Candi Strecker ©1999
"In Cincinnati, people are constantly dropping into a new neighborhood chili parlor only to find out that it serves the best chili in the world."
- - Calvin Trillin, in AMERICAN FRIED
For the last four or five years, I've spent a month every summer taking my daughter Nicola back to visit the Old Country -- the rural Ohio that both Matt and I grew up in. Since we live in urban San Francisco, far away from most family members, it's a chance for her to spend time with her relatives (including both doting grandmas) and an opportunity to experience warm summer weather and the ordinary daily activities of country life that seem so unusual to us now. There was one big change in this year's routine, however: Matt's mom, whom we stay with, has moved from a farmhouse in northwest Ohio to a condo complex on the edge of Cincinnati.
Much as I miss the country, the condo had two things the farmhouse didn't: a swimming pool and air conditioning, features much appreciated during a recordbreaking heat wave in which our daily routine began with picking up the morning paper and checking the latest heat-related death toll. Nicola couldn't get enough of the pool, and not surprisingly, this was the summer she learned to swim.
Exploring and getting a feel for Cincinnati kept me busy most of the time. This semi-major city is suburban-scale, conservative, Republican, religious, English-speaking - - in almost every way, the antithesis of San Francisco. Like SF, it's riding an economic boom. The source of that boom eluded me - - sure, there are some small computer/internet players located here, but not enough to send the whole region's economy into hyperdrive. Maybe it's only that the good times all over the US have boosted the sales of Pringles and Tide and bananas (it's the HQ city for Procter&Gamble and Chiquita.) Whatever's causing this boom, it's making the city spill across its previous boundaries like over-yeasted bread dough overflowing its bowl, with new housing developments spreading outward in all directions. The other key sign of this boom is that almost every business, especially retailers and restaurants, has a prominently-displayed NOW HIRING sign or banner. Even six-year-old Nicola noticed on her own how these signs were everywhere. I can't help thinking that one of these days, news of the availability of jobs here is going to reach Mexico, and there's going to be a wave of immigration here that's going to send Cincinnati (which for decades has seen only a trickle of foreign residents) into a state of shock. I envision a day when the nickname of the city changes from "Cincy" (sometimes spelled "Cinti") to "Cinco."
Like many second-tier cities, Cincinnati is obsessed with having it both ways: being recognized by outsiders as a world-class player, and experienced by its residents as a cozy hometown. (A booster jingle from Cleveland in the 1970s expressed this paradoxical longing nicely: "We're a big-league city with Little Leagues, too.") Cincinnati is proud of its music and medicine, its world-class symphony and its complex of medical schools and hospitals and research facilities. At the same time, this is very much a place where people's lives revolve around neighborhood, school, church, and local mall. "Cincinnati" is an expression of geographical convenience, not a heartfelt part of their identity.
I enjoyed tracking the differences between SF and Cincy down to the smallest everyday levels of detail. Take advertising, for instance. My jaw would drop as I'd watch Cincinnati TV ads for local businesses like restaurants, car dealerships, and home improvement services that unapologetically showed people in their 50s and 60s enjoying their products and services. In relentlessly youth-oriented San Francisco, showing people over 40 in an ad for an ordinary product (other than a rest home or a hemorrhoid nostrum) would absolutely be the kiss of death. The flip side of this was my brother-in-law Tom's reaction when he returned to Cincy from a brief business trip to the Bay Area: "Every billboard has a dot-com on it! Every ad is for an internet-something!" (Perfectly true, too, though it's been that way for "so long" that most of us hardly remember when it was otherwise.)
Cincinnati's topography seemed similar to San Francisco's in theory but quite different in practice. Both cities are seriously hilly, both are historically and economically tied to water commerce (the Ohio River in Cincy, the Pacific Ocean for SF.) But Cincy hasn't maintained the kind of urban density where you can survive without owning a car. Suburban growth patterns took hold so long ago, radiating out along freeway lines, that the city itself is "patchy." Instead of a consistent pattern of decreasing density from downtown outward, Cincy is riddled with leapfrogged-over underdeveloped patches. Untouched woody hillsides and truck farms and five-acre estates with big old houses are often scattered among humbler bungalows or apartment buildings. I liked this visual texture and mix-up of economic levels. But it doesn't support much of a transit system, or many shopping-district nodes. And at any rate, the true real estate story here is suburbs suburbs suburbs, as Cincinnati expands into the flat surrounding counties in a huge growth and home-building boom similar to Atlanta's.
