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Sunday, August 25, 2019




            More than the most common street name in the United States, Main Street of Toronto, Ohio has a most uncommon distinction, and might as well at one time have been the Mason-Dixon Line, or the Center of the Universe, as some Torontonians thought and still think; such was the rivalry between the North End and the South End of the Gem City.
            Although some Toronto residents have always disputed the true demarcation separating the town’s north from the south, Main Street marks the boundary between Knox Township on the north and Island Creek on the other side of the street.  No one, to this writer’s knowledge, from the City of Vision has ever publicly called himself a Knoxer or an Island Creeker; always a South-ender or a North-ender, or even a North-end Hunky, even those not of Slavic heritage.
            The term “Hunky,” in fact, was an ethnic slur, whose origin predated the turn of the 20th Century and referred to Slovak and other Slavs who had emigrated to the U.S. to escape the oppressive rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a reign that forbid Slovaks to teach their own language.  Although their native land was Slovakia, their official entry papers listed them as immigrants from Hungary, and hence the ethnic slur, “Hunky.”  The Toronto Slovaks congregated in the north end of Toronto where an abundance of job opportunities attracted them, jobs with low pay and long hours, this tenure often requiring them to work 32 consecutive hours.
            My Slovak grandparents told me stories about prejudice toward Slavs back then, told me why they did not pass on their Eastern Slovak dialect onto their children and grandchildren, that they did not want them to grow up with accents and become targets of prejudice and derision.  My grandfather John Petras Sr. told me a story about the Ku Klux Klan marching up and down Loretta Avenue in 1935, and while standing upon his front porch, he shook his fist at one Klansman, recognizing him by his peculiar gait, and saying, “I know who you are, Charlie.  You look ridiculous!”  As the robes continued down street, he shouted again, “And by the way, Notre Dame will beat Ohio State again this season!”   And the Fighting Irish did—7 to 2.
            Back then Slavs were distinguished as a separate race.   Hitler wanted to eradicate them, and back home, if they held a position in City Hall, it was on their knees, scrubbing it.  In “Out of This Furnace,” a novel about an immigrant Slovak family—the Dobrejcaks—author Thomas Bell wrote that most Americans did not consider Eastern Europeans, such as Slovaks and Poles, as well as Southern Europeans, like Italians, white.
            In 1935, the same year as the Klan March, the racial tensions came to an ugly climax April 17, four days before Easter, when pickets at the perimeter of Kaul Clay, the majority of which were of Slavic descent and other minorities, met a storm of gunfire from Pinkerton Detectives, resulting in one death and another four wounded.  The fatality was Andy Lastivka, a Slovak whose residence stood two blocks from where he had fallen.  Another Toronto Slovak, Andy Straka, carried a Pinkerton slug in his leg for life.  No one was ever arrested or convicted for the shootings.
            Even to this day, one can see the stigma of prejudice by touring Union Cemetery and the headstones in the oldest section to discover not a soul of Slavic or Southeastern European descent buried amongst the obelisks and monuments dedicated to the Masons and other prominent residents of a municipality nicknamed the Gem City.  Union Cemetery was a site frequently marched by the Klan, often numbering more than 50 hoods.
            If Time is a great healer, it is because it is a great inducer of forgetfulness.  Gradually, the wounds of this culture clash became subsumed into oblivion.  North-enders moved southward, the direction by which the expanding city grew.  South-enders moved north.  Slavic names blended into a hodgepodge with those of Irish, Scottish, German, Anglo, Italian and others.  They intermarried.  And World War II united everyone.
            Second and third generation Slavs married sons and daughters of Toronto’s founding fathers, one of whom was Revolutionary War scout and Indian fighter Michael Myers, who had 11 children with his wife Katherine Strickler, and the Auver rumored to have fathered more.  It has been said by more than a few T-town old-timers that half the town is descended from a dude who lived to a ripe old age of 107 years while the other half is of Slovak descent.  Said more bluntly: half the town is related; the other half doesn’t know it.   Perhaps that is the reason the north end-south end rivalry eventually became reduced to brotherly banter and that, too, has faded.
