Regarding Columbus, Ohio

Alexa, play "How I Got Over" by Mahalia Jackson

Why Columbus? I can usually hear the question coming a few sentences before it arrives. People, old friends and new, Twitter followers and digital passersby, journalists interviewing me about my new book, want to know. To say nothing of proud Ohioans. And, obviously given the concept of this newsletter, I enjoy talking about my joy. So, whenever asked (and okay, often when not asked) I happily rhapsodize about the town I up and moved to this September after living in New York City for almost a decade. I go into “I swear no one is paying me to say this” mode. “Why Columbus?” you ask? How much time do you have? The thing is, my explanation is always iridescent, taking on the color of the person asking as well as my mood and the moment itself. The answers are legion and varied; the answers are all the truth. And so, this one is for Columbus and all the colors of why.

Because, about a year ago, I was suffering from the worst depression I’ve experienced in years. The city was wearing me out; my job was wearing me out; America was wearing me out. And that was before I heard Dr. Christine Blasey Ford say “indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter.” That was before traumatic memories decided they weren’t quite done with me yet. Though therapy kept me from totally spiraling, I was starting to get really worried. With time, close friends started to get worried too. I was drinking and partying not to have a good time but to forget, to erase, to obliterate. “How do you feel when you’re wasted?” my therapist asked. “I don’t feel anything,” I answered. “And I love it.”

Because, seemingly overnight, the vibrant energy of New York City became the relentless and expensive anxiety of New York City.

Because, in October 2018, I visited Columbus, Ohio for work. One morning, I left my hotel and walked into a McDonald’s to get a breakfast sandwich. My mom used to get sausage biscuits for us on Saturday mornings. Sure, it should concern me that, all these years later, the meat product and bread product taste exactly the same. But how much are you willing to pay for a taste of a bright memory? Anyway, I walked into the McDonald’s and a group of old black men sat at a table, reading newspapers, drinking coffee and laughing. Deep, black laughter. Hearty laughter. The way black people laugh in Toni Morrison novels. When they saw me, they let their chuckles settle and said “Good morning, young man” almost in unison. I smiled and politely nodded. The young man at the register was just as warm, just as black, as was his coworker. I remembered then that Toni Morrison was from Ohio and thought “black people have been happy here for quite some time.”

Because, quiet as it’s kept, black people are everywhere and if you don’t understand that, you don’t understand America. 

Because later that day, when I told my best friend, Isaac, about those smiling black men and that bright black morning, I looked up from my phone to see him staring at me intensely. “Saeed, people are gonna be real up and thrown when you move to Columbus.” I laughed; he simply smiled. Our friends know our joy when they see it. Often, I think they recognize it before we do. “How do you feel when you are wasted?” “I don’t feel anything. And I love it.” Back in my hotel room that night, I started looking at real estate websites on my phone, stunned at the rental prices in Columbus.  

Because I know what my misery is capable of and will never underestimate it again.

Because, in August, for the first time in my adult life, I was able to choose which apartment I wanted to move into. Which is to say, for the first time in my adult life, I had options. Great options. Because in September, I moved into the nicest apartment I’ve ever lived in and I pay $1400 a month for rent. Because the first month was half off. Because the building has fancy amenities. Because my neighborhood is hip and fun and really gay and really walkable.

Because the thing about capitalism is that, often but not always, the more money you pay for goods and services, the more you’re treated like shit for paying so much for those goods and services. Conversely, as I’ve quickly learned in Columbus, sometimes when goods and services are more affordable, you are treated better while paying for those affordable goods and services.

Because when I say “Columbus is really gay”, I mean queer people walk down the street here holding hands. Because when I say “Columbus is really gay”, I mean we fuck a lot and are having a great time and the bartenders pour heavy at Union and drag queens are everywhere and we deserve all of this and more. Because, once, I was eating lunch in a café and a drag queen walked by in a gold glittery gown and gold glittery platform shoes and it was barely noon. Because it was a Tuesday.

Because the flight to Columbus from New York City is just over an hour. Because that’s easier and less complicated than the trip to Fire Island.

Because Hanif is here, writing and happy. Because Eloisa is here, writing and happy. Because Maggie is here, writing and happy. Because Dionne is here, writing and happy. Because those are just some writers and poets I’ve befriended in the month I’ve lived in Columbus. Because I’ve already fallen in love with three different bookstores in Columbus. Because one of them is just a few blocks from my apartment and knows my name and makes me feel welcome.

Because I can afford to support myself as a writer in Columbus.

Because my aunt has lived in Cincinnati for nearly 30 years and now she can drive over on the weekends and laugh with me while we drink wine.           

Because I grew up in Texas with football culture and, growing up, that culture terrified me and made me feel incredibly unwelcome. Because Buckeye fans are wildly earnest and excited and nice. Because tailgating is fun. Because going to night games is fun. Because I’m hopeful we’re closer to a future in which the NCAA is forced to pay these athletes. Because I already own at least four OSU shirts and I’d like to think those players deserve some compensation for the joy and millions of dollars they’ve generated. Because I’ve decided to reclaim this culture for myself.

Because when I yell “O-H” and some stranger yells back “I-O” and we burst out laughing with pride as we go on about our day, it’s not just about college football or the famed “Columbus nice” culture, it’s about knowing that — seemingly against all odds, against the most antagonistic parts of my self — I have yet again made a home for myself in this burning world. And when I say “this is my home,” my home says “you’re damn right.”