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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Cincinnati Journal

New Beginnings, Old Friendship

The drive from Chicago to Cincinnati, Ohio, takes about five hours. Estelle and I did the round trip every fortnight when we founded, edited and designed a community newspaper called India Tribune in 1977. Thirty-two years later, I navigated the Dan Ryan Expressway to the Chicago Skyway to get to Interstate 65, the highway that cuts a southeasterly direction through Indiana into southwestern Ohio. The last time I’d driven the route was in 1987, just before we returned to India, when we drove to the East Coast and stopped at the various places we’d lived including Cincinnati.

Twenty-two years later, I still found my way into the city and crossed the bridge over the Ohio River into Kentucky. I was headed to Maysville, a pretty little town on the bank of the mighty river. My friend Yuri always says to me, “When was the last time you did something for the first time?” Well this was a first. As I pulled into the steep driveway that took me down to Elisabeth’s place, I hummed an old Tin Pan Alley song made famous by Duke Ellington: I’m Just a Lucky So-and-So.

Let me explain: I’ve made it a point to look up old friends all over the world. In the process, I’ve found all of my good friends, going back all the way to the 1950s and re-established connections. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as new bonds in old friendships. Elisabeth was our dearest friend when we lived in Cincinnati in the mid-1970s. She had an elegance that could launch a thousand ships. We were smitten by her. For me personally, she was a turning point in my world view. She came from an old wealth Cincinnati family. As such, she was the object of Liberal derision in a discussion at which I was present. The majority seemed to feel Elisabeth’s views were inconsequential because she was of the Establishment. This was at the height of the liberal-conservative polarization in America. Woolly-headed leftist though I was in those days, I found myself springing to her defense.

In many ways that was my turning point. I realized that for all the free love and drugs, the Woodstock generation was not about to change the world as promised. It was then that I began to change from a Liberal to a liberal. The lower-case liberals were more inclusive; the capital-letter ones were every bit as prejudiced as the rednecks that were the targets of their ire

With the Ellington song playing on my lips and these thoughts buzzing in my head, I got out of my car into a fond and long embrace with Elisabeth. When we disengaged, she introduced me to her husband Orloff, a delightful man with varied interests. Their home is a piece of heaven, not just because of the sweeping vistas of the river but for the warmth and comfort it exudes. We sat on the porch drinking scotch and catching up. By the time, we finished dinner all of Kentucky was fast asleep; on our part we squeezed every minute for every second talking and it wasn’t just about the old days.

Among the many things we talked about, there was one distressing note. Elisabeth said that after 1995 through the turn of the century, Cincinnati became a race-troubled city. Apparently, in the period, many young black men were killed by policemen or died in police custody. Things boiled over in 2001, when a white police officer shot and killed a 19-year old black man. In April 2001, the city was paralyzed as riots broke out in the downtown and surrounding areas. The violence continued for five days.

“That’s when we decided to move out of the city,” Elisabeth said. It must have been wrenching. Her family ties to the city are well known and highly respected. In many ways, despite the piece of heaven she now lives in, Elisabeth’s story had the undertones of displacement. And I thought to myself that the uprooting of such a distinguished family from a city of grace and manners was something to regret and lament.

In the end, these turned out to be desultory thoughts. Three decades later, Elisabeth is still as pretty as a picture and as gracious and elegant as when I first met her. It is easy to love her as we did in the 1970s. For myself, I am glad to catch up with her again. The best new beginnings are of old friendship.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2009