I’ve known Ken Katkin for almost four years, and the most fundamental thing I know about the guy is how much he likes to go to punk rock shows.
So it wasn’t a surprise when he went to hear a rare performance by Weird Paul Petroskey in mid-August. Indeed, it would have been strange if he hadn’t checked out the show, because Ken was the guy who signed Weird Paul to a label in 1991, some years before becoming a professor of constitutional and communications law at Northern Kentucky University.
Weird Paul was playing in a house on Westwood Northern Boulevard, next to Mt. Airy Forest. There were so many bands playing before him that Weird Paul didn’t even take the stage until a quarter to two in the morning, at which point he had to play a lot of songs really fast because it was so late. But Weird Paul always plays a lot of songs really fast, so this was no huge problem, and, a little after three in the morning, Katkin was driving back home to Mariemont.
It was late and he decided to take surface streets home. “Why drive the expressway at that time of night?” he figured. In East Walnut Hills, he drove past the headquarters of WAIF-FM on East McMillan, the tiny community radio station where he’s been DJing for six years, playing the likes of Weird Paul and Bob Dylan and much in between on his Saturday afternoon show Trash Flow Radio. As he turned onto William Howard Taft Road and cruised by the eight-floor Columbia Tower apartment complex, he spotted a guy flailing his arms, frantically trying to get his attention. The man looked to be in trouble, so Ken pulled over.
It was the night of the Perseid Meteor shower. The sky was clear, so clear that as the short, neatly-groomed man leaned into the window of the car, Ken could see him haloed by shooting stars. The man said he had a predicament. His name was Christopher Meacham, he explained, and he had locked himself out of his apartment in Columbia Tower. His wallet was inside along with his keys. A locksmith was billing him $140, and he only had $80; the guy wouldn’t finish the job unless Meacham paid in cash. He sheepishly said he didn’t have the money on him. However he did have his checkbook, which he showed to Ken, displaying a check with his name—Dr. Christopher L. Meacham—and address on it.
Whatever doubts Ken had about a 24-hour locksmith who demanded cash upfront, the fact that Meacham lived right there seemed reassuring, as did his manner—intelligent, low-key. He didn’t seem to like being out there in the middle of the night. As it happened, Ken had $61 dollars in his pocket. So he asked Meacham to make out a check to “cash.” Ken didn’t think he had a pen, but Meacham spotted one in his drink holder. The signed check in hand, Ken handed over three $20 bills and then headed to the security of his own home, underneath the shooting stars.
“Who’s Christopher Meacham?” Ken’s wife Linda Dynan asked the next morning. The check lay on a table in the living room, and Linda was already Googling him by the time Ken awoke. “There’s a story there,” Ken began, and before he got too far into it, Linda said: “You want to know something else? He declared bankruptcy.” Right then Ken could see the story was tilting in a certain direction. He knew what he had to do about it: spill it all on social media.
A little more internet sleuthing led Linda to discover that Meacham had been a professional clinical counselor—though Ken recalled him saying he was not just a doctor but a physician, and that discrepancy “did ring my warning bells a little bit.” So Ken put it to his friends on Facebook: Did they think this was some psychology experiment, or had he just been stiffed?
The overwhelming consensus was: Ken, how could you?
“You’re a good person but you probably got stiffed,” said Ethan Buckler of the legendary Louisville geek-funk band King Kong.
“Ken I have some magic beans in my possession that I need to sell,” wrote John Morton of the legendary Cleveland headache jazz band the Electric Eels.
Later that day, when he made it to the bank, he handed the check to a teller, asking if she could determine its viability without him depositing it and incurring a fee should it bounce. The teller made a quick inquiry and came right back, laughing. “Wow,” she said. “That is not a good check.”
On his show that Saturday afternoon, Ken played the Julie Ruin’s “Hello Trust No One,” followed by a clip from the movie The Grifters. Eventually he introduced a guest he called “Listener Cassandra.” She had come to Ken’s attention just a few hours before; a Trash Flow listener who had been reading Ken’s posts realized he knew someone who had encountered Meacham—his mother-in-law. Cassandra agreed to come to WAIF’s bare bones studio and share what she knew. A resident of East Walnut Hills, she had followed Meacham’s exploits for quite some time, she said. She described him as a local landmark and noted how consistent and effective his pitch is, to the point that some people don’t even bother taking a check from the guy—they are so caught up in wanting to help him get back into his home that they tell him they’ll return for their money later, or never.
Ken pointed out with pride that he was the rare cheapskate who insisted on a check.
