Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Why, Oh Why, Oh Why, Oh — Why Did I Ever Leave Ohio?

Why did I wander to find what lies yonder?
Life was so cosy at home
Wondrin’ why I wander
Why did I fly, why did I roam?

I visited him on a Sunday, after he'd come home from the hospital. We'd seen each other off and on over the years, but quite often this past year. He had been like a father figure to me, so it was the least I could do. Both of us are products of the Midwest, so we had at least that much in common. As we reminisced about our respective upbringings, and I said in passing where I was from, he repeated from memory the words to an old Broadway tune. It both got us thinking.

The musical first appeared on Broadway in 1953, written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, with music by Leonard Bernstein. But it was based upon a play by Joseph A Fields and Jerome Chodorov, entitled "My Sister Eileen." This in turn was based upon a collection of short stories of the same name by Ruth McKenney, which recall her memories of growing up with her sister. A movie based on the book under that name was released in 1955; a short-lived television series of the same name appeared in 1960. It was about that time, when I remember reading about the local high school putting on a production of "Wonderful Town" in the weekly Milford Advertiser. The story revolves around two sisters, Ruth and Eileen, who leave their home in Columbus for New York City, to seek their fortunes and (as most such productions would have it) true love. They rent a basement flat in Greenwich Village. Eventually they become homesick. Sort of.

Now listen, Eileen,
Ohio was stifling.
We just couldn't wait to get out of the place,
With Mom saying -- "Ruth, what no date for this evening?"

   And Pop with, "Eileen, do be home, dear, by ten."

The gossipy neighbors
And everyone yapping who's going with whom --

   And dating those drips that I've known since I'm four.

The Kiwanas Club dance.

   On the basketball floor.

It is said that Ohio is "the most average state in the Union." It's the one everyone passes through on their way to somewhere else. Everyone, that is, but my ancestors, who appear to have stayed. It has a little of everything, but not to much, lest you take it for granted. It has rolling hills, but no mountains. It has flat, endless, farmland, but not too endless. As a Scout, I spent a lot of time in the woods, but I can count on one hand the number of times I ever saw a snake. And I never saw any bears. Not that they aren't there; they just keep to themselves -- or at least, away from me. And walking through the streets of Cincinnati, I never saw any "ladies of the evening" either. The "red light" district was banned from the city (where newspapers never advertised burlesque shows), and so moved across the Ohio River to Newport, Kentucky. Now northern Kentucky is experiencing an urban revival. Their neighbors back over in Ohio are still recovering from urban riots over racial tensions brought on by a police incident. That was nearly ten years ago.

Cousin Maude with her lectures on sin...

   Jerry Black!

Cousin Min!

   Ezra Nye!

Hannah Finn!





But it was a place -- and still is, to some degree -- where things don't change too quickly. Mark Twain once said: "When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati because it's always twenty years behind the times." Sometimes that isn't so bad. A museum display of "art" photographs of young children can be labeled "child pornography" by the County Prosecutor. The truly sophisticated sit at their cocktail parties and laugh at the backwardness of the hoi-polloi. But after several years of news headlines about child sexual abuse by priests and schoolteachers, they're not laughing anymore. Before leaving home, I was used to seeing six-lane highways. When I first arrived in Washington in 1980, coming down I-270 on the last stretch from Frederick, Maryland, I saw six-lanes again -- this time, on each side!

I almost moved back to The Buckeye State in the late 80s. My wife and I decided that our son should be raised there, and we wanted to return to our roots. She was from Cleveland, and I was from Cincinnati. So we found a picture-postcard college town east of Columbus that was situated in between, and set the target year for 1990. But the marriage tanked that same year, and the dream died with it. And even though more companies have moved to Cincinnati in nearly three decades since I left, the economy in the state as a whole hasn't set the world on fire in all those years. For my line of work, I'm better off here. Still, when I dream, I live there, sometimes even at my parents' house. It looks just as it did before the renovation. When I'm awake, I go back once a year. Some things have changed, others stay the same. After a few years, I lost certain forms of speech, like when you didn't hear what somebody said, and instead of saying "I'm sorry?" you say "Please?" because your German forebears always said "Bitte?" in the same situation. In recent years, I've found myself saying "EYE-ther" and "NYE-ther" instead of "EE-ther" and "NEE-ther." Even words like "PRY-vacy" (long "I") have occasionally become "PRI-vacy" (short "I"). My son doesn't have the slight Midwestern twang of his cousins. They talk of staying in Ohio after finishing college. Paul talks of going to Canada, or Sweden, before finishing college. I left my family, and Paul barely has one. I left my friends, and am lucky the ones here return my calls on the same day. Paul has plenty of friends, and they're almost like his family. I shouldn't be surprised.

