Friday, October 19, 2012

The Rise of Franklinton, Ohio

This is really stupid. Nobody cares about Franklinton. Ten thousand journalists are swarming over Ohio in search of a juicy Obama story, but nobody ever goes to Franklinton. It's the oldest neighborhood in Columbus, by the banks of the Scioto River, and it had been prone to flooding.

I was there in October of 2004, when I worked for the John Kerry campaign. Back then Franklinton was known as The Bottoms, a very old inner-city neighborhood with the stench of squalor like a Charles Dickens novel. The Kerry campaign couldn't get anybody to work The Bottoms, so of course they sent me. "This way we can get rid of Owens," they whispered.

I walked those streets for six weeks. I was often nervous -- junked cars, boarded up houses -- but I met some nice people too. They said "The politicians ignore us. The city won't come and fix the streets. The people on the north side of town have a much nicer library, so why should we bother to vote?"

I refuted that argument. "If you don't vote, you don't count. The politicians know you don't vote, so they don't care."

But this is a stupid story. Franklinton isn't cool, although, eight years later, it still matters to me, and I even wish I was there for the campaign -- anyway, I'll pass on my notes, rather than write an actual story.

Words. "The working man" or "the common man" -- of course we would never use that kind of language, although we might secretly indulge ourselves by watching a black and white Gary Cooper movie from the 1940s.

The PC terms are "common people" and "working families."

"Power couples" -- He's an architect, she's a management consultant. They live in the suburbs and increasingly they vote Democratic. Then we have an equal or larger number of powerless couples. She works full-time at Wal-Mart. He works part-time at JiffyLube. If this powerless couple is white, they will probably vote Republican. If they are black, it's a guaranteed vote for Obama. If this couple is Hispanic, it will probably go D, but maybe not.

The Obamas and the Romneys are power couples -- they have that famous "choice" as to whether she does or does not have a job. Powerless couples have choices too, between Taco Bell and Burger King.

There are two kinds of people, the one percent and the middle class -- at least to hear Romney and Obama say it. They must have said "middle class" a hundred times in the debate on Tuesday. So what do you call people who are not one-percenters or middle class?

The power couples and the powerless couples will both strongly proclaim themselves as middle class -- but they do not know each other, they have so little in common.

Names. I challenged myself to quickly name all Big Ten schools from memory. Before reading any further, see if you can do the same. The correct answer is, going west to east -- Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Northwestern, Indiana, Purdue, Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State. New teams added to the Big Ten do NOT count.

Ohio is an Iroquois name meaning Great River. It was admitted to the Union in 1803. Ohio is the most beautiful state name. Eleven million people live there, with three great cities, all beginning with the letter C -- Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Columbus, plus generous farmland, pleasant forests, and meandering rivers. The airplane was invented in Ohio -- because Ohioans are innovative, energetic, and persevering.

Real Estate. I interviewed Rick Brunton, a Franklinton real estate agent -- houses are incredibly cheap I noticed, Detroit prices -- and I asked "What is the reason that houses are so cheap?" Because it's a dead-end neighborhood basically, he said, using much nicer language -- but a good bargain if you can afford to wait a few years.

This house on 266 South Cypress Avenue is a really good deal. A small one-bedroom with a full basement, priced at $22,000 -- but with an expansive front yard, ideal for urban garden and homesteading. No garage. But only $22,000 ! !

Spirit. I talked with Brian Hamilton, who answered the phone at the parish office of Holy Family Catholic Church on Broad Street in the heart of Franklinton. He declined to be interviewed, but from the parish bulletin I saw that they had a very large soup kitchen program going on about one-block from the church -- that's good news and bad news -- good that so many people are being fed, bad because so many people need to be fed.

Holy Family offers Sunday and weekly Masses in the Tridentine rite -- that is, in Latin, with the priest facing the altar instead of facing the people. This indicates that Holy Family is a fairly conservative parish.

Politics. I interviewed Joe Garrity, legislative aide to State Rep Michael Stinziano of the 25th district which includes Franklinton. He said Franklinton is an improving neighborhood -- in other words, the yuppies are coming. He could not discuss Stinziano's re-election campaign because I called him at the office and he was on government time. He said if I called him after 5 p.m. on his cell phone, then he could talk about the campaign.

Franklinton is low income -- not middle class and not one-percent. It is 60-70 percent white, 30 percent black, and 10 per-cent you name it. Franklinton reliably votes Democratic but has a history of very low turnout -- signs of despair and cynicism.

The Future. Eight years ago, they called it the Bottoms, but now they call it Franklinton, and there is evidence of civic improvement -- clear signs of yuppy occupation efforts such as the Franklinton Cycleworks and what else? A community garden, Franklinton Gardens.

Nobody cares about Ohio. After the election the media people all leave town in a big hurry and it will be November and the weather gets colder and the trees are bare, and there's only one thing to look forward to -- something that matters very much to the people of Ohio -- but I won't tell you what that is, not yet.

