Sunday, February 27, 2011

Living in the past, surviving today...

In 2010 I wrote and published my fourth book "Are those my Footprints?" a collection of reflections and comparisons of life in South Columbus from the 1950s through present times. While writing that book I spent a great deal of time wandering through familiar neighborhoods that once upon a time was like a huge playground for those of us who grew up attending schools within walking distance of our homes and where most neighbors not only knew one another, it mattered. They respected each other even if they didn't like one another. I wrote that book to show the differences in not only the landscape but in the attitudes and behavior of some of the people who brought changes that none of us could have imagined when most of our mothers didn't have to work for strangers like our fathers did. When they could choose to stay home and always be there when we needed them and where they were the ones that kept the landscape beautiful and made sure that we respected everyone and everything around us. They were also the ones who made sure we took full advantage of those nearby schools by being in them when we were supposed to be so we could learn the other things we would someday need to continue living and working in a polite society. While walking the streets and alleys of my old neighborhood nearly sixty years after we moved into it I was reminded constantly that it was foolish of me to be in such a hurry to see the future when I was a kid. What I probably imagined back then was an environment that would be better; one that would look better and be populated by amazing people doing amazing things. I knew when I began that project that I would be risking a measure of personal safety but I never imagined that it would also leave me more at peace with the thought that my time on earth is getting closer to being over. The fact is I am packed and ready to go even if 2011 would be my last year. Not that I hope to die anytime soon, but even if today is that day I think I am okay with it. When I look around at where we have been and think about where we are as a community, not only here but everywhere, I know that I lived in an era and in a place that will never again be as good as it was. There will never again be people nearby who resemble in any way those that used to surround me and who cared about more than just themselves. It is not that I have given up hope- it is that I no longer expect much more from others than what they demonstrate every day. On the Southside of Columbus there seems to be no middle ground, or like the rest of the country if there is such a thing as a middle class society it is becoming more and more difficult to find. In the area I have known all my life there exists just two kinds of people, those who have more than they need and those who have nothing. And the latter are people who will stop at nothing to prove that observation. The fact that the home my family has lived in for more than a half century still has lights on inside and has all of its windows, a fence around the yard and hasn't yet been spray painted with vulgar graffiti leaves it vulnerable to those who have nothing. Like a beacon drawing the attention of those who have no respect for anyone else, no sense of pride in who they are and seemingly no ambition other than to wreak havoc on others so they can maintain their miserable existence. The one they accept as the only way they know how to exist. Writing "Are those my Footprints?" brought into focus for me how much I miss that era when every home within walking distance of mine was occupied, even by some that I may not have cared much for but had no reason to disdain or fear. I wrote that book using language that wouldn't be suitable for anyone offended by words that described my emotions when I saw vacant burned out houses and buildings that once flourished as businesses. I used words that although vulgar in terms of social acceptance were words that are used every day by the people I encountered, even when engaging in casual conversation or when trying to get something for nothing. I described people who thought nothing of exposing themselves either in an attempt to make a buck or to relive themselves in public.
Men masturbating, prostitutes lifting their shirts and even an incident where two teenagers were urinating on a man sleeping on a bench. I shared a conversation I had with another man who was squatting and defecating in an alley in full view of an in session elementary school. The words I used to tell those stories were the only ones I could think of to describe my anger and my disappointment in what we have come to accept and even expect from those who weren't here fifty years ago. The people who transformed the streets and sidewalks that used to be thoroughfares that took us from one safe block to another into battlefields and landfills. Where I tripped over trash and walked through broken glass left on the ground from broken car windows.
"Are those my Footprints?" was named because as I walked around the area that has been home all of these years I was repulsed daily by not just the people who replaced those who used to be here, but saddened and left sickened by the number of structures that stand like tombs, only reminders of what they once represented. That is, an area that was also home for people who were as proud as I of where they lived. Even the buildings still standing and still occupied, be they residences or places where people worked and shopped have fallen into disrepair, and by the attitudes of those in them and around them that's okay. It is as if that is all they know and that it is enough.
