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.



Whenever I came home for college vacation, my mother always suggested I go to the West Side with my father. (West Side meant the apartment biz.) My mother never went to the West Side. She didn’t go once! On the West Side I listened to my dad talk about boiler additives and sump pumps. My dad carried an Allen wrench to adjust boiler controls. I nearly died on the West Side. I was resentful. I had seen Roland Kirk at the Eastown Motor Hotel, East Cleveland; Sonny Stitt at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, Detroit; Ben Webster at Ronnie Scott’s Club, London. And now I was on the West Side talking about radiator vents.

I watched the Dick Cavett Show and hung out with my high school buddies who were also home for college vacation. One guy was applying to medical school. Another was studying for the CPA exam. A friend was angling for a job as a reporter. The nightmare job: a high school acquaintance was studying nursing-home administration. How did he come up with that? He didn’t. His mother did. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, besides write novels. (Wrote them. Different story.)

I gave my parents tsuris. College was nonsense, I said, and I quit. I wound up in front of the draft board. The whole nine yards: bend over, touch your toes, spread your cheeks. I had a low number, 42, in the draft lottery. (You remember your lottery number if you’re of a certain age. It’s the closest our gang got to military service, except for G. Klein, who went to Annapolis.)

At the Selective Service office downtown, I took a mechanical aptitude exam. This test featured drawings of carburetors and brake shoes. The test stumped me. Many of the other test-takers loved it. A test about GTOs! These test-takers were mostly from my neighborhood. Draft boards went by neighborhoods, and my ‘hood had more than its share of greasers. At the end of the exams, I handed the draft-board doctor a list of my allergy medications and shots, and got out.

My parents didn’t go AWOL on me. They could have. My dad was bemused by my combat boots and jeans jacket, but he didn’t go Archie Bunker on me. My dad took his marching orders from Walter Lippmann, who called Vietnam a “quagmire.” My parents waited me out. My mother insisted I was still a good boy. She had been saying that since I was in kindergarten. I graduated college in due time, and I eventually went to the West Side — a lot. You’re a good boy. I can still hear my mother saying that.

I have a story in today’s Cleveland Plain Dealer about leaf blowers. Check it out here.

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November 18, 2020   2 Comments


I went to the Shaker Square farmers market on Saturday just because the weather was good. I didn’t buy anything. My wife likes to buy brussels sprouts. I asked the head cheese at the farmers market: “How about if I come back here with my clarinet and play? I’ll give you the money.” I was sick of playing just for myself in my basement. He said OK.

I made $21.50 in 45 minutes. All single bills, plus two quarters. The “little guys” supported me with their Washingtons ($1s). Power to the people. I played mostly standards and campfire songs. That’s where the money is. “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “This Land is Your Land,” and “Autumn Leaves.”

Very few people actually stopped and listened. That’s the ignominy of busking. Nevertheless, I got in some clarinet practice, and an elderly lady said to me, “‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ made my day!” and a middle-aged black man said, “Nothing like live music!’

My sole regret is I didn’t hand the head cheese my band’s business card when I gave him all my dough. How’s he going to know to call me post-Covid? 

Enough. Orwell wrote: “Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying . . .”

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November 11, 2020   4 Comments


The Irish rank musicians with fiddle contests. So do bluegrass associations. There is a $50,000 Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. I rank Jewish musicians . . .

#1. Alan Douglass. Keyboards. Yiddishe Cup. His big hit is “Gentile on My Mind.”

#2. Ari Davidow, who operates the KlezmerShack website in the basement of the Brandeis student union by the foosball tables. Entrepreneur.

#3. Steven Greenman. Violinist. Born Steven Chemlawn.

#4. Gary Gould, the Cali King of Klez. He’s the bandleader to Hollywood stars, and sometimes he goes to Santa Monica.

#5. Hankus Netsky, a k a The Great One. The Klezmer Hall of Fame waived the waiting period for The Great One.

