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Inner City Survivor: Catherine Jane K. MAG
I interviewed my mother, Catherine. She never talked about her childhood, but I knew that she grew up in a bad section of Cleveland, Ohio. I was surprised how much I learned about my mother from this interview.
Your childhood was very different from your life today. Where did you spend your childhood, and would you describe it as typical?
I was born in 1954. I spent the first 17 years of my life in a one-bedroom apartment on the east side of Cleveland. I lived with my father, my mother, and my baby sister Janet. My grandparents lived in the apartment on the floor below us and were a big part of my life. It was not what you would want your childhood to be, and the worst part was school.
How would you describe your schooling?
I loved elementary school. It was designed for children with high I. Q. 's. We sat at tables, rather than desks; we took notes, played with telescopes and read the entire Laura Ingalls Wilder series. I loved it! I loved writing to NASA about Telestar. We studied French, learned how to play musical instruments, listened to classical music, and learned to dance minuets.
After sixth grade, I went to one of the only junior high and high school combinations in the country. I used to love writing and science, and I hated math. It was a normal high school experience, but then things started to change.
How did things change?
Well, the school always had African-American students, but then some moved in who felt things should be different. Suddenly walking home from school was not safe any more. I would walk home with my best friend, Suzy, and we'd have snowballs filled with glass thrown at us because we were white. We would run into people's houses we didn't even know just to get away. One day when we were running into a house, Suzy made it, but the fence stopped me. About 15boys jumped me and started beating me with a steel bar. They punched me, ripped my clothes, stole my underwear. Finally I got up and got away, but they followed me home, smacking me and calling me "white b****. " They told me to leave the area because this was their neighborhood now. I found myself living in Cleveland's ghetto all of a sudden.
Why didn't you call the police?
My mother told me that the Christian thing to do was to forgive and forget while turning the other cheek. She said that if I had a problem I should tell our minister and discuss it with him. I was devastated.
What was school like?
To give you an idea, we had bathroom ladies because so many people were knifed in the bathroom. The doors were locked at all times, and we had armed policemen patrolling the halls making sure order was maintained. No one was allowed in the halls while class was in session. The knives in the cafeteria were removed because they were used as weapons. Cherry bombs and switchblades were confiscated daily, and we had ID cards to get into school.
What happened at your high school that made it so bad?
We constantly had riots between the blacks and the whites, who were mostly Italian. Imagine a mosh-pit from hell, then multiply that by infinity - that is how scary it was. During the riots kids would put cherry bombs inside trash cans that would explode and hurt everyone around. The one-on-one fights were so awful some people lost ears!
Our school was so bad that the Cleveland Sixth Precinct moved down the street so they could get there faster. There was even a button in every classroom that notified, not the office, but the police! The riots, fights and overall behavior were so bad that the school had to permanently close the cafeteria. When the riots got out of hand, the blacks called "Puff, " a ghetto gangster; the Italians called Murray Hill and the Youngstown Mafia, and the police would call the National Guard. The National Guard would come with these paddy wagons and throw everyone in sight inside.
My worst memory is from my sophomore year at our last football game. I played the clarinet in the marching band, and we lost the game so the East Cleveland fans started shaking the band's bus with us in it. There was a mob out there, and I still remember our director telling us to put on our hats incase the bus flipped. I was so scared. After that game, we had closed football games where only the teams were allowed to be there.
Why didn't you move?
My mother said we should all learn to live together in harmony. Out of chaos comes order. Plus, we had no money.
What did you do to keep safe?
Since my mom and dad worked all day, my parents could not protect Janet and me. So my dad made some friends who could. Every day for three years, men in motorcycles who never said a word to us would follow us home. I had absolutely no idea who these men were, but they followed us at the same speed and distance every day. They did protect us because I was never bothered again. I later found out that these men were the Hells Angels.
How did your dad become friends with the Hells Angels?
Well, my dad was a Mason, and one of the codes of the fraternity is to help others when they are in need. One day while walking my grandmother's poodle, my dad saw a Volkswagen bus stuck in the snow. He took her dog inside and returned with a bunch of shovels. Dad and the men cleared the snow away from the bus and they thanked him. I remember asking my dad who the men were, and he replied, "The Hell's Angels. "The next day when Dad went for a walk, he saw one of the men he'd helped standing at the corner with his German Shepherd. Every night they walked their dogs and talked. Dad must have mentioned how bad school was, and the next day three motorcycles followed me home. Dad walked with him every night until the guy was arrested for murder.
When did you finally move?
When I visited Suzy's sister in the Kitty Cat Café and my mom found out I was there, she decided then and there that we were moving. Apparently Suzy's sister had become a prostitute. I can understand why Mom did not want me there. Even though I moved junior year, I graduated from that school. My dad would drop me off early in the morning, and the janitors would leave the coal room door open for me. I would sit in the auditorium until school began. I even went to my senior prom with a policeman to protect me. That policeman is now my husband.