about pot. He was exasperated by Amos’ marijuana smoking. The keyboard guy had qualms about playing in bars where customers might be high on marijuana. “Weed is communicating with the demon,” he said.

Amos said, “What you think? What you going to do when we play cabarets and shit? It ain’t no motherfucking church!”

“I quit,” the keyboardist said.

Things fell apart. Amos’ young son sat in on drums the next rehearsal, and then we had a mediocre female drummer. A horn player – an old guy (about 40) – had no teeth. He said, “Man, I can’t play without my choppers.”

Amos said we should move in a different direction: “gutbucket blues” or “even country western.” (I didn’t bring up klezmer because I hadn’t heard of it in 1975.) Amos said, “I’m unemployed! I’ll try anything.”

One night I stopped by the Hibachi Lounge at Union Avenue and East 103 Street. That venue was supposed to be our first gig. The Hibachi bouncer, wearing a red jumpsuit and red wide-brim hat, hung out at the pay phone, talking and shuckling (davening) like he was listening to Dial-A-Jewish-Concept. Several women line-danced to disco music from the jukebox. A couple women stared at me. Was it my red tennis shoes?

We never did play a gig.

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March 13, 2024   1 Comment

MY MOTHER

 
I was at the cemetery the other day. I like the place. Someday I’ll be 20 feet from stardom — my mom’s plot. I have a burial plot 20 feet away. I’m a mama’s boy. Julia Zalk Stratton, my mother, died 20 years ago (March 11, 2004).

I never left Cleveland, because of my mom. It’s not that I didn’t try to leave, but I never found a better situation, geographically or psychologically. Some college buddies — hippie-types — wouldn’t even go home for school breaks; they didn’t want to appear middle-class even for a weekend. They would head to Boston or go into the woods. I went home.

When my mother died at 83, her sister told me not to grieve too much. Aunt Celeste said my mother would prefer I act upbeat. Hah.

My mother requested somebody (turned out to be my brother-in-law) read aloud a college essay of mine at her funeral . . .

In memory of my mother, on the 20th anniversary of her death. [This essay was written by a college boy in 1971.]

My mother . . .

She gave me ginger ale when I was sick, and even played catch with me once on the sidewalk. She greeted me all the time with the same happy “Hello, Alberto,” even when she, herself, was sick.

My mother sang in the mothers’ chorus when I was in elementary school, was a room mother with orange drink, and was a den mother. My mother went to see me every time I had a part in the school play, a solo in the schools, or a tennis match, even though I’d often tell her to stay away from the tennis matches. Spectators made me nervous. For big matches, she’d drive me to the courts and come get me when it was all over.

My mother told me to keep my room straight. She told me to be happy. She told me to go to medical school.

My mother came up from the South and found Cleveland to be her real home, with delis and streetcars. My mother was beautiful in her 1940s long black hair. My mother wheeled me in a baby carriage through Cleveland streets when I was one year old before we moved to South Euclid.

Julia, circa 1941, age 21.

My mother read a book in a second and forgot it the next. My mother baked castle birthday cakes and ship birthday cakes, looking up cake designs in cake books, like she looked up sweater patterns in sweater books. In our front room, she measured my sleeve for a new sweater, knitted in December.

My mother always told me to do my best and have a good time. In second grade she told me to “mind my manners,” and I’d had a lousy time at Doug Cormack’s birthday party, so it was then she switched to “have a good time.”

As I write this, my mother is in South Euclid, and I’m in Ann Arbor, and my sister, Leslie, is in Columbus with her husband and baby. The family is tied together by my mother.

My mother still plays tennis nearly every day. She plays bridge. She goes to Sisterhood meetings. She doesn’t let up for a second. She sweeps the carpet all the time. She’s always picking up — me and everybody else.

 

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March 6, 2024   6 Comments

CLEVELAND, CLARINET, COMEDY

 
In Mickey Katz’s autobiography, Papa, Play For Me, Katz tells some off-color jokes, like “Tailor, I have a problem. I have five penises. Will the pants fit?” The tailor says, “Like a glove.” Then Katz name drops: “I was part of a regular bridge game consisting of George Burns, Dave Siegel, George Raft, and myself. Occasionally Chico Marx.”

