Ohio: The Heart of It All (Yeah, Right.)

(Posted by Jim Winter)

[WARNING: Lots of footnotes. Please read before commenting, or I will say rude things about your mother.]

Since today is July 31 and the end of John’s sabbatical, I thought I’d share a few thoughts on this mysterious state he and I share.

When you travel, it’s amazing what people really think of where you live. This is especially true when the people you meet have never been to your neck of the woods. If you live in California, or especially New York City, people’s opinions of your home are pretty much set in concrete. They’re experts on the place without ever having visited.

I’m finding the same to be true for Ohio. On a recent business trip to Baltimore, a colleague asked me how Ohio could support two baseball and two football teams. Aren’t those teams awfully close together for such a rural state?

Well, I wouldn’t say that. For starters, the Indians and the Browns play 225 miles from the Reds and the Bengals. And having lived in both cities, I can tell you it’s like moving to a foreign country travelling between the two. And rural? Well there are vast stretches of the state where you can almost hear Michael Learned calling out “Goodnight, John Boy.” Indeed, my parents lived in such an area, where broadband is a rumor, cell service an urban legend, and everything closes after eight. My youngest brother still lives in that area, but he moved into the nearest small town in search of cable.

“But surely,” you must say, “you and John are in the same corner of Ohio. Don’t you two get together at all?”

Technically, we’re in the same area, but I live in Mt. Washington, a detached neighborhood of Cincinnati that’s sort of its own suburb. If the wind’s blowing in the right direction, John can call his area Dayton, though he lives in Darke County. I never even heard of Darke County until he mentioned it. It’s north of Dayton, over an hour-and-a-half drive from my place. In actuality, we’ve only met once in person, at a book signing in Dayton. It was a drive for both of us.

John can better describe where he lives than I can. I’m fairly certain he does not have to dodge Amish buggies or their resulting droppings. (That would be up in Holmes County, where my brother lives.) I can tell you that most of Ohio is urban, suburban, and increasingly exurban. I can also tell you everyday I live in Cincinnati is another day of culture shock for a boy raised on a culture of American cars and steel, Slavic food, Bruce Springsteen, and Cleveland’s answer to political correctness, the Certain Ethnic joke.* Cincinnati is college basketball, German Catholics, Bible-belt crusades against anything remotely sexual, and UDF ice cream.**

Along with Columbus (Buckeyes football, classy strip bars, and pro soccer), Cleveland and Cincinnati are the major urban centers in Ohio. But their attitudes are like night and day. If Cleveland has a rival, it’s Pittsburgh, two hours away in Western Pennsylvania. It’s barely aware of Cincinnati, probably because the Ohio State Buckeyes block the view. Cincinnati, on the other hand, has a prevailing attitude that Cleveland is the portal to Hell, based largely on the fact that Art Modell lived there when he screwed over Paul Brown, former Cleveland Browns coach and founder of the Cincinnati Bengals. This attitude is generally not based on anyone having actually VISITED Cleveland, which never stops AM talkshow hosts from expounding on how the city to the north is so much worse than Cincinnati.***

Still, Cleveland has a tendency to go broke a lot. It hasn’t gone bankrupt since the late seventies, probably because the last three mayors tended not to take advice from space aliens or Shirley MacLain****. That alone has helped the city rebound time and again. Cincinnati, for all its lethargic development, tends to be a quiet city. When the murder rate rises above 75, people call it a major crime wave. Meanwhile, even smaller cities in Ohio are saying, “What are you doing right?”

One thing I do not miss about my hometown is the weather. I’ll be honest, I hate snow. I’ve lived in Ohio all my life*****, and believe me, a couple days of heavy snow every winter beats the weekly onslaught of lake effect snow hands down. The temperatures also stay warmer in Cincinnati. Spring starts earlier, and fall lasts longer.

