Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Playing tourist in my own city

View of Cincinnati from the streetcar
I took a play day last week with my 17-year-old as a chance to capture summer before she’s off to college and a new, young-adult life.

We awoke at 7, were on the road by 8 and parted ways by 8:45. I headed to a meeting in Clifton as she toted her laptop to our favorite near-campus coffee shop, Rohs Street Café. As a chai lover, I adore their freshly brewed, spicy Rishi blend, lightly sweetened with honey and topped with frothy, steamed soy milk. She prefers coffee, but we both like the eclectic vibe in this church-run, old-school coffee house.

After my work wrapped up, we traversed an almost daily transforming Clifton Heights that’s given way to tall, cookie-cutter facades and food franchises at the expense of individual architecture and mom-and-pop eateries and shops. My family has not forgiven Myra for closing her brownstone, boho-meets Moosewood café with dozens of homemade soups, healthy salads, eclectic entrees and sandwiches.

We cut down Calhoun with a quick jog on Clifton, east on McMillian, down West Clifton to Vine, and, in short order, arrived at Findlay Market. The first hour of parking is free, 50 cents an hour for hours one to four, so we aimed for two.

We began with the outskirt markets: Dean’s Mediterranean Imports with its freshly baked zatar flatbread, baklava, varieties of feta (feta is betta, a window sign reads) and hit neighboring Heist Fish and Poultry since 1934 to discover we were thirsty. We whisked through the indoor market perusing early lunch choices such as three hearty salads (think beet, feta and walnut) for $9.99 at Fresh Table, gyros, Belgian waffles, tacos, loads of sweets, spices, cheeses and meats. The siren call of Maverick Chocolate beckoned us inside and the deal was sealed with a frozen hot chocolate imbued with 65-percent cocoa. It is, absolutely, the best drink/food/anything I’ve had in a very long time and I am not easily impressed. We split a $5 frozen treat topped with whipped cream. It would have been difficult, but not impossible, to consume an entire drink. It is bittersweet, creamy with some tooth and exactly like drinking a very good chocolate bar. We learned that giant pods contain the cocao seeds – and could be shaken as musical instruments if not so precious a food – that Maverick roasts, then breaks into nibs for all of its chocolate.

Lily Barney photo
We shared and savored our drink during a spin through the venerable Saigon Market, splurging for some dark sesame oil and tapioca pearls. Now ready for a sit-down lunch, and perhaps influenced by the Vietnamese grocer, we passed up Eli’s BBQ, hungry for something lighter. Pho Lang Thang with its galvanized-garbage can-and-door tables underneath a canopy fit the bill. Again, we split Bun Ga Nuong, a salad of lemongrass chicken, rice noodles,  lettuce, bean sprouts, cucumber, cilantro, mint, basil, crushed peanuts and a tangy vinaigrette. It filled us with its crispy chicken and chopped vegetables, providing enough energy to plan a streetcar trip to the art stores in Over the Rhine. Of course, we COULD have walked, but my daughter had never ridden the streetcar and I like to support public transportation. We retuned to the parking lot to add another two hours, but a coin jammed the machine. My daughter tried to push it down with a dime just as an attendant appeared. As he opened the door, a flood of quarters spilled out that my daughter promptly scooped up and returned. He asked our stall number and said he would “get” our parking. A nice trade for her helpfulness and honesty.
Lily Barney photo

We conveniently boarded the north end of the connector line at Findlay paying $2 for two, two-hour tickets by app. We rode to Washington Park, disembarking on Elm Street, then proceeded down 13th, around the corner to Vine and Suder’s Art Store. Almost unrecognizable, this former oasis amid abandoned and graffitied buildings, is buttressed by redevelopment. However, inside nothing has changed. The Great American Art Works, Northside-made sumptuous chalk pastels that I covet are still stashed in a high rise of thin drawers in one unlit corner. When my girls were young and I’d accumulated a stash of change, we'd visit Suder’s so I could stock up on these silky gems. I repeated that story walking in, not realizing it made no sense to my daughter until she saw the price tag of $5.99 per each single stick. “Wow, mom, that’s a lot, no wonder you saved up,” she remarked. They are so worth every penny as they glide onto the surface, transforming paper into art. The colors are lush; some are made with actual metal shavings.

