A stand-up guy doing stand-up comedy: an interview with an amateur comic

I met Rew Johnson in passing a few years ago when he lived with a friend of mine. My friend told me that Rew was moving to Dayton to pursue stand up comedy more seriously. Seeing someone go for it wholeheartedly is always inspiring, and I thought it was incredible and really cool that he was so invested in his craft. Stand up comedy is an art form I’m not terribly familiar with, so I was curious to know more about how it works and about the ins-and-outs of the life of a burgeoning comic. I re-met Rew when I moved to Yellow Springs, and he was nice enough to submit to an interrogation that I had been waiting years to do.

I’ve done hundreds of stand up sets. I did it for eight years. I was probably on stage between one hundred and two hundred times per year. I was just living for it. You do comedy and there’s nothing else. I’d drive and do a show in Louisville on a Wednesday night, then I’d drive home and get in at three or four in the morning and have to work at ten. Then I’d go to Indianapolis the next night. I’d work so I could pay to do comedy.

I did theater growing up and loved the stage and the attention and the rush that you get. I also loved writing growing up. I always thought I was going to be a writer. But in stand up, you’re the writer, you’re the performer, you’re the whole deal – you don’t share the stage with anyone else. It’s a selfish medium. You have to have a bit of an ego to even think about doing it.

The first stand up I started watching in high school were specials on Comedy Central, and this guy Mitch Hedberg really made me laugh. He piqued my interest in stand up, so then I started listening to other guys, like Steve Martin. I ended up doing stand up my junior and senior years of high school at my high school’s talent show.

My material in high school was terrible. (Laughs) It was bathroom humor. I had a joke about skydiving for the first time. [Evidently this is a corny topic. – DTL] I have it recorded on a VHS tape, and I watched it about two years ago. I couldn’t even sit through it.

I didn’t win the talent shows but a week after my senior show somebody sent me a $50 check and told me to keep going. I graduated high school in May of 2006 and got on stage at an open mic for the first time in June, at Wiley’s in downtown Dayton.

I’ve heard other comics use this analogy, but it’s like, starting a career in stand up is like going back to kindergarten, and it really takes ten or twelve years to become a decent stand up. I really do mean decent; I don’t mean skilled, I mean passably good. And after that, you’re going to college. So when you’re watching guys like Louis CK or Bernie Mac or Bill Burr and everyone’s like, I love this new guy, no, that guy’s been out on the road for twenty years.

When you start doing open mics, you need five minutes of material. In the early years, you try to build on those five minutes until they become fifteen. If you can write well enough and fast enough, you get into situations where you are billed as ‘featuring’ that night, where you do twenty- or thirty-minute sets. Then you build a long enough set from there and you’re headlining, doing forty-five minutes or an hour-long set.

The general rule amongst comics is that you open strong and end strong. Almost every set, my first joke was the same joke. I’d change it up in the middle. I’d change it up if I felt like doing something different, or if there was something I wanted to work on, I’d put it in the middle. But you always end those last five or ten minutes with something that you know will make people go, ‘that dude was hilarious’ when you get off the stage.

I’d say I kept about 60% of the jokes I wrote. But when you’re doing stand up so much, you start to get tired of your jokes pretty quickly. That’s a good motivation to write more and keep being creative. But I’d also have a joke that I’d been doing for two years and then for whatever reason find three more minutes to add to it. That’s what’s really cool about stand up – your act is constantly evolving. A joke is never really finished. There’s no final brushstroke you can put on it.

I gauged what jokes were funny or not by just doing it as much as possible, and watching jokes die. (Laughs) There is a lot of in the moment trial-and-error. I don’t think you ever get used to it. Cause you can have a joke that works 99.9% of the time and for whatever reason do a show and watch it fall on its face.

When you’re trying to do something you’ve worked so hard on, something that you really love, having a roomful of people look at you like you’re an idiot – that’s pretty hard. The thing about stand up is that you can have a set where you totally dominate and you’ll be on that high for two or three hours, enjoying it until you go to sleep. But you have a bad set and you’ll be thinking about it for three weeks. That’s another part of the reason I think so many comics are messed up mentally – it’s self-abuse. You put yourself through that – it’s necessary for the art form but it’s incredibly self-abusive.

It’s like Jerry Seinfeld said – people’s number one fear is public speaking; number two is death. He says, given the choice, at a funeral you’d rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy.

I could usually tell within the first thirty seconds how the whole show was going to go. I had many shows where I thought it was going to be great, and as soon as I walked on stage I knew it was not. Or vice versa. I was chain-smoking and pacing and not wanting to go up, but for some reason you go up there and you kill it.

I think the real beauty in stand up is that you rehearse the material and you rework it and rework it, but there’s always those nights where it’s magic; everything flows together and it’s a moment, like jazz, and then it’s gone. Those moments are special. That doesn’t happen very often. You can’t anticipate it.

The longest I was on stage was an hour and forty-five minutes. It was just a show at a bar in Columbus and I was just…on fire. I was just killing it. For whatever reason the circumstances were right. I wound up riffing on stuff going on in the room. At one point I looked at my watch, like ‘how long have I been up here.’ I thought it maybe had been an hour but it had been an hour and a half.

It comes down to the audience. I think comedy audiences are maturing, but they view comedians not as artists but as trained monkeys. That translates to what they expect to you, like ‘make me laugh.’ Some people go to a comedy show and they don’t want to hear your opinion. They just want to hear you talk about, you know, the differences between men and women or whatever.

Those subjects can definitely be hackneyed material, but at the same time, they are universal truths. “Men and women are different” – someone’s got a new take on it and can make it funny. But there are hackneyed jokes, like when am comic says “I hate having to listen to my girlfriend,” and does an impression of her voice for a long time. Thousands and thousands of comedians have done that joke, but there’s always somebody who’s going to put a fresh spin on it. Drug jokes are another topic like that – it’s easy to make people laugh if you are talking about getting drunk or smoking pot. “Oh, I was so drunk I acted like an idiot hahaha.” But Louis CK has a bit about getting high that he did on a comedy special a few years ago, and it’s hilarious.

I was unique in that my family was incredibly supportive. My parents came to quite a few of my shows. I did meet a lot of guys unfortunately whose parents are like, why are you wasting your time? Go get a job-job. I can’t even imagine [how difficult that is] – it’s already hard enough being a comic.

Stand up is definitely therapy on some level. I definitely treated it as therapy sometimes, which can be good and bad. People who have the greatest sense of humor also have the greatest insight into the darkest and most painful areas of life. That’s why you can sit in a room full of military vets and hear them joke about the most morbid stuff. What they’re doing is coping. It’s the same thing with amputees – I’m an amputee – and I’ve made jokes with other amputees that people might grimace at but to me, it’s…a joke.

When I was writing well, I was writing about stuff that I cared about and usually stuff that I cared about was stuff that really irritated me. Like, I had a roommate that ended up being completely racist, and living with him for a while ended up becoming a ten-minute bit that I had. And I wrote it in about three minutes; I was just that impassioned. It just came out of me.

By the end, I stopped writing – I would have an idea in my head and just walk around my kitchen and basically talk through it and find the tag, or the punchline, and build on it. That process, instead of sitting down with a piece of paper, caused me to write material that sounded more natural and not just packaged and ready to go out.

It was also a lot easier to remember. Rather than writing something down and treating it like it was a monologue from a play, if you talk it out, you’re talking the way you talk to your friend on the street. Because it came more naturally, it stuck to your brain a little better.

One of my favorite shows was at a thrift store in Cincinnati that was owned by this couple. We had shows there for about six months. We didn’t get paid but they would make us dinner. We had a blast – it was a room full of forty college kids in what was basically a Salvation Army, watching stand up.

Another one of my favorite memories is the time I got booed off stage. (Laughs) I have it on video somewhere. It was really early on when I started doing stand up, and I was doing this Andy Kaufman kind of character. I was basically playing a fifteen year-old boy who was trying to tell jokes. The audience didn’t understand the character; they really thought I was a fifteen year-old boy. And they booed me off stage. (Laughs) The best part was that I came to the club dressed as this character and stayed in character this whole time. I get booed off stage and the owner of the club comes up and gets on stage and yells at the audience, this one table in particular was doing it, and he yells at them like, ‘you guys should be ashamed! This kid was trying his best!’ etc. He ended up kicking out like seven people. (Laughs) I watched that happen and kind of felt bad because he probably lost money. I came up to the owner after the show was over and was in my normal clothes at that point and apologized to him. I said, ‘I’m really sorry about that.’ He said, ‘no, it’s alright, you had nothing to do with it.’ And I said, no, I did, that was me. He said, don’t worry about it. And I said, no, that kid in the hat – that was me. And he looked at me for like five seconds and was like ‘dude, get out of here, I don’t want to talk to you.’