Cassandra told the radio audience how she had spoken to Meacham in the past, and that one day earlier in the summer she had been working at a store in Hyde Park when she heard a familiar male voice. He was talking with some embarrassment about
how he was a doctor, and had just locked himself out of his home, and…
After listening to the spiel, the store’s assistant manager came to the back room, where Cassandra was working, to relay the poor man’s plight. Which is about when Meacham spotted Cassandra. “He was brazen enough to point at me and say, ‘Is there a problem here?’” she later recalled. “I said, ‘Well, I think you know what the problem is.’ I went to the back to say to her, ‘You really don’t want to do this.’ And when we came out front again, he was gone.” (The store’s assistant manager later corroborated Cassandra’s recollection of their exchange, adding that they posted a photo of Meacham in the store.)
While he was on the air talking about his encounter, Ken’s social media friends were digging for clues. Having Meacham’s name and address made a lot of other stuff easy. They extracted his criminal past (another rubber check, a theft conviction, and misuse of credit cards). Ken found his Ph.D. dissertation from the University of Cincinnati (“Women Living with HIV and AIDS: Relationships Among Stress, Hopelesness, Coping and Perceptions of Social Support.”) Somebody Ken didn’t even know was the first to see that Meacham had once been a co-owner of a wine shop in Clifton, which got him a writeup in this very magazine.
But there was troubling information as well. His mother had died only a week before (they linked to the obituary). And there was a link on Ken’s Facebook page to a 2008 document from the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker, & Marriage and Family Therapist Board suspending Meacham’s license to practice until he entered a treatment program and passed random drug testing, among other stipulations. In a city where everyone’s business seems at some point to intersect with everyone else’s, a lot of people went from knowing nothing to learning more about this one random guy than they probably knew about their next-door neighbors.
That night, Ken called the police to share what had happened, but perhaps because it was a busy Saturday they didn’t seem particularly interested. The message he took away from the cops was that he’d received a great education at a low price.
About a week later, he went in person to file a report, and this time all Ken had to do was say, “I want to report a guy writing bad checks in East Walnut Hills…” and Detective Stephanie Bellamah interrupted: “Wait a minute, his name isn’t Christopher Meacham, is it?”
They called her “Typewriter.” She got her bell rung more than a century ago in Cincinnati.
Her real name was Etta Lewis, and the November 11, 1887, edition of The Cincinnati Enquirer called her “one of the smartest female confidence women who have ever visited this town.” Her reputation for stealing typewriters was fabled in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago—she bagged five typewriters there—and Cleveland. Her routine was consistent: When she came to town, Typewriter would visit typewriter vendors and order the most expensive model they had, requesting it be delivered to the fancy hotel or boarding house she was staying at, payment on delivery. She was never around when the delivery was made and more often than not, the shopkeeper would just leave it at the front desk for her and plan on coming back for the money. Subsequent calls for payment were never acknowledged, and soon enough Typewriter would flee to the next town.
As her notoriety spread, typewriter dealers circulated a description of her appearance and manner to police departments and businesses all over the country. Typewriter looked the part (fashionable but plain-clothed, projecting refinement and modesty) and acted the part (she had worked in an office before her life of crime and would display her stenographical prowess, putting the merchants at ease). The glasses she wore helped seal the deal.
The Queen City, however, is where Typewriter’s typewriter-stealing spree came to a halt. While staying at a high-end boarding house on West Fourth Street, she ordered a machine from a downtown dealer named Muller. Suspicious that she was the crook he’d heard about, he called the cops. The next day she ordered a $100 Remington from another salesman. That dealer, too, contacted the police, and soon a detective and the merchants were all walking around Fourth Street. She ducked the detective and slipped into a drug store at Fourth and Central. But Muller saw her and followed her in, where she was detained. She gave the police her name, but declined to provide her home address, the Enquirer reported, “stating that she had none.” Cincinnati was watching. Even in 1887 it was the kind of place where, sooner or later, the perp and the vic were bound to cross paths.
A century and change later, the internet has only amplified that probability. Forget six, there are hardly even four degrees of separation left in this town. By the time Ken went to the police, they were already following reports of Meacham on the community website Nextdoor.com, where neighbors trade information on couches for sale, discuss new nail shops, and send up flares about criminal activity. A series of entries had recently been posted about a guy locked out of his apartment, hitting up passersby for cash. Perhaps it was because he followed his script closely, or because the amount of money he was asking for was relatively small, or because the cops just couldn’t be bothered, but he’d been getting away with it for a while. However, after his encounter with Ken, something changed. Whether due to the increased social media attention or simply the number of incidents being reported, Meacham was charged with passing bad checks to at least four more people. (At press time, these charges were still pending.)