People who are content to exist in filth and squallier and whose idea of recreation is taunting or hurting one another. People who are so used to the sirens of police cars and fire trucks that they barely look up when they pass by. So the question that is the book's title isn't just a tongue-in-cheek metaphor it is more of an expression of disbelief that I have remained grounded somewhere where so many others have been forced to leave. Yes, forced to leave, either because they feared what they saw coming more than thirty years ago or because they weren't willing to fight back to keep the riff-raff out. The riff-raff that was forced on this and other communities in inner cities when our judges ordered barriers that kept them out removed. The acts of desegregation in the name of civil rights. Of government deciding for all of us what is best for us. Oh really? No. Not what is best for us, but what we must tolerate in the name of being a society that accepts someone else's interpretation of documents written and signed hundreds of years ago before our forefathers could have imagined what they were signing off on.
Our very constitution that guarantees certain liberties even to people who may not be deserving of them. When I laid the blame on those responsible for allowing us to become a dumb-downed and morally cheapened society in how we live and what we expect from others I expected more criticism than I received. I expected some to call my opinions racist in nature and I expected others to cringe at the thought that I would write in such blunt terms. However I haven't experienced any of that yet and in contrast I have heard from many who share my thoughts. Especially some who were here before things changed. People who have said they would come back, even long to do so but can't. What is most gratifying to me as a writer is when someone tells me that my work incites fond memories for them, even if the stories that tell of a different environment now breaks their heart. But that is precisely my mission and was with every step and every diary notation that became "Are those my Footprints?" I wanted to document what was and still is good about South Columbus. What it took to make it great then and the preservation that goes on still today to ensure that some of it will always be here, if only to visit for some, but where I hope to take my last breath. After writing an entire book about what is wrong with the Southside of Columbus I decided to write what is still good about it and some of the reasons why I have no intention of ever leaving it. The previous photo was taken on a winter morning in 2010 in Schiller Park and when I took this picture the temperature was in the teens, but even with a biting wind that probably made it feel colder I swear I didn’t notice it.
For regardless of the elements outside I am somewhere much more comfortable, not physically but emotionally. I love this place and I never tire of being here no matter the season. But there is something a little more special about seeing it covered with snow and walking across the pond on days like this one. A day not unlike those in winters past when as kids my friends and I strapped on ice-skates here or drug our sleds up the hill nearby.
When I am here now my mind becomes a theatre where only I am seated among row after row. of empty places. My own home is about three blocks from this magnificent spot so regardless of the weather I can return with ease to a simpler place and time. I can stand on a wooden bridge and gaze over a frozen lake and forget that it is 2011 and imagine the images of faces I know I will never see again.
This is indeed one of the reasons I know that I will remain in South Columbus for the remainder of my life. I mean even if I wanted to leave how on earth could I? Why would I even consider such a thing when this is all that is left from that wonderful time in my life when I was never more than walking distance from the people who cared more about me and this terrain than anyone ever would again?
This park, with all of the appreciation for its beauty now will never again be as important as it was in years past. Now a playground for dogs, tennis players and a venue for outdoor drama, it can never again be what it was for the thousands of people who grew up knowing it as I did. In the years before video games and parents who fear allowing their children to wander anywhere out of their line of site.
So I rely on my imagination and my camera lens to document all I have said about what is still good and hopefully will never be lost about this great area of Columbus, Ohio…my Southside. Because with all of its faults and the negative remarks people have made about it through the years it is still where people like me are supposed to be. Like those rows of empty seats once occupied by better people than I see milling around now, and this photo image are the background scenes of what races through my mind like a movie with no script. A reality show based on real people and real places... then and now... like a time machine that I have the keys to.
Visit for more information.
Excerpt from "Deputy in Disguise" published in 2009
copyright Rick Minerd 2009
I have written other essays on the topic of trying to go home again partly because I have always rejected the idea that one cannot do it.