Success in stand up is fifty percent merit and fifty percent networking, taking chances and making opportunities and booking gigs. I’ve gotten a lot of opportunities to work with people I really look up to. Some of my heroes. Two guys that have since made a name for themselves – Kyle Kinane and Hannibal Burress – I had a chance to open for them. In terms of a comic’s career, they were both pretty damn successful when I met them. And both of them introduced themselves by their first names to me. I shook their hands and didn’t say it, but I was thinking to myself, I know who the hell you are. They treated me like a human being.

I’ve also worked with guys who’d been doing stand up for twenty or twenty-five years and never caught their break. They were just bitter, and had an arrogance to compensate for their own insecurity about not being successful. But that’s the nature of the game. I mean, comics are just people – some of them are nice, some of them are jerks.

In all the shows I’ve done, I can probably count the hecklers I’ve encountered on two hands. For the most part, they’re really easy to handle. It becomes hard when they’re just an idiot and completely wasted and they just refuse to shut up. But in a club setting, if the club is run well, the staff usually handles it. Sometimes people would just say things in the middle of a show because they’re enjoying it so much, and it wasn’t really a heckle. I never had a problem with that, as long as it wasn’t through my entire set. And sometimes it led to really great opportunities for riffing on stuff.

I think stand up has definitely made me more assertive overall. When you’re talking, you think about what you want to say, even if it’s only for half a second. At some point during my years of doing stand up, the connection between my mouth and brain streamlined itself. I mean, I would say something on stage in response to somebody and I’d think, where the hell did that come from? I’d have to play it off but I’d be thinking, that was awesome! (Laughs)

Long term, I didn’t think stand up was what I wanted. I’d like to have a family and all that stuff some day. You can make a living being what they call a ‘road comic.’ You’ll have a home base but be on the road forty, forty-five weeks out of the year, driving or flying to different clubs. Some comics can do it, but I didn’t want to have kids and be on the road ten months out of the year. You either have to do that or move to a large city, and I didn’t really want to do that either. And I didn’t want to spend all my time in bars.

As a comic, you’re self-employed, you’re your own business. You’re always doing open mics, trying to get on stage as often as possible, trying to work on your set. Starting out, I definitely did a lot of show for free drinks. There were definitely nights where you’re like, I drove three hours last night to do a show to three people for no money and I had a horrible set and now I’m tired at work – why am I doing this?

But I don’t regret doing it. I basically had an eight-year-long adventure. Traveling as much as I did when I did was neat. And so was getting exposed to different people in our country. And those last two years, I was definitely getting paid more often than not. For every bad memory, there are a thousand good ones. I did one set in January this year. I was surprised at how easy it was to jump back into it.

Part III: “A Quarter-Inch of Chaos” – at the 2015 APWA Southwestern Ohio Snow and Ice Removal Conference

This is part III of my upcoming nonfiction novella chronicling the goings-on of a small Ohio township. The book is structured around the agenda of a township trustee meeting I attended, whose many topics gave me some insight into the complex world of local government and the even more complex world of the personalities behind it.

The book, aptly titled “Township Trustee Meeting,” will be available soon.

Snow and Ice - Plows

Section 4 on the Sept. 9 agenda was a partial list of the correspondence and email the trustees had received since the last meeting. Most items – like the Ohio Township News magazine – were glossed over, but Chris Mucher paused to note the email confirming the township’s registration for the 2015 APWA Southwestern Ohio Snow and Ice Removal conference. The conference is a biannual affair designed to help local governments manage the inevitable hazards of winter.

“Put on your best snow boots,” Mucher said.

The 2015 conference, hosted by the American Public Works Association and held in Sharonville, Ohio, 50 miles away, was to feature speakers from road departments from all around the state. The showroom would feature over a dozen shiny new plow trucks and pieces of equipment, as well as a number of other vendors plying relevant trades, such as custom municipal sign-making and pipe repair, offered by a company which applies a proprietary sealant to the inside of busted pipes. (“We only do what the pipe tells us it needs,” says the company’s slogan.) The keynote speaker of the conference was Diana Clonch, a thirty-year public works veteran who is now a successful freelance winterization consultant.

“Any questions, Mark?” Mucher asked.
“Nope,” Crockett said.

The other trustees quietly avoided comment when registration was confirmed, lest they be roped into going as well.

It was Mucher who typically made the trip to the conference, and Dan Gochenouer, the cemetery sexton and a road crewman, usually went with him. Neither Gochenouer nor Mucher were particularly excited about attending. It wasn’t that the conference was totally boring, Gochenouer said, but that it wasn’t especially helpful. Attendees usually have to sit through a few hours of presentations to get a few minutes’ worth of usable information, he said. The presentations usually consisted of guys from around the state talking about how they solved a problem or adapted equipment to the needs of their jurisdiction. While Gochenouer could appreciate their ingenuity from a professional standpoint, the lessons didn’t always apply to the needs of Miami Township. A speaker from Franklin County (which includes Ohio’s capital Columbus) discussed strategies needed to deal with its 770 miles of roads: around two million gallons of anti-winter liquids annually and the use of semi-trucks to spray. Miami Township, on the other hand, has less than fourteen miles of roads and three trucks, a fleet occasionally augmented by citizens who attach plows to their personal vehicles.
The first official road in Miami Township was laid out on March 3, 1822, though there were several “so-called roads” before then. Michael A. Broadstone writes that the roads improved year by year, and most were “at least graveled” when he penned his History of Greene County, Ohio in 1918. By 2015, the township had exactly 13.43 miles of roads, almost all of them paved.

Road maintenance is within the purview of the trustees, a duty that includes everything from filling potholes to maintaining culverts to full-scale winterization. Each spring the township develops a road budget based on the work anticipated for the year, prioritizing repairs on the worst roads and any new equipment that needs to be purchased. The township fleet was three trucks (two of which have dumping capabilities), one 26 year-old panel van, and a handful of tractors and lawnmowers.

Road maintenance is an ongoing project, and one that occasionally requires help. Trustee Chris Mucher said that sometimes neighboring Bath Township, which has a paving machine, will do a little work in Miami Township in trade for help with their needs in the future. Once in a while the county will determine that part of a road now lies in Miami Township, which may add to their mileage-based clout but also means that the township is responsible for maintaining that much more road.

Road repair requiring equipment the township doesn’t possess is contracted out to the county. Miami Township works with neighboring municipalities work together to make what is called a “collective bid” for their collective asphalting or resurfacing needs. Participating jurisdictions add up what needs to be done – a half-mile stretch here, a few hundred square yards there – and submit a report to the county, who contracts the work to a company as one job. Doing it this way allows municipalities to save money, as everyone getting work done at the same time splits the cost of mixing asphalt and dispatching trucks and police.

Miami Township also has the dubious distinction of hosting the first vehicular accident in Greene County. Lodrick Austin, a stagecoach driver, was killed when his coach overturned on Clifton Gorge Road in 1836. Austin is buried in Clifton Cemetery, and his tombstone features a horse and a coach, which honestly seems a little insulting.

Though vehicular accidents are of course a fact of life in Miami Township, the fact that none of the township’s roads permit speeds over 35 mph means the severity of an accident is usually pretty low. However, low speed limits or high, cars are no match for the wiles of nature. Like everywhere else in Ohio and across the United States, accidents occur in Miami Township with greater frequency in the winter. Snow and ice are indiscriminate perils, and all it takes is a small amount of snow, “a quarter inch of chaos,” according to a presenter at the AWPA conference, to throw a city into bedlam.

As little as a quarter inch of snow means erratic drivers, slick roads, and asphalt breaking apart as water freezes and expands. The prospect of this quarter inch of chaos also means a significant amount of preparation by the township. Salt has to be stockpiled, and later mixed with beet juice or turned into slurry to be more easily spread on roads. The township’s trucks, with their spreaders, sprayers, and dump buckets, almost certainly require maintenance. Potholes need to be filled, and bridges need to be inspected.

Regardless of season, road maintenance is a complex obligation. Though Mucher and Gochenouer were seasoned township veterans, there was always something to learn, couched as it may be in a day’s worth of presentations. It is because of this potential for helpful information that the two attended the 2015 AWPA Snow and Ice Removal Conference.
Gochenouer and Mucher met at the Township’s fleet garage to leave for the conference at 7am on September 29. They were both early.

They didn’t get into one of the township’s work pickups but into Mucher’s golden Chrysler minivan. “The Muchmobile,” as Gochenouer called it. Mucher said his van was frequently the de facto work vehicle as most of the township’s vehicles only have two seats. The Muchmobile crunched on the gravel and wound its way through the township to the highway.

