Business as unusual
December is normally all about holidays—Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year’s Eve—and feeling good and spending time with family and friends. This year, maybe not. Except for non-believers. I mean, those who don’t believe that the coronavirus is real. They’ll still get together with other people. Though, according to the implications of the 2020 election demographic statistics, the vast majority of Heights denizens do believe.
Further implied is that those believers will not be gathering in groups this year. That’s sad for many people. Though it’s a relief for some. But, either way, it’s only temporary. Next year—or one of these years—life will get back to normal, in most ways.
This year, we won’t be having our traditional Christmas Eve Day brunch with our adult children, their significant others and our grandchildren. But the good news is that we do get to see them at other times—and, also, that most Heights-area Chinese and Thai restaurants will be open on Christmas Day, when my wife and I will get takeout and watch old Christmas-themed movies on TCM.
So, life is still pretty good for me. But it wasn’t always. For instance, December 1967 I spent walking around Cleveland Heights. I was 18 and essentially homeless. I was dealing with some untreated mental health issues. Well, I was coping with them, if not actually dealing with them. I had quit high school the previous spring. Most of my friends had gone away to college. I did have a couple of crash pads where I could usually stay, which was a great thing about the hippie era. And I did manage to play a few music gigs.
But I mostly walked around. In the cold. Often, at night, I’d land at a third-floor apartment on the corner of Euclid Heights Boulevard and Lancashire Road—a building that was soon after torn down—where several people I knew from the music scene lived and let me sleep on their couch. The place had no heat. The owner was trying to drive out the hippies. Someone finally complained about it to Cleveland Heights City Hall, so the city sent someone to install a meter that took the temperature all day, and recorded an average. The landlord turned on our heat twice a day, from 9 to 11 a.m. and p.m. That brought the average temperature up to a legal minimum—on a meter that sat one foot away from a radiator. But the apartment was freezing; usually only slightly warmer than the temperature outside. I would come in and just lie down to sleep on the ratty couch, still in my boots, coat, gloves, hat, scarf and however many layers of clothing I could wear at the same time.
I frequented a diner near University Circle, where, for a quarter, you could get a decent-size bowl of hot chili, plus a stack of Saltine crackers. Up in the freezing apartment, the only food I remember was Constant Comment tea and ginger snaps, which we’d eat in the kitchen with the tiny oven on and its door open. At another apartment I used to visit, on Coventry, directly above Heights Hardware, one of the residents worked at an Asian import store at Severance Center, and she’d bring home boxes of unsellable broken fortune cookies. That would be dinner those nights.
That year, the holidays came and went. I think I went to my parents’ house on Belmar for dinner a couple of nights that December. My father never made me feel very welcome there, so I didn’t visit often. One time I took an equally starving musician friend, a girl who later moved to Nashville and eventually became a much-in-demand backup singer for big country music stars. One or two other times I went there around Hanukkah time, when my older brother was visiting from college, for my mother’s potato latkes and, probably, brisket.
Obviously, my life turned out fine. But many other people are not so lucky. They’re not even as fortunate as I was back then, when I was mainly homeless, because they have no friends or family to turn to—at least none who will accept them—and there is no longer a hippie network of places to crash, and no restaurants around here that sell bowls of chili with crackers for a quarter. They’re just out on the streets, lonely, confused and hungry. Even here in the Heights area. Most of us don’t see it, but the poverty rate in Cleveland Heights is about 17 percent. The number of homeless in Cuyahoga County is around 23,000.
If you’re not having parties and big dinners this year, which should be the norm, you could put the money you would have spent to other valuable uses, like local shelters
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.