Fingo vitae

Stories From a Life


I have been slow going about it, but I decided about a decade ago to begin working on something like an autobiography.

Honestly, I really have never thought that my life nor my work significant enough to warrant an autobiography (I don't even have a Wikipedia entry, though I am cited frequently), so I couldn't imagine that putting down THE STORY OF MY LIFE would be a worthwhile endeavor.

But I believe I have done some interesting things, met some interesting people, and now that I'm marching downfield in the fourth quarter of this life, I realize that although THE STORY OF MY LIFE might not be of much interest, some STORIES FROM MY LIFE might raise a chuckle or an eyebrow, give one a moment of pause or joy.

I take the Mark Twain approach to autobiography: There's no way in hell I'm going to sit down and write a chronology of my time in this world, but I am willing to put down a few stories as the mood strikes. I'm including here things I wrote for other purposes, newspaper columns, college papers and such, as well as freshly-written anecdotes from my life past and present.

It's definitely a work in progress, and when I am done with this world, the autobiography will be finished, even though it's like to never be completed.

This past summer, as I photographed our Western Wander, I would occasionally be lucky enough to capture some of the wildlife. I did not know a marmot from a gopher or what particular species of butterfly or wildflower one may be, so anytime I got a picture of a critter or blossom, it was easy enough to do a Google Image Search to find out it was indeed a yellow-bellied marmot, an Idaho pocket gopher, or whatever.

When I would get an afternoon or a few days to unpack my mobile studio, I would turn some of these wildlife shots into watercolor and ink sketches. In the margin I would note the common name of the flower or animal, but also (just because it was there in the search and reminded me of Road Runner cartoons) I started jotting down the scientific name -- Marmota flaviventris and Thomomys idahoensis -- just as a cheeky, pretentious thing to do.

Fast forward to when I started getting to the end of the #Inktober drawing challenge. I wanted to conceive a drawing to serve as a cover to it all as I intended to bind them into a book. I felt pretty good about sticking to the concept for the series for an entire month, thirty-one days, which was to imagine each day’s prompt word as a magazine cover banner and riff on that somehow. I had done several animal drawings for the album and was fairly well pleased with how they had come out, especially since I had never drawn a chicken, eagle, skunk, or Shetland pony before. So I tried to think of some animal, not necessarily a real one, to represent the whole.

The Jabberwock is always looming about my imagination, and about a week into the challenge, I had begun calling the faux covers “imagizines,” a Wonderlandish portmanteau of my own invention. Of course, if I were to create a critter to anthropomorphize the imagizine, it would have to have a faux-Latin name, so I went to Google Translate and began playing around with Latin words for “imagination” and “magazine” and their synonyms, hoping to spark an idea or two.

I do not know much about Latin beyond what I learned from Looney Tunes, but I have long had a fascination with words in general, the history of languages and how they have evolved through the years as people moved around the globe.

So when I stumbled upon the Latin word “fingo,” I became intrigued. Google translated it mostly as “imagine,” but when I translated it back into Latin in different contexts, it would come back as something else and rarely the same thing twice. A deeper dive into the nuances of “fingo,” I discovered a wide range of possible translations: to mold, imagine, invent, feign, make up, conceive, form, fashion, model, fabricate, shape, arrange, represent, forge, contrive, touch, dress, or sketch out. Some of the possible translations have a menacing slant: to dissemble or deceive. In rare instances, “fingo” means to touch or stroke gently, or to knead, like bread dough. Indeed its cognates (words with a common root) not only include "feign" but also the English word “dough.” These words evolved from the Proto-Indo-European word “dheigh,” meaning to mold. In other languages, the Proto-Indo-European “dheigh” evolved to meanings that imply softness or malleableness, but also strength and protection.

(And isn’t making bread also a wonderful metaphor for the creative process with your combining all the ingredients and letting the dough rise before you fashion it into shape and giving it more time in the oven before you slather it with butter and let it tickle and warm your senses?)

"Dheigh" also evolved into the Old English "dey," meaning a female servant, one who makes bread, which survives in modern English as the first part of "dairy" and the second part of "lady."

Fingo struck such a chord in me that I decided to simply call the collection of imagizines Fingo periodicum, as if it were some scholarly text. The grammar is suspect, but I ran it by a couple of people who studied Latin and they didn’t make fun of me, but all pointed out that “fingo” is a dense, complex word.

To me, its various translations seem to encompass the entire act of artistic creation: a wispy spawn of the imagination molded into something that is meant to deceive, if not maliciously, at least impishly. And if the charge is impishness, I must plead guilty and throw myself on the mercy of the court.

Although there is no linguistic relationship between the words fingo and finger, they certainly look alike, so instead of an imaginary animal, I decided on a simple pointing finger. Yes. Art is a way of giving the world the finger. But maybe not the finger you’re thinking of. I was thinking of the one with explosive consequences when pulled. Yes. The cover image is a fart joke.

Even after I finished the drawing, I explored fingo further, and the more I meditated on fingo, the greater it resounded, and I explored other ways to use it. It started to become the centerpiece of a way of thinking about the creative process, from imagination to conception to execution and fabrication. I have an idea that I must express by building something, whether it’s a painting, a sonnet, or an essay about a stupid or brilliant decision I made.

Fingo resounded so greatly that I decided to rebrand my on-line archive around the word and all of its implications. I had called my website “Something From Nothing,” the most basic expression of the artistic process that I could come up with previously.

Playing with that concept, I decided to rename the website Fingo omnia. I imagine everything. I have organized all of the content into certain categories:

  • Fingo quid novi for the Substack blog where I will announce new content and the discovery of old

  • Fingo vitae for my autobiography

  • Fingo veritas for my non-fiction and crime writing

  • Fingo pictura for my visual art and photography

  • Fingo ridiculum for my humorous essays, cartoons, comedy bits

  • Fingo fictum (pending) for short stories, plays, and poetry

These are all products of my creative imagination. Even the fact-based material is filtered through my fingo.

Richard O Jones
November 7, 2022

When I started working for the Journal-News, the copy editors would usually add a period after it, as if I didn’t know the style of my own by-line. After a while, I got tired of correcting them, and even thought it funny when some persnickety copy editor would think me an idiot. When Lisa Warren became the editor, she totally copped an attitude about the inconsistency and challenged me on it as if I were doing it. I had to tell her that I wasn’t the idiot, so she sent out a memo to all of the editors.

I was born without a middle name.

It sounds like a birth defect when I say like that, and in a way it is because with a common name like Richard Jones, the lack of a real middle initial has caused a fair amount of consternation and grief, and occasionally still does.

I blame my father. Not because it’s a hereditary condition. He has a middle name. It’s Richard, but according to family lore I wasn’t named for that.

Rather, I was named for Ricky Nelson, who was a teen idol in 1958. And my mom was indeed a teenager, so... Had I been born yesterday, I supposed I’d’ve been Justin.

They were actually going to name me Ricky, but a nurse, who apparently had a more mature outlook on life, told my parents that they might reconsider saddling me with a boy’s name because I would grow up to be a man. She was right, of course, and I suppose I should thank her for that, but she’s lost to history.

Hence Richard. But Dad had the bizarre notion that a middle name was “excess baggage.”

But they called me Ricky. Some of my aunts and uncles still do, but when I was about 12 I started using Rick. In college, I started letting it go when they called me Richard and used it for my by-lines. I noticed, however, that there was a poet named Richard Jones, who at the time was the editor of a prominent poetry journal. So I figured I had two choices: I could continue to to go sans middle name or pick a nom de plume.

The first choice would’ve had some advantages. I could imagine getting some poems published out of the ambiguity should a half-sleeping editor might actually read my submission thinking I was the other one. But considering the confusion that might ensue, I rejected that option.

The downfall of a pen name (my porn star name is Rock Auburn, and I’ve also considered Jon E. Richards, just mixing up the letters) would have been that when I published my best-seller, the folks back home wouldn’t know it was me.

As I was pondering the dilemma, I had to go to the bursar’s office to fill out some paperwork for my work study job and was presented with a form that had little boxes to fill in for each letter. It only had one box for a middle initial, however, so I couldn’t put down my standard NMI, which I learned to do to keep clerks from telling me I forgot to put in my middle name.

So I put in the slashed zero glyph ∅, like the Scandinavian vowel or the mathematical symbol for an empty set.

And it was good. A zero for my middle name! How obvious!

The downfall of the glyph, however, is that it’s hard to render. On a typewriter, you have to type a zero or letter O, back space, then type a / over it. Although it wasn’t an issue at the time as those were days before the personal computer, you can’t back space over pixels and it’s a challenge to find the symbol on a conventional keyboard.

At first I used an actual zero, as in Richard 0 Jones, but decided that Richard O Jones looked better, and that’s what people would read anyway, though I would contend that it should be pronounced “Richard Empty Set Jones.”

It still causes some confusion. When I started working for the Journal-News, the copy editors would usually add a period after it, as if I didn’t know the style of my own by-line. After a while, I got tired of correcting them, and even thought it funny when some persnickety copy editor would think me an idiot. When Lisa Warren became the editor, she totally copped an attitude about the inconsistency and challenged me on it as if I were doing it. I had to tell her that I wasn’t the idiot, so she put out a memo on it. But it still happens from time to time.

Because there are so many Richard and Rick Joneses in town -- our Sheriff and Rick H. Jones at the Fitton Center for Creative Arts to name two -- a lot of people have taken to calling me Richard O or Rick O, both of which have a kind of ring to it, I think.

When people ask me what the O stands for, I usually bid them guess. “Oscar” is the number one answer, which is cool as I played Oscar Madison in my senior year of high school. “Otto” and “Outrageous” are frequent guesses. Rick H. Jones has often chided me that it means “Other,” to which I would retort, “No, it’s for ‘Original,’ because you’re an out of towner and I’m the real Rick Jones.”

There were people living in that well. They might have been gnomes or elves or something, but I just called them "the Well People."

They spoke to me and shared the wisdom they’d gained from living life both underground and underwater.

I presume that I was conceived somewhere in the little town of Auburn, a little unincorporated burg on a hill along Ohio 129, the road from Hamilton and Millville to Brookville, Ind. That’s where my parents lived, and I don’t think they were much for traveling at the time.

Auburn is what it says on the signs, but my family also called it Gandertown, though I don’t recall there being an abundance of geese. Or even a goose. A few geezers, perhaps, like Cedric Waltz, who owned the general store and gave me my first puff of a cigarette, he and everyone in the store thinking it hilarious to make a little guy choke.

That’s the kind of town it was, the kind of people I came from.

I should add, however, that even though I was 5-ish, I took the drag willingly, perhaps eagerly. That’s the kind of people I am. There’s not much I haven’t been willing to try at least once in my half-century here. I declined to sky-dive, true, but I have twice gone up in an open cockpit stunt plane.

Here’s how it started:

The Lomans lived on Cochran Road. There were seven Loman children, four girls and three boys.

The Joneses lived on Auburn Lane, just a few hundred yards away. There were also seven Jones children, also four girls and three boys. And in both families, the four girls were all older than their brothers.

Barbara May was the youngest of the Loman daughters. Forrest Richard Jones Jr. was the oldest of his brothers. She was 14 and he was 18 when they were married, the Rev. Paul Pennington, the groom’s brother-in-law, presiding.

Their first home as a married teen couple was a converted chicken coop behind Grandma Stokely’s house. She also lived in Auburn, in one of the first houses when you approach from Hamilton on Ohio 129. Grandma Stokely was Grandma Loman’s mother. There was no Grandpa Stokely because Stokely was the name of her second husband Sam Stokely. I wish I had some stories about Sam Stokely because they would be good ones. I understand that he was the town drunk and quite the character. But I digress.

I don’t know if I was conceived in the chicken coop or not, because they were 16 and 20 when I was born, so that was a couple of years on. Now that I think about it, I really hope I was. Maybe when Mom reads this, she’ll text me the answer: “Was I conceived in a chicken coop?” (These essays are not about fact-finding, but about memories. I’ll add a footnote if I learn anything.)

I do have a vague memory of the chicken coop, though, but it wasn’t from living there. I was very young, maybe even a baby, and we were visiting someone, maybe one of Mom’s sisters. I remember someone was ironing. I remember irises.

If I wasn’t conceived in the chicken coop, then it was probably in the first house I do remember living in, also in Auburn, a four-room frame box set up on cinder blocks next door to Grandma and Grandpa Jones on Auburn Lane, a little gravel road that cut across a corner of Cochran Road and 129. The egress onto 129 was really steep and I only remember one or two cars making the attempt in the time we lived there and later, so the only access was from Cochran Road, making Auburn Lane, for all practical purposes, a dead end. And since there was only four houses on Auburn Lane, there was very little traffic. Still, my parents and grandparents made me deathly afraid to go out into the lane. I suspect there was some ass busting involved.

The house had electricity, but no plumbing. It was possible to crawl under it, but I only did that once. Growing up in the country, bugs were no big deal, nothing to be afraid of, but you still don’t want to be swarmed by millions if not dozens of Granddaddy Longlegs.

There was a two-seater outhouse in back, and we got water from the well pump next door at Grandma and Grandpa Jones’ house. There were people living in that well. They might have been gnomes or elves or something, but I just called them the well people. They spoke to me and shared the wisdom they’d gained from living life both underground and underwater. So in gratitude, I would take them with me in the back of the station wagon when we’d go to town so they could see what the rest of the world was like. They had a very strange language with a lot of Ls in it. I was fluent.

I was very young -- we moved before I started school -- so I don’t remember specifically any of the stories or the wisdom they passed along, but I sure could use some advice now that I’m living in a watery cave.

I remember a sandbox where I played with my cousins, which I had plenty of. They were my first friends. On Mom’s side I was closest in age to cousin Dale, with cousin Greg on the other. There were so many of us though, that family gatherings were total chaos. The sandbox was near a cherry tree. That tree seemed huge to me, and I remember climbing it in spite of the danger. The cherries from the tree were tart and bright red. Grandma made excellent pies with them.

Auburn had two gas stations. One was a Sohio, and that’s where Dad worked when he cut off the tip of his thumb slicing baloney. That was pre-memory for me, but legend says they never found the thumb. The other was Waltz’ General Store, which had gas pumps, but now that I think about it, I can’t say that they worked as I don’t remember anyone actually buying gasoline there.

The house itself was tiny, maybe 20 by 20 feet, but memory is not a reliable device to measure that kind of scale. Divided into four more or less equal rooms, the house had three doors to the outside. The room without a door was the kids’ room. It was also the first house for Cindi and Russell, and Randall Wayne, the brother born between me and Cindi and who died in infancy. I don’t remember him at all, though I do have vague memories of CIndi as a baby, and I can remember when Russell was born. In that room, I almost lynched myself playing cowboy, tying a noose to the bunk bed. Mom rushed in as I dangled and saved my life. I can still remember the panic and the relief of my first brush with mortality.

The room catty-corner from the kids’ room was the kitchen. There was a sink with a non-functioning faucet, as I recall, and a gas stove. The food was down-home and overcooked. They tried to get me to eat liver by telling me it was steak. They underestimated my genius even then. I got my ass busted for telling them, “I ain’t gonna eat this slop!”a catch phrase I undoubtedly picked up from one of the three channels on the black-and-white TV, probably a cartoon.

The other two rooms were both Mom and Dad’s room and the living room in my memories, though I couldn’t say when the change occurred or if there was only one change. There was a squarish hole cut high in the wall between the kids’ room and one of the living rooms. When they had the bunk beds along that wall and the TV in the right place, I could sit up and watch “Combat” and “Bonanza.” I think I got my ass busted for that, too.

Looking back, it seems I got my ass busted a lot, but as I said, memory tends to distort scale, so maybe it wasn’t as much as I thought. But there were certainly enough of them that the threat of an ass busting was always imminent. That is, they didn’t make threats, they made promises.

So maybe that’s why I preferred spending time next door at Grandma and Grandpa Jones’ house. Their house was right next door to ours, the only two houses on that side of the lane. There was a footpath that ran between the houses, which Dad and Grandpa later laid down a sidewalk. I learned to ride a bike on that sidewalk, and it was just uneven enough to cause many stubbed toes.

Because I was the oldest Jones grandchild, they coddled me. Grandma Jones would occasionally bust some ass -- my cousins more than me, but I felt her sting a few times. She usually whipped us with a switch from maple tree, and sometimes she made us go get one ourselves. Like little dumb-asses, we would. On the other hand, I don’t think I ever received a cross word from Grandpa Jones. Indeed, as a baby (I’m sure) and as a toddler, I always enjoyed the seat of honor, Grandpa’s lap.

I learned to read on that lap. At least partly so. I don’t think that Grandpa was a big book reader, but he did read the newspaper and magazines like Popular Mechanics, Field & Stream, and detective stories. I have pre-school memories of him helping me sound out words from the the Hamilton Journal, as I believe it was named back then. It had a picture of the old fort in the masthead, which I thought was really cool, but it was long gone before I started working there nearly 30 years later. I probably didn’t understand a word of it, but I do remember making my way through entire paragraphs. Now I write the paragraphs, and I sometimes imagine a little kid out in the world (or Butler County, anyway) sounding out the words to my stories, picking up the first skills to make him aspire to be a writer, too.

I picked up a few other things from Grandpa, too. Mostly dairy-related. He drank a lot of milk and he’d always put ice in it. I don’t drink a lot of milk, but when I do, I put ice in it, too, otherwise it doesn’t taste cold enough. I have stunned people by sprinkling pepper on my cottage cheese, but I learned to like it like that because that’s how Grandpa ate it. I can’t say he’s totally responsible for my liking ice cream (because face it, who doesn’t), but there was always some in his freezer, always vanilla but sometimes also chocolate or Neapolitan.

Grandma was different. I would spend weekends with them all the way up into my early teens. She taught me how to play gin rummy, usually while watching “Hee Haw.”But I knew I was getting special treatment because to everybody else, she was a bitch on wheels. She was the crankiest person you could ever meet and was always giving somebody, but hardly ever me, a hard time about something. I’ve had cousins in recent years tell me how much they hated her. They said she hated kids. That was hard for me to hear, but I understand. I knew how she was. She would be working in the kitchen, going off on Grandpa about something, but he would just sit in his chair, rolling cigarettes, apparently oblivious to it all. You’d almost think he was rolling up good reefer instead of tobacco, but that was way off the radar back then and there. After he died, when I’d go visit Grandma, she’d get all teary talking about him, telling me how well they got along and how they never had a fight in the 60 years they were married. I’d just shake my head at her because she never gave the man a minute’s peace as near as anyone could tell.

Every Thursday, my aunts would come over to Grandma’s house to do laundry. They’d heat water over an open fire in a big galvanized tub, and transfer the hot water by the bucket to a washing machine tub with a wringer. There were clotheslines all over the place and the cousins would all play together while the women worked, generally keeping our distance lest the switches come out. We spent a lot of that time playing in the creek (pronounced “crick”).

Almost exactly between the two houses was a path that led down the hill to the creek. It was just a trickle, not deep enough to drown a toddler, but there was one place wide enough to skip a small rock a couple of times. One of my cousins skipped a rock across my head once and drew blood. We’d pick up rocks to look for crawdaddies, build dams and play war, chucking reedy plants like spears.

So if it’s true what they say, that the first five years are the most formative of a person’s life, this was the stuff I am made of. Juvenile parents and outdoor johns. Crawdaddies and Granddaddy Longlegs. Forts on the newspaper and invisible gnomes in the well.

We lived on Auburn Lane until sometime in 1965 when we moved to Richmond, Ind., where I went to first grade (no kindergarten) at Starr Elementary School, and turned 7 years old that fall.

Murder In The Family

I have to wonder what Mr. Buckley did to make Grandpa Steve turn so violent –-

and how much alcohol was involved.

I have always had an attraction to the literature and culture of murder, fascinated by a good whodunit and morbidly curious about tales of psychotic mayhem.

I’ve never murdered anyone. (At least, not yet). And I’ve never known anyone murdered, though I did go to high school with a couple of convicted and/or executed murderers. But I’ve been fascinated by murder mysteries and true crime stories about the psychology of the murderer since elementary school. In fact, some of my first inklings as a writer were to writing murder mysteries. In about the third grade, I thought I would grow up and write stories like the Hardy Boys, and I once paid for a subscription to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine by selling TV Guides door-to-door. Edgar Alan Poe was also an early inspiration, and I relished the opportunity to memorize “The Raven” in the seventh grade (I can still recite it, with some prompting).

I later turned to poetry and theater and songwriting for artistry, and eventually to journalism to earn a living. There aren’t that many jobs out there for poets, and the upside to writing for a hometown newspaper is the opportunity to write the stories of my people, the citizens of Hamilton, Ohio, and for 25 years I was immersed in the history and culture of my city as a writer and editor (at various times) for the JournalNews. I never had a desire to cover a courts-and-cops beat, however, preferring to cover the arts and culture, and I frequently wrote about local history.

But in recent years, that interest in murder revived itself in my psyche in the context of history, and an exploration into my family tree last summer seemed to put it in focus, leading me to my current work once my term in local journalism suddenly expired that fall.

Until that summer of 2013, pretty much the only thing I knew about my ancestry was that three of my four grandparents were born in Kentucky, the other in Indiana. All of them moved to Hamilton with their respective families when they were children. There was a lot of that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, families from all parts of Kentucky migrating to work in Hamilton’s factories. Peter Thomson, the founder of Champion Paper (also known as the Champion Coated Paper Company and Champion International at various times, and later Smart Paper before it shut down altogether, but to the people who worked there and their families it was simply “the Champion”) made concerted efforts to recruit farmers and tradesmen from the Appalachian hills of Kentucky because he believed they were hard workers and clever with machines.

The “briarhoppers” knew that working in a paper mill was a damn sight better than working in the coal mines or the uncertainty of having regularly good crops, so they came by the thousands, not only at Thomson’s mill but at the many tool and die companies and foundries in Hamilton. Thomson built neighborhoods for them, including Prospect Hill, where in 1925 Champion employee Francis Lloyd Russell murdered eight members of his family in their sleep. One of Hamilton’s nicknames–one which some find offensive and some embrace–is “Hamiltucky,” referring to that part of the population. Stanley Dezarn, a local elementary school principal who hated the Hamiltucky nickname, started a club he called “The O’Tucks” about 30 years ago as a social group. They took chartered bus tours to the Kentucky counties and organized an annual Appalachian festival in town. The club still exists, though not as active. Since Dezarn died, it mostly became an annual banquet that raises money for scholarships to the Hamilton campus of Miami University (sort of a stepchild of the “public Ivy League” school 10 miles up the road in Oxford) and naming the “O’Tuck of the Year.” The O’Tucks were mostly the more up-scale folk of Kentucky heritage–the businessmen, educators and politicians.

My family wasn’t quite O’Tucks material, though, but certainly Hamiltuckians. Our group had no formal structure, no meetings, but did have a bad reputation. “Hillbilly” is generally not acceptable in either group, except perhaps when talking about music. Personally, I’m okay with all of it. There are those who want to turn their heads to the unsavory side of our culture, but (obviously, since I’m now writing about our murders) not me. At various times in my career, the O’Tucks have accepted me as an honorary member because of the ink I’ve wielded, but I’m still Hamiltucky at heart.

Another common pejorative term used a lot around here, “briarhopper” (pronounced BRAHR-hopper), referred to anyone actually born in Kentucky, and it was a playful insult to call someone not from Kentucky a briarhopper, a synonym for “ignorant rube,” as long as you smiled when you said it. When I was in elementary school and they told us that Kentucky’s nickname was the Bluegrass State, I said, “Nuh-uh, it’s the Briarhopper State.” That’s what I’d been told.

Having the last name “Jones,” however, I was never much inclined to search my Kentucky heritage, to venture into the brambles of Jones genealogy, as it were. So many Joneses, so many men with same the first names could be treacherous. In fact, there are no fewer than three prominent Richard or Rick Joneses in Hamilton today: The very popular elected sheriff, the director of the local arts center and myself. I also hear of but do not personally know a well-regarded arborist with the same name.

Our lives today are well-documented, but not so much back in the counties of Kentucky. A few years ago, while working on a story for the Hamilton Journal-News with the local Church of the Latter Day Saints, I got into a conversation with my source about the Mormon interest in genealogy. And he more or less confirmed what I suspected: With a last name like Jones, you could take a wrong turn somewhere and spend a lot of time chasing a line that doesn’t really belong to you.

