The good January
January has always seemed like a kind of lonely month. All of the holiday stuff is over. It gets a lot quieter. People, in this climate, stay inside as much as possible. We don’t run into as many friends and acquaintances in stores or at parties (because there are no parties) as we did in December. It’s terribly cold outside (and sometimes inside), and it’s dark and bleak. College and professional football is over and baseball is still three months down the road. TV networks run miniseries at this time of year—from "Roots" to "Downton Abbey"—because people are stuck inside and bored. And reading is not a group activity.
But not all Januaries in my life have been lonely feeling. I actually enjoyed one of them. January 1968. It was the hippie era. And it was just before I left Cleveland, seeking fame and/or fortune in the music business in New York City. Coventry Road (before anyone called the neighborhood by that name) was full of hippies and other counter-culture figures, and we all congregated in Coventry Road shops and on the street.
And many of us hung out, every night, at Irv’s Delicatessen, at the corner of Coventry and Hampshire. The large restaurant’s tables and booths were always full of hippies, bikers, artists, writers, my fellow musicians, and other misfits of society. You could get a bowl of matzo ball soup for less than a dollar. A big corned beef sandwich cost about $1.50.
(I remember once, a few years earlier, I was eating there with my father and he said, “A dollar-thirty-five for a corned beef sandwich? I remember when they cost fifteen cents.” And I said, “Fifteen cents? Why did they even bother to charge anything, at that rate?” And then, only about 10 years later, I was sitting in the Carnegie Deli in Manhattan, reading the menu, when I said, “Seven-fifty for a corned beef sandwich? I remember when they cost a dollar-thirty-five.” And a decade after that, sitting in the Stage Deli in Manhattan, I saw that a corned beef sandwich cost $15. So I told the story I just told you.)
Irv’s was the heart of the Coventry neighborhood in the late ‘60s. I’ve mentioned the place a few times in these columns, and every time I’ve written about it, people have contacted me and asked what went on there, because I’ve alluded to something, but have never actually said anything. That’s because I can’t actually say anything.
I will say this: There was a restaurant on Coventry that became weirder and sleazier over time; where you could buy drugs all over the place inside it; where there was prostitution going on in the basement (which carried over into the next-door apartment building); where various types of gambling were available; and where you could eat, except that the place was filthy, including the food-preparation areas. The city, prodded by various civic organizations, finally closed the place down in the mid-‘70s. But I can’t say which restaurant that was. And maybe I should, actually, say that I think all that stuff was going on . . . and so does everyone else who was there.
But, anyway, getting back to Irv’s: Thinking about hanging out there in January 1968 reminds me of an old song by the 2016 Nobel Laureate in Literature, who sang:
With haunted hearts through the heat and cold,
We never thought we could ever get very old.
We thought we could sit forever in fun.
Our chances really were a million to one.
How many a year has passed and gone?
Many a gamble has been lost and won.
Many a road taken by many a first friend,
And each one I've never seen again.
I wish, I wish, I wish in vain
That we could sit simply in that room again.
Ten-thousand dollars at the drop of a hat –
I'd give it all gladly if our lives could be like that.
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.