Friday, November 18, 2011

Memories, of my father: the red light bulb

As long time readers of this blog know, I had a real love hate relationship with my father, that was mostly hate. He was a deeply troubled man, with a life spinning out of control.  In the process of trying to make sense of it, he made us all miserable.

In another forum I moderate for people  from my adopted hometown, the subject came up about the town madam.  A woman named Gracie who ran a "house"; not a brothel, or a house of prostitution, just a "house".  Its what we called it, what my mother's generation call it, and what my grandfather's generation called.

One of the group participants remembered that when she was in high school, the kids would drive by the "house" and if the shade went up, and then the shade went down, Gracie's girls were accepting callers.  Another woman added in that a woman on her street would put out the "red light bulb" whenever her husband left for work.

And the story about the red light bulb reminded me of my dad.

Every Saturday morning, I had to go with my father, an attorney in Cleveland, when he went to visit his "clients".   I went kicking and screaming because I hated spending time with the old man and because I wanted to watch cartoons - my parents were still married so I was younger than ten.

Dad's clients were a miserable lot.  Some of the men answered the doors with faces that looked like raw meat - bruised and swollen.  Other clients tried to give me candy, but their overall hygiene and look in their eyes told me not to touch their candy.  One woman, who worked at a produce stand in the West Side Market, would give me a pumpkin every Halloween while my father would try and talk some sense to her son - black Irish brawler with a taste for booze and cheap women.

Of course all of this freaked me out because 1) we didn't have people like this in Shaker Heights, and 2) I was dealing with personal issues of my own and 3) I was like eight or nine and these people threatened my fragile sense of security.

What I didn't know was then was the reason why we visited those clients was because he had either bailed them out the week before or they were on probation and he checked up on them to make sure they weren't doing something stupid that would hurt themselves and end up back in jail.

On one of the trips we drove about five minutes from our house to a street west of Lee Road, into Cleveland proper, down in what my father called "browntown".  Dad grew up in this neighborhood when it was predominately white and eastern European in the 1920s, but by this point in the 1960s it was referred to as the place that grandparents were lucky to have "Gotten Out Of" when they sold their house and moved into Shaker proper. 

For those of you wondering what kind of neighborhood it was, the commercial district on Kinsman Road was rough and boarded up.  When the blacks rioted in the 1960s all over this country, they were rioting against this level of poverty.  Most of the houses looked rough as well, but we pulled up in front of a duplex house that by this neighborhood's standard was respectable and tidy, and there wasn't a broken down car in the driveway.

And it had a red light bulb glowing in the coach light next to the front door, and it wasn't Christmas.

And when my father saw that, he was steamed. 

"What the HELL?" he said.

In Yiddish terms, he was having a conniption fit before the car even stopped moving.

Since he was convinced that I would break something on the Cadillac, and God forbid anything should anything happen to the CADILLAC, I had to go in with him.  I don't think the thought ever crossed his mind "God forbid anything should happen to my son"; it was all about the Cadillac.

So we go up and ring the bell and this black woman wearing a short nighty answers the door.  We got in there, Dad started yelling at this woman to get the "God damned" light bulb turned off and replaced with a normal one.   While that was going on, I looked around noticed that the house smelled of cheap cigarettes -  and badly at that.  It was so strong it had a sickeningly sweet smell, and it made me queasy.  The shades were pulled, and stained with cigarette tar, so the light filtering in made everything golden and hazy.  The furinture was old, the fireplace was drapped in old crepe paper like their had been a party there once.

My father and the woman were screaming at other and my Dad was telling her that she was headed back to the tank if the county saw that bulb. "Jesus KEY-rice!" Dad was screaming.  "If Judkins sees this you are going back to jail even before you answer the door!" 

Boy, was Dad mad, but I kinda thought the red light was cool and I wanted one for our house.

Finally some man came from down the hall and wanted to what the problem was and Dad calmed down some and told him.  He looked like he had just gotten out of bed.

The man told the woman "go and put some pants on."  When she was gone, dad and the man talked.  The guy smiled at me - he was black as night and had yellow teeth - one was missing - and said I could sit down "while me and your daddy talk some stuff over." 

No fucking way was I sitting down in this place.

We were there for all of five minutes and the woman finally came down the hall in a pair of shorts and a top, she waddled into the kitchen and came back with a regular light bulb.  Dad and the man finished their business and dad took the light bulb, and on our way out changed the bulb with is handkerchief and gave me that red light bulb to hold.

"Hey, Mr. K - THAT MY LIGHT BULB!" the woman screamed before the man pulled her back in the house. 

Afterward in the car he explained that she wasn't at all to have a red light bulb on the light because it "upset the neighbors." Why?

"It's like when our neighbors don't pick up their leaves in the fall," he said.  "It imposes on people - makes them feel uncomfortible because they don't have a red light bulb, too." That made sense me.

He gave me the bulb, but made me promise never to use it on an outside light. When my mom saw it, it was her time for the conniption fit because she was furious that he gave it to me.

"I don't want him bringing that in here," she screamed.

"What?" he said, "it's just a light bulb that happens to be red!"

All this over a red light bulb?

"Dad said I can't show it to anyone because they might not have a red light bulb of their own," I voiced.

My mother looked at my father and said "You told him that?  That people would be jealous of that thing?  Did you all tell him that a hooker was a person who liked to fish, too?"

One of their fights ensued.  I took the lightbulb in seach of someplace to screw it in and turn it on.

Over the years of my childhood I would periodically pull the red light bulb out of it's various hiding places and then screw it into a lamp where it glowed for five minutes and then I would unscrew it and stick it in a drawer until I was bored again.  Such is the mind of a child - things in small doses bring great appreciation, but lose their draw after the wonderment wears off.

I eventually found out what a "red light" bulb meant while watching a movie one weekend.  This was after my parents were divorced and I asked my Mom it it was true.  She confirmed that it was.  Wow. I got a great souvenir.  But if I had known that in second grade I could have really made a hit at Show and Tell.

Such is my life - a day late and a penny short.


  1. What's all this fuss about a red light bulb?

    I've had one for years and my Momma had one and her Momma had one...

  2. An absolutely wonderful story; I love how your father gave you the bulb as a souvenir, and I too wish you still had it. Too bad you didn't enjoy those excursions more.

    There was (perhaps still is) a large house on Euclid Heights Boulevard in Cleveland Heights in which all the lamps had red shades, and at night all the windows glowed pinkish-red. I think the red lights in that house, however, indicated some kind of Victorian-romantic fantasy, rather than the kind of red bulb you are talking about.

  3. It's amazing how subtle things seem until we know what the actual meaning is. I remember my older sisters laughing when I asked why dogs have a dog house, but cats don't have a cat house.

  4. Tamayn,my partner is Japanese and of course is a cat obsessive. He always refers to an elegant old house that we saw nearby with a pair of cats sitting in the window as the "cat house". It's the home of the local Methodist minister...

  5. That's a great story about your dad.

  6. Hi Cookie, Great memories.
    I saw your red light on... and thought I'd just drop in...