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.


 
 

Category — Family History, Not Boring

LEGAL TENDER

I never subjected my future-wife to a Diner-style quiz. I never said, “Who is Unitas or I won’t marry you.” But if I had asked important dating questions, I would have asked about money. Who is on the dime? I have a negative opinion of people who don’t know who is on the dime.

Who is on the $10,000 bill? That, I won’t hold against you. The government hasn’t printed a 10K bill since 1946. [Answer: Salmon P. Chase. Sir, your first name is a fish!]

My favorite coin is the Kennedy half-dollar because it has heft and has a good feel to it (serrated edges), and it’s half a rock — a quality nickname. I haven’t seen one in years. The government stopped making Kennedy half-dollars in 2003. You can go to a bank and request a half a rock, but who’s going to do that? I sold most of my half-dollars for their silver content decades ago, during the Hunt brothers silver boom.

I did give my wife a low-stakes money quiz. Way too late — we were already married many years. Alice knew Lincoln is on the penny and Washington is on the dollar bill. She said an Indian is on the nickel. That’s a very old nickel, Alice. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want her to have a negative opinion of me.

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July 7, 2021   1 Comment

SHOPPING WITH MOM

My mother, Julia, wanted herring and a third of a pound of pastrami, sliced thin. I went to Heinen’s supermarket and got it for her, and she died the next day.

I regularly shopped for my mom while she was in assisted living. She didn’t want to exist solely on the kosher food at the Jewish facility. (That’s a common complaint of the non-Orthodox.)

Occasionally my mother came with me to Heinen’s. She got the motorized Dodgem cart. She wasn’t a great driver. She had Parkinson’s.

She schmoozed with the clerks and checked expiration dates on cole slaw. She always taught me something; in the cereal aisle, she once told me, “You get the most weight for your money with shredded wheat.”

She liked Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies and Pringles potato chips. She could eat anything. I had to buy her Boost to gain weight.

I liked the snack aisle at Heinen’s, and I liked having an excuse to go there. What kind of Milanos should I get? There were seven varieties. What kinds of Pringles? There were 15 choices. I was shopping for junk for health reasons.

She once wanted me to ask for “Jewish tongue” at the deli counter, because she couldn’t attract the clerk’s attention; she was seated too low in her motorized cart.

I said, “Jewish tongue, please!” That’s the only time I ever said that.

My mother had served tongue when we were growing up. It was bad then, and it’s bad now.

Toward the end, nothing tasted good to my mom. Everything was too spicy, or not spicy enough. The only thing that worked was shrimp cocktail. She had no taste buds left. That was about her only complaint in her last years. My mother wasn’t a kvetch.

I continued going to Heinen’s after she died in 2004. But I don’t go into the center aisles often where the junk food is; I hang around the “healthy choice” perimeter.

My visits to Heinen’s are like mini-yahrzeits for my mother. Pringles: Mom. Pepperidge Farm Milanos: Mom. Jewish tongue: Mom. That last one, I still have trouble with.

The above essay appeared in the New York Times 10 years ago. I sent it to “oped@nytimes.com” with the subject line “here’s one for mother’s day.”

Julia Stratton (1920 - 2004). 1953 photo. Leslie (front) and Bert.

Julia Stratton (1920 – 2004). 1953 photo. Leslie (front) and Bert.

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May 5, 2021   6 Comments

I’M NOT KENNETH

I’m not Kenneth. I was supposed to be Kenneth, but my mother’s father, Albert Zalk, died four days before I was born. So I got “Albert.”

My grandfather died unexpectedly of a heart attack on a Saturday night (July 9, 1950); was buried the next Monday; and I was born three days later. Over the years I asked my mother how she made it through that week in July 1950. She always brushed me off with “I’m wasn’t even thinking.”

Albert Zalk. Cleveland, 1940s.

Albert Zalk. Cleveland, 1940s.

Here’s a parallel between my grandfather and me: Albert Zalk spent the last 18 years of his life collecting money for the Jewish Orthodox Old Home, and I’ve spent the last 20 years playing music at Menorah Park, the successor to the Jewish Orthodox Old Home. My grandfather wasn’t a big-time fundraiser for the home. He was not a macher. He was an edel (gentle) man and part-time Hebrew teacher. He lived in an apartment on East 140 Street and had little savings. His three daughters slept in one bedroom. Maybe he was a schnorer — a derogatory term for a tzedakah collector. I bought a membership to the Plain Dealer archives the other day and read Albert Zalk’s obit: “[Albert Zalk] known to thousands of persons in the Cleveland Jewish community for his activities in behalf of the Jewish Orthodox Old Home . . . was a familiar figure in all parts of the community.” So Albert took care of business, and for a good cause, besides.

Albert Zalk arrived in New York from Eishyshok, Lithuania, on the President Lincoln, via Hamburg, in 1909 at the age of 24. He made his way to the Mississippi Delta. His older sister was already there, married to a former-peddler merchant. Albert eventually owned two dry-goods stores, in Yazoo City and Louise, Mississippi. Albert had financial success. My mom said her childhood house in Yazoo City had a maid, cook and “yard boy.”

yazoo record label

My mother bought me a harmonica for my bar mitzvah. A chromatic harp — not a blues harp — but still, give her credit. I played harmonica a lot on the Diag at the U. of Michigan. Yazoo Records was a blues-reissue label that started in the 1960s. I liked the company logo.

Julia Zalk Stratton, 1953, with her kids, Leslie (front) and Bert (rear). South Euclid, Ohio.

