Zanesville is a City of Things Unknown

(note: As can be deduced from the title, this is an homage to the pieces that comprise Gay Talese’s New York: a Serendipitor’s Journey (collected in Fame and Obscurity). I was instantly smitten with the series of essays when I read them and was inspired to turn a Talesian eye on my own city. Though significantly more wordy and with some of my personal delights and biases evident, I did try to maintain a more or less neutral outlook and present the city as it is, detailing some of its splendor and some of its more lamentable aspects; Talese was a little more buoyant where I get a little bit whiny, but as a whole, I think that Zanesville, a random town in Ohio that could be any town in the Southern Midwest (save for its somewhat memorable name), deserves to be recognized as the unique entity that it is. This piece was started in 2006(?) and finished in 2009, with the bulk of the work being done in 2009, and I later used it in issue #3 of the Wormhole Collective.)

Zanesville is a City of Things Unknown

Zanesville, Ohio is a city of things unnoticed, of strange occupations, of things unseen, and is a city with a life of its own. It is a city that mixes the quirky with the mundane, the mainstream with the local, and the urban with the country. It boasts of having once been the capital of Ohio (1810-1812) and of having been a city whose minor league team, the Zanesville Infants, played in baseball’s first night game in 1909, thanks to recently invented portable electric lighting. Not only is Zanesville the hometown of to two athletes currently playing professional sports (Jay Payton and Kevin Martin), but it is also the birthplace and home to a physicist, Thomas Townsend Brown (1905-1985), who studied anti-gravity and electro-gravitational propulsion, mechanisms by which he suggested UFOs might fly. Zanesville, located at latitude 39.940N, longitude 82.013W, is also a distinguished city of letters: it is home to the famous Y-Bridge, and an S-Bridge also exists nearby; its library system has at least 289,353 books and Zanesville is the birthplace of the extremely prolific western author Zane Grey, who wrote well over ninety books himself.

Zanesville is a city that boasts intense historical importance and purportedly high levels of crime. Within these positive and negative characteristics is the reality that Zanesville is a complex place. Downtown is full of beautiful, oversized brick buildings, but also the dog-food plant, a building in the middle of downtown plant emits a sour, brownish-orange odor inescapable to that half of the city. A smell of its magnitude can never be a thing unnoticed, but perhaps the lengths people go to in an attempt to shut it out of their mind would qualify it as a purposefully forgotten entity. But the smell is just a fact of life, just one of the threads that make up the tapestry of an average day in a town in the foothills of Appalachia. Every weird smell has its day, as does a UFO scientist, professional athletes, and a local restaurant said by USA Today in 1998 to have the nation’s best homemade ice cream. That restaurant is called Tom’s – the employees wear bowties and little paper hats, and the old lunch counter is right around the corner from a skating rink obviously from the same era.

Everyone knows there is always a traffic jam outside of Wal-Mart, but did you know that Zanesville is home to the oldest Shakespeare reading group in the country? Indeed, the “provincial town on the road to Wheeling” was home to one Joseph Crosby, a native Englishman who had one of the three best private Shakespeare libraries of his time. Crosby was an amateur Shakespeare scholar and the author of articles known to Shakespeare scholars worldwide. Thanks to his initiative, the reading group has been meeting since 1878.

Zanesville is the home of a 1995 State Basketball Championship, the first in almost four decades, which was celebrated with numerous parades, but the city was also the site of a nauseating “satanic” murder in which a teenage babysitter murdered a small child; there existed a secret ‘fight club’ that raged for a number of bouts and then wore itself out with a volley of sickening punches, and there are businesses offering Tarot card readings that seem to be perpetually open. Zanesville is not a city that lent its name to a haircut of questionable taste as one of its neighbors unwittingly did (saying someone has a “Philo haircut” – a shaved head with a rectangle of longer bangs – was not a compliment), but this isn’t to say it is a city without a very discernible style of its own – blonde highlights are a perennial favorite. And depending on one’s mood, Zanesville can be referred to as “Zanesburg,” “Zanestucky,” “Zanes-vegas,” or “Insanesville,” all somewhat pejorative though usually spoken with affection. There is a distinct Zanesvillian drawl that becomes more pronounced as more Zanesvillians join the conversation. A crucial part of the lexicon is the phrase “Nok Nerk,” meaning “Knock Newark,” a cry against a much maligned town to the west that could have been a sister city were it not for a vicious high school football rivalry.

