Vlaclavic drove a delivery truck for The Cleveland Press, and as far as the group of newsboys that huddled in the cold on that corner was concerned, he was The Cleveland Press. We believed that Vlaclavic knew everything about the town.
The group of us, the Ackermans, the Gallos, and even the kid who delivered the anemic Cleveland News, figured we were important. Television was around, but unless it appeared in a newspaper, it was not news. If Vlaclavic was the first to know the news, then we were second, and the thing that we liked to read about was crime.
Crime and the big city — it had a chilling, titillating image in the early 1950s, for the only thing we knew about either was what we read in The Press, which accorded crime stories a status equivalent to any event in World War II. It crusaded, it exposed, and it published grainy photographs of men wearing dark glasses and smoking long cigars on a street called Short Vincent which none of us dared visit.
Those men, The Press told us, were evil personified, and we noticed that chief among this dark coterie was Shondor Birns, whose name and picture appeared with unrivaled frequency. Vlaclavic lost a lot of status with us when we asked one afternoon whether he knew Shondor Birns.
"Nah," Vlaclavic said. "We don't hang around the same places." If Vlaclavic did not know Shondor Birns, then how could he really know what was going on? Next to Otto Graham and Bob Feller, Birns was always in the paper.
Birns ran the city's numbers games, he enforced the territories and arbitrated disputes between operators. He also functioned as a hit man for the local Mafia, which had grown fat from inactivity after profiting during Prohibition and investing in Las Vegas.
Birns was never a member of the mob which slowly atrophied because it preferred to live off skim money from Vegas. Because of this and a reluctance to expand and share the wealth, Birns was called upon often by the mob to handle delicate matters. He was a killer, but very professional about it and never indiscriminate in his work.
In those days a community could focus on Birns as its public enemy number one. He was to readers of the newspapers the Napoleon of crime, a blight on the city, an ominous figure that cast a threatening shadow. True, crime generally flourished in his wake, but in public Birns was quiet, polite and unassuming, provided, of course, that you were the same.
He had an extraordinary relationship with the authorities. Some, like retired police officer Carl Delau, spent their entire careers trying to put him in jail. Others crossed the line and treated him as a folk hero or welcomed a bribe.
For his part, Birns paid for his notorious reputation. If the law enforcement could not convict him of gambling or murder, they went after him for tax evasion and more than once an acquaintance would suddenly find a wad of bills thrust into a pocket as Shondor sought to hide his money from approaching IRS agents who would confiscate anything he owned.
Over the years he established a peculiar relationship with the law. An FBI agent once told me they had discovered that Birns was about to bribe a judge who was hearing a case on which the bureau had a particular interest in gaining a conviction.
Rather than approaching the judge, the agent met Birns at the Theatrical Grill and over a drink warned him to stay out of the case. Birns thanked the agent for his courtesy and the bureau got its conviction.
Over the years I encountered Birns either at the courthouse or the Theatrical Grill. We never talked much, a few words always sufficed. In the years that I knew him, he sat at the end of the bar at the Theatrical, always nattily dressed, his pleasant nod and glass of white wine belying his toughness.
Once, he sensed my uneasiness in asking him about his tax problems in connection with a story I was writing. "Hey, kid, you got a job to do. I understand that. Just be fair. And never borrow any money from me."
The fall that I began writing for the morning paper, Birns was back in the news, this time linked to the murder of a man named Mervin Gold. His old adversary Delau was closing fast, but Birns produced a young school teacher as an alibi witness.
The witness turned out to be a woman with whom I had attended school for twelve years. Quiet, demure and studious, she appeared to be the least likely of women to be charmed by the elusive Birns. They married and remained together until his death. The story of their relationship remains fascinating, but largely untold.
The nature of crime was changing and the era which Birns symbolized was giving way to drugs and a resentment of white influence in a city where blacks were seeking independence in every walk of life. But Birns remained, somewhat legendary, and somewhat of an anachronism, two ingredients that cause vulnerability.
In the end he was a figure from another time, a tough guy who could beat the rap and gain the respect of all the aspiring thugs in town. But Danny Greene, a labor racketeer, was aspiring, Irish and mean. He knew the mob was ripe for a takeover, and only one figure stood in his way.
So Greene killed Bims with a car bomb on Holy Saturday afternoon in 1975. The act represented the passing of an era, but for old times' sake the IRS claimed the $843 found on the battered body.
Then the mob, in an effort to recoup its glory days, hired a hit man to dispatch Greene by the same means, and in doing so exposed itself to federal prosecution and virtual demise.
A different breed of criminal began to appear on the streets. Instead of the professionals battling amongst themselves, the streets gave way to drugs, where gangs, dealers and desperate addicts play out a vicious scenario that threatens the fabric of society.
Where forty years ago a newspaper could confidently identify what they would call public enemies, today's underworld is more elusive, more pervasive and a greater menace to the society than those of the past. There is no visible criminal figure toward which to point. There are no rules, and there are no civilians, just victims.
But for his part, Birns was sensitive to being the symbol of crime in Cleveland. Once during a lunch break at the old Criminal Courthouse on East 21st Street, we talked as he leaned over the banister that ringed the atrium, watching the noonday crowd.
Several judges passed and each acknowledged Birns with ingratiating smiles, calling, "Hi, Shon."
Birns looked over at me and said, "If I'm the city's biggest crook why do they all want to be my friend? I'll tell you why. Most of them are worse than I am, and they know that I know. Write that sometime."
12:00 AM EST
February 15, 2011