            There are some striking geographical and demographic features distinguishing the two half-cities.  For the most part, the North End is flat, the streets straight while the South End is hilly, the streets often curvy.  The North End is overlooked by Meyers Knob, part of the Pennsylvanian Escarpment, the South End overlooked by a geological anomaly, Mount Nebo, where the Ohio River once flowed on the west of the mountain, the floodplain that is Walton Acres today. In geological terms, it is classified as Wisconsinian.  There were the clay works and the power plant in the Mosti side of town and the paper mill, block factory and Titanium in the Coulters side ; Rudy’s in the north and Melhorn’s and Happy’s south; the Power Plant houses in the north, the Mill Row south; and the North End Tavern in the draft root beer side of town, the South End Tavern in the Goonie Burger side, or simply called Skunk’s if you didn’t give a flying river rat’s ass about zonal distinctions.
            Even the currents of the Ohio are claimed by some to flow funny below Main Street.
            An old Kaul Clay veteran, a Hunky at heart, once exclaimed that City Hall had a conspiracy to move everything important in T-town south of Main Street.  Maybe there was a conspiracy, looking back, now that every grade school, K through 12, sits on one site.  (Rumor says this conspiracy began when the color blue initially appeared in Red Knight uniforms.).  The north-end and Slovak-language teaching parochial school St. Jopeph’s merged south with St. Francis until that, too, merged with oblivion, like Slovak Days, which incinerated into nothingness when Kaul Hall along Croxton’s Run Road burned to the ground in the 1970s.
  And the south end holds a wide margin in this pizza-consuming town of a four to one margin, a town further divided by loyalties to a square pie, and like an Ivy League rivalry in which you are a staunch Harvard man or a Yale man, in T-town you can distinguish oneself as an Iggy’s man or a Dicarlo’s or Domino’s dude, a Gem City Pizza gal or one of the diminishing few, the most loyal of the loyal, still holding out for the return of Johnny’s.
An interesting fact about the pizza logistics of the Gem City is that the town never has had a pizza shop operated its ovens north of Clark Street, not even the fabled monopolistic Johnny’s, which moved from site to site as often Bill Jaco, always in the South End.
            Some dispute, until this day, occurs about the true line separating the two halves of the city.  Some claim as far north as Myers while some say the south end begins at the Overhead Bridge.  And then there is the mythical midtown, a so-called neutral zone from Main to Clarke.  In truth, to the best of this Iggy’s man and anti-blue bring-back-the-Goonie advocate, and based on personal bar- and- tavern on-the-site research, no such establishment has been named anything close to “Midtown Bar”  while there has been fierce patronage for decades at the aforementioned North End and South End Taverns, the mythical midtown home to such neutrally named watering holes as the City Restaurant, Frogs and Gem City Restaurant, unless, of course, “Candyland” was some secret blue conspiracy code name for the “Center of the City Fish Bowl.”
            Perhaps, the north-south T-town rivalry became extinct at the advent of open enrollment.  Maybe too many Cernanskys and Scalleys moved south.  Who knows?  Ask the millennial and younger T-towners about the north end-south end rivalry and they’ll probably respond by asking if that’s a new video game.

            This town’s north end-south end rivalry is gone, faded like the advertising on the Daniels Building, memory-aided, barely discernible but to some.  Toronto, Ohio is one town, as it should be, a small city, as it has become, a hometown, always.

Friday, August 2, 2019



            What I am attempting to write is urban legend, what I remember of Doughnuts.  Not too much to tell, really; not so urban when you consider a town as small as Toronto-- Toronto, Ohio, that is, if I may be so bold to borrow the tease on words from a local cookbook.
            Doughnuts walked in a perpetual stoop, hands folded upon the small of his back, his oversized overcoat swaying from side to side.  You could not see one feature of scenery where he trod, not so much as a flower, a mailbox, a lawn ornament, when you saw Doughnuts walking, you saw only his gait.  Whether he liked it or not, whether he wanted it or not, he commanded attention.
            They said he walked this way because he had spent so much of his life down in the local mines.  Doughnuts had a pair of paws like sledges, forearms and wrists like steel cables, no doubt from picking veins of coal.  His bewhiskered face was as angular and chiseled as the coal veins he hacked daily.
            Or had he been a miner at all?
            There were other rumors about his origins.  The one I heard most and the one making the most sense to this then teenager was Doughnuts held a patented invention for Titanium (Timet today) that made him a millionaire eccentric, our little town version of Howard Hughes.
            The locals said that Doughnuts lived along the riverbank in the company of dogs in the south end.  They also said he walked stooped over because he was always searching for money, a strange habit I thought for a millionaire, but befitting of an eccentric one.