At one point, Zanesville unexpectedly boasted an Indian restaurant, and then an Eastern-European eatery a few years later. Even more surprising is that they both existed in half-Zanesville sized Cambridge before moving to Zanesville in an attempt to gain more business. The two restaurants lasted only a matter of months before closing their doors. The fun was there while it lasted, though: the Bombay Garden was located in the basement of a downtown motel and Elisabeta’s was in the same room as the Elk’s club bar, which meant that in order to buy a beer, one had to pay the waitress upfront so she could in turn buy a beer from the bartender.

Despite the restaurants that come and go, lost to the annals of the Chamber of Commerce’s records, there is a well-known pizza restaurant whose food claims to warrant trips home. That place is Adornetto’s, and it’s tagline is “The pizza people come home for!”. The restaurant has long been a teenage paradise where jubilant groups of high schoolers gather after football games. That the majority of the staff are their peers makes the already humid and hot kitchen simmer with flirtation and romance. Most people in Zanesville are aware of Adornetto’s signature salad – iceberg lettuce covered with what seems like a pound of shredded mozzarella and a few tomato quarters. Salad dressing is measured by the ladleful.

Various other locales serve the same purpose: the movie theater’s dimness permits first-kisses and the roller skating rink creates eternal associations between certain slow songs and the command to couple-skate, after which the couple can share a hotdog and an enormous seventy-five cent pickle. A secluded water-tower serves as a far more clandestine lovers’ lane and is thus a common setting for perhaps more advanced teenage fumblings. It’s out of the way location makes it prime real estate for any number of unknown activities – more than one couple has had to jettison their hard-earned rendezvous when a caravan of cars careens down the road in a most intimidating manner, they too making use of the lawless isolation for their own secret reasons.

Sometimes Zanesville is a city of unreasonable hopes. There is a bar on Maysville Pike that has been consistently advertising ‘Girls Gone Wild’ nights and wet t-shirt contests for over a decade. It is the stuff of lore whether or not the tragically misspelled spray-painted signs have ever induced any actual wildness, but the construction of stripper poles inside the bar speaks for the proprietor’s earnest hopes.

Zanesville is a city whose functioning strip club is in a renovated church and whose attendees often see high school classmates working. Similarly, gatherings amounting to near high school reunions take place every weekend at the Barn on Linden Avenue, where one faded high school star was heard proclaiming that his kid was “a week or a month old; I don’t fuckin’ know.” Zanesvillians can party with the same people they have been for decades, and juicy tidbits about how wild so-and-so was in high school aren’t hard to come by. But it’s also a place to start over, as similar scholastic and geographic backgrounds bring people together who years before wouldn’t have had any reason to cross paths. The Barn is always a packed house. Every night, friendships are rekindled or lost, resolutions made, deals closed, minds opened, with unselfconsciously genius lines of comedy or tragedy spoken at every moment. Its walls have seen and heard so much that it’s a shame some anthropologist (from the Zanesville branch of Ohio University or one of the nearby colleges, perhaps) didn’t think to install recording devices when it was built.

Many people care deeply about their community, which is why Zanesville is an extremely civic-minded city that boasts chapters of the Rotary Club, Kiwanis, the Masons, the Jaycees, the American Legion, the Knights of Columbus, the Eagles, the Elks, and the Lions, and both the Boy and Girl Scouts. The home of one civic group, the grand Masonic Temple building on Fourth Street, also hosts an instrument shop, a number of offices, and artists’ workspaces, as well as creaking floors, ghost-like silence, decidedly un-modern architecture, and the distinct smells of decades previous. The effect is such that you’ll feel suddenly imbued with feelings of gumshoery and heightened street-smarts when you walk inside, the hallways the perfect set of a film noir, lacking only cigarette smoke and vulpine molls. Imagine the surprise when you discover that there are in fact private investigation offices on numerous floors of the building, all of which possess doors with frosted windows and the name of the investigator in block letters.

Interestingly, the entire building also has the appearance of being abandoned, though only very recently so. It is as if there was a need for all tenants to exit but extreme care was taken to sweep and dust the hallways, dust, and remove any unnecessary clutter, no matter how small – there are no gum wrappers, pencil shavings, or any other remnants of anything lying on the floors or anywhere else. On the other hand, speaking of things abandoned, one shouldn’t forget the old optometrists’ office on Sixth Street, full of intact files, office supplies, decades-old optometry equipment, and mailboxes stuffed with letters.