That was before the Internet, however.

Last summer–and only because I could log on to my girlfriend’s premium account on a popular genealogy website–I started plugging in some family names, just to see where it would take me.

It took me to colonial Harford County, Maryland.

I knew that my Grandpa Forrest McClellan Jones–a bartender and a driver for a local florist and therefore fairly well-known around Hamilton as “Frosty”–was born in 1908 in Maysville, Mason County, Kentucky, but grew up in Hamilton. I knew his father was Bert, but not much more than that. He died when my father was a toddler. As I dug into the available on-line archives, I learned that his name was William Bert, and found record of his birth in 1878, in Fleming County, Kentucky, the county just south of Mason County. Bert, his wife Alice Boling Jones (who may be a descendant of Robert Bolling, the man who married the granddaughter of Pocahontas back in colonial Virginia) moved to Hamilton with baby Frosty sometime between 1908 when he was born and the 1910 census.

That line of the Jones family, as far as I can ascertain, was in Fleming County for three or four generations. Bert’s great-grandfather was most likely a fellow named Stephen Jones, but his lineage is a bit questionable. There’s one story that Stephen was born in York, Pennsylvania, and came to Fleming County, Ky. “on the back of his father,” who supposedly killed a man by hitting him on the head with a rock. He took Stephen, leaving a wife and another son in Peach Bottom, Pennsylvania (just across the Susquehanna River from Harford County, Maryland) and fled to Kentucky.

I have found no verification of this story, although a deposition left by his grandson, a transcript of which can be found in the Fleming County Library, said Stephen Jones was born in York, Pennsylvania, just across the Pennsylvania border from Harford County. The better-documented story is that Stephen Jones of Fleming County was married to Sarah Bennington, who was born in Harford County, Maryland, and Stephen shows up in Harford County in 1776 in Bush River Lower Hundred, and in the 1778 census of Deer Creek Middle Hundred in Harford County.

There are, however, a pair of dated indictments issued by the prosecutor and a Grand Jury of Harford County, Maryland in September and August, 1787, charging Stephen Jones with second degree murder. I received copies of these from Harford County Genealogist Christopher T. Smithson as the result of poking around genealogy message boards.

According to the Grand Jury indictment, Stephen Jones “violently feloniously and of malice aforethought did assault beat murder kill & slay a certain Daniel Buckley by throwing stones in upon the said Daniel Buckley.” The indictment signed by the prosecutor went even further in its condemnation of my great-great-great-great-grandfather: “Stephen Jones late of the county aforesaid (which I take to mean they knew he was on the lam and were indicting a fugitive from justice) not having the fear of God before his eyes but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil on the twenty third day of April in the year of our Lord seventeen hundred and eighty seven with force and arms at Harford County aforesaid in and upon one Daniel Buckley … then and there being feloniously willfully and of his malice aforethought did make an assault and that the aforesaid Stephen Jones with his fists and with his feet by kicking and striking … the head back sides breast and belly of him the said Daniel Buckley divers mortal wounds and bruises that each wound and bruise being of the length of four inches and of the breadth of three inches of which said mortal wounds and bruises the said Daniel Buckley instantly died.”

(I have to wonder what Mr. Buckley did to make Grandpa Steve turn so violent–and how much alcohol was involved.)

So it seems that Stephen Jones, having killed this Daniel Buckley with his fists, feet and a big rock, took his family–which at that time would have included four or five sons–and fled to the part of Bourbon County that would in 1798 become Fleming County, where a family of Benningtons, perhaps some cousins of Sarah, were already residing.

So it would seem that I owe my Kentucky heritage to a man fleeing a murder charge, a rather seedy bit of family history. Now that I know this, I would like to think some DNA memory of that event is what sparked my interest in historical murder.

But it could be even seedier than that.

At this point, I am going to make an extrapolation that may not be a good historical practice, but would make this a better story, as there is a probable connection between Stephen Jones and a Jacob Jones, traced by others to his 1654 birth in Harford County. That seems a little early to me, but there is plenty of documentation of people named Jones arriving in that part of Maryland as early as 1630, and many of them came there on prison ships or as indentured servants. So there’s pretty good chance that my Jones family, perhaps some 12 or 13 generations back, were kicked out of England for crimes unknown. But that’s just a perverse kind of wishful thinking on my part, I suppose.

At any rate, we seem to have settled down some. Now some of us just write about murder.


Well, that was a first right there: The first time I’d ever been that close to actual sex right before my eyes, the kind of image a guy can carry around with him for a few decades.

I first got drunk sometime before I was two years old.

The story goes that I was sitting on someone’s lap at a party and while the grown-ups weren’t paying attention I managed to guzzle down a fresh Tom Collins. A drunken toddler, life of the party.

I guess I got really hammered because I don’t remember a bit of it, but it took a long time for me to live it down. I must have heard the story hundred times. There are photos. In one of them, my head is resting on a ottoman, the back of my pants wet with piss. Just like college. A dozen years later my drinking didn’t seem so funny all of a sudden.

Although the serious alcohol consumption didn’t begin until I was a teenager, I began drinking regularly from the time I was old enough to fetch a beer for my dad, which I eagerly did because I was able to take a sip or two, or even a good swallow, off the top, so I developed a taste for beer early on, even though my dad drank the rankest, cheapest beer out there. By the time I was 12, my cousins and I began sneaking a beer from the coolers at parties, hide somewhere and share it, maybe go back for a second. It wasn’t too many parties later that we were sneaking six-packs.

The first time I got really falling down, literally, drunk was around Christmas time when I was 14 years old. My parents had friends, Carol and Hank Shoemaker, who lived in the one flashing yellow light town Economy, Indiana. It’s on the road between Richmond and Muncie, so not quite the middle of nowhere, though you could see the edge of nowhere if you got up on somebody’s roof. I spent a bit of summer vacation time there because the Shoemaker’s had a son Brian, who was my age. We grew up together as close as cousins.

Our family drove up there for a Sunday holiday visit. We got there in the afternoon and was going to drive back home that night. Brian was excited for me to meet a new friend of his. I don’t remember his name, but Rodney comes to mind, and since I’m in need of a name here, Rodney it is. Rodney played chess and Brian knew I played chess because I could never get him to play. For some reason, he was eager to see a match-up. Maybe because Rodney had also been hounding him to play. Brian was three months younger than me, but he was always bigger and liked to roughhouse when we were kids. I was smarter, though, and that bugged him a little, I think. Although I never tried to get anybody to kick his ass, he always seemed eager to have someone out-think me.

So we bundled up and walked about a mile down to the railroad tracks in the sub-zero chill to Rodney’s house. It was a typical two-story frame farmhouse, Indiana style. We walked around back, passed through a screened-in porch, and Brian opened the door and walked in without knocking, hollering for Rodney once he was inside. I followed him into the kitchen as a voice from the next room told us to come in, although we already were.

“Do me a favor, Brian, and pull that door shut,” the voice said. I turned that direction and saw that it was a bedroom, and that there was a bed and a blanket sculpted in the unmistakable shape of sex, of a gal laying on her back, knees way up in the air, a pair of a man’s feet sticking out the bottom. “I’ll be out in a minute,” Rodney said from the other side of the blanket as Brian pulled the door closed.

Well, that was a first right there: The first time I’d ever been that close to actual sex right before my eyes, the kind of image a guy can carry around with him for a few decades.

Brian was eager to get the game started, so went about setting up a folding TV tray and a couple of naugahyde chairs. The kitchen table was piled high with magazines and food containers and such. Not dirty, really, just cluttered, though the house had that musty hundred-year-old house smell. And it was blazing hot in there.

Rodney came out wearing a pair of jeans with a belt hanging unbuckled, no shirt or shoes. He was older, maybe 19 or 20. It was his parents house, but they weren’t home, and Rodney and his girlfriend lived there. I’m not sure what happened to the girl. It may be that she never came out of the bedroom. She may have left. I have no memory of her other than the outline of her knees.

We started playing chess and Rodney told Brian to fix us some drinks. He had a bottle of Seagram 7 and some Seven Up, and offered me a 7/Seven. I think they both twisted an arm. But it would have been rude not to have a drink.

Now that I think back on it, I wonder if Brian wasn’t playing me all afternoon, whether there was a master plan or whether he was just taking advantage of situations as they arose.

So I drank a 7/Seven and readily beat Rodney in about 20 moves. So we had another round of drinks and set up for a rematch. Rodney did a lot better that time. I got an early jump on him, but held his own for a while. Then he suddenly came out of nowhere and methodically slaughtered my board. But the drinks were starting to taste really good, and I wonder now if they weren’t getting stronger, too.

Rodney cleaned my clock the third game. By then, I was pretty sure Brian had set me up for this, Rodney letting me win a game and then proceeding to annihilate my army and embarrass me good. And they were having a grand time of it, too, laughing and making fun of me. What they knew, what I was about to find out, was how drunk I was. Three (or was it four) 7/Sevens is a lot to drink for a 90-pound 14-year-old.

But I kept my cool, in spite of their taunts. I pushed my chair away from the TV tray to get up to go to the bathroom. The momentum of my rising from the chair, however, didn’t stop my body. As soon as I got to my feet, my head went sailing over the TV tray, and as my neck reached out to grab it, the rest of me collapsed into Rodney’s arms, taking the tray, the dregs of the third (or was it the fourth?) 7/Seven, and a chess board along for the ride, scattering 32 pieces all over the kitchen floor.

The next couple of hours are lost to history. I’m pretty sure there was vomit involved, but that’s just conjecture. I may remember bushes, but there have been a lot of bushes since then, so I might be thinking of another night.

I do remember crawling into the back of my parents’ car and that I slept the entire ride home, and that somehow my drunkenness escaped the attention of my parents, because they never said anything about it, never gave away any suspicion, never came back at me later. Maybe they were thinking that the coming hangover would be punishment enough, but I can’t believe they’d think that without riding my ass hard. I might have told them I was getting sick or something, but I surely must have reeked, if not of vomit then of 7/Seven. Mostly 7.

Then again, I couldn’t say how they might’ve scored on a breath test, either.

The Saturday Morning Literary Society

I turn to see them come around the bend, writers and poets huddled
into a mass of conversation,
the rumble of their words visible as a blue-white mist swirling above their heads and dissipating into the chilly February wind.

March 30, 2011

Around the time of the columns, I was hiking every Saturday morning with my friend Ben Sizemore, a poet/artist/all around good guy whom I met at the Riverbank Poetry Project open mic nights back in the mid-1990s. We’ve been pals ever since.

Some of our favorite places to hike were Hueston Woods, the Bachelor Preserve just outside Oxford and Shawnee Lookout toward Harrison, but sometimes we’d venture out to Serpent Mound or Clifty Falls, but we usually ended up lost if we ventured too far out.

In the fall of 2001, we decided to expand the morning hike into a backpacking trip. It was just Ben and I, and I wrote the column below when I got back. Since then, the SMLS Fall Hike has gone off every year, sometimes with as many as four or five guys. Finding these files has actually cleared up a mystery. Well, maybe more of a miscalculation than a mystery. A couple of years ago we were trying to remember how long we’d been going on the Fall Hikes and decided to celebrate our 10th hike in 2009. Looks like we were a year off though. This year will be the 10th anniversary, but the 11th hike. So another celebration is in order.

I can’t write too much about these trips, although there are some funny stories. But like Vegas, what happens on the trail stays on the trail.

But I have violated that a couple of times, though I think in most cases I asked the guys if it was OK, so I’ve dug out the columns that were inspired by one of the adventures of the Saturday Morning Literary Society, beginning with a poetic little reflection from that first Fall Hike.

On the trail

November 14, 2001

It wasn’t the first time we got lost on the way, and I told Ben it should become a tradition, that we should express disappointment if we ever got to a trailhead at the appointed time.

So we celebrated when we finally pulled into the backpackers’ parking lot around noon, the lot we passed by 90 minutes earlier, and noted the irony of heading off into the deep woods for three days when we had so much trouble finding the starting point.

But now we had maps, though we weren’t sure that made us any less dangerous.

We planned to tackle 10 miles a day, completing the southern loop of the Shawnee State Forest Backpaking Trail in a long weekend, skipping every other designated camping site. But the terrain was more rugged than we anticipated and it took a few miles to figure out just what combination of cinches would keep the 50-pound packs from pulling hard on our necks and shoulders especially when going uphill most of the way. It took nearly four hours to reach the first camp.

Still, we decided to water up and move on even though we knew we wouldn’t make the next campsite until after dark. The trail was well-marked and we had flashlights, but the list of things we hadn’t planned on was growing by the hour: As we left the first camp, it began to rain.

It was just a drizzle, so we put on ponchos and covered our packs. But the more it rained, the harder it came. The wet leaves made uneasy footing, and our pace turned slow and halting. We were barely half-way to camp when darkness, fogging glasses and insistent rain made us start looking for a flat spot big enough to accommodate two tents, designated site or not, before we wandered off the trail and hurt ourselves.

We made camp by flashlight, and for the next five hours I watched rain seep through in drops that raced down the tent walls to puddle in the corners. I sat in the middle, trying to keep myself and my gear dry while using my wet clothes as a mop.

It was exactly what I came for, to be at the mercy of nature, to simulate a struggle for survival more primal than my daily worries about job and family and money.

[What didn’t get published: While I was soggily and happily attempting some food preparation, savoring the challenge in spite of the discomfort of it, I thought about some of the camping trips from my childhood, when a thunderstorm would pass through and take down a couple of tents and send our awnings into the woods, leaving big puddles for the kids to jump around in while the parents cursed and set about getting things dry and in order again. Just trying to make conversation, I asked Ben, “What’s the worst camping trip you’ve ever been on?” “This one,” he growled, and I dropped the subject. I was enjoying myself and didn’t want him to spoil my bliss. - March 2011]

In the morning, we reviewed our options: Double-time the next leg of the journey and still try to make the loop? Or double back to the first camp and let our things dry? Given that soaking wet clothes and tents added what seemed like another 50 pounds to our packs, we opted for the latter and our hiking adventure turned into a camping trip.

Two hours later, I was running a clothes line while Ben set about creating fire. Three more hours and I had a dry tent under a tall oak tree.

I lay down on a pile of leaves to catch my breath and thoughts. The autumn sun hung low in the clear afternoon sky, putting a flare of gold in the last cluster of red leaves on a high branch of the oak.

“This is what I came here for,” I said aloud, marveling at the vibrating colors, the contrast of the earthly fire and the heavenly blue, the dying leaves going out in a blaze of glory in front of the deep eternity.

The wide outdoors makes a soul feel small, but it’s a humility that goes down easy when it’s been earned.

Sacred spaces

February 12, 2002

I get the urge to run, so I run.

The hill is steep, the wooden steps scattered at odd angles, making it hard to find a rhythm, but I continue the strange dance even as I hear a voice behind me, "There he goes."

Smokers! I shout in my mind. Gravy-eaters! Catch me if you can!

As I reach the top, I hear my heart throb but continue to run along the ridge until my lungs beg me to rest. My body is warm and getting warmer under the layers of clothes, but my knuckles are cold so I jam my hands into the pockets of my down vest as I find an easier pace. Behind me, the voices of the others have become a murmur in the woods.

The park is called Shawnee Lookout, and the path runs alongside mounds built thousands of years ago by the natives of this place. They call it a fort, but the signs say it wasn't used for battle. This where they built a village and gathered for celebrations, and as the trail reaches a dead-end, I see where they got the name.

From the overlook at the end of the trail I can see they Y-shaped valley where the Great Miami meets the Ohio, though there's not much to see now but a fog just below, creating the illusion that this may be the top of a mountain.

It took the natives of this land many centuries to create these mounds, but it took a parks department a few years, mere drops in the big bucket of time, to turn it into a recreational area with maps and informational graphics. Somehow, that seems connected to a book I've been reading from about the historical evidence for King Arthur, about how the bards and storytellers embellish a story every time it is told until it becomes legend. Early versions have Arthur under the protection of the graal, a magic stone. Somewhere along the way it picks up bits of Welsh mythology about magic cauldrons, then Christian lore about the chalice used by Christ at the last supper, and eventually Arthur is in search of the Holy Grail. By the time Malory starts collecting the stories, the fifth-century Anglo-Saxon warrior is a knight in the Middle Ages, the truth buried under hype for scholars to strip away.

It once took many lifetimes to create a myth; now, we do it almost instantly. I wonder if someday, centuries from now, if someone will write a book about the search for the historic Elvis.

I hear the low murmur of my companions, the fellows of the Saturday Morning Literary Society, getting louder and I turn to see them come around the bend, writers and poets huddled into a mass of conversation, the rumble of their words visible as a blue-white mist swirling above their heads and dissipating into the chilly February wind.

The conversation turns to the Indians, the sacred purposes of this spot overlooking the two rivers and the hunting grounds of the first people to inhabit this land. As we talk, I kick at the gravel, making shapes on the ground.

As everyone begins to re-group, I turn for one last look at the place by the rail where I stood, how I pushed the gravel around to make a perfect circle, a sacred spot in this sacred space, and wonder how long it will last before a park employee with a rake smoothes it back over.

We do want to make our marks on the land, don't we?

The hike continues, and this time I stay with the group.

The woods are full of surprises

April 24, 2002

The rain threatened, even taunted us a little, but we trudged on, four of us this morning, a mile or more into the woods, looking for the perfect spot to do battle.

We reached the overlook with the disturbing "YOU ARE HERE" sign, eliciting the usual conversational improvisations from the fellows of the Saturday Morning Literary Society, this time trying to determine whether the sign is metaphysical or existential.

I'm lost in the birds, a pair of red-tail hawks sailing over the river valley, eye level from our spot here on the hilltop, as they glide and dive and seem to play in the wind, doing all those things that make humans wish we could fly. A gust of wind brushes my hair from my face and I close my eyes so that for a moment I am with the hawks, free from the burdens of gravity and time. The voices of my companions seem to trail away and I can feel the subtle warmth of the sun as it tries to break through the low gray clouds.

Soon ‑ too soon ‑ the breeze dies away, and I am back by the sign and my hiking group.

"It's time," I say, "to do battle."

I slip off my back-pack and go over to the concrete bench where I lay out the chess board. As I set up the pieces, we try to figure out a way to allow everyone to participate. We decide to draw for teams and make a rule that team members will alternate moves, but that there will be no discussions of strategy or tactics between team members.

It seems like a good idea, a new twist on the ancient game, until I draw the most inexperienced player among us. Before we make a half-dozen moves he's already stranded a pawn along each rail, ruining castling opportunities and any chance of creating a reasonable defense.

In keeping with the spirit of the game and our new rules, however, I do not challenge my so-called partner even though he's cutting my throat, but begin discussing chess concepts with the enemy, hoping that my partner will pick up the cues.

"You know, it's always a good idea to control the center of the board," I say, wink wink. "I prefer to deploy my knights before my bishops." Nudge nudge.

My conversation with the enemy gets a little intense when one of my knights loses its pawn protection and goes down on the next move, but the group falls quiet with the sound of a rustling in the woods.

An older couple appears along the trail. The gentleman has a pair of binoculars hanging from his neck and grips them with both hands, throwing side-long glances at our game. His wife doesn't look up from the ground. They do not break stride, although my guess is that were this odd game not taking place on the bench, they would have paused as I did to marvel at the spectactular vista from the overlook, maybe even joke about the strange "YOU ARE HERE" sign.

I break the uneasy silence with a pleasant, "Good morning," but the couple barely nod in our direction as they pass and disappear again into the woods.

I imagine the scene from their perspective and feel their trepidation at the sight of four scrungy-looking guys arguing about chess in the middle of the woods on a chilly Saturday morning.

A little pang of sorrow stings at me for treading on their hike, but then I hear the death squall of my queen's bishop and begin to wonder about a better way to handle this chess problem.

The parable of the raccoon and the shrimp

Date unknown (Late 2001)

Minutes from the Saturday Morning Literary Society:

"We were right across the lake there, where the bank flattens out," Ben said.

I could tell he was setting up a yarn, so I sat back, still fussing with the digital camera I'd brought along, looking through the viewfinder across the lake toward the sandy nub, like a knot on the green shore, where he pointed.

It was after 10 o'clock, about midway through our morning hike, but the sun was getting warm and I forgot to bring water. So a sudden clearing in the woods with a picnic table overlooking Acton Lake made stopping for a breather ‑ and a story ‑ irresistible.

"We were using shrimp for bait. I was casting, and I didn't know that there was a baby raccoon behind me. He must've smelled the shrimp and come out for a closer look. I flipped my pole back, getting ready to cast out a real long one. I pulled up on it and the rod pulled back. I thought I'd snagged a tree behind me, but I turned around to see that the baby raccoon had grabbed the shrimp and had it in his mouth."

It took a second for it to sink in, then I gasped a little as my mind took a snapshot of the scene, of a baby racoon with a fishhook in its mouth. Ben paused and watched me, making sure the picture developed.

"You ever try to reel in a baby raccoon?"

Maybe he meant it as a rhetorical question. The horror had seized my thoughts enough that I answered, automatically, "No," realizing even as I said it how particularly odd the question sounded and how needless an answer would be. And how he was playing me for a sucker. It's what he was waiting for.

"It's not as easy as you might think," he said.

He told me the rest of the story, his tone telling me he wasn't happy with the violent resolution, the necessity of the disposition as apparent as the brutality of it.

He came to the end of the story, or so I thought, and I said, "That's terrible."

He looked at me, nodded slowly and then fell back a little, leaning his back against the table top, looking thoughtfully out toward the lake. Here comes the moral.

"Ain't that just like us sometimes?" he asked.

"What do you mean?" I wanted to take a picture of him, but I didn't want to disturb the moment. The momentum. The rhythm of his performance. The work of a natural storyteller. I admired his work and wondered if he was just improvising now or whether after having told this story dozens of times before, he was just now becoming aware of the the lesson in it.

"We get so comfortable around dangerous things that we forget about the risks.

"Most of the time, we see a piece of shrimp laying on the bank of a lake we think, ‘Oh, boy. Free lunch.’ We don't realize that there could be a hidden price to pay. That we could get hurt, or hurt somebody."

He may or may not have been talking about something specific in his life. Or mine. It was that kind of story, the kind that resonates with truth. With Truth.

I thought about temptation. The times I yielded; the times I held back. How sometimes you see the danger coming and go for it anyway. Sometimes you go for it and the danger sneaks up on you. One minute you're savoring a piece of shrimp and the next minute you're struggling to get a hook out of the roof of your mouth.

Yeah, I'm the raccoon.

How easy am I to reel in?

East AVenue Girls

February 27, 2011

My Cave is on East Avenue, along the northern border of Little Mexico in the Fellatio District.

The girls, the fellatio merchants, are out there day and night, mostly on East Avenue but sometimes a block or two west on Ludlow or Walnut. I can’t speak to the quality of their craftsmanship, but they are tireless and dedicated to the trade. The center of action seems to be the Club Car, the grungy little bar across from the scrap yard near the railroad tracks. But right in front of the Cave seems to be a natural spot for them, too. There’s always plenty of parking space to pull over that big-ass pick-up truck and work out a transaction. For some reason a good percentage of the clientele are in big-ass pickups, minivans, or four-door full-size sedans. They are often older fellows, too, but men of all ages are usually in the market for fellatio in one form or another.

There’s also an alley running by the Cave, another good spot to make -- but not carry out -- a deal. I don’t know where they actually go to complete the contract, but in all this time, I’ve yet to catch one finishing her assignment. Maybe she takes him to a remote parking spot, or maybe there’s a room she has in waiting, or maybe he just drives around while she works, but that seems dangerous and I can’t imagine neither the fellatress union nor OSHA allowing them to work under such conditions.

I know they hang out on my front stoop, whether I’m in or not. It doesn’t bother me. Live and let live. I’ve pulled up on them many times (they usually, but not always, skedaddle), and a while back I found a giant eight-inch "realistic" dildo laying out there. At first I wondered if it were a threat or a come-on, but since it was covered with fine make-up glitter, I figured one of the girls in a hustle just dropped one of her tools from her purse.