Around the pool at Columbia Tower, a group met and talked about their neighbor on the second floor. In the building’s Party Room one late-September night, four or five inhabitants told me stories about their polite, short, neat, and unremarkable neighbor: About the time he called a tow truck when his car broke down, and then allegedly talked the driver out of some cash. And how there’s a contest regarding who can get to newcomers to the Tower first—Meacham with his story or the neighborly watchdogs with their warning. Or the time he paid somebody in the building back.
It’s a modestly profitable endeavor, and it’s effective. The idea of talking people out of their money exists more in the movies than in reality, says Detective Bellamah. “In 24 years as a police officer, he’s really about the first one I can think of,” she says. “There are reports filed and cases I can think of but never where we had a suspect. Sometimes groups move through, like the references made to Gypsies, but not a case where we were able to charge anyone or tie them to this.”
So there it was. He was utterly, blandly normal. And rarer than a “Gypsy” of the imagination.
A few weeks later in the Hamilton County Courthouse downtown, I flagged Meacham down after a preliminary appearance before Judge Fanon Rucker. We walked over to Tom + Chee, where we talked for about an hour. He began with a warning: “I may be a drug addict, but I’m a very smart person.” He wanted that understood. “We live in an electronic age,” he added, noting a little ominously how it was amazing what you could dig up about a person just by rooting around on the web. I could only agree.
Pride, or grandiosity, hung over the conversation, as did a carefully worded contrition. “I feel bad for the people that have been involved with me in this matter,” Meacham said. “The ability to feel remorse and regret is not absent from my conscience. But in service of my addiction, everything else is sidelined.” He mentioned April 26, 2005—the day he tried crack for the first time. “I had no intention of doing it at all when I went to this place, but it’s what happened and I have paid dearly for it. I spent a million dollars of my money, lost three homes, been homeless for nine months. I’ve been in treatment several times….”
He wanted it known that he’d not always been in such desperate straits. “I never tried to take anything from anybody prior to this,” he said. When he was 8, he told me, he snatched a box of Junior Mints from a drugstore in Elsmere, Kentucky. It’s a memory he can’t shake. “Chris, where did you get this candy?” his father asked. He burst into tears and told his father he had taken it from the drugstore. “Chris, you can’t do that,” his father said. They went back together, and his father told the store clerk what had happened. “My parents knew right from wrong. They were good, loving, intelligent people,” Meacham said.
He was raised in Erlanger, the youngest of five children. There is tragedy in Meacham’s family story, even apart from the recent death of his mother; his father put a gun to his head and committed suicide in 2000. He doesn’t say why he wants me to know this, and as he shows me pictures of his family, this person I had just met was obviously making a play for my sympathy. Neatly dressed, his hair precisely cut, Meacham speaks in a calm, level tone, making full eye contact. He comes across as candid without revealing too much. It’s confusing. Somewhere I have heard it said that the best dodge is the truth. The details he shared about his family and his addiction appear to be true, but our conversation seemed less than transparent.
There’s a lot of truth in his pitch to his alleged victims, too—his address, after all, is on his checks. I asked him if he could explain why the story he tells has been so effective. “Well, I can,” he said. “People help one another based on the ability to identify. And most people I would approach could identify and empathize with the feeling of being locked out, stranded, vulnerable. I can’t tell you how many times that I have been drawn to help people with an issue or a concern, one I could identify with, and certainly those feelings were among them.”
His “deep understanding” of psychology that he got from his graduate training helped him, he said. As had the counseling he did after that—he specialized in working with AIDS patients through University Hospital. “You can’t sit as a psychotherapist and listen to hundreds of patients and not develop some ability to understand how peoples’ hearts work,” he told me. “Understand what matters to people, and at the end of the day we all want to put our head down and feel safe.”
Later, I asked him about the charges he’s facing—about asking people for cash and then giving them a check that bounces. “Every addict in the world pulls shit like this,” he said. “This is not a crime thing, it’s an addiction thing. The fact that I have issued documents…to people with my name, my address, my phone number on it, I think exposes the conflict that I’ve been in. I’m fundamentally honest. ‘You can come and get me, you can send your troops after me.’ Yet I’m still driven to find the funds to fuel my obsessive addiction.”
He added: “If I was really of a pure criminal mind in a psychological sense, I wouldn’t be issuing a document.”
That day at Tom + Chee, Meacham revealed a brief flash of anger when Ken’s name came up. “Who is Ken Katkin?” he demanded. The day Ken went on the air, Meacham’s phone started ringing. The messages were all the same: There’s a guy on the radio talking about you right now and he is telling quite a remarkable story.
Ultimately, Ken says he doesn’t particularly care about making Meacham do time, he really just wants him to stop doing the things he’s charged with doing. That and one other thing: He’d like to have Meacham come onto his radio show one afternoon.
