Growing Up Cleveland, Living In Cincinnati

640px-Cleveland_Skyline_Aug_2006I was born in a small farming town about 35 miles south of Cleveland. All our TV and radio came out of Cleveland. To us, the world was Cleveland. We lived by it. We died by it. Which meant we suffered through the second longest playoff drought in Major League Baseball history. When I graduated high school, the Cleveland Indians were owned by a dead man and usually mathematically eliminated from the pennant by the end of February. The Cuyahoga River burned when I was 3. (I don’t remember that. I do remember the moon landings that year.) Snow from Thanksgiving to St. Patrick’s Day was a fact of life. In fact, many of us had “winter cars,” an old beater you got for chump change in the fall and kept until the salt and snow melt dissolved it by spring. As I got older and traveled more, I found that Cleveland had a lot more in common with Chicago and New York than it did the rest of Ohio.

Then I moved to Cincinnati back in 1991. It was a strange city to me that got stranger by the day. Here I learned that the West Side was a foreign country. Or maybe everything this side of I-75 was a foreign country. I learned chili was thin, watery, scooped over spaghetti, and piled with mounds of cheddar cheese. I learned that “please?” means “Excuse me?”

I grew up near a city of heavy industry where the unions still hold sway, last names often end in vowels, and ethnic humor is often penned by the groups made fun of in the jokes. I now live in a city once described as being “as far north as you can get and still be south.” Instead of a tumultuous inland sea someone laughingly called “a lake,” Cincinnati sits on the Ohio River, usually placid, occasionally prone to flooding but never fire.

Cleveland goes through pronounced boom and bust cycles. When the steel industry in the US collapsed, it hit the town hard. The auto industry’s fortunes did little to improve their lot. But still, Cleveland often markets itself on comebacks. It felt the Great Recession when many people were still overmortgaging McMansions in other cities. And yet it was also one of the first places to notice the current recovery.

Cincinnati’s pace of progress is maddening. Where Cleveland’s response to news that a stadium and an arena would replace part of a rundown neighborhood near downtown was to push out the pawn shops, gun stores, and check cashing places for bars, nightclubs, and retail, Cincinnati built two stadiums and a museum on the riverfront, then let the so-called Banks sit empty for ten years. The Banks, however, are a thriving place. It just takes time. The place is staid, conservative, and takes things slowly. Mark Twain once said if the world ended, he would just move to Cincinnati since everything happens here ten years later. But because of this, the city tends to weather booms and busts better. It doesn’t become a mecca during periods like the dotcom boom, but it withstood the Great Recession much better than most cities.

I held onto my identity as a Clevelander just into my forties. But I’ve now lived more adult years in Cincinnati than I did in Greater Cleveland. Twenty-four years in one place makes you a part of that place. I even know some of what happened here when I grew up more than those who lived here back then.

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Winter’s Quarterly: Ault Park

Winter's Quarterly - Jan 2015The second story in this season’s Winter’s Quarterly stems from a novel called Under the Bridge that never made it past the outline stages. Part of the story concerned Mike Dufford, a Cincinnati police officer who is injured off-duty in a stupid hit-and-run. The events of the book take place while Dufford is on disability recovering from a torn ACL. He lives in a suburb called Mt. Washington, which is, in the real world, part of the city of Cincinnati. I lived in Mt. Washington for ten years, always liked the place, and thought it never really seemed like part of the city. I even had a conversation with Alicia Reece, once the vice mayor. Even she said it was exasperating having to remind city employees and even her fellow elected officials that Mt. Washington was part of Cincinnati.

But I like the idea of it being this isolated small town on the East Side, a bedroom community not all that different from where I live now. And so the wheels began to turn.

Dufford owes his existence to a lady named Jane Chelius, a well-respected agent whose son Mark had taken me on as a client. Jane and Mark could not shop any Kepler stories because, like an idiot, I signed with a small press before Jane had Northcoast Shakedown to read. So I came up with Dufford and tried to do a new story set in the city where I’d lived, at the time, for 13 years. The story didn’t work. I did Road Rules instead. Shopped that with another agent. Went back to Dufford. Still couldn’t get it to work. Wrote Holland Bay. Quit writing. Rewrote Holland Bay. Started writing SF as “Dick.” Dufford still wanted to tell his story.

