Slaughterhouse 5.1

Used to be that, when us river rats wandered into town, the fine folks of Dresden rolled up the sidewalks, hid their women and livestock, and bolted their doors. The manager of a convenience store where canoe trippers went to replenish ice and beer supplies posted a sign at the door that read “ONLY ONE CANOEIST AT A TIME ALLOWED IN THE STORE.” So I was a little apprehensive years later when – during a two-week-long canoe trip to Marietta – they offered me a key to the village.

What changed? By then – the early ’90s – the Longaberger basket factory had been revived and the town was booming. Bursting at the seems, actually. It had become a Mecca for Longaberger devotees. Busload after busload of them descended on the Muskingum River town south of Coshocton, Ohio. Many of them were middle-aged housewives who sold Longaberger baskets in what some alleged was a pyramid scheme. The whole scene kind of looked like an Aunt Bee impersonators convention.

The devotees came to shop or eat at the spiffy shops and restaurants in the village – about 50 in all – or take guided tours of the basket factory.

The Dresden I knew in the ’80s was like any other southeastern Ohio ghost town. Dilapidated vacant storefronts lined the main drag. The few residents who hadn’t moved out looked haggard and pissed at the world. Especially outsiders like us.

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned that, in the early ’90s, I had contacted businesses in towns along the river so I could fax my weekly columns to the Columbus Guardian during my journey. A little grocery store in Dresden was one of them. I also contacted local officials and asked if I could camp in the park along the river.

That’s when they offered me a key to the village. They granted my request and invited me to shower or work out at their state-of-the art gym in their refurbished park. After paddling and dragging a canoe all the way from Brinkhaven (water levels were low that year) and portaging around two dams, the last thing I needed was another workout. I did take them up on the shower though.

I also accepted their invitation to tour the basket factory. I mentioned the tour in one of  the columns I wrote during my canoe trip. The tour included a walk along a balcony overlooking the shop floor. Below, basket assemblers who were paid piecework, labored frantically. These folks had been rescued from jobs that paid minimum wage and offered an opportunity to make a decent living for themselves and their families.

Still, it was humiliating for them to have strangers watch them work all day long. The looks on their faces showed it. They clearly resented us and I don’t blame them.

For many of the workers, their prosperity would be short-lived. A few years later, Longberber’s pyramid scheme came tumbling down. The downfall was attributed – in part – to a recession and dwindling demand for the costly baskets.

I also mentioned in my Guardian column a banner at the plant urging employees to work harder – to hit their target. The banner depicted a WWII military plane. At the time, I wondered whether the workers or management appreciated the irony in light of the firebombing of Dresden Germany depicted in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five.

Today only a dozen or so of Dresden’s shops and restaurants remain open. A few vestiges of the boom years remain. And, so far, the convenience store manager hasn’t posted a sign limiting the number of paddlers allowed in the store at one time.

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A recent photo of Dresden’s riverfront park. Although the Longaberger basket boom has passed, the town remains better for it.






Poor Man’s Laptop

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This photo — taken by Kitty Palm-Houser during my first canoe trip to Marietta — was used as a column header for Hoot, a humor tabloid I once published.

My first laptop computer consisted of a 1950s-vintage Royal portable typewriter, a Rubbermaid Action Packer storage tub, and legs made out of PVC pipe.

I carted it more than 150 miles down river from Brinkhaven to Marietta, Ohio. From  campsites along the river, I wrote my weekly columns for the Columbus Guardian. I had prearranged with businesses along the way to use their fax machines to send the columns to the paper. One of the businesses, a golf course in Beverly, Ohio, had never used their fax machine to send out faxes. They only used it for golfers to reserve tee times.

This was in the early ’90s, when laptop computers were relatively new technology — and had the battery life expectancy of a geriatric fruit fly. They also were impractical because transmitting text would have been impossible. Especially from southeastern Ohio. Although things have improved, three years ago you still couldn’t get a Verizon signal on the Little Muskingum River.

