Friday, February 25, 2011

The Cincinnati Kid

I grew up a city kid. My folks moved around a lot when I was young and my early years were often spent in large apartment complexes like the kind that sprung up in and around America’s cities in the years of growth and prosperity that followed World War II. We first lived in older, more established apartment houses on the south and north sides of Chicago, my hometown, but we moved into newer quarters when we eventually settled in Kansas City, Detroit, Los Angeles, and finally in Cincinnati. I was young and so I do not have vivid recollections of some of these earlier places, but I do have very strong and resilient memories of our time in Cincinnati in the late 1950s.

Home was Swifton Village, a 1200 unit red brick apartment complex constructed around 1950 along Langdon Farm Road, on the city’s northeast side and not far from the old Cincinnati Gardens. It was hard to believe that this area was ever farmland. The apartments themselves were nothing fancy; a two-story square box with a small living room, dining room and kitchenette on the first floor and two small bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. There was a small step-up front porch and a concrete stoop out back off the kitchen which faced onto a fenced-in asphalt playground surrounded by other apartment units and a long building housing individual garages. This was my home turf, where I hung out with my friends after school and on the weekends. I was a baby boom kid and so there was always a lot of kids my age to play with.

This was a different time and out parents allowed us to run far afield and our travels often took us to other playgrounds in the complex. We also managed to climb onto the roofs of the garage buildings and roamed the various basement laundry rooms looking for adventure (and occasionally trouble). I recall a bunch of us once picking dandelions growing on a grass commons located between two buildings and then wandering through the complex trying to sell our pretty little bouquets for quarters. Some people were not too pleased with our “vandalism” and complained to our parents. That was the end of that experiment in free enterprise. But there was always plenty of other things to do.

Our wanderings also took us to the new open-air Swifton Village Shopping Center, built a couple years before we arrived and situated along the western edge of the complex. There were all sorts of stores there and it was a fun place for kids to hang out. My barbershop was there and I remember sitting in the barber’s chair one day when I heard the news that Superman was dead. I ran home to tell my folks and they explained that George Reeves, who played Superman on television, had shot himself in Hollywood. There was also a new swimming pool between the complex and the shopping center and we spent many a summer day there.

When we first moved to the area in 1958, I attended Carthage Elementary School a few miles west of the complex. Each school day I would catch a city bus in front of our building for what seemed like a long trip up Seymour Avenue. And every afternoon the long trip home. The next year a new school, Swifton Primary, opened up just a few blocks away on Rhode Island Avenue and it was just a short walk from home. Most of the kids in the school were from the complex. So were some of the teachers.

Our next door neighbors just happened to be my teacher at Swifton Primary and her family. Can you imagine living next door to your teacher? My folks got a constant and running commentary of what old Stevie was up to in the classroom. That was a treat for me, I can tell you. Two episodes come immediately to mind. One day in class we were asked to write a short essay about what our parents did for a living. I knew my dad was some kind of an engineer (not the kind that drives trains I found out), so that was pretty easy. But mom stayed home during the day and I was not quite sure what she did. But I assumed that among other things she fixed stoves; she always seemed to be spending a lot of time around ours. It seemed logical to me at the time. Well, you guessed it. My teacher/neighbor knocked on the door one day and asked my mother if she would take a look at her stove. Mom did and told her it looked pretty much like ours. When asked if she could fix it, my mother grew perplexed until she found out why my teacher had come over in the first place. Now fast forward to my class art show. I had created a rather nice desert scene out of tempera paint, complete with cacti and a large butte (maybe it was a mesa). My teacher/neighbor praised my work to my parents during an evening PTA meeting and they told me they would hang it up when I brought it home. That day came and my teacher rolled up my painting and placed it a long cardboard tube. You know the kind . . . the one that acts and sounds like a giant kazoo as you march around the classroom blowing through it? Well, I went home that afternoon and my painting remained behind, stuffed in the classroom trash can. I can’t remember now whether I told my parents what happened, but I am quite sure the news reached our doorstep. Regardless, I think that was pretty much the end of my career as an artist. Don’t let that smiling face fool you. This is the Cincinnati Kid we are talking about.

I was really into baseball back then as were most of my buddies. After our dads got home from work we would frequently walk up to the nearby Gardens (where we also went to see the circus and the Ice Capades) to catch a bus down to Crosley Field to watch the Reds play. These were some of my earliest sports heroes - Roy McMillan, Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Smoky Burgess, Orlando Pena and so many others. In fact, some of the Reds lived in Swifton Village and we would occasionally see one or the other during our playday forays throughout the complex.