Moreover, because I have always been a sentimentalist. Sometimes that is a good thing to be while other times it is a very sad thing and I am sure anyone who does not have a sentimental side is probably better off emotionally.
People who either forget or just do not care about the past have an advantage on those of us who do. If the past is meaningless than it is smooth sailing into the future. Easier to get where one wants to go. More money or more toys, all adding up to more friends or a version of what one considers friends.
But then there are people like me. Sometimes it seems I cannot take one step forward without remembering where I was. And as I look back I tend to see only the good stuff.
Somehow I have trained my mind to do this.
What were difficult or horrible events in my life now live somewhere in a fog and I try not to dwell on them but I am ever mindful that life itself is fragile and that we all need to slow down from time to time and just reflect. If for no other reason than to avoid making the same mistakes we already have or to remember the best of ourselves and of those around us and those who have gone before us.
So I guess it was inevitable that I came home to purchase the house I grew up in after my parents passed away. “The House” as it has been frequently referred to is still in the family. The bedroom I used to share with my brother Bob is again the place I sleep.
The bathroom door I used to pound on to yell at my sisters Patty and Susie is the same one I lock behind me now, the kitchen my mother prepared every meal in and the garage out back where my dad repaired many cars in are still sweet reminders of not only something familiar but of where I somehow know I am supposed to be.
And it is here where I will attempt to explain how I did go home again.
Even though everything inside and around the outside of the home is familiar I find myself thinking about really being home when I go to bed. Maybe because it is at the end of my day and I do not have the distractions that occupy my thoughts most of the other times.
I can walk around the neighborhood that my family has resided in for more than fifty years and still see what used to be here. Cosmetically a lot has changed, homes have been remodeled and some businesses have either left or have become something else.
American made automobiles that used to dominate the area have all but disappeared and have been replaced by the ones made overseas. Gone are the two-tone cars of the past when it was easy to tell the difference between a Ford and a Chevy and when such trivia mattered. My street was prettier when it was lined with green and white Bel-Airs and red and white Fairlanes.
The people are not as friendly now and those very few who still live in the area who were here back in the late 1950s and early 1960s are either too frail to come out and mingle or are too scared to do so.
Crime in this area of the south end is worse than it ever was. In no small part because it has become one of expensive homes where people are eager to display their fortunes for those willing to walk the five or six blocks from the toughest streets in Columbus to see.
As if daring them… here’s my stuff.
Thugs and thieves routinely take that short walk from the ghettos to break into their fancy homes, their garages and their vehicles and it is not uncommon to learn that a neighbor or just someone visiting the area has been physically attacked. In recent years the neighborhood made headlines because of the home invaders who beat and tied up victims, stripped them naked and then robbed them.
Nearby Schiller Park where as kids in the 1960s we played little league baseball and fished in the summer, ice skated and sledded in the winter recently became a place where people have been beaten and robbed, some of them severely.
The days of leaving anything left unsecured are over, as are the days when it would be safe to walk alone at night or even allow persons under the age of eighteen to deliver newspapers. An experience that was common for kids in the past and one that I cherish as fond memories from my own childhood. Growing up with responsibilities of earning money and learning to save it for the things I wanted.
The smells that I remember as a kid are also gone. Nothing in life ever smelled better to me than the stench of burning leaves in the fall. I even enjoyed the chore of separating trash by putting glass and metal garbage into one can and anything flammable into a fifty gallon drum to burn and then watching and whiffing little infernos. Early recycling. Do that now and it is a criminal offense.
The neighborhood itself used to smell different too and even though I prefer the aromas of the past there were many that were less than pleasant bouquets. The south end back then was an area that often reeked from its many factories belching black smoke and the stench of the Scioto River, once similar to an open sewer.
There were a few slaughter houses where livestock being delivered to the neighborhood left their air mark also. All of that was a part of this area as recently as the early 1960s.
A few people still had chickens in their yards, neighborhood dogs wandered freely and no one walked them with a retractable leash in one hand and a bag of poop in the other.
