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 New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post.



My father, Toby, ate his last meal out at Wendy’s on his way to Columbus, Ohio, for experimental leukemia treatments.

He checked in to the hospital, then checked out, so to speak.

My father liked Wendy’s (headquartered in Columbus) because he had a quasi-business relationship with the company.  Toby had almost invested in Wendy’s before it went national.  Almost. Toby’s near-miss with Wendy’s stock topped any of my uncles’ near-miss sagas at Seder.

Toby liked fast food. He and I often ate at McDonald’s on the West Side.  I got the Filet-O-Fish.  I thought it was good for me.

Toby explained franchising: the franchisor took a percentage of the action for eternity. Toby had been a franchisee/sucker with a cosmetics company – and he knew something about the food business too.  He especially knew about chazerai (junk).  Toby had worked in his mother’s candy store, dipping ice cream bars into vats of chocolate, and writing “free” on a few wooden ice cream sticks.  Very few.

When I visited my father’s grave the first couple times, I brought along Mr. Goodbars.  Once, a Planters Peanut.  (The bars were for me, by the way.)


I raised the rent on the flower-shop guy a mere $10 per month. Toby smiled and said, “You’re a nice guy.”  I think Toby’s smile — a rarity — meant he was glad I wasn’t a total hardass like him.  We had arrived.

Decades later, I sat at the West Side McDonald’s with my oldest son, Ted, 28.  I now knew the Filet-O-Fish was a calorie bomb, so I ordered the chicken Caesar salad.  Ted, like his late grandfather Toby, ordered a huge burger.

I was instructing my son on the watchword of our people: Don’t be a sucker.

Lesson one: The first generation (Grandpa) scrapes, the second (Dad) tries to keep things on keel, and the third (Ted) needs tutorials in toughness because he doesn’t remember his grandfather.

During Toby’s final days, the Cleveland Clinic nurses called him “chief” because he was so bossy.  A doc said, “You’re a hard one.”  Toby answered, “That’s right.  It’s my life.”  A nurse wondered if Toby was in the medical field because he had a stack of homemade medical folders.

Toby was flattered. The closest Toby had come to the medical field was a dental school acceptance in the 1950s, but he couldn’t afford to go because he had kids.

I told my son not to forget the little things: pens, checks, camera, Post-It notes.  Lesson one: “Write everything down.  You don’t want to think about ‘cold water leak, Webb #24 bathroom sink,'” I said.

Lesson two: Be wary of restaurant workers, particularly chefs and servers.  They come home late, party hard, and wake up the solid-citizen tenants in the building.

Lesson three: Always Be Closing.  ABC.   That was from a David Mamet play/movie, and was a joke between my son and me.  My son, like every other young person, enjoyed quoting movies verbatim.

I thought of a non-movie line for Ted.  I said, “If the tenant hasn’t mailed his rent, say, ‘Do not mail in your late rent.  Hand it to the custodian.  Hand it.’ We don’t want to wonder if the post office has lost the check.”

Ted seemed more interested in his burger.  I wasn’t up to Mamet’s standards.

“The job sucks on some level!” I said.  That got the boy’s attention.  “You make it interesting.  It took me a while.”


My father dragged 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 much better.

Gershy had shotguns over the mantle, plus a longhorn steer horn and shalom plaques.  “You wouldn’t believe it, but I used to be a shtarker,” Gershy said.   (Strong guy/bully.)

I believed it.

Gershy said, “You’ve got that little curl in the tail — that little something different — that something the new treatment doesn’t cure.   You’re in trouble.  They say, ‘We can’t straighten out your tail. You’re dead.’  That’s what the doctors tell me.”

Gershy’s steer horn cost $50.  A gun dealer, who had sold the horn to Gershy, wanted it 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.

His 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.


Driving home, Toby said, “Gershy has mellowed.”

Mellowed? Gershy would not pass for mellow in my Donovan world.

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

I didn’t.

At McDonald’s, I told my son, “If a real estate broker claims operating expenses are forty-five percent, he’s delusional.  Building operating ratios are higher than that.”  I slid a Wall Street Journal across the table.  “Take it.  Take the paper.”  The Journal was the best I could offer.  I didn’t see any Gershys or Tobys around.  Unless you count me.

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1 Teddy { 06.16.10 at 10:01 am }

Nice. I eat at Wendy’s every day. Our office is across the street from the international headquarters. It’s a good Wendy’s. The corporate boys and girls really keep an eye on it.

2 Margie { 06.16.10 at 10:11 am }

D’or l’dor. This is what it’s all about. thanks.

3 Irwin { 06.16.10 at 11:06 am }

My dad’s favorite restaurant was the Perkin’s in Euclid. On a Sunday, our family would take a walk there (about 1 1/2 mi.) since we never owned a car. It was usually fun as long as my dad didn’t give the waitresses a hard time.

My dad was tough too. I wish my son had gotten to know him.

4 Marc { 06.16.10 at 2:40 pm }

Is your son going into the business?

Like you, I went into the family business, retail hardware store run by my father and uncle, now run by my cousin and me.

My father was tough, like your father. That generation grew up in rough neighborhoods. Survived the Great Depression. Today if your are tough like that, you would have no employees and lots of lawsuits.

5 Bill { 06.16.10 at 10:48 pm }

The story I got on Toby was that he had the grades for medical school, but quotas kept him out. He was said to have settled for majoring in chemistry instead. Could just be family lore, I suppose, like the time he supposedly thumbed a ride home from college with a mobster in the guy’s bullet-plated limo, but those were the stories we were told.

6 Bert { 06.17.10 at 8:28 am }

To Bill:

Toby had the grades, definitely. He did get a “C” in cavalry, though, at Ohio State.

Toby had a brother who was 10 years older, Sol, a chemistry major at Western Reserve. I think Sol got turned down for medical school due to quotas . He wound up getting a PhD in chemistry.

So I think Toby went into chemistry knowing upfront he had no shot at med school.


Thanks for the hitchhiking story. Didn’t know it.

Ohio Route 3 was the hitchhiking road, for sure. That was the Cleveland-Columbus OSU “express” in the pre-freeway days.

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