#6. Bert Stratton. The Ohio/Michigan/Indiana distributor of  Yiddishe Cup coffee mugs.

#7. Margot Leverett. An award-winning mixologist of klez and bluegrass.

#8. Lori Cahan-Simon. She produced the Yiddisher Soul Train, KYW-TV, Philadelphia, 1970.

#9. Marc Adler. He invented the clarinet suck vac, available only at Adler’s Hardware, Providence, R.I.

#10. Cookie Lavagetto. Third base.

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November 4, 2020   4 Comments


I walked into an Orthodox shul and saw an Amish man putting bales of hay and live chickens in the lobby. I said to myself, “No way.” Then I turned the corner and saw 15 Amish women in blue dresses with white aprons, and white bonnets. “No way” again. Then an Amish horse and buggy clopped by the front door.

Orthodox Jews arrived. Most were Modern Orthodox — dentists and lawyers with kippahs. A couple rabbis donned the full-black The Frisco Kid. This was for a sheva brocha (a post-wedding reception). John, from Middlefield, told me he used to be a wheelwright and now worked for a Jew who made mattresses. This mattress manufacturer was sponsoring the sheva brocha in celebration of his son’s wedding.

Yiddishe Cup’s violinist played klezmer outside by the buggy. The Amish driver said to me, “It sounds like Mozart!” The driver said Amish in northeast Ohio sometimes play harmonica but no other instruments. Instruments like “flute and guitar” might lead to forming a band, which is not sanctioned.

The bartender doled out Jack Daniels-and-Coke to the young Jews and young Amish, but nothing crazy happened other than the optics. My band played “Amazing Grace” — maybe a first for Green Road Synagogue. John said he sings “Amazing Grace” at home but not in church. He said his fellowship sings only Pennsylvania Dutch tunes in church.

I think the Amish enjoyed Yiddishe Cup, but who knows. They weren’t big talkers, at least around me. We played “Di Grine Kusine.” I wanted to see how the Yiddish lyrics would go over. Nothing. I guess I wasn’t going to figure out the Amish in one day. I’ve been working on the Jews, too — also with limited success.

(Yes, this happened.)

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October 28, 2020   2 Comments


I used to write essays about what I had for breakfast, and get the articles in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. This was pre-Trump. Now, to get in these papers, I need to write “Trump every paragraph to have a shot.

When I was in grade school, sixth graders attended a week-long camping retreat. My elementary school — Victory Park — shared our retreat with neighboring Sunview School. Our sixth-grade teacher, an ex-Marine, said we Victory Park boys should pay attention to Trump from Sunview. Our teacher said Trump’s dad owned Lyndhurst Lumber, and “she would be a good catch.”

Yes, Trump was a girl, and she had two p’s in her last name, Trumpp, but let’s ignore the second p here. Trump was pretty and friendly, and she played clarinet. In junior high, she and I sometimes shared the same music stand. I think she gave up clarinet to become a cheerleader, and she married a guy on the football team, and she was never heard from again — at least by me. No reunions, nothing. I recently Googled her and learned her husband took over Lyndhurst Lumber, so I suppose I could go in there and ask, “How’s Trump?” But let’s keep this virtual, not real.

A fellow classmate, Robby Stamps, hitchhiked to Trump’s house in Lyndhurst and dated her. Stamps was James Dean-esque. Hitchhiking at age 13! (Later Stamps was wounded at Kent State.) Stamps was fluid, culturally. His father was a gentile car salesman named Floyd, and his mom was Jewish. Stamps felt comfortable in both worlds. Remember, this was back when “ethnicity” could be a white thing.

Trump worked part-time at The Swedish Bakery at Mayfield and Green roads. I never went in there. I should have. But my shyness trumped all.

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October 21, 2020   3 Comments


Every once in a while I go full Harvey Pekar. Like yesterday, when I spent half the day running bummer errands and waiting in lines. I had three missions: new driver’s license, new passport, flu shot. Wait, it gets interesting. Slightly. For example, I took an envelope from the Huntington Bank ATM lobby and the envelope had a $30 check in it — payable to the Ohio Treasurer from a tailor, dated a year ago. My son Ted took the check to the tailor shop, and the guy was happy to get it.