Over the years, I’d written about other Mt. Washington denizens: The alcoholic and oddly named police chief Tom Jefferson, the corrupt Sgt. Ed McNeely, and even grafted my sexy young lawyer Anne Ripley into the growing mythology around this alternate universe where Mt. Washington is its own town. So finally, I settled on Dufford’s injury and the internal politics that ultimately would push him off the force. And it had a basis in reality.

A few years ago, a Cincinnati assistant chief got into trouble for damaging his city-issued car and improperly reporting it. Newsworthy, but not controversial. Usually, if a senior official makes that kind of mistake, the force just quietly eases them out of their job with a little dignity, keeping the Thin Blue Line intact. Unfortunately, the next guy in line for the job was the commander of Internal Investigations. Can you say “conflict of interest”? Plus there was a racial component to it. The chief in question was the city’s only black senior official.

So I reversed it. I set it up so that the political calculus would leave the Internal Investigations as potentially the only black senior officer. The assistant chief in question? Tragic and in need of a little dignity as his personal life unravels. The II chief? Likeable, shrewd, definitely someone you’d want in charge, but his ethics slipping a bit in the face of his clear ambition.

The real situation sorted itself out with the city hiring an outside replacement under a new law allowing external recruiting. This one? Well, it exists primarily to put Dufford on a collision course with the politics that tangle any police department.

And Under the Bridge? May still happen. We’ll see.

Opening Day

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Photo: 5chw4r7z, used under Creative Commons

One of the surest signs of spring is opening day for Major League Baseball. From Fenway Park to Dodger Stadium, fans stream into their favorite team’s home field to watch the beginning of a new season and remember why it’s called the Great American Pastime. Football is dropping temperatures and shorter days. Basketball is indoors and, during March Madness, a disappointing end if your local teams all implode, assuming they made it to the dance at all. But baseball is warm weather, longer days, and the end of winter. For most of the US and Canada, that end hasn’t come soon enough.

In Cincinnati, however, Opening Day is a high holy day. Woe to the commissioner who schedules the Cincinnati Reds to open their season on the road. If you thought the city of Cleveland went ballistic when it lost the original Browns, you should hear some of the howls of agony when their beloved Reds open in another city. The Reds are the oldest franchise in the Major Leagues, indeed in all of professional baseball. They open at home, dammit. They have always (with few exceptions) opened at Redlands, at the late, lamented Crosley Field, at the legendary Riverfront Stadium, and now at Great American Ball Park. You can skip Mass on Christmas. You can eat meat on Friday during Lent. But Opening Day is sacred here.

This was a bit of culture shock to me. I arrived in Cincinnati from Cleveland in 1991 (by way of Holmes County of Amish Mafia fame. That’s another blog post.) Opening day often occurred on the road. And let’s face it. If you were an Indians fan before 1993, people had to take pity on you. My hometown team was in the midst of a thirty-plus-year playoff drought, and did not have the lovable loser aura of the Chicago Cubs. Municipal Stadium was a dump, and it’s only real purpose was to house the legendary original Cleveland Browns (and, unfortunately, to send John Elway to the Superbowl. Twice. At Cleveland’s expense.) Coming to Cincinnati?

Hey, the Big Red Machine was part of my childhood. Come on. Tommy Veryzer. Remember him? No? Well, you remembered his counterpart down on the Ohio River, Dave Concepcion, who had just retired only a couple years before I showed up. The Reds were in the National League, so any rivalry with the Indians was completely bullshit. Unlike the Yankees and Mets, the Cubs and the White Sox, or the Dodgers and the Angels, the Tribe and the Reds do not play even remotely close to each other. Pittsburgh is closer to Cincinnati, and they, too, play in the National League, whereas the Indians are an AL team. I could adopt the Reds as my own without any guilt whatsoever. (Some West Siders have tried to argue with me about that. They lost every time.)

But Opening Day? My girlfriend at the time insisted I take a day off work to go see the game. In those days, when the Reds played in the old Riverfront Stadium, you could get Opening Day tickets right up to about three days before the game. But there was more to it than that. There was the Findlay Market Parade. I swear the only reason Marge Schott bought the Reds was to be in the Findlay Market Parade. It’s a ritual Cincinnatians have engaged in since native son William Howard Taft sat on the Supreme Court.

