Christopher T. Miller

Issue 2

published February 27, 2018

Welcome back. I hope you’ve been well. If the road hasn’t been smooth, at least I hope you’ve learned something along the way. I know I have.

Where I live, we are starting to turn the corner from winter into spring, and as such, it’s possible to get outside with one or two fewer layers than before, and that makes walking and hiking much more enjoyable.

When the weather turns like this, I seek out my favorite neighborhoods around Ohio and spend some time hiking them, looking to see what’s new, what’s changed, and what I still enjoy. This month has been a good one; I took trips to Mansfield, Amherst, Oberlin, Marlow, Ashland, Little Italy on the east side of Cleveland, the Brewery/Market district on the west side, and a little quality time in Akron as well. Everywhere while snow is decomposing into grey slush and the hardier city plants are starting to poke up through the sidewalks. The coffee shops still run, and along with a cleared sidewalk, that’s all I need to get the thoughts and words flowing.

Enjoy this issue. It was a lot of fun to put together. As always, you can reach me at chris@bindlesack.club if you have any comments, questions, or good coffee you want to share.

Notes: All Hail the Vodka God

About a month ago, the world’s most expensive bottle of vodka was stolen.

It was on display at Cafe 33 in Copenhagen. The bottle of vodka was valued at 1.3 million dollars. The bottle was made of 6.6 pounds of gold, 6.6 pounds of silver, and capped with a diamond encrusted stopper shaped like an imperial eagle. It was created by the Russo-Baltique luxury car company to celebrate one-hundred years in business.

For you House of Cards fans…yes. It was THAT bottle. It was, tragically, uninsured and was on loan from a prominent Russian businessman.

It vanished from Cafe 33 on a Tuesday. It was found the following Friday, empty, at a construction site within the city.

Brian Ingberg, the owner of the bar, was ecstatic and relieved to get the empty bottle back. “I feel fantastic. The vodka god saved us,” said the bar owner, who vowed to sleep with the bottle under his pillow from now on.

All is vanity, my friends. All is vanity.

With a View Of The Neighborhood

My father took me to downtown Cleveland when I was a little boy. He’d grown up a couple miles away on Trowbridge Avenue, a neighborhood which has now seen better days, likely his. He took me to Cleveland’s municipal stadium long before it was torn down to make room for the Rock Hall and Science center. We visited Terminal Tower when it was still just a terminal, not a shopping mall. I was amazed by the city. I told my parents I wanted to live there when I grew up.

Over the years, that desire has come and gone, but this weekend I am indulging it again. My wife and I are staying in Little Italy on Cleveland’s east side. No driving. I vowed to park my car in the lot and not move it until we check out on Sunday.

I love walkable neighborhoods. Small shops, bars, old churches, and art galleries placed I the corpses of old factories and schools. Watching a neighborhood sprout these places is like watching the trees bud in late winter, a sign of good things to come when the ice thaws. I always wanted to be one of those people who could walk the streets of a city and find a little place to hole up in to get some writing done. I am an early morning person, not a late night person, so it was always more likely the be a coffee shop or diner than a bar. I would rise early and hike the empty streets after the bars closed but before the sun was up, surrounded by old houses, brick tenements, and most of all, history.

Much ink has been spilled about the evils of gentrification, and perhaps I am one of the people making that possible, the stereotypical white suburban middle-aged man dwelling in these places, spending too much for a cup of coffee and helping drive lower income folks out as rents rise. Frankly, I think that’s a lot of pressure and responsibility for a cup of coffee to bear, but I don’t feel a lot of guilt. It’s too big. There is a tendency these days to need to connect all of one’s actions to some great movement or wrong, to see ourselves as part of the solutions or part of the problem. But that’s not really how the world works: it is larger and more complex than our monkey brains can track, the vectors of causality more varied than even our best software can predict. Our stories are too broad, and we lose our perspective in the generalities. The details matter, but are best viewed through our own eyes because we don’t live anyone’s story but our own.

