The West Side

The house at 156 Powhatan, as it is today.
(Originally published March 26, 2018)

156 Powhatan Ave. A single family residential home, three bedrooms, one bath, just under 1500 square feet on a 5663 square foot lot. Last sold in May, 1984 for $58,500. Now apparently valued around $40,000. Central air. Some things have changed.

If you look at this house today, located in Columbus, OH’s Westgate neighbourhood, you see a nondescript home with light grey siding on a nearly treeless lot (see the photo above). But as I remember it, the siding was golden yellow, the address written in cursive as “One Fifty Six” and the front yard was dominated by three massive Chinese Elms, which produced tiny leaves that my father would curse every autumn as they clogged the gutters.

For most of us, our world begins in the first home we remember. This was mine. My room was on the second floor, windows facing east and south, always filled with sunlight in my memories, but at night, sometimes strange shadows would play across my walls. The bathroom, with its green, thick carpet, bathtub with sliding glass doors, and metal carpet tackdown that once split the back of my head open as I ran across the hall to watch Walt Disney World, was the first door the left at the top of the stairs. What we called the den–the small third bedroom–was across the hall, and my parents’ room, with its window-unit air conditioner–was at the end, right next to the built-in linen closet where many mysteries lay. In a nook in the center of the hall, the phone–white, with a rotary dial. Downstairs, sliding my hand along the smooth bannister, the living room with its beige sculptured carpet and fake fireplace, the huge console stereo with its supply of Glenn Miller and Boots Randolph records on the way into the kitchen. My little craft table (sometimes a place for goldfish or red eared sliders) lay nearly at the center, across from the bottom drawer full of crayons and paper and paint chip cards and scissors and Mucilage and coloring books. Some might store potatoes in that drawer to nourish the stomach; what lay in there nourished my creativity. The dining room, through the door, with its hutch with many more mysteries and the little desk full of stamps and tabbed address books and discarded envelopes, and then round about into the living room again and out the door onto the screened-in porch, built right into the house, cool and shaded on hot July days. Or, take the steep stairs (under which lived Christmas trees) down to the basement, where old musty furniture clustered around the furnace in the middle, and two storage rooms with wooden doors held still more mysteries. You could roller skate down there, around the furnace, past the washer and dryer. I did.

The yard held not only those towering Chinese elms, it sloped down steeply to the curb, creating a hollow in which a five-year-old might pretend to be a bunny. Beside the steps up to the front door grew an immense evergreen bush with red berries and a hollow interior, which a five-year-old might pretend to be a house. There was another such house in the backyard, an immense lilac bush which dripped with fragrance in the late spring, about the time the peonies bloomed, first producing fat round buds where ants scurried before erupting into huge pink and white blossoms too heavy for their stems, always around Memorial Day (where we would pick them and put them in a glass jar to take them to Greenlawn Cemetery to decorate the graves of relatives.) Along the back perimeter, morning glories grew unbidden along the chain link fence that separated the alleyway, large blue and smaller purple and pink ones. There was a garage, with two black Raleigh bicycles and later a green Schwinn tandem, and a spot with two tracks for a car to park, first occupied by the latest Oldsmobuick, and then later by a swingset. There was a large swath of blacktop and a long driveway, where a three year old might ride a trike, a five year old might ride a hippity-hop, and a seven year old might ride a Big Wheel. There was a forsythia bush by the garage, and gravel behind where my parents once kept beagles, and a spot for tomatoes on the far side of the yard.

Our street was a lively place. There was a best friend next door named Kelly (and her brother Kevin), another friend across the street named Eileen (who had an aunt her same age named Cathy and a younger brother), and a friend across the alleyway in the back named Diana who sometimes visited her grandparents who I might summon with a “bird call.” There might have at the beginning been another friend two houses down from Diana named Sherry, but something happened to her, something bad. (I never knew what.) There were other kids–the Suver boys, and Mark, who was a couple of years older than me, and Annette (who was hard of hearing) down the street. One year, we threw our own Fourth of July parade, with a drummer, a majorette, girls in colonial dress, and a float on a wagon with the Statue of Liberty. Our next door neighbor on the south side was Mrs. Morris, who was like the kindly grandmother of the entire street, and who used to ride an adult tricycle.