Mucher didn’t have much experience winterizing cities when he became a trustee in 1996. He ran a video rental and film development business in Yellow Springs for over twenty years, before digital film and video streaming proved the “ultimate fatality” for his career. However, when he was still in business, he struck up a friendship with the guy who ran the hardware store across the street. The two would have coffee every morning, and they developed a mentor-mentee friendship. Mucher was interested in becoming more involved in the community, and the hardware store owner encouraged him to apply for a recently vacated trustee seat. Mucher submitted an application, had a few interviews, and was offered the position. It proved to be just what he was looking for, a “low impact political job” that carried a lot of responsibility but still left him time to run his own business and spend time with his wife and three kids. Once in office he read “every page of meeting minutes since 1934,” attended conventions and seminars, and read the Ohio Revised Code front to back. Mucher has been reelected every four years since then. Now he is able to talk about winterization both fluently yet dispassionately, the hallmark of an experienced professional.

Gochenouer has a perpetually sunburned neck, a moustache, and a Leatherman on his belt that he could readily employ in many different ways. He exuded hands-on experience of the kind that only a lifetime of fixing things can foster. Gochenouer’s tenure working for the township preceded Mucher’s. He was working part time until a long-time employee retired, allowing him to become the number two road crewman.

On the way to Sharonville, the two discussed other trade shows conferences they’d been to and whether or not free lunch was included. It wasn’t always. Registration for the 2015 Snow and Ice conference cost $35 per person but at least included lunch. The topic settled, the two lapsed into a short silence. The day was grey, chilly, with a steady rain. The heater hummed and the windshield wipers squeaked.

Conversation picked back up again a few minutes later.

“You working on that dandelion quote?” Mucher asked.
The abundance of dandelions in the township had to be dealt with.
“Some people eat them,” Gochenouer said.
True, Mucher said. And some people make wine out of them too. Then both admitted they weren’t sure which part of the dandelion was used for the winemaking process.

A little while later, Mucher indicated a passing belonging to Jurgenson Asphalt Co.
“There are your friends,” he said.
Gochenouer nodded.
“They’re the best,” he said, nodding with sincerity.

He would know. Gochenouer said he came from an asphalt background. For one, he has spent a lot of time driving on it, he joked. But more seriously, he said, he started working on an asphalt crew right after high school, one of the many labor and construction jobs he’s had from an early age. His dad always made sure he was working on different projects and was comfortable around all kinds of machines. The idea was that his skills and experience would ensure he was always employable. “If you’re not working, it’s because you don’t want to,” Gochenouer said.

A truck driving erratically on the highway prompted the mention that he’d also been a truck driver. He’d driven for twelve years, five of which were long-haul and required him to spend up to seven weeks on the road at a time. He lived in his truck, thousands of miles away from his family and home.

“You’d sit in a waiting room and they’d call your number when a shower was ready,” he said, recalling old truck stops. “The shower was free but you’d have to rent the towel.”

But it wasn’t all bad, he said. Sometimes he’d be on a layover for a few days before linking up with a series of deliveries that would take him back towards home. On these furloughs he and his fellow truckers would go out and explore whatever city they were waiting in. Gochenouer recalled the beauty of California in particular, and the fun of sitting behind the Hollywood sign drinking beer. He’d been run out of Beverly Hills once, he said, for not looking the part. A cop came up to him and asked him what he was doing. “I said I was just looking,” Gochenouer recalled, “and the cop said, ‘Well, you looked yet?’”

Snow and Ice - trucks
Forty minutes later, the Muchmobile pulled into the conference center parking lot. It was the lone minivan among rows of work trucks with maintenance department insignias. Inside the conference center were the trucks’ drivers, approximately three hundred men with closely cropped hair and goatees. Cellphones were universally clipped to belts, and neon t-shirts were worn in numbers rivaled only by those at an actual construction site. Sixty-five municipalities were represented at the conference, making it “pretty sizable for a local AWPA conference,” according to one organizer.

The conference was only one day long. The morning was divided into four 45-minute sessions. One of the sessions was earmarked for attendees to check out the showroom, but the other three sessions were presentations. Attendees were divided into four groups and rotated through the sessions. Mucher and Gochenouer were in Group 2, meaning that they went to the showroom first.

The conference organizers set out donuts and coffee. Both men took a donut and looked at the trucks. They were shiny and gigantic, but ultimately outside the needs of Miami Township. The township’s road budget for 2015 was approximately $50,000, and one of the middle-grade trucks cost at least twice that.

One company offered their services quantifying idle time. A rep said she did a study of one muncipality and found the time its vehicles spent idling cost the city around $50,000 each year. Plow-route optimization would lead to less idle time, and she could figure out how to optimize plow routes.

Mucher and Gochenouer made their rounds. Despite the entreaties of the sales reps, they left empty-handed.

The next two hours and fifteen minutes were dedicated to presentations. Mucher and Gochenouer sat in these sessions, polite but expressionless, casually listening for those few minutes of valuable information. Though a cell phone would occasionally go off (one ringtone was a very loud duck-quack) and at least one sleeping attendee could be spotted during each discussion, attendees were privy to much information, as a county’s snow and ice removal concerns are many:

Plows tend to throw snow onto the front of trucks, obscuring visibility and blocking air intakes, which can lead to overheating. Excess salt can cause to ‘salt burn,’ which damages agriculture and kills trees and leads to a ‘brown out’ when spring comes. Plow routes are based on continuous right hand turns, which is why a representative from Centerville maligned the town’s many cul-de-sacs. Plow teams are often on call for grueling twelve-hour shifts, though this is better than working for sixteen hours at a stretch, a schedule that employees “can’t really plan their lives around.” Sometimes, the ground will be so cold that even after the air temperature rises, rain will freeze shortly after impact. What is the proper mix of chemicals, salt, and water for slurry? Is salt brine or beet juice more effective? When and where are belly plows most useful? Is chloride-treated sand the best deicer for gravel roads? Are the township’s trucks calibrated properly, and are they actually putting out what their gauges say? “One thing we’ve been wrestling with for years are standard truck plugs,” said a guy from the Ohio Department of Transportation. Everyone in the audience laughed and nodded. “How many of you have replaced mailboxes?” another speaker asked. Almost everyone raised their hands.

The application of liquid deicers vs. solid salt is an ongoing debate. Liquids are better at getting roads bare but solid salt is more effective in warmer temperatures. (Both methods are said to have problematic environmental impacts.) A guy attending from Michigan related how he came back from his first conference with all of these crazy ideas about liquid spray. “My coworkers thought I was stoned or high,” he said. “They wanted to send me to get a drug test!” Rob Crimm from Morgan Township said his department “was just now getting into liquids.” They realized that mixing liquids or sometimes even sand with salt will help stretch their resources.

As Gochenouer predicted, the discussions didn’t offer universal solutions for these problems but presented the clever ways in which winter emergencies were addressed. Auglaise County faced the problem of equipment not mixing rock salt – “grit,” as the presenter called it – well enough into brine. There would still be large patches of ice on the road after it was dispersed, so he and his team retrofitted an asphalt hopper to mix it. The upgrade cost Auglaise County about $31,000 but now they mix 40,000 tons of salt brine per year and even rent out their salt mixing services, charging neighboring counties and agencies $13 per ton. (A fairly standard amount, he said.) The speaker also showed pictures of the custom beet juice tanks his department built for $600 each.

Diana Clonch’s roundtable was one of the four sessions, and she’d spent the morning spitballing with employees. She applauded the imagination she’d seen at the conference. “The more we learn, the more we know how to step outside the box,” she said. “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

Clonch was tall and broad-shouldered, and her long black hair was draped over her shoulder in a thick plait, like a military sash. (She was the past president of the OPWA Board.) She spoke simply but animatedly, like someone used to public speaking. She seemed friendly and successful, the likely demeanor of someone with degrees in civil engineering and business.

“Do not be ashamed to steal your neighbor’s ideas,” Clonch advised. “We’re all working together in the snow and ice community.”

Sometimes friendly rivalry between neighboring counties was a good thing, she said. Plowing a road cleanly all the way to the county line awards bragging rights when you can see the neighboring county hadn’t gotten to it yet. But more seriously, she said, working with other jurisdictions can be very beneficial because collaboration increases efficiency and saves money. After all, at the heart of it, it’s all for the benefit of the people that live there.

Snow and Ice - lunch

Clonch’s session was the last of the four for Group 2. The attendees walked straight into the two long lines of the lunch buffet. Hamburgers, baked beans, chicken, and macaroni and cheese. Plates full, they filed back into the showroom and sat around large folding tables. The tables were in turn surrounded by the trucks on display. It was like eating in a garage on the job.

Mucher and Gochenouer sat with a half-dozen guys, exchanging small talk. Not much more could be said. Anything they could say to each other on the topic of snow removal had likely already been covered in one of the earlier sessions, or had been part of the pitch rattled off by a sales rep. At this point, the conference was about as exciting as eating lunch in a garage that looked like the garage they spent time in every day. The Miami Township contingent decided to cut out after lunch, skipping Clonch’s keynote speech (“Doing the right thing at the right time”) and the recognition of the 2015 Excellence in Snow and Ice Control Award winner. They’d seen enough throughout the years in Miami Township to have a handle on what they had to do in the coming months.