And downtown is always more alive during Opening Day than it is any other time of the year, even Oktoberfest Zinzinnati. The parade usually features past Reds legends – this year, Dave Concepcion and Barry Larkin, who combined to hold the shortstop position between them for thirty years. We’ve had three since Barry retired. – local celebrities, and various organizations. Keep your St. Patrick’s Day parades. We do St. Paddy’s in the bar with a nice pint o’Guiness Draft or some green Hudey. Opening Day is where it’s at in the Queen City.

There are more street musicians working on Opening Day, which amps up the festive atmosphere even more. Forget getting any work done. If you’re at work that day, you’re probably lonely, especially if, as I did for eleven years, you work downtown.

One of my most memorable Opening Days was spent at home. I had injured my foot at work and was ordered off of it for a week. I spent the day with my foot up, two six packs of beer next to me, with the Reds on WLWT (their old television home before Fox and ESPN took over televised baseball) and my hometown Tribe playing Jacobs Field (now Progressive Field) for the first time. My girlfriend came home to find me blissfully drunk and just plain blissful. Both the Reds, under Davey Johnson, and the Tribe, powered by Denny Ramirez, won. Back then, the strike of 1994 had not yet happened, and I still loved baseball with an almost religious fervor.

I’ve been to four Opening Day games – three at Riverfront and the first game at Great American Ball Park. I don’t miss either Riverfront or Municipal Stadium, though Riverfront had an aura of tradition about it. Great American Ball Park is much more comfortable, even in the cheap seat, and you’re always close to the field. It compares quite nicely with its neighbor to the north, Progressive (Jacobs) Field. It’s actually a lot better than Turner Field, the only other Major League park I’ve been to. Mind you, the Jake and GABP are downtown stadiums surrounded by entertainment districts. The only reason to be anywhere near Turner Field is to go to Turner Field.

The most memorable game should have been the hometown debut of Ken Griffey, Jr., the legendary Seattle Mariner and son of Big Red Machine player Ken Griffey. That one got rained out, but GABP has always been worth the trip.

Most cities love baseball. Ask anyone in a fifty-mile radius of Manhattan about the Yankees or the Mets. No neutral opinions whatsoever. But in Cincinnati, it is a religion. Today, Nita and I will be watching the spectacle of the Opening Day Parade.

Remission: Get Back Out There

lone-runnerI’ve talked a lot about how unremittingly miserable this winter has been. Some would ask why, since I grew up in Cleveland. I wasn’t thrilled with winter in Cleveland, either. There’s a reason so many ex-Clevelanders live in Winter Haven, Florida, while Cincinnatians seem to retire in droves to Hilton Head, SC.

But it’s had health consequences. I originally intended to build up my running endurance so that I was up to three miles a day by St. Patrick’s Day.

That was last week. The mile-and-a-half to the local park and back, never mind the half-mile track inside it, is a challenge. But this week, spring sprung. Monday, I was able to get in part of a mile and a half, making it back to within five blocks of my house. Wednesday, I had a doctor’s appointment midday, which required me to take the morning off. So I ran right after Nita left for work.

It was a gorgeous day, the sky clear. And so peaceful. I’d missed the bulk of rush hour traffic and was able to cross the main drag with little trouble. I even made it back to within three blocks of the house this time. It felt great.

Except it was so freakin’ cold. Yes, winter has been like the drunken relative who insists on crashing on your couch despite the fact that you’re having a dinner party right about when he’s sleeping off a fifth of Ol’ Granddad. As I walked the rest of the way back, I remember thinking to myself, “I could probably run the whole route if it wasn’t so freaking cold!” Twenty degrees.

Last year, though, I ran in single-digit temps. Last year, we didn’t spend most of the winter with ice from partial snowmelt coating the sidewalks.

Of course, next year, I’m just going to have to dig into my pockets and pay LA Fitness $36 a month to use their treadmills from Thanksgiving to Valentine’s Day, or later. By that point, I intend to train for the annual half marathon that runs along with The Flying Pig Marathon.

Or I can just suck it up and learn to run in the snow.

But it’s Cincinnati. Why would I do something silly like that?

The Little Miami Trail

Every year (except 2012), I will hike or bike The Little Miami Scenic Bike Trail, one of those old rail beds that’s been converted for bicycle and pedestrian use. Sure, it’s flat, but it’s away (mostly) from civilization. In the past few years, I’ve done the trail by bike. I may run the trail by sections in the next few years. After all, I’m doing the Flying Pig Marathon for my fiftieth birthday.

