September 8, 2011

Queen City Pub Crawl: Price Hill

My journey begins on the West Side of Cincinnati with three mysterious neighborhoods. Perhaps the most misunderstood quadrant of the Queen City lies west of Interstate 75. Who lives there? Why do they live there? Is there any reason to venture west?

Last week, I decided to kick off the Pub Crawl in Lower Price Hill. I had driven through  that microscopic neighborhood many times while observing a hotbed of Cincinnati prostitution. (Prostitution fascinates me.) The area resembled ground zero of a nuclear explosion. Dilapidated buildings. Ragged people. Crumbling roads. Each time I drove though, I noticed a corner pub filled with locals. If there were stories to be told, the authors were huddled together in that bar chugging domestic beer.

I drove to Lower Price Hill only to find an abandoned building where a bar once operated. Another casualty of the war. A quick tour of the neighborhood—which is just over half a square mile—produced nothing. No bars; no restaurants; barely a pulse. The only sign of life was a prostitute who shouted at my car as I drove by.

As I drove down St. Michael Street (by the way, St. Michael is considered a field commander for the Army of God), I noticed a portly man walking my direction. I slowed my car and rolled down the passenger window. The man approached and smiled—three teeth. I asked if he could point me to the closest bar. After a long pause, he suggested downtown Cincinnati. When I clarified I needed something in Lower Price Hill, he explained that his neighborhood was an economic ghost town. Nary a bar in sight. 

After thanking him, he said the most peculiar sentence: "If I can help you out another way, I will."

What did that mean? Maybe I have been jaded. Maybe my mind is totally warped, but was that overweight man with three (jagged) teeth making me an offer I desperately wanted to refuse? Oh boy. 

I drove away confused. How the hell was I going to finish this pub crawl if at least one of Cincinnati's fifty-two neighborhoods doesn't even have a bar?

I drove through East Price Hill ready to give up. I passed another closed bar on Glenway Ave. Once I got to West Price Hill, I was scrambling to find any bar that could suffice for week one. After turning right on Quebec and left on Queen City, I stumbled upon the Louisiana Fish Bar. The problem was that it was getting late, I had an hour before my next appointment, and I didn't even know what neighborhood I was in.

I decided to go home. I felt defeated, but Price Hill was still calling my name.

Two days later, after a Google search and a recommendation from Jason Boys, I ventured back to the West Side. This time, I drove to West Price Hill, and for better or worse, I figured out why the West Side feels so different from the East Side. Everything is old west of Interstate 75. Old buildings, old roads, old mentality. I'm not suggesting everything east of I-75 is paradise, but it still has that new neighborhood smell. At least, that is my perception. Perhaps this journey will teach me otherwise.

I finally stepped into my first pub Friday afternoon, September 2. The Crow's Nest in West Price Hill saved me a seat at the bar. It was strangely crowded for three o'clock, and everyone was drinking Bud or Miller. I broke that trend by ordering a Summer Shandy. I honestly couldn't believe a bar on the West Side would have it on tap; it was simply too tempting to pass up.

The Crow's Nest, originally opened in 1895 under the same name, is considered the second oldest bar in Cincinnati (Arnold's in downtown is the oldest). Interestingly, even though I experienced nothing supernatural, it's also said to be haunted. Emily Brickler, a local historian, reported that the bar is haunted by its original owners, and they can often be seen slow dancing in the upstairs apartment window. Lights flicker on and off (bad electrical wiring?), small items go missing and reappear at the bar (thieves?), doors slam shut (wind?), and there has even been a young man spotted sitting on the basement stairs who mysteriously vanishes when someone approaches (ummm ... it's a bar, and people are really drunk?). 

I glanced around the room and saw a pretty typical scene—ESPN on the high definition television overhead; Pete Rose memorabilia covering the walls; an incredibly drunk (and possibly mentally challenged) man drinking pitchers of beer by himself at a bar table; a hip-looking bartender that didn't seem to fit in with my image of the West Side; a row of bar stools filled with people who fit exactly with my image of Westsiders; music on the jukebox, and a cold beer in my hand.

It didn't take long for John, the man sitting to my left, to strike up a conversation. And it took even less time for me to make a critical discovery—people on the West Side are a friendly bunch. I have been in local dive bars all over the country, but I'm not sure I have ever experienced a place where everyone literally knew everyone else on a first-name basis. They must have looked at me like my spaceship was parked outside, but you never would have known I didn't belong. Over the course of two hours, I found myself in three meaningful conversations with three complete strangers.

