If you’re sitting on a bus bench in downtown Cincinnati, others sitting there mostly keep to themselves not offering much in conversation. That’s not the case in Covington. A lot of the time, you’re going to find out a little bit about that person sitting next to you whether you want to or not.
On one of those warm days last December, I was sitting on a bus bench on Madison Avenue waiting on a bus to take me over to Cincinnati. The other guy on the bus bench wanted to trade me one of his self-rolled cigarettes for one of my factory rolled ones. What the hell, we exchanged smokes. After lighting up, he asked me if I was born and raised in Covington or someplace else.
“I’m originally from Vevay, Indiana,” I told him.
“Hell, I know exactly where that is,” he said with a smile on his face. “I’m from Carrollton, Kentucky — almost right across the river.”
“Oh yeah,” I replied. “I’ve been to Carrollton many times.”
“Got myself in some trouble in a bar there once,” the man said.
“Accidentally killed a guy,” he said while lighting his cigarette with a wooden match. I just stared at him for a few seconds.
“Didn’t mean to hit him so hard,” he said before blowing out the match.
“I guess you did some jail time for that.” I replied.
“Twenty years,” the man said while taking a puff on his now-lit cigarette.
Talks of jail time and/or prison are common themes here in Covington, whether I’m having a direct conversation with someone or listening in on other exchanges between people — especially on the bus. “He’s getting out of jail soon,” “He’s going to prison,” “She’s locked up again” — that type of dialogue. The conversations are usually casual, like it's simply everyday life, and I think for many in Covington, it is.
The “Shopping Cart Parade” usually begins on most days between 9:30 and 10 a.m. Looking out my side window from my apartment, I see people of all shapes and sizes walking up to Madison Avenue with their shopping carts. Some are old grocery store carts and some are folding utility carts. I once saw a man pulling a toy wagon.
Some of the carts are full of either clothes, cans or a mixture of junk. Some of the carts are empty. Once from a distance, I followed a man with an empty utility cart. When he made it up to Madison Avenue, he started rooting through the trash bins on the side of the sidewalk looking for aluminum cans. I’m thinking some of these people pushing those carts are looking for a way to make money or are homeless. Maybe it’s a combination of both.
Something else I see on the sidewalks of downtown Covington that I’ve never seen in downtown Cincinnati is stray cats. They’re everywhere.
Most of them are wild, but not all. This past summer, I encountered a friendly cat lying down just outside the exit door at the Walgreens on Madison. I petted him or her for a little bit, wishing I had some cat food. I think he or she was wishing the same thing.Watching these stray cats trying to cross Madison Avenue during rush hour is enough to give me a heart attack. One morning around 8 a.m. while out shopping, I watched a black cat trying to cross the street around Eighth and Madison. He would run out to the street, run back after dodging a car, then run out again only to run back. I found myself screaming.
“Look out!” I yelled. “You’re going to get hit! Be careful!” After a lot of attempts, the cat finally made it across the street. After the cat got there, the cat looked back at me with a look on its face almost saying, “I can’t believe I just did that.” I think having nine lives is a bit difficult for a cat in downtown Covington.
Some women have a difficult time here too. Prostitution is all over the place.
You’ll usually find the women on street corners like Madison Avenue or Pike Street. Day or night, you’ll find them. Some are attractive, most aren’t. Most are addicted to heroin or crack.
I’ve taken an interest in one of them. She lived in my building for a while. I’ll call her Melissa.
Melissa’s thin, not bad-looking and in her forties. She has 10 children that live with relatives. She never sees them. Melissa has a $200-a-day crack habit. When she smiles, most of her teeth look rotten.
One day this past spring, I was walking home from a liquor store on Pike Street and ran into Melissa. She was in tears, had a bad toothache. I told Melissa to walk home with me. I had some Tylenol I could give her to help with the pain.
She waited in my living room while I went into my medicine box to get the Tylenol. The tablets were extra strength. Giving her four tablets, I told her to only take two — save the other two for later. Before I could offer her water to take the tablets with, I watched Melissa pop all four Tylenol in her mouth, swallowing hard. She thanked me for my help, then was back out there on the street, doing tricks to support her drug habit. I haven’t seen her since. I worry about her.
My Downtown Covington consists of people like Melissa and other prostitutes. The sidewalks where they walk and try to drum up business are mostly uncrowded. They walk by too many empty storefronts and too many pawn shops. Those pawn shops are all busy. I think they’re buying more than they’re selling these days.
My Downtown Covington also consists of people I don’t know who say, “Good morning” to me when I pass them on the sidewalk. These nice strangers, the people I know and the city itself are just a little down on good luck these days, but with the attitudes being friendly and welcoming, I think something good will come from it.
Downtown Covington is my home. I don’t regret moving here and as far as I’m concerned, the future will make everything better, but for now, it is what it is.
CONTACT LARRY GROSS: firstname.lastname@example.org