They walked back to the Muchmobile silently, Gochenouer carrying a can of soda. They knew that, should some surprise crisis pop up, each could be counted on to address it with the professionalism that is an evident part of their bearing. Gochenouer was scrappy and smart; Mucher was thorough and direct. They’d been through two meetings’ worth of irate neighbors – what was a quarter inch of snow?

Update, Spring 2016: the winter of 2015-16 proved not to be that bad. Mucher said the township used about 25% the amount of salt normally used, they didn’t have to pay for outside plow help, and there were no significant vehicle repairs.

Interview with a Bean Sprout Proprietor

IMG_20150818_165826600.jpgRandy – Co-Owner of Spring Valley Farms, Xenia, Ohio – interview conducted August 2015

Randy has been growing bean sprouts for more than thirty years. I helped him with some roofing on one of the buildings on his farm, not knowing what kind of operation he had going. When he told me he grew nine thousand pounds of bean sprouts per week, I was floored. How does someone grow four and half tons of sprouts per week? What kind of operation is needed to grow such an niche product? How would one even get into the sprouts business? He was kind enough to let me interrogate him about the business of sprouts, and this is what he had to say:

In 1982 I was just getting out of the Peace Corps. My dad had bought a farm wanted to do something with property. So we decided to go into business together. He bought the farm originally to grow grapes but that didn’t pan out. At the time, we thought that to really promote your wines you had to have a festival, and that would mean you had to bring thousands of people here for a wine tasting. It was a major thing that we didn’t want to do. So we built a greenhouse and started growing herbs, tomatoes, watercress, European cucumbers. There was an emerging market for hydroponic lettuce so we started growing lettuce hydroponically. Every year we added a greenhouse and pretty soon we had 20,000 square feet of produce.

We sold produce wholesale. There’s a big produce market around, especially in Cincinnati because of the river. There’s an established warehouse district there. We knocked on doors and did cold calls. We were supplying the Meijer chain for a while. And then one of our alfalfa sprout growers lost their supplier and wanted a replacement and asked if we knew how to grow alfalfa sprouts. We didn’t but of course we said yes anyway. (Laughs)

We tried to build our own equipment and grow sprouts in the greenhouse, but it just didn’t work out. Months later we bought the right equipment and did it the way it really needs to be done. The alfalfa sprouts are grown in a large rotating drum. You add water and light, and they green up after a few hours. You load in about 80 pounds per drum, and you get about a 10- 15:1 ratio after about five days. They were used primarily for salad bars, sandwich shops.

The green sprouts (alfalfa) business declined. A lot of the chain grocery stores dropped green sprouts – the green alfalfa sprout has an inherent problem with salmonella and E.coli. The structure of the seed has more crevices for bacteria to hide. We got out of alfalfa ten years ago but alfalfa sprouts led to us see the market for bean sprouts. The bean sprout market is pretty good – a lot of Asian markets and grocery stores.

Bean sprouts are a highly perishable product so there aren’t a lot of growers around. They can’t bring a decent bean sprout in from another state without paying huge shipping costs, so it favors the local grower. You want to get them sold within two days of harvest, and they need to be consumed within 10 to 14 days. I think the distributors we use ship in some sprouts from Chicago and I know there’s a grower in Columbus, but he only has a few sales in Dayton.

The process we use is unique to bean sprouts. The equipment we have is specifically for growing them. We’ll load up 110 pounds of seeds in a 3’ x 4’ x 4’ bin. The bean seeds themselves come from China. I don’t know why – maybe they grow the best beans? The bins are in a dark room and we spray them with water every two hours. We do a test and send it to a lab in Cincinnati twice a week to test for E.coli and salmonella to make sure the product is safe. We have a recycling system that cleans 80 percent of the water we use. The beans sprout on the bottom and push successive layers to the top. Kind of like they’re in dirt. On the sixth day of the process, we process them, package them, and put them in a cooler. We ship them on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. We sell about 9000 pounds per week. It’s an amazingly big market. (Laughs) And that’s just the Dayton and Cincinnati area.

(Let me interject and say that a bin full of fully sprouted sprouts is totally surreal – the bins are four feet tall and are completely, completely packed with sprouts. You can reach your hand in and it’s this weird tangle of dense but loose sprouts with seemingly no end. They are so dense that you could probably walk on them. The bins are in a dark, damp room, and standing on a bucket and peering over the top into a bin and seeing an ocean of yellow-green fibers makes for a really odd sight. Not to mention that if you opened the vertical door on one of the bins, a few hundred pounds of sprouts would avalanche out and cover you in their watery, earthy essence. Maybe I’m just used to seeing them in small cartons in grocery stores, so the sheer amount of sprouts in one place is hard to process, not to mention that this is just one of seven bins.)

It’s been a nice business. It’s profitable, the market’s consistent, and it grows. But it takes a lot of commitment. Someone has to be here every day to check on them. We have alarms for malfunctioning pumps In fact, the most catastrophic event we experienced was when the computer that controls the watering cycle broke down last winter. I had to come in every two hours for a whole week and push the watering server bar over the bins by hand. I had help doing it during the day but I had to stay overnight every night and get up every two hours to do it. That’s the thing about small businesses – you make enough to survive, but a lot of times you don’t make enough to pay a manager to take responsibility for things. (Laughs) The responsibility comes back to me.

I graduated from college with a degree in Zoology. I had never even tasted sprouts before we started. In the Peace Corps I was raising fish – it was a kind of farming, but I really had no experience with growing. I learned my business sense along the way. Raising sprouts isn’t something I ever saw myself doing, but isn’t that how most people end up in life – not really doing what they thought they were going to do?






Out of Something, Nothing: My Summer as a Professional Mover, part VI


That I complain a lot about my fairly trouble-free life notwithstanding, what did I ultimately learn from my summer as a mover? I’m not sure. Maybe to make sure you tip your movers but know that they probably said things so offensive that you’d weep if you heard them? My thoughts on the default goodness or evil of human nature tilted in favor of the latter after seeing that verbal and physical violence can be so easily provoked, but in reality people are prone to be jerks regardless of job or lot in life. Moving is just another stage on which the often sketchy human drama plays out.

Relatedly, however, also came to learn that sometimes a job is just a job. A job doesn’t always yield some sort of fascinating insight. You get up, you go to work, and you to do what you’re told. Sometimes there isn’t much room for a job to be much more than the duties that comprise it, especially in a let’s-get-this-done-as-fast-as-possible profession like moving. My assignment as an embedded writer made me want to take up a different hobby.

And it’s precisely because of these sorts of demands that workers are so demoralized and psychotic. It was depressing to see yet again the utterly impersonal nature of business. Most of the employees were considered totally replaceable and treated accordingly. How much dissatisfaction and struggling to get by does it take before a person does something outrageous in an attempt to combat the drudgery? How much dignity can be taken away from someone before he bullies his coworkers in an attempt to feel he has power as a human being? And what if you are bound to stay in such an environment by necessity? In short, how much moving can one man take?

To me, the essays in Studs Terkel’s books function as a kind of vindication for situations that seem to be devoid of hope. The books convey the tenuous hope that there is a reason you spend years doing an ostensibly unglamorous job, that your story deserves to be recorded. You have to try to make work meaningful to contend with the fact that you are forced to do something you might not like for the majority of your life.

I tried keep this rationale in mind while working as a mover and toxic mold remover and factory line-worker. It wasn’t about trying to work my way up a ladder but to try to carve out a work-life free from boredom and resignation. The unpleasant misadventures of moving were the price I figured I had to pay to stave off becoming a part of the regular nine-to-five society. At least the jobs would be something to talk about, something to make it feel like I wasn’t compromising my mobility, my spontaneity, my sense of adventure just to abide by the lifestyle dictated by the Man.

But I’d also worry that I was constantly reassuring myself I was doing a good thing. Yes, I was trying new things, but after a day of moving I would often be grumpy and unhappy and have to completely zone out to decompress, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted that bitterness to be a consistent part of my life.

About a year after I quit moving I found myself working in a run-of-the-mill office. Every day I went to my cubicle where I did the same few things. Truthfully, it was a step up from moving. I could take breaks whenever I wanted, I had a set schedule, I had three weeks of paid vacation and inexpensive health insurance.I was trusted to work by myself, and my unit’s boss even bought us a French press when I complained about the coffee at every meeting. (The “coffee” was the discharge of a machine that pumped boiling water through a can of coffee-flavored syrup.) My coworkers weren’t violent muscleheads; a disagreement we had about global warming ended peacefully when a coworker suggested in earnest that instead of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, money would be better spent on developing nuclear-powered cars.

