The Earl of Race

photoFor ten months, I had called him Harold. He reminded me of a Harold I once knew, the caretaker for the Golden Acres Sanitarium.

That Harold mowed the immense field of weeds between the center’s property and my father’s back fence. He witnessed us kids steal apples from Mr. Witte, and watched from the shadowed windows with those in wheelchairs, as we sledded down the icy hill into the cracked creek. That comforting image of “oversight” must be why I equated my Harold of then, to my Harold of now.

Harold sits in front of his home located at an intersection near Washington Park. More appropriately he sits at the juncture of long-time residents and new, his former life and present one, black folks and white, and money and none. His location is convenient in that my husband has to pass by him and offer ice cream, to which Harold never says no.

Harold has a certain charm about him, as well as a harem of neighbors and friends. He lives next to a group of university urban planning students. And, he has a cigarette man who delivers a pack to him every day.

My dog Enzo is in love with Harold, and equally so, his cigarette butts and ashes. Once, upon my stopping to chat with Harold, Enzo pulled away from me. As I yanked him back, I saw he was chewing on the butt of a cigarette. Countless runs outside to the grass later, Enzo swallowed his medications and passed the butt. Now, I keep him on a close leash. Harold too learned his lesson. When he sees me coming with the dog, he drops the cigarette where Enzo cannot reach.

Over the course of a year, in times measured by weather, sweat or to-do lists, I have come to know Harold. His father suffered from Alzheimer’s and recently passed away at the age of 93. We had deceased fathers and a parent’s dementia in common. And while he roots for Bengals and can be found with the rest of his companions bemoaning the team’s woes, Harold grew up a Brown’s fan. That fact always makes me gloat.

Harold warns me about suspicious characters milling about, or the possibility of one particular young man who, riding a Red bike two days in a row, had quite possibly stolen the bike. There are usually other residents hanging out on his corner, which Harold never bothers to introduce. He assumes I’ll do the honors for myself. Harold is always right.

One morning, I arrived at the corner with Enzo in tow. The dog ran to Harold as if I had been torturing the pooch with a daily walk. Harold was sitting on a stoop opposite his home, watching painters work on a nearby historic home. Perhaps he was also waiting on his cigarette man, or needed a new viewpoint, tired of looking at the grand lady of Music Hall. She can be so imposing some days.

“Hey, there’s my boy,” Harold called out, in a not-quite-booming James Earl Jones voice. Enzo nuzzled up to his hand for some love.

I had visited with Harold earlier that morning, so we had already dispensed of the necessary minutiae of the day – rain, car speeds, dubious streetwalkers, Top Gun showing in Washington Park.

I parked on the curved ledge beside Harold while Enzo licked away on the sidewalk, hoping for a trace of ash. I scoured Enzo’s horizon for anything resembling a cigarette. Confident we were in the clear, I relaxed, while Harold marveled at the painter brushing the detail work on the bas relief beneath a bay window.

“I used to paint, when I was young,” Harold offered.

“Oh, yeah, where was that?”

“Back in Akron.” Yes, we also had Akron in common.

“Yeah, what else did you do?”

“Cut meat.”

His short responses were typical.

“In Akron?”


“How’d you get down here from Akron?”

“Oh well. I was running away from my drinking.”

“I guess you didn’t get too far.”

“Oh yeah I did. Went even further than here,” he chuckled with heft. “Seems like the farther I went though, the worse the drinking got.”

“Where else did you go?”

“Oh, Connecticut, Texas, Arizona, about thirty states. Oh yeah, New Jersey,” which elicited a laugh. “Yep, the more I traveled, the worse I got.”

“I went out with a friend one night in West Virginia, and we went to get some vodka and maybe had some bourbon, and next thing I knew it, I woke up in someone’s driveway in Trenton, New Jersey. Didn’t remember nothing. Not driving through the toll roads. Nothing. And this guy, comes to knock on my window, says I got to move my car so he can get his car out and go to work. Then he knocks again.”

