A lean figure in a schoolboy haircut approached us from behind. We were in the parking lot of the iconic Cleveland landmark—the West Side Market. I, my six-year-old daughter Samira, and her friend Shaylin had our hands full of green veggies, pickling cucumbers, sweet peas in the pod, strawberries, corn, one honeydew, and one giant watermelon. One would have thought we were getting ready for some summer cookout, but no—this was my weekly visit to the historic Ohio City neighborhood, which I had been doing religiously for quite a few years now. Even when pregnant, even in bone-chilling Cleveland winter, and even before my daughter was born. Saturday morning meant driving over Hope Memorial Bridge with Cleveland downtown on the right and the smokestacks of the steel plant somewhere in the valley to the left. Taking a right turn into the parking lot of the market house, bustling with people under its Byzantine vaulted roof. A reverse L-shaped outdoor produce section cradled the building with a looming clock tower built with yellow bricks.
The lean figure said, “Hello ladies. I can help lighten some of that. Let me help you take your goodies to the car.” Sweat was glistening on his pale forehead.
Samira shot a look my way with question marks for eyes. Shaylin’s wild red head whipped around silently, asking me, “What’s up with this?" Usually it would be someone with pamphlets, trying to make us believe in something, collecting donations for the homeless or a community newsletter.
I had multiple plastic bags hooked on my fingers, which left thick welts as I handed a few bags to him.
The parking lot was full with cars parked in every inch available with a row of drivers lined up with eyes peeled for a spot to open. Families with skipping toddlers and squealing strollers and worried grandmas moving in a disarray. Some with their hands full like us while others rolling their shopping bag on a two-wheel upright dolly. The parking lot had potholes, but at least there was no feeding the meter.
I opened the trunk on my black Honda CR-V, and the man helped us put bags in the car. I extended my hand to shake his and said, “Girls, say hi to Congressman Kucinich. You know he is also vegetarian, just like me.”
Dennis bowed slightly to get to their eye level, “Hello young lady, what is your name?” and proceeded with some such small talk.
Then he pulled out his wallet from his pocket. He opened it like a book and pulled out an old laminated photograph. It was a picture of a football team: big guys kneeling in the front, tall guys standing in the back, and in the middle, in row of seated players, was one who looked extra small. Dennis pointed at that small figure with a friendly smile and said, “You see that? It’s me. You know what allows me to play in the same team with these big guys”? He paused for effect. “It is my courage! Remember that.”
My girls do remember this but only vaguely. However, I have held onto this moment for about fifteen years. Moments like this made me feel welcome in America, a new immigrant from India who found Cleveland’s promise of cutting-edge science irresistible.
I grew up in a steel town of Bhilai Nagar, in India. A Gulmohar tree–lined boulevard connected the town’s two ends. Smokestacks with the dusty coke oven and melting shop and rolling mills sprawled on one end linearly connected to the main hospital on the other. In between lived workers and officers in spartan cement “quarters” (homes) surrounded by lush gardens of roses, hyacinths, bougainvillea, jasmine, mango, guava, neem, tamarind, Jamun and Behr trees.
People loved living and working there so much that a common joke the steelworkers told was, “The only exit from Bhilai Steel Plant (BSP) was on the other end of the Central Boulevard—the circular cement tower of the hospital. That is when one died!”
This was the town where moon followed our car as Mom and Dad in the front and me and my brother in the backseat would often go Bhaaji shopping to the farmer’s market on the outskirts of the town. Little did I know at the time that some of these vendors probably were displaced because their land was taken by Steel Authority of India, never realizing at the time that my family now lived in the place from where they were driven out from.
Suddenly my dad would say, “close your eyes,” and I would obediently close them shut.
“Now open them!” and “Look where the moon is!”
With a gasp I would realize that the moon out the right window was all of a sudden to the left. This routine never got old for him. We would be at the Saturday pop-up vegetable market, a cacophony of languages, vendors lifting up medieval-looking iron weighing scale, the kind we only see on justice statues nowadays, putting weights on one pan and the vegetable of the customer’s choice on the other side of the balance until the pointer hovered in the middle.
Everything newly built and organized conveniently for steelworkers. Bhilai was a mini-India as people from all over India, every language, every religion had moved into town to live side by side, when the steel plant was built seven years after India’s independence. There was also a separate sector for the community of engineers and their families from what was then the country of USSR. The Soviets were there to train the newbie Indian engineers like my father to build their own steel plant. In the market, they would point to what they wanted while pushing rosy-cheeked babies in umbrella strollers. Which brings me to feeling welcome in Cleveland by the orange flames spewing from the smokestacks. The sampling of the world’s people these smokestacks brought to Cleveland and who eventually called Cleveland their home. The cacophony of Spanish, German, East Asian, Eastern European, and some Indian languages overheared when shopping at West Side Market. Seeing Babushkas with triangular scarfs tied under their chin refreshing my childhood memory of a gift of Matrushka doll. Fragrant oriental lily advertising for the corner flower shop, cumin and paneer-like cheese sold in the Greek store, and bargaining! All stimulating that part of my brain which remained unstirred in rest of America.