The office was entertaining and weird and eye-opening for a while, but it too quickly grew stale. One day we were called to a meeting where my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss – no joke about the ladder of bosses – flat out told my department that our position at the company would never change. We would never be given more challenging work and we would certainly never earn more money. I appreciated their honesty but I was shocked that they were so sure of our immobility that they had nothing to lose by telling us we would be staying put.

Point made. I’d always wanted to do maintenance, and fortunately a job came available in that field right at the height of my desperation to leave the office. (My desperation was such that I even called the moving company to see if they were hiring.) I was introduced to the atmosphere of my new workplace when a coworker told me he didn’t have headache from drinking but from “eating too much pussy.” His tasteless non-sequiturs encapsulated the obnoxious yet strangely compelling madness that would be the next eight months of my life. Onwards and upwards!

Have I doomed myself to a life without professional fulfillment by not focusing on something I really like, or am I livin’ free by seeing the world, employment-wise? Did the complex emotional turmoil of my summer as professional a mover help answer this question? I still haven’t come to a definitive answer, but I’m sure insight will come with the next job, or the one after that.

Out of Something, Nothing: My Summer as a Professional Mover, part V


It wasn’t uncommon for homeowners to give away outrageous stuff that didn’t have a place in the new house. One family gave away not one but two enormous old-school big-screen televisions. (“Big Boys,” in mover parlance.)  Customers gave away gaming tables; others gave grills, chairs, desks; others gave away furniture whose sheer size cancelled out any question about its quality. As a result, a lot of the movers had become de facto experts on home furnishings. It was hilarious to hear curse-ridden debates about the merits of one brand of easy chair versus another. Tough dudes were constantly bragging that their houses were better furnished than yours.

It makes sense that the amount of time working around furniture is proportional to one’s knowledge of furniture. The same can be said of the irascibility of the average mover relative to time worked. Essentially, the longer someone was a mover, the grumpier he’ll be.

There were a handful of people that had been with the company for at least eight years and had earned the right to act like it. They approached everything you did with an extremely critical eye. They’d worked with every kind of employee, and they were justified in not wanting to work with people who weren’t going to pull their weight.

On my first day, I was shown that the proper way to work is to pick something up and move it as quickly as you can to the truck. Like, run-with-it quickly. You’d then hand it to the guy packing the truck (if your crew was big enough to have a packer) or stash it yourself, and then run back into the house to grab more stuff to run right back out to the truck. Running was the routine all day, every day.

When I worked with a couple of veterans for the first time, I learned that you move the largest, heaviest, most unwieldy pieces with the same speed. I was practically pushed backwards down the stairs carrying a bookshelf and I tripped over my feet as I was driven along by a washing machine shoved into my chest. That was just the way they worked, and if you didn’t want to get on their bad side, you had to learn to move as quickly and nimbly as they did.[1]

This approach served me well later when I moved myself or helped a friend. Picking up a box and running with it was reflexive. My brother’s roommate still talks appreciatively about how quickly her move went when I was there to help, though she also still laughs at the sight of a guy frantically running around the property with a series of large boxes.

One coworker was unphased by the work of a house mover because he had just transferred from an outfit that exclusively moved pianos. We were (un)lucky if we moved a piano once every couple of weeks, but this guy dealt with multiple pianos on a daily basis. Working with pianos every day definitely didn’t make it easier, he explained, shuddering. Pianos were pianos. He was a nice guy by nature, but his good moods and enthusiasm were endearing because he legitimately appreciated that he was now moving a variety of things.[2]

One guy I actually really liked was from Boston, and I had the good fortune of being assigned to work with him pretty frequently. I liked working with him because he didn’t care about what anybody thought, not in an overly tough kind of way but because he couldn’t be bothered to be bothered by anything he didn’t want to bother him. He was short and thick and had a crew cut. He boasted a few scars and his rough n’ tumble mug was made handsome by his bad boy charm. His speech was peppered with a bunch of New England slang and he said he’d been to prison, but he mentioned this in a way that was free of bluster or yearning for credibility. Being in prison was a life experience just like any other. He was a pretty matter-of-fact guy.

Having someone open up to me about the fact that he was at one point in – gasp! – jail was flattering for its implied trust and because it also satisfied my voyeuristic interest in the prison experience. Feelings of my own toughness were made a little more tangible by the fact that we were driving around in a truck talking about it and smoking cigarettes. He noted that I smoked “rollies,” as I was rolling my own. I silently freaked out over the term, and I immediately began using the term among my friends, really casually like I’d always called them that. (I’m not a smoker, but in keeping with my obsession with being a real workin’ man, I smoked a few packs that summer.) He told me about prison smuggling operations, work-release programs, and inmate cliques. He told me that he had briefly taken up writing in prison and had produced forty pages of a crime novel. He hadn’t picked it up after that and didn’t seem to have much interest in doing so, but the manuscript was stashed somewhere in his house.

BUT there is the possibility that he wasn’t in jail at all. Some of the things he said were prison stereotypes of the kind that can be picked up from any TV show. For example: prison chess matches. He said he watched the archetypical bookish prisoner play against ten people at once, and he’d inevitably win all the games. He also told me with a straight face about the dinners he and his fellow inmates cooked, which were apparently the stuff of legend. Everyone had a specific function – one guy took care of the pasta, one guy cooked the sausage, and the guy in charge of the sauce had this technique where he would shave garlic into paper-thin slices with a razor blade so they would dissolve in oil. I was quite familiar with this scene as it appears exactly as he described in the movie Goodfellas, which was released in 1990 to widespread acclaim. I don’t know if he thought I hadn’t seen the movie or if he was somehow “testing” me to see if I would call his bluff, but I acted like it was true.

When a good conversation was underway, I could tell he knew it. The occasional look of appreciation would be exchanged, quickly followed by the sarcasm typical to male bonding. Sometimes it was hard to tell if his sarcasm was friendly or a way to tell me to shut up without actually doing so. I was always on guard that I was getting on his nerves. I had a good thing going with someone and I didn’t want to blow it. Sometimes we’d ride in silence for a while and I’d wonder if I’d been too eager to talk but then he’d bring up the aggravating traits of a coworker, and we’d bond again over our mutual annoyance.


[1] New people were told that anything they broke came out of their paycheck. You were encouraged to be careful by the possibility that your entire week’s wages could vanish in a second if you accidently dropped a TV. In reality this wasn’t true. The company’s insurance paid for any damages. Good thing because at what we were paid, compensating someone for something expensive would have taken months. The only thing I ever broke was a huge mirror that I propped up poorly inside a truck. The client brushed it off as a no big deal but his mom made sure that it was replaced by the company, not that it was especially valuable but why wouldn’t you want to get a free replacement or a small check?)

[2] How moving a piano works: For small pianos, like the kind in your grandparents’ house, you bring in a four-wheeled piece of plastic or wood to sit the piano on. You have to pick up the piano to set it on the dolly, but you can at least wheel it once it is secured. Sometimes we’d make a ramp and wheel the piano on the board down the steps, but this was only if the steps weren’t steep. A lot of times people had pianos on their second floor, where the only way to move it was to pick it up and carry it down the steps. (You’d have to take care not to let the spindly legs sticking off of the keyboard get caught on anything.) For grand and baby grand pianos, you’d bring in a padded board that looks appropriately like the backboards used by ambulance crews. You unscrew the piano’s legs – one person unscrews while two tilt the piano – and then flip the piano ninety degrees onto the piano board. The piano is strapped down and then lifted onto a dolly or – surprise! – carried down the stairs.

Quaint Vituperations: the Glen House Inn Controversy

Miami Township map overlay bwBelow is the first section of a forthcoming nonfiction novella that chronicles the goings on of a small township in southwestern Ohio. I was sent to cover a township trustee meeting as a reporter for an area newspaper. Although nobody from the public normally attended those meetings, this was in particular was a hotbed of controversy and drew a dozen or so irate citizens. A rogue bed and breakfast was making waves in a neighborhood, and some neighbors wanted it shut down. The anti-B&B neighbors had a list of complaints against the inn that they said stretched back years.

However, a number of the B&B’s neighbors were friends of the owners and supported what the B&B was doing. The neighborhood was divided into cranky adherents on both sides, and the following trustee meeting was attended by pro-B&B neighbors refuting the points made by the first. To the neighbors, depending on what the trustees decided, the township was either tyrannical or ineffective.

While this may not sound like a riveting thing to write about, it was. The nature of the dispute and the personalities involved are fascinating, and the ways in which they clashed are hilarious, aggravating, serious, and quaint, all at the same time.