Dog poop did not seem to be an issue then. Thankfully some of the yuppies in my neighborhood do carry the bag now while others just leave it on my lawn and go on. Perhaps they are missing the old days too.
So as progress has changed a lot of that we became more polite, yet more cautious, more sophisticated but less friendly. However one thing that has not changed is the sounds of the many trains that crisscross through various neighborhoods, some within a mile of my home.
Back to the bedroom I shared with my brother.
I remember lying in bed as a kid and drifting off to sleep with a symphony of train horns off in the distance. I used to wonder where they were going and whether they had passengers or carried freight. The horns sounded like they were miles away and because my world did not extend much further than a few blocks from the house I guess they were.
And now when I go to bed I hear that familiar music, almost on the hour most nights. Distant train horns-sounding much as they did in 1962. And when I hear them I really feel that sense of being back home. In no other neighborhood I have lived in did anything sound this friendly. What is different now is they sound closer, and because my world is bigger I guess they are. Same railroad tracks, closer trains.
So even though many things around me have changed I know that I did go home again and the hourly blasts of those horns late at night are a welcome reminder. What is not welcome is the music that wasn’t as prevalent here in the decades past. The police helicopter has become something of the official Columbus bird. I have named it the ghetto bird and like those trains I hear its engine almost nightly, most nights in concert with relentless sirens from police cars and fire trucks.
Yet I am home and with all of its problems it is still the place I think I belong. As I mentioned earlier the stories I am about to share are in no particular order, instead I have mixed them up to reflect not only different eras and various experiences but to show the multiple facets of what has been something of a mixed up existence.
Starting at the beginning would have been too easy and had I done that I would have had to call this project part 1 and part 2, and I would have had to write an ending as well as an epilogue and make it a novel. That’s not how I see the past half century.
As a diary I will be able to share more of what it was like to not only live in these stories, but at the same time show the differences of not just those I write about but how I had to adjust my own personality to coexist with them.
Writing scenarios to make people smile has never been much of a challenge to me but to write the ones that do that and immediately follow them with ones that allow them to shift into a completely different emotional gear can be more difficult.
Sort of like writing about police work when trying to articulate why so many cops look at things differently than some others. Or trying to make someone understand why that work can be gratifying and frustrating at the same time.
And why once upon a time some radio listeners thought that most of us behind the microphones lived charmed lives by earning buckets of money while surrounded by only excitement and adoring fans, but when many of us worked for low wages, dodged bill-collectors and sometimes found it impossible to remain in relationships.
Welcome to what was my world.
Missing Dan...
Before the mid 1960s the J. Fred Schmidt's Packing Company located at the corner of East Kossuth Street and Jaeger Street had been a south side landmark for decades. When I began writing this book I was thinking about the days when I was a kid when some of us would hang around and watch the delivery of animals to be slaughtered there and fantasizing ways to set them all free and spare them from the butchers inside.
I could not help but to feel sorry for them especially when I saw the Schmidt's employees milling around with blood soaked white coats and heard the screams of the animals inside. Slaughterhouses still depress me when I think of them.
My Dad worked at one at Lockbourne Road and Refugee Road called Swift’s Premium Meats and I used to hate the stories he told of how the cattle were barbarically slaughtered there. He liked telling those stories at the dinner table to aggravate my mother.
At fifteen years old I joined my best friend Danny Sauer working at Schmidt's but by this time the packing plant had been torn down and the business moved across the street into an old stable and became known as Schmidt's Sausage Haus. We were among the first employees of the restaurant when it opened in the summer of 1967.
Located just two blocks down the street from my home the commute was the only easy part of that wake up call for both of us to the working world.
Going into my sophomore year at South High School was probably the year that I actually morphed from a kid into an adult, partly because of that job but mostly because of the year ahead. In this sense Danny and I grew up together, even though we only knew each other since 1964 and by our senior year in high school we would slowly drift apart.
It is odd sometimes when I remember what seemed important to him and me during those years. Hormones had something to do with our zeal to earn as much money as we could because we were both egotistical enough to think we would go into high school as the most prolific of all girl chasers and owners of the coolest cars in the south end.
