The day was hot and humid, the kind of heat and humidity in Cincinnati that warps out time and everything seems to move in slow motion. In my gold Toyota, I was driving westward on Dana Avenue.
A man on the sidewalk tried to flag down a small car by frantically waving his arms. When it passed him by, I veered to the curb and honked. The man jogged up to me, and I opened my passenger door.
"Do you know that person?" I asked as I turned down my radio.
"Yeah, it's my sister!" he replied, trying to catch his breath.
"Get in. We'll try and catch up."
He quickly boarded, slammed the passenger side door, and thanked me. We caught up to the car, which was stopped by a traffic light at Dana and Montgomery. My new passenger was able to get a closer look at the driver.
"That's not her," he said with a frowned sigh, then asked, "Think you can give me a ride to Beechmont?"
I was already late for an appointment and I told him he could hang around in my truck. I had some business to take care of, and then afterwards, when the appointment was finished, I'd be able to take him to Beechmont. He gladly took the offer and thanked me again.
When we arrived at my appointed destination, I tossed him a few smokes, and I made sure my truck keys came with me. The meeting lasted about an hour and the day seemed hotter and more humid when I returned to my truck.
With a lit cigarette in his hand, the man was still there. He was reading an old CityBeat he found lying on the floorboard. When I opened the driver-side door, a cloud of smoke came slowly rolling out of the cab.
"Man! It's hot in here," he said, with sweat dripping from his head. I asked him why he didn't roll the window down. He just looked at me blankly and apologized like someone needed to tell him what to do. I started my truck and slapped the air to full blast.
On our way to Beechmont, we began some small talk. He told me he was just trying to get the hell out of Over-the-Rhine, that he needed a break from the madness, needed some time to clear his head. He then asked me if I could drive him to Clermont County.
I was going back home to Anderson Township and Clermont County borders the township line.
"Not a problem," I said, double-checking my gas gauge sitting at a quarter full.
He extended his hand and smiled.
"My name's Rodney."
"Pete," I replied as we briefly shook hands.
Rodney was from a family in which the father abandoned him and his siblings. When he was 14, he began living with relative to distant relative. When he was 16, he took his first crack hit. The hit was from the excess of his long lost auntie's mouth. When she exhaled smoke into a balloon, she allowed him to suck it all back in. He liked it and longed for more.
A part-time job at some fried chicken joint gave Rodney extra spending dough. Instead of spending it, he quietly saved it. The extra cash hidden away was crammed under his bedroom mattress.
The hidden money never bought him what he really wanted. Instead, it was used to move him up in the world of his newly found crack life. He was now first in line to get the hit from his auntie's crack pipe. No more balloons for Rodney. He never graduated from Woodward High School, and soon lost his part-time chicken-joint job.
A year later he found himself in Talbert House, trying to kick his habit. When he was released from there, he was off crack — but he started dealing it.
The easy money, prestige, and women that come with dealing were too hard to pass up. The hours were good, too — 2 p.m. until the sun came up the next day. But the Talbert House cure only worked for eight months and he "picked up" again and began using more than he was selling.
Rodney never reentered Talbert House and kept dealing crack until a couple of years ago. when he was offered a job in the gun trade. He was 23 at the time, with a child on the way. He told me how guns on the cheap come to Cincinnati from cities such as New York, Detroit, and Akron in the back trunk of rental cars driven by gunrunners.
"Free room and board plus a nice commission is what you get for selling firearms. It's pure capitalism in the ghetto," Rodney said. "Buy low and sell high with benefits."
As we entered Anderson Township, Rodney said he was hungry. I pulled into a McDonald's and bought a couple number fours. As he ate his Quarter Pounder, he told me how it made him feel better. He had gotten hold of some bad stuff the night before and couldn't find anything to eat, because he was busted.
Rodney doesn't work the gun trade anymore. He's now washing car windows in Over-the-Rhine to get money for his crack fix. It's the kind of fix that makes your mind go in 10 different directions. He tried to explain this feeling of insanity as being a mouse in a maze that can never find the cheese.
"Crack isn't as clean as it used to be," Rodney said after he gurgled down his sandwich from the last drops of his soda through a plastic straw.
He reminisced about a guy named Moe of Lynn Street. Moe was a short stubby guy with a mole on his face. It was Moe that held a firm grip on the crack trade in Cincinnati, and he supplied the whole city until he was shot a couple of years ago by a couple out-of-towners. Since Moe's death, the bad crack, the gasoline crack, the Raid crack, the bullshit crack has taken over the streets.
These days, without Moe, the killings over drugs are becoming more common — killings over money being owed or coming up short. A pill of ecstasy cost $20. OC's (Oxycontin) go for the number branded on the tablet, usually $5 or $10 each. And the good or bad crack cost $8 dollars a dime. But today it's all about the ecstasy.
"It's a guarantee. It's the ecstasy that's now causing all the violence," Rodney said. "It gives great screwing pleasure, and you can screw forever on it. Viagra is played out. The boys in the city are using ecstasy like candy, and they owe."
After we entered Clermont County, the conversation ended. Rodney told me to pull over. He got out of the truck and thanked me for the ride and burger. He asked me to spare him a few dollars and my phone number. I gave him $4 and wrote my phone number on one of the bills. I told him to call me only if he needed a ride to rehab.
"If I don't call you, then I'm probably dead," Rodney said with a last wave.
He then walked away onto some downhill country road that led to a run-down trailer park in Jean Schmidt's district.
That evening at home, I heard about Cleveland Parker on the news. Parker was shot in his home by a random bullet while talking on the phone about Knothole baseball in Avondale.
I remembered the story about a young mother, Theresa Renee Hill, which Rodney told me about. She was killed on a park bench while playing cards with her mother and watching her child play in Over-the-Rhine. The random bullet that struck her was intended for someone who owed the killer $20.
It's springtime again in Cincinnati. I wonder if Theresa Renee Hill's son is being passed around from relative to distant relative. I wonder if Knothole baseball is still being played in Avondale.
Rodney still hasn't called.