I begin my “historical” journey on Euclid Avenue at the junction of East 105th. I am standing in front of the Alhambra Theater, remembering that my mother took me and my brother there to see The Wizard of Oz. It had probably been released some fifteen years or more earlier. Just west of the Alhambra is the Keith Theater, which I recall as a landmark and nothing more. Across the street—south and slightly east—is the Fanny Farmer candy shop, which holds an unfulfilled chocolate dream. And around the corner on a side street is the SS Kresge five-and-dime. Looking down that street puts me in mind of a forbidden other world.
My historical footsteps lead me to the University Theater near East 107th Street. I am a preteen come to see The Ten Commandments. It is here that I experience my first encounter with a sexual predator: “his” hand is under my dress before I am aware of it. In my silent trauma, I get up and leave and tell no one. Why didn’t I scream? The magic of the East 105th and Euclid area is now dark and unappealing.
I’m standing in an historical space. I don’t have a timeline to share, just bits and pieces of memories. There is an indoor market at East 55th and Woodland, with its huge clock that can be seen for miles, or so I imagine. Produce is brought in from the shipping yards near where I live on 45th Street off of Woodland and where I learn to cross the tracks of the train yard at around six or seven years old.
Milk is only twenty-five cents a quart at the grocery store downstairs from my Aunt Freda’s apartment which I visit sometimes. It is also where I live for a short while—5019 Woodland—and where I last see my father alive. I’m not allowed to cross Woodland Avenue, but one day I do and I get in trouble for agreeing to get a stack of newspapers for the downstairs store proprietor. I am not yet seven years old. I wonder if my “father”—Big Syl—had a conversation with the store proprietor or if I alone suffered the consequences.
At times, I see the conductors of the streetcars get out and put the cables back on the lines that give it power to travel the streets; I can see this from above looking out the window of Aunt Freda’s apartment and sometimes while I am a passenger on the streetcar with my mother. We travel downtown and then back to 5019 Woodland; no farther.
I learn to swim at the POC community center around the corner from Aunt Freda on 55th Street. In that same community center, my mother earns the title of City Swim Champ during her teenage years. It’s near the Majestic Hotel, where Black celebrities come and hangout. As a young woman, my mother works there. In the afternoon after school, I sit on a stool at the bar and it’s alright with me and everybody else. I don’t know what my mother sees at other times, but I think it is the reason she squashes my excitement about becoming a singer. In short time, she moves across the street to work at the Log Cabin. From both locations, she puts me on the bus. I pay the eight cents fare, and she instructs the bus driver to let me off at Cedar Avenue so I can go to my ballet and tap lessons at the Phillis Wheatley Association. Maybe I walk down Cedar from 55th to about 45th. Or maybe I take another bus; transfers are three cents. I’m six years old, I think.
My life is concentrated in a changing neighborhood. I’m living in the midst of dilapidated housing on East 45th street. There are other children there; Ms. Glover cares for us all. My mother visits on occasion. There are holes in the floor under the tub and rats climb out. They get caught in rat traps and we take them to the trash in the backyard. I learn to go to the bathroom at night without fear, but my brother doesn’t, which may explain his bedwetting. We finally leave that place now that I am seven-and-a-half and my brother is four-and-a-half. My mother tells us that Big Syl has died. My brother is Little Syl. I’m nobody, except, I look like my mother. Big Syl is actually not my father. We drive off with my mother and Morris, who takes on the role of stepfather. Where are our clothes, our belongings? What happened to the bicycle that was stored in Aunt Geraldine’s attic next door to Ms. Glover?
I now live with my mother and stepfather, Morris, on East 70th Street and go to Giddings Elementary. At night we listen to Bishop Sheen while Morris sleeps—my mother works nights as a barmaid—and unconsciously learn the introduction to the Catholic Rosary, because that is what is broadcast on the radio and repeats over and over—“Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus . . .”
My footsteps pace streets and sidewalks that hold harsh and confusing memories. They have me seek an escape. And I wonder: does no one else see what I see, hear what I hear, know what I know? My neighborhood memories do not overflow with joy and laughter. But I dig into the past and mine scenes and experiences that can be quilted into a memorial tapestry. And I now realize that there is more to be remembered, more to be said and eventually, more to appreciate and release.
Brenda Bey lived on the East Side around 45th to 55th off of Woodland. She has lived in Cleveland all of her life (seventy-one years) and this writing “assignment” has allowed her to unpack memories she didn't know were still present and able to be accessed. She has dabbled in creative writing and poetry and the writing required to support her messages as a speaker.
Cleveland Public Library
325 Superior Ave.
Cleveland, OH 44114
Literary Cleveland is a nonprofit organization and creative writing center that empowers people to explore other voices and discover their own. Through an expanding roster of multi-level classes, workshops and events, Literary Cleveland assists writers and readers at all stages of development, promotes new and existing literature of the highest quality, and advances Northeast Ohio as a vital center of diverse voices and visions.
Founded in 1869, Cleveland Public Library serves the residents of Cleveland through its network of 27 neighborhood branches, the Main Library downtown, Public Administration Library at City Hall, homebound delivery services, and mobile services to daycare and senior centers. From a collection of 10.5 million items, the Library lends over 5 million items a year to its 330,000 registered borrowers and to 43 other CLEVNET-member libraries in 12 counties across Northeast Ohio. Cleveland Public Library is home to the Ohio Center for the Book and the Ohio Library for the Blind and Physically Disabled, serving all 88 counties in the state of Ohio. For more information, visit cpl.org.