Letter From Katie: Street of Dreams

It was the best of times, then the worst of times. A Main Street remembrance.

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One cold, winter day, back in the late 1990s, the pipes in my Mt. Auburn apartment froze and burst, and I had no choice but to move. It is hard for me to pull up stakes; I’d like to be a large sea turtle and carry my house on my back so I could duck when troubles threaten. In this case, though, I knew exactly what I had to do, and where I wanted to go.

A couple of years before, I had met a landlord named Bill Baum in a small studio apartment on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine, which he was rehabbing all by himself. Bill was a quiet, interesting man with graying hair and a red pick-up truck and all kinds of credibility. The room where we met was simple—nothing except a drum stove and a window air conditioner—and I almost rented it. But I let myself be seduced by a place on Walker Street in Mt. Auburn—a bi-level apartment with glass walls in the bedroom, which was just like living in a tree house.

It took the frozen pipes to get me to Over-the-Rhine, and then my apartment luck held. I got a great place in a building called the Belmain, right on the corner of 12th and Main. I started moving my stuff into my new apartment that very day, and by nightfall everything I owned was safely stowed, except for a picture I had finagled out of a disc jockey—WNKU’s Mr. Rhythm Man, for all you kats and kittens with pep in your step. It was a 3-D painting of a cat coming out of a television set (Mr. Rhythm Man had been heavily influenced by Nam June Paik, I believe). The piece was packed in a cardboard box in the hall downstairs, and when I turned my back somebody snatched it. That was Over-the-Rhine for you.

The neighborhood was all about art, and though I lamented the loss of the cat in the television set, I figured I’d find something else. I moved all my boxes up two flights of stairs like a college student; then I gave up my car, which was an old clunker anyway. I would become a long-distance walker, I decided; maybe even get a bicycle and some of those cool, tight shorts and a V-shaped helmet.

I had moved so much stuff in one day, my adrenaline was running pretty high. Anything seemed possible.

The next morning I slept late and went downstairs to Kaldi’s Coffee House, where I had my first latte. The long, L-shaped bar was full of artists with paint on their clothes, and their banter was as heady as a hot loaf of bread from Shadeau Breads down the street: art, music, politics. Jim Wainscott, a painter of beautiful, rich nudes, was there. Knowledgeable about world affairs, he liked to rant a bit about the Republicans. Kate and Greg Schmidt, the brother and sister who created work in welded metal, were there, too. Kate—six feet tall with blonde curls spilling down her back—would be the first woman I ever saw in safety glasses.

Betsy Reeves, one of the smartest girls I ever met, who would later manage ArtWorks during the Big Pig Gig, was a waitress at Kaldi’s back then. She had a different take on art, too. She’d wrap a box in tinfoil and rig it with batteries and tiny lights, then she’d create an old-fashioned diorama full of found objects like feathers and tiny stones, and the whole thing would blink on and off, on and off, like Christmas tree lights. Her best friend in those days was a young woman named Linda Hartley, who did stunning pieces of cloth art and photography. They hung out with Kelly Wenstrath, who was the most outrageous of all: on Final Fridays, when all the galleries were open late, her large, carved wooden giraffes and rocking horses were frequently on display in Kaldi’s windows. 

It had been a long time since I was around young women, and it was good to see what they were up to—the way they’d taken the women’s liberation movement so many of my friends and I had worked for in the ’60s and ’70s, and what had they done with it. For one thing, they still cried over boys. Even though I called them the “pretty girls”—and they were—Betsy pointed out that no amount of liberation would stifle their biological urges. When she said this, she looked at me as if she were speaking to a slightly slow learner. “Nothing’s changed,” she told me, “except we have more options now. Biology is no longer destiny.”

Kelly didn’t talk much about such things, didn’t even “journal” as the other girls did, but it was she who came up with the Orange Party—a huge gathering of artists in an old church by the river near Sayler Park. Everyone was to come in costume; everyone was to wear orange; anyone who wanted to exhibit had to pass scrutiny; and any bands who wanted to play had to have their own sound system.

“Why do you call it the Orange Party?” I asked.

“Because, among artists, orange is the color of insanity,” Kelly said. Her thick shining brown hair framed her beautiful young face and deep brown eyes. She’s a work of art herself, I thought, and she doesn’t even know it.