Bureau of Motor Vehicles. I registered online, so I got to cut in front of the 30-or-so people waiting in line on the sidewalk, social distancing. On my way out, I told everybody, “In and out — A to Z — in 30 minutes. Go home and sign up online.” Nobody moved.

Flu shot. CVS couldn’t pull up Medicare on its screen so I left. I went back to the bank. The line was still long there, so I slipped my dough in the night drop. I had cash, which is a bit risky to “drop,” but so far no problems — and “so far” for me means the last four decades. I wouldn’t slip 5K cash in a night drop, but I’m pretty sure plenty of retail merchants do.

CVS reprise. The Medicare computer connection was now working. I told the shot administrator he had the voice and demeanor of a doc, and he was flattered. I thought he was a clerk. No, he was a doctor of pharmacology. “Did you go to Ohio Northern?” I asked. Bullseye. He said, “How’d you know that?” Ohio Northern = pharmacy.

My passport photo doesn’t look so good, but hey, I’m 70, and the government doesn’t let you wear glasses now. My wife got hers, too, and she said hers is worse. I told the passport-photo taker, “I guess I’m not 35 anymore.” Like a lot of old guys, I like to BS with clerks. I hit it off with everybody yesterday but the BMV ladies. I bragged to a BMV clerk, “This is an original social security card from 1961.” She didn’t care. My dad had gotten the card for me when he bought me two shares of GTE in 1961. (GTE eventually became Verizon.) The card is crisp and has never been in a wallet. It’s got my childhood address and postal zone (as opposed to ZIP code) on it. Did you read this far? Pekar would have gotten you this far.

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October 14, 2020   6 Comments


An interview I did with a guy looking to join Yiddishe Cup :

Me: A deer jumps on stage while you’re performing. What do you do?

Musician: I shoot the deer.

Me: A concertgoer yells, “Stop talking and start playing!” What do you do?

Musician: I shoot him.

Me: Can you make hot hors d’oeuvres pop out of your instrument?

Musician: Yes, and candy apples, too, on Simchat Torah.

Me: What is the most creative thing you’ve ever done on stage?

Musician: I tore up a $100 bill centerstage at the Beachland.

Me: What if nobody shows up at the gig?

Musician: Happens all the time.

Yidd Cup / Funk A Deli live streams this Friday, around 7 p.m. ET, from Fairmount Temple, Beachwood, Ohio, for Simchat Torah. The sanctuary will be empty. Be there!  The stream is here.

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October 7, 2020   3 Comments


My childhood friend Chap attended ballroom dance classes at the Alcazar Hotel. He had to wear white gloves. Chap’s dad worked for the Plain Dealer in home delivery, and his mom had been a professional banjo player. She was a realtor. Chap became “Chuck” in adulthood (he was always legally “Charles”) and got a job at the racetrack. He usually drove Corvettes. He liked to take the front plate off his Vettes to mess with the cops.

Chuck played quality trumpet in a soul band and was a flashy dresser. Lots of leather. He wanted to be Italian but wasn’t. He knew some racehorse owners at the track and eventually owned a horse or two. Also, he went to Bowling Green for a while, but college wasn’t his thing.

I haven’t seen Chap since 1992. I’d like to. He owes me $50 ($91 in today’s dollars). I advanced him the $50 for a meat tray for the wake of a mutual friend.

Nobody, except Chuck, in our neighborhood went to dance lessons, let alone the Alcazar — white gloves, tea and cookies. That program was called Mrs. Baltzer’s Dancing School. I found the name on the internet. Can you blame Chuck for rebelling and buying racehorses?

Here’s my op-ed from the Monday Wall Street Journal, “Landlords Have Bills Too.”