Now, I’ve never done business with any of the East Avenue girls, so I’m just presuming that fellatio is their stock in trade. They don’t dress as though they’re ready for a full-body sexual contact, or even a bend-over in the alley kind of encounter, though occasionally you might catch sight of one in a short skirt. But blue jeans and T-shirts seem to be the standard uniform. There’s one particularly sad looking girl named Tanya (I know her name because her mug shot was in the paper), crack-head skeletally skinny with big, dark vacant eyes and unruly Brillo pad hair who favors a skin-tight pair of leopard skin spandex pants on a Friday rush hour shift, but that’s really about as flashy as they get.

Most of them are pretty sad looking in one way or another. A lot of stringy hair and splotchy tattoos. Scarred and scabby arms. They’re either skinny like Tanya or obese for the most part. There’s one who’s about six feet tall and 300 pounds. She seems to do OK. But my guess is that a guy who’s willing to cruise East Avenue for a 20 dollar blow job isn’t the kind of guy who’s going to be picky about what the blower looks like. Every once in a while, I’ll spy a cute one wearing sexy clothes, but I presume that she’s a decoy for one of the HPDs periodic stings, because most of the time, well, yuck.

You can spot the merchants if not by their uniform then by their gait. They walk seemingly without purpose, ambling, checking out the cars that pass, but not too obviously. It's funny to watch what they do when a police car rolls down East Avenue, how they suddenly find a brisk stride, sometimes prefaced with a graceful pirouette, as if they just remembered they're late for a meeting. When a car turns onto a side street and slows down, they rush over before it even comes to a stop, always to the passenger side. They seem to be swift negotiators, because they're never chatting long before the door opens and they hop in. The East Avenue girls take hustling as seriously as Pete Rose.

I’ve seen the girls out there as early as six in the morning -- although that may actually be late for them, now that I think about it. It makes me wonder who the buyer would be at that time of day. Someone getting their knob polished on the way to work? Someone who’s been out all night striking out and looking for some quick relief before hitting the rack? Their prime time seems to be late afternoon/early evening, though, guys dropping by for a quick hummer before dinner, I guess. Any time’s a good time for fellatio (They should put that on their business cards).

Potential clients are distinguishable by the way they navigate the neighborhood as well as the kind of car they drive. Men shopping for wiener cleaners tend to drive slowly, making random turns down the side streets and going around the block a few times until a service agent becomes available. Because I wear my hair long, some of the near-sighted clients have pulled up beside me until they're close enough to see I'm not the package they were expecting. It’s fun when I catch their eye as they lean toward the passenger door, just about to start rolling down the window, and I can see the shock of recognition in their faces as they notice I’m not as girly as they first thought.

I've tried to keep a respectful distance from the working girls, but a Dog has to walk, so I have at least three or four chances a day for a random encounter. I never initiate any conversation so as to avoid any confusion or ambiguity. Some of them do come with protection, it seems, or it’s not far away in any case. Big scary guys. One of them has a scar on his forehead and running into his hair line like he took an overhand blow of a machete.

A typical close encounter would be one of them asking me for a cigarette. I let one use my cell phone once to call her pimp, but he pulled up beside us before she could finish dialing. There’s one named Debbie (again, mug shot) who likes to pet Chap, but that seems to be just her way of initiating contact, not because she wants my business, I don’t think, but because she wants to give me the business. She’ll start asking questions while she scratches his ears, trying to get information out of me about the Cave or my habits, asking if Chap stays in there by himself all day and so on. I know she sees me driving around the neighborhood all the time, and I’ve heard that some of them are con artists as well as whores, so I ain’t giving away nothing. I tell her big fat lies.

My closest encounter came one rainy Sunday night last fall. I was coming back from a weekend with Barb in Pleasant Ridge, so it wasn’t very late, but it had been pouring all day and I knew I would have some leakage to clean up. I saw her standing between the gas station and the Confort Store (yes, Confort Store, specializing, apparently, in Mexican phone cards) with an umbrella. I couldn’t tell if she was one of the regulars because it was dark, but she looked too dressed up, wearing a short leather skirt and a black sequined halter top.

I didn’t really notice what she was wearing until she followed me into the garage, and I didn’t recognize her as one I’d seen around before.

“Hey, how’s it going?” she asked, trying to be upbeat and perky in spite of the fact that she’s out peddling blow jobs in the pouring rain. I know I’d be pretty damn cranky if I had to work under those conditions.

“OK, I guess,” I said warily, a bit surprised that she’d just walk in like that.

“Whatcha up to?” In spite of the make-up, again not typical of the regular girls, she looked to be 40 trying to look like 25. The make-up was starting to go fuzzy from the rain. But as far as the East Avenue girls go, she was about as hot as they come.

“Well, I’m getting ready to see how much water I need to clean up in there.”

“I’m ready for some fun!”

“Don’t think I’m going to be having much fun.”

“You don’t want to have a party?” she asked with big pouty lips.

“Not tonight.”

“Why’d you wave me over?” She’s starting to get annoyed.

“I didn’t.”

“What? I’m not pretty enough for you?” Now she’s pissed.

“You’re lovely,” I lied. “I just don’t need what you’re selling.”

“Fuck you,” she said and turned to leave, shouldering her umbrella as she stepped out into the rain. “Asshole,” she muttered as her sagging cheeks, split by a stretch of lacy black satin, undulated under the leather hem and out onto East Avenue.

The Production

March 4, 2011

The Production

George Clooney had no love to give me.

He was in Oxford this week shooting “The Ides of March,” and for some reason the JournalNews thought I was the man to hang out and wait for George Clooney sightings, to stand by until he came out and look for his shadow and let one of our photographers get a picture of him, but only by using their longest lenses. We weren’t able to get closer than 50 yards to him.

“The Production is closed to the public and the press,” was the standard line from the unit publicist, who was nearly useless. She had three other sentences, but nothing else. She never gave any useful response to any question that couldn’t be answered by, “Miami University is playing itself; it is not standing in for anything else” or “The Production chose Miami University for its Ivy League feel.” I had access to nothing but those few quotes. We couldn’t get any closer than any other member of the community. We watched from the sidewalk like all the other looky-loos.

The university public relations office, with whom I have had a pretty good working relationship with in the past, I thought, wasn’t much help. I think they tried to be as helpful as they thought they could be, but everyone feared the Production. That still baffles me on a number of levels, which I’ll get to.

On Monday, the Production gutted the atrium lobby of the Farmer School of Business, which some of the university staff call the “Raj Mahal” because of the ostentatious, palatial look of the new building, erected as a monument to a big donor at a time of fiscal emergency for all public institutions in the state, when university employees are being laid off. It does seem to be a pretty lush building. The atrium had a grand piano in the lobby before the Production turned it into a press room that would not see any real press, only extras playing press.

But some of the elegance was faked. I leaned against one of the giant pillars outside the east wing and nearly stroked when it moved. It wasn’t made of stone or even concrete, rather something molded, fiberglass or plastic. This one had lost its anchor and was dangling like a giant chime.

I wandered in and talked to some of the students eating their lunch in the staircase and the nooks nearby while the Production set up tables with gray tablecloths in the atrium. The stairway people looked displaced, but they told me they always ate there. They were all excited about the movie, the coeds especially juiced up to see Ryan Gosling, whoever he is. I listened in on a couple of conversations before I started asking questions. There were a couple dozen Production people there, and one security guard.

After I saw what I could see, and dodged the gaze of the security guard while I snapped some pictures (I would have played along if they’d given me just a modicum of access) of thegray tables and the red, white and blue banner saying “Democratic Primary Debate,” I decided to walk by Hall Auditorium, where they were scheduled to be shooting Thursday, to see what if anything was going on there.

As I approached the entrance, a guy with long grea hair a lot like mine came up the other direction with an empty dolly. Just after he walked past, he said, “We see what you’re up to.”

“I’m not trying to hide,” I said, and followed him inside. He went into one of the side rooms and started loading up stacks of chairs onto the dolly. “Are you guys going to be shooting in here” I asked.

“No, I’m just clearing out this room,” he said, and almost as if on cue, his cell phone rang. He gave me the index finger and answered it. I used the opportunity, however, to duck into the theater. A dozen or so guys worked on the stage, creating a set. There stacks of red, white and blue flats, but not much to see clearly. A bigger, younger guy came walking toward me. We said hey and I asked a question something like, “How long have you guys been working in here?” He said they just got in this morning and politely said, “I’m going to have to ask you to leave if you’re not associated with the Production.”

So I left. But I’d been made.

When I got home that night, it occurred to me that Terrance Huff might’ve tried to get in on some “Ides of March” action, so I went to his Facebook page and was going to write on his wall: “Are you getting any love from George Clooney?” only to find that he’d already posted that he’d been called to be an extra on Tuesday.

There was one in.

The Production started shooting Tuesday morning on the lawn of the Farmer School of Business. Again, we could only stand on the sidewalk with the looky-loos and got no guidance even about who was on set. I did notice that Chris Kramer was on set playing a television news reporter. His wife is a Facebook friend so I messaged her to get his cell phone number.

There was another in, and both of them have experience making movies, so they’d know what they were talking about, and they were both very helpful to me, not only in giving me a couple of stories to write in the middle of this mess, but also to help me reconcile the ambiguities of what some of the other extras were telling me. At one point, the photographers had thought they were getting pictures of Philip Seymour Hoffman, but I wasn’t so sure it was him, so I texted Chris asking him if PSHoffman was wearing a black riding hat on the set. He called back to say that Hoffman hadn’t been on set yet but that there was another extra who looked a lot like him who was wearing a black hat.

Huff and I conducted a text-messaging interview until I could figure out where they were holding him. He didn’t know the campus very well and didn’t know where he was, but he gave me a good enough description that I sussed out he was at the Marcum Conference Center, which is just behind the Farmer building, so I went back there and found him.

That afternoon, after they were done shooting the outdoors scenes, they moved inside the school and that was the end of watching any of the filming, and I never laid eyes on George Clooney again.

So the rest of the week I had to figure out what was going on from Huff, Kramer and the student extras I could get to talk to me. The Production told the extras not to talk to the press, so out of the dozen or so I got through to (not counting my professional insiders), I got two willing to tell me the story. A third called me, but I couldn’t use anything he said because he said, “They told me not to give you my name.” I suspect he was bullshitting me entirely, though, because some of his story didn’t jibe with what I already knew and what others, including Huff, were saying.

On Wednesday, I hung out around the Farmer school while the Production went on inside, talked to a few more students, the wife of a faculty member and one of the Teamsters waiting by his truck. At noon, they wrapped and everything shifted across campus to Hall Auditorium where they were going to film a debate scene, so I hung out there a while to see what I could see, which wasn’t much. By Thursday, I had given up going to the set at all but got my stories from tracking down extras and getting cell phone numbers.

The irony in all this is that by not giving me access, the Production felt like they were controlling what I did, but the fact is that they could have controlled me even better by giving me a little access. That is, I’m sure I got some things wrong because I was reporting second hand information because I had to have stories for the next days’ papers. However, if every morning they had given me a half-hour on the set, and say, for instance, “Here’s Millie the wardrobe lady. She’ll tell you all about how we handle costumes when we’re on remote locations,” or “Here’s Joe, the cameraman. He’ll run you through his job and tell you about the camera he’s using,” then I would have had something to tell the readers, they would have been in control of the information, and everyone would have been happy.

But there is so much money and ego involved, the Production doesn’t think things through and consequently comes off bullying and arrogant.

I was told that when George moved through the hallways at the Farmer school, two guys went ahead of him, pushing people out of the way, saying, “Make way for George. Give George some room.”

Chris told me that he’d heard George complaining about all the publicity, especially about the #clooneywatch on Twitter. “He just wants to be left alone to do his job.”

But making movies is only part of the Production. They also have to sell tickets and maintain good public relations. What’s the point of even having a unit publicist if all she’s going to do is say “No” to everything. What would have been the harm of George giving a half-hour -- even a 10-minute -- press conference when he got to Oxford?

Hollywood greed, ego and arrogance swept through Oxford last week, leaving the residents star struck and giddy, and leaving me with a big fat head-ache.

Here are the stories I wrote from the week as they appeared on

Clooney on campus for “Ides of March” film

Written Monday for Tuesday’s paper

OXFORD — George Clooney is on Miami University’s campus today to film his new movie “The Ides of March.”

Filming has moved inside the Farmer School of Business, and security is keeping onlookers at a distance. Actor Ryan Gosling was also spotted on the scene.

Early in the day, Clooney was seen inspecting the set out front, where TV news vans were parked. Clooney moved small things here and there, as students were directed to the back entrance of the school for class. Extras were arriving by bus. Later, Clooney came outside and waved at onlookers.

Inside, the school was transformed Monday from an institution of higher learning to a Hollywood set as crews prepared for this week’s filming of “The Ides of March.”

Students lounged in the stairwells outside the building’s two-story atrium, normally an area set up as a lounge, where workers had removed the couches, tables and the grand piano to set up rows of tables covered in gray.

In one corner, beside a stack of boxes bearing Dell logos, a man set up a bank of computers that he said will be a part of the set. A large red, white and blue sign reading “Ohio Democratic Primary Debate” blocked a doorway to one of the lounges to the side. Up on the second level, technicians focused large lights on the scene below.

“I think this is a perfect place to film,” said Natalie Chlan, a freshman business student from Boston, eating her lunch on the steps Monday. “We only know they’re here from hearsay, because no one’s really told us anything about it.”

“We only know because there’s been a lot of George Clooney sightings,” said her companion Shannon Balmac, a freshman from Cincinnati.

Sara Fagin, a sophomore from Columbus, had one of those Clooney sightings.

“We were in the library and someone posted on Facebook that he was here,” she said. “So we went running out there.”

She expected to see a big crowd of people, she said, but there was only Clooney and a couple of other men.

“There was no one around except for us and I felt really embarrassed,” Fagin said. “I didn’t say anything, but now I wish I had.”

Fagin and Carly Campbell, also a sophomore from Columbus, said that they didn’t sign up to be one of the 708 extras enlisted for a Thursday filming session set for Hall Auditorium. For them, Green Beer Day trumps spending 12 hours on set.

Kristen Krempp, however, got confirmation that she will be one of the unpaid extras, but she hasn’t heard when or where to report yet.

“I didn’t have much going on for Green Beer Day,” she said, “so it seemed like something else to do that would be kind of exciting.

“Who wouldn’t want to hang out with George Clooney all day?”

Miami University to play itself in Clooney project

Although university officials and the production company are playing their cards close to the vest, a few details over Miami University’s role in “The Ides of March” began to emerge Monday as crews readied the Farmer School of Business and Hall Auditorium for a week of production.

A large sign at the Farmer School of Business read “Ohio Democratic Primary Debate,” and tables were set up that could stand in as a press room or a boiler room for pollsters. Meanwhile, a surreptitious look inside Hall Auditorium revealed a stage being set up in a similar red, white and blue motif, and a call went out last week for 708 extras, which is close to the seating capacity for Hall Auditorium’s orchestra level.

So can we surmise that Miami University will be the site of a debate?

Oxford will apparently have to wait until the movie is released to find out.

All unit publicist Tracy Schaefer can say is, “Miami University plays Miami University in the film. It doesn’t stand in for anyone else.”

She did say that “The Ides of March” production will take place entirely in Oxford this week as crews focus on creating two sets and preparing for a few outdoor shots.

“The production liked the brick buildings and their architecture, which is reminiscent of a classic New England, Ivy league school,” Schaefer said. “The auditorium is featured as well as rooms in the business school.”

“We’ve heard for years that this is what a college is supposed to look like,” said Miami University spokeswoman Claire Wagner. “The people who created Miami University did a really good job of giving the campus a traditional appearance.”

Because the university is playing itself, the marketing department set out to make sure movie-goers knew that by creating a series of posters to hang in conspicuous areas.

“Anytime we can get the Miami name out there, we will,” said Tracy Hughes, director of marketing and creative services.

So Hughes and her staff created a series of posters advertising things like rugby and glee club try-outs that would have the Miami name featured prominently.

“They don’t normally make a point of putting ‘Miami University’ on their posters, because everyone knows where they are,” she said.

They also took a bunch of giant red ‘M’ stickers from the bookstore and posted them on garbage cans.

“Something like this movie is real point of pride for Miami alumni, students and staff,” she said.

Diana Durr, director of the Oxford Visitors and Convention Bureau, said that it’s too soon to tell what kind of economic impact this week will have on the community, but it could be in the $250,000 to $300,000 range.

“The hotels are telling me that the production company booked blocks of rooms for the week,” Durr said. “But I’m told that George Clooney and the stars will be staying in Cincinnati, though some of the other actors will be in town.”

She said that the bureau uses an established reporting process that considers the dining, parking and gasoline that members of the crew will spend money on during their visit.

“We’re looking forward to a very big week and will be excited to see it on the big screen,” Wagner said.

Local man to be in Clooney flick

Actor and filmmaker Terrance Huff will be a featured extra in ‘The Ides of March.’

Written Tuesday for Wednesday’s paper

OXFORD — Hamilton actor and filmmaker Terrance Huff got a surprise call Monday evening from a Cincinnati talent agency asking him if he’d be available as a featured extra in “The Ides of March,” the George Clooney movie being filmed in Oxford this week.

Huff was told that he would be playing a news camera operator and should provide his own wardrobe.

“I was told to dress for the part and bring extra wardrobe just in case,” he said. “I fortunately got it right,” although he joked that he was dressed “like a burglar.”

Huff, who is a partner in Jack Fischer Studios in Hamilton, is experienced in background and extra work from a five-year residency in Los Angeles.

“Think of any television show from 2002 to 2004 and I was probably in it,” he said. He was a regular extra on “The Gilmore Girls” and “Good Morning, Miami” and had a speaking role in the 2003 TV movie “Columbo Likes the Nightlife,” in which he did a scene with star Peter Falk.

But on Tuesday, he sat around the extra holding area in the Marcum Conference Center behind Miami University’s Farmer School of Business where the filming was taking place, and waited for his call, which never came.

“Film production is all about ‘hurry up and wait,’ ” he said. He said that he spent the time on Facebook, reading the news and chatting with the other actors and crew.

“I’ve been building bridges and talking to people about how awesome Hamilton is for filmmaking,” he said. “I am always selling Hamilton. I love the city.”

Clooney's movie crew moves to Hall Auditorium at Miami

Miami students take break from exams to watch Clooney the actor perform as director.

Written Tuesday for Wednesday’s paper

OXFORD — Campus Avenue between High and Spring streets is closed as crews of “The Ides of March” movie set up for filming inside Hall Auditorium.

A small crowd has gathered outside the auditorium, lining the yellow tape that is stretched from the building’s entrance to the street and around the trucks parked on Campus Avenue.

Outdoor shooting on campus has wrapped.

Filming continued this morning at the Farmer School of Business for George Clooney’s movie. A large group of extras, dressed in business attire, was at the set.

Clooney and crew arrived in Oxford Tuesday to kick off a week of working on campus.

The sun was barely up as crews began setting up for shots in front of the building. Miami University students took a break from mid-term exams to get as close as security would allow to Clooney, who is also directing the film, and co-star Ryan Gosling. Some stood inside the Farmer building, taking cell phone photos through the windows at the action outside.

News camera trucks from Cincinnati lined the driveway and a chartered bus done up in a “Morris for President” motif parked along the access road by Cook Field. Around the corner, production trailers lined the road leading to the Marcum Conference Center, where the day’s extras waited for their call.

Wearing ear muffs and a dark pea coat, Clooney seemed to be in director mode as he moved among the dozens of crew members. Gosling came out of the Farmer building on several occasions to shoot a scene, at one point emerging from the crowd pumping his fist in the air, spurring a round of cheers from the college women.

The filming in front of the school continued until about 11 a.m. when the crew moved inside to the closed set. The crowd of about a hundred onlookers dwindled to a few still hoping to catch a glimpse of the stars.

“The Ides of March” is based on the play “Farragut North” by Beau Willimon, based loosely on Willimon’s experiences working on the 2004 Democratic primary campaign of Howard Dean.

Clooney, who also adapted the screenplay, will also star in the movie as candidate Gov. Mike Morris.

The production also features Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti and Jeffrey Wright.

More than 700 extras needed today for Clooney's film

Written Wednesday for Thursday’s paper

OXFORD — As hundreds of Miami University students bar hop Uptown, more than 700 people are expected to participate in the “Ides of March” filming at Hall Auditorium.

Miami University students were encouraged to be free extras for the film today, with explicit instructions that they cannot be drunk.

Filming for George Clooney’s movie has been taking place inside Hall and at the Farmer School of Business this week.

The business school was noticeably quieter Wednesday as filming wrapped up and packed up to prepare for a full day of shooting today at Hall Auditorium.

The only remains of the previous day’s spectacle were a row of black SUVs parked near the main door and a few men in ball caps who directed people to the side entrances.

The courtyard west of the atrium, which had been set up to be the film’s press room and where the filming was taking place, was being used to move equipment in and out of the building, and the courtyard on the east served as a catering area for cast and crew.

Before the noon wrap, only a few onlookers stood around the grounds in front of the Farmer building, and security was tight inside. Signs directed students to use the third floor to get from the west wing to the east. A black curtain and uniformed police officer blocked access between the food court and the atrium area.

There was still a sense of excitement in the air as students inside the building tried to get a glimpse of the stars, especially Ryan Gosling.

Not everyone, however, was thrilled with the disruption, especially during mid-terms, the week before spring break.

“It’s cool and it’ll be fun when the movie comes out, but they should have waited until next week,” said Maddie Kete, a sophomore from Bay Village, Ohio, who was trying to take a make-up economics exam in room above the crowd that had gathered in the Farmer building lawn on Tuesday.

“They were screaming the entire time I was trying to take the test,” Kete said.

After the wrap, crews quickly removed the film equipment, loaded them into trucks and moved across campus to Hall Auditorium.

Crowds had already gathered there to watch the move-in from behind the yellow tape that created access from Campus Avenue the auditorium’s front entrance. Campus Avenue has been blocked from High Street to Collins Street, and Maple Street blocked from Campus to Poplar avenues as wardrobe and production trailers moved in.

According to unit publicist Tracy Schaeffer, filming continued inside Hall Auditorium Wednesday afternoon. More than 700 extras will be involved in a scheduled 12-hour shoot today.

Oxford filming for “The Ides of March” is expected to continue through Friday when the production moves to locations in and around Detroit.

Busy day for film extras,
 but local actor sits idle

Hamilton’s Chris
 Kramer on call for today’s shoot at MU’s Hall Auditorium.

Written Thursday for Friday’s paper

OXFORD — The day of mass extras on the set of “The Ides of March” turned out to be a day off for Hamilton actor Chris Kramer.

Kramer, an actor whose professional work includes commercials, industrial films and print modeling, also has been a frequent performer in local community theater, most recently with the Mad Anthony Theatre Company in “Kicking a Dead Horse” and “The Drawer Boy.”

Kramer landed several days’ work for “The Ides of March,” including sessions at Lunken Airport, downtown Cincinnati and at the Farmer School of Business at Miami University in Oxford as a television news reporter. He also is on call for today’s shoot at Hall Auditorium.

“It’s really no big deal,” he said. “I’m a featured background extra, and I don’t know if I’ll be seen or not. I might be seen in some of the shots, or I might just be a blur or end up on the cutting room floor.

“Hopefully, I’ll be seen anyway and another director will say, ‘I need that nose!’ ”

He said it’s been fun working with George Clooney, although he hasn’t had much up-close time with him. The only direction he’s had from him is, “Act natural.”

“George never quits smiling,” Kramer noted.

In one scene, he got to “stick a microphone in Ryan Gosling’s face.”

When he was faking stand-ups in front of the Farmer School of Business, Kramer said he started out actually ad-libbed his “report” to make it look realistic, but an assistant director told him to just mime it because the microphone 50 feet away was picking him up.

Kramer also has done work in independent films and once played Virginia Madsen’s obstetrician in the 2003 film “Artworks,” which he said plays occasionally on the Lifetime cable television network, where he delivered her character’s still-born baby.

His next theater performance will be in the upcoming La Comedia Dinner Theatre production of “Hairspray” in which he will play Tracy Turnblad’s father. It opens April 28.