"Why did I ever leave Ohio?" I had roots there, but no wings. I could have stayed and moved from one underpaying free-lance job to another, working for the bottom-feeders of the graphic design trade, and still be a mama's boy at forty. Things might have gotten better, but my options would have been limited in getting there. Or I could have been my own man, even as I wonder what to write on an application where it says "In case of emergency, next of kin." When I was 25, two roads diverged in the wood. My choice made all the difference. I have seen events the rest of my family only sees on the evening news. I have met people I would otherwise only read about in books. I have met people from all over the world. In a sense, I have BEEN all over the world.

And yet, I have talked of going back one day, ending a sort of Babylonian captivity, after 2015 when I expect to retire. With "Sal" in the picture, Deo volente, we would likely make the decision together. One way or the other.

Maybe I’d better go
      Maybe I’d better go home.

But... not just yet.

("Ohio" from the musical "Wonderful Town," lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, music by Leonard Bernstein. Lyrics reprinted here in part without permission or shame.)


mrsdarwin said...

Every time I revisit Cincinnati I'm struck by how old and dingy everything looks. (My part of Texas is growing like billy-o and barely anything is twenty years old.) Still, seeing that Welcome to Ohio sign makes me homesick. I think I read somewhere that Cincinnati has one of the highest Fortune 500 headquarters to square mile ratio in the country, so there must be some boom -- though you don't see it driving through the downtown outliers like Fairmount.

Still, I'd like to move back there someday. It's not such a bad place to raise a family, all things considered. And there's a great stock of big old inexpensive houses, for those of us who want out of our low-maintenance but low- character suburban boxes.

Rose said...

Oh! This was like a melody. Thank You. You brought back memories of years ago. After years in the Big City, I went home-Happy Lady. It is not the same, but it is HOME. There is something about the nest.
I love how you write.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mr. Black Hat -

Thanks for writing so nicely about my home state (I've lived all my life here in Akron). I cannot tell you how tired I am of relatives and friends pitying me for staying here and urging me to move south (ie, Atlanta, Raleigh, etc.) They mean well - they think I would be happier somewhere warmer and more sophisticated. I have always held back saying anything tacky or unkind in reply, but honestly, I like it here.

When other people knock on where I live, it hurts. I know very well how cold and snowy it gets in the winter, but I expect it and can deal with it, and most of the time, even enjoy it. I know the job situation isn't what it was pre-1980, but my husband and I have a steady jobs (thankfully). We live in an older, factory-developed neighborhood (Goodyear Heights), in a small, older house, but I like it. I speak nicely to my neighbors, and they do the same. Honking one's car horn in traffic is a last resort - it is almost considered rude.

My husband's hometown, Tiffin (you may know it), is even nicer, and the people there are great. I attended my husband's 10-year high school reunion (Tiffin Calvert) a few years ago, and when I stood up from the table we were sharing with his unmarried buddies, they all stood up. I was shocked, but appreciative.

I hope you can come home some day to stay - Susan

David L Alexander said...

Tiffin. Seneca County, home of Heidelberg College, once famous for its glass and porcelain manufacturing. I don't get to that part of the state much, probably because I don't know anyone around Toledo. (I almost got a job in Toledo out of college, though. Long story...)

My part of the state? Milford, Clermont County, 17 miles east of Cincinnati. FWIW.

Adrienne said...

My hubby taught a workshop in the Akron area. He stayed with one of the promoters in Canton and fell in love with the area.

We are both from the Twin Cities (MN)but live in Idao now. He was struck by how polite folks were and the wonderful older neighborhoods.

anon - I checked out Tiffin
and some of the smaller towns around Toledo, too. They all look like wonderful places to live.

I've done searches on property and you can buy a cool older house for peanuts. Who knows - we may do it.

Jay Anderson said...

Some of us relocated to Ohio from other parts of the country. Me, from Texas to Virginia (lived there for 15 years) to Ohio (been here for 2-and-a-half years).

Our move was not job-related. This is a great place to raise a family with affordable housing and affordable Catholic schools in most localities, which is why we're here.

Maureen said...

Ohhhhhh. That's where that song came from.