Ohio is a battleground state--I love the way we overdramatize ourselves; such warriors we are--and it may very well go for Obama; the huge population upstate usually goes Democratic. But here in southwestern Ohio, you might as well be in Alabama or Montana: you see red wherever you look. Not that the actual city of Cincinnati (about three hundred and fifty thousand) won't shout "Yes, we can!" but that the surrounding 1.6 mil will drown it out. A straw poll on the television Channel 12 News a couple of weeks ago drew something like 13,000 votes. They do a poll like this every night, usually about things like whether we want red-light traffic cameras or not, or whether the local NFL franchise is the worst ever in the sport. But 13,000 is an inordinately high number, indicating an urgency to express. The result was 57% for McCain, 43% for Obama.
Cincinnati is a hard nut to crack. I've been here thirty-odd years, but since I didn't grow up here I remain, truly, an outsider. Which is fine with me; I've been observing the native population all that time. Cincinnati divides itself down the middle into the east and west sides; the east side considers itself to be more sophisticated. It has the exclusive neighborhoods, the country clubs, the shopping and the cosmopolitan lifestyles--the condos in Vail, the European and Asian vacations. The east side is where the new executives for Procter & Gamble, or Carl Lindner's American Financial Group, find homes. There's money and movement on the east side: social mobility, educational diversity, anxiety. I don't mean to portray it as progressive; the east side votes Republican to make money.
Then there's the west side. I have two symbols here of the west side; the first is Elder High School and the Elder football stadium, known as "The Pit." The other is Buddy LaRosa's restaurant, LaRosa's Pizzeria, on Boudinot Avenue. First, "The Pit."
To understand The Pit, you have to understand that the west side culture is built on a fanaticism for sports--especially baseball, basketball, and football; soccer is a bit too effete, more of an east side sport--and an even greater fanaticism for never moving--or even traveling--more than three blocks from where you were born, throughout your whole lifetime. Also, you have to go to Elder. There are other decent high schools in the area, but Elder is the heart and soul of the west side. Elder athletes are perennial contenders for state championships, in a multitude of sports, and Elder graduates provide a remarkable percentage of the city police force and fire department, and historically, a long line of judges and prosecutors. This Elder law & order cabal is so legendary it has inspired a novel, Pure Murder, by a local mystery writer, A. M. Pyle.
Enter The Pit. The Pit seats 9100 fans, and for most events you can't get a ticket. The seats are taken up by old people: Elder graduates from their 20's and 30's to their 70's or even 80's. People who have never ever left the neighborhood. People for whom high school football games or high school basketball games remain, not only the ultimate entertainment value, but a secret sign for a secret society, a band of brothers that will not change. The Elder nickname is "Panthers"; their fans call themselves "Panther Nation." Remember, this is a German city; the pun that pops into mind is "Panzer Nation."
I go out to eat alone almost every night, so I've developed a range of 8-10 restaurants where I can get an decent inexpensive dinner. Sometimes I head over to the LaRosa Pizzeria in Western Hills. I only go there when I'm in the mood to see the epicenter of the west side: large Catholic families, of German, Italian, and Irish descent, for whom this mediocre pizza chain (LaRosa's pizza, I bitterly tell anyone who'll listen on my deeply disappointed and yearning nights, is like a methadone program; I've had good pizza in my life, but Cincinnati isn't the place to find it) is a social hub. There's a large restaurant proper, and an extended bar area with eight or ten televisions, all broadcasting sports. The 80-odd-year-old patriarch of all this, Buddy LaRosa, started a high school/local athlete hall of fame years and years ago; throughout the restaurant are hand-drawn portraits, year by year, of the inductees, in huge frames, maybe eight pictures to a frame. Most of them are west-siders. The west side, after all, has produced a serious roster of baseball talent over the years: Don Zimmer, Jim Frey, Ron Oester, and of course the greatest and most infamous, Pete Rose. The current Boston Red Sox first baseman, Kevin Youkilis, is a west side product.
When I walked in late on Saturday night last week, I found they'd added a toy: over in the corner of the bar three men--three grown men, as my grandma would say--were sitting on a dais with a huge TV screen behind them, and microphones and recording equipment in front. They were doing analysis of local performances in the day's high school football games! It was hard to believe, but kind of amazing to see--three grown men, as I've said. The USA was changing; not just their neighborhood, but the entire country, around them; to step up into that would require reiterating their usual platitudes or a questioning that would take on generations of received opinion: better to be obsessed with sports. I sat for a while and watched families come and go, people laughing and talking unaffectedly, as if this place were their living room. The bodies of the young men, in their 20's and 30's, were already thick and soft; every one of them that I saw wore a ball cap; they often shaved their heads and wore a bristly kind of facial hair reminiscent of current British gangster movies. The women displayed themselves, not more or less attractively than the men, but with the tone of an exploited group. I was reminded of that old existentialist mantra, "existence precedes essence." Unlike the Protestant cities around here--Dayton, Columbus, Indianapolis, where I grew up--Cincinnati is decidedly Catholic, Old World Catholic. Its mantra is "essence precedes existence"--the Catholic mantra. One only has to exist here, to be taken care of by God; it's not exactly complacency, but satisfaction. The real trick is to hold onto this Elder world, not elect someone who wants to replace it, who would require "growing up" by the standards of a hypocritical PC world, a world like the east side, for instance.
I looked down at what I was doing as I waited for my food. I was reading a "popularizing" book on religion--Joseph Campbell's Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor--to find language I could use to describe to my students--language that they could understand--what Emerson was saying in "The Divinity School Address" about the difference between the inner spiritual being and the outer institution of religion. A goodly number of my students were the sons and daughters of the people here, or people like them; they commute to classes, live at home until they graduate, get a job, and move a few blocks away. My spaghetti was fine that night. I truly believe we are all more alike than we are different. But I do plan to vote for Obama; and I'm certainly not interested in football. Or high school.