Film extras spend the day starstruck

Hall Auditorium at Miami University is film location for movie featuring George Clooney

Written Thursday for Friday’s paper

OXFORD — The prevailing feeling, particularly among the female extras participating in the filming of “The Ides of March,” is “Who wouldn’t want to spend a day hanging out with George Clooney?”

For many Oxford residents and Miami University students, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to appear in a major motion picture — or at least participate in the filming of one.

More than 700 extras were on hand Thursday as production crews filmed a debate scene in Hall Auditorium where Clooney, playing Democratic presidential candidate Mike Morris, squared off against his primary rival, played by Michael Mantell.

Extras got their instructions the night before the shoot. They were told to bring three to five changes of clothing ranging in style from jeans and khakis to business attire and to show up at Millet Hall parking lot, where they went through a wardrobe check and got on buses to take them to Hall Auditorium, where the filming was taking place.

At Hall Auditorium, the extras lined up and filed into the seats, filling the orchestra level and most of the balcony.

“He brought his sense of humor with him,” said Katie Hurley, a Miami sophomore from Columbus, “and he talked to us a lot.”

Hurley said he walked onto the stage saying “random stuff” such as, “Hi, I’m George. I’m a tourist and I like the color magenta.”

Travis Lepera, a senior sociology major, said Clooney made a few references to Green Beer Day — which also occurred Thursday — at one point acting like he was drunk.

“He said that Miami students were responsible for getting his crew drunk,” Lepera said. “He was very down-to-earth and made it a fun experience for everyone.”

The audience was divided according to their birthday as to who they were to support in the debate. January through May were assigned to Clooney, the rest to the opposition.

“We were supposed to nod our head or lean over and talk silently to our neighbor when our candidate made a good point,” Hurley said.

Hurley said they did several takes, at first shooting the audience from the front of the stage and gradually working their way to the back of the auditorium.

The extras who could not commit to shooting on Friday — including Hurley — were released from the set around noon, but other extras expected to be working until late in the evening.

Filming is expected to continue today and then the production moves to the Detroit area, according to unit publicist Tracy Schaefer.

Ticking off celebrities

March 4, 2011

Ticking Off Celebrities

Although I never actually got to speak to any celebrities while I was on Clooney Watch last week, writing about it last night got me thinking about some of the other famous people I’ve interviewed through the years as an arts journalist. Some have gone better than others, and I didn’t get off to a very good start in the celebrity world.

Dick Clark

In 1994 when I first took over the arts and entertainment desk, Dick Clark came to Cincinnati on a promotional tour for the restaurants that bore his name. A publicist called me to offer me an interview, so of course I took it. I’ve never been a particularly big fan, but we all knew “American Bandstand”, and being new on the beat I wasn’t yet jaded and cynical about celebrity.

Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Grill was located in the Montgomery Road and Kenwood area, along the lines of Hard Rock Cafe with overpriced bar food and tons of rock‘n’roll memorabilia on the walls. Jim Denny and I went down there together.

Dick Clark was in his mid-60s at the time, and up-close the World’s Oldest Teenager looked his age. I had a cassette recorder with me, and he told me it was OK to record our interview as long as it was for my own reference and not for broadcast, which was not a problem because I worked for a newspaper. He said he would pose for pictures later, but didn’t want us to take pictures during the interview. So Jim went to scout out a good place for a photo and discreetly took pictures from a distance.

Although he clearly wanted to be in control, he was gracious enough during the interview, answered my questions and told a few stories, and when we were done, I summoned Jim, who said we should go to the next room where there was a wall totally covered with gold records and posters. Jim had walked all the way through the restaurant, but there was a pair of bi-fold louvred doors that led directly to the room. There weren’t any handles on the doors on our side, so Dick Clark tried to open them by sticking his fingers in the crack between them. Having just hung doors just like it in our house in Millville, however, I knew an easy way to open them.

“Here, Dick, like this,” I said, and gave a little push to the secret spot. The doors spread open, but not without pinching Dick Clark’s middle finger, not hard enough to break the skin, but enough to make him exclaim, “Shit,” and shake his hand like he was trying to dry it off.

He didn’t stay pissed, but I think it kept us from going any deeper with our relationship.

Jim took his picture and when we got back to the shop, we compared the candid shots with the posed ones, and indeed he looked 20 years younger in the latter. The camera loved the man. Jim said it was in his facial muscles.

Lily Tomlin

I’ve interviewed Lily Tomlin twice by telephone, and I mad her a little mad at me, too, the first time.

She called me from her cell phone from an airport somewhere while she was waiting to board. We talked a good 30 minutes, one of those deals where I only had to ask one question and then take notes while she talked.

Which is fine. I don’t have to think too much that way until it comes time to write. After a half an hour of her giving me her life story, her flight was called, and she offered to call me back when she landed so we could talk more about the one-woman show she was touring and the reason for our interview. “Oh, I think I’ve got enough here.”

“Oh, I thought this was going to be a feature story,” she said.

“Well, it is,” I said, “but I don’t have a whole lot of space, and I can get the rest from your press bio.”

“OKthenbye,” she said and hung up.

The next time we talked, about 10 or 12 years later, we went through it all again, nearly an hour interview for a 10 inch story.

Louden Wainwright III

Working for a smallish newspaper, there were three types of celebrities willing to give me interviews, those on their way up, those on their way down, and the mid-tier famous, those who are well known in their field or specialty, but not quite household names.

I would put Louden Wainwright III in the middle category. He’s had a dozen albums since “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road,” but nothing that trumped that big hit. So I’m guessing that was a sore spot for him, judging by the way he acted in 2006 when I asked him about what it was like to carry the fame for a novelty song when he wrote a lot more serious and better stuff than that.

He went off on me a little, saying that he didn’t want to talk about that, but about his new record. His venom took me by surprise, so I tried to recover by tossing him a softball question about something, maybe how he met the producer or why he wanted to work with that producer. He went off on me again, saying that was all covered in his press bio and didn’t I have any real questions to ask.

It was early in the morning, and I hadn’t had any caffeine yet. Whatever. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood to be bullied.

“Nope, I guess I don’t,” I said, and hung up the phone.

Hal Holbrook

I also interviewed Hal Holbrook a couple of times as he was bringing his Mark Twain show through. It was the second interview in which I got on his nerves, but I handled it a lot better.

He also gave me the “that’s all in the bio” response when I asked him how he got started doing Mark Twain, but he went ahead and told me the story anyway, taking about 20 minutes, talking about him and his first wife touring the West doing a program about great writers, living and working out of the back of their car doing two shows a day and so on.

When he was done, I said, “You see, Mr. Holbrook, in your bio, all that is covered in three sentences, but you gave me a real story.”

He chuckled at me, said, “I see what you mean,” and then we had a great chat for about another hour. He even gave me a 10-minute recitation of some of the material.

David Crosby

I interviewed David Crosby at a strange point in his life. He had just been outed as the sperm donor for Melissa Etheridge’s child and he was just going out on the road in a band called CPR with a 30-year-old son he didn’t know he had until the son was an adult.

We had a time scheduled, which I think was about 1 p.m. He was going to call me from Los Angeles (10 a.m.) I waited by the phone and worked until I had to leave for a 3 p.m. interview, so I called the publicist before I left and told her what was up.

When I got back, I had this message on my phone: “Um, hello Richard, this is David Crosby. I’m really sorry, man, but I fell asleep. If you want to reschedule, call the publicist and we’ll try again. Sorry again, man. Talk to you later.”

Tony Randall

I’ve always gotten a kick out of Tony Randall in all those comedies from the ‘50s and ‘60s and from “The Odd Couple,” so I was eager to be able to sit down with him when he came to Oxford to do a master class with students in the theater program. He was also going to give a lecture in Hall Auditorium.

He was nice enough, a very polite man as you might expect, but the funny part story about interviewing him happened several years later. Barb came up to Oxford for a conert or something Hall Auditorium, and as we were walking in the lobby, I said, “There’s the room where I interviewed Tony Randall.”

And Barb said, “Oh, really? Before he died?”

Other notables

I wish I’d kept a running list of famous and semi-famous people I’ve interviewed through the years. It’s one of the first questions I get asked when I do career day talks at schools, right after “How much money do you make?”

Off the top of my head: Kasey Chambers, Sally Struthers, Brenda Vaccaro, George “Goober” Lindsay, Jane Goodall, Ravi Shankar, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Moby, Weird Al Yankovich, Jeff Daniels, George Wendt, Stacy Keach, Dale Chihuly, Ruby Dee, Guy Davis, Sandy Duncan, Bill Irwin, Michael Feinstein, Paul Zaloom, Jeff Dunham, Bill Engvall, Ralphie May, Craig Fuller, Brett Michaeals, Bobcat Goldthwait, Stacey Earle, Abigail Washurn, Roger McGuinn, Jonathan Edwards, Emmylou Harris, Paul Rogers, Robin Trower, and Edward Albee, twice. (I’ll add to this list as I remember others)

There are also a few local musicians who have made a name for themselves: Del Gray and Brady Seals, founding members of the band Little Texas, and Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs and the Twilight Singers. Oddly enough, when my family lived on Hardell Drive, the Seals family lived next door and I can remember when Brady was born. Greg Dulli lived in Sharon Park, the neighborhood I lived in as a teenager. He was a couple of years younger than me, but my brother knew him. The first time I interviewed him, we met at the neighborhood hangout, the Columbia Bowling Lanes and bowled a couple of lines after.

The second Dulli interview was on the phone. I had a 2 p.m. appointment scheduled with him and we had the most bizarre interview I’ve ever done. When we were finished, I quickly wrote it all down in Q&A format even though I knew I would have to re-write it to be suitable for a newspaper.

But only two things got cut. The first: We were talking about his first band at Ross High School, Helen Highwater, whose leader was Mike Estes, a local musician who became a good friend. Dulli said of Mike: “I’ll tell you something about Mike Estes. One time we were playing basketball and his shorts slid over to one side and he has the biggest cock of any white man I’ve ever seen. I was like, ‘Congratulations, dude.’” The other was when he told me that he dosed a guy with acid in high school.

I printed up the raw interview and passed it around the newsroom. Much to my surprise, Lisa Warren said, “Cut the part about Mike Estes’ cock and dosing the guy and you can run it like it is.”

I actually won an award for that story from the Society of Professional Journalists.

It bears repeating.....

Dude, Where’s Greg Dulli’s Car?

April 1, 2004

It's 2 p.m., a beautiful sunny afternoon in California -- “Malibu, maybe” -- and Greg Dulli can’t find his car.

Dulli, a 1983 graduate of Ross High School, first hit the national rock spotlight with the band Afghan Whigs.

Since the break-up of the Whigs in 1997, Dulli has been performing with a revolving cadre of musicians he has dubbed the Twilight Singers, which will be performing Saturday at the Southgate House in Newport, Ky., in support of his latest album, “Blackberry Belle.”

"I went to a party last night,” he said. “Now my car is gone."

Are you sure you drove there?

Yeah, but I don't know where it is. Where I am. They were all very nice, though. How's the weather in Hamilton?

It's a beautiful day. I wish I were outside looking for my car.

This sucks.

When you going back on the road?

The 27th. In Orlando.

What’s the band like? Who you got going out?

It's the same band as before. We played there once already.

I know. You blew off the interview we had scheduled to preview that show.

We’ve played like 60 shows already. We’re a very seasoned unit. Where is my (expletive) car?

So what do you want to talk about?

That’s a pretty vague question, Richard.

Yes, it is. I’d rather talk about something other than you losing your car.

(Expletive). I don’t know where I parked it. Well, look, if this is just another bump in the road in your day, if you don't have some deep, probing, insightful questions to ask, my advice to you would be to just make up a story, attribute whatever quotes to me you want. You can make me look like a superstar or a clown or a demon or a philosopher or whatever you want. Today my benevolence is at a high and I want to help.

Well, the fact of the matter is that it’s 5 p.m. here, I’m on deadline with two stories to write, a copy editor waiting for me to get those finished, we had this interview scheduled, you’ve lost your car, and I’m not particularly impressed by the mundane trials and tribulations of a rock star.

If this is just a bump in your day, I free you up to express yourself in whatever way you want. Write your existentialist epic. Be Sartre. I’ve got to figure out where my car is. (Expletive)! I don’t even know where I am. It looks like Malibu.

So tell me what happened at the party last night.

I had a pretty good time. I think. You know how I can tell? I’ve got somebody else’s shoes on -- and they fit! And they’re way cooler than the shoes I had on.

Is this what it's like to be a big rock star?

Well, I'm a bit more multi-dimensional than this. You just got me at a weird time. If it were a Sunday afternoon, you might have caught me coming out of church.

I'm sure that happens on a regular basis.

No (expletive). I used to be an altar boy at St. Fredrick or St. Stephen or whatever it was. It has a girl's name now.

St. Julie Billiart?

Yeah, that's the one. My mom took me there every Sunday. I grew up going to church. I was an altar boy. Are you going to come to the show?

I might, if I don't have anything else to do.

Don’t you like to rock? I’ll change your life, Richard.

My life has had enough changes, Greg. And I like to rock as much as the next guy, but –

What was the last record you bought, Richard?

I don’t know. I don’t buy that many records. I get enough here at work to keep me busy. The last one I actually bought -- when I buy records it’s usually old stuff -- is the “Let It Be - Naked” record.

What a (expletive) rip-off that is. Phil Spetor -- he’s about to become a convicted murderer out here, you know -- was (expletive) genius. I’m getting really sick of Paul McCartney lately, wanting to change the credits around on all the songs and everything. He's been getting on my nerves. He's becoming what they call “a tosser.”

Hey, have you seen a black Jetta with tinted windows? … A Jetta … The windows are all tinted black … A Dr. Dre-ish kind of thing, if Dr. Dre would drive a Jetta… I'm not sure.

Who are you talking to?

I don’t know. She might be a crack head. Are you a crack head?… No, but you look like you might be a crack head… No. I like reefer.

I'm just trying to find my (expletive) car. I don't know where it is. These shoes are the bomb though. So are you from Hamilton, Richard?

Born and raised. We actually grew up in the same neighborhood.

No (expletive)? Hold on. Hold on… Hello?


(Expletive). Hold on.

(There's A long silence while he takes call waiting.)



I’ve got Millville on the other line. Hold on. Hello?

It's me.

(Expletive Deleted). Hold on … Hello?

Still me.

(Expletive Deleted). I lost him. That was Tim Huxel.

I knew some Huxels.

Well, he lives in Phoenix now. Did you go to Hamilton High School?

No, I went to Ross, like you. We grew up in the same neighborhood. I'm a (Sharon) Park boy, too.

No (expletive). How far behind me were you?

I'm ahead of you. I was the class of ‘77.

So you went to school with Paul Roberts and those dudes?

Yeah, I know Paul. We were in the same class.

So you know Hochi and all those guys, too.

I didn't know Hochi very well, but I know who he is. So tell me about growing up in Sharon Park. What was your first band?

My first band was called Helen Highwater. It was run by a guy named —

Mike Estes. I know Mike pretty well.

He went on to be in Lynyrd Skynyrd for a while. He sat next to me in biology and gave me 20 bucks one time to eat a squid that was in formaldehyde. I took his (expletive) money and puked the next period without telling anyone. He's A NASCAR man now.

Yeah. He had a band called Drivin’ Sideways or something like that. So what happened with you and Helen Highwater? Couldn’t learn all the Skynyrd riffs?

We were a rock cover band and Mike wanted to turn it into Lynyrd Skynyrd. We had a gig at a battle of the bands thing and we had a long break so were out checking out the other bands. Mike saw a guy in one of the other bands that looked like Ronnie Van Zant and started talking to him. So he kicked me out of the band because I didn't look enough like Ronnie Van Zant. That was OK. He wanted to be in Lynyrd Skynyrd and I wanted to be in the Rolling Stones. [This part cut from the published story: Let me tell you something about Mike Estes. He's got the biggest cock I've ever seen on a white man. We were playing basketball one day and his shorts moved over to the side and I was like, "Congratulations, dude."]

When was the last time you talked to him?

Like 20 years or something.

Oh. It sounded like you keep up.

Nah. I just hear (expletive) about him. I wish him well. He's a talented guy and a funny guy. Living well is the best revenge.

When did you leave Hamilton?

I left to go to college when I was 17 and never looked back.

Where did you go to college?

University of Cincinnati.

What did you study?



Film studies.

Is that when you hooked up with the guys in the Afghan Whigs?

No. I’ve lived all over the (expletive) country. My life has been so weird. Not as weird as it is right now. If I don't find my car soon, I'm going to have to steal one. Hochi taught me how to hotwire a car. I can hot wire any car in the lot. I haven't picked one out yet, but I can guarantee you it’s going to be a convertible. So where do you live now, Richard? What part of town?

I live in Millville, near the Queen of Peace school.

I know where that is.

I’ve got two kids going to Ross School, too. What do you remember about Ross High School? When did you graduate?

I graduated in 1983.

(My mom) still lives in Hamilton. She lives in Lindenwald. The gateway to the south.

The gateway to Fairfield, maybe.

I had some great teachers in that school. I could name them off if you want me to.

Go ahead.

My first great teacher was Mrs. Shelton in the second grade at Elda Elementary. Then there was Mrs. Iams in the fifth grade. Mr. Gross in the sixth grade. But the greatest of all was Ms. Ganz at the high school. Ms. Ganz was my favorite teacher.

I know her quite well. Still see her all the time. I was one of her drama darlings.

She tried to get me to do drama. I said if she'd ever do “Dracula” I'd like to play Dracula. But she never did it, so I didn’t either.

So tell me about the Twilight Singers. What's the idea behind that?

If it’s me singing and your grandma playing bongos, that's the Twilight Singers. The Twilight Singers is me and whoever I invite along for the ride. I was in a band for 14 years and except that we had three drummers, the rest of us were faithful. So it’s like anybody that's been in a marriage, no matter how good or bad it was, once you get out, it's party time. I guess I'm uncovering my shallowness now. Hubris doesn't work when you wear black. Johnny Cash said that. They’’ll (expletive) when I drive into that demolition derby in this T-Bird.

Are you breaking into a Thunderbird?

No. The top’s down, the ignition wires are showing. This car is going to be mine. For a while. Then it’ll be in the demolition derby in West Covina.

So do you have anything special planned for the Southgate House?


Are you going to tell me about it?

It wouldn't be special then, would it, tiger?

Sure it would.

I'm also incredibly delusional. I'm stealing this (expletive) car. I shouldn't be telling you all this, but what the (expletive)? By the time this runs, it won’t matter. I’ve got good lawyers, I’m an upstanding citizen and I own several properties in Los Angeles County. It won’t hurt. So ask me another question.

Do you really expect people to get all the literary references, all the Jack London references in your new record? (The first song is titled “Martin Eden,” after a Jack London novel.)

There's only one thing that it’s important to, and you're talking to it. I've never pandered to the public’s stupidity and lack of education and I'm not about to start now. It's personal to me, but I hope someone will pick up the book and read it.

Do you read a lot? What was the last book you read?

The last book I read was “Weathercock” by Glen Duncan. The protagonist so resembled me that it freaked me out. So read it and get ready for the nightmares to ensue. This is a big parking lot and my car is not out here.

So you’re really just wandering around a parking lot in what may or may not be Malibu, getting ready to steal a car?

No. Right now, I’m sitting under a cabana plotting my next move.

And you really have no idea where you were, who's party you were at? Did they know you?

I prefer not to know people. It makes it too complicated. I like to be a fly on the wall. I saw things I shouldn’t have seen and heard things I shouldn’t have heard last night. I’ll be enacting some blackmail in the next few days -- if I ever get out of here. That's how you make your mortgage payments.

Well, we’ve been talking for a half-hour now. I guess I better let you go and find your way home.

OK. Well, come out to the Southgate House. We’ll rock.

Cool. I’ll see if I can make it. It’s April 6, right?

Something like that.

OK. So good luck with the demolition derby, dude.

See you.

Vote with your money

Vote with your money

So last night, I was lying in bed, trying to get to sleep by solving all of the world’s problems.

There are a lot of problems in the world, no doubt, and I lose a lot of sleep over them. But I confess my ideas are far too progressive to be of any practical use in this country today. For one thing, no one in the government is going to make any significant or meaningful changes in the way things are run because it would derail the gravy train.

Our founding fathers conceived of a nation to be governed by citizen statesmen, but they made a tragic error in not accounting for the kind of greed that a capitalist system encourages. So instead of everyone working together to make sure that we all have an equal chance of enjoying our life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, we have a government of the wealthy, by the wealthy, for the wealthy.

Our politicians play with our tax money as if it were their own, and whether or not they did it on purpose, our legislators have created a system that keeps the average person out of the loop. Even though the Internal Revenue Code is available online for the average American to see and study for themselves, it contains more than 2.8 million words. Printed 60 lines to the page, it would fill almost 6,000 letter-size pages and in a convoluted language that might as well be in Chinese for the average American of a ninth-grade reading level.

That’s why they call it a “code” — it’s indecipherable.

And that’s only one layer of taxes. Add on the Social Security, state income taxes, city or local income taxes and the various state, county and municipal sales taxes and the various real estate taxes and it doesn’t take long to get dizzy trying to figure out where your money goes.

But it doesn’t have to be so hard. I have a plan that is so easy that it’s beyond revolutionary.

The first part calls for the abolition of the Internal Revenue Service and its 2.8-million-word code for a flat income tax. No loopholes, no deductions.

There have been proposals for a flat income tax floating around before. Estimates are that we’d have to pay somewhere between 20 and 25 percent of our income to keep the government running at all levels. On my last pay stub, about 17 percent of my salary went to taxes and that doesn’t include what sales taxes I’ll pay this week or what property taxes I’m responsible for, so the 25 percent flat tax doesn’t seem too out of line.

So here’s the revolutionary part: Instead of sending your tax money to the IRS, you send it to whatever government agencies you want to support.

Do you believe that the education of your children is the most important thing to spend your tax money on? Then send your entire 25 percent to your local school district.

Are you tired of the potholes wearing out your tires and shock absorbers? Send 5 percent of your income to the local municipal street repair fund and you’ll still have 20 percent to give to the National Park Service.

If you want to support a war, you can give all of your tax money to the U.S. Defense Department.

Under my plan, not only would the tax system be as simple and fair as it can possibly be, but every citizen will be able to set the national agenda with a vote that really counts, a vote that will really make the politicians sit up and take notice: A vote of money.

October 27, 2004

Raging Against Television

March 30, 2011

We just got new computers at work, and in the process of copying everything over, I found a set of text files of back-up copies of columns that I wrote between 2001-2003. We had expanded our lifestyle sections from two days a week to six, and I created a plan and managed them for the first couple of years. It meant I didn’t get to write as much, but the trade-off was that I wrote a column every Saturday on whatever was going on in my mind.

Most of the files don’t contain the column headlines, so I’m making new ones up when I have to. There aren’t any paragraph breaks and a lot of strange characters, probably residue from whatever system we were using at work at the time, so I have to go through them line by line before I can post some of the better ones, which means I’ll probably edit them a little when I can’t help it, but mostly, I’ll present them as written and/or published a decade ago. I don’t really remember, but my guess is that these files are unedited original drafts anyway.

I could go look up the published versions, but I have five big boxes of old newspaper here at The Cave and another four or five at the office, so even though they are boxed by the year, digging through those is a project for another day. They could use another look anyway. The trouble with newspaper writing, even a column, is that it’s always done on the fly and I rarely get the kind of time I’d like to spend writing a story.

As I read through some of these, I notice certain themes popping up. I started writing these just after September 11, and of course I had plenty to say about our rush to war in Iraq and the dishonesty of the Bush II administration. I’m not sure those are suitable for this particular work, so I’ll probably leave them to future history buffs willing to scroll through the microfilm archives at the library, but others are worth a second look, some personality profiles, reminiscences and such. Between January and April 2003, I seem to have been on a roll about the sad state of the juggernaut of popular entertainment, television, so we’ll start there.

Real reality programming

January 22, 2003

I find it astounding that in the current state of television technology, with so many channels to choose from and the opportunity to receive programs ‘on demand,’ that I still find so many occasions to say, ”There’s nothing on TV.”*

I’m particularly quick to turn off the so-called “reality” programs, those shows that seem to want to make us forget about our own troubled, pathetic lives by showing us the troubled, pathetic lives of others.