Julia Zalk Stratton, 1953, with her kids, Leslie (front) and Bert (rear). South Euclid, Ohio

The Depression walloped my grandfather’s Mississippi stores, and he moved to Cleveland in 1930. Also, he wanted his three daughters to find Jewish boys to marry, and there weren’t many in Mississippi. Two years after arriving in Cleveland, Albert was traveling through Cleveland Jewish neighborhoods collecting money for the old folks home.

A relevant relative: Ann Sklar of Mississippi. She never married and lavished extra attention on her extended family. My mom said Annie didn’t marry her longtime sweetheart because he wasn’t Jewish, and she didn’t want to hurt her parents. Annie graduated from Mississippi State College for Women (The “W”). That was a somewhat unusual thing — a female college grad back then. (My mom was accepted to Flora Stone Mather, the women’s college at Western Reserve, but didn’t go because she couldn’t afford it. She saved her acceptance letter and attended secretarial school.) Ann Sklar became a secretary and office manager at W. P. Brown farm (Drew, Mississippi) — the largest individually owned cotton plantation in the South. When I was born, Annie sent me an engraved kiddush cup, along with her handwritten card that began “Dear Little Albert . . .”

On Monday I’m playing at Menorah Park for the first time in four months, because of Covid. Outdoors. Little Albert on the bandstand. (For the record, I’m 5-8, and have been avoiding “Albert” for most of my life.)

kiddish cup albert stratton albert zalk

The engraving on this kiddush cup reads “And it was evening, Albert M. Zalk, 1880-1950. And it was morning, Albert Stratton, July 13, 1950.” [1880 is wrong. Should read 1885.]

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July 15, 2020   6 Comments

YOU ARE A COMPLETE FAILURE

What happened to Sylvia Rimm? She used to be on public radio, dispensing childrearing advice. Rimm told my wife and me to subsume our individual personalities and create a united front to raise our kids. We didn’t. My wife, Alice, quoted Sylvia Rimm endlessly. Alice also quoted Eleanor Weisberger, Spock, Braselton and every other childrearing guru.

Alice wanted our kids to acquire a “sense of mastery” — of everything. Like going to Disney World was garbage, according to Alice, because our kids wouldn’t learn anything there. Actually, the kids learned a lot there. Teddy single-handedly planned the whole Disney World itinerary.

Our kids had so many lessons. I mean, ping pong lessons, tumbling lessons, Hebrew lessons, accordion lessons . . . Capoeira. What’s that?

My wife now gives lessons in everything.

Our youngest kid, Jack, learned to juggle by age 10. Our daughter, Lucy, became a Division 3 college athlete in diving. We didn’t allow much TV, except Mr. Rogers and once in a while The Simpsons. When our kids grew up, they immediately got TVs and watched every show made in the past 40 years.

I liked Bettelheim’s A Good Enough Parent. I liked the title. I swore at my kids. Was that so horrible? Probably hit my kids. Blocking it. One of my teenage kids took my car to an SAT test, and I needed the car for a gig because my music gear was in the trunk. I went to the SAT site and swore at the kid. An adult said to me, “Hey, ease up.” My outburst cost my child at least 30 points.

I snitched on some delinquent neighborhood kids who were very loud and rowdy. I called the police. The cop said, “Hey buddy, you’ve got a pretty short fuse.”

Are you perfect? Are you “slightly imperfect,” like my underwear? Are you good enough? Or are you a complete failure?

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February 12, 2020   1 Comment

CAN YOU TOP MY MUSICAL LINEAGE?

I look for my musical roots wherever I can. My grandmother played piano at a Baptist church in Yazoo City, Mississippi. Not bad. Not good, either: 1) it was a white church and 2) she was reading sheet music. My Mississippi bubbe, Ida Kassoff Zalk, had a brother, Earl Kassoff, in Cleveland. Earl was a drummer, xylophonist and house painter. He led bands in Cleveland under the name Earl Castle.

Because I’m a musician, people sometimes ask me, “Did your parents play? Is your family musical?” Not particularly. That’s why I looked so hard for lineage. I couldn’t find much info on Earl. I talked to a couple relatives. Earl didn’t leave behind sheet music or tune books. He died in 1969. At a gig, an elderly musician/guest and I schmoozed, and I asked him if he remembered Earl Kassoff. The schmoozer was Harold Finger, age 77. He, himself, had played clarinet and sax professionally during the 1930s and 1940s.

I went to Harold’s apartment in Lyndhurst and interviewed him in 1992. He said there had been “four or five bands that got the Jewish work back then.” I asked him what bands. He didn’t remember any names. “What were the most popular Jewish tunes?” I asked. He said, “The Kammen book. That was the big thing.” The Kammen book was the Kammen International Dance Folio, published in 1924, and it is still around. The book is for musicians who don’t know many Jewish songs and have been asked by clients, “Can’t you play something besides ‘Hava Nagila’?”

Uncle Earl’s band did mostly “dance work” — American music, Harold said. Earl had worked the downtown theaters, as well as the Golden Pheasant — a Chinese restaurant where Artie Shaw started out. Harold said he, himself, didn’t stick to the melody all the time. He did some “faking” (improvising). Now he played clarinet in a community orchestra. “I don’t do much jobbing anymore,” he said. Jobbing was gigging.

Harold died three years after the interview. Harold’s wife was on the interview tape, teasing Harold about how he loved his saxophone and clarinet more than her. Harold said, “I quit playing music for you!”

Recap: I come from a piano-playing grandma in Mississippi and a house-painting xylophonist great uncle in South Euclid, Ohio.


Here’s something I wrote for City Journal: Latke Blues.