Of course, my poor man’s laptop had apps. There was Word Imperfect — i.e. typewriter paper and Wite Out. I also had a standalone dictionary app — a paperback version of the American Heritage Dictionary. Unfortunately, no matter how many times I put my clustered fingertips on the page and spread them out, I couldn’t make the type larger. It was on this trip that I discovered I no longer had 20-20 vision.

Sadly, the manuscripts no longer exist. But I still have the ol’ Royal portable. With cellphones costing $900, I just might press it back into service.

’72 Ford Torino – A Classic Crap Car

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’72 Torino in my favorite color – monkeyshit brown.

My downstairs neighbors in Cleveland Heights suspected I was crazy. When they looked out their window to see me hopping around in the snow and undressing, that confirmed it.

In the early ’80s, I was the plowed owner of a 1972 Ford Torino. Yes, plowed. It was one of the cars I owned in a period of my life when I was drunk or stoned much of the time.

It might have been the Torino that drove me to drinking. It broke down frequently and making repairs inevitably proved disastrous. That fateful day in Cleveland Heights was no exception.

Generally, changing a thermostat is a simple operation. Not with the Torino. It probably didn’t help that I was under the influence at the time.

I unbolted the thermostat housing without letting the pressure off at the radiator cap. In those days, I wore cotton long johns. (I wouldn’t discover the wonders of wool until the ’90s.) Hot coolant spewed out like Old Faithful, dowsing my torso.

Panicked at the prospect of the hot green coolant wicking down to my genitalia, I stripped off my clothes on the spot … only to look up and see my neighbors at their window, staring in disbelief.

It gets better.

After going upstairs to change my clothes, I went back to work. I pulled the thermostat housing, removed the old thermostat and carefully applied the gasket cement and gasket. I replaced the lost coolant and got behind the wheel to start the Torino so I could check for leaks.

As I put the key in the ignition, I looked on the seat to my right. There was the new thermostat — still in the package.

This post is part of the Autobiography – My Life in Vehicles series.

Reflections on Martin Luther King Day

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To this day, I honor the memory of Azadi.

This is probably not a popular opinion — especially these days — but I grew up with a sense of duty to my black brothers and sisters. I felt obligated to make amends for the evils my forefathers visited upon them.

I make no apologies for it.

In 1973, I reached across the Cuyahoga River, a symbolic divide in a segregated Cleveland. Responding to an article in the Muntu Drum, a black-oriented student newspaper published at Cuyahoga Community College’s Metro Campus, I sought out an East Cleveland woman who called herself Azadi.

The article said Azadi was running a busing program, taking families and loved ones of prison inmates to visit them. The program was based on mutual respect and self-respect. If you couldn’t afford the meager fare, you could pay your way by volunteering your services to the program. That could be in the form of washing vans, helping with paperwork, running errands, whatever. The article also mentioned that Azadi desperately needed drivers. I found my calling.

For the next 14 years, until I moved to Columbus, I served as a volunteer driver. Those duties were later expanded to fleet maintenance and – at times – Azadi’s chauffeur. Azadi suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, which eventually claimed her life. Still, she managed to run the program, earn a college degree and inspire a lot of us to serve our community. In the early ’80s, I drove her to classes at Cleveland State University, literally carrying her at times from the van to her wheelchair or into and out of her East Cleveland apartment.

The motto of the People’s Busing Program was “Keeping Families Together.” The idea being that, if prison inmates could maintain contact with loved ones, they would be less likely to re-offend after being released.

That philosophy wasn’t limited to inmates; it helped keep my family together. My late father, who had instilled in me the values of fair play and respect, later joined me as a volunteer driver. The time spent together driving the inmates’ wives, mothers, and children to visit them at Ohio prisons strengthened our bond.

My dad and I also became a part of Azadi’s family joining them for social functions and, finally, in mourning her.





Autobiography (ctd.)

A long time ago in a Galaxy Falcon far, far away

Cue Star Wars theme music.

A dark summer night in Cleveland Heights. The Millennium Falcon (played by a 1963 Ford Falcon) careens over curbs and across tree lawns in a residential neighborhood. Hot in pursuit is a TIE fighter (played by a shitbox Plymouth Fury with bad suspension).