After I mentioned “Joe Millionaire” in last week’s column, I had more than one person agree with me that it’s one of the worse concepts ever, representing everything that’s wrong with popular American culture. Then after conceding the point, they’d say, “I watched it just out of curiosity.”

Well, maybe. But like they say, “If you’re not a part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” If you keep watching the shit, they’ll keep making it.**

No, I prefer my reality programming to really be real.

Even in the middle of my 14th season reviewing theater, even when I’m thinking that I’d rather be somewhere else because I don’t feel well or because I have so many other things to do, I can feel my pulse quicken when the house lights go down.

I get lost in the theater in a way that television can’t even approximate. Several years ago, for instance, I went to the Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati intern production of a Sam Shepard play in a dance studio off of Short Vine in Cincinnati. It was the middle of June, at least 90 degrees outside and hotter inside, but the play took place in a bleak Wyoming winter. There was no set, just a door and a few wooden chairs, and when the characters spoke of a howling blizzard outside, it was over the sound of a fan struggling to create a breeze in the hot-box of studio.

Maybe it’s my own power of concentration, or maybe it was that the young actors were performing with the thought of their careers being on the line. Whatever. I believed, and I forgot about the heat, the sound of the traffic outside the studio, and was transported to rugged Wyoming, battling the severe elements, immersed in the lives of those characters, and six years later, the experience is vivid in my mind.

A year or two later I saw “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” a classic American drama by Eugene O’Neill in a production by the Rising Phoenix Theatre Company in Middletown. Hamilton actor Dan Britt played the lead, James Tyrone, and because I couldn’t come to one of the scheduled performances, they allowed me into the final dress rehearsal, so I was the only spectator.

The play runs over four hours in three acts, living up to the title, and it’s draining for both the actors and the audience. But that worked to my advantage, because during the third act, with James Tyrone drinking and spilling his guts to his family, everything else went away and I was there with them, tired (but not drunk), watching this drama being played out not by characters in a play, but by people living the parts.

Even in the best of circumstances, television can’t touch those experiences. You can turn off the phone, turn off the lights, send the kids and the dog to the skating rink or neighbor’s house and still never achieve that state of transcendence, never become a part of the experience, will always be aware that you’re glaring at a two-dimensional glow.

As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one kind of reality programming, but you’ll never find it in your local cable listings.

*This column is a little dated in some regards. The On Demand selections are much better now than they were then. In fact, 99.9 percent of my TV viewing is now either On Demand through cable, the Internet or Netflix. The rest is in bars.

** I just added that last sentence. I’ve never been able to get away with publishing “shit” in the JournalNews.

Home theatre

January 29, 2003

I had a lot of people give me the “Amen” from last week’s column when I lamented having over a hundred television channels, but never being able to find anything good to watch.

“Seems we had it better when there were only three or four channels to choose from,” said one person not so much older than me.

I remember those days, but I’m not so sure the programming was any better. We just weren’t so spoiled and television was still enough of a novelty and luxury that we weren’t as particular about what we watched.

I can look at most of the shows I grew up watching and see how hopelessly dated they were ‑ and are.

There are a few exceptions. I still think “The Andy Griffith Show” is one of our entertainment industry’s finest accomplishments, a weekly show that was story-driven and that its humor arising from rich, solid characters, not snappy one-liners and put-downs as so much of the so-called situation comedies are today.

But over the weekend, I watched an episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore” show with my kids, and even though it was a popular show during its day, it now seems pretty thin, the characters lacking depth and warmth. I saw a few minutes of “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” too, one of the favorite shows of my youth, and couldn’t tolerate more than a few minutes of the corny and infantile jokes.

I guess what bugs me most about the television industry today is that most programs seem to be based on some kind of formula or trend. Why have there been so many shows lately, for instance, with a family in which the father is a fat and/or dumb guy and the mother is smart and beautiful?

The technology has advanced so far but the potential isn’t being realized, but we can hope. What I hope for is that the cost of producing a documentary or narrative video and having it streamed into our homes on demand will go down enough to let anyone with a story to tell have a venue, just as anyone now with a computer can launch a web site on the Internet. The television producer of the future will only need a digital camera, a home computer and a group of willing and talented friends.

While it’s true that there will be a whole lot more garbage to wade through, it will also allow writers and directors to have their say without having to convince a TV executive that it will attract so many millions of viewers. It could bring a sense of artistry to the medium of television that it has never had.

But we really needn’t wait.

I read a news story a few weeks ago about a guy in New York City who brings new meaning to the words “home theater.”

Every night, Ed Schmidt admits and audience into his Brooklyn apartment for a performance of “The Last Supper,” playing a variety of characters in a one-man show that presents a modern take on the New Testament, putting the Gospel story in the context of a murder mystery.

He charges $25-$40 per person, including dinner of gourmet cheese appetizers, Belgian beer, home-cooked lamb stew and good wine.

That’s the kind of trend I’d like to see people pick up on, to have live theater right in your home. Or to take it a step further and create a home-invasion theater company, in which the cast comes to my house and puts on a show for me and my friends.

In a culture that values the enormity of things, we need to find ways to step back and personalize our experiences instead of relying on those who cater to the lowest common denominator.

“Survivor” Fever

February 12, 2003

I suppose that if I received an engraved invitation to join the game, I might be willing to participate in the next “Survivor” series.

But I can’t imagine waiting in line for five or six hours for a two-minute shot at impressing whatever intern or Assistant Production Assistant to the Assistant Producer is screening all the tapes now piled high in an undisclosed Los Angeles location.

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to observe hundreds of hopefuls as they braved the queue for just such a shot, and for the most part, I wasn’t impressed.

No disrespect intended to the nice people that I interviewed there, but even those who came with props and costumes failed to show much creativity or enthusiasm for the possibility of getting on national television.

I fully understand the desire to be in the spotlight. I became a writer, I believe, because of the attention I got from the comic essays I wrote while still in elementary school. And ever since Pat Ganz pushed me out onto the Ross High School stage 30 years ago, I’ve not been able to shake off the urge to perform. Although being an arts reporter and critic severely restricts my opportunities, I still find an opportunity every now and then to make my way to the other side of the fourth wall or play a song on my guitar for anyone willing to listen.

My guess is that most of the several hundreds of people lined up at Newport on the Levee on Monday don’t have much show business experience. But since it’s such a challenge just to get through our day-to-day lives, most of those there believe that they could eat worms for a million dollars.

But daily life isn’t show business.

Several of the people I talked to ahead of their auditions said that they were just going to “wing it,” then got frustrated at themselves for forgetting something. Many of the interviews I witness lasted a mere 15 or 20 seconds: “Hello, my name is Joe Doe and you should put me on the show because I survived 30 years on an assembly line.” Or something equally lame.

Some folks did show up with a bit of entertaining schtick. Patricia Porter, a Cincinnati teacher, rode into her audition on a tricycle and brought a stuffed, singing gorilla. And to show how creative and resourceful she can be, an off-camera friend pelted her with balls and toys that Porter had made.

Stacey Stine of Hebron, Ky., brought in an empty toothpaste dispenser to show the producers how frugal she can be by cutting it open to get at the dregs of the tube.

“I also recycle Kleenex,” she said, and I’m glad she didn’t get into the details of that process.

“Survivor,” I suppose, is one of the more benign reality games, certainly with a lower sleaze factor than the dating-and-marrying competitions. I can imagine that it would be a lot of fun to participate a game like “Survivor,” although I can’t summon up the interest to watch others play.

But many of the reality game shows have a meanness about them that I find distasteful.

I’ve talked to people who get a kick out of watching the judges insult and degrade the people who appear on the talent shows that are so the rage right now. While it’s true that they’ve lined up for their chance to be ridiculed, but there’s something rotten about preying upon a person’s dreams, especially the most unrealistic ones, and then taking delight in shattering those dreams.

It’s all fun and games and entertainment for the masses ‑ unless you’re the person whose dream is being shattered.

Support your local artist

April 5, 2003

I can hardly turn on the television anymore or look at the movie listings without being disgusted at the amount of junk that’s being thrown out there for consumption by the masses.

Nine times out of ten, I’ll walk away from the television feeling dirty and defiled for letting myself wallow in the muck and mire of what passes for contemporary entertainment. Television networks and movie studios cater to the lowest common denominator as both a creative and a marketing tool, and every time someone turns on a stupid reality show or gross-out comedy, even if it’s because that’s the only thing on, it only provides justification to drive down the quality of work overall.

What’s lacking most, it seems to me, is personal artistic vision, which is replaced by corporate vision. With so much at stake, the need (and power) to make a buck trumps the need for artistry.

It seems to me that a culture is in big trouble when the pursuit of money becomes the primary influence for art.

I think what troubles me most about this subject is that people will spend $6 or $10 bucks to go see a movie they know is going to be bad than to spend a similar amount to go see a local or regional artist perform live.

In the 14 years I’ve been covering local and regional arts, I’ve seen hundreds of plays and concerts, been to hundreds of art shows. I’ve been to things at all levels of skill, from elementary school plays to elaborate professional theater productions, and I can count on my fingers the number of times I’ve walked away from something that I’ve considered a total waste of my time. Even going to see a play that turns out to be pretty bad at least encourages the performers and producers.

Trust me on this: No one sets out to put on a bad show, but sometimes the skill level isn’t up to the challenge or some bad ideas take hold, and if it ends up a fiasco, the performers and crew usually know it if they’re serious about their art, and it’s at least been a learning experience for them.

If you’ve never been to a local production, I challenge you to do so. You’ll be amazed at the quality.

I went to a Carol Young Dance Studio recital over the weekend ‑ admittedly because my daughter was performing ‑ and I was amazed at the talent displayed by those young people.*

I also went to the Mad Anthony Theatre Company’s production of one-acts where not only were the performers local, but so were the playwrights ‑ and the work was as better than anything scheduled on television that day.

The plays were more than entertaining. They were insightful and challenging.

So I have a challenge: Whatever you spend each month on your cable television bill or your movie tickets, spend an equal amount to support a local arts organization.

That is, if you spend $60 on cable television, you should spend at least $60 going to local plays and concerts, or donate that much to people who put on shows for free ‑ and there are plenty of those, too. Go to one Music Cafe show, also at the Fitton Center, or one concert at a local church to see how much good music you can get for nothing but the effort of prying the remote control out of your hands.

You’ll discover, I promise, a world of great entertainment, and the more the public supports local artists, the more they’ll be encouraged to do more and better work.

Yes, I’m a dreamer, but I’d really like to see the day when every weekend offers a local play or concert, and when a television network calls together a meeting of executives to see how they can stop the disturbing trend of local arts biting into their budgets.

Some Older Folk

April 1, 2011

One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about my job, something I’d like to do more of still, is relating the stories of my people, the people of Hamilton. I especially like talking to the old timers about the interesting things that happened to them. You have to set aside a lot of time for a good old-timer interview, because you either have to drag it out of them or stand aside and let them talk.

While these aren’t about me, per se, which makes them questionable material for an autobiography, some of them are really nicely written, if I do say so myself, so for that reason:

Birdie Irwin

November 7, 2001

Birdie Irwin was the elderly mother of local attorney Jim Irwin, who is a big fan of mine, and the grandmother of Greg Irwin, the internationally-renown finger-fitness expert and a pal of mine. Carl Halen, a local trumpeter who was a student of the early jazz movement, particularly local jazz history, was researching Bix Beiderbeck (look it up if you don’t know who he was – he was the Jimi Hendrix of his era but he played the cornet), whom Birdie knew, and was going to interview her about it, so Jim invited me to tag along. When Birdie passed away a couple of years later, Jim came to the office and asked me personally to write her obituary, which I was of course glad to do.

A knee injury this summer has kept her to her bed recently, and her eyes have gone bad, but Birdie Irwin has 97 years of wonderful memories to occupy her mind.

“We lived on Main Street and I was very fortunate to get involved with a lot of the interesting musicians,” she said.

“Bert Tillmann was my sister’s violin teacher and they would come to our house on Sunday nights, he and his brother who played the flute. From the time I was 14 years old, they would have their little lunches and beer. And we’d have the orchestra going and that’s where I learned to read all of these overture and things. You just had to do it.

“I’d get so mad. I’d pound on the piano.

“All the kids could go out on Sunday and I can’t go out and everything and I have to stay here.”

“Never mind. You’ll be glad you had it one of these days.”

In 1919, Tillmann brought four musicians from the John Philip Sousa Band to her family home on Main St. for a late night jam session.

“Bert Tillmann had his own orchestra and he had all the music, so he just passed it around and we started playing at about 11 o’clock at night. Our windows on Main street went all the way down to the floor, and we opened them,” she said.

“Those were the days when people didn’t call the police, they sat out front and listened to your music. So we played from about 11 until about four o’clock in the morning.”

When she was going on 16, Birdie baby-sat for the children of the Palace Theater’s owner, and when he found out she could play the piano, he hired her to play 5 to 7 p.m. while the regular musicians took a dinner break.

The regular pianist couldn’t read music, but would watch the screen and fake the parts, which worked out fine until “The Sheik,” starring Rudolph Valentino, came to town with its own orchestra, or most of one anyway, leaving room for local musicians to fill in. But when the regular girl confessed she couldn’t read charts and keep up with the orchestra, Birdie was whisked off to the union office to sign up so that she could play, getting excused from her classes at Notre Dame to rehearse for a week before the movie started.

Birdie liked to play double piano with an older girl, Priscilla Holbrook, who also came from a musical family. It was Priscilla who started bringing around a young trumpet player who was in town to play at the fabled Stockton Club in what is now Fairfield.

Priscilla’s brother Carl, who played clarinet and saxophone, would hang around Beeler’s Drug Store with all the other musicians and through him Priscilla took to helping a young trumpet player named Bix Biederbeck to read charts. Biederbeck only lived in Hamilton a few months, but he made a lasting impression on this town and the world before dying at age 28 from alcohol poisoning. He’s now widely considered to be one of the best ‑ if not the greatest ‑ jazz trumpeters of all time. Even the incomparable Louis Armstrong was an admirer.

”He said he couldn’t read as well as he should. He had all this in his head and he never played a chorus twice the same way,” Birdie recalled.

”She’d write out chords and everything and show them to him on the piano and he’d pick that up right away,” Birdie said. “He didn’t have to read it, but I guess that’s the reason he couldn’t go in with the big bands.”

She remembers a Sunday jam session with Bix in attendance:

”I was a junior in high school. I was about 17 and Priscilla was about 19. Bix came over and we were all there all afternoon. As soon as we took a little break, he put the instrument down on the chair and went right to the piano. And he’d sit there and say, ‘Oh, listen to this. Listen to these chords. Aren’t they great?’

”He was working on his piece, ‘In a Mist,’ but to me, that was Bix himself because he wasn’t with you. He’d talk to you and still you felt that he wasn’t (keeping up with) your conversation. He was in a mist when he played a horn. He was in a mist all the time.”

Priscilla moved out of Hamilton in the ‘30s to travel around the country in a band that was four women playing baby grand pianos, eventually settling in Chicago.

”She’d come home about every two years and stay at my house. “Birdie, how much money are you making now?’ I’d say, “With my teaching and church going, maybe fifty dollars a week.’ ‘Bertie, come to Chicago, come to Chicago. Nobody can play with me like you could.’”

But she never did. Instead, she stayed in Hamilton, playing for the vaudeville theaters, playing behind the touring acts, including Johnny Black.

”I can still see him coming out on the stage at the Palace Theatre: ‘I can’t give you anything but love, baby.’ He sang and I played the piano.”

She taught piano for 35 years and gave her last concert two years ago, at the age of 95, for an Elderhostel event at the Fitton Center for Creative Arts. Through her connection to Greg Irwin, the “finger fitness” expert and her grandson, Birdie earlier this year appeared on Chinese television, where they know her as “Little Bird.”

In a Mist

March 13, 2002

When I first started getting to know the folks in Hamilton’s Little Chicago Jazz Society, they spoke so fondly of Bix Beiderbecke, the legendary jazz trumpeter, I first thought that he was from here judging by the way they talked about him, how they seemed to claim him as a Hamilton legend.

It turns out that Beiderbecke was from Iowa, not Ohio, but he did spend three months here in 1923-24, living at the YMCA and playing in a band called the Wolverines at the Stockton Club, a popular jazz joint at Dixie Highway and Stockton Road in what is now Fairfield. The Stockton Club was a typical Prohibition-era speakeasy, said Carl Halen, a local musician who led a traditional band, Gin Bottle Seven.

To someone of my generation, it might be as if Jimi Hendrix had spent a few weeks in Hamilton playing at the Rusty Nail, because like Hendrix, Beiderbecke lived hard, died young and became a legend for his innovative playing. And like Hendrix, Beiderbecke had a prodigious output in a short period of time. Between 1924 and 1931, he appears on some 250 recordings.

Last summer, I spent a few hours with Halen as he visited with Birdie Irwin, who at 97 years old is one of the last living links to Hamilton’s jazz age.

Irwin played the organ and piano for some of the silent movie theaters around Hamilton and liked to jam with local musicians. When she was 17, a friend of hers gave music lessons to the self-taught Beiderbecke and brought him to some sessions.

”As soon as we took a little break, he put the instrument down on the chair and went right to the piano,” she recalled. “He was working on his piece, ‘In a Mist,’ but to me, that was Bix himself because he wasn’t with you. He’d talk to you and still you felt that he wasn’t (keeping up with) your conversation. He was ‘In a Mist’ when he played a horn. He was ‘In a Mist’ all the time.”

“He was a complete loner,” Halen said. “He was not ‘one of the guys.’ Nobody really knew him or knew why he played that way, where the inner voice came from. He wasn’t a high-note man, but played in the middle ranges.

“His solos were so satisfying that they’ve been described as having the same feeling as ‘a girl saying, “Yes.”’”

The beginning of the end for Beiderbecke’s stay here came New Year’s Eve, when a Stockton Club celebration ended in a violent free-for-all.

Halen’s research tells the story of two rival gangs, one from Hamilton and one from Cincinnati, sitting in different parts of the club, maintaining an uneasy truce. But when two men from Hamilton wandered into the wrong part of the joint, the place went wild. The Hamilton Evening Journal reported that “flying bottles crashed against walls and bodies, inflicting numerous minor wounds.”

The seven musicians were on break at the time, relaxing in another room when they were hurriedly called to the bandstand in the hope that music might calm things down. They played “China Boy.”

Although the incident was apparently not reported to the law, “many persons were seen in Hamilton restaurants, supposedly just out of the club, with bandages about their heads, and with scars and bruises,” the paper said. The Stockton Club closed down for a cooling-off period. Beiderbecke found some work in Cincinnati, but eventual join the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, a steady, prodigious gig with top pay, but not enough to keep Beiderbecke away from the booze and his health declined.

He died at age 28 on Aug. 6, 1931, during an alcoholic seizure. The official cause of death was “lobar pneumonia and edema of the brain.”

Crazy over Patsy Cline

December 5, 2002

The last time Jerry Sanders saw Patsy Cline, she saved his ever-lovin’ neck.

Before he went into education in the mid-1960s, retiring in 1992 as the chair of the communications department at Miami University, Sanders was part owner of two West Texas radio stations, KSEL in Lubbock and KBVY in Amarillo.

In those days, radio stations often booked and promoted five or six acts for a two-event night, either two concerts or a concert and a dance.

This night, in the spring of 1960, the headliner for an Amarillo show was to be Faron Young, who had a hit with “Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young” but was a year from his first million-seller, “Hello Walls.”

Over breakfast, he told Sanders he wasn’t going to do the dance, fearing that over-exposure would cost future bookings. “It’s not in the contract,” was his way out.

“We’ve done it this way for years,” Sanders told him, but Young just said, “You didn’t look at the contract.”

No, he hadn’t. Sanders had been out of town and an assistant signed in his place. Now he worried that without a star to draw an audience he’d not only lose ticket sales, but credibility.

So that afternoon, he called the others on the bill ‑ including Jimmy C. Newman before his Cajun days and Patsy Cline ‑ to tell them the pickle he was in. Patsy was 28, had just come back on the road after taking some time off to have a baby. She already had a Number Two hit with “Walkin’ After Midnight,” and later that year would sign with Decca records to record her first Number One song, “I Fall to Pieces.”

Sanders worked with Patsy before. He knew she was a loyal and dependable person. Very much “one of the boys” in the way she drank and the language she used, she didn’t put on airs and didn’t like anybody who did. Other stars were always asking for things, but Patsy always took what you gave her and gave back all she could.

Sanders, who is serving as an advisor to Greater Hamilton Civic Theatre for its upcoming production of “Always... Patsy Cline,” mostly remembers her for her capacity to connect with an audience.

She liked to say, “If you don’t feel it, Hoss, don’t sing it,” and she had so much feeling that everybody in the audience thought she was singing to straight to them. She wasn’t flashy or flamboyant, didn’t even move much on stage.

She didn’t have to. She could mesmerize an audience with her voice.

Sanders was relieved when she spoke up: “Hoss,” ‑ and he knew he had made it when she called him Hoss – “don’t worry about it. We’ll go out there and make them forget who Faron Young is.”

And they put on a heck of a show.

While the others were performing, Patsy went out on the floor and danced with the customers, something none of the other stars he worked with ever did. Just like in the rest of her career, she marched to the front and took over.

Three years later, Patsy Cline would die in a plane crash on her way to a benefit concert, but Sanders remembers what a great gal she was.

“If I had to pick anybody to be on my side, it would be Patsy Cline,” he says.

Good work for a people person

December 12, 2001

The hours are long, Sam Baker says, and there’s not much work involved, but there are too many nice people for it to get boring.

From Nov. 15 until Christmas Eve., Sam watches the Salvation Army kettle at the Lo-Bill store in Fairfield, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Sam had been working at Americana Amusement Park, coming in early in the morning to clean up the rides. He did carpenter work before that, playing country music on the side.

One day, a supervisor came up and said he’d been watching Sam work.

“Uh oh,” he thought, but it turned out to be a good thing. The supervisor, a fellow named Tom Bevington, also recruited people to work for the Salvation Army to ring the bells for the Christmas kettles. It was seasonal work, too, but the opposite season. Sam thought it would something else to do, and he could quit if he didn’t like it. That was nine years ago.

Tom told him that if he’d clean up every day that he might get an inside job, not have to stand outside in the weather.

“The owners won’t want you in the store looking all shaggy,” Tom told him, and he was right. Sam put on a suit and tie, and when he went to work the first day, they brought him inside to sit in the area between the two doors.

He can’t ring the bell inside because it’s close to the check-out aisles, but it gives him a better chance to meet people, to thank them and give them a copy of this year’s “War Cry,” the Salvation Army magazine, if they want one.

In his blue pinstripe suit and Santa Claus tie – “You jingle my bells,” it says ‑ some people think Sam’s a preacher and will tell him their troubles, ask him to pray for them.

Sam’s doesn’t even go to church much, but he’s a believer and he prays a lot, so he prays for the people, too. They tell him it does them good.

His grandpa once told him that the best thing to do when you meet people is to listen and learn what they know. Pretty soon, you’ll be the smart one. So Sam listens. Some of them are sad and lonely; some are funny. They call him by name and he learns about their lives.

He sometimes writes songs from the stories they tell about losing a companion or suffering from cancer, but he keeps them to himself. He’s given up the music, except for once a month going to the nursing home where his mother lives, but he only sings the old-time country songs for them, like “Lucille” and “Wabash Cannonball.”

Some of the people come by and drop in their change. Others dig into their wallet for a dollar or two. Or a twenty. Some people can be pretty generous. There’s one lady who writes out a hundred-dollar check the first time she comes in and he’s there.

Last October, Sam came into Lo-Bill to do some shopping and an older gentleman came up to him and said, “Glad to see you back,” and started to hand over a fistful of change he’d been saving up.

“It’s not time yet,” Sam told him.

It’s a good job for someone who likes people, and Sam makes a lot of friends. He’s been offered other jobs, too, but he’s 67 years old now and there’s too much else to do. He’s got a 20-month-old grandson, Cole, and he’s able to watch him do the things he missed raising his own two kids, like the first words and the first steps.

But if Americana would open up, he might go back to work. A lot of people come through there.

A dispatch from the Great Depression

January 16, 2002

A guy gets to be 19, 20 years old and he needs something to do. He gets the urge to roam, to see a little bit of the world.