These are my notes. I intend to follow the election campaign as it plays out in Franklinton.

Also it's time for a baseball story. I wrote this in 1992, with an update in 2004. The first part is about the game, the second part is about the friends who sat in the bleachers together and had dinner after -- it is not too sentimental. Some people with no interest in baseball have told me they like it.


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“God Must Hate Me”

It seems a long time ago, but there is no time in baseball, and there are no new stories.

In 1986, the Boston Red Sox lost the World Series to the New York Mets. In the dramatic sixth game, the Red Sox were one out away from becoming world champion, but they choked, and blew the game. It was the most incredible choke in sports history. I almost died.

I didn’t die, but my whole life changed after that game. I mean, it’s only a game, but I really got wrapped up in it.

In 1992, when this story took place, the memory of 1986 was raw and the pain was still real. I was still a Red Sox fan, but I could barely stand the torture of it.

In 2004, the Red Sox finally won the World Series, but I no longer cared -- I had moved on.

BOSTON, MASS., 1992. Pete Rose is not a part of this story, but that doesn’t matter, because I have to say this: I always hated Pete Rose, right from the beginning back in the early seventies. I used to watch the World Series, and when they showed him on third base I would start screaming and gnashing my teeth. I always hated him. When he got caught for gambling the whole world of sports condemned his moral depravity. But that didn’t matter to me. You don’t hate someone for a reason, you just do.............So let me start with the story.

It was July 30, an overcast day and so not too hot, when this gang of underemployed lawyers, real estate developers and civil servants came up from New York on the shuttle to watch the Red Sox play the Texas Rangers. They were out for a good time. Some of the guys made phone calls between innings but that was just for effect and out of habit --

“Anything going on at the office?”

“No, nothing going on here.”

“Fine, well, I’ll get back to you later.”

I know Jim Gardella really well. Jim and his cadre of cronies got ousted in a political coup last year when Mayor Dinkins took over the city government. He still occupies his office at Brooklyn City Hall, but he fills his melancholy days doing crossword puzzles and waiting for the phone to ring. It never does. He eats lunch in empty restaurants. “Where did everybody go?” he says to the maitre’d, who smiles back at him politely.

But at least he has time for baseball. Jim told me that the group was coming up to Boston for the game, and he mailed me a ticket so I could meet him at the Park. We had seats in the centerfield bleachers. It was an afternoon game on a Tuesday, and the house was packed --children, idlers, the unemployed, and the usual riffraff.

The Red Sox were a disaster in July, they were in fourth place, nine games behind Toronto. I was very pessimistic.

I hated Jack Clark, he was the new Designated Hitter. He had 89 strikeouts so far this year. The pitcher threw the ball -- I looked, Jack Clark looked -- only I couldn’t swing because I didn’t have a bat. But I thought, reasonably enough, that since Jack Clark did have a bat, his job required more than mere observation. The bum! I wanted to take his gold chain and choke him.

I sat next to Jim at the game and he introduced me to his friends. Shelley, the lawyer, had arranged to buy the tickets, so everybody was giving him a hard time about being in the bleachers. They said, “Next year let’s make it a rule that we get seats in the same city that they’re playing the game in.”

But the women in the group liked the bleacher seats because it gave them a view of nine sets of powerful athletic buns. On a serious note, the bleacher seats are good because it’s like being on the field, being a part of the defense. It gives a wide view of the whole field, not the details, but the sweep of the play. And it gives the pleasure of being a common man, no better or worse than his fellows. Privilege is exhilarating, but the humbler seats can be more relaxing.

Ed Burke came in during the third inning. He said the seats were lousy but so were the Red Sox and they weren’t worth more than $6 to see anyway. Ed’s a funny guy -- he was wearing a white cap, and he had a gum massager sticking out of his shirt pocket. Ed’s a State Senator; he’s been representing Framingham for twenty years. Then he did his political thing, updating his file by asking Jim and me about our families, children, schools, wives, etc. He left a few innings later. Jim asked me how come Ed doesn’t have any clout? How come he couldn’t get us better seats?

The Red Sox won the game 11 to 6. They sent 14 batters to the plate in the third inning and scored 10 runs. Six of those runs were from the hot bat of Carlos Quintana, my favorite player. He got a grand slam for four runs, and a double for two. That’s my man. Carlos is a different kind of guy than Jack Clark. The proper psychology with a guy like Clark is to heap abuse on him when he’s playing badly. He likes the attention and it gets him mad. Eventually he will take out his aggression on the ball and hit it over the fence, which happened the very next day.

But the “Q” is a gentler soul, a man who responds better to approval and kindness. Later in the season, he began to play badly because he had been treated badly by Joe Morgan, the Red Sox manager. Carlos’ feelings were hurt. He had been playing first base well and hitting over .300 when Mo Vaughan got called up from Pawtucket. Mo was the new hero that everybody was excited about. They made T-shirts about him, they splashed him all over the sports page. He was black and would be a credit to his race in Boston. (They hadn’t advanced much further than this in the Old Towne.)