And so this morning I rose early and walked across the street from the bed and breakfast to the Rising Star coffee shop. I walked through a sleeping city neighborhood, brick streets quiet, the bars closed. I am the first in the door for my drug of choice, and I find a comfortable seat near the window to watch the world go by while I indulge. I reflect on the character of these old places, all the while aware of my own hypocrisy; that I chose to move back to white middle-class suburbs to raise my own children, because of racism, or maybe classism, or because everyone wants their children to be like them but better; the old fears disguised as a concern for The Right Schools and the Safe Neighborhoods. And in the same sip, I find myself considering leasing an apartment here when my last child is grown and I no longer need to live in white suburbia.

Even writing does not help me untangle the complexity of these desires. Thanks for listening. I’ll figure it out someday. But for now, I pull out my iPad, itself a powerful symbol of something, and start writing this essay. Because I am almost never happier than I am when I am sipping coffee and a place with history and putting words to the page.

I’m pretty happy right now.

Quotes

“These things you insist are hard-and-fast rules are mostly just opinions. And as such, can be ignored.” -Michael Lawson

“It was true that the city could still throw shadows filled with mystifying figures from its past, whose grip on the present could be felt on certain strange days when the streets were dark with rain and harmful ideas.” – Christopher Fowler

“I walk the line.” – Johnny Cash

A Brief Oral History Of Marlow, Ohio

“The history?” she asks. “Of Marlow?” MUR-leh. Naturally.

“Yes. I was curious.” I state, settling in at the bar.

I am at The Reckoning, the tavern/restaurant on the main drag in Marlow. It is a Monday night, and the place is dead. I am one of four patrons, and the only chatty one, so the barkeep has no problem spending a little extra time on me.

She tells me her name is Nettie Anderson. She’s related to one of the folks that founded the town lo these many years ago. “Coming up on the bicentennial,” she reflects absently, wiping down the bar. If I had to guess, and I do…because I’m not going to ask, I’d put Nettie in her late twenties. Out of school but not yet sure what to do with her life. At that stage when a young person can be a bartender as a stop gap, not as a life choice.

“My great-grandfather was John Marlowe. He was the older brother that founded the town. His younger brother, Benjamin, started the university a few years after they settled here with their families. They bought the land from Elijah Boardman and within a few years, they were selling off plots to other farmers and merchants as they moved into town.”

“Marlowe with an E?” I ask.

“The family name is always Marlowe with an E. The town, well, there’s a story behind that. One sec,” she says, and heads down to check on the other patrons at the bar.

I sip my beer and make some notes. She’s back in about ninety seconds. “The feud,” she says, “is about the University.”

“How so?”

“Well…Ben got greedy. Ben is B.F. Marlowe, the face on the seal of the college. John’s little brother. He started the University and built the first building on John’s property. If you talk to the other side of the family, they’ll say that it was Ben’s, but they’re wrong.” She says it with a tone of finality that tells me this is well-trodden ground.

“Ok. So the brothers fought over that?”

“Sure. This started a few years in. While John was filing the paperwork to incorporate as a village. When he sent in the paperwork, everything seemed fine, but when the charter came back, the name of the town was missing the final E.”

“I bet that was unpopular.”

“Both families were mighty pissed. At first.”

“At first?” I prompt.

“At first. Ben, it turns out, was apoplectic about it. Batshit. Frothing at the mouth. Thinks it’s going to hurt the University. Well…John starts thinking about that. And he quietly allows the deadline for corrections to pass. And thus, we live in the city of Marlow.”

“The next year, Ben had that big marble block that sits in front of the Big Hall shipped in. “MARLOWE UNIVERSITY” big as life. The joke on campus is that the call that Ben’s Final Word. But it wasn’t.”

“What was?”

“No idea. Not my side of the family.” She refills my glass.

“So…how does this play out now? Are there many family members from either side in town?”

“Many left. Some of Ben’s side are still involved with the college. They still bear the name. John had two sons and five daughters, so there’s family around but the names have changed.

“It’s not bad, really. We don’t do a big family reunion if that’s what you think. Not since granddad tried to stage one in the seventies. That was a goddamn mess. The only time a shot was fired in this whole thing.”