But even your old man can’t find work in the middle of the Great Depression, so a young guy sure can’t get a job, can’t make money, and can’t travel or do anything without money.

In 1933, the new president came up with a plan to give young people jobs in the country’s forests. It would give them a job, a place to stay and a chance to see another part of the country. So when somebody put Tony Becker’s name in to join the Civilian Conservation Corps, what some folks were calling “Roosevelt’s Tree Army,” it sounded good enough to him.

It sure beat hanging out around town trying to find something to make a couple bucks.

The CCC was a lot like the army, giving some 250,000 men a job in the nation’s forests and preserves. But the men were in the East and the work was mostly out West. So Becker joined hundreds of young men on to California. They stayed in barracks round Lake Arrowhead, working on roads and felling trees to make fire breaks, 50-foot wide paths that helped protect against forest fires.

Truth is, when they weren’t working wasn’t much to do there, either. They built a boxing ring, and when they got paid, they gambled with the money that wasn’t sent back home. Becker would take a walk up into the mountains to look at the rocks or hitchhike into San Bernadino once in a while, see what that city look like. Working was just as much fun. One guy from Pennsylvania would climb up to the top of one of the tall pine trees while it was being cut so that he could ride it down.

After six months there, the guys got a chance to sign up for another job, this time down in Death Valley to work on the road through the desert.

They had barracks there, too, but they also moved around a lot and stayed in tents with only that bit of canvas protecting them from sandstorms blowing up out of the south.

Still, for a young man coming from the heart of the Depression, you couldn’t have wanted any better. The food was good, the company was good and the work wasn’t that hard. Shoveling and raking, mostly.

It was the weather that was hard to get used to. You started out in the morning with an overcoat but by noon you’d have everything off, down to your underwear, it was that hot. So hot the rocks turned black. Some days, you could hear the rumble of a thunderstorm and see the clouds pass overhead, but the rain would dry up before it hit the ground. The next morning, you’d see snow on the mountain.

There was a motel around with a hot spring that the guys could go swimming in. Becker and some of his pals also got to meet the legendary prospector and con man Death Valley Scotty, who was then taking care of a desert castle for a rich Chicago insurance man.

The rattlesnakes made good sport. Some of the guys would kill a rattler and run their belts through the skin when it dried, but Becker didn’t fool with them, just like he didn’t ride the trees down.

Becker stayed a year there in the desert, then took a train back home to Hamilton. The Depression was starting to lift and he got a job at the Estate Stove Company. He continued to work, travel, raise a family and grow old.

Listening to his stories, a younger guy starts to wonder: When you’re 92 years old, and your body’s not letting you go anywhere, and you’ve got nothing left but your memories, are you going to have anything worth remembering?

Alas, Poor Rusty

January 10, 2011

So on New Year's Eve, we drove from Barb's sister Susan's house in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, to her brother John's house in Suffern. The plan was to celebrate the new year there then take a bus to the city the next day to see how much snow had melted.

I had lugged the last of our luggage to the guest room, and as I came back into the living room, Barb said, "I have some bad news, Richard."

She was sitting on the sofa, scratching the ears of the new dog, so it didn't sound all that bad. I just said, "What's that?"

"Rusty died," she said, and paused for the briefest of moments, but in that less than a breath, my mind raced with an onslaught of thoughts and feelings that came all at once without being fully articulated even in my own interior monolog.

Oh, my god, I thought. My brother Russell dead? He was traveling. Was there an accident? Did he have a heart attack? He was younger than me. Was his family hurt? Did he die in Texas? Did he have his boots on? How can she be breaking this news to me as nonchalantly as if you were telling me there's no whiskey in the house? How did she find out about it before me? Who in my family even has her phone number? She must have heard it on the news. It must have been really bad. And coming right on the heels of Mom's brain surgery. Is there any whiskey in the house?

In that brief pause, the collision of grief and confusion created a tsunami of vertigo, and I felt the earth beneath my feet start to slip away in the wave as Barb continued: "But we're not supposed to talk about it."

With that apparent nonsequiter, my brain blew a fuse. For one rare instance my mind was a total blank until I sputtered back to consciousness with this one clearly articulated absurd thought: Russell worked for the CIA. What?

Barb's nephew Wesley, sitting in a chair near me and scratching the ears of the dingo, said in a wistful sing-song, "He was just an old bag of bones."

It was only then that I realized they were not talking about my brother but the old 25-year-old family cat, who had looked like a tabby Gollum the last time I'd seen him the previous summer. They were beginning to think he was immortal.

We weren't supposed to talk about it because he had apparently been lying in the driveway and -- you can guess the rest. I didn't press for details. I still don't know who ran over him. At that point in time, I didn't care. I didn't even care that there may or may not have been any whiskey in the house.

I had some in my bag.

A Military Conflict

December 4, 2010

On Friday, I was assigned to cover the military funeral of Sgt. David Luff, a 1999 graduate of Hamilton High School.

In giving me the assignment, my editors told me that the reporter who interviewed the widow earlier in the week had secured her permission to have us cover the funeral and graveside services on Friday, but with a few caveats: I could not interview people but just report on what I saw, and that the photographer would not be allowed in the funeral home, but it was OK to be at the cemetery.

Fair enough. That’s probably what I would have done anyway.

So I got to the funeral home about 20 minutes before the service started, and was greeted by about a dozen scruffy looking bikers who had lined up along the path to the door in an honor guard, bearing large American flags. That should have been my first clue what a mess the assignment would to be, remembering the lesson we should have learned at Altamont 40 years ago: Bikers in charge of security? Not a good idea.

So I went inside and took a seat off to the side, and when the service started, I took my notebook out of my jacket pocket and took notes, and when it was over, I went to my car and played “Angry Birds” on my phone until the procession started.

To be honest, I felt myself quite moved, first by the widow’s passionate tribute to her husband and the way the city of Hamilton seemed to come to a standstill as the procession passed. I hadn’t expected that.

At Greenwood Cemetery, I ended up parking behind one of the military vehicles and saw the general who presided over the service at Brown-Dawson. I needed to check the spelling of his name, get the first name of the chaplain who spoke and clarify a couple of other details. The general had a name tag on, but couldn’t help me with the other issues. He said the chaplain was right over there, I could go ask him myself. But I wasn’t going to do anything to make myself conspicuous.

The photographer was already there, and we chatted briefly before he started taking pictures of the pall bearers in full military dress remove the casket from the hearse and carry it to the grave site. I hung back, making sure I was behind all of the mourners but close enough to hear what was going on. About the time the bugler finished playing taps, I made a note about the infant son of the soldier starting to fuss in his mother’s arms.

Then the photographer tapped me on the shoulder. “We have permission to be here, don’t we?” I was told we did. “Can you come and talk to this guy?”

I left my post and went over to where two soldiers and one of the bikers were standing. They said that we had to leave because we didn’t have permission to be there. I assured him we did, that the widow said it was ok, and I went over my instructions.

But they insisted the Army was in charge of the scene and they couldn’t take my word for that. I reminded him that I’m not in the Army and that he had no authority over me. And then the biker got into the conversation. I found out later that before he came to tap me on the shoulder, the photographer had been physically threatened and sworn at by one of the bikers, who were ostensibly there to keep protesters away, but I guess they felt an obligation to harass the local press as well.

They accused us of being disruptive, and I explained that we were both keeping a respectful distance, but that we had a job to do. We were there as the eyes and ears of the people who lined the streets in mourning for this soldier and that they were keeping us from doing our job and therefore being disrespectful to them. I further explained that I was not being disruptive, but that he was my interrupting me from my job. He said he had a job to do too, that the Army didn’t like having pictures of caskets in the newspapers. I wanted to say that they should stop sending our young people to their deaths, but I held my tongue and instead just returned his steely stare thinking about how much I hated him and everything he stood for.

By that time, the graveside service had ended and people were starting to disperse, so there was no more for me to do. I went back to my car and my Angry Birds, waiting for the parked cars to clear out enough so I could go back to the office and file what I had. And I reported what I saw and heard, including their lies about how the soldier had died an American hero fighting for our freedom instead of the truth about how he is really a martyr for the big oil companies and the rest of corporate America who use the U.S. military to guard the oil in the Middle East. Freedom has nothing to do with it.

Today's Special: Liver & Chaos

This weekend, I discovered the root of mid-life crises.

It’s because that even after 40 years of trying to get a handle on the way this world works, the only thing we can learn is how out of our control it is.

I over-slept Sunday morning and had to skip showering to hurry to church in time to play guitar for the early service. I was only a few minutes behind, but in enough of a rush that I took a fall trying to jump onto the stage, barked my shins (two lumps, one bruise, one scrape), and broke the tuning key on my acoustic guitar.

It went downhill from there until I ended up saying things in the church kitchen that makes me now pray that it being Easter, God was busy elsewhere in the building and my language slipped right past Him.

On my way home, as I debated between driving my van into the Great Miami River or going home to take the delayed shower, I thought about liver.

A couple of decades ago, I was the grill cook for Wayne Morgan’s Hickory Hut on Millville Ave. Because it was a slow night, the grill man was the only person on the cook’s line Mondays, when the special was grilled liver and bacon.

I wasn’t so health conscious back then, and there wasn’t much that I would not eat, but liver was at the top of my list. And I hated cooking it more than I hated eating it.

When they trained me on it, they told me to put a frozen slice of on the hot part of the grill with a weight on it and cook it until it looked like the sole of an old shoe that’s been in the middle of the highway for a week. Then it took 10 minutes to scrape the burned-on remains of the blood and juices off the grill.

It was too smelly and disgusting, so as soon as they left me alone, I started to do it my way: Let the liver thaw and when an order came in, toss a piece on the grill, step back and take a whiff of sauerkraut to clear my nostrils, run back to the grill and turn the liver, go to the steam table to put the vegetables on the plate, take a deep breath and go back to the grill to take the liver off. Doing it that way was not only quicker, but it also kept the grill clean because I wasn’t letting all the blood and juices cook out of the meat and carbon up. The blood went on the plate instead, seeping out of the nearly-raw liver and mixing in with the succotash and mashed potatoes.

As far as I was concerned, better a bloody plate than stinky grill residue. I would have thrown it out there raw if I thought I’d’ve gotten away with it. My hope was that people would quietly stop eating the liver, and the only way it would backfire is if got back to the boss and he’d make me go back to the shoe-sole method.

I should have been so lucky.

The real problem with my plan became apparent the very first night when the waitresses started coming back with a refrain that made me want to slap myself with a hot spatula: “Compliments on the liver!”

Apparently, word spread, because as the weeks passed, I would get more and more orders for the grilled liver special. I checked it out, and sure enough, you could have plotted out liver sales on a graph to find it curve upward after I started working the Monday dinner shift.

What kind of irony is that? To make my tenure at the Hickory Hut remarkable only for improving the sales of the one dish that I loathed, that I would not eat, not in a dozen lifetimes?

And how are we supposed to keep our wits in a world where when you try to do a good thing, you end up nearly breaking a leg, and when you try to sabotage Grilled Liver-and-Bacon Night, you end up feeding it to the entire city of Hamilton?

March 3, 2002

Unscheduled Detour

Something told me to turn around.

It was a Sunday morning and I had just left church, having thumped on a guitar for the early service. My normal route home blocked for a street fair, I turned left onto High Street and saw traffic tangled up in front of the former Municipal Building.

An old man was in the middle of the road, apparently trying to flag down east-bound cars, but all lanes were moving awkwardly as drivers tried to avoid him and avoid hitting him.

There was something wrong, for one thing, to have a traffic jam on High Street at 10:30 on a Sunday morning, and I felt there was something wrong with the old man. He was obviously in the wrong place, but he seemed oblivious to the danger and clearly in need of assistance. I hadn’t noticed him around before, and he didn’t strike me as one of the downtown regulars, so I felt compelled to see what was up -- partly out of curiosity, partly out of concern for the old-timer. Not wanting to ensnarl traffic in both directions, I crossed the bridge and looked for a place to turn around, even as the liar on my left shoulder insisted that the police would be along soon to take care of it.

By the time I got back, much of the traffic had dispersed, but the old man was still there talking to a woman in an older car stopped in the inside lane. As I pulled in behind, the driver looked both hurried and worried, and I could tell that she was wanting to rid herself of the intruder, but didn’t want to just turn him loose in traffic again. I put my car in park and opened the door, waving to get their attention.

He wanted a ride, she told me, to Hyde’s Restaurant. I said I could take him and she helped him into my passenger seat.

”Who are you?” he asked as I started the car moving.

”Today, I’m your angel,” I said.

He got a funny look on his face as he tried to puzzle it out, then smiled and said he lives in the Anthony Wayne and goes to Hyde’s every day for breakfast.

So what are you doing in the middle of High Street?

”I get confused,” he said.

I studied his face, his neatly-combed white hair and his attempt to shave that morning. An admirable attempt, to be sure, but there were patches that he’d missed, had been missing for a few days, it seemed. He asked who I was again and where I worked.

He told me his picture was in the lobby at the building where I work, that he was a carrier back in the day when Homer Gard was king and publisher. He had a story about Homer Gard and something about mowing a lawn, but he was soon sidetracked by his own thought stream and started telling me something about Hollywood, Fla., the U.S. Army National Guard and other bits and pieces from his life.

His mind was working full-steam and his mouth doing double-time to keep up.

”I know I talk too much,” he said. “At Hyde’s, they’re always telling me to be quiet, that I’m chasing off business.”

When we got there, I pulled around the back way and stopped the car while he finished a story, but he never really finished one before another took over. I let him go on for a while, then went around to help him step down from my car, telling him where I went to church and that if he needed a ride next Sunday to come there, not try to flag down traffic on High Street. “Don’t get yourself killed,” I said, and waved off his attempt to give me money, sending him inside for his breakfast.

Something told me to turn around, but I’m still not sure why. Maybe just to bank some good karma. Maybe just so that when I’m in my last years and getting confused about things, someone will give me a ride to Hyde’s, if that’s where I want to go.

June 20, 2002


Every exit on every Interstate looks the same as every other exit, the only difference being in whether it’s mountains or desert landscape behind the Waffle House signs and golden arches. With the Internet and the vast array of cable television networks streaming into our homes, the cultural divisions in modern America are more interest-oriented than regional.

That may be part of the reason why it’s so hard for us to understand a cultural divide strong enough, vast enough and bitter enough to tear this nation in two with a violent and bloody Civil War.

I just spent a long weekend in Gettysburg, the site of the largest battle ever fought on this hemisphere (as far as we know), and my mind is still reeling with the enormity of it -- not just the lives lost, though that’s a big part of it -- but also in the ideas that split our nation.

I was fortunate to have as my traveling companion the president of the local Civil War Roundtable, Bill Gabbard, a self-educated expert on the Army of Northern Virginia and almost everything else related to the Civil War. This was his 20th excursion to Gettysburg, my first.

We stayed in a hotel on Seminary Ridge, barely 30 yards from the house where Robert E. Lee set up headquarters, and spent three days walking (and walking and walking) the battlefields, trying to follow along with the three days of the conflict. We stood down in the railroad cut where some 330 Confederate soldiers were trapped and captured or killed. We scrambled up and down the rocky face of Little Roundtop, the rugged hill at the end of the Union line where a rhetoric professor distinguished himself by ordering a bayonet attack, sweeping his troops across the hill like a gate on a hinge. And on the last day, we walked Pickett’s Charge, three-quarters of a mile across the swales between Seminary Ridge and Cemetery Ridge. In that shallow valley, some 12,000 Rebel soldiers marched in a mile-long line to face the Union Army’s cannons and rifles. Only a few hundred made it to the enemy line to be quickly overwhelmed, and of the 12,000, some say that only 6,000 made the long walk back to camp.

Bill and I talked a lot about trying to imagine what it would have been like to have been one of those soldiers, to be have been able to endure the mid-summer heat and humidity in those wool uniforms, and then to muster up the courage to face that kind of enemy fire.

My favorite part of the trip, however, were the long walks we took down Seminary Ridge in the evenings, after the day’s tour and study were finished. By the nearly-full moon rising on our right, we could still see the Union cannons that in 1863 would have been poised for the decimation of the Confederate soldiers who would have been camped in the field to our right.

While it was hard for me to imagine the courage it took to charge Cemetery Ridge, I think I understood the trepidation that was surely palpable among the Southern troops on the eve of Pickett’s Charge. We’ve all had moments, though hardly of this magnitude, where we look across the broad field of our own mortality, knowing that someday, we may have to make some kind of final charge of our own.

That’s a little melodramatic, I know, but the thing about courage is that we don’t know how much we have until we need to use it.

We spend of our lives, however, avoiding such situations.

June 27, 2002

PanHandlers & PItchmen

Panhandlers and Pitchmen

Earlier this year, the city of Cincinnati passed new ordinances restricting the practices of the city’s professional bums.

I’m not sure exactly what the new law says, but it certainly seems to have changed the nature of their enterprise.

For one thing, they don’t just come at me with their palms open anymore. Now, they come at me flashing their picture IDs.

“I haven’t eaten since Sunday. Here’s my driver’s license.”

Which begs the question, so to speak, that if the guy’s homeless, what address does he give the Bureau of Motor Vehicles?

The law also seems to have inspired some of the pan-handlers to be a little bit more enterprising, to offer goods and services rather than to just ask for a hand-out.

A few weeks ago, my daughter and I were walking along Seventh Street on our way to the Aronoff Center when I heard a guy behind me: “Hey, how big is your waist?”


“What’s your waist size?”

I figured he was leading up to something, so I played along.

“A year ago, I was about 40, but I’ve got it down to 32.”

“I got something right here that’s just your style,” he said and reached inside his jacket.

That took me aback a little, and I cringed at the thought of him pulling out a gun or a club. I glanced at my daughter, who was mortified and carefully keeping me between the jeans merchant and herself. Instead of a weapon, however, he brought out a pair of blue jeans. They looked new, but didn’t have any labels. I figured they must have fallen off a truck somewhere or wandered out of a department store.

“You’d look good in these,” he said.

“Well, what size are they?”

“They’re 34s.”

“Well, they’d be a little big on me. Got anything smaller?”

“Hey, don’t worry about it. You’ll grow into them.”

“Weren’t you listening to me, dude?” I asked, keeping my stride.

“I just told you that I’ve gone from a 40 to a 32. I’m going the other direction. I’m trying to keep myself on the road to wellness. I’m seeking health and righteousness, and you’re leading down a path to sin and degradation,” I said, putting a fire-and-brimstone preacher’s tone on that last sentence, just for effect.

“Can’t you help a brother out? I only want fifteen dollars,” he said, and then reverted back to the old methods: “I need something to eat. I haven’t had anything since yesterday.”

“If I give you a dollar, will that help you out?” I asked, reaching into my pocket. Whenever I go downtown, I try to remember to keep a couple of loose bills just for such an occasion.

He didn’t seem happy about it, but one dollar is a dollar more than he had. He didn’t hesitate to take it or stick around long after he did. He took the bill, muttered “Thanks,” and disappeared -- to size up somebody else’s waistline, I suppose.

I was telling my Saturday morning hiking group about it the next weekend, and one of the guys made the observation: “So basically, you paid him a dollar to leave you alone and go aggravate somebody else?”

So one way to look at the effect of the ordinance governing pan-handling is not only did it require the pro bums to be more creative, but also created a new job: Professional nuisance.

I imagine there’ll always be openings.

July 17, 2002

The Perfect Game

Maureen -- better known as Mo – didn’t know squat about baseball, but she knew that my wife and I were big Cincinnati Reds fans, so when she copped four free blue seats at Riverfront Stadium, she invited us along.

We knew Mo from college, and we’d been graduated for a couple of years and hadn’t seen each other in a while, so even though there was a big rain coming through the area, we took advantage of the opportunity to party, whether there was a game or not.

I’m not sure anymore just how long the rain delay was. We spent most of it in the clubhouse bar, but it was close to three hours -- long enough that by the time they rolled up the tarps most of the stadium had cleared out. Our seats were in the upper part of the blue section, but we moved down to just a few rows behind the visitors’ dugout.

The game didn’t last very long as it turned out to be a classic pitchers’ duel. Going into the sixth inning, Tom Browning and the Dodgers’ Tim Belcher both had no-hitters going. The Reds’ managed to bring one player across the plate in the sixth, and the game started to get really interesting.

Poor Mo was bored silly by this time. She wanted to see some action and couldn’t figure out what all the fuss was about. For fear of a jinx, no one wanted to use the words “no-hitter” or -- even worse, “perfect game” -- to explain it to her, so we’d say things like, “Browning hasn’t allowed a baserunner in seven innings.”

“Is that a good thing?” she’d ask. “I thought they were supposed to get hits.”

Poor girl.

Even though there were probably fewer than 5,000 people left in the stadium, it sounded like a full house the last two innings. We were standing on our seats, holding our breath every time Browning started to throw, then either breathing a sigh of relief if he threw a one past or screaming like a lunatic when the batter got out.

And when Tom Browning put down the 27th consecutive hitter, the energy was a mixture of pandemonium and ecstasy like I’d never seen before. Even Mo was jumping up and down, taking high fives and hugging people.

Maybe she was just in it for the hugging.

Later that night, we stopped for a nightcap, played a little table shuffleboard and joked that we’d never go to another professional baseball game because there’s no way to beat an experience like witnessing a perfect game.

I didn’t now just how close to true that would be. We were just starting our family and I got this job the following summer, so our schedules filled up before we could work in baseball. Then, when the players went on strike a few years later, I gave up on big league sports altogether. It’s such a gouge on the fans.

But I have managed to get out to a few minor league games, going to Richmond to see the Roosters or up to Dayton for the Dragons.

Roosters’ games are the best. There’s a real down-home atmosphere there, and you can take your own chair and sit in the beer garden for $5 and buy big-ass beers for $3. I’ve never spent more than $20 for a whole evening -- including peanuts.

So for the first time in 15 years, I got excited about baseball last week when we learned that Tom Browning would be spending the summer in Hamilton as the manager of Florence's Frontier League team while they are guests at Foundation Field.

I hope we will be good hosts, that a lot of people come out to see the games, to show that we’d like to have a team of our own. I plan to get out to a few games, maybe get a chance to shake a hand that pitched a perfect game.

(Revised from a May 28, 2003 column from the Hamilton JournalNews)

Creative Process A Mystery

Creative process a mystery

I had dinner with a friend and a friend of a friend last week and found myself subjected to an in-depth interview about the creative process.

Certainly I didn’t mind the grilling. Art is my life. There’s nothing I like to talk about more.

Even after nearly 40 years of being a writer and a degree in creative writing, more than 30 years involvement with theater and music, and 15 years as a journalist writing about arts, I am still largely baffled by the process of bringing a creative work to life.

That’s not to say I can’t do it or can’t analyze it, but when it comes down to that ultimate question — “Where do your ideas come from?” — I can’t really formulate a succinct response.

I do know, for instance, that the process itself brings forth ideas. One word leads to another word and when I find the groove, the ideas even take me by surprise.

The friend of a friend wanted to know if it was possible to nail it down, to recall a time when the good creative juices flowed, then figure out why they flowed with the idea of recreating that set of circumstances.

The truth is, however, that there are just too many variables to do that. Certainly every artist has a method and manner of working based on their own experience, but what works for me (quiet, dim lighting, usually in the very late hours of the night) may not work for others. Stephen King and Garrison Keillor both get up very early in the morning to write.

But I think the real key to coming up with good creative stuff is to also come up with a lot of bad creative stuff.

Bob Dylan has released some 47 albums in his career and hundreds of songs, the quality of both ranging from atrocious to legendary. And I’m willing to bet that he’s written or abandoned hundreds of other songs before they got to the recording stage of the process. A great artist like Picasso is mostly known for a handful of works, but for every “Guernica,” his oeuvre contains hundreds of paintings, drawings, studies, prints, etc., that no one but the most die-hard scholar or collector has seen.

That’s what the proverbial “cutting room floor” is about.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that when faced with a sexual harassment lawsuit over their workroom conversations, a group of writers from the “Friends” television show are saying that talking trash is all part of their process.

A writer’s assistant whose job it was to take notes for them claims that their banter — which was never personally directed at her — overstepped the bounds of good taste and made it uncomfortable for her to do her job.