“I’d like to meet with him—obviously, I have many amends to make,” Meacham said. No, I interjected, never mind the amends. Bring some records and kick it live, and take this ultra-Cincinnati story about social networks and the proximity we all have to one another to some kind of absurd, symbolic ground zero. He looked a little confused, but said he would “consider it.”
In order to verify what he’d said, I got in touch with Meacham’s sister, Jan Cottrell, in Lexington. Cottrell is an Episcopal priest and a pastoral counselor who specializes in working with addicts. Because she worries about her brother, she Googles him from time to time—frankly, she says, to see if he is in jail. An internet search led her to the Trash Flow Radio programs Ken posted, and to my surprise, she said she enjoyed them.
“I was really impressed with how the disc jockey made it a personal story of his experience,” she said. “I was grateful, even though I found it painful. It was compassionate and pretty important—I think people need to know there are people like Chris out there.”
Cottrell wonders at the toll addiction has taken on him. “I love Chris but I don’t trust him at all. It’s a sad disease,” she said. He even got her once with the locksmith story, texting her the pitch. “He’s done a lot of damage—a lot,” she said, “far more than getting 60 bucks from somebody.”
The youngest sibling in the family, he was the one who found their father’s body after he shot himself, Cottrell said, and she believes the discovery may have triggered his decline. “Chris would never admit it, but occasionally he would just blurt out that he had found him and that it was painful,” she recalled. “I don’t think he would ever deal with it in a way that he would advise his patients to deal with their problems—by talking about them.”
This had turned into a story different from the one I thought I was writing—two stories, really. If I cover one eye, I see a goofy tale about a modern-day Typewriter, somebody who enjoyed what he did and was good at it. Cover the other eye, though, and I was looking at a troubled addict, a guy not in control. The use of his address was a smart jolt of reality, the truth that sold the story—unless it was obsessive behavior that he didn’t consider might trip him up. Both, of course, could be true.
Brian Painter lives in Walnut Hills and works in market research for the Nielsen firm. He and his wife have an 80-pound farm collie named Holly that Painter was walking around the neighborhood at 7:30 one morning in late July. Then, the craziest thing happened.
A silver Volkswagen Passat came barreling down the street and pulled to a stop in front of Holly. The driver explained he was a doctor who was coming home from work, which made sense to Painter since a lot of medical professionals live in the area. Anyway, this doctor had locked himself out of his building, and there was a locksmith who only took cash. He offered to write a check for twice the amount he was asking for. That wasn’t necessary, Painter explained; the $40 check—which had Meacham’s name and address on it—would do just fine.
Painter recalled the last thing the guy said to him before driving off with the cash: “I just want to thank you. I know I caught you off guard.”
“Don’t worry—the pleasure’s all mine,” Painter told him.
Painter didn’t know who the man was at the time, but when later shown a photograph of Meacham, he confirmed that it was the same guy. After Ken put his story on the air and on Facebook, Painter reached out to relate his encounter. Since then, he has heard similar stories from others in the neighborhood, and it has given him a chance to think about the community he lives in. “You know, people ask about Cincinnati, ‘Is it a little big city or a big little city?’” Painter ponders. “I think this shows it’s a big little city where what people say spreads pretty fast.”
I’m upstairs in the Hamilton County Courthouse one morning in late September. It’s a preliminary proceeding for one of several check bouncing charges that have caught up to Meacham. I’m sitting with Ken in the public area. After a month of watching his 60 bucks spread out across the internet, he’s got something invested in the narrative, and he’s amped to keep readers and listeners aware of the latest twists.
Meacham is standing before Judge Rucker. While they talk, Ken whips out his Flip camera and starts shooting the scene, in hopes of posting the video later that day. But unauthorized video recording of municipal court proceedings is a no-no. The bailiff snatches the camera out of Ken’s hand and marches it up to the judge. There’s a brief bit of disorder in the court. Eventually the judge has Ken standing front and center, right where Meacham was minutes before. After asking why he made the video, Judge Rucker says it better not appear in public.
It seems the bailiff didn’t know how to turn the camera off, though, because when Ken finally got it back he saw that it had recorded the whole exchange—including the judge muttering something to himself about a selfie.
Ken decided it prudent not to post the video on social media. It turns out that, even in a big little town, sometimes it’s good to keep a bit of the story to yourself.
Editor’s note: On December 1, after Cincinnati Magazine went to press, Christopher Meacham pled guilty to seven counts of writing bad checks, including the $60 check to Ken Katkin mentioned at the beginning of the story. His sentence includes jail time, three years probation, and requires restitution be made to the victims. Katkin has offered to waive his $60 in restitution if Meacham will join him on his Trash Flow Radio show some Saturday afternoon. Meacham has not responded to the offer.