For one writer, there are few places as “foreign” as the American Heartland.
I am not the best-traveled person among my friends, but I am far from the worst. I have lived in New York City and Boston and Croatia; I have visited remote enclaves of Tasmania and Newfoundland—but before December I had never been to Ohio.
My partner had just taken a job in Cincinnati, and I agreed to accompany him there to help him find a place to live and get settled. I didn’t realize Cincinnati would prove to be one of the most “foreign” places I’ve ever been. Some journal excerpts from that month:
I’m at a hotel in Ohio with no car, about an hour’s walking distance from anything besides a Waffle House (that’s about a 20 minute walk) and if I can’t get some writing done here I should be fired. Then again, it turns out I’ve learned almost nothing from the first book about writing the second, except that it will be slow, and hard.
Last night driving into town was strange— we’d looked up a place to eat, but when we got down to the center everything was closed for the night, or boarded up, and it was only 6 PM. I don’t usually buy into other people’s standards for a “dangerous neighborhood,” but the abandonedness was unsettling. After nearly six years in New York City, I am not used to being alone.
I still feel weirded out by the open space—but that’s not quite right; I have been alone in open spaces before. I even have a certain feeling of comfort when I come across abandoned building—it reminds me of my dad, with whom I used to trespass around shuttered places and new construction sites–”exploring”–on the weekends when I was a kid. I think what actually feels strange is being alone in an urban space, in a place that is supposed to be a city. “City,” a word which for me has come to mean never being alone, even when I want to be. The recession must have hit this place hard. Or even before that, it was in decline, I think. There was rioting in the 90s, fires, the damage from which they just never repaired. Maybe they used to manufacture things, like Trenton; I’m not sure. You cannot see the recession in New York City, not like this.
Even still, have always been fascinated by the exoskeletons of buildings. I like trying to guess what kind of place a building might have been by its shape, or the shape of the stain where a sign once stuck. Old Circuit Cities are my favorites—that big red rectangle rendered useless by any and all future tenants. No matter what you do to it, it will never not look like a Circuit City, until children are born who do not know what Circuit City is. Just goes to show you the importance of history, and that brand recognition isn’t everything.
Google told me there was a coffee shop two miles from here, but I’m fairly certain it lied because I found some bright orange building instead, which was closed, but also looked like there was no way in hell it was ever a coffee shop. I think I will try to go inside all the abandon buildings I come across. I have been going on long walks because the air in the hotel gives me headaches. Also, it is hard to write without caffeine.
Things are cheaper here, but Midwestern Nice is a sham.
Abandoned Travelodge. I went inside, but it looked like it had caught fire—the floor was blackened and the fire hoses were all unreeled from their glass wall cabinets, so I was afraid to walk too much on the second floor. The eeriest part were the personal effects left behind, the beds unmade. Made me feel like I was time-travel spying.
No one here recycles. It’s not even an option. And everything is styrofoam—plates, cups, containers of all kinds—I’ve seen more styrofoam here in a week than I have possible in my entire life elsewhere. Or at least in the last decade.
It is a symptom of being so spread out, isolated even, I think. Plenty of land for landfills. My actions don’t affect my neighbor at all. Abandon a building, build a new one somewhere else. No one will want for the land on which the ruins are left.
I made it to the mall. A little over a three-mile walk, and they’re not really into sidewalks here, so that was interesting. But I am drinking coffee and writing, so all things considered—success.
There are mall-walkers here. I’d heard of mall-walkers, maybe on TV, but had never actually seen one before. From what I can tell they are using the mall as a park.
On my way here I passed a restaurant called Penn Station East Coast Subs. I kind of want to go in and see if they’ve really captured the ambient filth.
Everyone here moves infuriatingly slowly. Also, people here are pretty into bootcut jeans.
I am kind of getting the hang of living in a hotel. Mostly I just go to the “gym” (closet with a treadmill in it), obsess about how to get coffee, write, find abandoned things, and make fried rice on a hotplate—that was a sight.
People say you get used to the slow pace of things here, but I’m not entirely unconvinced I won’t just bust a vein in my temple before that point.
Still obsessing over the “Midwestern Nice” thing–today when a woman came up to me on the sidewalk and (unsolicited) started telling me about her false teeth I thought “is this it? Is this nice?” It didn’t feel nice. But I suppose I have to take into consideration the possibility that after a life on the East Coast and in Europe, maybe I am not that nice, and as such am made uncomfortable by niceness.
Abandoned Chinese restaurant, and soul food / Go-go bar(?)
Abandoned building holy grail! Today I found a shuttered waterpark. Closed for extreme mold, the locals tell me.
I wonder if Ohio—the country’s Ohios—feel as abandoned as they look, and that fact that some candidate like He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named looks their way is enough. It is on one hand scary to think that, and on the other, perhaps a self-contained solution?
Back in Brooklyn I feel much better. I’m not going to argue that New York City is better than Cincinnati, though there is, I think, an argument to be made for our city’s diversity, and the tolerance and creativity that stems from it.
But if we’re looking at the day-to-day facts: the heat in my flat is broken, I am sleeping on a leaky air mattress, and yesterday I stepped in dog shit while a woman looked on and laughed hysterically. There are boarded up buildings, here, too. But there is also new growth. In the end, there’s no objectivity to be leveled against the feeling of home. So maybe there is someone out there that feels the same way about Ohio.