In Cincinnati, one lives in the city to learn from it.
A female city employee dumped beer cans, a Target bag, even a sweatshirt into the garbage truck. She returned the inner lining to inside the green metal cage and looked over at me, where I sat on our limestone front stoop.
“You have such a beautiful place here.” She pointed to the courtyard next to the house. The fountain gurgled. Mounds of yellow and maroon petunias had burst onto the scene. “I just love it,” she said through a red bandana worn to protect from the spread of COVID-19. She wore sunglasses too, and all I could see was her black-skinned arms shimmering in the heat.
I stood up from the carved steps, decorated with red and white tile, and brushed 150-year-old dirt from my running shorts. “Oh, thanks,” I said from across the short, bow and pin wrought-iron fence, six feet away from her.
In the side courtyard, a myriad of pots leftover from other homes I once occupied circled the space. As did lush hornbeam trees, a clutch of squirrels, and Vinny, the black cat who appeared two days before I was hit by car, and skulked still. Where before we were always in the city, and sat on a back deck for quiet, now we wanted to be a part of every noise, movement and protest, like no time before.
A Seattle newspaper columnist once wrote, “You must love a city to live in it, and you must live in it, to love in it.” I would amend the phrase to add, “You must learn in it, to love in it too.”
There had been no shortages of learning as of late.
Since the protests over the senseless killing of George Floyd began, I had become a fixture on those front porch steps. First, it was a tactic to defend our home — if need be. And I will admit, I had the luxury of time and privilege to do so. The action soon morphed into chants and support for protesters, telling the young kids on the move to “be safe.”
My husband and I were like moms and dads everywhere reminding them of curfew, in a way, saying, “We love you.” In one instance after a late deadline, we told a trio of demonstrators running through the alley to “just go home.” We watched over a mother and two children who joined in the demonstration and observed while the driver of a black suburban exited from his car with a license plate ending –XKK. We counted hours not by the clock, but by the number of rotations the helicopter squads made.
Yet none of that compared to what a black person felt on a daily basis. Always on edge, one push away from smashed nerves and broken lives. A black person like Lorelle.
It was 4 p.m. Lorelle was nearing the end of her shift. “You like living down here?” she asked.
My answer was always, “yes,” and yet the inflection in her voice indicated she wanted more. I leaned into the conversation. “Well, the past few days have been, uh, interesting.”
“What’s it been like?” her voice quivered.
Everything that one had seen on the news, and nothing that one had seen on the news.
Days earlier, my husband and I had awakened to texts asking if we were okay, because there had been reports of rioting and looting in Over-the-Rhine.
We weren’t okay. Our home, our stoop and the courtyard had not sustained damage. But our psyche had. We never felt in danger, but we sure felt afraid of living in a world where lives could be snuffed out by a simple knee.
We were afraid to live in a world where if everyone we knew was okay, then no one was really okay. Yet, if we held on to that fear, nothing would change, not even us. That’s how we made plans to sit on the stoop.
When Lorelle’s truck stopped in front of the house, I had finished work for the day and was writing a poem. Poetry calmed me. And when tired, I could only write in form.
“How’s it been for you out there?” I assumed her route around the city center was altered based on whatever direction the winds of the protest blew.
When Lorelle’s arms tired, she probably dropped cans, scattering what she tried to clean up. Yet her voice was strong when she said, “It’s fine. It’s peaceful.”
After a few days, I had felt calm too, in accepting the anger and violence that arose from hopelessness. As practiced in Buddhism, if we abandon hope, holding out for something better, we become more open to change. It was time to abandon hope.
I watched young people parade up and down Race Street in an eye-opening performance. Back during Opening Day parades, my favorite group to watch was a bunch of old white guys who practiced lawnmower precision drills. They had been replaced by throngs of young people shouting No Justice, No Peace. The refrain played in my head at night, as did the helicopter’s chopping the crisp air into bits.
“You know, I’m a black woman with no kids, but I gotta wonder, how does this all stop?”
Lorelle caught the lump in her throat. I wanted to tell her I stood with her, from across the fence in a neighborhood that had been gentrified. I always said, Yes, but the house was vacant. It had been had been vacated by white flight, riots, even the addicts. And black ownership of the home had certainly been prohibited by the banks and the law at some point. I still need work toward eliminating the “yeah, buts,” from my line of thought.
How did it all stop? Maybe with George Floyd. Justice for George was a more memorable phrase because of alliteration. Maybe it stopped by listening to our young, adult children, or protesters of a similar age who demanded all lives matter in their world. Maybe it stopped with Lorelle and me.
“I’ve been walking a straight line for a long time,” Lorelle said, her voice muffled yet trembling. Many walked straight line trying to do right, but she’d been walking one trying to stay alive.
“I’m 65 and I have so much inside of me. I’m afraid one thing might push me the wrong way. We gotta listen to each other.” She put a fist over her heart. “The protests are fine, but they don’t seem organized enough.”
Lorelle wanted a peek at the big picture but movies about race were still being filmed, or edited. Some pieces were left on the cutting room floor. She needed to be part of the story. Part of the whole story.
Neither of us held out a hand to shake.
Lorelle pulled the bandana again over her nose. She wore it as protection from the virus and also from the stench in the cans. But Lorelle didn’t know how to really sense ugly. Or she wouldn’t have stopped on her route to comment on beauty.
“I mean, I found a twenty ($20) once on the ground, in my job, picked it up, found out it was fake. No one…” She was near tears. “What’s the end point to all this?”
I wanted to hug Lorelle, yet hugging was no longer the answer.
Hugging was it own form of silencing, and in the present moment, the world needed to act out. Hugging was holding back. But right now, the fury needed to be unleashed so to chase down the dogs of bigotry of any kind.
Two police officers in a squad car appeared in front of my home. They waited for instructions on the path of the protesters, but my hands shook from adrenaline pumping through me in a state of constant alertness. I didn’t fear the police. But any move on the part of the demonstration groups prompted a counter move by the police and an additional few minutes of helicopter time later in the night.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt you,” Lorelle said, inching back toward her truck.
She had seen my journal. Should I tell her I was a writer? Being one had it’s own perceived privileges. “Not a problem. When you’re back in the area or just walking around, knock on the door.” I paused. “I’m a writer so I work from home. I’ll have you over.”
“Oh, no, I couldn’t do that.” Lorelle tried to walk away, but she stopped midstep. “I’m not much a of a writer. I use too many “ands” and “thes.” She smiled.
Distant horns plucked at my nerves. “That’s okay. So long as you’re getting down the important stuff.”
Her head swiveled toward the traffic. Cars raced by. Chrysler 300’s and white SUVs. The police raced off too. Her feet wanted to direct themselves into her truck but an invisible curiosity drew her back again. “Tell me, what’s one piece of advice you give to a writer.”
My Italian hands flew off the decorative fence and into the air. “Don’t listen to your inner critic. Say what you’re here to say.”
Lorelle strode back to her truck, the one loaded with empty plastic bottles, Styrofoam containers of leftover macaroni, and half-dead maroon petunia blossoms I had pinched off hours before.
Beauty at the bottom of the barrel.
- Lorelle’s name has been changed.