My stepdad John was a Hungarian trucker. His CB handle was “The Happy Hunky” and he was a pretty amazing guy. He loved my mom. She did not have to work so he encouraged her to make friends and be artsy. She pursued ceramics and macramé and painting. When we moved into his house, he asked her to make it a showplace and redecorate. And she did! She reupholstered sofas and stained cabinets and laid new flooring. She thrived and she was happy.
People came to our house for dinner parties featuring his stuffed veal pocket and her lasagna. Red wine, good coffee, a little weed, Fleetwood Mac and Leo Sayer. Insane marshmallow fruit ambrosia, homemade cheeseballs with walnuts, highball cocktails, floating conversations about Stephen King, Jimmy Hoffa, Dennis Kucinich, Steve Martin and some lawyer named Mr. Hickey.
The dynamic of my relationship with John was not easy to define. I thought he was funny and I respected him. He thought I was funny and smart and marveled at how serious I could be about minutiae. He was a good 15 years older than my mom and had already raised a daughter. He only really got angry when I disrespected my mom. Other than that, he had me figured out.
My room would be a mess the entire week he was on the road. My mom would beg and cajole and threaten so I would clean it. John would come home on the weekend and simply say, “Wow! Who dropped the bomb?” It would be clean within 10 minutes.
I was still stuck in Spaghettio mode and had developed a nasty habit of wiping my mouth on my sleeve. Nearly every shirt I owned had an orange stain. My friend Dawn had also picked up this habit from me. Both of our mothers were frustrated. One night she, Dawn was over for dinner. It was Saturday so John was home and made “real” spaghetti. It was real because it was made with dry noodles and Ragu.
During dinner, John took a big sloppy bite and wiped half his mouth on my sleeve and half his mouth on Dawn’s. We were horrified.
John shrugged and said, “I thought it was okay to do that. After all, you two were doing it.” I could hear my mom through the saloon style kitchen doors laughing. I never wiped my mouth on my sleeve again.
John’s signature recipe was Stuffed Veal Pocket. I had no idea what veal was. I had reasoned that if it had a pocket, it was cousin to the kangaroo family but bigger. As an isolated kid who had been living out of tin cans, I was about to discover a new world.
Early Saturday mornings, John would drive out to the Cleveland West Side Market on 25th street. I wanted to go. I mean why not go to the store? You grab a cart, listen to elevator music, check off your list, say please and thank you. I had been to the store with my grandparents every Thursday in my life. What was so mysterious about West Side Market? Did they not allow kids? I begged, I cajoled and threatened. Finally, John took me to West Side Market.
Yelling – not always in English. Smells – FISH, meat, flowers, baking breads. Colors – Vibrant palettes of fruits and vegetables. People shoving and crowding and knocking into me with their bags. Old women in babushkas buying parsnips, gorgeous dark eyed young men stacking fish, enough cut flowers to make me feel like I landed in Oz. Noise and bustle and haggling, the chaos of making a deal in hunter-gatherer heaven and above all this the atmosphere of shared passion for nourishment of the senses.
Each element by itself would have been enough to scare a shy child. The noise and confusion and unfamiliar faces and fish that looked back at you. But this special cloud of mayhem was driven by the cohesive purpose of trade. The food here was not just food. Jewels from the earth and sea harvested with intention and love. Buyers understanding the ritual negotiations and intrinsic magic within each carrot or peach.
There’s a place in the far corner of the Market on the Loraine Avenue side called Johnny Hot Dog. It was opened in 1912 by Mary Trisco and still open today. There is no better hot dog in Cleveland or maybe the whole Midwest. They even make a hot dog breakfast sandwich. When John went to the Market alone, he would bring home a big brown bag of them with chili, diced onions and bright yellow mustard.
This particular morning, I held his John’s hand as we waited in line. The air hung heavy with smoke of grilled meat and sweet, fluffy steamed buns. I noticed there was a man in the back corner staring at me. His skin had a moist gray sheen like wet cement. His scent cut through the hot dog heaven and I felt real fear blooming in the back of my brain. I was pretty sure he was dead. He had left this world and now returned to haunt Johnny Hot Dog. Because they had the best hot dogs on Earth. And we had to pass him on the way out and he might kill us for ours.
“John, I want to go home.”
“What’s wrong? C’mon, we’ll bring your mom a bag and make her day.”
“That guy. He’ll kill us for our hot dogs when we get ‘em.”
“What guy?” So John couldn’t see him. Definitely a ghost, definitely dead.
“THAT GUY!” I pointed and was loud. The man dropped his eyes. People’s heads snapped toward us.
“THAT guy? Oh no. No, that’s just Clarence the Fire Bug. He don’t kill people. He just likes hot dogs like we do.”
It was the perfect answer. It established that he knew Clarence, that Clarence was neither dead nor murderous, that Clarence loved hot dogs like a normal not-dead person. Also Clarence was gainfully employed as a Fire Bug, which had to be a really cool job. I was suddenly not afraid. Staring people smiled at us. We bought a dozen chili combo dogs and headed home. On the way out the door, I made a point of saying goodbye to Clarence.
It took me decades to arrive at John’s sheer brilliance. To any child, the unfamiliar can seem terrifying. Even more so if that child has a gigantic, rampant imagination. Stranger Danger aside, we are taught that anyone not like us could be a threat or not a good person. Society uses markers like race or income class to measure differences and create separation.
What John did was phenomenal. He did not really know Clarence – in fact he came up with his name on the fly. It didn’t matter. He destroyed everything different or scary about him in the simple statement, “He just likes hot dogs like we do.”