In kindergarten, my mom took me to school, a sprawling elementary a few blocks away called Westgate. Kindergarten was full of me sneaking peeks ahead in our workbooks because I had already begun to read. It smells minty in my memories, like craft paste. My teacher was Mrs. Brandenburg, but she left not long into the year and was eventually replaced by Mrs. Johnson, who was one of only three black teachers I would ever have. In first grade, I got to walk to school by myself (along with my friend Kelly), a distance of a little over half a mile, perhaps 15 minutes’ walk. Mrs. Saunders taught me in the first grade. I remember my best friend in the class, a boy named Richard, would explode with me into peals of laughter at absurd things like learning to write the letter “m” (“a hump and down, a hump and down”) or the word abacus (which we thought was applekiss). I won a Donald Duck swim ring at his birthday party. I had a crush on Tommy Pisenski, as one does. I bought pencils emblazoned with names of NFL teams at a coin machine in the front hallway of the school. I joined the Bluebirds, which was the Camp Fire Girls version of Brownies, in the second grade, and went to my first slumber party at Marci Hinton’s house. My teacher there was Miss Bahorek. My report cards show an exuberant child, who sometimes had issues doing neat work and with listening or interrupting others, particularly when I knew the answer to a question and wanted to share. I took over the Current Events bulletin board in the classroom, already a news junkie at the tender age of seven. Miss Bahorek would get me to file things to keep me busy. I was not shy, although reading was already clearly my best and most favorite subject. My world had included the branch library on West Broad Street from a very early age, where I was already perusing the shelves with chapter books in the first grade and checking out as many as I could pushing to win the summer reading club competitions.

The radius of my world was barely over a mile and a half wide. The streets closet to our house were all named after Indian tribes–Huron, Algonquin, Powhatan, Sylvan–and had their southern terminus in Westgate park, which had trees and a fishpond and swingsets and a recreational building where I once took a class on making coil pots. A little further south was Sullivant Avenue, where Mom got her hair done at Casa Bella (still there) and we sometimes ate out in what we called “The Little Restaurant”, also known as Haldeman’s Steakhouse, with its ten or eleven booths. You could also catch the Mound Street COTA bus for a special adventure and go downtown, perhaps to visit the enormous Lazarus store there. Much further west on Sullivant was the Burger Chef restaurant, where my mom would sometimes take me over the lunch hour at school, and then the Super Duper and Minelli’s Pizza.

Strung along West Broad Street going east were, first, the Marathon gas station at the corner of Broad and Sylvan, where Bill Spires would pump the gas to fill up the grey Impala and check our oil and clean the windshield with a squeegee, and maybe hand us a commemorative glass for the Olympics or the moon landings. Across the street, the Jolly Roger donut shop and the UDF, where dipped ice cream and milk were to be had, or you could go to the Open Pantry just east of there, across from Josie’s Pizza. A little farther on, just past the furniture repair place, was Dr. George’s office, where I first experienced nitrous oxide. Just up from there, the library, and Hoge Memorial Presbyterian Church, a beautiful Gothic revival building with gorgeous stained glass, where I sang in the choir wearing a white robe with an enormous blue bow, and loved sitting in the balcony and using the hand fans with their fold-out Biblical scenes. It was just a little west of Haney’s, the drug store with everything, and the Big Bear grocery with its downstairs variety store. A little farther than that on Hague Avenue was the nursery school I had attended before starting school, run by a lady known as Aunt Orpha, where my friend Rhonda had first told me what a fart was. A little farther north along the same street was the Hilltop Pool, a massive swim club with the shallow areas along the north side, gradually sloping deeper and then suddenly dropping off into the diving bay. Before I learned to swim, I nearly drowned there–an older boy pulled me out of the deep part when he saw me struggling. I can’t remember what happened immediately after, just that it didn’t apparently scare me.