And this isn’t even taking into account the rest of the evening’s meeting, which involved everything from unknown remains found in an old cemetery to a visit to the Ohio Snow and Ice Removal Conference. My upcoming novella, logically titled “Township Trustee Meeting,” discusses life in the township, from its history of burial mounds and murders to the storied careers of the township trustees who have taken it upon themselves to steer such a multifaceted ship.

Quaint Vituperations: the Glen House Inn Controversy

Trustee Mark Crockett is a man who speaks deliberately, delivering each phrase with the ponderousness of a court justice who has all the time in the world. He sat in an equivalent posture on the evening of September 9, slightly reclined in his chair behind the table at the head of the room, fingers interlocked over his belly. He looked out on the room with equanimity, observing the proceedings and taking them in.

Crockett, like the other trustees, was in an interesting position. He had lived in the area with his wife for almost 40 years, owned a business, and was otherwise just a man around town. But he, like the other trustees, made decisions on behalf of his fellow residents.

Neither Crockett nor any of the other trustees had previous experience holding political office. Spracklen was a farmer, Mucher used to own the area’s video store, and Crockett is a jeweler and guitar player. (Though Mucher was an in-law to the DeWine family, an Ohio political dynasty.) But civic management skills were picked up on the job, and the public had trusted them enough to reelect each of them multiple times.

However, President of the Miami Township Boards of Trustees Chris Mucher looked around the meeting room warily on September 9. He could sense tempers were a little high, and so the outcome of the evening would likely make some proportionally serious waves. Any decision made is bound to offend someone, and in the case of the first portion of that evening’s meeting, any official position would offend at least half of an entire neighborhood.

The meeting began shortly after 7 p.m.

Mucher stood up and introduced himself and the rest of the people at the table: fellow trustee Mark Crockett, Margaret Silliman, the financial officer, “number one road employee” Dan Gochenouer, Miami Township Zoning Inspector Richard Zopf, and StepIMG_20160505_164722337hanie Hayden, the Greene County assistant prosecutor, who had been called in specifically to give her interpretation of the B&B dispute.

Mucher’s right hand stayed in the pocket of his khakis as he gave a referee-esque preamble to the proceedings.

“In our opinion, the board of trustees is the bedrock of local government,” he said. “It’s the place where the balance begins between the rights of the property owner and the rights of society. Sometimes it gets a little messy, but I assure tonight isn’t going to be messy. It’s going to be polite and dignified.”

The balance between the rights of the property owner and the rights of society were indeed going to be discussed. The meeting was the latest skirmish in an ongoing battle between a bed and breakfast and the neighbors it reportedly annoyed. The anti-Inn neighbors, the Concerned Circle Citizens (CCC), sat in the front row and nodded. Their de facto spokesperson brought with her a folder full of stapled documents to prove the soundness of their position. Nobody in favor of the B&B was there, as pains had been taken to avoid telling them the topic was going to be addressed at the meeting.

On the surface, the debate may seem a bit droll: how often does a quaint B&B drive neighbors mad? But such charming disputes are practically written into the township’s DNA.

An odd bit of Ohio Code allows the average residential homeowner to run a B&B out of her home with little official oversight.[1] In fact, a number of area residents were taking advantage of this allowance. Miami Township encompasses a number of picturesque hamlets, including the village of Yellow Springs, a progressive small town full of art galleries, a tourist destination most appropriately served by quaint B&Bs. A bumper sticker claims the area is “2.2 square miles surrounded by reality,” and the area’s pastoral vistas suggest this may be the case.

However, Crockett said most people who live in Miami Township just want to be left alone. The presence of a B&B in a quiet neighborhood a few miles outside of Yellow Springs was said to be aggressively challenging the desire to live unmolested. The Glen House Inn, located in a quiet neighborhood a few miles outside of Yellow Springs, was accused of hosting dozens of visitors and large-scale events like weddings, self-help workshops, and Solstice vigils, a far cry from the romantic (and manageable) couples who usually patronize B&Bs. The excess noise and people “undermined the quiet integrity of the neighborhood,” as one neighbor put it, and another said he never would have moved to the neighborhood in the first place had he known the Inn would so loud. Negotiations between the sides had deteriorated, if they were ever civil at all. Both sides accused the other of being obstinate and dishonest, and both accused the township of not acting with consistency in enforcing its laws.

As such, on September 9, the parties sought a definitive interpretation of code. Was the Inn operating legally or not? Should the Inn be found in compliance, the neighbors would just have to deal with it; should the Inn be found in violation, the B&B would have to scale back its operations, a change the owner said would ruin him financially.

Prosecutor Hayden was there to give an official interpretation of the law, and to offer suggestions about what steps could be taken to square everything with code. Throughout the meeting, her face held a look of intelligent skepticism, the fiercely judicious look of someone professionally capable of seeing through bullshit.

The crowd murmured, eager to get started. Richard Zopf, the wild-bearded township zoning inspector, tried to look relaxed while knowing that the whole room was eager to blame him for their troubles. Gochenouer, the road crewman and cemetery sexton whose official business didn’t have anything to do with the crowd, folded his hands and smiled faintly.

Genesis of the Dispute


Grinnell Circle, where the Glen House Inn is located, is a ten-minute drive from the MTFR building. Down Corry Street, past a nature preserve and a stable of therapeutic horses, is Grinnell Road. A left turn on Grinnell takes the visitor down a sizable hill and onto a road overlooked by the colorful buildings of a recently revamped wastewater treatment plant. A few miles further south and the visitor will come to a noticeably bucolic setting, a clearing with stone walls and an old mill with water wheel set among hedges and trees. The Glen Circle neighborhood is back in this splendiferous idyll.

Glen Circle is a collection of homesteads grouped around an acre of common area. Some neighbors have gates; some have none; most have a decent amount of money. Eric and Deirdre Owen, the owners of the Inn, spent $700,000 to build a large house on the Circle in 2005, largely because of its regal charm. Both grew up in Yellow Springs, and wanted to return. The house is based on a dream home they sketched on a cocktail napkin in Europe many years before.

Owen is in his late 40s, thickset, unkempt in a way that speaks for consistent productivity in his pursuits. He’s a kind of wheeler-dealer, active in the art world and owner of a few properties, including part of a hotel in small-town Michigan. He was thrust into bed and breakfast ownership when he had a falling out with the partners of a company he founded 25 years before. He took a year’s salary and retired, but quickly recognized the money was not enough to sustain him forever. He knew he had to do something to secure his retirement. A beautiful house was at his disposal, and he decided to turn it into a B&B. The Glen House Inn’s website was up and running within thirty days of his decision. He said it was the only way to save the house.

In the interest of being open about his plans and in order to get a permit to follow through with them, Owen met with the Board of Zoning Appeals in July 2011. The BZA overhears building plans, checks them against zoning code, and questions prospective builders about the effects the construction will have on the surroundings. All BZA meetings are open to the public, and citizens are encouraged to attend and weigh in with their concerns. Anti-Inn neighbors came to the BZA meeting, anticipating the B&B would be trouble, and wanting to register their reservations.

Both sides grant some kind of tenuous agreement was reached regarding the operations of the Inn, but none of the claims about what was said can be proven, as the official record for this meeting has disappeared. Video of any BZA meeting would ordinarily be available through the local cable access station or on a DVD at the library, but the master recording could no longer be found, and the person who took notes at the meeting no longer worked for the Township. Ultimately, Zopf recalled, “there was no reason not to grant Owen a permit,” as Owen’s plans seemed kosher.

With the impression everything was on the up-and-up, the Owens opened the Glen House Inn. Guests lined up to rent its five spacious rooms, lounge on its patio, appreciate the impressive art collection, and swim in its stream-fed pool. The whole Inn is bathed in that tranquil, sunlit green characteristic of 18th century paintings. It’s an objectively beautiful location, and business was steady.

However, perhaps because of the bacchanalia such locations induce, neighbors said their concerns about disturbed peace were immediately proven correct. Catering trucks parked on the berm of the already-narrow road. Fireworks – “nice ones, like you’d see in town” – were said to have almost hit two houses at 12:45 a.m. Guests playing in the pool were too noisy. One resident said he was unhappy with unknown people lurking in the neighborhood, and described a recent occurrence where a car circled around the neighborhood before parking at the Inn.

“Why would they do that?” he asked. “I think it’s a safety concern.”

(The Owens maintain that some of these events happened once and never again, and that the neighbors have been referencing them for years. And people drive on the road, Owen said, because it’s a public road.)

The neighbors maintain they complained to the township and the county, to no avail, for at least four years. But in 2015, action was taken after the Inn’s busted septic system began stinking up the area. The ghastly effluence was definitely coming from the Inn, one neighbor said. “A lot of sniff-testing confirmed it.” The Greene County Health Department investigated – they have jurisdiction over septic systems – and deemed the septic system completely inadequate for the amount of people the Inn hosted.