Some would ask what the appeal of a flat, paved hiker-biker trail would be. As I said, it’s away from civilization, following the path (mostly) of the old Little Miami Railroad, which became part of Conrail in its final days before being abandoned. They’re flat. They offer no hills or opportunities to climb. So why this?

Purple1Well, there are plenty of parks that challenge a hiker and a couple of trails that will test a cyclist’s stamina. And while I do the trail partly to get some exercise, in reality, it’s sort of a meditation for me. I walk/ride the trail because it’s isolated. The scenery is ever-changing, and not just from section to section but from year to year. I’ve have gone through trail segments that, when revisiting them the following spring or summer, look nothing like they did the year before. I start the trail in Newport, Kentucky and ride it through Berry Park on the Ohio side of the Ohio River and out to Lunken Airport, where it circles the air field. This is actually not part of the Little Miami Trail per se. Starting at the Newport on the Levee complex, you ride the Purple People Bridge (Yes, that’s what it’s called) over to where it joins the Ohio River Trail, following the big river out to Lunken. The loop around Lunken is its own trail and connects with Armleder Park now. In the next two or three years, a bridge will connect that park with the trail proper. For now, I just accept the gap and pick up at a park in Newtown across the Little Miami River.

morrow3This rest of the trail winds through wooded areas, occasionally emerging into small towns along the way. Sometimes, you happen on an area developed entirely around the bike trail. My favorite is in downtown Loveland. When starting or ending a segment in Loveland, I’ll stop at Paxton’s Grill for breakfast or a bowl of chili.

Another favorite stop along the trail is the Little River Cafe in this unincorporated speck on the map called Oregonia. I’ve stopped in often for a cold beer and one of their thick, juicy burgers and a bowl of chili. Good stuff, especially on a hot summer afternoon when you’ve already bike about twenty miles.

peters_twrIt’s in this section where the trail and the river descend into this steep ravine, part of which contains ruins from the Ft. Ancient civilization that inhabited the Ohio Valley up until about a century before the Europeans reached this part of the US. Further on up, as the trail approaches Xenia (Yes, the town where all the tornadoes hit in 1974.), there is a swamp nature preserve.

A few years back, there had been bear sightings in the areas surrounding the trail in Warren County. That summer, I worried about what to do if the bear decided I was a threat when I happened by. After completing the trail for a year, I was disappointed that I didn’t at least see the bear from a distance.

When I do the trail, I ride or hike it in sections, armed only with water and an iPod, and sometimes, not even the iPod.

My Town Monday Cincinnati: Price Hill Chili

I’ve worked in Delhi Township for a year now, and not once have I had a chance to dine at Price Hill Chili. Until last week.

Price Hill Chili is like Camp Washington Chili, one of those mom-and-pop chili parlors that has a bigger rep than the chains in some circles. I’d heard about Price Hill Chili a long time ago, but never had an opportunity to visit. After all, it’s on the West Side, and moving between Canada and the US is easier than venturing beyond I-75 from the East Side.

After a stressful morning at work last week, which included a run to Walmart to replace a shirt I spilled coffee on (Didn’t even make it into the building when that happened!), I spotted Price Hill Chili on Glenway. So I made it my lunch destination.

Price Hill Chili is a family-owned chili parlor started in 1962. It is attached to the Golden Fleece Lounge, which is part of the business. As a result, Price Hill has a classier look than other chili parlors, which gives it its own character. Consider Blue Ash Chili and Camp Washington Chili, which both have a raucous fifties diner vibe, or Delhi Chili, which is an old family corner restaurant. Price Hill’s decor and atmosphere is wood paneling, almost like a steak house.  Part of it is to make the restaurant seamless with the Golden Fleece.

Sitting in Price Hill Chili for lunch, though, makes it clear this is a neighborhood institution. Listening to the chatter of the customers around me, I could tell most of the diners had been coming here for lunch probably for decades. For me, I felt the stress of the morning simply melt away as I had my usual four-way onion.

And now to the important part: How was the chili?

Quite good. Price Hill does a thinner chili, typified more famously by Skyline. However, Price Hills seasoning stands out more than Skyline, and the meat is a bit thicker.

I will be back for lunch soon, hopefully without a rotten morning driving me out of work.

 

More at the My Town Monday blog.

My Town Monday Cincinnati: Twenty Years Here

Twenty years ago this month, I packed all my possessions into an old postal Jeep, headed south on I-71, and arrived in Cincinnati, aka the Queen City. It was an inauspicious start. I was supposed to start work for a local Chevy dealer only to find out a license suspension three years earlier disqualified me from working there. They neglected to tell me this until after I moved here.