A new beginning, new girlhood, the same moon followed me on I-90 as I went looking for familiarity in Cleveland, once called the Forest City. Tree-lined streets emanating from downtown and radiating towards suburbs. When I arrived in Cleveland on a snowy January evening in 1990, remnants of steel industry from over hundred years ago, including iron ore carrier, William G. Mather, anchored in the lake, dotted the city. If you stood on the top floor of Tower City in downtown you could see smokestacks and still functioning steel mill to the south. To the far east one could see the Cleveland Clinic, the location of my first job. While early Cleveland blacksmiths worked iron, it was 1857 when the industry really got rolling, predating Bhilai Steel by almost a century. Spanakopita replaced Samosa. Falafel replaced Bhujia. Vegetable run with my daughter replaced vegetable run with my mom and grandma. Watching dosa being made from the second floor of the Mumbai railway station was replaced by watching crepes being made from the second floor mezzanine of the West Side Market. Banana-Nutella or whatever you wanted to put on the French crepes, even spinach or feta-crepes made fresh to the order on the spot. Although sometimes the chef dished out not so sweet a treat. Once he yelled at a man who was taking a video. “Idiot, get out of here! Why you filming me?” Then, looking at me: “These tourists, they don’t want to buy anything, and they are in the way of my customers.”
I recently asked my daughter, who is starting senior year of computer sciences at Cornell this fall, “Do you remember about going to the West Side Market with me?”
“Yeah,” her face filling up my phone. “Fish smell and the whole pig in the case and the vegetable market.”
“What about vegetable market?”
“You know, the vibes. How so many people knew you.”
Several years later, on an August 2020 afternoon when I was visiting in the midst of the pandemic year, the second floor mezzanine was vacant. No eating out of paper boats and watching the meat bazaar below. Crepes were still being made but in a modern looking coffee shop. Nevertheless, I still got a quick advice on how to cook handpicked morels. I was surprised to see a heap for sale; usually morels are available only between March and May, but this year is truly bizarre—even the May apples fruited in late July! The number of produce stalls have contracted to almost half. The market appears to be drowning in bars, breweries, apartment buildings, and parking meters. No pedestrian traffic; I didn’t see the familiar sight of colorful flowers arranged in white buckets in the usual place. But this was not just the COVID-19 pandemic effect. According to Vince Bertonasch, owner of the now closed Vince Meats, the market never rebounded from the nine-month-long parking lot reconstruction in 2016.
To step in the building itself felt like a step in the past. Enchiladas, pierogis, Pad Thai, spanakopita, stuffed grape leaves: lots of yummy discoveries once made long ago by this vegetarian girl who blew up a pressure cooker while trying to make dhaal and put on forty pounds in her first year of living in Cleveland. However, Maha’s, where I would pick up bulk falafel was gone. After thirty years in the market, owner Michael Tryczyk told the Plain Dealer that it was because of the plumbing and electrical issues.
I asked the lady at the sausage stand if she had any CHAE-vap-ee-chi. My Serbian coworker would bring it to grill at our summer cookouts. Even though I have never tasted it, my husband swears by its caseless explosive smoky flavor. In addition, it goes perfectly with chapatis and sautéed onions.
She made a frowny face and said, “Sorry, the previous owners did not sell us the recipe." Another casualty of the time. It was sad to hear that as stalls here have remained under individual family control for much of the life of the market, several dating over a hundred years.
Once again, I was driving home over the Cuyahoga River with a trunk full of goodies. The view of the river from the Hope Memorial Bridge was making it abundantly clear why the Native Americans would name the river so, meandering like my thoughts. This drive always feels more like a gliding through time to me. Cleveland downtown to the left and steel mills in the valley below on the right. Massive “Guardians of the Transportation” sculptures. Peregrine falcon nesting under the bridge where a lower deck was planned but never built. It is hard to believe that in the ’70s county engineers had threatened to remove the sculptures. It is also hard to believe Dennis Kucinich was erased out of local politics by gerrymandering.
Kucinich, referred to as Ohio’s oddball for proposing a Department of Peace, represented the scientific industry, which had largely replaced the steel and other manufacturing industry as the largest employer in Greater Cleveland.
Due to social distancing required to curb the spread of SARS-CoV-2, we have been cooking at home a lot again. West Side Market showing the same ingenuity of using the recycled cardboard boxes for displaying the price for each heap of healthy goodness. Foreign accented multi-generational shop owners, men and women, behind their masks, arranging and replenishing the display basket.
“Forr YOOO, I will throw in an exthrra…” the sweet man put a strong emphasis on YOU while putting extra bunch of celery in a bag for me. His “YOOO” said with rising and falling inflection. A “you” said in such a way that it meant you are part of us. That somehow validated me. It validated me more than getting my name on the first publication in a peer reviewed scientific journal.
The American dream is not about making millions or having dozens of publications or owning a large house in a leafy suburb. The American dream is turning from “you” to “us”. There is a little software inside us humans which has learned over thousands of years on Earth that people similar looking to the self are not weird, are trustworthy, and, therefore, they are “us”. We need to retrain that software—and retrain it fast—in this fast-moving world. Someone, even a stranger, can be part of “us” simply due to their physical proximity to us and our common interest in this world.
Sujata Lakhe was born in India and grew up in steel-town Bhilai before immigrating to Cleveland in her early twenties. She has one master’s degree in Botany from India and another in Molecular Biology and Microbiology from Case Western Reserve University. She has worked as Molecular Biologist at Cleveland Clinic and MetroHealth Medical Center. She has lived most of her adult life in the Greater Cleveland area. She has co-authored research papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Presently she has stepped away from laboratory research, and she would like to transition to science writing. She speaks and writes Marathi and Hindi in addition to English. Her interests include reading, yoga, Kathak dance, travel, nature (esp. plants), and photography. She cares about social justice issues and is concerned about women’s functional participation in our society and our natural resources stewardship. She likes to write personal essays, creative nonfiction, short stories, and hopes to write a memoir. She presently lives in Chagrin Falls, OH, with her husband William G. Barnard IV, daughter Samira Reddy and a Pit Bull Terrier named Luna.
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