To replace the lost cat art, I ended up buying a picture from the painter Tim Tatman. I still have it. It is large and hangs in my living room, and when people see it for the first time, they call it “interesting.” It looks like the Marlboro Man on acid, with great, burned-out eyes. I first saw the work when he exhibited at Base Gallery—a cooperative of painters, sculptors, and “new” artists. The artists who belonged to Base paid dues, which in turn paid the gallery’s rent and the utilities, and they took turns sitting in the gallery on Saturdays and Sundays, welcoming potential buyers. 

Final Fridays were one way artists could sell their work in Over-the-Rhine—scheduled on the last Friday of each month to give them a chance to scrape together enough money to pay the landlord. Everyone scrubbed the galleries, washed the windows, even brought in bands. I remember a Final Friday when the wine was flowing freely at Base Gallery and two artists got in a fight over a woman. I was thrilled. They’re going to start cutting ears off any minute, I thought to myself, but nothing of the kind happened.

Emotions often ran high in the neighborhood where affairs of the heart were concerned. One artist married a woman he called “Girl,” a flaming redhead with a temper to match. The intensity of their relationship could not be maintained, though. When she came home from a trip to find an unfamiliar bra behind the sofa, she started throwing her things in cardboard boxes and marching down five flights of stairs with him following behind her, pleading, “Now, honey.” But Girl had had it. She took the salt out of the shakers and the linoleum off of the floor.

Like the artists, the street people in Over-the-Rhine were as amped up as Damon Runyon characters: Guys and Dolls updated. In particular, the Street Vibes vendors and the con men hitting up the suburbanites for money provided a continuing saga. There was an elderly, addled drunk who met all comers by pleading, “Can you give me 13 cents, sir?” One night, a grad student named Mike Templeton had heard it one too many times; he slammed into Kaldi’s declaring, “I’m going to write her a check. I’m going to say, ‘Excuse me while I go back inside and get my checkbook,’ and then I’m going to write her a check for 13 cents.”

Sooner or later, everyone ended up at Kaldi’s. At 11 o’clock every night, Tom Bacher would breeze in the door. Tom was the first artist I ever met who worked with phosphorescent paint; he had to charge his paintings with a flashlight, then turn off the lights in the room and listen to everyone gasp as the paintings, in the dark, came alive with twinkling lights. Each evening at Kaldi’s  he would take his usual table on the café side of the shop, and order a cup of coffee. He would be joined shortly by John Steele, another artist, who had worked a day job, gone home, fed the children, taken a nap and a shower. He showed up at Kaldi’s to mark the shift from his day job and his nocturnal vocation—art. Their routine was always the same: a couple of cups of coffee, and he and Tom would disappear to their respective studios, prepared to paint most of the night. The discipline of it amazed me and eventually carried over into my own work.

“Mother Art”—sculptor Pat Renick’s nickname—inevitably appeared on Friday nights with her longtime friend, art historian Laura Chapman. Patricia’s wide-brimmed straw hats were as well known as she was, and she looked at whomever she was talking to from under the brim, her hazel eyes twinkling like stars.

It was she who was the star, though, and everyone was in awe of her. She was a professor emeritus in sculpture at the University of Cincinnati with a storied past. Back in the 1970s she had acquired a Volkswagon Beetle, took it to her studio, and turned it into a metal dinosaur. Jimmy Carter was president and we had a hostage crisis in the Middle East, which had led to a gasoline shortage: People lined up at service stations to fill their tanks. Pat’s enormous sculpture announced “Cars are obsolete” at a time when Detroit was afraid it might be true. She also morphed the remains of a Vietnam-era combat helicopter into a triceratops—a reflection on war. Her work put Pat Renick on the same footing as artist Judy Chicago, whose “Dinner Party” installation, a table set for history’s fascinating women, was touring the U.S. at the time.

Over-the-Rhine wasn’t just about phosphorescent painting or sculptural social commentary. The musical group Over the Rhine was coming into its own in a studio space across the street from me. A young, dark Mennonite guy named Linford Detweiller had teamed up with a blonde singer of ethereal beauty named Karin Bergquist. I had met Karin when I was living in Mt. Auburn, and was so impressed with her singing I asked her to put a cut on my CD, Main Street. She had—and still has—a voice unique in the world of voices, a soprano with an endearing catch in her throat when she sings certain words. Being “old-school” I had booked my favorite studio at WGUC behind Music Hall, and Karin showed up at her determined hour, took her guitar out, and did a scratch track that would have won Eric Clapton’s approval.

“Wow,” I thought. “These kids are onto something.”