But I wasn’t going back. I’d have to move in with my parents, and they lived in Holmes County, in the midst of Amish country and two hours from any city worth mentioning. I sucked it up, bounced around a few jobs until I eventually got into IT. In that time, I’ve watched the city change.

In 1991, the Bengals were still taken seriously, though founder Paul Brown died a few weeks before I’d arrived. Both the Reds and the Bengals played in Riverfront Stadium. Jerry Springer was a local anchorman. Few people had heard of George Clooney, the son of a former local anchorman and nephew of singer Rosemary Clooney. There were fewer buildings in the skyline. Fountain Square took up two blocks. Third Street was one-way eastbound, and second street did not exist. Cross County Highway, now Ronald Reagan Highway, went nowhere unless you wanted a northern shortcut to I-75 from Montgomery and Kenwood. Northern Kentucky had no skyline. You could see the Roebling Suspension Bridge from Dixie Terminal’s lobby because the riverfront was essentially a parking lot with a few night clubs and warehouses scattered about. And Kings Island, the local coaster-freak mecca? It looked pretty much like it did in the classic Brady Bunch episode set there and was still Hanna-Barbera themed. To this day, if you have to park at a distant parking lot to get to your office, it’s locally referred to as parking in Scooby Doo, which was the name of the most distant Kings Island parking lot. The lot’s there, but the Hanna-Barbera cartoons have since been replaced by Star Trek, and most recently, Peanuts.

In that time, Cincinnati has had three minor league basketball teams, four arena football teams, and two hockey teams, one of which, the Cyclones, still exists. When I arrived, you could still see concerts, hockey, and Xavier basketball at the Cincinnati Gardens. Xavier invested in its own arena.  Riverfront Colisseum became The Crown, then Star Bank Arena, then the FirstStar Center, and is now US Bank Arena. The Bengals moved across the riverfront to Paul Brown Stadium. The city then shoved Great American Ball Park in between Riverfront Stadium and US Bank Arena (or whatever it was called back then.) Jerry Spring left town to become the ringmaster. Local radio talk show host Bill Cunningham went from late night loud mouth to conservative blow hard to his own television show. Yes, people. We are responsible for the Bill Cunningham who is not the bike riding octagenarian in the New York Times but the bastard child of Springer and Maury. (We’re sorry.)

Ronald Reagan now connects Montgomery on the east side to a point on the 275 Loop that connects it I-74 and Indiana.

In that time, the Ohio River has flooded three times. We have had four major snowstorms that made me question why I bothered leaving Cleveland in the first place. (Um… Dude, you didn’t live there when you left?) A hurricane actually hit in 2008, Ike was still barely hanging onto that status as it followed the exact same track another storm did in 1900 after destroying Galveston.

But Cincinnati to me is where I became a writer. I discovered the Internet while living in a one-bedroom apartment in Oakley back in 1994 and parlayed that into a career as a technician, then a programmer.  I’ve met Springer, Johnny Bench, and Marge Schott. I also met the city’s biggest benefactor, Carl Lindner, in the lobby of the Westin, though, typical of the late Mr. Lindner, I did not realize it until after he walked away. I’ve been married and divorced and married again here. This city has played host to 80% of my adult life.

I sometimes get frustrated with the pace of progress here, the conservatism that occasionally reaches religious proportions, and the idea that there is no reason to go beyond the I-275 Loop. (That last one is most prevalent on the West Side, and I find it pretty amusing now that I work over there in Delhi Township.) But it also has one of the best library systems I’ve ever seen – You have to go to New York to see a better one, had my life saved at a world class hospital in Mt. Auburn, down some serious bar hopping in Mt. Lookout, downtown, and just over the river in Newport, Kentucky. I’ve watched baseball at two Major League ball parks since moving here. It’s changed my life in ways I never imagined.

And it allowed me to be with Nita and AJ, the family I never would have had if I had stayed in Northern Ohio or moved to another city or even another state. In fact, two weeks before I went out with Nita for the first time, I was on business for BigHugeCo in Chicago and began seriously discussing moving there. Then came the big Valentine’s Day date, and by summer, I was remarried. I was also not leaving this city any time soon.

If anything, I’ve got at least another twenty years in Cincinnati ahead of me.

More at the My Town Monday blog.