By Bert Stratton
My trip down Lee Road started at the Fairfax School’s Grandparents Day. I told everybody my grandchild was “Jim,” as in gym. I watched my wife, Alice, a phys-ed teacher, lead a class. She wore a mic like Madonna. Alice is not a roll-out-the-ball gym teacher.
I walked by the Lee Road library and wondered if I should submit an application to the board of trustees. I had already written the application, but I worried it might be too flippant, so I hadn’t submitted it. I had used the word “libe” in the application, and written a couple sentences in Spanish. There are few Hispanics around here.
Classical music blared outside the Subway at Lee and Meadowbrook. Must have been a crowd-control thing.
At the Lusty Wrench, Sam Bell, the mechanic, told me he drives less than 1,000 miles a year.
“When did you start hating cars? Must have been after you opened this place.”
Sam said he used to like cars; he says he once drove 160 mph all the way from Baltimore to Chicago in college. Sam likes the idea of cars, but not the actual cars.
Tim Burdick, a woodwind repairman, works next door to the Lusty Wrench. Tim had a $350 mouthpiece lying around.
“It’s similar to Frank’s,” Tim said, as in Franklin Cohen’s. Cohen is the principal clarinetist of the Cleveland Orchestra.
I tried the extra mouthpiece and ran it by some guys in my klezmer band. They couldn’t hear the difference. My band’s keyboardist said I wasn’t in control with Frank’s mouthpiece.
Tim has always liked my Martin tenor sax, particularly the octave mechanism. “So simple,” he says every time I bring the Martin in.
I planned to meet Carlo Wolff for dinner at Marotta’s on Lee. Carlo is a jazz critic, and now a reporter for the Cleveland Jewish News. I wonder how Carlo is fitting in at the CJN; he’s Jewish but “not very Jewish,” he told me.
I do a lot on Lee. Not everything, but a lot.
The epicenter? The Stone Oven. Yes, I go there; it’s my obligation as a baby boomer. It seems everybody in the Stone Oven is between 50 and 70 years old. On one visit, I sat next to Ray Lesser, the editor of the Funny Times. He had just turned down some of my so-called funny stories. I didn’t bring that up. I took the high road! We talked about his son Ari, the Orthodox Jewish rapper. That worked out; I wound up playing Ari’s wedding.
Carl Goldstein—a fellow landlord—goes to the Stone Oven every morning. In 2010 I told him I would start hanging out there every morning with him, but I haven’t. Every morning? I’m just not that social.
Mr. Lee of “Lee Road” was a farmer. I learned that on a historic walking tour. Other local farmers included Silsby, Taylor, and Dille. My Lee Road history: The first time I saw a live band was at the Stardust Ballroom, which was in back of the Cedar Lee Theatre on Lee. I was in junior high, at a bar mitzvah party, and the bandleader was Morry Seaman, the Jewish bandleader/saxophonist of the 1960s. Maybe he was playing “Stardust” at the Stardust. I don’t remember.
Cleveland Heights High grads like to reminisce about the Cedar-Lee neighborhood. That’s their nexus: the Cedar Lee Theatre and what used to be around there … Mawby’s, Meyer Miller shoe store, Earth by April. A Heights grad once told me he learned almost everything in life by selling shoes at Meyer Miller as a teenager. Meyer Miller’s co-owner was Cuppy Kohn. There was a pool hall next to the Cedar Lee Theatre: Wally’s.
Who cares about Wally’s? Not me. People who grew up in the Heights care about Wally’s; I grew up in South Euclid and don’t care. Let’s talk about Mayfield Road, South Euclid … the Cream-O-Freeze, Warehouse Beverage. (No, different story.)
At the Cleveland Jewish News, there was a freelance writer, Sid Abrams, who often wrote about Coney Island, Brooklyn. That’s where he and the CJN editor had grown up. I bet two people in Cleveland read those articles: Sid and the editor.
A couple years ago, a Beachwood High boy regularly dropped by my band’s rehearsals to jam. I knew him from temple, encouraged him to play, and liked to spout off advice about “real life” around him. I was his version of a worldly old bluesman, except Jewish. For instance, I told him to check out Brennan’s Colony on Lee. Brennan’s is the Catholic take on Corky & Lenny’s. Brennan’s is a major ethnic hangout, home-away-from-home for Church of the Gesu families, serving up quality fish, fries and beer.
Stand on the glass-enclosed Heights Library bridge spanning Lee Road, and you’ll see a fair amount of life pass underneath. Nothing momentous—no moving vans or rock-star buses, like at the New York Thruway overpass, Angola—but give Lee Road some leeway; it’s a major thoroughfare.
Bert Stratton is the bandleader of Yiddishe Cup. He blogs at Klezmer Guy, and has contributed to the New York Times, the Times of Israel, the Plain Dealer and City Journal. He has won two Hopwood Awards.
Cedar Lee photo by Nico Paix, used under a Creative Commons license.