The part of Cincinnati where I bivouacked for the summer was just off the outer-ring freeway, I-275, at the exit for Colerain Avenue. (If the freeway ring was a clockface, with downtown at its center, the Colerain exit would be at the numeral 11.) Colerain is pronounced "COLE-rain" not CO-ler-ain; I heard a teenage girl at the condo swimming pool remark in a sweet hillbilly voice, "This pool's got too much COLE-rain in it." It's a major artery, and right outside the condo was a spanking-new shopping center with a Wal-Mart, a Lowe's, and a Skyline Chili parlor. Once this area was a country crossroads town named "Bevis," a name no longer used anywhere but on the sign for a little country cemetery surrounding a boarded-up church. A better name for this area would be "Rumpkeland." Half a mile beyond the condos and stores is the southern edge of the Rumpke Company's absolutely vast landfill and gravel pit, miles across on each side, bulldozed into a high heap at one point with a half-mast flag on top. (JFK Jr. had just died in a plane crash.) Day and night, trucks rumble off the freeway and up this short stretch of Colerain to dump what seems to be all the trash for the greater Cincinnati area into this mysterious, gated realm. The Rumpke name, like the signs saying NOW HIRING, are so ubiquitous here that you quickly stop noticing them: Rumpke dumptrucks, Rumpke dumpsters and trashcans, Rumpke signs on the bus-benches and roadside plantings it donates.
My anthropological studies of Cincinnati continued at mealtimes, as I pursued the local custom and ritual of multi-layered chili. One of the books I was reading my way through over the summer happened to be Calvin Trillin's omnibus volume The Tummy Trilogy, which led to my actually spending one lunchtime eating my way through a plate of Skyline "three-way" while reading Trillin's groundbreaking essay on the Cincinnati chili genre. Nicola hadn't paid much attention to chili before, but unexpectedly got hooked on the chili at Skyline's agressive competitor, Gold Star. Skyline's chili is better (and Camp Washington's may be better still) but Gold Star does have an outlet right across the street from the Mount Healthy Dairy Bar, a peerless soft-ice-cream-stand with a specialty called the "S.O.S. Bar," so we made many repeat lunchtime visits there. On another leg of the trip, I also experienced the world's worst Cincinnati-style chili, served up at a chain in northeast Ohio called Grinders (which I heartily urge you to avoid.) Their abomination-on-a-plate combined too-thin pasta that was both undercooked and dried-out, with a flavorless bean-in meat sauce, topped with a stingy scattering of cheese - - wrong, wrong, and wrong.
The absolute high point of the trip was discovering radio station WMKV, down at the college-station end of the FM dial (89.3). This non-commercial station takes its call letters from its sponsoring organization, Maple Knoll Village, a huge retirement home/assisted living/nursing home complex. What a brilliant concept: a non-commercial station targeting the musical tastes of an age group other than college kids! We'd already switched all our home radio dials from rock stations to San Francisco's KABL-AM, a "standards and swing" station flogging a pleasant but repetitious playlist of Glenn Miller and Sinatra greatest-hits. The songs I knew from KABL occupied about one percent of WMKV's weird, broad, and deep library of dixieland-through-swing era music. I was in listening heaven. The station also broadcast public-interest talk shows discussing various problems faced by senior citizens. Something I wouldn't have known otherwise: no one has yet successfully engineered a can opener that can be operated by people with the use of only one hand. Think about it.
On a side trip Nicola and I took to Pittsburgh and to my mom's house in northeast Ohio, we managed to do almost all the girly tour-and-shop things you CAN do in Ohio - - the Homer Laughlin (Fiestaware) dish factory outlet store, the Hall China factory outlet, the Simply Smuckers showcase jam store, the Everything Rubbermaid factory store, and the Cats Meow factory tour. About the only thing we missed (didn't learn about it in time) was the chance to visit the glass garden globe factory outlet in Marietta. By far the most boggling girly thing was touring the Longaberger baskets complex in mid-Ohio. Odds are good that you've never heard of Longaberger baskets. Well, they're handmade, sturdy, expensive wooden-splint baskets in various sizes, made right in Ohio. Like Tupperware, they're sold only on the "party plan." Like Beanie Babies, each basket design is dated and discontinued after a few years' production, making every basket a scarce, valuable, potentially-appreciating collectible. (Type in "Longaberger" on Ebay if you want to see what I mean.) In less than 30 years in business, Longaberger has raked in enough cash to build a giant headquarters building, shaped like a monstrous picnic basket eight stories high, as well as the "Homestead," a gigantic visitors-center complex a few miles away.