At the controls of the Falcon is Luke Skywalker (played by yours truly, a dead ringer for Gregg Allman). In the passenger seat sits his damsel in distress, Princess Leia (played by an underage female of African-American descent). She looks out the rear window of the Falcon, anxiously watching the pursuing TIE fighter. The Plymouth was occupied by three young punks, pimp wannabes.

It all started in Cain Park, as did many of my misadventures in those days – the early ’80s. Cain Park was my personal Bermuda Triangle. I couldn’t set foot in the place without getting into trouble. That summer night was no exception.

I was walking through the park when the young woman ran up to me, pleading for help. I heard approaching footsteps. She bolted into the night, pursued by three male teens.

I was no Obi-Wan Kenobi, but it was clear that I was her only hope.

I sprung into action, sprinting to my apartment building two blocks away. I fired up my trusty Falcon — with its 170 cubic inches of raw firepower — and sputtered off into the night.

As luck would have it, I spotted her running across a side street near the park, her pursuers hot on her heels. I drove at them, horn blaring. They scattered long enough for me to stop, throw open the passenger door and yell for her to get in. She did and I sped away.

In the rear-view mirror I watched her pursuers gather themselves from the pavement and run to the Plymouth, which had been parked outside a convenience store. The chase was on.

The Plymouth — most likely powered by a V-8 — had more horsepower than my inline 6-cylinder engine. However, I’d recently replaced the rear springs in the Falcon and it was riding pretty high compared to the Plymouth, with its sagging suspension. I realized the only way to put distance between us would be to go up over curbs and other obstacles. which the Falcon could clear and they couldn’t.

I wended my way down to the Cleveland Heights police station and pulled into the lot, horn blaring. They pulled in after me, realized where I had led them and beat a hasty retreat into the night.

My damsel in distress explained that her malefactors were boys from her East Cleveland neighborhood, bent on getting her to turn tricks for them.

I drove her straight to a domestic violence shelter and explained the situation. They took her in.

When I got off work the next day, I drove to the shelter to see how she was doing. A woman at the shelter told me the girl had checked out and called someone to pick her up — a bunch of guys in a beat-up Plymouth.


’63 Falcon – NOT to be confused with my Millennium Falcon, which was black and had air in the tires.






I Flunked Recess


Orchard Elementary School – My alma muddle

I flunked recess.

Maybe that’s a bit of a stretch. In reality, I consistently got poor marks in “Works and Plays Well With Others.”

This was offset by good grades in the “Offers Good Ideas” category. Which usually went something like this:

Teacher: “Irvin, I see you have your hand up.”

Me: “Yes, I have a good idea.”

Teacher: “Splendid, Irvin, and what idea would that be?”

Me: “The idea that everyone should leave me the fuck alone.”

And so it went.

I struggled in school from day one. Partly because of undiagnosed hearing issues. I often misunderstood what the teachers and others said.

Middle birth order might have been another factor. Middle-born children tend to be underachievers. Unfortunately, this was in an era before Bart Simpson liberated us — made it OK for us to be underachievers and proud of it.

I dwelt in my own little world – misunderstanding and misunderstood. Fortunately, this was in the 1950s, before Attention Deficit Disorder had been invented. It would have been a pity to have been misdiagnosed with that.

Instead, I was just another fucked up kid. And I was OK with that.


Back when ‘thumb drive’ meant something else

greenripleybridgeAfter graduating high school in 1970, I hit the open road. I’d work a somewhere for a few months, save up a couple hundred dollars, then head out on a hitchhiking trip.

It was an education no university could offer.

On one such trip, I made it from Cleveland to L.A. and back in three rides. On another, I was robbed and ended up in jail in Upstate New York. After they released me, I continued on my trip to the East Coast, where I was dropped off at a mansion in Cambridge, Mass., and given the run of the place.

The uncertainty only added to the allure.

Was it dangerous? Sure. But, to me, living without adventure wasn’t living at all.

More in future posts in my “Autobiography” series.