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January 8, 2020   2 Comments

THINK YIDDISH, ACT BRITISH

Bill Miller, who went to law school in South Dakota, wore a cowboy hat to our sons’ Little League games. Jews — the subject — came up, as it tends to around me. Bill ended our conversation with, “Think Yiddish, act British.” This was a new expression to my ears. Also, this guy — Bill Miller — was Jewish? Bill said he was inching his way back to the East Coast. He had lived in South Dakota, Iowa, and now Ohio. He had grown up on Long Island.

Bill got me to thinking about my personal “Think Yiddish, Act British” (TYAB) playbook. I had learned the cardinal rule of TYAB, courtesy of my mom: “Don’t make a scene.” If anybody in my family ever said “Jewish” in a restaurant, for instance, my mother would glance around to see if anybody heard. Forget Jew — the word — I rarely heard that growing up.

My dad couldn’t read (sound out) Hebrew. My mother could. My father’s parents were “basically communists,” an elderly cousin told me. That was a bit of an exaggeration. My grandparents were entrepreneurs with a socialist background. Par for the course.

We put out Easter eggs and got Christmas presents. No tree. No yelling. At High Holidays, my mom would write my teachers: “Please excuse Bert’s absence from school due to religious observances.” My temple held services on Sunday, not Saturday.

Jewish got more play beginning in 1967. I was surprised when my parents attended an emergency fundraiser for Israel. A lot of American Jews stepped forward during the Six-Day War. Abba Eban, at the U.N., was my hero. The possibility of a second Holocaust seemed very real. A couple kids in my high school began wearing Jewish Power buttons, courtesy of a button shop in Greenwich Village. I didn’t have the guts to wear the button. The button-wearing kids had grown up in the Jewish neighborhood, not with the Italians like I had. After the Israeli victory in 1967, the TYAB playbook became nearly obsolete.

At my dad’s funeral in 1986, my father’s brother Milt baited the officiating rabbi: “One place I’d never go is Israel.”

“Why is that?” the rabbi asked.

“Our mother was an ardent Zionist who wanted us to move there, and I didn’t want to.”

My mother questioned Milt’s propriety several hours later. According to my mom, 1) Uncle Milt’s mother had been a Zionist, but had never urged her kids to make aliyah. 2) Milt was a jackass for making a scene.

An etiolated version of TYAB was alive. But is TYAB in effect when you’re totally among Jews?

Yidd Cup/ Funk A Deli  plays a concert 7 pm Thurs, Aug. 15, at Walter Stinson Community Park. That’s somewhere in University Heights, Ohio. (hint: 2313Fenwick Rd.) Free. Outdoors.

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August 7, 2019   2 Comments

THE TAXMAN COMETH

Every January I spend a day filling out employer tax forms. My favorite is the Federal Unemployment Tax Act (FUTA) form. I did my first FUTA Form 940 in 1978, when my dad started going to Florida for the winter. He and his high school buddies golfed in Boca Raton, and I filled out FUTAs in Cleveland.

Toby Stratton (far L) w/ friends at Boca Lago CC, 1983

The treasurer of Ohio likes his W-2 reconciliations promptly. The state unemployment bureau also likes its money quickly. And don’t forget workers comp.

I used an IBM Selectric-style typewriter for tax forms until the machine died around 2011. The A key wouldn’t work. That was its main drawback. “ lbert Str tton” didn’t cut it with the government. I threw out the typewriter and several boxes of Ko-Rec-Type.  I spent a few hours behind this typer:

2011 RIP.( I wrote some unpublished novels on this baby.) It's an IBM knock-off, actually.

 It’s an IBM knock-off, actually.

Now I use IRS computer forms, except for my Yiddishe Cup 1099s, which I do by hand. I used black ink on Yiddishe Cup’s 1099s. One year I used blue, which is ill-advised. The gobierno prefers black ink. I got with the program.

What are you in jail for?

Blue ink.

No thanks.

 

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January 2, 2019   1 Comment

TRUCKIN’

My cousin Marc had a GMC tractor-trailer, which he parked in the May Co. lot in University Heights. Marc was possibly the only Jewish long-distance trucker in the Heights in the 1970s. In 1975 Marc borrowed a few thousand dollars from my father for the truck. Marc had a contract with International Truck of Rock, Minnesota. Ultimately, Marc moved to Pennsylvania and never repaid my dad.

truckn

In high school Marc had been a J.D., stealing hubcaps. Hubcaps from Shaker Heights. Class. When Marc’s mother (my dad’s sister) heard Marc hadn’t repaid my dad, she made payments, but never fully repaid the loan. My father’s attitude was “win some, lose some” with family.

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April 4, 2018   3 Comments

STRATTON VS SOLTZBERG

My father, Toby, didn’t want an obituary. He thought that might tip off the IRS to his change in status. Nevertheless, when Toby died, an editor at the Cleveland Plain Dealer asked to write something. The editor was a friend of my dad’s.  My mother said no. The writer persisted, because years prior, Toby had gotten the editor a moonlighting job — editing the newsletter for the key company where my dad worked.

No again, my mother said.Toby wound up in the Cleveland Jewish News. That was OK.  Not too many IRS agents read that.

Theodore "Toby" Stratton (1917-1986) Photo 1984

Theodore “Toby” Stratton (1917-1986) Photo 1984

It wouldn’t have mattered; my dad lived his entire adult life under an alias: Stratton. He had gotten “Stratton” out of a phone book. His birth name was Soltzberg. How had he felt about all that? Fine, he often told me.

I had my doubts. (His two brothers stayed Soltzbergs, while Toby rode off to become Stratton of Judea.)