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September 30, 2020   1 Comment


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 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 food). Toby had worked in his mother’s candy store. When I visited my father’s grave the first couple times, I brought along Mr. Goodbars. Once, a Planters Peanut.

Decades later, I sat at the West Side McDonald’s with my oldest son, Ted, then 28. I ordered the chicken Caesar salad. I was instructing my son on the watchword of our people: Don’t be a sucker. Lesson 1: The first generation (Grandpa) scrapes, the second (me) tries to keep things on keel, and the third (Ted) needs tutorials in toughness because they don’t remember the beginning.

During Toby’s final days, the Cleveland Clinic nurses called him “chief” because he was bossy. A doc said, “You’re a hard one.” Toby answered, “That’s right. It’s my life.”

I told my son not to forget the little things: (Lesson 2) pens, checks, Post-It notes. Lesson 3: “Write everything down. You don’t want to think about ‘cold water leak, bathroom sink, apartment 24,” I said. Lesson 4: Be wary of restaurant workers, particularly chefs and servers. They come home late, party hard, and wake up the solid-citizens in the building. Lesson 5: Always Be Closing. ABC. That’s from a David Mamet play and is a joke between my son and me. Ted, like every other young person, enjoys quoting movies verbatim. I thought of a non-movie line for him. I said, “If the tenant hasn’t mailed his rent, say, ‘Do not mail in your late rent. Hand it to the building manager. Hand it.'” 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 my son’s attention. “You make it interesting. It can take a while.”

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September 23, 2020   4 Comments


My records were heavy, and I didn’t want them. I hadn’t listened to them in about 20 years. I said to my friend Carl, “In 10 years I might not be able to physically pitch them. I’ll be sitting in my La-Z-Boy and making my kids choose between Bob Dylan and Jefferson Airplane. So I’m doing it now for my kids’ sake.”

Harvey Pekar used to rifle through my albums. The only album he ever wanted was my Charlie Parker Memorial Album, Vogue Records, England, 1956. I didn’t sell the record to Harvey because I figured if he wanted it, it must be worth something.

A record-store owner came to my house; Pete from Blue Arrow Records stopped by. This was in 2012. Pete went through my record collection a few times as I said goodbye to Aretha Live at the Fillmore West, Herbie Mann’s Memphis Underground, and some Paul Butterfield, Gary Burton, B.B. King and Mayall. I got $300 for about 100 records. Not bad. Pete didn’t care about the condition of the records. Pete said his target market — millennials — “won’t buy the reissue LPs, they want the originals like yours.”

I said, “What jumped out at you? Is there any album worth ninety percent of what you paid me?”

He said, “I like your two Fred Neil’s — Everybody’s Talkin’ and Sessions. You don’t see those often.”

“Let me take a photo, Pete, of the collection. Don’t worry, I don’t want the records back.”

I want them back now. I also want my baseball cards back, which I sold in 2007. I’m King Tut II, and I can take this stuff with me.

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September 16, 2020   6 Comments


My friend Mike said he wouldn’t mind being shot dead at the restaurant. We were at Barrio, Cleveland Heights. Mike said, “I’ve had a good life and I don’t want to suffer.” Mike is 68. His dad is 99 and suffering.

I would mind getting shot to death. I want to see my kids get married, see a grandkid, go to more simchas, play more simchas, see more Vulfpeck shows, play more nursing-home gigs, and sit on my porch.

Nursing homes? Nursing homes are cool — the ones I’ve played at. Nobody sits in doo doo, and the residents hear quality live music. (Pre-Covid, that is. I’ve played some outdoor gigs at nursing homes this summer.) I’ve jammed with talented musicians at nursing homes. They do their schtick in one room, and I’m in another, and then I crash their gig and join them on clarinet. I just jump in. I should ask before I sit in, but sometimes I forget.

Once I busted in on a pianist playing “Blue Rondo a la Turk.” I had no idea how that tune went, but I played anyway. I apologized later. He didn’t shoot me, but maybe he wanted to.

