A Zoo Story

 Our writer’s grandfather fed lions, faced down the dragons of the steel mill, made wine but not whiskey, and left a family’s worth of legends behind. All Clevelanders have stories like his, if they’re lu
For a few sunny hours, a ghost rests beside me on a park bench at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.

The civilized come to look at wild things. A few steps from the SUV, you can roam the African savanna. Babies ride their daddies’ shoulders, and the laughter reaches all the way to the parking lot. For me, the walkways are a bridge to the past, and to one man.

His name was Giovanni Colino. He was my grandfather. Once upon a time, he tended the lions here. He has always been a match flickering in a dark room. He left no pictures, no written history, but more stories than a public library.

During the Great Depression, he pushed a wheelbarrow full of horsemeat around the lion house. He’d spear a hunk onto the end of a pointed stick and shove lunch through the bars.

I have carried that image — a man with lions — like a birthmark or a scar. But I have always been someone with a hole in his pocket. I let things slip away. Like the Cleveland he walked and the times he lived, my grandfather — a man I never met —seems like a ghost. But on a park bench, in spring, he seems near. And so does his city.

With a little imagination and a zoo ticket stub, I can stitch my pocket shut.

Giovanni Colino marched out of the Abruzzo, the stony spine of Italy, to the Great War, crossing the Alps to battle frostbite and the Austrians. Then he walked to Naples, and the sea, and sailed to America. My grandfather and the 1920s arrived in Cleveland at the same time.

The frame houses of West 34th Street overflowed with children and the smell of cooking. The language that drifted out was a blend of Southern Italian and newspaper English. The Italian enclave around Clark and Fulton avenues was wedged between the Irish and the stockyards. When the aroma of cow replaced the smell of cabbage, you had walked too far.

Mornings, my grandfather would climb into his work clothes and pull a cloth cap down low over his eyes and stride to the mill furnaces. He made steel and an honorable living, and saved his paycheck.

He had a wife. According to family legend, John glimpsed her in a Naples window and fell in love. Gemma D’Incecco was as pretty as summer, but, when angry, she could cuss the hair off a house cat. She did her swearing in Italian, so even the bad words sounded like opera.

My grandmother would already be up, cooking. A chicken could not be considered worthy unless she heard it cluck, so she preferred live fowl from the new West Side Market, a streetcar ride away. Occasionally, supper would escape into a neighbor’s yard.

In time, there were four girls to feed. George, the only boy, was the oldest. His baptismal name was Dominic, but he was born on Washington’s birthday, and in a display of patriotism, my grandfather renamed him George.

My mother and aunts did not recall my grandfather having a favorite among them. They all believed they were his favorite, which is the mark of a truly smart man.

Each night he returned, singed and black with soot, as though he had spent the day fighting dragons. In a way, he had.

After supper the family would gather around the radio. A voice would hiss, “the Shadow knows ...” and the four little girls on the living room carpet would huddle a little closer.

His one luxury sat in the cellar. He made wine — good wine, everyone swore — from grapes from his backyard vines. Hospitality rested inside five-gallon jugs, waiting for company.

Every summer a procession would inch over the bricks along Fulton and Clark avenues. A statue of St. Rocco was carried through the streets on his feast day. The day ended on the porches, blessed by breezes and a button accordion.

Every story needs a villain. History sent one.

The Depression teased out the frailties in some men, like chained dogs. But hard times pulled the best from my grandfather, from a lot of fathers. My mother remembered men lugging scrapped railroad ties to St. Rocco School, to burn in wood stoves in the classrooms so the children would not shiver as they learned to be Americans.

After the mill gates were chained, my grandfather still rose each morning. He just walked a little farther, to the bottom of Brookside Park. Back then the zoo hired jobless men, cheap. So my grandfather pushed the wheelbarrow through the old lion house.

“What does your daddy do?” the nuns at St. Rocco School would ask. “He feeds the lions,” his daughters would answer. The sisters, sure the girls were lying, forgave them. After a time, they even stopped beating them.

Each evening, he sat on his steps, a baby in his lap, and told the neighborhood children what he and the lions had talked about.

For a while, Prohibition ran alongside hard times. Cleveland still drank. Beer trucks rumbled along Fulton to breweries hidden in alleys, and folks swiveled their heads to look the other way. Bootleggers carried guns, but they brought a little joy, and only murdered each other, mostly.

One night, the liquor runners came for my grandfather. They offered him a job.

He would’ve made a good gangster. The mills had roped his arms with muscle. He did not frequent speakeasies or fling one dollar away on a game of chance, and a man without vices was unlikely to draw attention. I like to think the bootleggers were just helping a neighbor.

He could push a wheelbarrow all the way to Italy and not make as much money as he would in one beer run. But he would be tracking disgrace all over the hallway carpet.

Maybe he thought about the lions, pacing behind bars.

My grandfather said no. He did not, his daughters remembered, offer the strangers any wine.

The law did finally come, swinging an ax.

Carloads of police rushed down West 34th. (One aunt swore she recognized Eliot Ness, but he hadn’t come to town yet —she always put too much sugar in her red sauce.) Whiskey was dragged from a warehouse and spilled, and beer barrels were rolled into the street and split with axes.

The neighborhood children studied the sinful river rushing past for a long time. Then they sailed their toy boats in it.

Every story needs an ending. His story has two.

Giovanni Colino should have lived to become an old man on his knees in a garden, plucking weeds. He should have.

In 1943, my grandfather died. It happened in the mill, where he had been called back to work. That is all I know. My mother and my aunts never talked about that sadness much, and I never asked.

He lived on at communions and christenings, in the stories I heard over the clink of spoons in coffee cups. His legacy balanced on paper plates. I listened as the white passed from my aunts’ hair to mine, and as I held their hands in hospice rooms.

They faded, but their words stuck.

Most Clevelanders have a story like my grandfather’s, if they are lucky. It does not matter if the names are O’Malley or Ostrowski, Jackson or Javier. Our stories are entwined in this city like a vine in a backyard fence.

You can pick us out of a crowd, as though we are wearing cloth caps pulled down low. We have tempers, but only on our grandmothers’ side. We put too much sugar in our red sauce. There are old eyes on the young faces in the pictures we pin in our workspaces. We are connoisseurs of the button accordion.

I suppose I have always been looking for him. When I was a boy, I found a box marked “34th Street” in our closet. I thought it might be treasure, but there were only Julius La Rosa records.

A house, I guess, is just a box to hold a life. And a city is a bigger box, to hold a lot of lives.

His Cleveland is about six blocks square.

West 34th Street is still there, although their house is not. The ones that remain lean a little, like castles in a children’s pop-up book. Mazzone’s Bakery, where Gemma bought bread, hasn’t changed much since 1937, and I wonder if the young woman behind the counter knows she works in a church. St. Rocco still holds its festival every summer. But it is too loud for ghosts.

I have the zoo.

I first came here on school trips. The old lion house was already ancient, a brick-and-iron antique that resembled a cross between Queen Victoria’s bathhouse and Sing Sing. I watched the panthers and lions pace, thinking that our grandfathers knew each other. I know that could not have been true. It is just something that a boy believes.

Over the years, the zoo has become a place to go to when I feel angry or alone, when I pace like something caged.

Which brings me to the second ending. Or maybe the beginning.

Squirrels scamper and big cats yawn in the spring sun. I take a bench and feel him here. Because everybody knows that iron bars can hold a lion, but a ghost can walk right through.
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