We strolled every wood-planked, winding aisle, then entered the side room full of frames, easels and a napping cat. Happy just to smell the must, turpentine and canvas, we departed for out next stop, Indigo Hippo, a non-profit selling donated art materials. Not at the corner we’d expected, we discovered its new, larger location across Main Street and half a block north. Baskets brimming with odds and ends, tiles, fibers and drawers with papers, stamping and scrapbooking supplies lined shelves, tables and floor space. My daughter delightedly found 10 pounds of glycerin, some scents and dyes so she could make soap. I loved looking, but honestly, was reminded of my crammed garage studio with so many one-offs kind people have donated to my arts non-profit. I struck up a conversation with the clerk, joyfully engaged in arranging the newest cache. I vaguely recognized her.

I inquired about a summer, community-arts program Indigo was hosting and, when the clerk mentioned there would be a trauma-informed art-making component, I jumped in, volunteering I’d taken a similar workshop and really used the material. “Whose workshop?” she asked. I couldn’t remember the organization, but recalled it was held at the Baker-Hunt Cultural Arts Center in Newport. “Ha, no wonder you looked familiar,” she said. “I’m Amy and I led that.” No kidding. Small world, small delight.

After shopping and chatting, we walked back to the Washington Park streetcar stop, attempting to retrieve our car before our time lapsed. We got on the wrong loop, winding up with a jam-packed tour of the city via the connector. Amazingly the track down Race, Central Parkway and Vine whizzes past some of the city’s most-beloved landmarks: Findlay Market, OTR, Washington Park, The Main Branch of the Cincinnati and Hamilton County Library, The Contemporary Arts Center, Fountain Square, Great American Ballpark, The Banks and the Underground Railroad Freedom Center. At the riverfront, we turned east on Second Street and north up Main by the Aronoff Arts Center, west on 12th Street, north on Elm by the park, Music Hall, back to Findlay and ending in the Brewery District in front of Rhinegeist. For $1, you can’t beat this tour.

We didn’t know to push the button to exit at Findlay, so rode on to Rhinegeist, walked back to the market area seeking cold drinks. We stopped in Market Wines searching for my friend, Linnea, missing her and the 4pm serving time. The congenial bartender offered his recommendations. The Rhined, a cheese shop that curates domestic cheeses along with beer and wine was open, but empty, so we selected a seat at Harvest Pizzeria's bar, ordering a wheat draft for $1 off during happy hour and a natural root beer. Revived after a beverage and enjoying the view across the front of the market, we doubled back back to our first stop, Dean’s Mediterranean Imports, to collect a dinner feast: French feta, falafel, Kalamata olives, dolma and a large slice of fresh baklava.

From frozen hot chocolate to frozen falafel, we celebrated the best of the Queen City's delights. It's good to occasionally be a tourist in your own city

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Friends begin, end Dallas jaunt

Packed and walking out the door of my comfy airbandb, two small dogs bound in with my host Karin right behind. She apologizes, but I don’t mind, the dogs are well-behaved, just curious. I fall in love with Hazel, who is boundless on three legs. “I don’t know how she’d be with four,” Karin confesses. I am glad to meet Karin, but grateful she has given me space. Turns out we’re headed the same direction, the Dallas Farmer’s Market (well, she’s going to yoga across the street) and she was just about to call Uber. I offer her a ride in exchange for navigating. Nagrivating, I reveal my husband and I call it. We laugh and seal the deal. She’s out front just as I get the car loaded and we’re off. It’s so much easier to negotiate the snaking roadways with a human, who can even tell you which of the five lanes you should be in. We get there quickly and without incident, a foil to my drive in from DFW. As luck would have it – yesterday’s Google Maps now seems way out of whack and scale – the pottery I tried to find is right across from the farmer’s market. I park in the free yoga lot Karin suggests, say goodbye and head off to explore the market.