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September 9, 2020   4 Comments


In 1938, when my father graduated college, he wanted a job — any job. When I graduated college in 1973, I wanted meaningful work. Meaningful work — the expression — I first heard from Lawrence Kasdan, The Big Chill director. (By the way, The Big Chill was a total ripoff of Return of the Secaucus 7.)

I tried bricklaying. I got a joiner, mortar and a mason’s trowel. I knew a Jewish bricklayer who talked up the profession, and he showed me a few things. This was before YouTube.

My father said, “You want to work with your hands?”

It turns out, I didn’t. I’m more of a desk guy. I like to keep records. I have records on most everything. I know how long ink rollers last in my adding machine. One year, almost to the date. I wrote dates on lightbulbs. That, I’ve given up. Life is short. Life, itself, lasts . . . uh, varies.

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September 2, 2020   1 Comment


An employee showed a lot of butt cleft when he waxed floors, alienating some of the more fastidious tenants.

I hired a building manager who drove too often to Detroit. This was before cell phones. I couldn’t reach him half the time.

Another building manager grew up in Hough, back when that neighborhood was classy. Her family had boarded Nap Lajoie, the Hall of Fame baseball player. She said to me, “We had the elite in my neighborhood. No mongrels, like from PA.” Her husband was from PA.

There was a manager who rarely cleaned the building. A tenant taped a note up in the vestibule: “This building is a mess.” Other tenants added to the note: “Vacuum the halls” . . . “Take the tree down, Christmas is over!” . . . “Trim the shrubs.”

There was a building manager whose vacuum sweeper was always outside her door but she never vacuumed.

An employee threatened to kill me. He dated a tenant, a problem tenant — a transvestite prostitute. When I fired him, he said he would hunt me down. Luckily, he didn’t know his way around the East Side, where I live. (The East Side has curved streets.)

One employee regularly asked for loans because her husband took her money and blew it at the racetrack. He was a hard worker, but a gambler.

There was a building manager whose kids were thieves. One day I asked the manager where her son was, and she said, “He stepped out to shop.”

“Where to?”

“Marion.” The Marion (Ohio) Correctional Institution. When her son returned from Marion, he burglarized an apartment in the building.

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August 26, 2020   5 Comments


My aunt Bernice said, “The young rabbi thinks the Young People’s Congregation gives out the lifetime tenures.” My uncle Al said, “That rabbi isn’t too smart.” My relatives liked to talk about rabbis — who got fired and why, who moved, who did what to whom, and in what room. AKs talk about rabbis.

Now I’m an AK and I talk about rabbis, even cantors — who’s too political, who’s stuffy, who’s friendly (which basically means they like my band).

Rabbis are celebrities around here. It’s what  we do on the East Side of Cleveland — rabbis and Geraldo Rivera. One major-congregation rabbi “pulls down six figures,” my cousin said. I hope so. More like 300K, cuz. Just a guess.

Rabbis need to get out of town occasionally. If they stay in town, they’ll be badgered. If a rabbi goes to, say, Little Rock, Arkansas, the rabbi can do his or her thing. Not saying what that is. But what I am saying is I started this Rabbi Shack, a retreat in Little Rock. There are a few openings.

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August 19, 2020   1 Comment


My diet was sesame and poppy seed bagels. I thought it was a smart way to lose weight. Bialy’s Bagels in University Heights was my go-to place. My back-up was Amster’s at Cedar Center. The counter woman at Amster’s, Marilyn Weiss, volunteered for school levies and racial integration projects, and did a ton of schlep work at my shul. (She died in 2000 and Amster’s closed a few years later.)

I also shopped at Better, as in “Better Bagel,” on Taylor Road. The owners were New Yorkers who wore yarmulkes and Brooklyn Dodgers shirts. I figured they knew bagels. They didn’t. Their bagels were too doughy and not crispy enough on the outside. Better Bagel eventually changed its name to Brooklyn Bagel. No better.

