September 15, 2011

Queen City Pub Crawl: Camp Washington

Last week is going to be a tough act to follow. After being offered drugs in Lower Price, homemade hot sauce in West Price Hill, and a fascinating life story in East Price Hill, my expectations were through the roof. Luckily, The Stockyard Cafe in Camp Washington didn't disappoint. I'm going to begin with the most fascinating thing that will happen to me on this journey. Two weeks and four neighborhoods in, I'm calling my shot. Nothing will top this:

Shorty after six o'clock, while I nursed a cold beer, a young man walked into the bar with something tucked under his arm. We didn't make eye contact, but he took a direct path to my stool. Then he plopped two rectangular packages down on the bar and said, "I got some meat."

At first, I thought he was stealing the pick-up line I used throughout college. Then, I glanced at the bar and realized he actually had meat. Sitting before me were two raw steaks, in plastic wrap, clearly from a grocery store.

I said, "You're giving away free meat?" (You know how sometimes it takes your brain a couple of minutes to catch up with what's happening to you?)

He said, "No, but I'll sell it to you for twenty bucks. That's forty bucks worth of meat right there." I did glance at the price tag and saw one package sold for $17.75, so his math was pretty close.

Obviously, I was tempted. How often does a person get the opportunity to buy raw meat from a stranger in a bar? No risk involved there. What could possibly go wrong?

Unfortunately, I had to decline his generous offer, but I was still confused. That's when the bartender walked over and told him to leave.

"What the heck was that?" I asked.

She told me he was a booster. I had no idea what that meant. She and the guy sitting next to me explained that people walk into places like Kroger, steal stuff, and then sell it on the streets. The bartender said she knew a guy who walked into a home improvement store, put on an apron, pretended like he worked there, and had an actual employee load a dozen chainsaws into his truck that he later sold for a profit.

All this led to a very important question: Who the hell buys meat from a random stranger in a bar? Oh, wow, two steaks for twenty bucks? I have no idea who you are or what you've done to the meat. In fact, I do know that you stole it, so that gives me some insight into your character. This is illegal and seems incredibly dangerous. Oh, what the hell, I'm saving fifteen bucks. Deal!

Maybe I have lived a sheltered life, but unless someone stabs me in a bar fight, my most cherished moment from this experience will always be the bar-to-bar meat salesman.

Camp Washington is probably best known for its chili parlor, Camp Washington Chili. If you have never been, the interior reminds customers of a 1950s diner, and their breakfast is cheap and delicious. Another historical landmark was the Cincinnati Workhouse, a jail that operated for more than one hundred years before closing in 1988. Other than that, Camp Washington is home to numerous factories. Its proximity to the stockyards clearly birthed The Stockyard Cafe, and I was surprised that almost everyone I met in the bar didn't actually live in Camp Washington. Most stopped in for a few drinks after work. Even the bartender lived on the east side of Cincinnati.

Someone less discerning might have mistakenly believed he or she was in Kentucky. For the first time in years, I encountered someone smoking in an Ohio bar. I'm sure lots of dive bars still allow smoking, but it shocked me. Why risk the fine? Why put other customers in that position? Why make me inhale your second-hand poison?

Other than the booster (look at me using a cool new term I learned at the bar) and the smoker, I adored everyone I met at The Stockyard Cafe. I sat next to a Vietnam veteran, discussed legalizing marijuana with someone at the other end of the bar, and spent most of my time talking to Lisa (her name has been changed), the owner and bartender.

The first thing most men would notice about Lisa is her physique. At nearly fifty years old, she still pulled off a short, low-cut dress. I'm sure Lisa deals with a lot of drunk men making comments and offers that get old after a while, but I doubt she minds the attention. Born and raised on the east side of Cincinnati, Lisa married young, had a daughter, divorced a few years later, and eventually became a nurse. Eventually, she found a partner and purchased The Stockyard Cafe in Camp Washington.

There are two stories Lisa told me that I can't get out of my mind. First, she said The Stockyard Cafe first opened in the 1890s. After getting off work at the stockyards, men would carry buckets of blood across the street into the bar, order a drink, mix it with the blood, and voilĂ , welcome to the original Bloody Mary! I really hope that's not true, but it's an interesting urban legend either way.

Second, Lisa told me her life story. Growing up in Cincinnati, marrying young, having a child, divorcing her husband, becoming a nurse, buying a bar ten years ago, developing a relationship with a married man, staying with that man for a long time knowing it was unhealthy and wrong, ending her business partnership, working at the Stockyard Cafe as its only employee, and working as a nurse part-time to help pay the bills.

Even though Lisa grew up in a different Cincinnati neighborhood, she seems to represent Camp Washington perfectly. Hard-working, rough around the edges, but kind. And, perhaps most of all, vulnerable. Lisa told me she was desperately insecure, and because of it, she often dates the wrong men. She stayed in a dead end relationship for years, only recently finding the courage to leave. So strong and independent, yet so vulnerable.

When I drive through a neighborhood like Camp Washington, I can't help but thinking of its vulnerability. Vulnerable to drugs, prostitution, crime, and despair. Vulnerable to children repeating the mistakes of their parents. Driving down Colerain Avenue reminds me of a Scooby Doo ghost town. Most businesses have closed. Lisa told me the area once hosted twenty bars; now, only two remain. Homes and apartments seem neglected or abandoned altogether. People walking the streets look ragged and are likely looking for trouble. (Stolen meat, anyone? Perhaps a chainsaw to carve the steaks?)

But it's difficult to understand the heart of a community during a drive-by assessment. The core of Camp Washington keeps grinding. Lisa keeps showing up to work every day. Her customers keep working in the local factories. Even a handful of new businesses have opened in the neighborhood. And Camp Washington Chili acts as an anchor, steadying the community and pumping life through its veins of streets and allies.

Vulnerable, but not defeated. People who don't give up easily. A neighborhood that once served as a training ground for thousands of soldiers during the U.S.-Mexican War is now fighting for its survival. Perhaps neighborhoods have a soul. If so, Camp Washington seems to embody a scrappy spirit that refuses to give up.