His only regret, which was momentary, he claimed, was when his then 21-year-old daughter dated a sheygets (gentile boy) from Parma who had no college degree. Back then Toby said, “If I hadn’t changed my name, this wouldn’t be going on!” He picked “Stratton” in a waiting room, waiting for a job interview.  He got the job and changed his name in 1941.

The story sounded like BS to me. I thought Toby might have been embarrassed and insecure about his Jewishness.  A lot of Jews back then jumped to the U.S.S. Wasp. I’ve read  half the Jews in the U.S. changed their names. [Commentary, August 1952,”Name-Changing — And What It Gets You,” by J. Alvin Kugelmass.]   Some of the impetus for the name-changing was anti-Semitism and a desire to “pass.”  (I’m not blaming anybody. Different times back then.)

When I was right out of college, I told my dad I was going to change my name to Soltzberg. He went nuts. He said, “You’re looking for trouble!  Don’t do it!”

Decades later I lectured on Mickey Katz at the International Association of Yiddish Clubs convention; I was wearing a “Stratton” nametag and an old man approached me, asking, “Are you related to Toby Stratton?”

“He was my father.”

“I left town in 1941,” the man said, his eyes on my nametag. “It was there, right there in my apartment, when he talked about changing his name. He had gotten turned down by three chemical companies.  He was one of  the smartest guys I ever met.  He changed his name and got a job right then.” Solid.

For years one of my Soltzberg uncles had told me Toby jumped ship because my mother had wanted to “pass.” I liked the right-in-my-apartment story better.

__

A version of this appeared here 9/16/09 and in the Jerusalem Post 1/16/12.

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June 14, 2017   7 Comments

MAJOR ROOFER

I like roofs more than most people. I married a roofer’s daughter. My father-in-law, Cecil Shustick, had a roofing company in Columbus, Ohio. He was an orthodontist before being a roofer. (Look it up. It’s true.) He was an orthodontist in the early 1950s. His father owned a roofing company. Cecil had a wartime neck injury, so he didn’t relish standing all day at a dental chair, so he became a roofer. Also, orthodontia wasn’t, as yet, a big moneymaker in central Ohio in the fifties. Cecil did mostly estimating. He ran a 27-man, 9-truck company.

roofer-fleet2Gutters are interesting: copper, galvanized (the worst) and coated. Cecil didn’t offer me the biz. He should have, my father always said. My dad swore Cecil should have at least given me the opportunity to say no.

Dad, I ain’t moving to Cow-lumbus to run a roofing company!

Cecil Shustick (w/ ciggy), 69. (1978)

Cecil Shustick (w/ ciggy), 69. (1978)

When Cecil retired, he sold the business to Don The Goy, who ran the biz into the ground. Cecil lost a lot of money on that, and so did I, indirectly.

If I had taken over the business, I probably would now be in a nice house in Bexley, Ohio, with a stack of workers’ comp claims in front of me. (A lot of roofers are overweight drinkers with back problems.) That wouldn’t be much different than the way I did wind up!

pina-coladaCecil was a bon vivant, who kept a quart of piña colada by his bed for dry throat, due to antihistamine overuse, he claimed. He liked top-shelf goods: Chrysler Imperials and Chivas Regal. And he didn’t like sweating. Cecil said, “If man was meant for jogging, he’d have hooves.” Golf was his game.

***

I didn’t know the early Cecil. I knew the retired Cecil — the guy in the velour warm-up suit with the Marlboros.

cecil-capt-wwii

Cecil Shustick, U.S. Army Dental Corps, circa 1942

Don Whitehead, an A.P. correspondent, filed a dispatch, Dec. 3, 1943, with the Fifth Army south of Rome:

In one large, roomy cave Capt. Cecil Shustick, Columbus, Ohio, and Lt. Samuel Clarkson, Lebanon, Ky., set up a medical detachment station. On the little ledge, a charcoal fire was burning to take the damp chill from the air . . .

The Italians had used the caves as storage places for vegetables, fruit and grain.  When the Americans came along, they moved into them and used them as command posts, medical stations and billets.

This is a valley of hell – a man-made hell of thunder and lightning . . . The guns never cease their striking. Whole batteries of them roar in unison with a concussion that shakes the earth.

Cecil Shustick came home a major with a Bronze Star. He fought at the Battle of Monte Cassino, Italy. Cecil kept things light and bright. You’d never know about Italy.

A version of this first appeared 1/12/11. This one is for the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day.

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December 7, 2016   4 Comments

STONE GARDENS, SUITE 105

My mother lived in suite 105 at Stone Gardens Assisted Living. My cousin George’s mother, Natalie Becker, moved in right after my mother died in 2004. Natalie lived there until January 2013.

In March 2013 I had a gig at Stone Gardens; I called up an elderly relative, Shony Long, to invite her to the gig. She was my mom’s cousin and had recently moved to Stone Gardens.

suite 105Shony said, “I know you’re playing. I read it in the Stone Gardens bulletin.”

“You don’t live in 105, do you?”

“Yes.”

“You do?”

What — did 105 have my name on it? I remember I told the ambulance driver in 2004, “Can I just have a few minutes with my mom.” The driver said no problem. My mom was dead.

I said to Shony, “I don’t want to go into your apartment.”

“So you’re going to be that way?” she said.

Shony died in May. I wonder who’s in suite 105 now.