I never buy bagels now. (My bagel diet didn’t work.) I hear Cleveland Bagel is pretty good. I have a friend who swears by Bruegger’s. Pathetic. I’d go back to Bialy’s if I ever go back.

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August 12, 2020   2 Comments


I attended a Zoom klez conference last week out of London, of all places. The presentations were at odd times, Cleveland-zone, so I missed a lot. I’ve put together an Eastern Time Zoom conference. It’s happening right now. Check it out . . .

How do I stop this thing?  Steven Greenman
Greenman asks, “Should a klezmer song end with a squirt or a pop? Or should the bandleader just scream, ‘It was all a mistake!'”

Praised be klezmer!  Don Friedman
Rev. Friedman is the spiritual leader of the Church-a-gogue, Twinsburg, Ohio. Friedman invented the Jewish freewill offering. It isn’t free. Friedman delivers his powerful “Klezmer!” sermon today.

Old shul  Alice Stratton
Stratton rewinds to when freylekhs tempos were T-120. She shows us her latest interpretive dance, “BlintzUh.” This mixed-genre dance involves cream cheese and two clarinets.

The 2020 Klezmer Manifesto  Michael Winograd
Wino from Wilno delivers the first klez manifesto since Alicia Svigals wailed “Against Nostalgia” at the 1996 Wesleyan University Klezmer Conference.

Here are some of Winograd’s key points:

1. It’s a lonely world. Hi, everybody.
2. I’ve done some bad things. Sorry.
3. I get paid to eat at weddings.
4. A scrap of paper in my wallet says I owe you. Shut up, scrap!

Music that repels Alan Douglass
Douglass discusses the bar mitzvah repertoire of the late 20th century. Followed by a limbo contest.

Aqua-klezmer Irwin Weinberger
Mystical, glorious and powerful mayim (water). Heartbreaking too. Bring a bathing suit and a doctor’s permission slip. There will be a baby pool and high board.

Breakout rooms:
Pretzel logic  Eric Broder
Rold Gold, Dan Dee, Snyder’s of Berlin, or Snyder’s of Hanover?

Be normal now  Nancy 3. Hoffman
Watch some movies, eat some burgers, go to bars, and don’t change your middle name from Arlene to 3.

Bark mitzvah  Mark Freiman
What’s your take on bark mitzvahs? (Bar mitzvahs for dogs.) Are they for real? What’s Jewish about your hunt?

Audiophilia  Moon Stevens
Is your sound system good enough for klezmer? If you were to sit in Moon Stevens’ L.A. living room, on his couch, it would be like you’re in the front row at Shelly’s Manne-Hole. The speakers are mounted on maple. What you got?

Klezmer abroad  Hans Filber
In his eBook memoir, clarinetist Hans Filber wrote: “My aunt once told me — she was drunk — ‘Why do you play that silly music? You’re German.’ But other than, nobody thinks it’s odd.” Discuss.

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August 5, 2020   3 Comments


I remember my mother’s apple sauce. Always lumpy.

I remember the 45 CTS bus to the Mayfield Road JCC.

I remember the shofar player missing every single note on Rosh Hashanah. He needed a trumpet mouthpiece.

I remember U.N. stamp souvenir sheets.

I remember the H-bomb.

I remember Pedwin loafers.

Ron Yarian (Brush chem teaacher) and Bert 7-21-19 Cleveland

Bert Stratton and Ron Yarian (R), 2019 photo

I remember CBA (Chemical Bond Approach) Chemistry. I remember the teacher, Mr. Yarian. I saw him last year. He’s 84 and doing well.

I remember Charlene Cohen, the homecoming queen runner-up. I didn’t know her, by the way.

I remember the Cream-O-Freeze. You do, too. You don’t forget your childhood ice cream hangout. (My daughter’s favorite place was Draeger’s at Van Aken.)

I remember my mother writing: “Bert was absent from school yesterday due to religious observances.”

I remember How to Play Better Tennis by Bill Tilden.