Less produce, more art and food stands, it’s a beautiful, cloudless, sunny morning. I sample organic cheddar-and-caramel popcorn, “plain Jane” local jerky and the “best cookies you ever had” when I learn they are gluten free. I remark that the cinnamon in the oatmeal raisin is really good. “Vietnamese,” he says and I knew it, my favorite.  I almost purchase a small hand-painted, leather cross-body bag, but wait to see what damage I do at the pottery. The artist uses acrylics to marbleize the stylish bags. She makes a line of Frida Kahlo prayer flags that are very tempting. I steel myself. I walk the inside and outside, opt against breakfast and beeline to the pottery.

Dusty, packed and colorful, Amigos Pottery is my kind of place. Doesn’t take me long to identify the tile section and I begin pouring through, aligning my maybes on a tile table. I know I don’t want a repeating pattern and discover I don’t want a symbol either, just a design. I select two that will complement the faux finishes I spent hours splashing on my kitchen walls and cabinets. I walk the rest of the outdoor maze, agonize over a few simple chimeneas, but realize they will be impossible to carry or ship. I discover a section of mini tiles and pour over those. I lay my 24 minis and my 24 medium tiles on a spare counter and ask an employee who may be the owner if I can put them in bags and feel how heavy they are. I explain that I am flying and can only take 50 pounds. He skillfully wraps my treasure in multiple bags and says they’re not that heavy. I concur because I can easily lift them. So, I head back and select another 12 medium tiles in a new pattern because I can’t help myself. I schlep them all into my backpack, lumber across the street and land them in the trunk, happy that my aborted mission from yesterday is accomplished.

Deep Ellum, another arts area I’ve heard so much about is about 5 minutes away, so I decide to go for lunch before I head to Plano to the wedding. I land free, street parking and can’t wait to explore. But I can’t get my trunk to lock no matter how hard I try. This Mazda 3 rental has been a royal pain. For the third time in three days I call roadside assistance, pushing the corresponding number for auto features and am told my only option is to drive back to the airport, an hour away and in the opposite direction of where I am headed, and trade vehicles. I decline, walk around the block quickly while I believe my car and those precious tiles are still safe, then drive toward Plano. I am disappointed because Deep Ellum looked interesting and edgy.

Doesn’t take long to get on the freeway; my Google Maps is set to avoid tolls because in addition to the toll there’s a daily upcharge from the rental company. Had I not been busy driving or had a passenger, I would have gotten a photo of the four-deck knot of highway. I’ve never seen so much cement. Some piers were painted green or red with a star stamped in them. Texas does things in a big way, which may have something to do with its extensive suburban sprawl. Skyscrapers lined half the highway to Plano, then morphed into the ubiquitous Olive Gardens, Michaels and Doubletrees in every city in America. I almost forgot where I was.

Plano’s upscale McMansions on postage-stamp lots, about six feet it seemed between neighbors, dressed in lush vegetation echo the state’s vastness. Brick or wood walls guarded developments, so mostly you caught glimpses of the massive, angled rooflines. I thought I spotted Buckingham Palace by the roof. Every store or restaurant chain imaginable resides in Plano, alongside these planned communities. I used to name caskets for a living and was good at it. I could make a fortune in Plano naming subdivisions, malls, strip centers, condos and apartment complexes. My Marriott Springhill Suites is situated in a development with a convenient footbridge across the creek from more shopping, restaurants and the reception site. I check in early, assisted by very helpful staff, unloaded – those tiles were getting heavy – and took time for a dip in the pool and hot tub. It was such a gorgeous day that I took my Dallas 1963 book purchased at the JFK Museum outside to sun and read. My weather app registered 84 degrees.