First, John.

John was born in Price Hill. He went to Elder and still has season tickets to the high school football games. It amazes me how much Westsiders care about high school football, but from spending some time in Price Hill,  I now believe it's a natural residue from communities that take so much pride in their neighborhoods. What I don't understand is why so much of the West Side seems to be falling apart. Perhaps it's a simple economic reality, but elevated amounts of hometown pride should lead to a better infrastructure, shouldn't it?

John has been married for almost four decades and has one son. In one of many coincidences you'll read about this week, John's granddaughter is named Aubrey, which happens to be my dad's name. Also, John graduated from the University of Cincinnati almost forty years ago. Small world. I was especially interested in John's job. Although he retired years ago from Fernald (a job that requires him to get tested every year to assess exposure from harmful radiation), John stills works at a local convent driving the nuns around town. (For the record, I learned nuns do not swim in their habits. Also, I want to record this song: I saw you driving 'round town with a nun I know, and I'm like bless you, and bless her too.) Unfortunately, there weren't many "Nuns Gone Wild" stories, but John told me it was actually a lot of fun chaperoning the sisters. 

We spoke for almost an hour about nuns, sports, marriage, UC's campus, and the West Side. When I mentioned my experience in Lower Price Hill, John corrected me, saying folks in West Price Hill consider Lower Price Hill part of East Price Hill. An East-West rivalry within an East-West rivalry? My head was spinning, and I had only had two Summer Shandy's at that point.

When John exited, I had the opportunity to chat with Adam, the bartender—also born and raised in Price Hill, and also a graduate of Elder High School. But Adam seemed different. A little more "worldly," perhaps. After he told me he has been living downtown for eight years, I knew that was it. He expressed a love for Cincinnati that I don't often hear east of I-75. In fact, Adam and I discussed one of my favorite topics: I hate when people from Cincinnati complain that there's nothing to do in Cincinnati. There may not be much in the suburbs, but the city center is alive with music, theater, the arts, sports, great food, and diverse people. I liked Adam.

But my favorite part of the afternoon was when Steve and Steve walked in. It was a Steve-fest. Steve cubed. Menage a Steve. The Steves sat down right next to me and pulled out a bottle of homemade hot sauce called Steve & Steve's.

Steve #1 (born and raised in Price Hill and also a graduate of UC) handed me a straw and told me to taste. It was good. Hot, but sweet. I don't normally accept hot sauce from strangers in a bar, but I was already starting to feel like a regular. And they were named Steve. What could go wrong?

Steve #2 (born and raised in Price Hill) had recently been laid off. Steve #1 was a retired plumber. On a whim, they decided to grow peppers in their back yard and start making hot sauce. That was last Thursday. On Friday, they were making the rounds trying to sell Claira Vista to local bars. Ironically enough, their first stop that day had been Arlin's, the dive bar that is located a few blocks away from my house. Did I mention something about us living in a small world earlier?

Steve #2 seemed like the quiet type, but Steve #1 was the type of person who made friends anywhere he went. He lived in a variety of places, but moved back to Price Hill when he inherited a house. I couldn't figure out his relationship with Steve #2 (I doubt very seriously they are gay), but it sounded like they live together and take care of a disabled woman. Steve #1 and I chatted for another thirty minutes before I had to make my way back east.

And that's when my experience in Price Hill reached a whole new level. Going into this journey, I prayed I would meet people like Ashley (although she knows I'm writing about our conversation, I have changed the name to protect her identity). This experiment was conceptualized to meet real Cincinnatians in their native habitats. If there are 296,943 (according to the 2010 Census) of us spread out over 52 neighborhoods, then I believe there are 296,943 unique stories waiting to be told.

Ashley told a doozy.

When I walked into Paradise Lounge (even though a Google search told me its name was Poor Man's Country Club), Ashley was standing by herself talking on the telephone. There were a handful of people on the back patio, but I was the only customer inside the building. By the way, only separated by a stone's throw, the patrons of The Crow's Nest were all white, and Paradise Lounge's customers were all black. Both neighborhoods cover about three square miles, and both have approximately 20,000 residents, but East Price Hill has twice as many African Americans than West Price Hill.

Inside, the bar had a huge main room with a couple of pool tables. Lots of liquor. Good prices. A great outdoor patio. And they host parties on weekends. One woman walked in asking if she could host a party for her friends on Saturday, but unfortunately, they already have an evening of male strippers on the schedule. Looks like I know how I'm spending my Saturday night.