I suppose the big difference is this. Cleveland has more in common with the East Coast. When I go to New York or Baltimore or Philly, I feel right at home. I think it’s the culture and the ethnic mix. It’s also because Cleveland sits on the edge of a large fresh water sea someone with a warped sense of humor called a “Great Lake.” (Lakes do not swallow iron ore carriers whole. They just don’t. See EDMUND FITZGERALD; LIGHTFOOT, GORDON). Cincinnati has more in common with the south. A river town, Cincy is otherwise landlocked. Parts of it remind me of Atlanta or Memphis (though it’s much easier to get around than Atlanta, which doesn’t say much.) Cincy is more conservative as a whole, like the South, and has more in common with Kentucky, across the river, than it does the rest of Ohio.

So there you have it. Ohio. It’s not a foreign country after all.

It’s four or five of them.

*Invented by an angry Pole who thought the FCC had no business telling him he couldn’t make skits out of Polish jokes.

**Have to plug UDF ice cream on behalf of my employer, who makes a killing off the stuff. Also pads my 401k nicely.

***Glaringly absent from such talk is that all the action in Cincinnati is actually across the river in Northern Kentucky. Cincinnati is a suburb of Covington.

****We had a mayor who, in fact, did that. Dennis Kucinich. The town went bankrupt on his watch. However, careful analysis of the situation shows that the former CEI (now FirstEnergy) triggered the bankruptcy. This is the same outfit that triggered the Great Blackout of 2003. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has added FirstEnergy executives to its list of open seasons for hunters. I plan to mount the CEO’s head over my fireplace.

*****Yes, I know. I could always move to Florida or Texas, but are hurricanes really preferable to six feet of snow?

14 Comments on “Ohio: The Heart of It All (Yeah, Right.)”

  1. okay, now you have to explain what the “certain ethnic joke” is, for those of us who left ohio.

    by the way, i wouldn’t think your main problem would be people who’ve never been to ohio, but rather people, like me, who lived there for a brief but fairly horrifying time in the eighties and never never never want to go back, no matter what century it is now.

  2. Goulardi was that certain ethnicity? I never knew.

    You’re right. Those of us from the greater Cleveland area (which includes Akron, another whole set of frustrations in NE Ohio) don’t even think that Cinci is in Ohio. When asked to name the other baseball team in Ohio, I honestly doubt I could remember it without hints.

  3. There is a schlock horror institution in Greater Cleveland called THE BIG CHUCK & LI’L JOHN (formerly BIG CHUCK & HOULIHAN) SHOW, which evolved from the old GHOULARDI SHOW in the sixties. (GHOULARDI later became the sonorous voice of ABC for many years, better known as Ernie Anderson.)

    Chuck Shedowski, one of Ghoulardi’s original sidekicks and now the titular Big Chuck, like many Poles in Cleveland (This is a Cleveland thing, mind you), found Polish jokes amusing. Not surprising. Most of the kids telling them when I grew up were Polish. He wanted to make skits out of them. The FCC decided this was not politically correct (before the term was coined). So Chuck created the “certain ethnic” joke and thumbed his nose at the FCC.

    The best one was “Certain Ethnic Fairy Tales Presents the Little Certain Ethnic Boy and the Dyke.” It starts off with cheesey drawings of the Dutchboy sticking his finger in the dyke until help arrives. “Meanwhile, in a certain ethnic country…” (Never specified, of course.) Cut to a brick wall with water spurting out at random intervals. The camera pans up and we see Chuck coming up for air every few seconds or so.

    There are others, and a lot of them weren’t based on Polish jokes. It did take a lot of the sting out of the jokes while keeping the humor. Eventually, “certain ethnic” became synonomous for someone of questionable intelligence. And like the jokes, I heard it more from Poles than anyone else.

    The Irish, believe it or not, were the most offended.

    I do use “certain ethnic” in my Kepler stories, as Nick Kepler is a mutt of German-Irish-
    Polish-Jewish decent, with a little Cherokee thrown in for good measure. He often uses it when someone gets malicious about one of his ancestral groups. “We prefer the term ‘certain ethnic’!”