Katz kvells about his “creative wife” Grace, and sons Joel and Ron.

Fine, but the best stuff in the book is about Cleveland. Katz mentions many Cleveland landmarks. The first half of the book — before Katz moved to L.A. in 1946 — reads like an unofficial Jewish Encyclopedia of Cleveland. For instance, Katz mentions a musician who went to an East 105 Street bagel shop at 1 a.m. in 1935 and demanded a half-dozen fresh bagels, which he ate next door at Solomon’s deli (along with a corned beef sandwich) because Solomon’s was out of bagels. That’s detail.

Mickey Katz 1959

In 1977, when the book came out, Katz was somewhat famous because his son Joel Grey was huge in Cabaret then. The first line in the book has the words “my son Joel Grey.” (The ghost writer of Katz’s autobio is Hannibal Coons, who was the main writer for the Addams Family.)

A couple decades ago, I took some Katz Yinglish (Yiddish-English) lyrics to a Workmen’s Circle meeting for translation. The translators – generally elderly Yiddishist purists — considered Katz shund (literary trash). Songs like “K’nock Around the Clock” and “Nudnik the Flying Shisl” (Pest the Flying Saucer) were beyond the pale.

I once lectured on Katz at the International Association of Yiddish Clubs convention in Cleveland (2007), and I met two musicians who had worked with him: cantor Hale Porter and singer Tanja Solnik. They had appeared with Katz in Hello Solly, a 1960s off-Broadway show. I asked them what Mickey had been like because I couldn’t tell from the autobio. I didn’t get a good answer from Tanja because she had been only 8 when she performed with Katz. She had been “Little Tanja.” Hale Porter didn’t say much memorable either. But it was interesting — at least for me — to simply meet people who had giggled with Mickele.

Myron “Mickey” Katz (1909 – 1985): Clevelander, clarinetist, comedian.

Katz writes about playing clarinet on the Goodtime, the Lake Erie cruise boat. (I’ve been on the Goodtime, and so has every other Clevelander.) The Goodtime was owned by the Seeandbee line. The “See” is for “Cleveland” and the “bee” is for “Buffalo.” Does that interest you?

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February 28, 2024   No Comments

FLOOR AND MORE

 
FLOOR

I rented to a yoga lady. I went halves with her on a laminate floor for her storefront. She did the legwork, hired the installer, and sent me a bill. I expected a copy of the installer’s invoice, but I got the yoga woman’s note as to what I owed.

I did a Reagan trust-but-verify; I called the floor installers, whom I knew from way back. They had rented a store from me down the street. I hadn’t talked to them since they had moved out. The flooring woman said the numbers on the invoice were right, and she told me her husband had died of cancer at 54 in 2008. I said, “I can still picture you and Rick walking around the [flooring] store with sweaters on, freezing.” The store was on the end of the heating line and didn’t warm up too quickly.

The flooring woman mentioned my father, whom she remembered and had a good impression of. That always gets me –when people remember my dad. Not too many people do; he died in 1986. My dad had had a real affinity for young entrepreneurs: flower shop guys, flooring stores, beauty parlor owners, resale shops, bars, you name it.

I had an essay in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Feb. 16. The story might have been paywalled. Here’s the whole thing:

SHY NO MORE

Bert and Toby Stratton, 1957, Victory Park School, South Euclid, Ohio

CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, Ohio — My family used to be shy. Then, in the 1950s, my father enrolled in a Dale Carnegie course on public speaking and became less shy. When I was in my 20s, my father bought me Carnegie’s book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” and I became less shy, too. When my children grew up, I bought them the book. Carnegie’s book, written in 1936, holds up. Carnegie’s message is, essentially, it’s not about you. He wrote “arouse in the other person an eager want.” Let the other person talk her head off, and you listen. Warren Buffet displayed his Carnegie-course diploma on his office wall.

Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan wrote that shyness is partially inherited. There is a brain marker for shyness. However, if you are willing to work on shyness, you can become less shy.

