The Golden Age on E. 49th: Close friends coming of age together, then traveling separate paths

The Golden Age on East 49th StreetThe Golden Age on East 49th Street

Willson Junior High was one short block from East 49th Street. It did not have a good reputation. There was always trouble there. There were fights before school, after school, and sometimes, during school.

There was another school in the neighborhood called St. Andrews. It was a Slovak Catholic school that the Slovak boys in the neighborhood attended.

St. Andrews closed and most of my friends came to Willson, where I went to school. Two of my friends who transferred and one of my friends who was already at Willson caused a major shift in a segment of, “Who are the toughest boys at Willson?”

The tough guys, who were previously considered to be the badasses at Willson, were demoted to second string. The new first string were my friends, Blacky Corleon, Ed Jablonksi, and Bob McGee.

To the best of my knowledge, Blacky had never lost a fight. Bob could hit his opponent faster and more frequently than the naked eye could observe. Ed only needed to hit his opponent once and the fight was usually over.

I had never been in a fight at Willson and had only been in one fight at Dunham Elementary—that by some quirk of mysterious happenings, I won.

Now, small and skinny me being seen in the company of Blacky, Bob, and Ed made me an untouchable for the rest of my time a Willson. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and life was good at Willson Junior High.

My Slovak friends were kind of a close-knit group. They were proud of their ethnic heritage and were usually a little wary of outsiders. They would accept you, but there had to be a period of proving your worth as a friend. A common theme to a lot of them was an extreme example of reticence in some of them.

There seemed to be an unwritten rule followed by some of the people of the neighborhood that you should stick to your own affairs and not intrude on other people’s business.

Most of the boys in the neighborhood, upon graduating from high school, looked for a factory job. Maybe 20 years after I left the neighborhood, I ran into a guy from the old neighborhood.

This guy got a job in the White Musical Instrument Factory in the neighborhood. Here, 20 years later, he was still operating the same machine in the same factory. During our conversation, he related to me that he had worked next to the same man who operated the machine next to him for 20 years and he did not even know the man’s name.

He proudly said, “I mind my own business!” I still think about the implications and strangeness of that admission. Some other philosophies like that one were firmly entrenched in the minds of the people in the neighborhood.

I cannot imagine what old country logic caused that dark thinking. There was a line of thought that whatever happens to you in life is what you should expect; whatever comes your way you must make the best of it and be happy with it.

That line of thinking did not seem dark to them: Don’t reach beyond what is expected of you; be grateful for what you have.

Maybe the experiences of the Depression and World War II might have led the people down that road. My father was not Slovak but, he was an adherent to that school of thinking. Later in life, when I told him that I had enrolled at Cleveland State University, he said to me, “Why are you wasting time with that shit?” Why don’t you just get a decent job?”

Ralph Horner
Ralph Horner

About the Author: Ralph Horner

Ralph Horner grew up in the 1950s and 1960s on Whittier Avenue in the Central and Hough neighborhoods. In the 1960s and 1970s, at the age of 19, he managed a French Shriner shoe store on Euclid Avenue, where he got to know many of the people who hung out on Short Vincent.  A self-proclaimed juvenile delinquent living in the inner city, Horner observed the characters who were regulars in the neighborhoods he lived and worked in. Now in his 70s, Horner shares the stories of some of his more memorable experiences on Short Vincent with the FreshWater series, Rascals and Rogues I Have Known.