"I’ve had it with you little bastards!" yelled the man as he hopped down the steps of his front porch. Three or four kids scattered like dry leaves on the wind. The man, gimpy on one good leg, could only manage to hop as he took off after the kids. He had mangy hair, a puffy and weathered face that seemed out of place on top of his short and skinny body, and he was wearing tattered clothes that hung on him loosely. He stopped, grabbed a small bicycle at the bottom of the steps and disappeared around the corner, yelling something incoherent and, undoubtedly, foul towards "the little bastards".
We – my dad and I – were on the roof of the Husman’s potato chip factory in the Over The Rhine area of Cincinnati. It was noon on a hot summer day in 1980.
Over The Rhine in 1980 was considered one of the country’s worst and most dangerous urban areas. But it wasn’t always like that. Nor is it today. The Over The Rhine area of Cincinnati began its life as the place to be in town. High end apartments and homes, clubs and live music. Some of the best urban architecture anywhere in the United States – including Art Deco, Italianate, and Gothic buildings, and Music Hall’s Venetian Gothic – can be found in the neighborhood. The mostly red brick buildings were built by German immigrants in the mid-1800s, who also named the place and helped define its character. Basically, the German immigrants, some 60 percent of the neighborhood’s population, created a mini-Germany. The locals spoke german and there were a couple of german-written newspapers published in the neighborhood. And with the swelling and dense German population — at its peak there were approximately 32,000 residents per square mile – came the breweries. Cincinnati, like Milwaukee, has always been one of the country’s great brew towns.
The pride of the people of The Over The Rhine in their German heritage came back to haunt the neighborhood with the outbreak of World War I. As anti-German sentiment spread throughout the country the neighborhood found itself at the beginning of a decades-long decline that spiraled downward until it hit rock-bottom sometime around 1980, becoming a dark world of crime and violence and little hope.
Today Over The Rhine is the model for urban renovation, the shopping, high-rise apartments and condos, clubs and micro-breweries are back and the place is cleaned up and sparkling, yet still retaining its unique architecture and feel. But in 1980 it was known for serving all forms of death with a ferocious intensity. Whatever type of death one could imagine – drug overdose, high velocity lead injections, beatings, knifings, to name but a few – Over The Rhine delivered as efficiently prolifically as any place around the country.
The history of the neighborhood is littered with moments of grit, the sublime, and the surreal.
We came to be standing on the roof of Husman’s potato chip factory as security guards. Why anyone would hire an always starving 150 pound college kid to guard potato chips and pretzels is beyond me, but there I was. For me, it was a summer job and Husman’s on the weekend was time and a half pay. I saved every dime so I could pay for college. My dad thought it would be a relaxing way to earn a few extra bucks. We worked the weekend shift, 12 hours on, 12 hours off. I relieved him. He relieved me.
I worked the night shift, midnight to noon. The place was like a tomb at night. I was supposed to walk my rounds and clock in at the security check points throughout the building once an hour. It was easy work, if you don’t mind spooky and dark places with occasional creeks and rattles. Then, at the back of the building where the potato shipments came in, there were the rats, trying to find a way in and always scarfing around for bits of food, the air putrid at times with the smell of rot. In other words, the place was creepy.
Motivation often finds us at odd times and in odd places, at least it does me. I wrote my first short story at Husman’s, in the middle of the night, amidst all of the chaos outside and the spookiness inside. In the story, two men got onto a bus and sat near a young black boy. They were arguing, one denying evolution, the other, exasperated, argued the opposing viewpoint. Finally, one of the men turned to the young boy who had been listening in and asked what he thought. "Who cares," said the boy, smiling, as he got up to exit the bus at his stop. "Batman and Robin are on and I’m going home to watch." Thirty or so years later and I still struggle with the same concepts and arguments in my head. And I still ask the same question: how can someone just ignore science and fact? I’m still trying to piece that puzzle together.
Tires would screech. Someone would yell. Attitudes would, inevitably, swell. Someone would feel threatened or disrespected and the end result would be another report of violence to be read by the talking heads on the local news.
In the darkened offices of Husman’s, with a single and stark fluorescent light glaring down on me, I read Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. Why would I have chosen those books to read in that place? It was spooky enough in the building and the neighborhood. But motivation, as I said, finds us at odd times and in odd places.
"I love it up here," I said to my dad while standing on the roof. "At night I can see everything."
And I did – see everything. Over The Rhine offered the grind and the grit of human existence and the surreal. Earlier in my shift I had watched the man across the street coming home from a long night. It was early in the morning, just before sun-up. The man lived on the second floor of the apartment building across the street. He was black, thin built and taller than most, and he preferred to wear floral patterned dresses, white shoes and occasionally a hat when he worked. He was a transvestite, plying his trade along Liberty Street. He sat at the window of his apartment that overlooked the street and smoked cigarettes, watching the world from his perch when he wasn’t working. Once in a great while – and it didn’t happen often – when the horns and tire screeches and people were all momentarily quiet in some form of urban synchronicity and paused to draw a deep breath, I could hear sounds coming from an old radio in his apartment. The red glow of his cigarette would flash on and off with each drag he took like a lonely beacon in the night.