You can read her suit on, where one of her claim includes that, “I had to constantly listen to comments about what kind of breasts and what kind of buttocks my supervisors were most attracted to.” She also makes the claim: “I have never been aware of any of the ‘Friends’ episodes that I worked on involving pornography, people having sex on the show or nudity.”

I was never a big friend of “Friends,” but I’ve seen enough of it to know that it was almost always all about sex and there probably would have been nudity and soft-core bedroom scenes if it were on HBO instead of NBC.

“They were talking about sex,” their lawyer told the New York Times, “because that was their job.”

If it were an office of claims adjustors or timeshare salesmen, certainly off-color remarks would be out of line, but if you can’t stand the sight of blood, you shouldn’t go to work in the slaughterhouse.

October 20, 2004

A Great Big Drowning Jesus

A great big drowning Jesus

Ostentatiousness isn’t one of the seven deadly sins, but maybe it should be.

I was taking my son back to The Ohio State University a couple of weeks ago when we passed the giant statue of Jesus along Interstate-75 by the Solid Rock Church in Monroe.

My son was tickled by the proximity of the statue to the pond. We decided it should be called “The Drowning Jesus.”

“They should just turn the statue into a giant water slide,” he said. “It would make baptism more fun.”

Good idea. Then there would be three types of baptizers: Sprinklers, dunkers and sliders.

“I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Wheeeeee!”

Yes, it’s a ridiculous idea, but once you have erected a 62-foot statue of Jesus by the roadside, it’s not that big a stretch of the imagination. It’s also one of the most hideously ugly statues I’ve ever seen, not at all flattering to the Savior.

The pastors have been widely quoted as saying that they spent $250,000 on the statue “to help people.”

“We’re living in a day when a lot of people feel hopeless, but we believe that when people see Him, they will understand He is the hope for the world,” one of them said.

If that represents the hope of the world, however, I guess I’ll take my chances in hell.

While it may be a noble cause to try to counter the human degradation represented by the nearby Hustler store and erotic dancers at Bristol’s Show Club — and the billboards that advertise them — the words of Jesus would suggest that there are better ways to fight the enemy.

Jesus lived a life and espoused a philosophy focused on humility and service to humanity, but there’s nothing humble about a great big Jesus beside the highway, and the quarter-million bucks it took to erect such a thing would have put a lot of Christmas hams — several thousand hams — on the tables of local hungry people.

There’s nothing new about using Christ’s name in order to justify conspicuous displays of faith such as this.

The Cincinnati Museum Center earlier this year held a traveling exhibition that highlighted the treasures owned by the Vatican. Among the items was a solid gold hammer that they once used to tap an ailing Pope on the head to see if he had yet died.

Looking at that exhibition, I had to wonder why a Pope’s physician would need a gold hammer when a common rock would do the job just as well, or why the Pope would need an elaborately-embroidered robe and pointy hat to preach the Gospel when Jesus traveled the countryside with only the clothes on his back — and I would highly doubt that there was a single thread of gold in any of his garments.

The Sermon on the Mount is pretty clear on the subject: “Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven,” and “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.”

So anyone who contributed to the great big Jesus should be feeling pretty good right now. This is as close to heaven as they’re going to get.

Anyone wondering why Jesus hasn’t come back yet as He said He would needs to think about the image of His ministry as expressed by the contemporary church.

He’s probably too embarrassed by expressions of faith such as the Pope’s elaborate wardrobe and Solid Rock Church’s “King of Kings.” Don’t get me started on Christmas.

If we want God to look favorably upon this nation, a good place to start earning His favor would be to tear down these temples of idolatry.

December 1, 2004

ELVIS & the Last Supper

Elvis and the Last Supper

We got to the Tavern way too early, but that gave us a good seat to watch the band set up and observe the Beautiful People as they filed in for the New Year’s Eve show.

“What if the King were to walk in here right now?” my friend said out of the blue.

“By ‘the King,’” I asked, do you mean Elvis Presley, the King of Rock’n’Roll?”

“Yeah. How old would he be now?”

We figured it out in our heads that he’d be turning 70 soon.

“Do you believe he’s still alive?”

“Well,” I said, “I doubt that he’s still walking around in his earthly body, but yes, the king lives. If you look over there above the cash register, you can see a photo of him.”

“Do you mean to say that because there’s a picture of him in the bar that his spirit still lives even though he no longer walks among us?”

“That’s pretty close. We all create waves of energy as we go through our lives, some of us create more energy than others. Whether our souls live on in some other dimension, something we might call heaven, no one can say for sure. But some people achieve something close to immortality by the energy they create and leave behind.

“Elvis left a pretty good wake of energy behind him. Look around. There’s not only a picture of him above the cash register, but there’s another picture of him there on the opposite wall, from the movie ‘Speedway.’

“Most people will leave behind a legacy that will last a few generations and only within their own family, but some people have such a powerful impact that their spirit will survive for hundreds, maybe thousands of years.

“As long as people perform the plays of William Shakespeare, Shakespeare lives. As long as the U.S. Constitution endures — which may not be much longer — Thomas Jefferson and the American Revolutionaries will live on.

“Of course, no one left a greater wake of energy than Jesus. Even though his message has been twisted and perverted to suit many questionable causes, his energy still pervades every aspect of our culture. Look over there, in the next room. There’s a clock with the painting of the Last Supper.”

He thought a minute, then posed another question: “But there are two pictures of Elvis, and only one of Jesus. Does that mean that Elvis has a greater energy here than Jesus?”

“Not necessarily.”

And the search was on. We scoured the walls of the establishment and discovered that there were seven pictures of Elvis, three of Jesus.

Elvis turned out to be more versatile than Jesus, too. There were pictures of him as a cowboy and as a race car driver as well as pictures of him with his guitar. All of the Jesus pictures were of Him chillin’ with the dozen at the supper.

But, we figured, that was still a pretty good showing since Elvis had the home field advantage. In most churches, chances are it would be a shut-out.

January 12, 2005

Breaking Out of the Box

Breaking out of the box

I have a box on my table.

I don’t know how it got there. It just showed up one day, unmarked and sealed. I’ve never touched it, but I’ve seen it and I know it’s there.

I had a dream not long ago in which there was a similar box and it was full of money, so I’ve got a really good feeling about this one that landed on my table. I believe it’s the box from my dream.

It’s become quite a debate in my neighborhood. I’ve found a few people who agree with me. I tell them about my dream and they trust me enough to believe what I tell them it’s full of money.

A woman picked up the box and said that there’s a shipping label on the bottom with a Wisconsin return address. She thinks it might be cheese.

One guy went so far as to pick it up and shake it. He thinks its a box of rocks, that it’s too heavy for money or cheese.

One of my supporters, however, said that while he believes I’m essentially correct, that maybe it’s a box of quarters, not $20 bills, and that’s why it’s heavy.

There are other theories. Some of them are so off-the-wall that I’m not going to justify them by mentioning them. Some people just think too far outside the box.

I think most people would agree with me. After all, I’m in possession of the box and I’m the only one who has actually seen what’s inside it. Well, yeah, I only saw it in a dream, but it was a very vivid dream.

In fact, I think 55 percent of America would agree with me, that the box is full of $20 bills.

There are polls suggesting that 55 percent of Americans will either ignore factual evidence, deny its existence or alter the assumptions behind the evidence to believe in a theory that is only supported by spiritual revelation.

For instance, it’s been pretty well-established that dinosaurs have been extinct for millions of years, well before the first human beings appeared on the planet. But if you surf over to Dr. Dino’s Web site (, you will learn that: “Dinosaurs were made the sixth day with the rest of the animals. Noah took them on the ark (probably young ones). They have always lived with man. After the flood many died from the climate changes and from man’s hunting.”

Dr. Dino’s real name is Kent Hovind, who bills himself as “creation science evangelist” and is clearly one of the 55 percent of Americans who, according to a recent CBS news poll, believe that God created man just as he is.

I’ve got a feeling we’ll be hearing a lot more about creationism v. evolution in the next four years or so, considering the coincidence that within the 3 percent margin of error, the same percentage of Americans voted for our current, highly moral national leader, giving certain points of view enough political capital to continue to be heard loud and clear.

But the first battles are going to the evolutionists. Last week, a federal judge ordered the removal of stickers placed in high school biology textbooks in Cobb County, Ga., that call evolution “a theory, not a fact,” saying they were an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.

The stickers read, “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.”

Interesting wording, that “critically considered” part, isn’t it?

A school board in Pennsylvania also last week amended an earlier ruling that required teachers to read a similar disclaimer before mentioning the e-word. The teachers protested, so now they don’t have to read the statement. School administrators do.

People are slow to change their opinions and beliefs. That’s the nature of things. Very few permanent changes come about rapidly, not without some cataclysm or trauma.

Mostly, it’s a matter of evolution.

January 19, 2005

The Pain of HEaling

The pain of healing

I can think of a hundred or (given enough time) a thousand places I’d rather ride out a snow storm than the emergency room.

But a friend was experiencing some scary symptoms, and being temporarily without wheels, rather than barring the doors against the elements and concentrating on a good book and some steaming hot cocoa, I was off to the ER for the bright lights, the disinfectant and the sounds and smells of a suffering humanity.

I shouldn’t complain. I was there as an act of mercy and friendship, but the hot chocolate in that machine tried to use scalding heat to disguise the lack of depth in flavor.

As a people watcher, there doesn’t seem to be a richer — or more heartbreaking — place for observation than the ER.

Everyone there, it seems, would rather be somewhere else — including most of the staff, although one of the nurses was having a jolly time and told us that he stopped doing home health care because it was too boring. “This is where the action is,” he said.

But in the same room with us, separated only by the curtains was a 30-something woman child, clutching a toy fire truck and passing great rushes of air from several different places, sometimes all at once.

She was replaced in that quarter of the room by a 2-year-old girl who was not only quite ill, but quite vocal about her discomfort. With her limited vocabulary, this discomfort was expressed as: “No, Mommy. Mommy. No, Mommy, no. Mommy. Noooooooo!”

I don’t have perfect pitch, but the last note of this melody seemed to be an excruciating D sharp about six octaves above middle C. Three or four more cycles and it would have been inaudible to the human ear.

Then there was the EMT student who came in to draw blood and put an IV set-up in my friend’s arm. Long story short, his efforts were both painful and superfluous as he could neither draw blood nor inject medicine in spite of the three-inch needle with which he painfully wounded my friend.

“I hope you at least learned something from the experience,” I said when he came back to remove the set-up that the jolly nurse had put on the other arm.

“Well, I learned I don’t have to use that big of a needle,” he said.

The patient next to us was there because her blood sugar level was about 800 — normal is somewhere around 100.

She overheard me saying that I should be taking notes from my column and started asking me questions.

“I love the JournalNews,” she said. “My neighbor prays every day that my paper comes for me.

“Every day, I’d go out to pick up my newspaper and I’d see him in the corner of his yard praying.

“One time I asked him about it and he said that he couldn’t get to church any more, but if he went to that one corner of his yard, he could see the cross up on the steeple. So that’s where he went to pray.”

She was delightful, and an instant friend. She had other stories, too, about her grandmother feeding her pet rooster to a mountain lion, for instance, so now she collects chickens, and she referred to her IV rack as her “new dance partner.”

“He fell in love with another one out in the hallway,” she said coming back from the bathroom. “I liked to have never got them apart.”

I wished her well as she went upstairs to be admitted.

“I hope you’re feeling better,” I said.

“I feel fine,” she replied. “It’s when my blood sugar is low that I feel sick.”

My friend, it turns out, was experiencing the symptoms of the onset of pneumonia. The doctor prescribed an expensive anti-biotic — $105 for eight pills — and is now resting, though not very comfortably.

January 26, 2005

Insecure About Security

Insecure about security

“This is your last chance, sir.”

I was a little nervous, to be sure — not that I was doing anything wrong like smuggling drugs or explosives. I just wanted to get to Las Vegas. I left my drugs and explosives at home (as far as I knew — maybe I had inadvertently stepped in some C4 on my way out the door).

It’s just that I’d never flown on a commercial flight before and all those security precautions at the Dayton Airport — all the dour, unhappy people in their Homeland Security uniforms and the x-ray machines — were quite intimidating to a poor, naive country boy like me.

I was so nervous, in fact, that when we got to the metal detectors, I needlessly emptied my carry-on bags into the plastic bins to go through the X-ray machines. I didn’t know I had to put the whole bag in the bin. They made me take off my shoes, and in all the excitement, I forgot about my cell phone in my pocket.

I remembered one fraction of a second before the buzzer went off and had already turned around to put it in with the rest of my stuff before the alarm sounded.

Embarrassed by my faux pas, I sheepishly laughed as I started back through the metal detector. But the man on the other side was not amused. Maybe it was the giant peace sign on my T-shirt that made him think I was some kind of subversive terrorist.

“This is your last chance, sir.”

Every muscle in my body tensed up.

It’s hard to sort out everything running through my mind in that three-second interval it took me to unpucker, take a deep breath and march through the metal detector. My traveling companion, who was already on the other side and ready to bolt to Vegas had I been detained, said my skin paled and my eyes went wide.

Fortunately, I made it through the second time, and we had some fun with the memory of the ordeal all the way to Las Vegas.

Coming home an old pro at this airline travel business, I left all my belongings — which included my laptop computer and a box of cheese crackers — in my carryon bags and just sat them in the bins.

After I passed through the metal detectors, I heard someone say, “Whose laptop is this?” and I realized that I had a giant peace sign sticker on it, just like the symbol on my shirt.

They had a better sense of humor about it than the guy in Dayton. The guy filling out the report said that sometimes traces of hand lotion or other items could set off the TNT sensor, not to worry. And they all laughed as they patted me down like a common criminal.

A young lady behind me set off the same sensor, and she appeared even more nervous than me as they searched through her purse.

I noticed, however, that we had one thing in common: She, too, was trying to smuggle cheese crackers on board.

Maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned it, because the guy filling out the report — his sixth one of the day, a 10-minute ordeal required every time they get an alarm, he said — seemed to lose some of his humor when I suggested that maybe Cheese-Nips should be included on the no-fly list.

February 16, 2005

Once You're a Dipstick

Once you’re a dipstick …

“Tell me the truth: Is there any hope for me?”

I pondered the question for a moment, just to make it look as though I had to think about it.

“Nope. Not much hope.”

It wasn’t a hard question. There he was, sitting on the edge of the kitchen chair because it hurt too badly to put his cheeks on the seat. His legs were a deep purple with slightly redder patches where the skin had blistered and peeled away. He was in pain, clearly, but stubborn about it. We were trying to talk him into going to the emergency room.

Three days earlier, he had been driving around town and saw a tanning place with a sign about new bulbs in their beds. The weather had just been nice enough to tease him into thinking spring was just around the corner so he decided to get a jump on his summer skin.

It may not be entirely his fault, depending on how you look at it. He’d never been in a tanning bed before, so he didn’t know just how intense the experience could be.

“It wasn’t the girl’s fault,” he protested when someone suggested that he might have case for a lawsuit. “She showed me how to use the bed and everything, and she said, ‘How long do you want to stay in? Ten minutes?’ I told her no, I wanted a full 30 minutes. It’s my own stupid fault. She told me it was too much, but I did it anyway.

“I’m the dipstick.”

He suspected as soon as he got out of the bed that he was over-cooked. The next day, huge blisters bubbled up on the back of his legs. A couple of days later, the legs were a rich shade of indigo.

As we discussed his options (go to the emergency room tonight, go see your doctor in the morning, wait until you legs fall off, etc.), he began to explain the full history of his dipstickedness.

It started, he explained, when he was just a child and managed to burn his mother’s prized rose bushes while trying to help his father burn leaves in the yard.

His dipstickedness seems to manifest itself a lot when he’s on vacation. He told of a time in Virginia when a ranger warned him not to feed peanuts to the squirrels in a park. He told them, rather smugly, that he was an experienced animal feeder and that he knew what he was doing.

“This old squirrel came up to me,” he said, “one of the scruffiest looking squirrels you’d ever see, barely had any fur on his tail. He took the peanut from me, but he also dug his incisors all the way through my fingers.

“I tried to hide it from the other people around. I went to my wife and quietly asked her if she had a Kleenex. I heard a guy say, ‘I knew that dipstick was going to get bit.’

Visiting the Smokey Mountains one time, he ignored the signs that said “Stay off rocks” and did a little off-trail climbing.

“I got up pretty far, then I started slipping,” he said. “When I hit the ground, I broke the fall by landing on my hands. I quietly got back in the car and we drove 20 miles until we found a drug store where I could buy some ace bandages to wrap up my wrists until we got home. I broke both wrists.”

Before we left, we had him convinced that he should give up the ways of the dipstick and start taking better care of himself. That should start, we said, by going to see your doctor so that you don’t lose your legs.

What’s even more dipstickish than these experiences, however, may be telling stories like that to a friend who’s a newspaper columnist.

March 30, 2005

Primal Shopping Instincts

She doesn’t like her voice so she never sings out loud, but I could hear a song in her breath, a melody flowing from her contented smile as she steered her cart through the aisle of bargains.

“What are you grinning about?” I had to ask.

“Nothing,” she said. “Just happy to be shopping.”

It’s not like we’d gone there to blow a bunch of money for the joy of spending or anything. I needed some cleaning supplies and she was, I thought, along for the ride.

But for her, it was more. It was a bonus therapy session. That’s what she calls it: “Shopping therapy.”

“What is it about shopping that a gives you so much pleasure?” I asked later.

“I don’t know,” she said. “But I’ve always liked to shop. When I was a little girl, that’s what my mom and I did to make me happy. She would ground me, then feel bad about it so we’d go shopping. There were times I’d misbehave just so she’d take me shopping.

“It was one way that we could spend time together.”

“And I suppose you’ve passed this shopping gene on to your daughter, too?”

“Oh, yeah,” she said. “She better find a good job when she grows up.” So I asked her mother about this shopping dynasty. She told me she was never much of a shopper, but after her divorce many years ago, she was seeing a counselor, a social worker, who advised her to go out once a week and buy something just for herself.

“So I was at the store and I saw a pack of Post-It notes that had little angels printed on it,” mother said. “I thought, ‘You don’t get very many of them for two dollars,’ but it was something I liked, so I bought it.” So did it help?

“Oh, yeah,” mother said. “I love to buy things for myself now.”

But her daughter, she said, was a natural shopper.

“I took her shopping for clothes one time and I picked out a whole cart full of cute stuff,” mother said. “We went to put it in layaway and she wouldn’t let me. She said, ‘If you can’t pay for it now so I can take it home, I don’t want it.’”

So by now, I’m thinking this is deep. Maybe this is a vestige of the hunter/gatherer mentality of our ancestors. For the same reason men like sports (generally speaking) as a link to their hunting past, so women like to shop (generally speaking) as a throwback to foraging for food.

And that’s maybe why when men shop for something, let’s say “shoes,” they conquer the shoes and come back with shoes and nothing else. But a woman will go shopping for shoes and come back with a carload of shoes because they found such a bargain, or a carload of anything but shoes because they couldn’t find a suitable pair, but found all this other cool stuff to satisfy the urge to shop.

Of course, there are exceptions that prove the rule. I, for one, loathe spectator sports for the most part. When I shop, it’s because I need something. It’s rarely recreational (unless I’m going simply to keep some female company) or therapeutic. When I do, it usually results in feelings of guilt, either for spending money I shouldn’t spend or because I’ve simply added to my storehouse of unnecessary stuff.

But the women I know tell me it’s all for the good of the cause.

“Even if it’s just groceries,” my shopping friend said, “that’s fine by me. Shopping is shopping. I may have 10 boxes of Tide in the laundry room already, but I know we’ll use it eventually — and I’ve saved some money.

“I may not be the wealthiest person in town,” she added, “but at least we’ve got plenty of food in the house.”

March 23, 2005

We'll Laugh Over It Later

We’ll laugh over it later

Things look a little different once you’ve seen a concrete barricade approaching your vehicle at 40 miles an hour.

Well, I guess the vehicle was approaching the barricade, but for all the control I had over the situation at that point, my car may as well have been falling from the sky.

It was a dreary Saturday afternoon and I was exiting I-75 north onto Ohio 129. It was raining lightly as I went up the incline and around the curve, so I was taking it slow. I started to accelerate as I came out of the curve and at the same time, the rain started coming down in buckets. I reached down with my right hand to adjust the windshield wipers and felt the back tires slide to the right. I straightened out the vehicle and then it slid to the left a little. I straightened it out again, but then the rear tires went to the right again and kept on going.

I’ve revisited the scene since then, many times, and I can see exactly where it happened. At the top of the ramp, the righthand lane — the lane I was traveling in — has a series of dips, the last one being nearly an inch or so (it’s a dangerous place, so I’ve never gotten out to measure) below the pavement level of the left-hand lane — enough of a dip to create a pond for my car to go skiing on.

I’ve taken cars out of many a skid, most of them of my own making, but there was nothing I could do to stop this one. I’m not sure if it spun all the way around or not — it sure seemed like it. I just remember a big horizontal blur and the concrete barricade coming toward me.

I turned to check on my passenger, but I didn’t get a real good look as the van hit the wall nearly head on and the airbag exploded in my face. The car spun around another half turn and came to rest perpendicular to the wall, facing traffic.

The rain poured. I smelled burning rubber from the airbags. I sat there, shaken and shaking, trying to gather my wits enough to figure out what to do. The engine wasn’t running, but the windshield wipers were. I turned them off and opened the door.

A white van had pulled off to the side and a man came out, dodging the raindrops. He looked at me and started to laugh.

“Do you need me to call the police?” he yelled through the rain and his laughter.

I didn’t see my cell phone. I couldn’t remember if I even had it with me. I said, “Yes, please. Call the police.”

Then it occurred to me why he was laughing: We were coming home from a clown job and were both still in uniform. I took off my big red nose and threw it on the dashboard.

Go ahead. You can laugh, too. Everyone else did: The paramedics. The state trooper — who gave me a ticket anyway. Everyone got a real kick out of the clown show. Everyone but the clowns. And the guy who came to tow the car. He didn’t seem to be having a good day either, and even a couple of crashed clowns wasn’t going to cheer him up. We weren’t exactly making balloon animals for everybody, either.

The other clown and I were shaken and stirred, but otherwise OK. I had a few scrapes on my face and ear from the airbag; my passenger ended up with a couple of bruises on her back from the airbag slamming her into the seat belt apparatus behind the door. But if it weren’t for those airbags, I probably wouldn’t be writing this today.

Yes, the world looks a little different once you’ve seen a concrete barricade approaching your vehicle at 40 miles per hour.

You have a new appreciation for things. Especially airbags.

April 16, 2005

La Vie Boheme

February 19, 2011

Today, I was part of theatrical history.

My daughter Rachel is a junior at Baldwin Wallace College in Berea, Ohio. Her school, according to a note in the program for the shows we saw today, is one of the Top 5 musical theater schools in the nation according to some prestigious, knowledgeable magazine. I’d never heard of Baldwin Wallace College until she told me she had a chance to audition there, Monsieur Dog and I gave her a ride to that.

But after what I saw today, I can believe it’s Top 5. This weekend, the BW musical theatre program launched the first ever repertoire production of the opera “La Boheme” and “Rent,” the musical based on “La Boheme” that set a new standard for musical theatre that every newly-written production tries in some what to top it, or be the next “it.”

You’d think that by this time, such an event would have already taken place, but the amateur rights for “Rent” only became available a couple of years ago. In fact, my son Sean played one of the lead roles, Mark, in one of the first amateur prodcations at the Dayton South Playhouse production just about a year ago.

So today, I was part of the first audiences to see both shows on the same stage in one day. Theatrical history.

Not only that, however, I would have to say that this “Rent” is by far the best production of it at I’ve seen of it (this would be the fifth, including a revival with Anthony Rapp and other members of the original cast), and probably the best college level production I’ve seen of anything ever. Except for one performance, I’d have to say this was close to Broadway-ready. It had a vibrancy and an energy that made it an emotional experience, and not just because my Girl was in it. Actually, I barely saw her because we got our tickets a little late and ended up in the front row on the opposite side of where she did most of her business.

The “La Boheme” was pretty good, too, but not quite with the same intensity as “Rent,” and certainly not Met-ready.