By this point the Owens had moved back to Michigan and the operations of the Inn were being managed by a live-in caretaker Jody Farrar and her husband Bill. The Owens and Farrars conceded the septic system was not working and fixed it. Other repairs were undertaken and the Inn continued hosting guests and renting out their facilities at a rate of $5,000 per weekend. The noise was alleged to have continued unabated.

The final straw was when neighbors got wind that Owen was talking about reworking the property into a winery. It was a clever power play, as viticulture is exempt from zoning. A winery is considered an agricultural practice, which Ohio Code explicitly states townships have no jurisdiction over, including the zoning of buildings as part of the agricultural operation.[2]

Owen had no qualms using this possibility as leverage. “I’ll convert it to a winery rather than face foreclosure,” he said. “Then there’ll be hundreds of cars per weekend versus just a few.” (When the viticulture possibility was brought up at the meeting on Sept. 9, Stephanie Hayden wasn’t impressed. “We have a lot of people threaten to open a winery to get zoning off their back,” she said.)

Credible threat or not, the neighbors ramped up their efforts to get the township to intervene, hence asking the trustees to invite Hayden and the neighbors’ collective appearance at the meeting.

At the Meeting of September 9, 2015

September 9 was it. Their big meeting, their big chance for an official showdown. The neighbors were sober and ready to go; partners held hands for encouragement. After his brief opening speech, Mucher introduced Hayden.

Hayden was Greene County’s prosecutor, and by statue, the township’s lawyer, she said. She clearly and concisely explained what roles the various boards and commissions played in the drama. She outlined the process of suing someone over zoning concerns, the difference between civil and municipal court, and the possible outcomes of such a suit. ($500 per day per violation, in one instance.) Her elucidations were illustrated with examples of other problematic zoning cases. “One guy was a junk property owner, an outdoor hoarder. We disagree what the definition of ‘junk’ is,” she said.

She then asked the neighbors to present their case.

“When did these problems start?” Hayden asked.
“First of June, 2011,” said the head of the CCC immediately.
Her ready answer prompted laughs.
“We’re on top of this,” the neighbor said.

The CCC enumerated the violations and complaints that plagued the Inn since it had opened. And not only was the Inn hosting many more guests than was legally allowed, the CCC spokesperson argued, but the Owens didn’t even live in Ohio, which meant that the Inn wasn’t owner-occupied, which meant that it wasn’t even technically abiding by the B&B guidelines set out in code.

Hayden listened to the neighbor’s complaints with total concentration, her body involuntarily twitching when she heard a particularly egregious violation. The neighbors were very thorough. “You’re the best witnesses I’ve ever had,” Hayden said. Her assessment was obvious: the parameters of what is officially acceptable, for bed and breakfast and everything else, are plainly spelled out in the Ohio Revised Code, the Ohio Administrative Code, Miami Township Code or any of the other official regulations used by a county or city agency. These laws are indisputable, and she was clearly baffled that the Inn was still in operation at all. Her expression also hinted at her feelings as a human being annoyed by other humans who think they’re special.

All things considered, Hayden said it made sense to convene representatives from all agencies involved in the dispute and file a formal complaint against the Inn. She suggested giving the Inn a “fill-in-the-blanks violation of notice,” a pre-drafted letter the agencies could just fill in with the violations they’d inevitably discover. Hayden and Zopf agreed they would pay the Inn a visit in a few days. The trustees sat back in their chairs with evident relief. A decision had to be made, and it was.

This decision reached, about 98% of the people at the meeting got up and gathered their belongings. “You’re welcome to stay for the rest of the…” Mucher began, but the attendees filed past him and went back outside. Snatches of their conversation could be heard as the door swung open and closed. The first part of the September 9 meeting had taken one hour and fourteen seconds.

A Visit to the Inn


Entering the Grinnel Circle neighborhood. The entrance to the Inn is to the left; straight ahead is the central common area.

The Inn was apparently subject to intimidation in the days following the September 9 meeting. Someone pounded on door in the middle of the night, and guests reported what sounded like guns being shot off right next to the house.

Things did not improve from there. Five days after the trustee meeting, on September 14, a contingent of county and township functionaries paid a visit to the Inn. The Owens travelled down from Michigan to lead the zoning and health code inspectors on what they thought was a “fact-finding mission” to determine what aspects of the Inn needed to be brought up to code. Instead, Owen said, they were surprised to find themselves served with a cease and desist letter, just as Hayden had suggested.

The letter said the Inn had two weeks from that day to scale back its operations or it would be shut down. The inn could have no more than five guests in its current incarnation, nor could it host any events. It also had to stop its activities as an art gallery (or venue of any kind), as it also violated statutes defining what constitutes a home-based business.

Eric Owen promptly called the Yellow Springs News, as he knew a reporter was at the Trustees meeting and wanted to provide the world with this most shocking update. He and Deirdre and the Farrars and his mother Luisa were sitting outside on deck chairs when the reporter arrived, gobsmacked by the morning’s events. Owen related what happened with the impassioned but disjointed cadence of someone thinking aloud. After a few minutes he paused and held out his lit cigarette.

“Look what they have me doing,” he said. “I don’t even smoke.”

The agencies’ letter effectively meant he would have to turn the B&B into a hotel, he said. In order for the Inn to host the number of guests it had been, Owen would have to install steel doors, fire dampeners, hood systems in the kitchen, and a 150,000-gallon cistern for a sprinkler system in his house, an expense he simply could not afford.

The CCC was basically a “lynch mob” that had their “tentacles” in county and township agencies. This was nothing like the community he used to know, he said. He said Greene County were toadies following the regulations created by and directly benefitting the worldwide hotel industry. Owen’s mother compared the Inn’s situation with the policies of the fascist regime she lived through as a young woman in a prison camp in Yugoslavia.

“Where I grew up, they would kill you for speaking up. If that were the case here, I would still speak up about the Inn,” she said.

But the caretakers got to work making two of the five rooms unavailable. They had to remove an illegal downstairs bathroom and take out some beds as a show of good faith that they wouldn’t secretly accommodate more guests than they were allowed. Jody Farrar said she had to call and tell people they couldn’t have their wedding at the Inn. The guests went from angry to devastated, she said, as some people had already ordered decorations specifically to go with the property.

All of this after the largesse the Inn has shown the area, Owen said, like the free use of the Inn for area cultural affairs and “at least 50 meals and $400 in wine purchased in town” by guests of a recent event.

They’d just have to wait and see if the Inn would still be sustainable.

The Second Meeting – September 21, 2015


Looking toward the Glen House Inn across the neighborhood common area.


Tempers ran high at the subsequent trustees meeting two weeks later. If the previous meeting was noteworthy for its attendance, this one was exceptional. Supporters of the Inn said it was their duty to show up and testify on the Inn’s behalf, as they were deliberately excluded from the previous meeting. The CCC was there to advocate again for their position.

The trustees filed in from the corridor. Trustee Lamar Spracklen wasn’t at the previous meeting, but he was this time. He sat down in his chair and stared out at the room. He looked like a grizzled boxing instructor commanding someone to punch a side of meat, and he had a bandage on his face that stretched from his lip to his cheekbone. His eyes scanned the crowd, like he was just waiting for someone to ask what happened. Gochenouer was at the table, and so were Crockett, Silliman, and Zopf.

Chris Mucher stood up, and with little official township preamble addressed the crowd. There was a slight tremble in his voice.

“If anyone thinks they’re in the wrong place, they’re not,” he said. “This is exactly where you want to be. This is a public meeting of the Board of Trustees.”

The Inn’s supporters were ready to go. A neighbor named Dan Rudolf spoke, lauding the operations of the Inn and saying he was not bothered by the occasional noise. His speech was delivered with an eloquence that bespoke serious conviction, or at least a lot of time rehearsing the delivery. Innkeeper Bil Farrar, tall, with a wispy red beard and long red ponytail, stood up and added his piece. He tried to make the difficult argument that the neighbors were being un-neighborly – a subjective characteristic that was hard to objectively prove, and a point that was difficult to understand because his speech was peppered with phrases like “maybe it’s not your job to promote community” and “losing the opportunity to eat potato salad with the Lithgows[3],” on top of referring to the proceedings as a “plot.” By the looks on the faces of the other attendees, the strength of his case was dampened by the profligate use of these rhetorical illustrations. Nevertheless, their abundance spoke for the seriousness of his convictions.

Owen’s eyes were sparkling with a barely-containable desire to speak. He leapt up. Did the Township know the position he and Deirdre were being put in? he asked.

“We’re basically vagabonds,” he said. “We have no house; we sleep when there are free rooms in the bed and breakfast.” He already worked eighteen hours a day, he said, and now he had to deal with this.

“If the neighbors wanted a gated community, why don’t they just create a gated community?” he asked.