Giving up our paper routes and going to work at Schmidt's for $1.00 an hour gave us an edge because even though we were students that had to be in school at 8:15 in the morning we worked from 4:00 PM until midnight most days and after taxes would earn something like $35.00 a week. High cotton for the times.
Danny and I were as good of friends as anyone could be and I have often said that if I had a second brother it would be him.
Getting up at 7:00 each morning for school wasn't the easiest thing either of us did because in addition to working late on school nights we would walk about a block going home and stop across the street from the old packing plant and talk.
Sometimes we would hang around on the corner for an hour or more and occasionally draw the attention of a passing cop who may have wondered what we were up to. One time one did stop to question us. I was placed in the back seat of the patrol car to be interviewed by one officer while the other one questioned Danny outside.
We were able to convince them that we were not up to any mischief and that we were just walking home from work. My parents might have thought we were running the streets after work and getting into trouble but they knew that Dan was the least likely person to do anything outside the law. I knew it too and that had a lot to do with why we were friends for so many years.

I cannot imagine that in any of those discussions was any talk of what our neighborhood would be in the future, how it would become the ritzy area it now is and because of the money that has flowed into the village how that has caused it to become a target for the worst of criminals.
I doubt that we could have imagined that if we came back at midnight sometime in the future and stood on that corner we might be mugged or shot. German Village was a quiet area in those days and thoughts of robberies and shootings could not have been be further from our minds.
Instead, we were thinking and discussing girls and our dream cars. For me it was a 1960 Ford Falcon and for Danny a 1963 Chevy ll. Our first cars when we turned 16.
When I think back on those days I remember that just walking around at night talking and making plans for our futures was what we did most of the time before we got those jobs at Schmidt’s. There were nights we probably walked for miles regardless of the weather, or nights when we rode our bikes even further, sometimes one or the other sitting on the handlebars as we rode double.
In addition, when I think about all of that it becomes clear to me that that is how friendships are built and how they survive. Spending great deals of time talking. Maybe I was honing my future employment skills then.
By the time Danny Sauer and I stopped being close friends there really was no reason to stop knowing him. No fallouts, nothing that would cause two best friends to drift apart.
In the years since we left high school we spoke to each other only a few times even though we lived within ten miles of each other. I guess we just ran out of things to talk about.
But in August, 2009 we did bump into each other at the annual St. Mary’s homecoming festival in our old neighborhood, and although I was thrilled to see him I was saddened that he wasn’t feeling well. Something about that visit told me that I should spend every possible second with him rehashing our happy past.
I showed him the only copy of the book this one was born from before it was edited for final production and I explained that it was a rough draft, full of grammatical errors and punctuation challenges and I told him that I had written a story about us that would be in it and that even though it still had a lot of work yet to be done I wanted him to have the only one that existed at the time.
I wanted to write a short note in it apologizing for the work not yet done on it and thanking him for all he was to my own childhood but he wouldn’t take it. He said “I’ll wait till you get it right.” And when I insisted that he take it he still refused, saying “I don’t want one that needs work.” Only a good friend could say that and not hurt my feelings. I laughed with him.
When the book was in its second printing there were still bugs to be worked out but I decided to have it published anyway because I worried that by the time it got to where I was one hundred percent satisfied I might not be able to write that note in it to him.
So I had the publisher print it and nearly six weeks later I scrolled those words I wanted to say to him and mailed it to him. A few days later I received a call saying that I should come to visit my friend, the sooner the better.
When I asked the caller if he had received the book and if he read my note to him I was told that it did arrive and that the note and the story was read to him and that he smiled when he heard it. That was really all that was important to me, I could fix the book later.
I never got the opportunity to go see him again but in a way I think I am better off to have seen him one last time somewhere familiar to us both. The playground at St. Mary’s school, and when there was still a chance to walk with him.
Danny never got to read this edition but the copy he did receive said more to him than I am willing to share with anyone else. I loved that guy and had I told him that back in the 1960s he probably would have smacked me in the mouth.