Last chance to pre-order Vulfpeck’s album Thrill of the Arts, which comes out Friday. Buy here and get a download, T-shirt, LP and Reuben sandwich. (Vulfpeck is Jack Stratton’s band.)

girls

Vulfpeck

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October 7, 2015   2 Comments

OVATION OF CALIFORNIA

My dad had a cosmetics franchise similar to Mary Kay. It was Ovation of California. My mother went to Los Angeles to learn more about it, and when she returned, she dumped a box of cosmetics onto the dining room table. My sister got the cosmetics, and I got a shoehorn from the Beverly Hills Hilton Hotel.

My sister held up her diary. “Look what your darling son did to my diary while you were gone,” she said. I had cut the lock off her diary. Big deal.

diary kay

“I apologized,” I said.   (I was researching petting — as Ann Landers called making out. I was 13, my sister was 16. I thought she had some info.)

My mother said, “So you tore open your sister’s diary?”

“I’m sorry.” I bought my sister a new diary.

One more crime: my father put a bottle of Ovation cleansing cream in the bathroom and made me use it. I was supposed to rub the cleanser on my forehead with a cotton ball. “This is no gimmick,” he said. “Men use it.”  My dad tried to turn me into a metrosexual! The franchise went under in a year.

Yiddishe Cup plays 6:30 pm Sun. (July 12) in Granville, Ohio (near Columbus).  More info here.

band of 7

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July 8, 2015   7 Comments

SELTZER GIRL /
MISSISSIPPI ALBERT

Seltzer is a major player in my house.  My wife, Alice, bought stock in seltzer, SodaStream, and I drink a fair amount of La Croix and occasionally Klarbrunn from Costco. I stick to lime and lemon. I should try peach. I was at a party — on a gig — where the host had all the La Croix flavors, but I wasn’t thirsty so I didn’t open up the various cans and sip.

Jack Stratton, 2011, with  SodaStream

Jack Stratton, 2011,
with SodaStream

There used to be seltzer delivery guys. I never saw one. My friend Shelly had home delivery.  My parents didn’t. My mother was big with Diet Rite Cola, though. My son Teddy favored Hank’s Root Beer.  Alice used to be a diehard Diet Coke proponent.  My son Jack loves SodaStream.  My daughter, Lucy, doesn’t drink much.  That’s the story of carbonation in my family.

Alice gives SodaStreams as gifts. She hopes her purchases will increase the stock’s value.

I know people who can distinguish club soda from seltzer water, and can expound on the level of fizz in SodaStream versus canned seltzers.  My wife is one of those persons.  She is Seltzer Girl.

seltzer girl

Check out “Mississippi Albert” in Belt Magazine. It’s about my “roots” in Mississippi.  When I taught blues harmonica, I told the students my mother was from Yazoo City, Mississippi.  I wasn’t lying!  Here is the story.   I traveled to Mississippi. This photo, below, is from Cleveland Heights, 1977:

blues harp brochure 1977 hts adult ed

One more photo . . . from Mississipppi, about 1926. My mother, Julia Zalk Stratton, age 6, on R; her older sister, Bernice Zalk Golden, in back; and baby sister Celeste Zalk Kent (who is now 87) in the high chair; and a cousin on far L:

mississippi about 1925  julia on far R

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November 12, 2014   8 Comments

ADDRESS YOUR MESS

My mother, Julia, never saved anything. When she moved to assisted living, the only thing she kept was her dining room set and some clay pots my dad had made.

My dad was an amateur potter in his retirement. He didn’t use a wheel; he pinched the clay with his thumbs.  His work wasn’t too good; I threw most of his stuff in the garbage. My mother watched and said, “How could you!”

“Mom,” I said, “I’m saving some of  it– some representative pieces!”

Address Your Mess.

Address Your Mess is a woman in Cleveland who, for a fee, de-clutters your house. My mother didn’t need her.

Maybe I need AYM.  I have report cards from elementary school in my attic.  My mother said I could be president someday, so I’m holding on to the report cards.

Is my mess more important than your mess?

I gave the Address Your Mess phone number to a high school friend whose parents moved out of their bungalow after 50-plus years. They had stuff.
address your mess

I read about an elderly woman in southeast Ohio who had 36 boxes of cereal, GAR medals and a wooden fife from the battle of Chickamauga.

I have UN stamps too, besides the report cards.

Here’s a vid, “Square Mile,” about real estate and board games:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYnabJr7esc

Yiddishe Cup is at Fairmount Temple, Beachwood, Ohio, tonight (Wed.) and Park Synagogue, Cleveland Hts., tomorrow night. 

 

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October 15, 2014   6 Comments

LOVE AND RENT

I lived in a Cleveland Heights duplex  — a side-by-side.  Joe, the landlord, lived in the other half.  He wore a sleeveless T-shirt, smoked cigars and nagged his wife.

A note taped to the thermostat — on my side of the house — read: “Whoever is turning the thermostat up and not turning it down, is throwing money out the window!”  I lived with a social worker, a Case Western Reserve nursing student from a strawberry farm in Lake County, and a telemarketer. I met these guys off a bulletin board at Case.

I practiced guitar in the basement, trying to be Bob Dylan.

When the social worker moved out, a woman came by to look for a room to rent.  I met her at the house’s front door and said, “We’re looking for somebody clean, quiet, and . . .”

“Cute?” she said. She was wearing taped glasses. Nevertheless, she was not bad looking.

The strawberry farmer said to me, “You think she’s Jewish?”  (He was always looking out for me.)

“She’s a nurse from West 45th Street,” I said.  “Not likely.”

The woman rented the room. Then the landlord’s wife, Gertie, kicked her out.  Gertie said, “Girls spell trouble. I’d rather deal with men.  You should take that as a compliment, fellas.  Why would a girl who makes a good living want to live here anyway?”