There was a soundtrack that accompanied my nights in the Over The Rhine area. It was a cacophony of horns, sirens, laughter, shouting, screeches and screams. It was life. Its dark side and its lighter side, with a whole lot of nastiness thrown in for good measure. And then there was James Taylor’s "Up On The Roof". The song was popular then and I couldn’t get it out of my head as I looked up at the night sky and down upon the craziness below me.
Down the hill to my right was a White Castle burger joint. The transvestite would walk back to his apartment from there. It was the local hangout for the prostitutes, drug dealers and police. The place was lit up – the restaurant, parking lot and surrounding area were all bathed in brilliant light – and the White Castle was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A police siren would blare every once in a while, alerting someone to get moving or suffer the consequences. Police lights were always flashing from the cruiser stationed in front of the burger joint. Tires would screech. Someone would yell. Attitudes would, inevitably, swell. Someone would feel threatened or disrespected and the end result would be another report of violence to be read by the talking heads on the local news. Life in Over The Rhine was like that. Gritty. A grind. Always encroaching upon fatal, too often over-taking it.
On the roof of Husman’s there was what looked to be an unused apartment that had become a storage area. At some point I was planning to break into it and see what it really was, what clues might have been left about its past. But that day never came. I left the job and went back to school before I got the chance to explore it.
"Time to go," I said to my dad that day. We walked down the stairs, through the building to the door to the outside. When we got outside my dad’s old, beat up Dodge station wagon was parked right where he left it. Except now the hood was open and a black man stood in front of us holding the battery to the car.
"What the hell are you doing with my battery?"
"It’s my battery," said the man.
"Like hell it is!"
The man turned to run. My dad took off after him. The man realized quite soon that it was difficult running with a 12 volt in your arms. He dropped it and scampered off.
My dad stopped and picked up his car battery and returned the few yards to replace it. "That son of a bitch tried to steal my battery," he said, red-faced, laughing and spitting the words out. "Can you believe that?"
"He did steal your battery," I said. "He just didn’t get very far."
"Damn right he didn’t. Whoever heard of someone stealing a battery like that."
Life in the Over The Rhine area was minute by minute then, in 1980, always fluctuating between the grind and grit of existence and the surreal. Sometimes they were entwined. One man’s gritty living was another’s surreal moment.
There was a racket coming from up the street as my dad replaced his battery. Soon, the gimpy man on the bike came flying around the corner. With his one good leg he was pushing hard on the pavement to motivate the bike. He stopped at his front porch steps and bounded up the stairs like a man on a pogo stick. The bike rolled off and crashed to the ground, its front wheel spun slowly at a 45 degree angle, as if counting down the seconds.
The "Little Bastards" followed shortly after gimpy man. Their ranks had swelled and they were a group of fifteen or twenty kids and adults, all yelling, carrying sticks and baseball bats and bad-ass attitudes. Some had rocks. It was a good old fashioned lynch mob. They stopped at the base of the man’s steps and kept yelling towards the house, some of them laughed mockingly. A moment later the man appeared carrying a shotgun and the group screamed and scattered as one. Gimpy man, with his puffy face and mangy hair and shotgun, chased after them. But only so far. He turned and limped back into his house, muttering something under his breath all the while. The grind and the grit and the surreal, again, entwined.
Not more than two minutes later the police showed up, entered the man’s home and then walked him out in cuffs. Gimpy man had a grin on his face when the police cruiser passed us by on the way to the jail, like he had done something to be proud of, like he had showed them a thing or two.
I turned to my dad. "You going to be okay?"
"Oh, hell, I’m going inside and locking the doors," he said. "Ain’t nobody going to get in there. See you later."
As I turned to go, the transvestite came out of the front door of his apartment building and walked down the hill towards White Castle. He was wearing a pair of black slacks and a white button down shirt, smoking a cigarette, like nothing at all had happened. In the light of day his appearance was as normal as the rest of us. Gone were the heels, the bonnet and the floral patterned dress. Apparently, his metamorphosis, like the werewolf or Dracula, was limited to the cover of darkness. My dad was entering the Husman’s factory by the time I turned back to him, talking to himself, "Who tries to steal a battery out of a car like that. In broad daylight! Damnedest thing I ever saw."
It was a Saturday, just after noon, in Over The Rhine. 1980. Most of the days I hid away behind locked doors and brick walls and didn’t experience Over The Rhine or its daily bedlam. But on this day there was a convergence of events from which there was no hiding. On this day there was a gimpy man with a puffy and weathered face and mangy hair, holding a shotgun and riding a bicycle; and there was an angry mob with sticks and rocks and baseball bats; and a chain smoking transvestite; and a battery thief. And I was there amidst it all, at the center of the convergence, a 150 pound college kid playing security guard in one of the country’s worst and most dangerous urban areas, learning that the grit and the grind of one man’s life can be another man’s surreal moment. And that often they get entwined.
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