But I want to believe that what I told him in the end was something that made him smile and that he saw past the mushiness of it all, and that he was as glad as I was that we experienced all that we did together before life took its toll on us both. His failing health and my loss of the best friend I ever had.
In that last conversation we did have we talked of the days when we were 14 or 15 years old roaming those same festival grounds full of energy, spending our paper-route money and trying our best to get noticed by girls. We talked about cars of course and he walked me over to his pride and joy, a shiny late-model Corvette. A car that he often swore he would own when he grew up.
His dream car when we were teenagers and even earlier when we were building wooden ones with lawn mower wheels and ropes to steer them in my back yard. I couldn’t have been happier knowing that my best friend from childhood was able to show me that car. And when he left in it I watched until it rounded a corner and was out of sight.
I was wondering if that might be the last time I would see him or the last time we could look at each other and expect to someday take one of those walks around the south end, or maybe just stand on a corner late at night and talk.
It was a very unsettling thought and for the next few days I could think of little else. And even though my worst fears did come true when he passed away a few months later I still couldn’t believe that a friendship that had been on hold for all of those years was actually over.
My last walk with my old friend was on October 30, 2009 when I was asked to serve as a pall bearer. A mere forty five years after our first walk together. Time no longer mattered, nor could it cloud my happier thoughts of better times. It was a walk that if someone had said back in the 1960s that either of us would someday take, would have seemed like a million years into the future but instead was one that came in the blink of an eye.

Signs- Writing about back then as my son Todd calls the era when I was small is akin to leafing through old photo albums that exist only in memory. Sometimes when I am trying to describe a certain person, place or event from years back it is like dreaming in black & white.
I can recreate mentally what I am writing about; moreover my minds eye often sees it as if it were newspaper clippings or old television images before the days of color media.
Many of my family’s old photographs are black & white prints so maybe a lot of my memory is derived from that. But even without different colorful hues to see against that flat screen in my head my memory still seems good. And not everything is colorless up there.
This story is about playing touch football with the neighborhood kids in the old Big Bear parking lot on East Whittier Street back in the early and mid 1960s. When I think back to that activity I am seeing the games in black and white images but when I think of the surroundings I do remember the color. Like the store itself.
Its facade was a pale cream color with large red neon letters spelling out "Big Bear" above a bank of huge glass windows beneath a wrap-around chrome awning and at the edge of the parking lot in front of the store stood a mammoth sign with the same neon lighting and a huge outline of a big brown bear also trimmed in red neon lights. At night it illuminated the entire parking lot.
However, what really made that sign special was the large chrome hole in the center of it, one that was big enough for even the largest person on earth to climb through. The sign was a south side icon for years. It was also something of another playground for the neighborhood kids. Few, if any who grew up in this area did not play on that thing.
It was a vessel with numerous possibilities because its cement base that was elevated a few feet off the ground was like a concrete balcony that encircled the entire structure. The body of it was made of the same pale yellow porcelain as the front of the store.
Folk lore that some of us didn't quite comprehend in the early ‘60s suggested that it was also used as a “back seat” from time to time. I can recall someone telling me that they got laid for the first time in that hole in the center. By the time I was old enough to fornicate on it-it was gone.
Now called “Giant Eagle” and looking nothing like it did in those more glorious days when it was “Big Bear” I can still walk through that parking lot and visualize the kids that used to play there.
Look over where that two-story tall sign once stood and recall what it was to us and wonder how I got so old so fast. Instead of a sign there is a historical marker showing that on that very spot was where Ohio State played its first football game back in 1897. Who knew that as kids we were playing our games in the footprints of who we probably pretended to be.

1 comment:

  1. Again, I don't see why there are not any comments on this portion of your blog. You are a fantastic writer, and add real colour to your pallet, in the way that you capture a time that is not too distant, but largely unknown by a lot of people. I should say rarely reported with such flair as yours is.

    Thanks for the pleasant break in my day Rick!

    Chris Walsh
    Perth, Australia