The Temple itself, powerfully ensconced on the top floors, lulls the explorer into a false sense of security because it gives the disarming appearance of plainness, as if to discourage any exploration of its secrets by maintaining that it doesn’t have any. There are a few token Masonic symbols and swords, a few paintings, really only enough to unobtrusively indicate it is supposed to be a temple. Are the portly, twangy members of the Zanesville Masonic Temple really the agents of a sinister “new world order”? Can a seemingly innocuous small town be a hub of conspiratorial oppression? Indeed, Zanesville is really a city of things unknown!

This isn’t to say Zanesville isn’t without its private networks, connections, and spheres of influence. There are quite a few well-known residents whose names are recognizable to any citizen, for mostly beneficent reasons – successful business owners who have sponsored schools, charity work, fundraisers. Their success had earned them a place in the top tiers of Zanesville society. With power and celebrity comes corruption, but then again, with power and celebrity comes power and celebrity. Consider the cocaine-dealing fiasco whose players included various business leaders and medical luminaries: a few waves were made, a few cries of derision were uttered, but those implicated were ultimately considered the subjects of rumors and nothing more. There is a good-old-boy network that inducts people early on in their careers, like the known drug-dealing children of the elite evading any sort of censure when cops with drug-sniffing dogs find their drugs during a surprise sweep of the high school. The children of the less influential are reviled for their corrupting influence while the wealthy gallivant with impunity.

There is a primordial instinct of self-preservation amongst this self-styled elite but it is by no means unique to the wealthy. “Hardly ever have I found in my travels such pure morals as in my native village…a life that is subject to no contemporary law, and attends only to the exhortations and warnings that come to us from olden times,” the narrator of Franz Kafka’s ‘the Great Wall of China’ reflects. There is an intractable code of conduct that developed right alongside the physical city. It’s hard to define precisely what the bounds of this conduct is, for a lot of the explanation is a variation of something being “not right” or “just how it is.” You know it when you cross a line, even though you’re not sure when exactly it was that you crossed it. It’s a type of groupthink to maintain not only order but some measure of sanity. It is protective when you are part of it and maddeningly intractable when common sense dictates it should be flexible.

But, fortunately for the downtrodden of any persuasion, Zanesville was at one point rumored to be blessed with a downtown “street defender.” The Street Defender patrolled downtown and protected anyone who needed protection from the streets of downtown, at least according to schoolyard lore.

The graffiti in the parks, that adorns its benches, verandas, light posts, signs, walls, and buildings is a jumbled and impenetrable mass with only the occasional name or phrase catching the observer’s eye. Proclamations of anger, new-found or undying love, allegiance to a particular band/team/group of friends – all indicative, like most scribblings, of a sudden surge in emotion or simple ennui. The benches and the tables that hold these testaments speak of the warm, if fleeting, affection and excitement that inspired these dedications, evoking memories of the same in the passersby who see the graffiti. Sometimes, though, one is shocked back into reality when wandering eyes catch “Jill fucked Jim here 5/12/02”, or some other similarly blunt statement.

There is a sense of astonishment and discovery even in these crass statements. People existed at this place and time, like people have and will for ages. Like the eight-year-old who told Arts in the Parks volunteers that his favorite author was Tom Clancy, whose bemusement turned to shock when the kid listed a number of titles and detailed their complex plots. Looking downhill at Putnam Hill Park, there still lingers the sweat from the surprise lesson one kid learned as he fell and dislocated his shoulder trying to skateboard down the forty-foot metal slide. Though the city no doubt knew that someone would eventually get hurt on the slide, that a person would attempt to skate down it is an act of outright insanity that probably went unforeseen even in the most imaginative planner’s mind.

However, in Zanesville, no behavior is entirely free from criticism. Take for example the essay “The Five Sins of Zanesville” and its quaint admonitions of Zanesville’s moral corruption. Lust is the first sin it addresses, evidently “the norm for Zanesville’s culture” considering it’s “not unusual to see teens making out in a car in the mall parking lot, adulterers drinking booze at the Foxhole bar, [or] young men buying porn at the gas station.” Zanesville’s second sin, which one can read about after an exceptionally long harangue against the first, is “Drugs n’ Booze,” another hallmark of a city in which “…its teens [are] sniffing glue for kicks – college students getting drunk at football games – patients [are] lying to their doctors to get Xanax or Percocet – [and its] high school seniors [are] smoking marijuana at the prom.” Whether or not the city has a problem with substances is up for debate – 17.1 percent of the population binge drinks – but thanks to the guidance of people like “The Five Sins” author Dr. Patrick Johnston, Zanesville is a city that takes its religion seriously: it is a city of ninety-nine churches, two private Christian schools, a private Catholic school, one synagogue, countless basement Bible-study groups, and one soup kitchen that can barely stay afloat.

