I am the 33%

Baffling title, I know.  However, I am in a distinct and coveted minority right now.  I am part of the one third of people here in Columbus who have electricity.  The “rush hour storm” (my name for it; don’t know if anyone’s officially given it a title) of Friday night knocked out electricity when hurricane-force winds blew down power lines.  Looking at this morning’s Columbus Dispatch online, the best guess is that 345 thousand people in Central Ohio are without electricity, and about one million Ohioans total are without power.

While I have electricity, I do not have Internet.  I am “in the field” right now, typing this entry at the main branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library.  I am without Internet and TV at home, and I realize that this may continue for awhile.  American Electric Power is saying it may be until Saturday before all of Central Ohio has lights, so I’m sure WOW Internet and Cable is not going to bust its chops to make sure people get to see America’s Got Talent.

My work day ended at 5 p.m. Friday, and around 4:40, I looked out to see that people were driving with their lights on, the street lights had come on, and the sky was getting dark.  (The latter never concerns me, because the windows in the William Green Building are so tinted that I often think it’s darker outside than it really is.)

At 5, I walked outside and was hit by the wind.  Newspaper pages and leaves skittered across the sidewalk, and then I saw an orange barrel rolling across High St.  The air felt warm and wet.  I hurried across High St. to catch my bus north.

During the northbound trip up N. 4th St., my fellow passengers and I escaped the worst of the hurricane-velocity winds that were pummeling Columbus at that time.  We saw trash cans rolling out into the street, strewing their contents behind them in a trail as they went.  We started seeing tree limbs lying on cars and on sidewalks.  Most ominously, we saw totally darkened houses.  Even at 5 p.m., three hours before sundown, everyone was driving with their headlights turned on.

I got off the bus and began walking the block toward my house.  Other houses on my street had lights on, so I was hopeful.  As I was leaving the bus, I saw several people running en masse north on N. 4th St., so I glanced in that direction and saw a thin cloud of black smoke in the sky.  As I looked up the alley, I saw there was a fire, and both rubberneckers and fire trucks were headed that way.

So, I hurried home and clicked on the living room light (just to make sure I had electricity; I did), and grabbed the camera.  (I write this one paragraph after saying something about rubberneckers, I know!).  I went up the alley, where the fire was still raging but looked easily controlled by the firefighters I saw there.  A garage behind a house on N. 4th was on fire, and the flames had even managed to catch the upper branches of a nearby tree on fire.  I thought that lightning had hit the garage, but a firefighter told me that the wind had blown a branch from a tree.  The branch had fallen on a power line, and both power line and branch landed on the roof of the garage.  The power arced, and the sparks set the garage on fire.  I shot about nine minutes of footage, most of it featuring the fire at the beginning, but the last few minutes showed more of people milling around in the alley.

I cursed WOW Internet and Cable when I was unable to get an Internet connection.  I turned on the TV, and at first they displayed a message saying there had been an interruption of service, and cable would be restored momentarily.  This message soon disappeared–they realized it would be a long time from “momentarily,” so the TV has displayed a blank screen ever since.

Not until after dark did I realize the extent of the power failure.  Once the sun set, I wandered around Baja Clintonville and the area around High St.  Houses just a block or two west of mine were dark.  I could see flashlights and candles in the windows.  Many people were sitting on their porches.  I could not see many of them, except maybe when they were holding lit cigarettes.  Some people made a party out of it, others sat and talked quietly.

A house at the corner of Indianola and East Maynard Avenues.  Falling branches destroyed his chimney and much of his roof.

But it was High St. that was truly the revelation.  Street lights were out, traffic lights were out, and the street was quiet, except for the sound of cars on the road.  My beloved Blue Danube was shuttered up, locked, and darkened, unheard of for Friday night.  The convenience store and Tobacco For Less across the street were empty and deserted.  Dick’s Den was open, with candles on the tables and in the windows, but I knew the allure of drinking room temperature beer could only last so long.

