The little, old man in 1954
When I was a kid, there was a little, old man who lived on my street, Belmar. When I say “little, old, man,” I mean all those words: He was a man, he was old, and he was little. And when I say “little,” I mean he stood about 4 feet tall. He wasn’t a Little Person; he was just a little person. Let’s call him Mr. Fink. By the time I was 5 years old, I was as tall as Mr. Fink. In October of the year I was 5, the Cleveland Indians were playing in the World Series. Well, for two days in October. There were no playoffs back then. There were only 16 MLB teams, eight in each league. The Indians had set the record that year for the most wins in a regular season—111, in a shorter season than the current ones—and then they got swept in the Series, 4-0, by the New York Giants, led by Willie Mays.
But, anyway, back to Mr. Fink: He lived alone and he never talked to anyone, at least not to anyone who lived on our street. He may have talked to people over the telephone. But I doubt it. He probably didn’t even own a telephone. Owning a phone was still sort of a luxury to some people then, especially to people who had grown up without them. And Mr. Fink probably had been born in the early 1880s.
Even my family had a party-line phone when I was really young—a telephone line that was shared by one or more other households, at a discounted rate. Party lines were quite common until around the mid-‘60s. We had one for a while, and so did my father’s aunt and uncle, who owned the duplex we lived in and who lived downstairs. A relative of mine died as a result of some teenager’s refusal to get off the line so another relative could use the phone downstairs to call for an ambulance. Back then, most people didn’t think of suing or even pressing charges for things like that. I guess we were stupider back then.
But, anyway, back to Mr. Fink: He walked everywhere he went. But so did many people back then. Some people—the healthier ones—still do. He lived about halfway down our block, between Mayfield and Avondale. I’d see him walking up or down the street many times a day, half of the times (when he was on his way back home) carrying a small paper bag of things he’d bought. It was still common back then to just go out and get things—a lightbulb, a pencil, a lamb chop—that you needed right then. The cook in the home would figure out that evening’s dinner menu and then go out and get the ingredients.
But, anyway, back to Mr. Fink: I’m sure he kept kosher, and he had plenty of shops to choose from back then, living so close to Coventry Road. Until the late-‘60s, most of what later became known as Coventry Village consisted of kosher butcher shops, fish mongers, bakeries (three of them), delicatessens, and the guy with the small building—behind what is now Marc’s, which was then Pick-n-Pay—full of wooden cages with live chickens in them, which he would slaughter for you, and pluck, if you wanted him to. That was a loud place. We kids would stand outside it and listen to the chickens squawking, and watch for the feathers to come flying out the door.
But, anyway, back to Mr. Fink: He always wore a suit, or a sport coat, and tie and white shirt, and a fedora hat. All of his clothes were too big for his body. Sleeves and pant legs were too long; everything was too loose. But, other than the ill-fitting look of his attire, he was not unusual. Most adults wore much dressier clothing, in general, back then, than most do now. My father would wear a jacket and tie to Cleveland Indians games, and he’d make me and my older brother do the same. My mother always wore a dress and hat and white gloves to go downtown—like when we went to movie theaters, which were all downtown when I was a kid, until the early ‘60s.
But, anyway, back to Mr. Fink: All I wanted to say was that on Halloween in 1954, while I was out trick-or-treating, my mother stood on the sidewalk in front of our house to pass out candy to all the trick-or-treaters, because we lived upstairs and the kids would have had to walk up 21 steps to get to our door. At one point, after dark, a kid came by dressed as a little, old man, with clothes that were too large for him. My mother handed him some candy and he yelled something as he threw the candy back at her. And that was the only time my mother ever heard Mr. Fink’s voice.
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.