            I encountered Doughnuts only a few times.   I was inside Melhorn’s, sitting upon a red vinyl bar stool sipping on Cokes and puffing on cigarettes with friends.  Doughnuts came in and skulked to the corner booth near the jukebox. Whether music played, I cannot remember, if it did I wouldn’t have heard anyway, his presence commanded that much attention.  The waitress came to him.  He ordered coffee and powered doughnuts.  A couple of minutes later, Lou Melhorn himself brought the man two doughnuts and the coffee pot.  Doughnuts carefully tilted the pot and trickled the steamy coffee into a saucer, not a cup.  He then dipped a powdered doughnut into his coffee, nibbled on it, and then tilted the saucer to his mouth.
            He was British, we decided.  That’s how they drank coffee over there.  We were 12 and 13 and worldly.  Worldly, we watched him dip his doughnuts and sip his coffee, until he finished.  And then he stood, hunkered over and wobbled through the haze of tobacco smoke, out  the door, into the invigorating air, seasoned with coal soot, fly ash, lead fumes and steel dust.  We watched through the big picture window his head hobble by, disappearing south on Trenton Street, then Ohio Route 7, busy with traffic.
            One other time, I encountered the man everyone called Doughnuts, perhaps that same summer of Kool Aid, Melhorn’s Popsicles and filterless cigarettes. 
            One of the Conlon twins accompanied me along the north sidewalk of the Overhead Bridge.  Hardly anyone walked the south side, still to this day.  If you wanted to take the shortcut, you sidled along the concrete base and skipped across the railroad tracks in the cool eternal shadows below, saving you something like 15 to 20 seconds.  Above at the western base of the north sidewalk, we saw Doughnuts heading toward us, a caricature of a man from where we stood, his head seeming directly stemmed to his shoes because of his pronounced stoop.
Usually in the Gem City, they name the streets and buildings after someone, someone deceased.  Pretty sure no one in town had bore the surname Overhead.  “Overhead” made more sense when you were taking the 15-second shortcut.
            But we were not taking the 20-second shortcut; we were striding along the side of the sidewalk everybody took, including someone walking stooped over with his hands clasped behind the small of his back.
            Our paths intersected near the top where in my insolence, I said, “How are you doing, Doughnuts?”
            He swiveled his head, his eyes steely and penetrating, “None of your God-damned business how I am doing.”  His voice was like sandpaper, number 2 grit.  It certainly wasn’t High Tea British.
            Another time I saw Doughnuts up close.  I am uncertain what year.  I certainly couldn’t pin a date by his visage.  He was one of those people like your Great Uncle Harry or your afghan-knitting baba, who always looked old, even when they were younger than you in those faded brown vignettes sitting forever with the knickknacks upon the fireplace mantle.  Doughnuts, I had to believe, was born gray on a gray day and swaddled in sandpaper.
            He was part of a crew pouring a sidewalk in a neighbor’s yard on the Federal Street side of the ally, cattycorner from my parents’ home on Biltmore.  Shielded from potential steely rebuke, I spied upon him behind shrubs.  Immediately I lost focus on the other workers and features of the house and yard.  Had a spittoon of gold glistened at the end of the rainbow, I wouldn’t have paid it a glance.  I saw only Doughnuts, his whiskers glistening with sweat.  He worked hard.  He wheeled the wheelbarrow, hoed, shoveled, troweled. He made that concrete lay down like an unruly puppy.  Occasionally, he would stand erect, all six feet of him, to point out some flaw in the concrete that needed attention, and then he would resume his robotic labors. 
            He had what we T-town Hunkies called the Hunky work ethic, although I didn’t know ethic from ethnic, but I did know Doughnuts was one hell of a worker and didn’t stoop because of some physical impairment.
            I would later learn the man I had insolently called “Doughnuts” to his face was actually named Barney and like a large number of T-townies, he was of Eastern European descent, like me.  I would also learn later somehow through the self-awareness that the slow incubation of
 maturity brings, I had stooped lower than the tail of Barney Evanosky’s overcoat and was most deserving of being called a few choice names, the one most salient starting with the letter A and ending in E, and I don’t mean Ace. 
            I did learn Mr. Evanosky wintered in Bergholz and returned every spring to Toronto. I like to think Toronto, Ohio is the center of the Universe. 
            I like to think of him as another colorful character in the history of this colorful city, another gem of the Gem City, and upon a soft windy summer evening, you can smell a trace of powdered sugar in the air and you can hear the steady clomp of invisible footsteps ascending the north sidewalk of the Overhead Bridge, and somehow the surroundings become fuzzy as though you are looking through a time telescope out-of-focus, and all so silent,  and the clomps trickle into the distance while dogs howl in recognition.