I was in Columbus all of ten hours. Even downtown, some of the sidewalks were clogged by snow, and as I crossed the Sciotto into Franklinton, my trudging became even more laborious. Mostly I walked on the side of the street, and on side streets, right in the middle. From an attic window, a torn American flag hung, and on a garage, there was a crudely drawn handgun, accompanied by “BEWARE I WILL SHOOT.” I passed a house that was for sale for $15,000, cash, and saw portraits of Lincoln and Washington in the windows of Dr. Edward A. Cutler’s office. The peeled paint and exposed wood of the second floor made me think his business was no more? Online, there’s this 2007 testimony about Dr. Cutler, “He is the ‘Mother Teresa’ of Columbus, serving the poorest population with kindness and love. Dr. Cutler is passionate about the practice of medicine. He provides the highest quality of service, going beyond what anyone would expect.”
Most of Franklinton is in fairly good shape, though forlorn, a series of Charles Burchfield watercolors come to life. The first white settlement in Columbus, it was founded in 1797 by Lucas Sullivant, and thanks to its low status topographically and economically, Franklinton is also known as the Bottoms. In the beginning, no one wanted to come, so Sullivant had to give lots away, on a street he called Gift. There is also a Sullivant Street, naturally.
Like George Washington, Sullivant was a land surveyor, that is, his job was to map out territories that had been claimed and parceled by the United States government, vast tracts of land long-inhabited by natives who would have to be chased out, or killed. For his service, Sullivant was awarded 6,000 acres, roughly 6,000 football fields that were, naturally, teeming with Injuns. In Columbus’ Genoa Park, there is a statue of Sullivant as pioneer, with his left hand holding an American flag that’s tilted forward. His right shades his surveying eyes.
In the same park, there’s also a bronze of Sullivant’s wife, Sarah, holding up an infant. Done in a sort of jivey essentialism that’s Modernism many years and miles removed from its original blossoming, it’s a celebration of Sarah’s adoption and rearing of Arthur Boke, a son of one of her slaves. Boke spent his entire life with the Sullivants and is even buried in their family plot, so his inclusion in that household is indeed remarkable, but there’s a dark side to this that has gone strangely unexamined, for why ruin a feel good story? First of, Arthur Boke is named, exactly, after a close friend of Lucas Sullivant, and this white man just happened to be a house guest of the Sullivants when Boke’s mom got pregnant, so if she gave him up right after birth, it can only mean she wanted nothing to do with a child born of rape. What else do you think happened? History is replete with whitewashing, so this is just another example. In some accounts of Boke, his birth mother’s inhumane status has also been lifted to “servant,” and since there are huge differences between servants and slaves, this ain’t similar to, say, calling a fast food worker a “sandwich artist.” In Columbus, there is also a two-lane bridge named after Boke.
Of course, this city’s namesake is an endless source of debate, with radically different verdicts from opposite camps. Had Columbus been sunk at sea, however, or eaten as tapas by Caribs, so that we would have a different history, one without Columbus, Ohio or Washington, DC, bane of the world, though boasting of lovely landscaping, fine museums and two poppin’ jazz clubs, it’s fair to assume that other European ships would have arrived soon enough, to begin a similar scramble for conquests, with their attendant decimation of native Americans.
As Americans now, we are the beneficiaries of each American state crime past and present, though depending on how low on the totem pole we are, we can also be America’s victims, though the biggest victims, by far, are the ones on the receiving ends of America’s serial destruction of nations and peoples. Dodging American bombs, depleted uranium tank munitions, drone missiles and/or economic dismantling of their societies, many have decided it’s best to flee to the belly of the beast. Ending up in places like Columbus, Ohio, they sell Slurpees or drive cabs, etc. For years, Americans have already been going to Ukraine for sex vacations, so with its further impoverishment through Yankee meddling, our paunchy creeps can expect an even better value while in Kiev.
