Monday, March 29, 2010

My Night on Murderers' Row

Dear George,

I don’t get to go out by myself that often, but one of the more memorable occasions occurred some years ago when Katja and I went to a downtown wedding.  The bride was the daughter of one of our Sociology Department acquaintances, and they held the reception in the Queen City Club, a gathering place for Cincinnati’s hoi polloi.  There were a couple of other Sociology faculty members there, but most of the 150 or so guests were complete strangers to us.  It was a fancy affair, with a sit-down dinner and an open bar.  I was surprised and impressed with my ability to down double-strength Manhattans with only the mildest of apparent effects.  Dinner was a long time coming.  More Manhattans, then glasses of white wine, and all of it topped off by an extra scotch-and-soda that one of our tablemates had received by mistake.


After dinner the dancing began.  My Sociology chums soon left, but I took Katja out onto the dance floor, and we twirled the light fantastic.  The liquor had given me newfound grace and enthusiasm.  After several dances, Katja said that she would like to go home.  “What,” I exclaimed, “it’s only 12:30!”  I was ready to dance till the wee hours, but Katja had had enough.  We danced one more number, and she repeated her wish.  I wasn’t very accommodating.  “I’m not going.  I want to dance more.”  Katja begged and cajoled, but we had reached a stalemate.  Finally, expressing my deepest feelings on the matter, I announced that I would rather stay and dance than remain married.  That made an impression on Katja, and she departed, taking the car and going home by herself. 


The band played on.  To my disappointment, I found no available partners, so I settled back in an easy chair, Manhattan in hand.  Finally the musicians announced that it was the last dance.  I went over to the bar to get one more drink, but the bartenders decided not to give me one.  The crowd was leaving, so I made my way downstairs and out onto the street.  Maybe I’ll catch a bus, I thought, or maybe just walk home (though it was four miles).  I focused on the bright red dome of a prominent downtown skyscraper and began making my way in what I felt to be a northerly direction. 


My story at this point is incomplete because the next thing I knew it was an hour and a half later and I was no longer downtown.  As I came to my senses, I found myself slumped against the back of a bus shelter at the corner of 12th and Vine in Over-the-Rhine.  Over-the-Rhine is the poorest and most deteriorated neighborhood in Cincinnati’s inner city.  It’s long been the city’s center for drug trafficking and prostitution, and just last year an FBI report identified the immediately adjacent area as the most violent neighborhood in America, based on homicide rates and violent assaults.  These facts were not in my mind.  Instead I thought how fantastic it was to be in Over-the-Rhine in the middle of a Saturday night.  Two prostitutes kitty corner from me were hollering at cars and negotiating with johns.  A bunch of black guys of various ages were loitering outside a mean-looking bar across the street.  Some guy came racing past me, either in pursuit of someone or running away.  How exciting, I thought.  It hadn’t yet dawned on me that I sort of stood out as the only white person in sight, as well as the only person wearing a black pin-striped suit and a red and yellow tie.


As I was taking all of this in, an unkempt African-American man in his 30’s or 40’s sat down beside me and started talking.  Cincinnati, he noted, is a “pretty tight place” (something to do with cops and street life).  He introduced himself – “Charles,” in from St. Louis – and we shook hands.  “I’m Dave,” I said.  “I’m from Clifton.”  Charles talked for a while.  He was pretty incoherent, and I wondered if he were psychotic.  He asked me why I was there and wondered if I’d had a fight with my wife.  Pretty astute for a crazy person, I thought to myself.  Then Charles said, “You are in the wrong place, man.  You are not going to get any bus here.  The buses quit running at midnight.  There are only two things that are going to happen to you.  Either the police are going to take you in for being drunk, or you’re going to get robbed.”


These were new ideas to me.  I leaned back against the fence to take a rest and think things over.  Charles persisted.  “The police have already come by once and looked you over.  They’re making their rounds.  Next time they will absolutely pick you up.”  This was a disturbing thought, and I woke up a little more.  “If they don’t get back in time,” Charles continued, “you are going to get robbed.”


All of a sudden, the fascinating loiterers on the street took on a menacing cast.  “I am not going to rob you,” Charles reassured me.  “I’m not into robbing people.  But a lot of people around here are.”  This was starting to be less and less fun.  I wished that a bus would come, but I realized that Charles was right.  At least he seemed to be looking after me, so I wasn’t alone.  I turned to say something, but Charles had gotten up and was talking to another man down the street.  They were both looking at me.  Could they be trying to figure out how best to help me?  I wasn’t sure. 


Well, I decided, if I am going to be robbed or arrested here, maybe this is not the place for me.  So I got up and started meandering in a zig-zag course down Vine Street.  Charles noticed from a distance and gave a yell, but, by then, I was a quarter of a block away and wasn’t turning back.  Just then a taxi passed me by.  Here was a new idea.  I waved to another oncoming cab with its “vacant” light on, but the driver didn’t stop.  A third taxi approached, and I stepped into the middle of the street, waving my arms.  The driver mercifully stopped.  “Ludlow and Whitfield,” I said, and that’s the last I remember about that trip.  Once home, I tipped the cabby seventy cents, went in the back door, lay down on the couch, and slept till 10 a.m.  Katja was remarkably tolerant.  Later I heard her talking on the phone to our son J, explaining that I was a first-born child and probably hadn’t had much freedom in my life.  I’d say that’s true, but now I’m not even sure that I want that much freedom.




G-Mail Comments:

-Donna D (3-31): you think that guy was an angel?

-DCL to Donna (3-31):  Nope (I think he was getting ready to rob me).

-Jennifer M (3-29): WHEN did this happen?  Did I know you and you didn't tell me at the time?

1 comment:

  1. Charles is not the only kind soul in "the most violent neighborhood in America."

    When I was 19 I thought I was "oh so wordly," having backpacked by myself through Europe at 17. I was living in Columbus and had never been to Cincinnati. My boyfriend, had just gone back to school at Miami U. I decided to pay him and Cincinnati a visit. Based upon my "thorough" knowledge of the 5 or 6 cities I had explored thusfar, combined with a vague concept that "Vine Street" was a cool place to go, I drove to downtown Cincinnati, parked, and began walking north.

    My thought was that most cities had the downtown, followed by a rough stretch, followed by gentrified funkyness. This is where I would find, "short vine."

    Having walked to about 12th street, I realized my plan was flawed. And, I was definitely, the only white chick around. Having some street smarts, I didn't do an abrupt about face. But, instead, decided to turn at the next block.

    This is when, some young guy comes up to me and asks me if I want to play checkers. I was like, "What the f...?" I haven't played checkers since I was 4. But I don't want to refuse and seem uptight. I should mention here, that this was the height of my punk days and I probably looked like a runaway. So I sat down on the street and played checkers. I didn't even remember that the kings went backwards.

    Pretty soon, a group of old guys on office chairs wheeled over to coach me. Needless to say, I lost pretty badly. He asked for another game and I respectfully declined. At this point, he invited me to the local park, to share in his 40oz. I did, and met some friends, drew a nice picture of Tyrone in my sketchbook and I had a great time.

    They asked if I needed a place to stay. Tyrone offered his cousin's place. I declined. Walked back to my car and went to whitebread Miami University, where my future husband was battling a bat that had breached the dormitory hallway.

    Moving to Cincinnati several years later, I learned that none of the streets connect in Cincinnati. Short Vine was a detached little piece far far away. I also learned that the park, I had such a good time at, was a very scary place.

    Aaah, ignorance can be bliss...