Instead of fancy recording studios, they captured their music on small, four-track machines in their space on Main. Here was garage-band music-making at its best—as inventive as Les Paul and Mary Ford, who figured out, back in the 1950s, how to overdub singing and guitar playing on a four-track tape machine and revolutionized recording.

Since they wrote all their own music, Over the Rhine had no royalties to pay, and they teamed up with photographer Michael Wilson, also on his way up, who did their wonderfully moody CD covers. Every news release that went out, every picture, every publicity hand-out was done by Wilson. His sepia-toned images of them became as iconic in Cincinnati as Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans.

Over the Rhine started out with a small, enthusiastic group of fans who came to every concert, and as tradition and legend grew up around them, people gradually began leaving gifts of roses on stage. A couple of years ago I read a poem called “The Hills Before Christmas” at their annual Christmas concert. Behind footlights piled high with roses, I stood at the podium and looked out at the audience in the Taft Theatre. I was amazed. Every seat was full; the Taft was as packed as I had ever seen it.

I was a musician myself, and I know how hard Karin and Linford worked in those early years. What I don’t understand is why we all did what we did, unless it was that magic, freewheeling, raucous world that was Over-the-Rhine.

I remember when the New Year arrived in 2001, because I had just written my first sonnet. It was about the moon at its apogee—the apex of its trip around the earth. There were painters and dancers around me who had created works to celebrate it, and I was inspired too. It was a privilege to be part of the community, and the richness in spirit there had never been so strong. The year ahead promised splendid achievement piled on splendid achievement. At least, that’s the way it seemed to me.

Then, on April 7—a Saturday—a 19-year-old named Timothy Thomas was shot and killed by a police officer in a dead-end alley off of Republic Street. Thomas was unarmed—the second unarmed black man to die in police custody in five months. The first question a lot of people asked was why was he running. But it seemed obvious to me. He was running because it was the middle of the night and that’s what you do when you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time in Over-the-Rhine.

Anger and frustration hit the black community in Over-the-Rhine hard. In the oppressive heat and humidity the following week, it passed from person to person in lightning bolts of rage. One afternoon, just as a rain storm hit, I saw the bottled up energy explode—hot dog carts in front of the court house being overturned, newspaper stands being knocked down. As the mob moved up Main Street, they broke out windows in Kaldi’s, in the Over-the-Rhine Foundation office. A few blocks away, at Findlay Market, they did enough damage to bring business to a screeching halt.

I spent as much time out of doors as I could, watching events develop. On Sunday—a week after the killing—I sat down on the back step of the Belmain with one of Main Street’s homeless denizens—a guy called The Bluesman. He was puffing on a hand-rolled cigarette, talking fast, more than a little manic, his eyes a washed-out blue, his skin a puffy red color from sleeping in doorways in the sun. The Bluesman had epilepsy—among other problems—and his brother came down to Over-the-Rhine almost every day to bring him his medication. I didn’t know it then, but by the time the year was up, the Bluesman would be dead.

After a few minutes, I walked to the front of the building. The entire terrain had changed. The street was blocked with at least 10 police cruisers. Helicopters were flying low. A large unruly line of people was walking towards us on 12th Street. I’d later learn they were coming from Timothy Thomas’s memorial near Washington Park.

The sun was shining, and except for the drone of the helicopters, a deathly quiet permeated the air. For a long time it was a stalemate. The protestors stared at us, and we stared back. For a while it seemed like nothing would happen, then the earth under our feet seemed to move and the police fired a volley of rubber bullets. It all seemed to be happening in a kind of slow motion, as things do when the situation is desperate and too extraordinary to be quickly understood. But in that frozen moment, I understood one thing for certain. Now, I thought, a change has come. I wanted to scream, to stop it, but no sound would come from my throat.

It would take months for the change to play out; musicians played benefit after benefit to keep Kaldi’s open. But eventually the doors closed on so many places.

“Nothing gold can stay,” the poet said, and those were golden days. All my young friends have gone on to at least moderate success, so the seeds that were planted back then must have fallen on fertile ground. The last time I was down there—and it is still painful for me to go—I saw the Belmain looking beautifully restored, with Dan Korman’s “green” store where Kaldi’s used to be. Best of all, the corner of 12th and Main has a large, freshly painted bicycle rack.

Maybe it’s time to revisit my old dream of urban cycling. Or maybe I should just stick to walking. I’ve always been good at that.

Photographs by Michael Wilson
Originally published in the August 2011 issue.

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