It was getting cold wandering like that, so I was ready to duck into the nearest beer pit. I had to pass on the charmingly named Rehab Tavern, however, since it simply looked too bright, cheery and spacious for my svelte wallet. On the edge of Franklinton, it’s spearheading a gentrification push from downtown. I asked a man on the street and was pointed to Charley’s Place, but after a ten-minute walk, I discovered that it was closed. A nearby bar was also lightless, and it was already late afternoon. Holy Sheila-na-Gig, if bars are shuttered left and right in an Irish neighborhood, the sky must be falling! A Kafka line voiced itself, “Slowly, like old men, we crawled through the snowy wastes,” but there was no we, just me, and against terrible odds, I managed to crawl to the door of The Patio, where inside, new friends were waiting to save me.
“What would you have?”
“What do you have?”
“Bud, Miller, Schlitz, Pabts.”
“Schlitz, I guess.”
It was clearly a neighborhood hangout, for almost every stool was taken, and folks were chattering, bantering and laughing with each other. The two guys to my right were merely muttering, however.
“You ever been charged with a felony?”
“Well, not really, but yeah! It was Stephany. She told the cops I had hit her, but I only swung at her once! I’m not even a fighter, man. I hate fighting. I don’t even know how to fight.”
“How long were you two together?”
“Twelve years, man, and I only swung at her once!”
On the wall, there was a large picture of the Fightin’ Irish, the Notre Dame logo, and next to it, a framed photo of some bald dude wearing a T-shirt that said, “I’m too sexy for this T-shirt.” Behind the bar, a large banner announced, “THE PATIO. THE BOTTOMS.” I was getting hungry, too, so seeing a sign advertising hoagies for $5.50, I asked the man next to me, the swinging non-fighter, “Is the food here any good?”
“Yeah, it’s good, very good!”
“Thanks, man,” and so I ordered the Italian hoagie. The other choice was ham and cheese. My sandwich did turn out excellent. Wider than a Philly hoagie, it was also heated, and came with slices of hot Italian peppers. I was still working on my first can of beer when a middle-aged man named Sandy bought a round for the whole bar, and so I had another one coming. In Irish dives across this country, such generosity is hardly unusual, I’ve come to learn. That evening, I also bought beers for others, but not for the entire bar, unfortunately, since I simply couldn’t afford it.
After the two dudes to my right left, an old man showed up. Over 70, he wore an OSU jacket and seemed quite delighted to listen to the juke box while sipping, very slowly, his can of Bud. When the Eagles growled “Witchy woman, she got the moon in her eye,” grandpa ad-libbed, “She got crabs, ha ha,” and with “Mr. Sandman,” he would scat along to the “bung bung bung bung” refrain. “Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream. Bung, bung, bung, bung!”
When I told him I had just gotten off the bus from Philly, Bob said he had lived in Lancaster and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He had also spent time in Germany and France while in the military, “I didn’t like the Army at all, but I’m glad I did it. It’s just something you have to do, you know what I mean? We had a captain who was a real asshole. He would make us do all kinds of stupid things, just for the hell of it. One time he made us polish rocks.”
“Just for the hell of it! Because he was an asshole! You’ve never been in the Army, have you? I got back at this guy, though, I trashed his living quarters, and though I was punished for it, he never bothered me again.”
Retired, Bob no longer had to take crap from anyone, except, of course, the iron dictates of his increasingly capricious, cruel and worn out body. For the moment, though, all was well as he sang along to yet another oldie.
“A man who looks forward to Spring is looking forward to his own death,” da Vinci wrote in a notebook, but in the US today, there are millions who can’t wait until they’re close enough to death, literally, so as to collect Social Security, because that’s the only lifeline they have left. If you’re laid off in middle age, you’re practically unemployable in this economy, so you must scrounge whatever together to get by day-to-day, for we have morphed from a nation of tradesmen and professionals to a ragged society of temps, desperate improvisers, odd-jobbers and hustlers.
In The Patio, I met one such jack of all trades. Forty-three-years-old, Monroe was a carpenter, housepainter, bartender and valet, “I work at Colombini. You know where that is?”
“Yeah, I saw it on the way here. It looks nice.”
“It is nice, and pretty cheap too.”