Joe, the landlord, chimed in, “We have to be indiscreet about this.  What if you all start bringing in girls?  It’ll look like a whorehouse.  You’ve always been gentlemen till now.”

I went down the basement to practice.  I was making $9/hour teaching blues harmonica at the adult-ed program. Not bad for 1977.

The nurse moved out, to her own place, a nearby double, and I called her and we went out. We hit it off.  I told my parents, “She’s from West 45th Street.”

My father said, “Are her parents devout Catholics?”

“She’s Jewish.”  (She was. I wasn’t pulling my dad’s leg, for a change.)

My mother said, “I’m getting a new dress now.  Get married. You can get divorced later. You promised you’d get married when you’re 27 and you’re 27.  A Jewish girl in nursing?”

“Because she wants to marry a doctor,” my father said. “Anything wrong with her?  She’s a 26-year-old unmarried Jewish girl.”

“Girls are more independent nowadays,” my mother said.

The girl and I got married the next year. 

The girl: Alice Shustick, 1977

The girl, Alice Shustick, 1977


Footnote: Alice lived on West 45th Street because it was somewhat near Tri-C West nursing school, and the rent was cheap.

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July 23, 2014   6 Comments

LAKE VIEW

Every few days I get an email from my synagogue that reads something like this:  “Subject — the passing of Melvin Weiner.”

About three people die per week at my shul.  (I belong to a big shul.). My rabbi must live at funerals.  True, he has an associate rabbi, but still, I think he — the senior rabbi — does most of the heavy lifting.  The senior rabbi told me Costco has the best lox in town. He should know; he must see at least five dairy spreads a week.  (I see my fair share, too.  Love a dairy spread!)

The passing of  Albert “Bert” Stratton . . .

That’s overkill.

I prefer “the passing of  Albert Stratton.”  A bit more consequential than “Bert.”  I wonder if Melvin Weiner went by Mel.  I didn’t know him.

I visited my mom’s grave recently and couldn’t find it because it had snow on it.  (The headstone is flush with the ground.)  I found the approximate location of the grave and drew a Jewish star and Mom.  She’s been dead 10 years.  She’s at Hillcrest Cemetery, as is my dad.

My grandparents are buried on the other side of town, as are two of my great-grandparents.  [Stratton kids, see notes below.]

My wife doesn’t want to be buried in our shul’s cemetery (Park Synagogue / Beth Olam) because it’s too cramped.  I’m fine with the Park cemetery.  I would like to be up close next to a bunch of other people’s bones. My wife wants to be in Lake View Cemetery.

Actually, she doesn’t “want” anything.  For instance, she doesn’t want to discuss this.

I wonder if my rabbi does burials at Lake View, or if his college-age son will someday.  Maybe the kid will become a rabbi, and I’ll live another million years.

I think my rabbi will do Lake View — a nondenominational garden-style WASPy place.  I see Jewish stars on some of  the tombstones there now.  Lake View is in Cleveland Heights.  Nice touch.  It’s not by the freeway.

But I’d rather be in a cramped funky Jewish cemetery by the freeway, like Park’s cemetery.  On the other hand, I do want to be near my wife’s bones, so I guess I’ll go with Lake View.

Maybe I can talk her into Park.  How much time do I have?

You won’t want to read this part unless you’re very closely
related . . .

Bert’s parents, Theodore “Toby” and Julia (Zalk) Stratton are at Hillcrest Cemetery, 26200 Aurora Road, Bedford Heights. Temple Emanu El section,  by the  tree.

Toby’s parents, Louis and Anna (Seiger) Soltzberg, are at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery, aka Ridge Road #1, 3740 Ridge Rd.  Cleveland.  (“Front Left Section” — that’s what the cemetery sign says.  The grave is about seven rows in from Ridge Road, before the Section 3 sign).  Also, against the fence, Cecile Soltzberg, baby, Anna’s  3-year-old daughter, died about 1909.

Julia’s parents, Albert and Ida (Kassoff) Zalk, are at Workmen’s Circle Cemetery, 5100 Theota Ave., Parma. Their graves are not in the Workmen’s Circle Section.  They are in the Warrensville Synagogue Section.  Rear Left section.  Section P, Row 11, grave 5.  Here is a blog post about Bill Katz and me sneaking into that cemetery after-hours.

Ida’s parents, Morris and Sadie (Levine) Kassoff, are at Lansing Road Cemetery, 3933 E. 57th Street, Cleveland (Slavic Village). Anshe Grodno Section 1. Row 13. Graves 6 & 7.

Julia (Zalk) Stratton (1920-2004), left, and her sister Celeste (Zalk) Kent (1926 – ) at their grandparents’ grave, 1997.

 

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February 26, 2014   10 Comments

SEIGER’S RESTAURANT

The cops at the Sixth District police station in Cleveland considered me a hippie spy from the Heights.  But when I told the cops I was a Seiger (“My uncle owned Seiger’s Restaurant on E.118th and Kinsman”), the cops warmed up to me. The cops — the older ones, the bosses — all knew Seiger’s Restaurant.

Cleveland Jewish News, 1968

Seiger’s Restaurant was a Damon Runyon casting hall on Kinsman Road. All manner of hustlers, cops, businessmen and shnorers (beggars) hung out there. The shnorers were Orthodox Jewish tzedakah (charity) collectors who had their own booth in the back.

Seiger’s, 11802 Kinsman Rd., 1957

My Great Aunt Lil Seiger served the shnorers kosher food from her apartment, which was at the back of the store. The shnorers wouldn’t eat the non-kosher food from the restaurant. The deli was kosher-style, not kosher.  “We served the rabonim [the rabbis] on special china and silverware,  milchig [dairy]’,” Lil’s son Danny said.

