I just finished reading Homicide: A Year of Killing on the Streets. Definitely the best book about crime I’ve read in a long time. It’s also responsible for one of those moments of serendipity that catch you by surprise from time to time.
This morning, I bussed it to work, driving from one cushy suburb to another to catch an express bus downtown. The express busses from Eastgate and Anderson follow the 275 Loop into Kentucky, then shoot into downtown Cincinnati via I-471. I see nothing but franchise food, shopping malls, and 4-8 lanes of asphalt all the way in most mornings.
There are no express runs during the day, however. Cincinnati’s idea of streamlining public transit is to gut it. I took the 24, an interminable route that takes one from downtown through Pill Hill (where no fewer than five hospitals are located) over to Hyde Park, and eventually to Anderson. Yeah, making what used to be a 45 minute run into almost an hour and a half really streamlines it. No wonder Ohio is in the toilet.
The 24, however, also cuts through Over-the-Rhine on its way up to the University of Cincinnati and Pill Hill. It crosses Court Street out of Downtown into OTR and stays there until it finds its way to Short Vine and the university campus.
As we turned onto Liberty, one of the city’s most troubled streets, and then onto the northern leg of Sycamore, I found myself reading David Simon’s account of a ghetto shooting in Baltimore and Sgt. Terry McLarney’s cynical take on the scene with a suspect almost too stupid to appear in a Victor Gischler novel. (Almost. Gisch can work magic with even the most willfully stupid people as characters. Man’s a genius.)
Stopping for a moment to give my eyes a break, I peaked up over the edge of my reading glasses* and noticed…
Jesus, I’m going through that same exact neighborhood. The buildings looked tired. The residents looked tired. And just as I witnessed years before delivering pizza in Madisonville and East End, the locals didn’t jump out at me with a gun or a knife or yelling boo. But the street names and intersections all figure prominently more often than not on the morning news on WLW.
Cincinnati’s worst homicide rate in recent years was under 95. Most years, it’s below 90. So people who get killed “where it doesn’t count,” as the most recent episode of The Wire puts it, tend to make the news more often here than they do in other cities.
But something else happened. It occurred to me, as I write the current novel, that some of the places I write about are places I never see anymore. Since I quit delivering pizza as a second job almost six years ago, I don’t see the Madisonvilles and East Ends anymore. I don’t find myself dropping coworkers off in Avondale or Evanston, delivering pies to unemployed former workers from Cincinnati Milacron.
No one ever pulled a gun on me in those eight years I delivered pizza, but that world was close and very real. You couldn’t miss it. Not long after I quit that job, more than a few writers criticized George Pelecanos for not portraying some of the more rundown neighborhoods of DC very accurately, that somehow, his dialog and descriptions were dead wrong.
It infuriated me because, first off, to a person, every one of those people criticizing GP was white. I was angry because they seemed to have a distorted vision of how people in poor black neighborhoods behave (and why, something that gets overlooked a lot) that had nothing to do with the reality I’d seen over eight years. (I found the Appalachian-based East End to be a bit scarier than Madisonville, probably because there’s nothing scarier than a drunk hillbilly on a Friday night.) It angered me because GP was pitch perfect, writing dialog I’d heard every night from customers, from people I met on runs, and even from some of my coworkers. Mind you, some of the people I got angry with I still call my friends. They hadn’t seen what I’d seen. It still pissed me off.
That was then, when my forays into that world were still fresh in my mind. Today, while riding a bus through OTR and reading a book by a friend and coworker of George Pelecanos, I got a sharp reminder of how long I’ve been away from it.
I hope when I finish my own book, I’ve done it justice.
*Yes, I wear reading glasses now for smaller print. God, when did I get old?