I used to have a record produced by CBS News called I Can Hear It Now: The ’60s, narrated by Walter Cronkite.  He mentioned the Great Power Blackout of 1965, and described it as “when the transistor radio, the candle, and the art of conversation enjoyed a one-day renaissance.”  That blackout affected 30 million persons in New York City, upstate New York, Massachusetts, Canada, and Pennsylvania, but the lights were back on the next day.  Candles were definitely making a comeback in Columbus Friday night.

I stopped in at Kafé Kerouac, lit by candles in the front room, with the performance/book room left totally dark.  The business was cash only, of course.  I stayed and nursed a warming can of Sprite, and sat at a table with a half-finished chess game and a deserted game of Connect Four.  I didn’t stay long.  No electricity meant no lights, and it also meant no air conditioning, and with all the people crammed into Kafé Kerouac’s comparatively small, underventilated space, the place soon smelled like the inside of a Dumpster.

Sirens have almost become white noise since Friday night, but it seems these are mostly rescue runs, not police out responding to opportunistic crimes.  People have been very courteous at intersections, treating them like four-way stops.  I have not heard about any looting or gratuitous property destruction.

By last night, the thrill seemed to be gone, and the fun has gone out of this blackout.  While I was out and about last night, I saw many people sitting on the porches of darkened houses, but the mood was much more desultory, and there was a feeling that this has gone on long enough.  I was out on a fool’s errand last night.  Fritz the Nite Owl was supposed to host Horror Express (starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing) last night at 11:30.  Without Internet access, I could not log onto Fritz’ Facebook page, and Studio 35 is usually pretty lax about changing its outgoing message on voice mail.  So I hiked the two miles or so to Studio 35 to see if the movie would still happen.  I made most of my way minus streetlights.  (I had briefly considered riding the trike up Indianola, but between the lack of street lights and the abundance of felled limbs and other debris, I am glad I vetoed the idea.)  The Weber Market was totally blacked out, and so, I saw was Studio 35.  The movie was cancelled, as was the 9:15 showing of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (divine intervention?).

The adventure continues tomorrow.  COTA is going out on strike, so I am either walking or triking the 3½ miles to and from work.  I need the exercise too much to be bitter.

Blogger… Testing, One, Two, Three…

I was relieved to read a Huffington Post story today which says that Blogger is once again up and running, after about 24 hours of downtime.  The timing was bad for me, because on and off last night, I tried to log in here and post something.  I alternated between frustration at not being able to post, and worry that what I’ve posted here previously had gone up in smoke.  I briefly flirted with the idea that this was no accident, some minimum-wage computer jockey hitting the wrong key.  A character in David Byrne’s True Stories said it best:

The Trilateral Commission and The Council on Foreign Relations.  Ever hear of them?  Well, neither did I until I noticed the Chain of Coincidence…  Do you run out of Kleenex, paper towels, and toilet paper at the same time?  You know it’s true!

I will be more convinced of conspiracy if Blogger crashes on May 31, the holy day of obligation for diarists, both Internet and pen-and-paper.  (On that day, in 1669, Samuel Pepys discontinued his famous journal, out of the mistaken fear he was going blind.)

I shudder at how the late Robert Shields would have reacted if he had used Blogger.  After all, he recorded every aspect of every moment of every day, spending hours per day at his IBM Wheelwriter.

This page from April 1994 represents one of the more fascinating days in the life of Robert Shields, former United Church of Christ minister, educator, poet, and compulsive diarist.

One of the things I wanted to write about was directly experiencing the less desirable side of this neighborhood.  Sunday afternoon, after church, I walked to the main library, a walk of about 2½ miles.  For some reason, the walk didn’t invigorate me or give me its usual second wind, so I took the bus home.  As I was walking up E. 7th Ave. toward the alley behind my house, I noticed about six or seven kids, both boys and girls, ranging in age from six to about 11, standing around talking, playing with a basketball, sitting on their bikes, etc.  Since the weather has warmed, this is not at all uncommon in this neighborhood, so I barely noticed it.

