Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

May 15, 2005 Columbus, Ohio.

From Athens I headed to Columbus, to visit my colleague Dixie from Cairo. I was here once before, thirty three years ago. A school friend’s family was relocated here, and I came out to visit. It was something of a culture shock. They had bought a house in a new subdivision, and I had never seen a subdivision before. My parents knew some people who didn’t live in the city, but they were on the tidy squared-off blocks of old towns, or down what were then still country roads. I wish I remembered the name of the subdivision where Anne Marie lived in Columbus, by now it’s probably right in town.

That trip was full of incident. Anne Marie had just gotten her driver’s license – another strange phenomenon for a New York City girl – and her parents let her use the car so we could

get around. We went to the Ohio State Fair. I was floored. I thought prize pigs and teen-agers raising cows to show and auction off were part of a rural America that had disappeared into history. Bur what I remember even more was our own entrance to the fair. We stopped at the toll booth to pay our entry fee just as an RV pulled into the lane to our left. I saw it happen, in slow motion. Something on the top of the RV caught a wire slung from booth to booth. Slowly, the booth where we were paying toppled towards us, much to the shock of the very startled teen-aged girl inside. They both fell into the side Anne Marie’s family car. I knew it wasn’t our fault, but Anne Marie’s mother had trouble believing such an outlandish explanation for the large dent in the side of their new car.

The next day wasn’t much better. We headed out on foot – which, of course, is not done in suburban Ohio, especially when it involves a dash across a four-lane highway to get anywhere. We had walked a few miles when we got tired, or perhaps bored. So I suggested we hitchhike back. Anne Marie wasn’t so keen on it, but I’d been raised on tales of my mother hitchhiking across the US to visit my father in the army during the war, so I didn’t see that it would be any problem. When a car approached, I stuck out my thumb, ignoring Anne Marie’s cautions. What she’d seen that I hadn’t was that it was a police car. So of course they pulled over and picked us up.

Anne Marie denied that we’d been hitchhiking, but after a few minutes I contradicted her, and said we were, though we hadn’t gotten a ride. They asked if hitchhiking was what girls did in New York. I don’t remember what I said – perhaps I told them my mother’s tales, though in retrospect I wish I'd told them that in New York we didn’t need to hitch because we had public transit. He asked if I’d been arrested before. I responded indignantly, suspecting – rightly – that he’d made that guess because of my rapid fire confident explanations led him to mistake the truth for a practiced lie.

The cops drove us back to Anne Marie’s house with a scolding. This time it was probably a good thing that her parents didn’t believe our stories; they knew their dutiful daughter would never hitchhike.

Coming back to Columbus brought all of this back. I don’t think I’ve seen Anne Marie since then, but my sister sees her from time to time, they both work for Cornell University. I wonder if she remembers any of those stories, or if she even remembers my visit. Looking back, I never even knew why her family moved to Columbus. Perhaps her parents are still there, if I could find that subdivision!

My second visit was rather less eventful. I drove around the city the first day, avoiding intermittent thunderstorms. The second day the sun came out and I took my bike, which was a lot nicer than driving. It’s a quiet city and feels quite livable, albeit not very exciting. A river winds through the city, parks and trails run along the river, it’s a low-key, easy place to be.

Ohio State University dominates the north side, its vast campus a city unto itself. To the west the campus dissolves into acres of fields and barns, the livestock pleasantly incongruous against the backdrop of downtown buildings. I stopped to talk to three cows standing by a fence. They sniffed me inquisitively, and even licked my hands with their rough tongues.

Downtown Columbus is being redeveloped quickly. Loft apartments seem to be the thing there, and dozens of buildings had signs offering newly renovated apartments for prices that might have been high by midwestern standards, but were very reasonable to me.

Part of the stimulus for downtown development is coming from a new arena, which has spawned the “arena district,” an area of new offices and condominiums. South of downtown is the brewery district, an area of industrial buildings converted to lofts, restaurants, and brew pubs. North of downtown, an old market has morphed into a trendy place to pick up fresh-baked bread, organic groceries, fancy coffees, beeswax candles, bison and venison meat, and other essentials of everyday life. I sat down at picnic table outside the market, which I shared with two men who cruised in on bicycles.

They were chatty. Mike had been living in the Columbus area for several years; he moved there for a job and never left. His friend, visiting from California, had offered Mike the job in Columbus – or as Mike put it, it was his friend’s fault that he had given up the delights of the California coast for the Midwest. But he seemed to like Columbus. He praised the town’s bike routes, and was surprised that I’d come across the North Market. He complained about the politics of the Midwest, and teased his friend about being a conservative Republican. He talked about the music scene, and the events that happened in the North Market in the evenings. Indeed, as we talked a group of people arrived and began putting up balloons to decorate the building for a benefit to be held that evening. When the sky cleared between thunderstorms, Mike and his friend decided they’d better hit the road, so they took off on their bikes and I continued walking through the city.

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