Living Out Loud: : Columbus Love Tap

Tag -- you're it

I drove the gray Toyota to Columbus at high speeds, revving the engine, etc. It was a summer day, planned to see Columbus for the first time in years.

I saw all the development on High Street near where I had lived (Goodale Park, Victorian Village), now an upscale bar and gallery area called Short North. I had been there trying to get a CETA job in 1981 when there was one bar and one gallery.

I drove to the campus area and parked. Street Scene, the restaurant bar where I had binged after dropping out of Ohio State in 1982, was gone. Larry's Bar was still there with its green door. Larry's had the reputation that it was a gay bar and the patrons liked that, because it kept the riffraff and frat boys out.

I took money from the automatic teller. I used odd settings to take as much as I could; I wanted to take old $10 bills. I was suspicious of the new twenties and they didn't have the new tens or fives yet.

I maxed out my PNC card.

Then I was walking down the street, with all this cash, and these three thin black teens with Afro haircuts raced past on curb hoppers. One came so close that I reached out and tagged him on the back, saying, "That was close. You're it." He stopped, gently laid the bike on the sidewalk. The other two kept on. Street Tough turned, said, "Touch me again like that, motherfucker, I mess you up good, motherfucker." He walked right up to me and with a quick, open right hand tapped me hard on the chin. Then he turned, picked up his bike and rode off. I was a bit stunned. My jaw stung.

I walked back to my car. Cross Country Cycle and Ski, where I had worked in 1979, was gone, the yellow storefront partially boarded up right there on High Street. My labor had helped to build that business.

I remembered a conversation with Carl about Stephen Roach, the Cincinnati Police officer who had shot and killed Timothy Thomas, a 19-year-old black youth in Over-the-Rhine, on my birthday the previous April. That night I was with a young woman at an Irish pub in Northern Kentucky. Jen, a lovely, lithe, musician friend had braided my hair while she drank dark beer. Later we went to my place in Clifton and talked into the wee hours of the morning.

The next day there was civil unrest in Over-the-Rhine. These came to be known as the Cincinnati riots of 2001. After a few days the mayor declared a curfew.

Carl's wife is from Scotland, and her Uncle Sandy is a police officer there. Carl told me that he had asked his wife's uncle what he would do if a suspect ran away. (Thomas ran from Roach. When the officer caught up with the suspect in a dead-end alley, he shot and killed the young man, later claiming he had thought Thomas was reaching for a gun tucked in his pants.) In Carl's account of Sandy's police method, he said that, if a suspect ran from him, he'd yell, "Stop." If the suspect didn't stop, he'd yell, "Stop or I'll yell 'Stop' again!"

We had laughed together over this in Carl's little meeting room on the 12th floor of a PNC bank tower in Roselawn. I saw Carl for counseling weekly until I stopped making appointments. This was around the time I returned from Vermont. Carl had stopped by the house and left a note. He had called on the phone to leave messages. I left a message with the receptionist at Carl's office, "I got a gun and, if Carl comes back, I'll shoot him."

He had been in the habit of coming for home visits. The last visit I had asked Carl, "Are you going to kill me?" In the past when I was paranoid, Carl would always just say, "No." This time he hesitated; a grimace came over his face. He didn't answer the question. I forcefully said, "Leave. Leave now." Carl had forgotten his umbrella in my hallway on a previous visit. This time he picked up his briefcase, got up from the navy blue futon couch after putting on his shoes and took the black umbrella from the hall before he left.

The thoughts I had after being slapped on the chin swam through my mind in swirls of dualities. The major idea was that I had won the fight by not fighting. I was not hurt. The young man had blown up, I had remained calm. I rubbed my chin once I was in the car. I opened the sun roof. Or he had won because he had struck the only blow. No, I won; I did not go down. He had not hurt me. I wondered how his hand felt. He caught back up to his friends and told a story, no doubt, of humiliating a longhaired freak.

I never told anyone about this until now. No, maybe I told Carl. I will have to ask him if he remembers my telling him. I was glad the man had picked up his bicycle and ridden away. I recalled many times how gently he had laid down the bicycle. He had not been hurried or reckless. The gesture was casual, purposeful and swift. The bicycle hadn't made a sound when he let it go. He hadn't dropped it. I don't remember as clearly how he picked it up, but it did seem hurried by comparison. He was gone into the pedestrian traffic before I could register the blow. As I walked back to my car, I forced an angry laugh. It was a strikingly clear and cool summer day. Full of the energy of life, I drove home from Columbus.

I didn't plan to shoot Carl with a gun if he came by. I did not have a gun. Gun ownership wasn't on my agenda — though, I do admit, in my imagination. A cowboy outfit with two holsters and matching pearl handled Smith and Wesson seven-shooters appealed to me. I wanted something different from anyone else's guns.

Honestly, I don't think I could legally buy a gun, given my history. I know I could buy one illegally, but I wouldn't. My idea was that Carl would come by the house, linger, ducking in the bushes 'til I ran outside and tagged him, saying, "You're it!" His blue gray eyes would bulge behind his glasses, his mock fear would turn into a grin and giggle and he would run the other way, his big frame hunched over from laughter, and I would chase him, laughing and shouting. The thing that I kept feeling was a desire to have my own life. My own freedom. I think that being monitored worked on me in my paranoia and aggression.

Steven Paul Lansky teaches creative writing at Miami University and lives in Clifton.

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