Wandering & Wondering

Apr 19, 2001 at 2:06 pm

You never miss your water till your well runs dry, and now that Kaldi's is open again, after the recent racial violence in Over-the-Rhine, the old regulars are clinging to their bar stools like they were recently washed up in a flood. "I've seen better riots from a bunch of teen-aged girls at a cancelled Hanson concert," Brian Kneuven is saying, but he is laughing when he says it.

New glass windows are going into the boarded-up shop fronts along Main Street. People are walking briskly and somewhat cheerfully and purposefully again, some pacing the sidewalk outside Kaldi's taking calls on their cell phones. Suburban women are getting their hair done next door at Diva's, and the neighborhood folks are sitting in the park behind the Peaslee Center, enjoying the slightly chilly spring weather. Ricardo, our Street Vibes vendor, who has been missing in action since last Tuesday, is back to work on the corner of 12th and Main.

On Easter Sunday, Kaldi's started taking the boards off the windows. Jimmy Gibson was, as usual, the only one who had the foresight to pick up a Sunday paper. There was a brief skirmish over the horoscopes and crossword puzzles, and things began to perk up. We drank toasts to ourselves, clicking coffee cups, glad to be alive.

Austin Brown, a guitarist, said, "I feel a lot different about the police than I felt before. I saw them outside my window, and I don't know if I could have done what they did."

Jimmy Gibson said, "If they hadn't done such a good job this whole neighborhood could have gone up in flames."

We were all glad to see our beat cop, Bill Fagin, come through the door, spouting his usual self-deprecating remarks. I had seen him riding his motorcycle towards an angry group of demonstrators, with only a bullet-proof vest and a visor on his helmet, and I knew, as I did the first months I knew him, that he was a hero. He knows what everybody's up to in the neighborhood, and likes to talk about music. We've met his wife and his daughters. He is real enough for me to know he was afraid.

We had all been scared on Saturday after Timothy Thomas' funeral. I came out my door to find the street corner at 12th and Main completely blocked by white squad cars and dark highway patrol cars. The Ohio State patrolmen were dressed in dark uniforms, like Darth Vader.

"Something's going down," Brian Kneuven said and pointed to the corner where the police cars were gathering. Nobody knew what was happening, but John Young walked up to the corner, came back and said a crowd of about 300 protesters were marching this way, but that it appeared to be peaceful. They were angry, though, and the fear in the air was so palpable it was a living thing, a dark cancer among us.

I could see the edge of the crowd from where I stood, the colorful banners; I could hear the angry buzz of the demonstrators, feel the utterly tense quiet of the police, most of whom remained in their squad cars. The sense I had was that the protesters were not going to be allowed on Main Street, and for whatever reason, they changed directions and the police followed them. From what I could tell, the parade went up Vine Street from there, and after awhile, Brian and John walked to the library, and Joe and I went to our respective apartments.

During the week, it became normal for me to walk out my front door and see squads of police. I grew to realize that every time I saw the cars assemble, I saw that the police are a cultural mirror of all our fears — our fear of being caught, our fear of each other, our fear of tyranny, our fear of physical harm, our fear of being defeated.

The black church leaders were heroes, too, in my book. When I was 19, I wrote an essay on the barbaric American custom of funerals. This weekend was not the first time I realized how young and utterly wrong I had been. The healing began at the funeral. The ministers and black leaders spoke in those deep, resounding voices about the resurrection of the body, dysfunction in the community, the dignity of all human life. I watched Timothy Thomas' family walk to the church, looking so poor, so downtrodden. The black congregation, which spilled over into the streets, sang their sacred songs and heard their sacred rituals. And whether it was rhetoric or not, it worked.

Fear is a powerful stimulant, and the media make much of the racial component. I'd advise you to follow the money instead. In the '70s, when I sang at Aunt Maudie's, the patrons were Appalachians, absolutely poor, absolutely Southerners. Then, for some reason, they began to disappear and with a large portion of low-income housing in Over-the-Rhine, African Americans were funneled here from the West End. The desperation and poverty I see down here affect me daily. In whose best interest does it lie to see that Over-the-Rhine remains marginalized, a quaint little community of carry-outs, dance clubs, art galleries and race riots?

Contact Katie Laur: [email protected]