Through the Looking Glass

My asthma hates that Cincinnati’s air is filthy. My open-mindedness is frustrated by how conservative this place is. And something unidentifiable inside me is irked by the segregation. But if I close my eyes real tight and hold my nose so I’m not able to

My asthma hates that Cincinnati’s air is filthy. My open-mindedness is frustrated by how conservative this place is. And something unidentifiable inside me is irked by the segregation.

But if I close my eyes real tight and hold my nose so I’m not able to smell the Ohio River, I can place myself back home in Columbus. The same segregation plagues my hometown — except instead of the great divide between Amberley Village and Avondale Columbus is home to the dissociation of Bexley and the Bottoms. And Clintonville features basically the same rowdy lesbians as Northside.

Eventually my eyes open and I realize I’m still in Cincinnati with three friends and a crap job serving old people freeze-dried turkey in a restaurant by the bathroom of a superbookstore. I accept that this is my new home and new life, and I have no idea what it all means.

Being a student at the University of Cincinnati, I haven’t really ventured much beyond Clifton. What I do know about Cincinnati is derived from what I see on the local news and what the natives tell me.

For instance, a friend of mine once told me, “Don’t mess with people who live on the West Side. They have nothing to live for and they will kill you.”

It turns out that I don’t often travel to the West Side. Especially not to mess with people.

Between school, work, this internship at CityBeat and rock-climbing in Sharonville, I've had plenty of time to learn about the way Cincinnatians drive. There’s not much to learn really. Once I accepted the fact that double-parking is a ritual and jawing on a mobile phone while going under the speed limit in the passing lane is a favorite hobby among the locals, the rest came easily.

It was made clear to me that the majority of people in Cincinnati are (in their vehicles at least) inconsiderate, scatterbrained and just plain stupid. One of these days I plan to find one of you dullards texting away on I-71 and break-check you until you rear end me. Droid does (cause car accidents).

I'm not saying all Cincinnatians are bad people because they’re terrible drivers. It’s just that I’ve never quite felt at home in a place where everyone is so wrapped up in their own quandaries that they forget about the great lesson: We’re all in this together. “This” can be not making enough money, having a crappy job or not feeling accepted. Whatever “this” is, it sucks.

While there are those who bicker about bus routes and complain about Cincinnati being “just OK” all the way to the ’burbs, there are also Cincinnatians pleased to call this place home. Instead of bellyaching, they pride themselves on bettering the city by establishing a welcoming habitat for strangers and refugees; starting neighborhood organizations or donating their time to volunteer groups. Some are happy just to make a damn good White Russian.

James “Jay” Noel has been working at Highlands Coffee House, a dimly lit coffeeshop/booze lounge hybrid near UC, since “before the sands of time” and has catered to everyone from suits and students to me and Dustin Hoffman (while the veteran actor was shooting Rain Man locally back in 1989).

Jay grew up in the village of Greenhills as the middle child of seven. His father was an engineer at Procter and Gamble, and his mother stayed at home with the “small Irish-Catholic tribe,” as he calls them.

Jay says his mother helped develop the outgoing demeanor he's known for at Highlands, as not everyone has a knack for being able to converse with patrons ranging from timid bookworms to drunken buffoons.

“It’s interesting to hear everyone’s story,” Jay says. “Highlands is a lot like a family of friends.”

What some members of the family might not know is that Jay spent eight years touring with Rasta legend Burning Spear leading up to and during his tenure at the Highlands.

Jay got the job at at the coffeehouse through a friend who knew the owner and quiet patriarch of the Highlands family, Mike Conners.

“She told Mike that I was applying, which I didn’t know I was,” Jay says.

Jay has been the guy people go to for anything from car bombs to cappuccinos ever since.

“Cincinnati is a place where people can be artists because it’s cheap to live here,” he says. “At the same time it can become the velvet coffin for people who take it too easy or are so laid back they’re horizontal.”

In many locals, that easygoing attitude is paired with an unwillingness to help better their city.

“The majority of Cincinnati consists of three tribes (Black, Irish-Catholic and German) that are tired from years of persecution, and I come from one of them,” he says.

But Jay is one of the few who takes action instead of just running away or squabbling about local issues. He's helped establish Highlands as a hospitable place for coffee-drinking fauxhemians to plug in their MacBooks and those who just want to lose themselves, whether it be in a book, in a game of chess or in good company.

It's a place where the studious and the procrastinating go. A place where friendships are formed and fun can be had. A place filled with stories and a future.

I'm proud to call it home.

CONTACT ELI JOHNSON: [email protected]

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