Monroe wore his salt and pepper hair and beard long and unkempt, and wouldn’t look out of place in a raccoon hat, but instead, he had on a baseball cap that advertised Winticket.com, the horse race betting outfit. Two front teeth were missing and his speech was slurry when not whiny, so I had to strain just to comprehend him. Though extremely personable, he wouldn’t make an ideal bartender in any establishment with pretensions to class, and so it’s no surprise he’s only an emergency beer slinger.
“You say you also paint houses,” I said. “That’s not bad money. How come you’re not doing that?”
“No one’s hiring. For four years I worked for the guy who owns the Hollywood Casino. You know about that?”
“Yeah, I saw a billboard.”
“He paid us good, man. Me and this guy, we were paid $200,000 for five years’ worth of work.”
“Yeah, man, it was great.”
“I’ve made that kind of money for maybe two years in my life, and I’m fifty.”
“I’m counting on this guy to hire me again. It beats parking cars. Hey, have you heard of Dave Kingman?”
“Dave Kingman, baseball player.”
“Yeah. When I was a kid, I caught a Dave Kingman baseball, then he signed it. It’s worth about $200,000.”
“No fuckin’ way!”
“Yes fuckin’ way! It’s worth $200,000, easy.”
“For a Dave Kingman baseball?!”
“Yeah, man. I’ve done the research. The only problem is, I don’t have it right now. My aunt has that baseball.”
“Why did you give it to her?”
“I didn’t. She just has it, but I’m thinking I’ll get it back when she dies, you know. I did catch it, and it even changed the shape of my palm,” and to prove it, Monroe held up his hand.
“I don’t see anything.”
To give me basis for comparison, Monroe then raised both of his hands, palms out, so that he looked like a surrendering soldier.
“Seriously, man, I don’t see any difference.”
He let it drop, brooded briefly, then, “Hey, you want to see my girlfriend?”
He took out his cell phone, flipped it open, and on the tiny screen, I could see a thin woman in a black tank top making some kind of a face.
“Hey, she’s hot!” I blurted.
Glad that I had come round to seeing life his way, Monroe smiled.
By this point, I was feeling pretty fine in The Patio, and would have stayed longer if I didn’t have to head back to the Greyhound to continue my journey. That night, I would sleep on the bus, as I had the previous night. Before I left, though, the two dudes who had discussed felonies returned, and Trevor, the one who claimed to hate fighting, got into an altercation with a man named Henry, and though older, Henry promptly knocked Trevor to the ground. As he got up, half of the bar surrounded him and told him to beat it, and though smartened by Henry’s right hook, Trevor pretended he still wanted to rumble. The bar owner, though, was right there, and with a hand on Trevor’s shoulder, said to him in an avuncular tone, “Just go home and come back tomorrow, OK?”
Before he finally left, Trevor even asked the bar owner for a $20 loan, and without hesitation, the older man gave it to him. It’s all family here.
“He’s on something,” a woman said as people laughed, then Sandy patted me on the back as he walked by, “You didn’t expect this much excitement, did you!”
Hey, people will occasionally fight in bars, but it’s good that they are socializing face-to-face, for without this direct mixing, what you find in this culture is not meditative solitude but a noise, chat and porn-filled solipsism. The benefit of being left alone is that you can hear yourself and your conscience more clearly, but this is not possible if Gwar is blasting in the background, the television is never off, and on the computer screen, a torrent of upskirt photos shares space with the Dow Jones Index ticker. Mingling is good, is all I’m saying, and I’m certainly not advocating mass, compulsory or compulsive alcoholism, for we’re not that spiritually distilled yet. We’re not that southern comforted.
Now that I’ve brought up solipsism, I would be remiss if I didn’t remind you that Columbus is James Thurber’s hometown. Before our current age of militant illiteracy, Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” was known to every American by 10th grade or so, and in this 1939 story, a henpecked wuss imagines himself to be an ace pilot war hero, famed surgeon then cool, gangsterish killer who’s also a lady magnet. Mitty is basically Don Quixote removed to small city America, and though there are dark and violent strains to his fantasies, he’s viewed as charming and harmless. America’s priapric dreams, however, are nothing to be chuckled at. Increasingly vehement and bloody, they’re on course to blow up this Columbus experiment, if not the rest of the world also.