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Letter from Katie: Thumb Drive

I was getting ready to fly to the Soviet Union to perform in 1990, and I was worried about taking my prized 1951 Martin D-28 with me. American airline companies toss valuable instruments around like pickup sticks, so I decided to use a Coffin case—the kind of sturdy molded plastic guitar carrier that professional musicians swear by. It was too late to buy one, so I made arrangements to borrow Cal Collins’s. The jazz man lived in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, and frequently traveled to Europe and Australia to perform.

“You’re welcome to it, honey,” Cal told me good-naturedly, “but you can’t hardly lift it.”

The good thing about a Coffin case is that it is virtually indestructible. If the plane crashes, the guitar will be safe; if you’re lost at sea, it will float. Cal’s offer looked like the answer to my dilemma, but I met opposition immediately.

“You can’t drive that jalopy of yours to Indiana,” a musician friend protested.

“I don’t know why not,” I said, defending the road-worthiness of my 1977 Ford. I don’t remember the model, only that I called it the Green Hornet. “It’s just been tuned up, and it’s running like a top.”

“Just the same,” he said, “I wouldn’t draw an easy breath if I thought you were broken down somewhere on I-275 with nobody to help you.”

And so I set off for Indiana on a fine, clear morning in April to pick up Cal’s Coffin case in a borrowed Chevrolet Impala.

I was driving along nicely, down I-75 and on to I-275, when I saw a small plume of smoke coming from under the hood. Surely it was nothing, I thought, but I pulled to the side of the road anyway. I turned off the ignition, but the smoke kept getting worse. So I positioned myself reluctantly in front of the Impala’s grill and released the hood. The smoke billowed out in much bigger plumes.

I ran as far away from the car as fast as I could and looked around for help. A passing car slowed and the driver shouted that he’d stop at the next gas station and send a fire truck. It couldn’t come soon enough. The front of the car was already burning, the black smoke climbing in the air. Suddenly, in front of my horrified eyes, the entire automobile exploded into flames. I heard four small pops as each tire exploded—then one more as the spare in the trunk bit the dust. In no time at all, the chassis looked like the bones of a picked-over Thanksgiving turkey.

That’s about when the firemen arrived. “Whoa!” one said, surveying the scene. “You won’t be driving that one home.”

The Highway Patrol cordoned off the area. With sinking heart, I realized my purse and wallet had been on the front seat of the car: I was on west I-275 with no money and no idea what to do. One of the television stations arrived with a news crew (“Car burns on I-275; film at 11”), then a patrolman dropped me off at the airport and suggested I have a friend come and pick me up.

I did that, but I still had to tell the car’s owner that he was no longer in possession of a Chevy Impala.

“I know we’ll laugh about this some day,” he said, absorbing the blow on one knee, “just not yet.”

If I were going to give up driving, that would have been the day to do it. My night vision was beginning to go, I was tense behind the wheel, I’d had every mechanical problem in the book, and I’d collected enough parking tickets to wallpaper a room. Only a few months before, I had trashed a golf course by accidentally running across the greens on a rainy, wintery day. Helicopters were involved in the chase that ensued. As far as car karma went, mine was dangerously close to empty.

 

My problems started when I was a teenager in Detroit. My father attempted to give me driving lessons when I was 15, and the minute I took the wheel I drove right into a good-sized tree on Ellsworth Avenue, where we lived.

“God a’mighty,” my father barked. “Where did that come from?”

Shortly after my disastrous first driving attempt, our family relocated from the Motor City to Huntsville, Alabama, where—after spending about 300 hours practicing parallel parking—I got my license. I promptly had another accident the very same day, backing into a large pole at a strip mall on the way home from the drug store. My confidence in my driving skills was dwindling.

Still, my relationship with auto ownership continued into adulthood, when it took working out a budget for me to see that there was no way I could continue to operate a car on the income of a musician. I needed to live car-free. And for that, I needed a plan.