After leisurely prepping for the wedding, I was off to the church for the true reason I was in Dallas: the first wedding of a childhood friend. Amy met Stephen well after she ever dared to believe it could still happen, I suspect. They came to Cincinnati last summer to announce their engagement and meet family and close friends. Amy’s and my parents met as students at the University of Iowa, lived in Chicago and moved both of our families in close succession to Cincinnati. We’re really more like family. No one else could travel right now, so I felt like the Rose Family Delegate. There was no way I would miss this wedding. Amy’s like a sister and I immediately liked Stephen and could see how they balanced each other. He encouraged her to launch her own real-estate business, which is how they came to build the beautiful house I’d toured the previous two days in the Bishop Arts District. He’d also nudged and accompanied her home a few weeks ago to visit my sister and her ill husband.

Seated early, I was mesmerized by the massive organ, counting it’s shiny pipes and awestruck by long stained-glass window gradating from yellow-orange to red, then blues with a simple, yet immense window running forming a cross. I know faith and music have meant a lot to Amy over the years and this space was sacred to her. I was honored to be visiting and participating. The service was more than lovely, it included inspired words, Scripture, vocals and vows. Amy’s older brother walked her down the aisle channeling, as he said, his inner father to read a poem their dad and written.. His voice broke a few times, but he did really well, appearing well out of his comfort zone. As Amy floated to the alter happier than I have ever witnessed in a beautiful dress, I felt her father’s presence. He was an impeccable artist with an eye for details. He would have loved the dress.

Pomp and ceremony over, I caught up in the lobby with another longtime family friend, who lives in Boise and I had not seen since 1995. Just like our parents had, we reconnected instantly and sat together catching up and reminiscing at the reception. I was so grateful for Sarah and Renee’s company. Everyone else I knew was part of the wedding party. We ate, sipped wine and danced the night away, reveling in his new journey for Amy and Stephen. They’re taking a cruise down the Danube as a honeymoon. Bet it’ll look blue to them.

I am so grateful for the journey to Dallas I had as a result of this invitation.

I was up early the next morning, nervous to return the rental car and ask for a discount. I opted for the quicker tollways and spotted a gas station at the airport, higher priced, but cheaper than paying for a full tank of gas. I checked in and was told I’d need to find a manager for any bill adjustments. No one was at the desk before 7 a.m., so I went to the one open and the agent agreed to help. “The manager should be in now, but he’s quitting.” Didn’t sound promising. I took her 18-percent discount, figuring I could duke it out over e-mail. However, no one will know to check this car for the next renter.

Got my bag checked and entered the security line when a young woman, Kayla, came up behind me afraid she was late. I told her to relax when I realized we had the same flight. DFW doesn’t recognize TSA pre-check except that I didn’t have to remove my shoes and I didn’t feel segregated form the rest of the travelers. My bag was examined for – you guessed it s I did – the tightly packed tiles. Once opened, I was handed the mess to repack and said I was good to go. I reconnected with Kayla, a nurse, in line for coffee and she handed me an Emergen-C pack to stir in my water. “Always taking care of everyone?” I asked. “Yes,” she replied. I was also reacquainted before boarding with Natalie and Penny, the mother and daughter with whom I’d shared the incoming flight. They’d had a great weekend at the NFL draft and Natalie had pinched the butt of some player whose name rang no bells for me, but made her happy.

My neighbor and I commiserated with the woman in our row’s aisle seat who said she’d traveled to Dallas for her granddaughter’s prom, only to have the boyfriend break up with her during the dance and have her home two hours later. What a creep, we concurred.

A half hour from home, I nudged my sleeping neighbor and politely sked if I could get through. Didn’t think I could make it home before needing a bathroom break. On my way to the back of the plane, a man called my name as I dumbly looked at him. He said his name and I knew him immediately. We’d gone through school together. Apparently he’d send me a Facebook message, but I’d already had my phone in airplane mode. I got to meet his wife and a daughter and would have been so upset to have discovered the message too late.

It was a nice bookend for my trip, matching the other old friend I’d bumped into at CVG going to my gate. I came away with new friends, old friends and many tales to tall. Thank you, Dallas. Thank you, Amy.