I’m an extrovert now in my old age. When I play clarinet at nursing homes, the audience members occasionally heckle me, and I welcome that. I actually relish it. One listener blurted out, “Shut up and play!” And I kept on talking – bantering about whatever seemed amusing. I typically poll the audience about their lives and tell anecdotes between songs. I like all kinds of interactions, short of violence.

I ask the nursing-home residents what high schools they attended, and which delis they like. Corky & Lenny’s and Jack’s Deli finished in a dead-heat for first. Then Corky’s went under. Now the residents and I try to create lists of defunct Jewish delis: Budin’s, Seiger’s, Solomon’s, Irv’s, Lefton’s, Sand’s and Diamond’s. Are there others? As for where everybody went to high school, Cleveland Heights High comes in first. (It used to be Glenville High. I play mostly Jewish nursing homes.)

My dad, toward the end of his life, became fearless and often sent back tepid soup at restaurants, and he once told floor sanders to re-sand floors that came out too wavy. (My dad owned Lakewood apartment buildings with wood-plank floors.) The sanders were off-duty policemen, and my dad wouldn’t pay until those floors were smooth. I was impressed my dad would go head-to-head with cops. The height of my dad’s boldness was when he was in the Cleveland Clinic dying of leukemia. He told the doctor, “I own this place.” My father owned a $10,000 Cleveland Clinic municipal bond.

A hardware-store owner in Lakewood once said to me, “Nobody is going to jew me down on that price.” This was in the 1970s, and I was in my 20s and very shy. I spent several minutes pacing the store’s aisles before reapproaching the owner. I said, “Bob, you know, I’m Jewish.” Bob didn’t know that. He didn’t know “jew” was derogatory. He apologized. No big deal, in hindsight.

Jack Stratton on his first gig, age 3 1/2, Beachwood Library, 1991

When my youngest child, a musician, finished college, he moved to California to try to make it in the music business. I told him to call Joe McDonald of Country Joe and the Fish. I had gotten Joe’s number from a friend. Joe lived in California. My son said, “Who’s Country Joe?” Huh? Had my son never heard of Woodstock? Or at least seen the movie. I said, “Don’t be shy. Call him.” I was talking to myself mostly – my younger self.

My son didn’t call Country Joe. It takes time to become less shy.

Bert Stratton, a frequent contributor, lives in Cleveland Heights and has also written for The Wall Street Journal and New York Times. He writes the blog “Klezmer Guy: Real Music & Real Estate.”

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February 21, 2024   1 Comment

HE PLAYED “OUTSIDE”

 
A Cleveland friend, Alan Sherwin, started an avant garde jazz band, which I followed around. Me and about two other people. This was in 1975. The band had zero commercial success; however, one musician ultimately wound up in Tin Huey — a big deal in northeastern Ohio — and another guy, a some-time drummer, wound up in Devo.

Alan Sherwin, circa 2020

Alan’s band was called Jazz Death. “Jazz Death?”– with a question mark — was the name of a jazz tune written by trumpeter Lester Bowie of the Art Ensemble of Chicago.  One couldn’t get more “outside” than Bowie and the Art Ensemble. (“Outside” means playing outside the traditional chord structure.)

Alan outlined Jazz Death’s M.O. to me: “Everybody plays at once but we don’t get in each other’s way.” Besides the Art Ensemble of Chicago and other avant garde groups, Alan also liked bebop: Parker, Monk, Bud Powell. We’re not talking smooth jazz here.

Alan was an electronics teacher at my alma mater, Brush High School. He was pretty much self-taught on sax. He majored in something non-music-y at Miami University of Ohio. He didn’t care what others thought of his musical tastes. He said to me, “I don’t need Downbeat to tell me who to listen to.” He didn’t care who was playing at Slug’s.

Alan was intrigued by my career path. He said I was on “an old Jew trip” because I was going into real estate. No selling out for Alan! He wouldn’t even listen to music while he drove. He needed to sit alone in his apartment and focus hard on the tunes. (He did install a cassette player in my car. He knew electronics.)