I had lived in Clifton, in the gaslight district, in the 1970s. It had been an easy place to maneuver without transportation. Back then Keller’s Market was still open, so a good butcher and relatively fresh produce were within strolling distance. I could eat a hot turkey sandwich at the Busy Bee and ice cream at Graeter’s. Bus service was good in Clifton; from there, I could get downtown easily. And there was the convenience of Hyde Park: When I used to house-sit for friends there, I’d walk to The Echo for a good, inexpensive lunch and pick up prescriptions at the old drugstore on the square. But house-sitting gigs never landed me in Hyde Park on any kind of permanent basis, and the rents in Clifton had grown out of my reach. So when I gave up my car for good in 1995, I decided to move to Over-the-Rhine.

At the time OTR had a few corner convenience stores and a lot of artists and musicians. Bus transportation was plentiful, but the schedule took some effort to master. One of the buses that ran right by my apartment on Main Street was the No. 46—a route that made a beeline for University Hospital. Unfortunately I didn’t always require hospitalization. The No. 53 was handy because it went to Clifton, but it proved to be unreliable. To get to more destinations, I had to walk to 12th and Vine, to the bus stop right across the street from Ensemble Theatre.

Today, Vine Street bus stops have been renewed along with the neighborhood. In the Gateway District you can sit and wait for your ride—even get out your laptop and take advantage of WiFi. Back when I lived there, if there was a bench, it was bound to be damaged; if there was a shelter, it was warped or leaking. You’d find yourself standing for 30 minutes in the cold or the rain or sweltering in the sun, waiting for the next bus.

I patiently explained all this to the Metro people during my seasonal telephone calls. I’d helpfully query, “Did you realize that the bench at the stop on 12th and Vine is gone?” Or missing one leg. Or whatever misfortune had befallen the public convenience.

“Yes,” the polite response came back. “We’re aware of that. We’re cleaning up all the OTR bus stops this spring.”

When spring came with no improvement, I was back on the phone. “Remember that bus stop at 12th and Vine I complained about last winter?”

“Yeah,” the voice would say. “We’re working on it. And we got more buses on that route so you won’t have to wait as long. You probably don’t need the bench.” I felt like Bob Newhart doing a telephone comedy routine.

Jim Tarbell—who tried going without a car himself for two years—has pointed out to me that the planned streetcar will connect OTR to downtown. So people who work on Fourth Street will be able to lunch at Findlay Market and still be back in the office for their afternoon meeting. But in terms of making the city a go-carless neighborhood, “it’s just a drop in the bucket,” he says. “So much more is needed.”

I had a rich life in Over-the-Rhine, even without a car. I lived above Kaldi’s Coffee House. If I got lonely or restless, all I had to do was walk downstairs and I would more than likely meet someone I knew and find a spirited conversation. Maybe it was the espresso talking, but I learned the art of conversation there, and I learned a lot about art, too. In fact, I spent so much time in Kaldi’s that I eventually got a job there singing with a band and booking performers. For me, a neighborhood couldn’t get more “walkable” than that.

 

When you live without a car, people always wonder how you get your food. Most of my meals came from the neighborhood. There was no fresh food at the corner bodegas, but nearby Court Street boasted an open-air produce market several days a week as well as the Avril-Bleh & Sons butcher shop. I used to walk to the Court Street market and Avril’s every Wednesday afternoon—a tradition that made me enough of a regular that the butchers stopped work and got out the rubber chicken and the trombone on my birthday. I still had my dog, Sister, in those days, but nothing could entice her into Avril’s. All the staff tried coaxing her with bits of steak, but she would not budge. “It just don’t look right,” somebody said, “a dog not wanting to go into a butcher shop.”

Tony Sparta’s market with its glossy tomatoes and expensive specialty foods was another Court Street favorite. Tony stocked Italian meats and cheeses, and on Wednesday afternoons a man came to the shop and made mozzarella balls, and you could eat the whey, a delicious by-product of the cheese making. In those years I was meeting weekly with a trio of musicians—not to practice, just to play for the love of it. I’d pick up produce and polenta at Tony’s and we’d have a light dinner of vegetables and Verdi or whatever we happened to be working on at the time. It always felt like a feast.