When we left Cincinnati for Asheville, North Carolina, in the spring of 1960, we moved into the first house of our own. There was a front and back lawn and lots of trees. The Cincinnati Kid had moved on to greener pastures. Swifton Village fell on hard times in the 1960s and early 1970s with white flight to the suburbs. Crime became rampant and eventually most of the complex was empty and in disrepair. A few years ago it was completely torn down and replaced with new single family homes with lawns and trees. Both Carthage and Swifton schools are closed and up for sale. I have never been back and it looks like Thomas Wolfe was right in this case. I could not go home again even if I wanted to. But the memories are strong and pleasant.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Little Taste of Turkey

A couple of days ago my good friend Michael Stewart and I took a photographic safari through the Potomac valley above Washington, DC. These spur-of-the-moment road trips frequently take us to various diners and greasy spoons where we like to sample the simple but tasty fare offered in equally simple surroundings. This trip was no different and we enjoyed a late breakfast at a small, rather nondescript eatery in Cumberland, Maryland before wandering the quiet streets and nearby train yard. It was a breakfast to die for, and, considering the calories, one that could be equally lethal. Afterwards we continued to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia and through the farms and vineyards of northern Loudoun County in Virginia. Later in the afternoon we found ourselves in Leesburg, Virginia and looking for another place to rest and enjoy a small repast and a cold beer. Michael, who is well-versed in the location and offerings of these local joints, suggested a stop at the Döner Bistro on the edge of downtown Leesburg. It sounded good to me.

The place was opened in 2008 as the successor to the popular Mighty Midget Kitchen, a small burger and barbeque joint opened at a nearby intersection back in 1946. Fashioned out of scrap metal taken from a surplus World War II B-17 bomber, the original “kitchen” was only large enough to accommodate one or two people taking and preparing take-out orders while the actual cooking was done on a smoker grill out back. The Mighty Midget moved to its present location in 1987 but eventually closed a few years later. It was reopened in 1996 and continued to operate until 2007 when it closed again. In the meantime, a couple of local entrepreneurs originally from Germany mourned the fact that there was no place to find Turkish-style doner kebab in Leesburg and environs. They launched Hamburg Döner (the adding of an umlaut was a nice Germanic touch) in 2006, selling them out of a converted van in a city parking lot.. The next year they took over the defunct Mighty Midget Kitchen and began preparing meals in the original scrap metal structure and serving them in the adjacent outdoor beer garden or inside at the bar and small dining room. In 2009 the establishment was renamed Döner Bistro.

In addition to its wide selection of traditional German fast food dishes such as Bratwurst, Schnitzel and Currywurst, Döner Bistro’s unique offering is the Döner Kebab, or simply a Döner. Although originally a popular Turkish street food consisting of marinated meat (usually lamb or chicken) grilled on a vertical spit and then sliced and served over rice, the German version (with umlaut), which was created by a Turkish immigrant in Berlin in the early 1970s and which is served at the Döner Bistro, is quite different when you break it down. The meat is tangy with Turkish spices and is served with salad and a German-style herb and garlic sauce and wrapped in a piece of warm flatbread. It resembles the Greek gyro, or souvlakia, which are both served with pita bread, but the Döner is an altogether different eating experience.

Snow was piled up around the entrance when we arrived and it was still a bit chilly to eat outside in the beer garden so we chose to sit in the tiny bar where we ordered our meal and enjoyed one of the many German beers available on draft and in bottles while listening to German techno-pop and watching the news about the revolution in Cairo. I chose one of my favorite beers, a Warsteiner Pilsner, and we chatted with a young fellow from Hamburg who was working the bar and who took our order. I told him I had never had a Döner before. I guess I had encountered and eaten them when I was traveling in Turkey and just assumed they were gyros (I was not into food back then like I am now). He told me that it is the number one fast food in Germany. Now I lived and studied in Germany in the early 1970s and I have traveled there several times since, but I had to confess that I had never heard of it. I thought I was familiar with the standard fare found in the ubiquitous Schnellimbiss [fast food joint or snack bar] throughout Germany, but I guess the Döner had not yet reached my stomping grounds in southern Germany before I left to return to the USA. Since my visit to the Döner Bistro I have spoken with friends in Germany and they have confirmed the overwhelming popularity of the Döner. Now I know. Better late than never they always say.