These days there are Facebook groups specializing in South Euclid nostalgia. One site listed our dads’ occupations: plumber, insurance man, tailor, aerospace engineer, cop. One contributor to the list, Sal, said he was a barber and his dad and grandfather had been barbers, and his son was a barber. One guy wrote, “[We had] a family business on 89th and Hough until about a year or so after the riots. After that and an injury he sustained to the head from a robbery, he never was the same.” A woman wrote, “My father rented a building on 88th and Buckeye for his tools and supplies for his plumbing business.” I don’t remember.

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July 29, 2020   6 Comments


My dad owned an “apartment community” in North Olmsted. The apartment community was garden-style, three-story buildings grouped around a parking lot and pool. The buildings had mansard roofs and looked like 1970s McDonald’s. The community was Jamestown Village. Should have been Jonestown. One tenant peed in the heating ducts and poured aquarium gravel in the toilet on his way out. Another resident seemed to use the hollow-core doors for karate practice.

A high school wrestling coach — who was also a multi-millionaire — bought the complex from my dad and turned it into condos in 1977. Worked out well for both my dad and the coach. The banker said to my dad, “You made your money, and Howard [the coach] made his.”

The coach was Howard Ferguson, who took St. Edward High to 11 state championships. Remember him?  He died in 1989.  Remember my dad? (I write about him frequently so you probably think you do.) Anybody remember the banker — Pete Shimrak? I quoted Pete in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed. The Wall Street Journal editor said to me, “Shimrak is dead, right? Because if he’s not, we can’t use your direct quotes [from Shimrak] without his approval.” Of course Shimrak was dead.

Uh, no, the editor said. Shimrak is 88. We tracked him down, via his son, and I got Pete’s OK for the direct quotes. In a voicemail Pete said nice things about my dad and called me “the Stratton boy.” Anybody who remembers my father can call me whatever they want.

Jamestown Village. Many auto workers lived there, and some of them liked to bang on things.

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July 22, 2020   1 Comment


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


I was out of my skull when I broke into boxcars, unloading Cutty Sark, golf balls and tires. I used tin snips that cut right through corrugated steel. This was a while ago. Now I’m retired and just watch TV. I have an intense appetite for the Indians — or whatever they’re called — and sausage and hash browns.

I’m lonely now with Corona-time. I never got married. A mistake. There was this chick in the 1970s who loved me, but I wasn’t ready. Schmuck — me. I joined the Marines and was in for six months. Semper Fidelis was plain bullshit to me. Latin bullshit. I quit.

You ever notice how Italians swear so much? It’s very big with them. If you’re Italian, you’re better than everybody else. You can be the biggest, dumbest fuck on two feet, but if you’re Italian, you’re it. I have enough spaghetti and wine in my veins to be Italian. The goddamn hot peppers, I can eat a mason jar full. But I’m not Italian, not by a long shot.

My family disowned me after Marion. A Jewish boy in the joint — me. Not kosher. I did three years there, then two in Chillicothe. I haven’t talked to my relatives in, I bet, 30 years. When I got out the last time, I made a clean slate of things. I sold stained glass to restaurants. Completely legit. But I didn’t like it, so I went back to stealing. The hardest part was carrying the loot. I was that good.

My biggest mistake? Quitting high school. I thought I knew more than the teachers. Schmuck — me, again. I hung out with the delinquents who stole cars. An old fat Jew — we called him the Eggman — ran the show.

I don’t have a dime to my name. I blew it all on cards, broads and racehorses. After a while, I couldn’t deal with the thickheaded Italians at the racetrack, so I got out. But not before I was broke. I love wieners and Coke. Love that combo. My best heist was when I pinched three cases of sausage from Red Barn. I didn’t fence it. I ate it all! I’m in menopause now — male menopause. The docs talk about it on TV. I love my flat-screen. Almost perfect. Just me and my TV.

Here’s my record:

DOB: 12-11-1953
WT: 325
HGT: 5-8

[fake profile]

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July 8, 2020   5 Comments