Zanesville, initially called ‘Westbourne,’ was established in the 1790s by the Revolutionary War veteran Ebenezer Zane and his son-in-law John McIntire. They were hired by the US Congress to forge their way west into the Ohio Valley. McIntire and Zane’s brother John managed the ferry on the Muskingum River and a settlement sprang up from the crossing. Abundant resources of sand, clay, and iron awarded Zanesville centuries of industry and nicknames like “the Pottery Capital of the World” and “Clay City” and the less known sobriquet “the City of Natural Advantages.” The latter nickname appeared in an 1889 Boston Globe directory of city nicknames, and this titular honor was also shared by Olean, NY, apparently at the same time, according to that city’s own 1889 book describing its share of natural advantages.

Zanesville, Ohio is not to be confused with Zanesville, Indiana or Zanesfield, Ohio, the former being in a different state and the latter bearing a different suffix, though it was founded by and named for Isaac Zane, the younger brother of Ebenezer. The other two cities are interesting in their own right, of course: Zanesfield’s founder was kidnapped at age nine by the Wyandot tribe and grew up bilingual, and the city boasts amongst its residents an award-winning volleyball player.

Only Zanesville, Ohio, however, was said to hold the title for Most Restaurants per Mile (entirely thanks to Maple Avenue’s string of dining establishments), though exactly what body officiated this record was never mentioned. It’s not hard to imagine this being true, though: Zanesville’s restaurant industry employs upwards of 2100 people. One in three adults are overweight, one in five are obese, one in three have high cholesterol, and that 578 people died between 2005-2007 from heart disease. Be that as it may, Zanesvillians, like everyone else, are free to do what they want, as evidenced by the one in three who chooses to smoke and the one in five who consumes the recommended daily amount of fruit and vegetables. Some can also choose to not to heed the warnings of an especially low-clearance train bridge on Linden Avenue, where they wouldn’t be the first or last to leave a twisted scrap of truck roof behind.

Zanesville is a city twenty percent more likely to suffer tornado damage than the rest of the country but is a city whose earthquake activity is one hundred percent smaller than the national average. Zanesville is a city that had twelve murders, 107 rapes, 89 arsons, and 323 assaults between 2001-2007, and Zanesville is also the title of a 2005 novel, a work of “surreal black comedy” by Kris Saknussemm that bears no apparent relation to the Ohio city and whose author threatened to sue Michael Jackson for stealing his idea of creating a giant robotic statue in Michael Jackson’s likeness. In 2006, Zanesville’s city schools held the contentious and divisive possibility of a teachers’ strike, averted only by a single ballot marked both in favor and against it. 2008 figures say it is a city of 25,129, whose average household size is 2.4; 60.9 percent of these households are families, 7.9 percent of households are of unmarried partners, and 0.4 percent are homosexual. Males account for 46 percent of the population; females 54. There are 11,662 housing units in 11.24 square miles, creating a population density of 2276.83 per square mile, according to the 2000 census. The average yearly pay for a city government employee is $38,895, of which there are 318.

From 1990 to 2007 in Muskingum County, of which Zanesville is the county seat and the site of the county fair, there were 20,411 births, of which an average of 60.42 percent were to married couples; there were 15,512 deaths (or 991.9 per 100,000) and from 1999-2007 there were 95 suicides and 33 homicides; 78.4 percent of women eighteen and over have had a pap-smear and 72.7 percent of women 40 and over have had a mammogram within the last three years.