  4. Interesting. Polish jokes were very common when I was growing up in Michigan, also.

    From my short time in Cincinnati, I got the impression it was more a part of Kentucky.

  5. I’ve lived in Cincinnati for 14 years, and I still have to remind myself it’s in Ohio. Usually, I go over to Northern Kentucky to remind myself that the border state to our immediate south is nowhere near as messed up as Ohio.

    I think Ohio politicians should replace pit bulls as a banned breed in most Ohio cities, starting with Columbus, which would be most grateful for the change.

  6. I grew up in Holmes County. Glenmont, to be exact, so not really close to the Amish. It is very different than Cincinnati, which is where I live now.

  7. If you’re going to take jabs at Dennis Kucinich for his job as Cleveland’s mayor, it’s only fair to remind everyone that Cinicinatti once had Jerry Springer (yes, THAT Jerry Springer) as its mayor!

  8. oh, the joys remembered from growing up in cleveland!

    **** Please note, also, that Dennis Kucinich, the major who listened to Shirley MacLain, also ran for president in 2004.
    And was endorsed by Grandfather Twilight: “This is not only a matter of Wall Street and Washington, in the Woods our choice for President will be felt for generations. As Mr. Kucinich says, ‘This is the moment.’ I stand to show my support for Humanity, Peace, and the planet. I endorse Dennis Kucinich for President in 2004.”

  9. “If you’re going to take jabs at Dennis Kucinich for his job as Cleveland’s mayor, it’s only fair to remind everyone that Cinicinatti once had Jerry Springer (yes, THAT Jerry Springer) as its mayor!”

    Never let Jerry write you a check.

    And on the subject of entertaining Ohio politicians, let’s not forget Youngstown’s own, the missing Carl Hiassen character, the king of roadkill toupees himself… Put your hands together and give a big shout out for convicted felon JIM TRAFFICANT!!!!

    [Cue “Let’s Get Ready To Rumble”]

  10. Hi! I loved this piece. I grew up in Apple Creek, and I’ve lived in Florence,SC and Newport News,VA. Having lived in two southern cities, I have to agree that lake effect snow, while it may look pretty, is a pain in the rear, not to mention the five months of darkness in the winter. I couldn’t take the gray anymore, moved and got married to a Virginian, who happens to be a Steelers fan. And yes, I’ve committed the ultimate Browns fan sin; I now cheer for the Steelers. By the way, how does a man in Baltimore get the right to make cracks about Ohio having two football and baseball teams? Thanks to Art Modell and Baltimore, we were almost left without one of those teams forever. Thank you very much!!
    It was great to reflect upon the days of Big Chuck & Little John; actually Big Chuck’s daughter and I were in the Univ. of Akron Marching Band together. I always loved watching Big Chuck & Little John as a kid, though I was way too young to pick up on a lot of the humor. That crazy laugh voice over was funny enough for me!!
    Though I love VA, I have to say I miss the following things in Ohio:
    My family;
    Coccia House pizza in Wooster,if you haven’t tried it yet, you should;
    People who know what to do when they hear “Hang on Sloopy”;
    Cold football weather, only wimps play in domes;
    Amish cooking;
    and last but not least, Cedar Point!! Busch Gardens in Williamsburg doesn’t hold a candle to the rides at Cedar Point!
    =) Mitzi L.

  11. I happen to have lived in a suburb right on the edge of Dayton my whole life. Cincinatti definitely seems a lot more like Kentucky to me. I may have been to Cleveland once – I mostly go up North to visit Cedar Point, which is a huge plus Ohio has going for it – Cedar Point and Kings Island.

    Hocking Hills is also nice to visit.

    From my experiences, I definitely like Ohio a lot better than Indiana and Kentucky, especially politically. I like Kentucky’s rolling hills and caves as a landscape, and i hate Indiana for being so flat and boring to drive through. In terms of hilliness, Ohio is better than Indiana but not as good as Kentucky. But I couldn’t live in Kentucky, and definitely not West Virginia, where I also have relatives.

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