Alan eventually moved to Washington, D.C., for a girlfriend, and I didn’t see him for years after that. I looked him up in 2012. Alan told me to learn some jazz licks — “you only need to do it in four keys” — and I’d be decent. Four keys beat 12 keys, but still, I stuck to klezmer for the most part.

A few years ago I sent Alan a comic strip by Harvey Pekar that acknowledged the late, not-lauded Jazz Death. Alan wrote me back, “What is Pekar smoking?” (Pekar was dead but that’s beside the point. The point: Alan was being self-deprecating.) Alan had become more mainstream — less Art Ensemble of Chicago, more Duke Ellington. No more going “outside.”

This link here and this one are all I can find on Alan’s music on the internet.

Wait, I’ll check Spotify . . .

Nothing. Just “Allan Sherman.”

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February 14, 2024   2 Comments

JAMMIN’ WITH SOME SALMON

 
“Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” by Lil Hardin Armstrong is probably the best song title. It has action, smell and humor. The worst song title is “Rise Up to New Jewish Music.” Some Jewish bands go for that sort of thing. (Anything “New” is old.)

The worst name of a klezmer band is the Klezmer Conservatory Band, They are a good band but a bad name. “Yiddishe Cup,” the name, gets the job done around town, but doesn’t land us any concerts at cool, mohel’s-edge music festivals. “Yiddishe Cup” is bubbe’s procus (stuffed cabbage). Very soggy.

I once changed the band’s name to Funk A Deli but that only confused people. Every Purim, a synagogue scheduler emailed and ask what the band’s name was going to be for that year.

Last month, when I was on vacation in Mexico, I was jamming on the street (which I often do on vacations to meet people), and  I was playing “Misty,” when an American couple asked me if I knew any klezmer. I said, “So happens I do!”  The couple was from Madison, Wisconsin, and had hired Yid Vicious for their wedding. I’ve always liked “Yid Vicious,” the name.

Speaking of which,  I was playing a gig recently at a nursing home, Menorah Park, where the fairly new activities director came up to me and said, “Do you know any Jewish songs?”

I said, “Do you know who you’re talking to!” She didn’t. She explained that the new owners of the nursing home requested all musicians play at least “4 to 6 Jewish songs.” I said, “We can play 999 Jewish tunes if you want.”

Yiddishe Cup’s last CD, Klezmer Guy, 2009, was almost called Jammin’ With Some Salmon. I test-drove that title, and nobody understood it. “Nobody,” meaning my wife, Alice. I didn’t run the title by anybody else. I didn’t want the aggravation of multiple artistic input. I wasn’t running a democracy. I settled on Klezmer Guy and started this blog, Klezmer Guy: Real Music & Real Estate, to promote the album.

–Bert Struttin

P.S. To purchase a Klezmer Guy CD, contact Alan Douglass. He has a few cartons in his basement.

Alan Douglass (above) has cornered the market on “Klezmer Guy” CDs

 

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February 7, 2024   4 Comments

THE ENVY CLINIC

 
I envy you. Don’t gloat over that. I envy a lot of people. For instance, I envy the patients at the Cleveland Clinic. They are among the 1,700 sickest people in the world. The Clinic is the 4th-best hospital in the country, according to US News & World Report. I envy that #4 ranking.

I wore a white lab coat to the Cleveland Clinic and walked the halls . . .

Desk H-70, Pain Management. The patients there don’t know about real pain. My car has static at 91.5 FM, the jazz station. That is pain.

G-50 Dermatology. The doc took full-body naked pics of me. She’s sick.

C-20, Palliative Care. People are dying but look pretty good. I take drugs and don’t look as good as these folks.

I-20, Eye Clinic. Floaters to my left, floaters to my right. I told the gate attendant at the eye-clinic parking lot, “You’ve got the most dangerous job in the world because half the people coming out of here are blind.”

He said, “Don’t you know it. This is the third time we’ve fixed the turnstile this month.”

I envy that man — the car crashes he must see.

NV-50, Envy Clinic. I’m here for a month.

[fiction]

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January 31, 2024   1 Comment