The Heights: training ground, for better or worse
November 1965. I had just started 11th grade at Heights High, though I wasn’t involved or engaged in school very much. I just showed up in the morning and left in the afternoon. In the morning I smoked a cigarette right up to the school’s property line; in the afternoon, I lit up a cigarette the second I hit Lee Road. In the morning I hitched a ride to school from Mayfield and Superior roads. After school, I walked down Washington Boulevard to Coventry Road and stopped at one of the three bakeries there to get a sweet roll to eat on the rest of the way to my house on Belmar, just off of Mayfield. I skipped school a lot, and often cut classes on days I did show up.
So, in other words, I spent that formative time learning bad habits—and I haven’t mentioned several others.
One particular early-November weekend that year, my friend, whom I’ll call Stuart, and I started out Friday evening at his mother’s apartment on Hampshire Road, writing a song—a fairly weak pretend-Beatles song—sitting on two beds in his room, each with a guitar, facing each other and hammering out the music and lyrics.
This wasn’t my first song, and I wrote hundreds more after that. It was not a great song. But just three years later I was in New York signing a contract with a music publisher. So it was part of my training, and that’s what was important.
Stuart and I then left his apartment, dressed like Beatles—me with tight black pants, “Beatle boots” (high-top, soft-leather shoes with two-inch Cuban heels), black turtle-neck sweater and black sport coat—and started walking all around the Coventry area, and talking. Coventry was not yet the hippie haven it became a couple of years later, though the transition had somewhat subtly begun.
Around midnight, we found ourselves on the Coventry School playground. The original school had two playgrounds. The gigantic upper one ran along Washington Boulevard and the smaller lower playground was situated on the Euclid Heights side.
The lower playground had two of those big concrete sewer pipes, perpendicular to each other. Stuart and I each crawled into a different one and continued talking. We could hear each other well because it was quiet out there, plus the pipes amplified our voices. We talked for a couple of hours more before falling asleep.
We woke up early, probably because the pipes were so uncomfortable, and resumed walking. We reached the Cedar Fairmount district and headed directly to the Toddle House, a diner-type restaurant that got burned down a year or so later. We had toast and coffee, and chatted with various unsavory characters, one of whom later became the arsonist in question.
We went back to Stuart’s apartment and played music together for most of the day, and then headed to a third—equally unsupervised—friend’s house to play music with him, and then crashed at his place for the night.
It was my training ground. Most of our contemporaries spent that time of their lives in school, learning math and science and things they’d use in life. I spent those years learning bad habits, practicing being homeless, and playing music. All of which I would soon use in life. Within a couple of years I was taking drugs, living as a homeless person and becoming a professional musician.
A bad drug experience led to my quitting all drugs, drinking and smoking, forever. The homelessness lasted a couple of years, then I got myself together. The music thing never went away—though of the three areas discussed, that one is the least self-destructive. Stuart’s doing fine. I’m doing fine. The third guy, not so much—still homeless and with untreated mental problems.
Cleveland Heights was and is a beautiful place to live. Heights High was and is a great school. But not all of us use those things in the same ways. I used the city to learn how to live on the streets. I used the school for music training only.
But all of it didn’t only prepare me for life. It also led to my development as a proud bleeding-heart liberal. I understand how and why people feel the need to escape parts of their lives via drugs and alcohol. I empathize with people who live in non-traditional situations, because of conditions that have gotten out of their control and/or maybe due to some form and degree of mental illness. And I appreciate how important learning music and other arts can be and how it can literally save people’s lives.
Cleveland Heights—the city and the school system—values arts and arts education, for which I’m glad I grew up here and still live here. Neither condones drug use or encourages homelessness. Somehow, I discovered those on my own.
David Budin is a freelance writer for national and local publications, the former editor of Cleveland Magazine and Northern Ohio Live, an author, and a professional musician and comedian. His writing focuses on the arts and, especially, pop-music history.