April 16, 2016KR BlogBlogRemembrances

The Land of Land

I’m your lovers, your VFWs, and your broken down factories and mills,
I’m your freight trains, and your friends
Your shopping malls
Your tanning beds
Please forgive me, Ohio, my dear.

—Aaron Lee Tasjan, “Ohio My Dear”

The other night I was talking with a friend who grew up in Mexico City, trading stories of our divergent hometowns over top-notch mezcal, the customary plate of worm salt, and a bowl of chili-dusted mandarins. He hadn’t spent much time in the Midwest, but felt there was something about it he couldn’t quite grasp, something about the open space that seemed so extremely foreign. As I tried to describe how having so much sprawl, so many tiny towns, so many subdivisions encircling one another affected how even city life is experienced, he summed up my home state in a phrase I haven’t been able to shake since. When I reached a meditative pause in my ramble, he nodded, swallowed another mandarin section, and said: “The midwest. . . .The land of land.”

The land of—I was expecting something else, the Land of Laundromats, perhaps. Columbus, for instance, has establishments such as Dirty Dungarees, which is a laundromat/bar around the corner from my old apartment on Duncan, where I’d throw in a load of whites and order “Simple Man” on the jukebox, which was about the best it had to offer. Then, on south campus, there was the Wash-n-Tan, which is exactly what it sounds like, and if you head all the way down to the south side, you’ll come upon other amazing hybrids. I once bought a DVD from a Video Rental/Pool and Hot Tub Supplies Store on Lockbourne Road. “The land of land” expresses both the fullness and the emptiness you feel when you grow up down the road from a sod farm, where the magnificent roll-ups of impossibly green grass wait to be transplanted in a newborn suburb, where the inhabitants will enthusiastically poison their groundwater with fertilizer spikes made in that Miracle Gro plant in Canal Winchester where I worked for part of a summer just before college.

The land of land expresses the proliferation of a thousand towns in a place where, I imagine, disputes were settled by geographical avoidance, and people would simply move further away, and found a new town, sometimes with names borrowed from Europe, sometimes retained from the local Indian nation. I had friends from—and now have taught students from—Ashtabula, Athens, Rome, Portsmouth, London, Parma, Groveport, Lancaster, Asheville, Circleville, Barnesville, Granville, Steubenville, Washington Court House, Van Wert, Chillicothe, Tippecanoe, Tipp City, Oxford, Clyde, and, in an example of onomastic humility perhaps unrivaled anywhere, Plain City.

I’ve never read anything that communicates the strangeness, the juxtapositions, and unpredictability of central Ohio’s cultural mix. I knew a kid whose dad made a fortune in wrecking and landfills and drove a decade-old Chevy pickup, though he had a Rolls Royce in his four-car garage and a large barn full of classic American cars. I once attended a Harley-themed wedding: three-tiered cake wrapped in black fondant with the orange trim piping and an orange Harley-Davidson logo on top. My dad and I were the only black men at the reception; the favors were orange beer coozies; the wedding party pulled into the parking lot in a deafening pack, all riding on their hogs.

As a teenager, the biggest hip hop heads I knew were two Appalachian brothers, close friends of mine, that hailed from southern Ohio, from the poorest county in the state. Their mom had a soft spot for animals: wounded or weak, runts, rejected mutts, even wild fish she found cute. They had a pet raccoon for a while (which is a long story, both funny and sad, for another post), their dad a salesman at an appliance store chain, their mom a house cleaner who never paid taxes. Summers brought parties with a gang of their parents’ friends, lots of coolers brimming with Home City Ice and very cheap beer, a big bonfire at the edge of the marshy field out back, where groundhogs tunneled a treacherous set of holes for our dirt bikes to dodge, where cranes sunned and silhouetted themselves in the tiny pond eighty yards out, bringing a towering, alien beauty to the otherwise flat fields of corn and turf and soy and nothing.