That changed when one of the littler boys, who I think was about seven, broke away from the pack and began following me up the alley.  I wasn’t sure what he wanted, but he kept drawing closer and closer to me as I walked.  (If we had been playing shadow tag, he would have tagged me several times over.)  Before I could ask what he was doing, he stepped up, balled his fist, and struck me on the thigh.  It didn’t hurt; and I would barely have noticed it if I hadn’t been looking at him.  Giggling, he turned around and ran like mad back to his friends.

My guess is that he was doing it on a dare.  He escaped too quickly, and I was in a bit of a hurry to get home because I needed to get to a bathroom, but I’ve played over possible reactions in my head endlessly since late Sunday afternoon.  I even posted a question about it on Yahoo! Answers.  The responses varied from “kick the kid up the shitter–he’ll respect you after that” to chasing after him.  Two possibilities tied for first with me.  I envisioned sitting him down and saying, “Now why did you do that?  Do you know me?  Have I ever hurt you or done anything bad to you?”  The other possibility was picking him up by the arms and legs and wordlessly dropping him in the nearest trash barrel and then going on my way.

Tuesday night, there was a fire–probably set–a block and a half away from our house.  I was finishing up dinner a little before 9:30.  (Steph and Susie ate earlier; I was at the Discovery Exchange until it closed at 8, and then came back to Weinland Park by bus.  Susie had choir rehearsal, but a fellow chorister’s dad drove her to and from practice.)   I was in the kitchen putting my dirty dishes in the sink when I began hearing one siren after another, in very rapid succession.  I looked out the window and saw that fire trucks were going by.  Not only were they going by, they were parking, all their lights flashing and revolving.  I stepped out onto the back porch and saw a thick black column of smoke coming from very nearby.

I put on my shoes and went out to see what was happening.  At first, there were thin clouds of smoke drifting through the alley, but the wind was blowing them away.  I wasn’t coughing or choking, but it was causing my eyes to water.

All I had to do was follow the sounds and the crowds, and the fire was in a vacant frame duplex at the corner of N. 5th St. and E. 7th Ave.  (Numbered streets in Columbus are the exact opposite of streets in Manhattan.  In Columbus, the streets are north-south and the avenues are east-west.)  Yet another fire on N. 5th St.  When I was first scouting out the neighborhood for rentals, I noticed there were several burned-out houses and properties in a two- or three-block length, all of them on 5th.  I went through the Ohio Web Library’s online newspaper index, and saw that the Columbus Fire Department suspected arson in almost every case.  This blog features pictures of several recent fires in the area, some of which I completely missed.

There are arsonists, and there are arsonists.  In the case of these properties, my prime suspects are always owners burning down their properties for the insurance once they started hemorrhaging money–which has not been unusual since the sub-prime mortgage crisis began in 2007.  (I wonder how one goes about hiring a professional arsonist.  My guess is that they don’t advertise on Craigslist.)  This type of arsonist is despicable, but I see him as more of an annoyance, until the houses around mine start going up in flames.

The type of arsonist that truly scares me is the bona fide pyromaniac.  This is the kind of person who gets a true psychological and/or sexual rush from setting or seeing fires.  If it’s flammable (inflammable–the two words mean the same thing), they’ll try to burn it.  Once the fire is going, they’ll sit back and watch it, like a teenager sneaking looks at online porn or hentai.  This is the type of arsonist who thinks with his glands.  He (statistically, they are almost all male) will set a fire, consequences be damned.  (The only literary portrayal of such a person that immediately comes to mind is the Trashcan Man in Stephen King’s The Stand.)

It is past 1 a.m. right now, and my next-door neighbors are going full blast.  To try and block out all the noise they’re making with the shouting back and forth (usually to people who are sitting/standing within millimeters of one another), I’ve put on my music.  Currently I’m playing “And He Shall Purify the Sons of Levi,” from Handel’s Messiah.  It reminds me of another hot night, during the summer of 1986.  My good friend, the late Adam Bradley, and I had been to a few bars and decided to enlighten and illuminate some of the people on the street.