If you went west from my house on Broad St., you passed under a railway underpass to Great Western Shopping Center, where the Camp Fire girls painted the store windows every year and held a parade. It also had Lee Wards, a craft store full of wondrous breakable things. My mom used to tell me a story about Johnny, who was a bad boy that broke a plaster statue in the store but was caught by the security guard and tried to blame it on his good “big sister” (who I clearly identified with.) But there were also fun things–beads, and paints, and balls of yarn that my grandmother crocheted into colourful granny squares–black with rainbow vivid colours. In the second grade, I went there with my mom and grandmother and picked out my very first embroidery kit, and the needle has never since been silent. There was a pet store there, too, called Pet Store, where a calico cat picked me out in the first grade, not long after we had given the dog, Candy, who had grown larger than me (she was part St. Bernard) to my cousin. My mother was dubious about cats (having grown up with the barn variety), but soon there was another cat, a Siamese, that she picked out. Just up Wilson Rd. was the Pat Hammond School of Dance, where I took ballet and learned to love recitals, with their sequined costumes–oh, the joy the day the costumes arrived, that distinctive smell of satin and tulle, and of seeing myself transformed into a dancer. The recitals were always at West High School (not far from the Big Bear), where we would get to see all of the other classes, particularly the older girls–the twirling classes with their electric blue leotards and glow-in-the-dark batons, dancing to the Theme from Shaft, the epitome of cool.

Just a little further west on Broad was Ding Ho, the Chinese restaurant where my parents had been eating when my mother experienced her first signs of labor. I loved Ding Ho, with its multiple fish tanks filled with pagodas and goldfish, its Chinese lanterns, and unusual habit of serving white bread with meals. I loved that bread, especially in my picky eater days before I discovered the joys of egg rolls and sweet and sour pork. Down the street some more, past the General Motors Fisher Body plant where my mom had once worked, was Westland Mall, not yet enclosed, with its funky swirled courtyard fountain and a Lazarus, a Sears, and a Penney’s.

That was the west side of Columbus in the early 70s–Westgate, part of what was known as the Hilltop. It was my universe. I barely knew an outside world existed, until suddenly, in the summer of 1975, we left it all behind and I moved to Upper Arlington. But it never left me. In our new neighborhood, there were no nearby kids, even though we lived across the street from the school. There was no ice cream store to walk to, no restaurants we had been going to my whole life. There was no park teeming with kids. The streets were quiet –so I could learn finally to ride a bike, rather than simply sitting on the tandem behind my mom–and empty. In school, I found out the neighborhood where I had lived was looked down upon. People from there were mostly working-class. They didn’t join the country club or have college degrees. They wore clothes their mom made, not expensive store-bought things. The mean kids called it the Hicktop. I did not fit in to this new world. I was always the only kid who had come from the west side. That move that I had done? It just didn’t happen.

But while we had abandoned it, Westgate never abandoned me. The kind, exuberant child who once rallied her friends together in the second grade to wash a swear word written in chalk off our playground was subsumed by the quieter, more studious girl who channeled her exuberance into the world of books. I never again was part of a neighborhood gang of kids, but I had been once, and it taught me what such groups could do if unencumbered by needless competition or one-upmanship. But having moved, and found myself alone, I also learned to listen, to work independently–at first because I had few friends, but then later, because I discovered my inner life. I doubt my parents realized how fundamentally moving away would alter who I was becoming, but at the same time, it is to their credit that I never turned my back on or disdained my roots in the face of snobbery. Westgate was the foundation, the center of my universe, where I had first began to erect the structure that would become my life. Those walls were shaken to the core when I moved for the first time and destroyed, and rebuilt, and then remodeled and rebuilt many times, but somehow that foundation endures to this day.

I have returned, over the years, to the house at 156 Powhatan Ave. I have seen the great towering shrubberies that I once pretended were houses torn out and replaced, and the screened porch glassed in. I have seen the gold siding changed for grey. But for many, many years the giant Chinese elms endured–until one day, after a few years away from Columbus, I drove by and they were gone. The house that I began my life in, as I knew it, thus passed entirely into memory. The foundations, though, yet persist.