Living in Over-the-Rhine meant that downtown’s great resources were handy. My friend Kate Schmidt and I regularly swam in the big old-fashioned pool in the basement of the YWCA, floating on our backs and enjoying the boomy silence. One day the fire alarm went off and a voice came over the PA directing everyone to evacuate the building. Kate and I looked at each other in horror. We would rather have burned to death than to go out on the sidewalk in our bathing suits. Luckily it was a false alarm.

The main branch of the public library was across the street from the Y, so I was never short of reading material. And if I couldn’t find something there, I could always call the Mercantile Library on Walnut Street. If they had a novel I wanted, they’d mail it to me with a stamped self-addressed envelope to return it in. Sweet!

 

Life on Main Street really got interesting when Diva’s opened. It was an edgy salon, a bit ahead of its time, with spiky hair, lots of “product,” and one stylist with pink locks. You had to bring your own magazines, but it was right next door to my apartment building so I wasn’t about to quibble; I was finally able to get a haircut! A young stylist named Amy Lake took on the maintenance of my hair—a challenge she met until Diva’s closed. I tracked her down at a salon in Hyde Park—too far away for me to cab on a regular basis, though I took the bus once or twice. Amy booked me as her last appointment and drove me home herself. I went through her divorce with her, babysat for her youngest daughter, and watched her children grow up. She was a ferocious mother and she had a sweetness, a kindness, in her nature. I wouldn’t have known about any of that without those car rides, where both of us let our hair down, so to speak.

By happy coincidence Amy has settled in a salon called Bang Bang on West McMillan, a $5 cab ride away from where I live now. Amy gives me “good hair days,” and I find I can handle just about anything life throws at me because of her expertise.

Amy is one of the few people left from my old network. Several years ago I moved to Klotter Avenue, and I’ve had to retool and rebuild. No buses lumber up and down the nearest cross street, so I tend to get more isolated than in my days in Over-the-Rhine, and I find myself more often prevailing on others. My neighbor, Lee Hay, takes me to the vet if my dog is feeling poorly. If I run out of kibble, Pet Wants at Findlay Market delivers. I read way too much, so Cedric Rose, of the Mercantile Library, will either drop a book in the mail for me or deliver two or three on his bicycle on nice days (I live on his way home from work). For years, WNKU lined up volunteers to ferry me to the radio station for my shift each Sunday; now my old friend Leona Durham drives me there, and my radio partner of 23 years, Wayne Clyburn, drives me home. Wayne and I call that sacrosanct time of driving and unwinding our “production meeting;” we make decisions about our show, what music we might want to explore, that sort of thing. One grand transportation bargain is Findlay Market: From Klotter Street, it’s just a short cab ride to one of the great food centers of the city.

Still, I could not get along without a car if I didn’t have friends behind the wheel. I find it difficult to ask for a ride, but I have to do it now and then. I am independent and “necky” about it, but I also find getting into a car and riding 20 minutes with a friend can cheer me up as much as a chocolate milk shake.

I suppose we’re all of us resistant to car-pooling. It’s a low-grade fear of intimacy, I think. What will we say? How should we act? I have had a fellow musician say to me, “I can’t handle having a passenger tonight. Work has been a bear all day, and I was looking forward to a few minutes of down-time when I’m in the car.” That is candid and understandable. I like to think I can make it as easy to opt out as to opt in. Mainly, when I open the passenger door of a car and get in, I try to come prepared with good conversation and a few stories, if that seems to be called for, and good listening skills if the driver wants to do the talking. I have come to believe that riding alone is something lonely people do.

Perhaps the growing of a relationship is the long journey, the big adventure. Hopefully, your car won’t blow up. I think we’ll both enjoy the encounter and come away from it feeling like we’ve had the best kind of adventure, the kind that leaves us feeling warmer, more connected, and a little bit better prepared to face the world.

Originally published in the August 2012 issue