He wasn’t inherently opposed to code, he said, and every time he was asked he tried to square his property with it. But the changes the Inn had to make were difficult to understand thanks the unclear information given by the Township and the fact that county and Ohio codes didn’t always line up. It was tough to tell which code took precedence, he said, but either way, he felt the Inn was being ganged up on.

“I don’t know what club you’re part of,” Owen said.

“I don’t have a club,” said Mucher. “This has absolutely nothing to do with any other department or political subdivision.”

“I mean the club we’re being beaten with,” Owen said.

More testimony was heard from Bob Bingenheimer, who had a letter to the editor entitled “Glen House Closing Shows Worst of People and Government” published in the paper earlier that week, though its incendiary title was changed to something less acerbic. Another innkeeper in town offered her take on the issue, arguing against the necessity of strictly following the owner-occupancy requirement for small-scale B&Bs.

Here trustee Spracklen weighed in. He sympathized with the Owens and told of his own troubles running his own B&B. He is the owner-operator of another picturesque area inn, and his B&B necessarily operates under the auspices of the same township code. Spracklen’s establishment had recently come under fire for serving a breakfast far too large for its permit, and he sarcastically explained how the Health Department demanded significant upgrades to the kitchen.[4]

“Don’t make me laugh or my tape’ll fall off,” he said, touching his bandage.

(A few weeks later he would basically be in Owen’s position, pleading his case to the Health Department and visibly trying to stifle his irritation at their inability to understand why he should just be allowed to do what he wants to do.)

The CCC was there and pleaded their case anew, going point-for-counterpoint with Owen’s. The argument got more convoluted as more people weighed in. There was a circuitous discussion of what defines traffic on the circle, and then a discussion on the nature of socializing itself. Mucher stepped in and gave a ten-minute warning, mentioning again that no real or enforceable resolution would be coming from this meeting, or the next one, or any future meetings. A change to the zoning code required advocating for the change before the Zoning Commission, who would render their expert opinion and eventually suggest a change for the trustees to vote on.

The public debate portion of the Sept. 21 meeting ran for the next ten minutes, and the trustees wrapped it up. There was not much more to say, and little that could be done at that moment. The attendees once again got up and left as soon as the debate session was over, the two sides avoiding further interaction and leaving the building to fume together or in private.

Ultimately, the case added up to this: because the Owens had more than five guests, because it was shown that the Owens are registered tax-payers in Michigan, because the property is zoned residential, and because they didn’t have the appropriate health, fire, and food licenses, the Glen House Inn would have to limit its bed and breakfasting operations to those allowed in residentially-zoned properties. The mandates of the letter signed jointly by the Greene County Combined Health District and the Miami Township offices were not up for debate – code was there for a reason, and that reason could not be selectively enforced, no matter how fascistic or unfair it may seem. There had to be some structure, and that structure was outlined in Miami Township Code.

“That’s the most dramatic thing about being a trustee – whether you like it or not, changes happen,” Crockett said. “Our job is to try to make the best decision for the majority of the people in the community.”

A decision had been reached on September 14, and it stood.

Update, Spring 2016: An article about this controversy was published in the Yellow Springs News not long after the second Board of Trustees meeting. The article presented an overview of the debate and reported on the cease and desist letter, suggesting the Inn was shut down as a result. Richard Zopf was quick to point out was not the case. He wrote a letter to the editor that said the article made the Zoning Inspector look bad and misinterpreted the township’s position. The Inn was not closed down, he pointed out, it just had to stop its violations. He maintained that this was his position all along – all of the suggestions he had ever given, all of the leniency he’s shown the Owens – were all in the interest of getting the Inn in compliance with Code. He, in his duty as Zoning Inspector, was simply trying to follow the letter of the law. He admitted he had been lenient in the time he allowed residents to comply, but no more. He had been taken advantage of by both sides, he said, and from that point on was going to be strict in his definitions of what was acceptable and not.

The Inn reduced its operations within the fourteen days demanded by the letter and has stayed at that level ever since. Its available rooms are booked fairly consistently. (It was determined that the Owens did have residency in Ohio, as the Inn was their registered address and Ohio law does not specify a length of time required for residency.)

Jody Farrar said it seemed like the authorities were trying to cover their tracks in going after the Inn. There are five B&Bs in the area, she said, but the Inn got “dissected” because the health department realized they were supposed to be monitoring B&Bs but weren’t, and went after one in order to save face. Bil Farrar, speaking with his customary grandiloquence, said “the shrapnel rained down and gave us all paper cuts; we didn’t die but we were severely injured.” Owen said members of the CCC have called them and pretended to be someone looking to book an event to see if the Inn would slip up.

In late March of 2016, a pro-Inn neighbor wrote a letter to the editor to be published in the Yellow Springs News. It was entitled “Unintended Consequences: An Essay About Community, a Cautionary Tale” and decried the Township’s decision, saying that all semblance of neighborly cooperation had been bulldozed by the CCC’s intractable opposition to the Owens. The letter ran almost 3,000 words, and the editor of the News said it had to be cut down by about 75 percent in order to be published. The author said she couldn’t do this, the argument had to be presented in its entirety, and she said was willing to pay the full $800 to run the essay as a full-page ad. The staff of the News was unsure about this proposition, as a mockup of the full-page version of the essay looked a lot like the screed of a maniac demanding its publication in order prevent further tragedy. The News was unsure if they wanted to open the paper up to that kind of thing.

Ultimately, Owen asked the well-intentioned neighbor not to go through with publishing her lengthy missive. He had a prospective buyer for the property and didn’t want to dredge up problems associated with the house. As of April 2016, the house is en route to be being sold and will revert back to its first incarnation as a private residence. According to Owen, it just wasn’t worth it to keep the Glen House Inn going.

“I’ve dealt with this same provincial shit before with my hotel in Michigan,” Owen said, “but this was something else.”

[1] 5.308 Bed and Breakfast Operations, under the following conditions:

5.3101 All operations hereunder must meet the definition of Bed and Breakfast.
5.3102 Are operated totally within the principal dwelling and not within a garage or accessory building.
5.3103 Does not have exterior evidence of operation other than one (1) square foot wall sign as permitted under Section 2.14
5.3104 Shall contain no additional, separate kitchen facilities for guests.
5.3105 Shall provide one (1) off-street parking space for every guest room in addition to the off-street parking otherwise required for the principal structure as provided in each district.
5.3106 Shall permit access to the guest room only through the principal structure.
5.3107 Shall obtain an occupancy permit from Greene County Building Inspection Department prior to the commencement of operations to ensure compliance with all applicable building and safety standards.

[2] 519.21 Powers not conferred on township zoning commission by chapter: Except as otherwise provided in division (B) of this section, sections 519.02 to 519.25 of the Revised Code confer no power on any township zoning commission, board of township trustees, or board of zoning appeals to prohibit the use of any land for agricultural purposes or the construction or use of buildings or structures incident to the use for agricultural purposes of the land on which such buildings or structures are located, including buildings or structures that are used primarily for vinting and selling wine and that are located on land any part of which is used for viticulture, and no zoning certificate shall be required for any such building or structure.

Section B of the above references includes exceptions such as a parcel of land of five acres or less or one located in a platted subdivision containing 15 or more lots. On a lot that is one acre or smaller, zoning may prohibit or regulate all agricultural activities.

[3] Sometimes the Inn was rented out by Antioch College as a home for its special guests, which once included actor John Lithgow and his family. Lithgow’s father was a theater professor at Antioch, and John Lithgow attended daycare in Yellow Springs.

[4] A few years before, a local woman named Nora Byrnes began serving free breakfasts to the community from her home on a residential street. She’d take custom orders and had an impressive buffet anyone could help themselves to. Everyone was welcome, and donations were tacitly accepted. Breakfasts at Norah’s grew to be so well liked that Norah would have between forty to sixty people eating at her house. Friends volunteered as waitstaff, and the breakfast operations began to look like a professional restaurant, though the community-minded approach (everyone sat family style) was said by her fans to engender a uniquely communal environment. Of course, regularly serving food to sixty people caught the eye of the Health Department, who said she was totally unlicensed and had to shut down. The community was in an uproar that her generosity was being circumscribed, and so Spracklen began letting Byrnes use his B&B to host her breakfasts once a week. These breakfasts likewise drew the attention of the Health Department. Byrnes was forced to stop serving breakfast at Spracklen’s inn, but in a case that may give hope to the Owens, Byrnes later appeared before the BZA to lay out her plans to resume serving breakfasts in her own home, and the reasons why she should be allowed to do it. She gave a persuasive interpretation of code, and a dozen or more citizens from the town testified on her behalf about how wonderful her breakfasts are. While the specifics of the BZA’s decision are too lengthy to address, suffice it to say code was creatively interpreted in such a way that she could resume breakfasts at her home in a limited capacity.

“You’re not going to have GFS semi-trucks delivering to your house this time, are you?” asked one BZA member.
“No,” she said.