We took our “mission” to some of the seedier parts of nocturnal Columbus.  As we drove past places like the New James Café (on S. High St., an all-night restaurant whose cheap but filling victuals I truly miss) or the now-departed (and unmissed) Earl’s Bar, we put his car tape deck up to maximum and would blast sacred music, all of it joyous.  We made one pass trailing Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and came back around with Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” Vivaldi’s Gloria, and the old standby, “Hallelujah” from The Messiah–I wasn’t sure if they could Handel appreciate it.

The music on my laptop switched from “And He Shall Purify” to Parliament’s “Give up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker),” but I skipped to something else, feeling that hearing that will only make my neighbors rowdier.  The next song that popped up was The Iguanas’ “Boom Boom Boom,” which I once cynically described as Weinland Park’s national anthem. 

We Used to Live in the "Emptiest Neighborhood in America"

I especially like the “used to” part of that title!  I found out about this dubious honor this afternoon as I was leaving work.  I picked up a copy of the current issue of The Other Paper, and the front-page story was “The Big Casino Gamble.”  If Issue 2 passes next Tuesday, there will be a casino on the site (if not the actual building) of the old Delphi auto parts plant on the west side.

Not sure how I’ll vote.  I’m enough of a libertarian (the lower-case letter is not a typo) to have a laissez-faire attitude about gambling, and say that people have a right to waste their money any way they see fit.  At the same time, I am enough of a Quaker to have issues with unearned wealth.

Less than a third of ZIP code 43228 is occupied.  We moved there in the summer of 2000, mainly because I was working full time at Medco Health, which is four long blocks north of the ex-Delphi Plant.  I wanted to be able to walk to and from work.  This helped especially when I would work overtime after my normal shift; I could leave work and not have a 45- to 60-minute ride on the bus afterwards.

With Susie not quite three years old, we moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Lincoln Park West.  Outwardly, the place was fine.  The buildings were structurally sound, we liked the layout of the apartment, and there was a Meijer grocery/department store within walking distance, along with several little convenience stores.

I can’t pinpoint a specific incident or series of incidents that made me think the neighborhood wasn’t safe.  We were one of the few Anglo families in the complex, and many of our neighbors were Hispanic or Somali.  That limited Susie’s socialization, because we couldn’t break the language barrier.  I remember one morning seeing Susie sitting on the living room, half buried in her many stuffed animals and dolls.  She hugged several of them and, with a big smile, said, “These are my friends.”  That was too close to the truth, I’m sorry to say.

Down in Athens, my mother had heard bad things about the neighborhood, and I remember reassuring her on the phone, “It’s 100% safe.  There are cops all over this area all the time.”  It wasn’t until after I hung up that I realized I probably didn’t set her mind at ease.  Yet I spoke the truth.  The police were out in full force the first weekend of every month, keeping parties and other activities under control.

When we lived there, the complex had a swimming pool and a small playground.  One summer afternoon, I took Susie to the playground, and she was sitting on the ground and her little hand came very close to the needle of a used syringe.  I bent the needle and saved it, and showed it to Lincoln Park West security, who could really do nothing.  There’s really no way of knowing if a heroin addict had tossed the syringe there, or if a careless diabetic had done it, but it still unnerved both Steph and me.

While taking Susie to the pool, a loudmouthed girl of about 11 or 12 regaled me with stories about a pervert who lived in the complex.  She said he had grabbed her and tried to stick his tongue in her mouth.  I had reason to doubt this girl’s truthfulness, but I never felt safe bringing Susie there again.

The kids who lived in the complex were a pretty rough bunch, but they had manners.  One morning, I was walking to work on Westport Rd., near where I would cut across Westland Mall’s parking lot to get to Medco.  About seven or eight boys, ages six to nine, were on either side of the street throwing rocks at one another.  It didn’t look like it was entirely in fun.  One of the boys saw me and held up his hand, “Wait!  Man crossing!” he shouted.  There was a total cease-fire until I had passed, and then they resumed the battle.