Morgan put Vaughan on first base and sent Quintana to right field. Quintana immediately went into a hitting slump and made careless errors in the field. It was Morgan’s mistake, not mine.

“God Must Hate Me”

Before leaving the game and joining the New York gang for dinner, we need to talk about Oil Can Boyd. He was pitching for the Rangers. You know a lot of these guys up from New York are Mets fans -- may they all burn in hell. Mets fans are the worst people in the world. They have no class whatever.

You remember 1986 as well as I do, when Oil Can was pitching for the Red Sox and they lost the Series to the Mets. You remember where you were that day like you remember Kennedy’s assassination.

The Can is one of the games truly existential players, a man with a mind as well as a heart, a human being of tragic proportions. He’s the “Natural”, the one they wrote the book about.

Michael Madden, Boston Globe reporter, wrote about Boyd’s loss to the Sox on the day we were there in the bleachers:

Other men might have lied and said it was just another day. Just another game. Other men might have tried to put the best face, the phony face, on a bad situation gone worse. But not the Can, because the Can knows how to speak only from his heart:

“For me to be traded to the Rangers, and for me to pitch my first two games against the Boston Red Sox means that God must hate me.

“It’s the worst game I ever pitched in my life. And for a lot of reasons. First of all, I never wanted to pitch in Fenway Park again.....I’ve never walked the bases full before, and I’ve never given up a grand slam homer, and it all happened in one day, shit, it all happened in one inning. I just look at it and say it was meant to be.

“I don’t have anything to cherish about Boston. You talk about the ‘86 World Series, but I don’t care about any of that. That year a lot of things happened to me that probably will go to the grave with me, and still don’t let me get no peace of mind. So I don’t have anything to feel good about at all and especially today. Today just poured gas on it. Just made the flame bigger.”

We stayed until the end of the game because it was nice in the Park. Many of the New Yorkers had never seen Fenway Park before. It was a treat for them, and they could even make charitable comments about it.

We piled into three taxis and headed for Anthony’s Pier Four Restaurant. There was a lot of hoo-hooing in our car about going to Anthony’s. Shelley said, “They fill that place with old ladies on tour buses, why don’t we go to a real restaurant?” Shelley lived in Boston once, on Beacon Street -- he showed us the apartment when we drove by. He made some cryptic remarks about Boston being a cold town, a mean town. He didn’t say what kind of trouble he had, but I bet it was some kind of bad luck with a woman.

Anthony Athanas owns Pier Four and the surrounding 36 acres of very valuable waterfront property. He’s Albanian. He’s an old man and very well connected. He had just sold the property surrounding the restaurant to the federal government for a fabulous profit. The feds will build a courthouse on the land. The guys in our group would have killed to get in on this deal, but they don’t really know anybody. I could tell that, because they were with me. It’s like Grouch Marx’s rule about clubs, the ones he wouldn’t join if they were willing to accept him as a member. Power brokers don’t have dinner with me unless they’re on the skids.

Still we were a merry crew. They gave us a table for twelve outside on the deck, and we made a lot of noise. Now I was bluffing just like the rest of these guys do on a real estate deal. I had twenty dollars in my pocket and an overdrawn checking account. Naturally I flourished a ten spot and paid for the cab ride when we got there. That didn’t leave me with money for dinner, but I was hoping for the Greater Fool -- that one of these guys was so desperate to put on a show and he would pick up the tab -- and I could get off with pretending I wanted to pay.

I hedged my bets -- I ordered way down the menu, choosing the striped bass special for $9.95. Jim Gardella ordered it too, mainly because he’s a cheapskate. The others guys were going for the gold -- three pound lobsters, steamer clams for appetizers, nice wine from the list and Grand Marnier after dinner. The wine was good. Jim -- the other Jim, the one who looks like the Great Gatsby -- ordered the wine. He wore his blazer and tie all through the meal and never unbuttoned his collar. Then he had this sophisticated conversation with the wine steward, and, for God’s sakes, the rest of the table took him seriously. They say New Yorkers are street smart, but they fell for this game.

Jim -- the real Jim -- was making a complete fool of himself over Amy, the 30-year-old beauty who was making her first trip with this group. He kept hitting on her and wanted to sit next to her at dinner. She asked me if I would please sit between Jim and her, which I did. Jim was being no worse than usual. You have to remember that his friends go with him to out of town ball games because they know they won’t be seen.

The bill came to $600 including tip, to be divided up 12 ways. I guess my bluff didn’t work because nobody wanted to make a $600 impression and pick up the tab. I was forced to ask Jim for a loan of fifty to pay my share, and I wrote him a hot check to cover it.

Boy, it was a lot of fun. Now the sun was going down, and some of us walked to the railing and looked at the water and the boats going by. Jim and I talked quietly for a little bit. Jim’s a good guy, and I really like him. These New Yorkers have a sense of humor and style. Boston is a good town, but it can get a little too serious here without some outside help.

Fred Owens
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