After ordering a two-dollar bottle of Bud Light, Ashley told me her babysitter was on the phone. I said she looked too young to have children (in her twenties), and Ashley replied that she had six kids ... before age thirty. Wow.

Growing up in Lower Price Hill, Ashley actually knows many of the prostitutes still roaming the streets. She went to school with most of them. She and another gentleman, who later joined us at the bar, explained that Lower Price Hill had deteriorated into a community of drugs and prostitution. She clarified that the man who offered to "help me in another way" was probably offering me drugs, not sex. That was a real blow to my self-esteem. In fact, the corner pub filled with locals that I originally thought would begin this pub crawl was now a private meeting place for local bikers. Ashley told me they meet three or four times per week in that building, and part of their mission is to revitalize Lower Price Hill. I desperately want to get into that secret biker bar. Anyone have a sweet biker's jacket I can borrow?

Ashley didn't have the best childhood. Her dad sold drugs and spent a significant chunk of her early life in prison. At age 11, she was forced to raise her siblings. At age 13, Ashley's mother finally left her husband and got herself clean, eventually moving to Florida and leaving behind her children (with their grandparents). Years later, her mother returned a transformed woman, but Ashley's father continued his downward spiral into the world of crack and heroine addiction. Then, one day (the day after Mother's Day, to be exact), Ashley found her father dead in Lower Price Hill.

No one knows for certain how past experiences influence the course of our lives, but Ashley explained she started having kids early and often because all she ever wanted was a big family she could love. After having her first child at age 19, she got married before having four more. She desperately wanted to avoid her father's mistakes and live the American dream, but the father of her children followed in her own father's footsteps.

She's been divorced for three years, mostly because he cheated on her dozens of times, culminating in getting another woman pregnant. Then he went to jail for selling drugs. Ashley only found out about the other woman's pregnancy after she called to tell Ashley the baby was due on her son's birthday. Happy birthday, kiddo.

In her early- to mid-twenties, Ashley spent five years working at a local strip club. Nothing could top the stories I heard from this experience, but Ashley also had some fascinating customers. Men who asked to be urinated on, men who still (years later) take Ashley to have her nails done, men with very important jobs (I won't share any more details to spare the guilty) cheating on their wives. Interestingly, Ashley doesn't regret her time at the club. She made a lot of money, never participated in the more seedy side of that lifestyle, and positioned her family well. She said it took time getting used to dancing nude in front of strangers, but she would often retreat into her own world to find the courage to keep going.

"I would just pretend I was somewhere else, and I was able to do it," she said.

Now, after living with drug-addicted parents, watching her father go to jail, watching her mother run away to Florida, burying her father, marrying a drug addict who spent time in jail, dancing nude in a strip club, birthing six children, Ashley works full time at a neighborhood bar.

But Ashley has a plan. She wants to open a sandwich shop with her mother. She wants to make her children proud. She wants to live the American dream.

It's so easy to dismiss people. Strangers often play bit parts in the stories of our lives. We label them so they fit neatly into our personal narrative.

He's the homeless drug addict who will die in a shelter. She's the prostitute who walks the dark alleys of our neglected neighborhoods. He's the blue-collar alcoholic who spends more time on a bar stool than at home with his family. She's the baby-factory who keeps having children to increase her welfare check.

So easy to label. So easy to dismiss. So easy to ignore.

But they are people, just like you and me. Ashley has dreams. Ashley loves her children. And while it's easy to judge someone like her, she got on a stage for five years and danced naked in front of thousands of drunk strangers in order to give her children a better life. It might seem warped to some, but after I looked beyond the facade, I saw a mother who would do anything for her children. Anything. And as I told Ashley, her kids will realize that someday. Children like toys, clothes, big houses, and money, but all we really want are parents who will sacrifice anything for us. Not to make this overly spiritual, but I wonder if that desire comes from a God who did sacrifice everything for us?

When I asked what kept her going, Ashley said, "My kids. I don't want my kids going through what I went through."

Feel free to judge Ashley's choices, but her kids have a mother dedicated to making their lives better. Ashley didn't have that. How many of us do? If you were dealt Ashley's hand in life, what kind of decisions would you have made? It's easy to speculate, but being taken from a relatively easy life and being thrust into incredibly difficult circumstances might have led you down a very different path.

Price Hill is the first neighborhood on this journey. While its buildings may look worn down, and its citizens may have faced difficult circumstances, its spirit gave me hope that the people of Cincinnati will keep fighting for the city they call home.