In the summer of 2001, I took a part-time job in the stock room and loading dock at the Sears in Westland Mall.  It led to some extra money, and the overwork and the stress of two jobs led to my first psychiatric hospitalization.  When going from Medco to Sears, I could watch the decline of Westland Mall.  (I thought at first that Sears anchored the mall, but this was not true.  Sears predated the mall.)  It seemed that every week, there would be another storefront that was deserted, another business that had folded.  The only time now that Westland Mall shows any signs of life are when the black-helicopter crowd and other Y chromosome-deficient people congregate for the C & E Gun Shows.

More and more empty apartments seemed to dot the Lincoln Park West complex each month.  Catholic Social Services rented several apartments as offices, mainly serving the newly arrived Somali refugees and helping them settle into American life.  Machines in the laundry room constantly broke down, and management did not issue refunds.  The outdoor pool seemed to get filthier as the summer progressed.  One of my Medco co-workers who saw it began to refer to it as the Elephant Urinal.

We left Lincoln Park West that fall for Franklinton (The Bottoms), the neighborhood just west of downtown.  This meant I had to resume riding the bus to work, but I was happy to be out of that neighborhood.  I could stand working there, but living there was demoralizing.

Less than a month after I left Merck for my job with the Industrial Commission, tragedy struck at Lincoln Park West.  A fire set by arsonists destroyed one building, leaving 10 people dead and over 50 homeless.  All of the residents were Mexican, and the language barrier prevented them from effectively communicating with the fire department and the 911 dispatchers.

This is the front page of The Columbus Dispatch the day after the fire.  I
apologize for its quality and legibility; I scanned this from the clipping that
I kept in my diary from the fall of 2004.
No one has been arrested for this fire.  There were billboards showing artists’ sketches of two men “wanted for questioning,” but they resembled the descriptions of the beings who supposedly landed at Roswell, N.M. in 1947.  The fire rated a brief mention in The New York Times, and a friend in Rhode Island who was a frequent guest to our apartment in Lincoln Park West recognized the building when he saw the fire on CNN.
My guess is that if Issue 2 passes, once the casino opens on the old Delphi site, there will be many Medco employees going there on their lunch breaks, or cashing their paychecks at the nearby Huntington Bank and blow most of it.  I never went a week at work without hearing someone talking about how close they came to winning the Mega-Millions the night before, or how many tickets they were going to buy that night.
My gambling experience is very limited.  I know that the odds always favor the house, so I’d never spend hours in a casino, let alone get on a chartered bus to Wheeling Island or Rising Sun, Ind.  When I was living at the YMCA in downtown Columbus in 1986, I often went Saturday nights to bingo at Holy Family Catholic Church, in the basement of the building that had been its school.  The most I ever won was about $75, but I realized that the money I spent there went to maintain its soup kitchen and food pantry–services that I would put to use.
My only extended gambling spree was in the spring of 1987, when I took Greyhound from Athens to San Francisco.  On the way out, I went through Nevada, and experienced culture shock when I saw one-armed bandits and video poker machines everywhere I went.  They were in the bus stations, and even in the little mom-and-pop stores out in the desert, where the bus was making its mail run.  I spent a quarter or $.50 in each one-armed bandit I saw, just because it was a new experience.  By the time the bus crossed the California border, I may have been $2 or $3 ahead.  (The California border was impossible to miss.  The lights for the “Last Chance Casino”, in a little dot on the map called Verdi, Nev. on I-80 were visible at night for miles.  My eyes were still blinking from the glare when I saw the sign saying that Governor George Deukmejian welcomed me to California.)
Steph and I went to San Francisco for our honeymoon, and we traveled by Amtrak.  There was a brief stop in Sparks, Nev., the “City of Promise.”  Sparks, like Verdi, is in Washoe County.  The California Zephyr’s stop was on an elongated cement platform.  There was nothing to do during the brief stop, not even a Coke machine or a newspaper vending machine.  (I found out later we weren’t even in a real train station.  The stop was in a freight yard and the nearby building was the Union Pacific Railroad’s yard office.)
Why such a forlorn stop?  Amtrak had lost passengers when the station was in Reno, which is so close that some refer to the two as Reno-Sparks, twin cities.  During the brief rest stop, people would get off the train and head to the casinos, and they would stay there and be left behind.