I fight to stop a spit-take. “A shot?”

“It was a BB gun. My uncle, who was in his teens, lost control of it and accidentally shot a member of the other side in the ass. It was little more than a scratch, or so I was told, but the other side made a big fuss. There hasn’t been a lot of speaking since.”

“Ok,” I recapped. “So I get the spelling difference now. But what about the weird pronunciation?”

“Oh,” she said. “Ohio, man. Ohio. The people who moved here started mispronouncing it not long after the town was founded. The family on both sides gave up on that in 1900.”

We chit-chat a bit more before my beer is empty and I need to start the trek back home. The time I spend in this place, the more interesting I find it.

“Why are you asking about all this?” she finally asks.

I shrug. “Curious. You have a nice town here. Reminds me of where I live now, but the history is new to me. Seems like you have some good stories.”

“Where’s that? Where you live?”

“Medina.”

She chuckles. “Ohio, man. You know you’re saying it wrong.”

“Not for living in Ohio, I’m not. You live in MUR-leh. I Live in Meh-DIE-na. It’s a strange old world.” I close out my tab and leave a tip on the bar. “See you next time.”

“Not if I see you first.”

I chuckle and head out into the Midwestern night.

Books

David Giffels is little something of a hometown hero in the Akron area. His book The Hard Way On Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt was a big hit in certain circles and his devotion to a city that can be hard to love sparked an increase in civic pride. Akron’s been coming back for a long time now, from when the rubber plants shut down, from when the downtown nearly died. Giffels grew up through that, wrote about it, and made many people remember what a great place Akron can be.

His new book, Furnishing Eternity is about how he decided to build his own coffin.

During the project, he would enlist the help of his eighty-something-year-old father, a retired civil engineer who is known to be restless tinkered and expert woodworker. Together, they would work on this project, through turning seasons, through the death of Giffels’ mother, through the untimely death of his best friend.

Despite the weighty subject matter, the book is far from maudlin. Giffels’ good humor and self-deprecating style lifts the prose into a meditation on growing older, facing mortality, and trying to find the sense and story in a million little moments, each too precious to forget, and sometimes too big to be fully grasped. I laughed out loud several times while reading it, especially when he and his wife discuss the logistics and storage of said casket.

This is a book about husbands and wives facing the next big event after the kids grow up, about a son trying to grow into his father’s shoes and realizing they don’t fit. It’s about what friends leave behind when they go, and how we keep them with us. It’s about a person facing the only other thing we will all experience in time, and coming to something like peace with it.

Recipe

Irish Soda Bread is one of my comfort foods, and it is best shared. Bake this, take it to a friend’s house. They’ll thank you unless they are all low-carb-keto-Ima-change-ma-life-dieting. Which I am. Dammit.

4 cups all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons white sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup margarine, softened
1 cup buttermilk
1 egg
1/4 cup butter, melted
1/4 cup buttermilk (for use in brushing on the bread, not for mixing in)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C). Lightly grease a large baking sheet.

In a large bowl, mix together flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and margarine. Stir in 1 cup of buttermilk and egg. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead slightly. Form dough into a round and place on prepared baking sheet. In a small bowl, combine melted butter with 1/4 cup buttermilk; brush loaf with this mixture. Use a sharp knife to cut an ‘X’ into the top of the loaf.

Bake in preheated oven until a toothpick inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean, 45 to 50 minutes. Check for doneness after 30 minutes. You may continue to brush the loaf with the butter mixture while it bakes.

What if

What if you acted like yourself? What would you do? What change would you make?

What if money wasn’t free speech?

What if people weren’t resources to be exploited?

What If a train left New York at 300 miles per hour, and accelerated speed 15 miles per hour, and traveled a distance of 683 miles, tell me sir: what time would that train reach Chicago?!

Influences

Endnotes

Thanks to Elyria for the coffee and the place to sit.

Thanks to Cat for understanding that sometimes I need to be alone to write.

Thanks to Thomas and Pamela for the love and encouragement.

Thanks to you all, for taking the time to read.

See you next month. Let’s be careful out there.