We came to the big basket first, took some pictures of the outside, then went into the lobby to see if we could pick up a brochure or something. It was an eerie place. The first-floor lobby is an atrium - - you look up and see the "handles" of the basket-building eerily bisecting the blue sky -- and is the only part of the building open to passersby. Scattered about are homey staged arrangements of early-american-style furniture, accessorized suggestively with Longaberger basket items. Hushed and air-conditioned and with a Yamaha robo-piano tinkling in the background, it uses decor to soothe, like a funeral-home lobby. Longaberger employs greeters to chat you up and explain how you can't go upstairs, and their intense, intense Ohio-style "niceness" made me feel like we'd stepped into the entrance-lobby to Mormon Heaven.
After seeing what little there was to see inside the big basket, we drove on to the Longaberger "Homestead." I hadn't done any homework or picked up any brochures, so I wasn't expecting much, maybe a salesroom building with a slide-show and a snack bar. I began to realize we were in for something more grandiose as we drove along the state road to the Homestead -- a fifteen-mile stretch lined the whole way with wooden fences decked with bunting and flags. The Homestead turned out to be a freshly built multi-building complex, about the size of a small county fairgrounds, with enough to keep one busy for most of a tourist day. As far as I can tell it hasn't had much national-scale publicity, but the word is out on some kind of grapevine, because tour buses roll through the gates one after another ("It's all grandmas here," observed Nicola astutely as we joined the throngs pouring in from the parking lot.) We spent time in one mall-sized retail building where t-shirts, jams and jellies, and every possible kind of fancy middlebrow-female knicknack was for sale, arranged by themes into various rooms. This room-style arrangement screwed up one's sense of perspective, making one feel like a mouse exploring an overscaled dollhouse. The one thing you can't buy here are Longaberger baskets -- a policy that protects their loyal party-plan sales force. With miles to go before we slept, we had to leave after touring just this one building, the most commercial one; apparently the rest of the complex was like a big ongoing Old Timey Festival, with banjo music and clog dancing and whimmy-diddle crafters and yes, surely, basket-making demonstrations. Maybe next year.
The regional Thriftway grocery stores (a division of Winn-Dixie) owns the rights to plaster the image of Nascar driver Mark Martin's #60 car on all its in-house products, right down to the tubs of sour cream and packages of store-brand cookies. Interestingly, this is a second-string license - - the 60 car is Martin's car in Nascar's second-tier racing series, the Busch Grand Nationals; he drives the 6 car in the main league, the Winston Cup series. Got that? It's as if Sammy Sosa also played in the minors in his spare time between Major League Baseball games, and ran separate licensing deals based on each of his uniform numbers. Another thing I liked about Thriftway: their house brand of Ritz cracker knock-offs is labelled GEORGIA CRACKERS.
Ohio has license plates with the Freemasonry (Masons) logo.
Thrift store Dada moment: On the shelves of a Salvation Army, an ordinary salt shaker, clear glass with a metal screw-on top, stuffed with half-a-dozen restaurant salt packets.
Shoes Never Lie: Village Discount Outlet, a large thrift store in Cincy, had a section of its shoe racks hand-labelled "Alternative Shoes" (mostly 80s demi-boots...)
Ohio girls now look more like "California girls" than California girls do. Ohio girls on every side are blond, tanned, lanky, casually athletic, casually country-club wealthy. Their type may still exist somewhere in California, but I never seem to cross paths with them.
Inner Secrets of Wal-mart: the phrase "Code Adam" over the public-address system means "All employees, scan your area for a lost child."
A call-in radio show on Detroit station WJR stars "Joe Gagnon, the Appliance Doctor," whose shtick is that he's a hard-hitting critic of the appliance industry. Of all the industries that could use a hard-hitting consumer-advocate critic, the appliance industry is NOT the one that leaps to my mind.
All over Ohio, I'd notice a certain type of character hanging about: skinny, grizzled white-trash guys in their thirties or forties, bearded, gaunt, squinty, hard-tanned, cigarette hanging off lower lip, giving off vibes of lethal unpredictability. Living ghosts of bitter mustered-out Confederate veterans...