Seigers: Audrey (daughter), Lil, Danny (son) and Itchy, 1948

Rabonim and cops — ate well at Seiger’s. Nobody ever got a ticket for an expired parking meter, and sometimes cars were parked two-lanes deep on Kinsman.  “I couldn’t even spend a nickel in Seiger’s,” retired cop Bill Tofant said.

Itchy Seiger, my great uncle, was the owner and chief kibitzer (glad-handler/talker).  He had been a cloak maker in Galicia, Austria-Hungary.  Itchy was the greeter.  Aunt Lil did the cooking, except the breads and strudels, which she bought.

There was a party room, seating about 65, in the basement. The matchbooks read: “Seiger’s Restaurant, Delicatessen, Barroom and Rathskeller.”

Danny and Itchy Seiger, back row, from R. Shiva for Anna Soltzberg, South Euclid, Ohio, 1964

I didn’t go to Seiger’s Restaurant often.  My parents didn’t think Kinsman was the right direction for a Sunday drive. More often we wound up out east — the other direction — at the Metroparks.

Danny — my cousin —  started showing up at Yiddishe Cup gigs in the 2000s. I asked him about the mini-feud between his father (my Uncle Itchy) and my grandmother, Anna  Soltzberg (nee Seiger).  Itchy and Anna had been half-siblings. (Enough with the genealogy, Klezmer Guy!)  Danny said Itchy and Anna had had two things in common: sugar diabetes and iron wills.

My grandmother’s candy store — near Itchy’s deli on Kinsman — had frequently been “oyf tsoris” (badly off), and Itchy rescued it, Danny said.

Anna Soltzberg, center, 1950s. Others unknown

“Everybody loved Itchy,” Danny said. Everybody but my grandmother, who complained about Itchy’s buy-out terms on her store.  Later, my grandmother opened a candy store further east on Kinsman, near Shaker Heights.

Cleveland Plain Dealer ad, 1947

Cleveland Plain Dealer , 1947

“At the restaurant, there were two brothers, the Schoolers,” Danny said. “One, Joe, wanted a soft matzo ball. The other, Morty, wanted a matzo ball as hard as a baseball.  Ma made both kinds.  That’s how we thrived.”

Somebody should take Danny, age 80, and a video camera for a stroll down Kinsman. Walk Danny through the old neighborhood and into Seiger’s, which was recently a soul food restaurant.  (Today it’s boarded up.)

New World Restaurant, formerly Seiger’s, 2010.

The audio,
Danny: “This is where Ma made the mish-mash soup. She gave the recipe to Corky & Lenny’s. This is the counter where Jim Brown bounced a $10 check.  I should have saved it for the autograph.  This is where Oscar Schmaltz downed an industrial canister of soup.  Oscar weighed 400.”

Footnote:  Seiger’s is pronounced Sigh-ger’s (rhymes with High-gers) by Jews, and See-ger’s by cops.  Seiger’s closed in 1968.

For relatives only . . . family photo above, taken at the shiva  for Toby Stratton’s mother, Anna Soltzberg.
On floor, from L: Bert Stratton,  sister Leslie.

Middle: Aunt Lil Soltzberg of Washington;  Janice Bregman (wife of Marc Bregman); Aunt Pearl Bregman; Great Aunt Molly Mittman; Marcia Seiger.

Top:  Uncle Milty Soltzberg, Toby Stratton, Julia Stratton, Uncle Sol Soltzberg, Great Uncle Sam Mittman, Aunt Lil Soltzberg of Delaware, Great Uncle Itchy Seiger, Danny Seiger.

(Sol Soltzberg, Milty Soltzberg, Pearl Bregman and Toby Stratton were siblings.) Marc Bregman — the son of Pearl Bregman — probably took this photo.

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May 8, 2013   12 Comments

MISSISSIPPI BUBBE AND
THE XYLOPHONIST

I look for musical yikhes (lineage/pedigree) wherever I can find it.  My grandmother played piano at a white Baptist church in Yazoo City, Mississippi.  Not bad.

This Mississippi bubbe — Ida Kassoff Zalk — had a brother, Earl Kassoff, in Cleveland.  Earl was a drummer, xylophonist and house painter.  He went by the stage name Earl Castle, and led bands in the 1930s and 1940s.

Xylopainter

In the 1990s — when I first began looking for musical yikhes — I couldn’t find much info on Earl.  I talked to a couple relatives.  Earl didn’t leave behind sheet music or tune books.  He died in 1969.

At a Yiddishe Cup gig, an elderly musician schmoozed with me.  I asked him if he knew Earl Kassoff.  Yes, he  remembered Earl.  The schmoozer was Harold Finger, age 77.  He had made a living playing clarinet and sax during the 1930s and 1940s.

I took my tape recorder to Harold’s apartment and interviewed him. He said there were “four or five bands that got the Jewish work.”

I asked, “What bands?”  He didn’t remember the names.  “What were the most popular Jewish tunes?” I said.

He said, “The songs from the Kammen Book. That was the big thing.”

The Kammen International Dance Folio, published in 1924, is still around.  The Kammen book is to Jewish music what a sex manual is to sex. (Pianist Pete Sokolow makes this statement at most KlezKamp conventions.)

Kammensutra

My Uncle Earl’s band did mostly “dance work” — American music, Harold said. Earl worked the downtown theaters, as well as the Golden Pheasant — a Chinese restaurant where Artie Shaw started.