But we were in the right spot for the Girl’s business this time as a cafe girl. I cracked up at the little sub-plot she had made up, trying to get the attention of Rudolfo by hiking up her skirt, but he never looked at he. It was hilarious, and I think she got at least one good laugh from the audience other than from me, though it was hard to tell. Maybe they were doing something funny on the other side of the stage at the same time. I was busy watching Rachel.

We were going to stay in the apartment Barb’s son James shares with his fiance Ashley. She’s in med school in Cleveland and he’s in the Coast Guard, stationed on an ice cutter in the Great Lakes, so we didn’t expect him to be here, but on the way up he called as he was driving to Cleveland from Michigan, so we’ve been able to have a nice visit with her kids, too.

The Other Parental Unit was also a part of the historic theatrical event today, but I managed to avoid any contact with her, but it cut into my Girl Time.

We’re planning to have breakfast with Rachel in about seven hours, so it’s time to let the sleeping pills do their job.

PS: February 20, 2011

After a very nice breakfast with Rachel, James and Ashley at a cute little diner called Lucky’s Cafe, in which we all noted the absence of Sean, without whom we were incomplete, who should should send me a text message on the ride home but Sean himself, with some very good news indeed: He had his audition at Wright State University and they immediately accepted him into the musical theater and acting programs with hints of scholarships.

So how proud do you think I am now?

I am so happy for him, especially considering how I basically gave up my desire to go to college for theater because I blew my WSU audition so badly back in 1977. I’ll tell that story in so detail later because it needs some background and I’m anxious tonight to get back to some revisions on the chapter about my very early life so I can get some of it posted.

Killer Billie

Killer Billie

My intention here is to follow the Mark Twain method. That is, whenever I sit down to write these memoirs, I will simply write about what’s on my mind at the time. It may be anecdote from my past, a report on my day or current events in the news that have my attention, a book report or movie review, whatever.

One of the things that got me thinking about starting this autobiography project was telling the story of Killer Billie to some friends the other night. I have known many unusual characters, but Willie has to take the prize, not just because of the weirdness of it, but because of what I took away from it, such as a better, but still not complete, understanding of alternative sexuality lifestyles.

So classify this story as a character portrait. There are many other anecdotes concerning Willie, the Tuesday night jam sessions and other things I gloss over here that I’ll get into later. For now I’m just going to give the general arc of it here. Here goes....

The first time I spoke to Bill Gabbard, whom I eventually started calling Willie, was at Terwilliger’s, a bar that lasted two or three years in the Hamilton West Shopping Center. I’m guessing this was around the fall of 1994. Mr. K had moved the Tuesday night jam sessions there after Jim Nash, the owner of Scooter’s Pub, mysteriously disappeared, rumored to have fled South, perhaps one of the Carolinas, skipping out on a debt.

Which was a shame. Tuesday’s at Scooter’s was the closest thing to a music scene in Hamilton that I’d witnessed or experienced. It was open mic hosted by Mr. K (Ken Glidewell) and Kyle Hahn (both gone now, Mr. K from a motorcycle wreck and Kyle from ALS). At the time, they were both in the band Crawdaddy. I went to Scooter’s every week for however long the jam session lasted. I was there on the first night and I was there on what turned out to be the last night. It seems like about two years, but it may not have been that long. The little bar would be packed tight. Depending on how many people would show up to play, I would usually get at least a 15 minute set, longer if I waited until midnight. Sometimes the night would end with every man standing in an endless jam on “The Weight,” “Rocking in the Free World” or “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” Rick Estes, my partner in Dry Run, would usually be there, too, or if he wasn’t, Mr. K or Kyle would sit with me, or sometimes we’d all play together.

I first saw Willie play guitar at Scooter’s with John Unzicker (or maybe Unzinger, something like that). I knew John some already, though that night I was just going, “That dude looks familiar”. Only later, after Willie told me his name, that I realized who it was. I had partied with him a few times shortly after we moved to Sharon Park and I started hanging out in the eighth grade with David Bailey, who later picked up the nickname Bumpy. John lived on Smith Road just across the highway from the Park and was friends with Bumpy, but he went to Wilson Junior High in the Hamilton district, so I never saw much of him once I hit high school and started hanging with different groups. Bumpy wasn’t much into school.

When John and Willie played at Scooter’s, they did a couple of Neil Young songs. I don’t remember which ones, but I do remember that they were songs I often did, and since I hadn’t played yet, I had to adjust my set list. That was the bitch about playing late. I also remember that John played his acoustic guitar through a fuzz box and it sounded like ten kinds of hell, a swarm of giant mosquitoes and an industrial accident, because he was playing open chord rhythm and never muted the strings. Willie and I jammed with him a couple of times later on, but that’s the only time I saw them play at Scooter’s (at least the only time I remember... I generally stuck to a three-beer limit for budgetary reasons, but it would get a little drunk in there if someone else was buying, and someone frequently was).

I went to Terwilligers on my own that night. Rick Estes had met a woman, so after about three years of Dry Run (or as Mr. K dubbed us, Cell Block Nine), I was going solo. But there was usually someone to play with at those jam sessions, and Mr. K was always there to play the bass. Terwilligers also had the advantage of having space for a drum kit, so Jeff, the drummer from Crawdaddy, or Jamie Combs would sit in with us. I parked at the end of the bar near the door that night. When Willie came in he sat down next to me and we started talking. Before long we figured out we knew enough songs that we could do a set. Mostly Neil Young, of course, but there may have been a Dylan song or two, maybe a Creedence tune. Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels” just came out and we were all over that three-chord vamp. I remember playing slide and making him sing “Are You Ready for the Country,” which he later told me mortified him.

Though he didn’t care much for singing, Willie was an excellent side man. He had a natural flair for playing but didn’t have much confidence in himself. He was a bluegrass picker at heart, but could play along with anything and could suss out the chords of a song better than most trained musicians.

So it was like magic from the very first night, We made plans to rehearse. and started playing regularly at Terwilliger’s and started picking up gigs her and there, mostly volunteer stuff like festivals, soup kitchens and parties, but we’d occasionally make a few bucks.

We played together off and on for about 10 years. There were three off times because the women he was with decided they didn’t want him to play out, so we’d get together every once in a while to play at his house, but they would get tired of that, too, so I wouldn’t see him for a few months until his next divorce.

He was recently divorced when we first met. Her name was Peg and they’d been married 20 years. She remarried and they had a grown daughter, so he lived alone in a tidy little house off Millville Avenue, except when the occasional marriage brought the next ready-made family.

Willie was a Civil War buff. Not a re-enactor, but an avid reader of history and president of the Hamilton Civil War Round Table and his head was full of arcane knowledge. I went on a couple of battlefield tours with him so that he’d have someone new to share Civil War stories with. He was particularly knowledgeable on General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.

He even looked like someone from the Civil War era, tall and thin with shoulder length hair and a full, bushy beard, like someone just up out of the mountains were it not for his collection of tattoos, including some on his legs that you could see when he wore shorts. He was a sweet, harmless guy for the most part, had two cats that he fawned over, but because of his rough looks, my kids called him “Killer Bill.”

He also had multiple piercings, including seven or eight on his pecker. Just thinking about it makes my testicles retract. During one of our trips we had a long conversation about it. I was sort of interviewing him, and he told me about the rush that he got from the pain, that the guy that pierced him would say he was going to count to three but would jab the needle through at two or wait a beat after three so that it would always be a surprise when it happened.

He was definitely a quirky dude, but we played well together, almost telepathically at times, and I’ve never had a better partner. We’d finish a song and be able to launch into the next one at the same time, without counting and without even discussing what the song would be. I’d see him start to finger an Em chord and knew that it would be “Down By the River”. He was always challenging me to learn more songs and playing with him made me a much better guitar player. Dry Run was more collaborative as Rick Estes and I would share front man duties, but with Millville Road (Millville Avenue was the route to both our neighborhoods, but Millville Road sounded more alt-country) I did most of the singing and rhythm guitar while Willie would provide the tasty licks.

After we’d been playing a couple of years he met his next wife, Irene, who moved in with a problem child, a young teen son who was a bundle of trouble and disrespect. She was all right at first, but they started having all kinds of trouble, and on a couple of occasions she tried to drag me into the middle of it on the pretext of asking for my advice. None of their trouble had anything to do with me but with Willie’s unusual sexual proclivities. She showed me a personal ad that she said he put on the Internet, offering himself up to be a submissive partner. I think she wanted me to condemn him for it, but I just told her that she should make him drink her piss if that’s what he wanted. I will give her the benefit of the doubt and say maybe it was simply because she was trying to get him to concentrate on saving their relationship that she told him she didn’t want him to play guitar anymore. He grudgingly agreed and we went on a hiatus until she moved out around six months later.

The next one was a psycho drama queen named Robin, whom he met at the nudist colony they both belonged to. She had two kids, but they were both sweet kids. Her daughter and Rachel even got to be buddies. They liked to sing together. She also wanted him to stop playing, and he did for a while, but she relented and we got back together after a couple of months. She ended up leaving shortly after that, but not until she took a knife or screwdriver to the finish of Willie’s good Gibson guitar and tried to blame it on the puppy they’d just gotten.

The fourth one was the most bizarre of all and changed everything. Her name was Lori, same as my wife. When he first told me about her, he said, “I’ve got me a Lori, too.” I told him he should have just taken mine and saved us both some trouble, as that marriage was dead in the water by then.

If there has ever been a woman obviously a lesbian, it was his Lori. She was short and stout, but muscularly so, with short-cropped, spiked hair and a manly way of dressing. He met her, I believe, at the sex club in Dayton that he’d go to to get his ass spanked, and she apparently showed him no mercy. He dropped his drawers once so I could see the bruises from her and her girlfriends busting his ass with a paddle, his legs and buttocks solid purple with breaks in the skin. It was, still is, hard for me to get my mind around, letting yourself get tied down and abused like that. But I guess it’s no worse than having sharp needles jammed into your cock.

I also couldn’t get my mind around his attraction to her. Whenever he asked my advice, which was often because it was a problematic relationship, my answer was always some variation of “Run fast in the other direction,” but no matter how much she abused him, emotionally or sexually, he wouldn’t let it go.

He even put his beloved house up on the market, found homes for his cats, and started packing away his Civil War stuff. She had a big house in the East Side of Cincinnati, and a huge basement that when I first saw it was full of stuffed animals, bear and elk and all manner of game, stuff that she’d killed. When he moved in with her, she gave him one little corner to display some of his artifacts and prints, along with his record collection. He was really into the prints by Don Troiani and owned a couple dozen. So it was pretty pathetic.

When he moved out of his house and into hers, Millville Road went on hiatus again, though I would occasionally hear from him, usually when he was upset. Typically, it was because she treated him like a housewife. She’d go out with her girlfriends and leave him home alone. The role reversal confounded me, and it was obvious to me that this was an abusive relationship, but he insisted he loved her for reasons I couldn’t understand.

And I couldn’t, to be sure, even when he finally revealed those reasons to me.

That happened one winter’s night when he called and told me that he’d had enough and asked my help to move his stuff back out of her house. I drove a van, so there was enough room to move a futon he’d taken there, his albums, which he loaded in so much haste that they were just in loose piles, and some of his Troiani prints.

He cried the whole time. After we got the stuff unloaded at his house, I tried to get him to calm down, but he just kept blubbering. I wanted to slap some sense into him.

Finally, in exasperation, I said, “Dude, you’re acting like a woman.”

To which he replied, at long last making the confession that he’d been avoiding making to me: “Because I am one!”

(Which, coincidentally, is exactly the same thing my son said just a couple of months earlier when I asked him why he was looking at gay porn on the Internet, but that’s another chapter.)

He was, he said, “a woman trapped in a man’s body,” and that his dyke was the first person to recognize it. As I said, he was a gentle spirit, but who would have expected this out of Killer Bill?

Her name was Billie, and he said he’s known about her all his life but kept it to himself until Lori turned to him one night and said, “You’re just a little girl.”

And that recognition, he said, still sobbing like, well, a little girl, is the reason why he loved her so much and why his heart was so broken. She was his soul mate.

After I searched the house for hidden cameras, half expecting to see Alan Funt walk in the back door laughing his ass off, I let him talk it out because once he started, he had to tell me the whole thing, from the time he was a little boy and preferred hanging out with the women in the kitchen at family gatherings instead of watching sports with the men or playing outside with the other kids.

Then it got weird.

The next time I saw him, he asked me if I’d go with him to a transgender support group that met at the Washington Platform once a month. He was too nervous to go by himself and wanted some support. So I rode down there with him. He was still in full beard, but once he got through introductions, he sashayed with the best of them. I spent most of the evening sitting at the rim of the group talking to a 70-year-old person who had recently finished having the surgery to have his penis turned into a vagina, the details of which you need to go elsewhere for as my testicles are retracting again, and if I continue on this thread, I fear they will disappear entirely.

They were all very nice and sweet people, but it was like being stuck in a Monty Python sketch about a bridge club. Some were simply transvestites, men who liked to dress like women, and were looked down upon by the “real” transgendered, those who felt they were really women in their heart and soul but were born without the right body parts. Some were more comical than others with their five o’clock shadows, hormonally-grown tits and beer bellies. But Willie acted like he finally found home.

As he was getting ready to start making his good-byes, I stepped away from the group and sat at the bar for a moment. I watched them, noticing that they were each far more effeminate than any group of women, and the cloud of perfume was palpable even from 10 feet away.

The next time I saw Willie, he had shaved his beard and as far as I could tell all the rest of his body but for his hair, which was still long, but cut in a feminine way. He started wearing frilly cotton nightgowns and house dresses when I’d come over to play guitar. He bought some feminine glasses to replace his 19th century reproduction spectacles. He wanted me to start referring to him as “she” and to call him Billie, and sometimes I did, but it was usually sarcastically. I never got totally used to it.

He did pick up a suitable nickname though. I separated from my wife the following summer and moved into his upstairs for a little while, sleeping on the futon until I collected myself enough to find an apartment. He had to get up very early and so went to bed very early, but I was a night owl. One night after we’d been out for a couple of drinks, Holly and I, along with her friend Michelle, were trying to be quiet as we sneaked our way upstairs. Michelle looked around the immaculately clean house with its tasteful antiques and country kitchen decor, got this puzzled look on her face and asked, “Whose house is this again?” I told her it was my friend Willie’s. “A single guy?” she asked incredulously, then said, “It looks like somebody’s grandma’s house!” Of course, Holly and I busted a gut, and after we told him the story the next day, we took to calling him Nana, which he really liked.

As he got his nerve up, Willie took to dressing more feminine outside the house, too. My clown show had a gig that fall at the Chicken Festival in Kentucky and he wanted to come along because it was far enough away from home that he could go full-bore Billie, and he did. It was a little uncomfortable, though, not just because it was the first time I was with him in public in a dress, but because we got the gig to do our chicken cannon show at a church tent, and his/her appearance in the audience garnered some pretty interesting responses.

When he’d go out to play music -- he also played sideman to Jim Burns, a local guy who was a Willie Nelson kind of performer -- he wouldn’t go totally fem, but enough that he approached a minimal level of androgyny. Still, he kept going a little further each time and Jim eventually quit calling him to play as it wasn’t going over too well in the country music bars.

And something else came over him. The more like a woman he tried to become, the more insulting he became toward men, always dropping lines like

“Just like a man” and “Men are all alike.”That really got on my nerves. I have a lot of respect for women. They have to endure physical, emotional and societal obstacles that men can’t even imagine. And as much as I tried to understand Willie’s need to be that, the fact remained that no matter how much he tried to act like a woman and look like a woman, he still had XY chromosomes, would never birth a child nor experience a menstrual cycle. As a man, I remain baffled by it, but if I were a woman, I think it would really piss me off for an individual to claim womanhood without bleeding for it, and I don’t think mutilating your genitals counts.

In other words, the more Billie he became, the bigger the bitch he turned into, and I was getting fed up. Although she played guitar as well as Willie, I didn’t like her as much.

We finally had a falling out over some musical equipment, but I’ll confess that may have just been a good excuse. He and his tranny friends were always telling me how lucky Billie was for having a friend who stuck by her as she made this transition, but I was having enough of it.

He came into a powerful PA system with big speakers and Marshall amps that had been abandoned somewhere, and we were in the process of trying to get a band together. We had put together a four-piece to do a gig at the Hamilton Music Theatre just a month or so earlier. The bass player didn’t want to continue with us, but the drummer did, and my little four-channel PA wasn’t enough to drive us over the drums. So the free PA was quite the windfall and I began a search for a new bass player. But before we had a chance to try it all out, he called me at work one day and told me that he sold all that gear for $1,000, and I hit the roof. True, the gear had been given to him, and he certainly needed the money but we needed that equipment to have a band, so that was the end of the band project and my partnership with Willie.

We still played guitar at his house a couple of times, and we had drinks with a group at Buffalo Wild Wings once, but I just didn’t have the energy for him/her anymore. He was Billie full-time now, but the last time I was at his house was for a party he threw the night he had his name legally changed. But instead of Billie, he changed it to Virginia Lee. He had met another person like himself in the meantime, a pre-operation transgendered individual, and started dating. They considered themselves a lesbian couple, but they were still equipped like men, though Virginia Lee confided that she was so loaded up with hormones that she couldn’t get it up anymore. They started going into the technicalities of their physical relationship, so I just started playing guitar and tried to drown them out.

Virginia -- and I did call her that, just that one night, because I finally realized that my pal Willie was as good as dead -- was in such a buoyant mood that she started trying to be flirty with me, asking me if I was still mad at her and could she have a make-up kiss. I just couldn’t go for that, and responded by vamping on a G-C-D progression and ad-libbing insulting, couplets, not just at her but at some of the other problematic clowns (literally) in the room. I was being a total asshole, I know. But I was stressed and confused and there was alcohol involved.

About a year and a half passed between the time Billie revealed herself to me and that party in the summer of 2005. I still got Virginia Lee news for a while because Holly and Michelle kept in touch with her for a while. Apparently, Virginia Lee wasn’t very well accepted at the conveyor belt factory and she lost his job. Holly told me Virginia sold Willie’s house and moved in with the lesbian lover in Cincinnati somewhere. Holly and I broke up the next spring, so I heard no more, but I think they’d fallen out of touch by then anyway.

I saw Virginia Lee one more time, about a year later, at Riverfest in 2006. I went down there to twist balloons for tips, and I was ducking out as the sun set so that I could de-clown and watch the fireworks from the apartment of a friend of Barb, my new girlfriend. As we were walking up the hill away from the Ohio, a group of trannies came walking down toward us. I saw them coming, but I didn’t recognize her until she said, “Hello, Daluni,” again trying to be flirty. I was too taken aback to muster a quick reply and we were both swept up in our respective flows of pedestrian traffic.

But we both looked back thriugh the crowd and our eyes met for part of a second. I felt sad, as I remember, once again mourning the loss of a friend.

Here piggy piggy piggy

2022 1106

So on Thursday’s errand run, we stopped by Staples so that I could try to get some good scans of my #Inktober drawings so that I could update my website and free up the originals to be bound together. The paper was too think to go through the automatic feed on the scanner/printer, so one-by-one I manually put each page on the bed and pushed the series of buttons thirty-two times. It was tedious, but didn’t really take that long.

I had the girl at the print station counter run off some proof copies for me, grabbed my thumb drive, checked off that step and that errand, and moved on. They came out okay for the most part, but some of the areas that I had done in gray wash didn’t copy very well, so I had some touching-up to do electronically. We went on with our day, and that night I added a page to my website and posted on this blog.

Before I begin the story of the miracle pig, let me remind you of one of my Inktoberfest drawings, #12 in the series, prompt word FORGET, in which I detailed a list of things I've lost in the past year, including a $500 CoolPix camera and a pair of nice leather gloves that my daughter gave me nearly ten years ago.

True stories all. I have a very bad habit of getting distracted and leaving stuff behind.


On Saturday, I went down to the studio and began preparing the Inktoberfest pages so that I could bind them into a book. I didn’t have a whole lot of margin on the left, so I scored each sheet (the paper is a fairly hefty 90#, bought for watercolor but not sufficiently thick for that) so that they would fold nicely when one opened the book. This involved scoring each page individually with an embossing tool about a half-inch from the left edge of the page and then folding the strip back and forth a little to give the paper a consistent bend. Thirty-four times (thirty-two drawing plus end pages).

Starting at the cover sheet, I made my way through chronologically, but when I got to 30, the next one was one of the blank end pages. I was missing #31! The prompt word was FARM, for which I drew a piglet a la Arnold Ziffel:

I knew immediately what I had done. The pig was my final scan and I had left it on the scanner bed at Staples two days ago.

I grabbed my keys and headed out. Time was of the essence.

When I got to Staples ten minutes later, there was a different person at the counter. I didn’t catch his name, and I hate to be judgmental about people, but for the purposes of this account and to impart my impression of him, let’s just call him Goober. He tried to be helpful, but my request seemed to fluster him.

“I was in here scanning the other day, and I think I may have left a document on the bed of that scanner,” I explained. “Do you have a lost and found or anything like that?”

He was stymied. “Gee, I don’t know,” he said gazing around the store. “I don’t normally work here, so I don’t know where anything is.” I could see little piles of paper stacked all over the place, and little cubby holes and cabinets liked the area inside the printshop area and all around the work station island in the middle. I was ready to tear the place apart, but I kept my cool on my side of the little swinging doorlet, but poised to barge through if it became necessary. He went to the other side of the island and took a plastic box from under the counter, the kind used to hold file folders. “Can you describe it?”

“It’s a drawing of a pig on off-white paper nine inches by twelve inches,” I said. “I don’t think it would fit in that box.”

He rifled through whatever was in that box anyway, then took out another identical box and began leafing through it. “Gee, well, if somebody found it, they probably just threw it away.”

That would not speak well towards my artistic skill, I thought, if someone took the drawing off the bed of the scanner and deemed it garbage.

“I just thought you might have a lost and found,” I said, brokenhearted. I could re-draw the pig in a couple of hours, I guess, but I wanted that one. “Thanks anyway.”

Just to be sure, on my way out, I checked the scanner bed and of course it wasn’t there. I didn’t see any wastebaskets, though.

But off to the side was a big blue garbage can labeled “Secure Shredding.” The lid was padlocked and there was a slit in the top about two inches wide. I peeked down in there and sure enough, there was my pig. He was under four or five other sheets of paper, but I could see his nose poking out and the word “FARM” in perfect Green Acres lettering. The can was about half full, so although I could see the pig, I could not reach the pig. The slit was too small for me to get my hand through, tried though I might, so I went back to Goober. He was already waiting on someone else, but I barged right in. “I can see it in the big can over there,” I shouted. “Where do you keep the key?”

“I don’t have the key,” he said, a little perturbed. “The service comes in and empties it.”

I returned to the can, tried again to squeeze my hand through to no avail. What I need, I thought, is Barb’s litter-picker-upper, the stick with the claw. Note to self to get one and keep in the van. In the meantime, back to Goober: “Do you have a yardstick or something that I could fish it out with?”

He was still waiting on the other fella, but he didn’t seem to mind. “Sure, if you think it will help.”

Using the beat-up wooden yardstick, I was able to slide the page out from under the others and got it on top of the pile. It was still a good eighteen-to-twenty inches deep in the barrel, so I tried to ease it over to the side, thinking that maybe I could shimmy it up somehow. The yardstick had a hole drilled in the end I was holding, so I flipped it around, thinking if I could line the hole up with a corner of the page, I might be able to flip it against the side of the barrel.

I did not see that the yardstick had was split on that end. Perhaps it wasn’t. Perhaps the Baby Jesus heard my prayers and decided to work a miracle right there on that yard stick so that I could retrieve my pig. I lined up the hole with a corner of the paper and the yardstick seemed to part like the Red Sea and grabbed the pig by the nose.

I was ecstatic, and Goober was gobsmacked. “You did it!” he exclaimed as I went galumphing back, yard stick held high and flapping my pig like a flag of victory.

I returned to the studio triumphantly and finished the task and started on the next step in binding the book.

I didn’t have to spend two or three hours drawing #31 over again, but best of all, I didn’t have to revise #12 with:


From 2005, a Journal-News article about the time I participated in a dance project.