“Finally, I move and go to call my brother and he asks, ‘where you at’?”

“I tell him New Jersey and he says, ‘how bout that?’”

“By then, I was blacking out all the time.”

I wanted to ask, How did you know when to stop, how did you get better?

Harold didn’t know that alcoholism and addiction ran in my family and I had witnessed tragedies on a significant scale. We had that in common, too.

I prodded some more because I wanted to know that even if you were running around in the world, you could still settle down somewhere and find a home, without the bottle or within the self. I needed to hear his story, one with a tidy finish.

“So how’d you land in Cincinnati,” I asked.

“One night, I went to my mamma’s house three times.”

“Three times? Did she finally kick you out, is that what made you want to quit?” We laughed.

“Nah, she made it worse by helping me.”

“Oh families – such great enablers,” I mumbled, Harold unable to hear, watching Enzo oblivious to whatever he was licking at.

“I guess I asked for money, and she gave me a hundred dollars. Then I went back, and she said, ‘I already gave you money.’ And I didn’t remember none of that.”

“So I had a friend who called and said, ‘Hey in Cincinnati they got this place called the Drop Inn and they got a good program there.’ So, I sold my truck, everything I owned, bought a greyhound bus ticket to Cincinnati. Got in to the Drop Inn.”

“What’d you do when you got here?”

“Well, Buddy Gray at the Drop Inn asks me one day, ‘Hey can you cook?’ and I said yeah.”

“’Can you cook for 300,’ he asked me.”

“I told him no.”

“But another guy come along and said he’d teach me. So I cooked for 21 years at the Drop Inn. Cooked some good stuff.”

“Yeah? What was your favorite?”

“Beef stroganoff.” Suddenly I remembered I hadn’t eaten and his description, how the staff could hardly wait until the residents were served so they could partake in his famous dish, made my mouth water. My mother always cooked beef stroganoff and it was more hearty and juicy than any Russian could ever duplicate

“I had to call a guy for the recipe, but I don’t have one no more.”

The streets were thickening with trucks and passer-bys. Harold’s friends were circling around and Enzo was finished licking any residue off the sidewalk.

It had only been one month prior, after we had lived in OTR for close to a year, my husband asked a question that devastated me. “Why do you call him Harold?”

“What do you mean, isn’t that his name?”

I wasn’t going to take flack from a husband who never remembers his parking space. I prided myself in recalling names and faces.

“No it’s not. It’s Earl.”

“No….,” I breathed out.

“No, really? Really? Oh, how embarrassing.” My face turned a Music Hall shade of red. How I would ever face Harold again, let alone Earl? But I went back, and Earl accepted my mistake, after nearly falling off his stoop from laughter. We were going to be good friends.

I still call him Harold, not in his presence, but in my mind, my writing, in general conversations about the neighborhood. And like Harold of Golden Acres, he presides over a vast expanse of green, overseeing the intersection of contrasts and commonalities, in a neighborhood where not all lives have a tidy ending.





3 thoughts on “The Earl of Race

  1. executivedreamer July 17, 2015 / 7:26 pm

    I love this post and I love the no-easy-answers path without any map period of reinventing Cincinnati we’re orchestrating in the city center right now. You’ve never stopped to talk to Harold-Earl to save him or end poverty. You talk to each other because you like each other and have so much in common.

  2. Ellen Austin July 17, 2015 / 9:43 pm

    Ah, we call it the “geographic cure”– all addicts and alcoholics try it. There’s this expression in the rooms: “wherever you go, there you are.” So true. It’s so cool how Harold/Earl got sober at the Drop Inn Center. Buddy Gray did a lot of good for people in need in the city.

  3. mary July 18, 2015 / 12:32 pm

    We receive monthly calls from people wanting to buy that building. The potential buyers’ reps think we are unreasonable because we won’t consider selling Earl’s building. Beautiful piece!! Made me laugh and shed a tear.

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