Harold said he didn’t stick to the melody all the time. He did some “faking” (improvising).  Now he played clarinet with a community orchestra.  “I don’t do much jobbing anymore,” he said.  (Jobbing is gigging.)

Harold died three years after the interview.  I thought his kids might enjoy the  interview tape, from 1992, so I called a Finger relative and left a message in the mid-1990s.

I didn’t hear back.

The relative should have called!  Harold’s wife was on the tape, teasing Harold about how he loved his saxophone more than her.  Harold said, “What? I quit playing music for you!”

Michiganders, come to the Klezmer Guy show at The Ark, Ann Arbor, Feb. 15. 8 p.m. $20.  Bert Stratton on clarinet and prose, Alan Douglass on piano and vocals, Gerald Ross on ukulele and Hawaiian lap steel guitar. Prose pieces will contain words such as “Ann Arbor,” “Michigan”  and “Rudy Tomjanovich.”


More on Mississippi Ida — my bubbe — later.  Maybe not.

Yikhes update.  Check out the latest from Jack Stratton’s band, Vulfpeck.

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February 6, 2013   6 Comments

TRUCKIN’

My cousin David owned a GMC tractor-trailer, which he parked in the May Co. lot in University Heights.  David may have been the only Jewish long-distance trucker in the Heights.  Maybe the only long-distance trucker, period, in the Heights.

In 1975 David borrowed several thousand dollars from my father, Toby, for the truck.  David had a contract with International Truck of Rock, Minnesota.

David moved to Pennsylvania and never repaid my dad.

In high school David had stolen hubcaps.  He had been a Shaker Heights juvenile delinquent.

David even looked like James Dean. My cousin Danny once said, “David’s dad was the most handsome man you ever met.” David’s dad drifted around Cleveland, playing pool.  David’s dad and mother divorced in the 1950s.

When David’s mother heard David hadn’t repaid my dad, she made payments, but she never fully repaid the loan.

My father’s attitude was “win some, lose some.”  Toby believed in lending money to family. My dad had borrowed from his Uncle Itchy to buy his first house.

Last year I called David’s sister. This was a big deal; David and his sister were  out of the cousins’ loop. David is now in his seventies and has had several heart attacks, his sister said.  He is living in a hotel that his son runs in Florida.

No more truckin’.

No more David as family black sheep. Stolen hubcaps and an unpaid loan, is that the worst of it in my family?  I think so.

Now, my wife has an estranged cousin who stole sterling silver . . . Stop.

“David” is a pseudonym.


SIDE B

FITBIT

I became bionic.  My daughter, Lucy, gave me a pedometer.

I can count my daily steps. I can even monitor my sleep patterns, but that’s too much data — even for a guy like me who likes data.

Brisk walking. If you do it, ipso facto, you’re a dork.

I gave up jogging last year. My right knee wasn’t into it anymore. I miss the “sweat” of jogging.

I walk.

Should I post my step count here? Dieters post their calories online.  Bicyclists post their heart rates.

My step count today is _____. (Will post up at 11:59 p.m for maximum effect.)

Your count?

For a couple new illustrations by Ralph Solonitz, please  scroll down to “KlezKamp 2012,” which went up last week.

Yiddishe Cup plays at First Night Akron on New Year’s Eve.

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December 26, 2012   1 Comment

THE ANNIVERSARY WALTZ

My 32nd wedding anniversary was no milestone.

But it was, sort of, because I got my wife, Alice, to go to synagogue — a major accomplishment.  I used the come-on of a free bottle of wine.

My temple passes out Israeli wine to all the anniversary couples.  For example, every married couple with an October anniversary gets a bottle of vino on the first shabbat in October.   Alice and I took our places on the bima (altar), next to eight other couples, while the congregation sang and clapped along to “Simon Tov,” a song of congratulations.  Thirty-two years of marriage was worth something — a bottle of wine.   The “winning couple,” as the rabbi put it, was celebrating 55 years of marriage.

It was like a Reverend Moon ceremony. The congregants read aloud: “These couples have come to the synagogue to give thanks for the institution of marriage and for their mutual love and devotion.”

No preening bat mitzvah girls on the bima. No nervous bar mitzvah boys.  Just married couples:  old guys with gray ponytails, younger guys in bankers’ suits.

The Bible reading that week was from the Creation Story. The rabbi mentioned that ever since Adam and Eve fouled up, we are all going to die, which makes life interesting. Because if we lived forever, we wouldn’t do anything.  For instance, “Why diet if you can put it off for 500 years?” the rabbi said.  “Things get more interesting when there are time constraints.”

What did Adam and Eve do when they became empty-nesters?   They had no peers.  Who did they hang out with?

After temple, Alice and I walked to everywhere we have lived together.  Luckily, “everywhere” was within 2 1/2 miles of the synagogue.

We went to the Oak Road duplex we had rented as newlyweds.  The owner of the duplex wouldn’t let us in.

Bert and Alice. (Polaroid by Herb Ascherman Jr.)

We went to our starter house, where our three kids were born.  We got in. The bungalow looked better than when we had lived there. The kitchen had been gutted and remodeled.

We went home –- to our present house, where we bounce off the walls nightly, waiting for grandchildren to appear.

One in four divorces is by 50-and-overs.  About half my friends are divorced and/or remarried. I look for reinforcements for long-term marriage wherever I can.  I need an ally.

I found one.  No, two:  the synagogue and a bottle of wine.


This happened in 2010.  Been back for more wine since.


I wrote a quasi-review (more of a rant) about Harvey Pekar’s latest — and probably last — comic book.   The review is at today’s CoolCleveland.com.

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October 17, 2012   8 Comments