Gotta love the way Cleveland celebrates its rich heritage of locally-produced television shows, like the hosted horror-movie shows starring Ghoulardi and The Ghoul, both the subjects of books. A minor epiphany of this trip came when I woke up on a Saturday morning in a Cleveland area motel, turned on the TV, and discovered a face from my childhood -- kiddie-show host Woodrow the Woodsman! Still doing a kiddie show! Still ALIVE!! He looked 80 at least, still dressed in green medieval-peasant tunic and tights and Sonny Bono wig, still doing the same shaggy-dog skits and jokes. He filled a few minutes by showing a clip of himself from the mid-1960s miming along with his puppet pals to "Snoopy Vs the Red Baron." I plainly remember watching this footage back then. Woodrow appears to have only been 45 or so at the time. I'm 45 or so now. I sit on the bed, shaking my head and doing the math. How old he is. How old I am. Yow.
For those who want to know, some things I got at yard sales and thrift stores on this trip (besides a bushel of kid clothes and toys for Nicola) include:
We solved the second mystery first, when we got home and looked at a map -- the site across the street from Stricker's Grove was Fernald, a giant federal uranium processing facility that once operated "Feed Material Production Center." Once semi-secret, it made the news a few years back as documents came to light revealing it had been dangerously mismanaged for decades. Post-Cold-War, it's now being decomissioned and extensively (so we're told) cleaned up all spic and span. So we have the delightful contrast of an extraordinarily charming amusement park located across the street from a menacing nuke site!
It was even harder to find information about Stricker's Grove than about its secret-nuke-site neighbor. The park was never cited in the usual lists of local attractions, like the Sunday paper, the monthly city magazine, or the yellow pages. I mentioned it to people, who all agreed that they'd heard of it, or read something about it in the paper, but nobody seemed to have ever gone there themselves (despite the fact that they apparently loaded up their macro-vans and went to the regional mega-theme parks several times each summer.)
Finally I did the logical thing and checked the internet. Plugging in the name "Stricker's Grove" pulled up links to roller-coaster-buffs' web pages, and from these I gleaned the info that the park is only open to the public only two or three days a year - - so these coaster geeks consider it a real triumph to have gotten themselves to the Grove on one of its open days so they can add its wooden coaster to their life lists.
Within a week I spotted a plain, inobtrusive 3x5 ad in the daily paper, which read as follows:
On the appointed day, the park proved to be everything I'd dreamed of. Fresh air, shade, and exactly fifteen rides - - just enough to fill a few pleasant hours, not send one into a frenzy of over-stimulation. The unlimited-rides price was nothing less than the deal of the century. I was a little puzzled by the hours, actually interpreting them to mean the park worked sort of like a movie theater - - filled up with one set of paying customers, then those customers were shooed out and replaced by a new second batch. I asked at the gate about this and got a quizzical. "No, your ticket's good all day; we just close the rides down for an hour so all the workers can have a chance to eat supper." Oh, of course.
Among the rides, there were two roller coasters, a kiddie one and a mid-sized wooden coaster, which Nicola (age 6) demanded to ride and enjoyed immensely. Plus the usual kiddie rides and spin-and-whippers, a train ride around the perimeter, and a disappointingly ordinary merry-go-round (after doing some research and writing about carousels earlier in the summer, I'd become a wooden-horse snob.) The most unique ride by far was an "airplane" ride with six plane-shaped vehicles hanging like swings from a rotating central tower. Each little "car" had a big sail-like metal rudder in front; when the car was up in the air circling around, you could alter your angle of flight by moving the rudder from one side to the other. Kind of like scooping through the air with your hand out the window of a moving car, but on a larger scale. Highly satisfying.
One funny thing about the park was its customers. I'd imagined the park to be, in west coast hipster terms, "a cult thing" - - that hip parents from all over the tri-state area would make a point to flock there on its rare days open. But no. Besides us, there was exactly one family that read as "yuppie," with their preschoolers dressed in Gap Kids gear. All the other attendees were strictly of the hillbilly persuasion -- Wal-Mart kids and their tattooed, Marlboro-smoking parents with harsh Kentucky accents. How they found out about the park being open that day, what grapevine they heard it thru, I have no idea - - but I find it hard to believe they all read the daily paper as minutely as I do. I'm guessing there were some radio ads on a country station.