One can use these facts and figures to feel counted and part of it all, or one can read these figures and feel reduced to a statistic within a statistic. But if one really wants to disappear – literally – there is a tunnel at the bottom of a hill off of Blue Avenue. Urban spelunkers can descend a hill to find a drainage tunnel that crosses underneath Blue Avenue perpendicularly as part of a gorge that runs parallel to Taylor Street. Crawling the length of the tunnel east to west rewards travelers with a hidden glen that is shrouded by trees that let the perfect amount of sunlight filter through. Travelers feel the enormity of their descent as they watch the houses on the hill disappear from view; they feel themselves camouflaged by branches and bushes and can safely continue their journey knowing that if they can’t see anyone then they can’t be seen either. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to be plagued with a tense series of ‘what ifs?’ What if the hill collapses? What if grates on both ends suddenly swing shut and it fills with garbage or rabid animals? Perhaps they are prodded on by a sense of daring to see if they can stand to squeeze themselves into the tunnel or perhaps they are moved by sincere admiration for the beauty of the place on the other side. The fact that one can find an alternate path into the dale is beside the point. There is a feeling of seclusion that, because of the traffic overhead, resembles the fate of the protagonist in JG Ballard’s Concrete Island. One seems to have fallen into his or her own little urban wormhole, but in this case the secluded area welcomes such feelings. On sunny spring or summer days, the little bit of water burbles, the insects chirp like insects, the wind rustles. One is awed at the same time by the notion of a spiritual connection to the earth and the strangeness of the concrete tunnel that opens into the glen; a juxtaposition celebrating that something exists outside the realms of our understanding, an OOP (Out of Place) relic as mysterious and misunderstood as the metal of the Iron Pillar of Delhi or the Coso Artifact.

In Zanesville there have been waves of music groups and concerts replete with their own rivalries, rock stars, and gossip, all of which will be fondly remembered by the participants as the time to be in a band in Zanesville, a time much more meaningful than the scenes the preceded or followed it, a perception similar to that of Mad magazine, whose fans always consider its heyday the years that they started reading. The stories from the music scene are cherished by those who lived them but shrugged off by those who didn’t experience them first hand and don’t want to be bothered by tales of how good things used to be.

Something else specific to each generation are infamous schoolyard “personalities.” Zanesville youth has its share of criminal lore, from mischievous kids who were apparently allowed to ride their bikes unrestricted from one end of town to the other to the set of brothers who commanded their own motley gang and went from being pint-sized street toughs to armed robbers. Their last name inspired genuine fear; it was a hassle to learn they were after you because they would actually come after you until they kicked your ass. The brothers were so tough and so infamous that even his second or third-tier hangers on were untouchable simply because they knew him. That the younger brother reportedly started smoking at age nine(!) further amplified their larger than life status. Their last hurrah was the armed robbery of a gas station near their house. They got caught, but the spoils of the robbery were said to have been buried in a local wood. The money was never found and possibly never looked for, out of fear they would get wind of what you were up to and come after you when they were released.

The narrator in Italo Calvino’s Smog is not particularly enthralled about his arrival in a new city: “To a young man who had just got off the train, the city – as everyone must know – seems like one big station: no matter how much he walks about, the streets are still squalid, garages, warehouses, cafes…trucks discharging stinking gas in his face…his nerves grow taut, and everything he sees is nerve-racking, piecemeal…had I been younger or had I expected more of life, [this] would have pleased and stimulated me; but not now, now I could see only the grayness…and I could only plunge into it as if I actually liked it, because it confirmed my belief that life could be nothing else…Now I felt lost in a different way, because I could no longer find, as I had done before, things in which I recognized myself, in which I could read the future. (Not that I believe in signs, but when you’re nervous, in a new place, everything you see is a sign.)” It is a grim pronouncement like this that portends loneliness, and you can choose to focus on the gas discharging in your face or the meaning of life that awaits discovery in your new home. Trite sentiments perhaps, but applicable anywhere, and Zanesville is this anywhere.

On one street in Zanesville exists both the Art Center and families with teenage children that have their own children, and some may argue that these parallel existences are on opposite sides of some sort of arbitrary social spectrum. This is not true, for life directs people whether they want it or not, superseding any boundaries man can proscribe. Facts and figures can be referenced to say whatever the researcher wants, as if numbers can accurately characterize an entire city and every one of its inhabitants. But try as you might, Zanesville is unclassifiable because people are unclassifiable. No one can predict the course the city will take just like none of its citizens’ secret fears, loves, experiences, dreams, and thoughts can ever be truly known by anyone other than themselves. Nobody, person or city, can be reduced to a geographic or sociological generality. But social spectrum and dreams and unknowability aside, it’s also easy to notice the affinity and genuine sense of community Zanesvillians have for their hometown. No matter the political persuasion, there is always a city-wide pride that translates into attempts to make it better, as well as to ardently oppose football rivals Newark on crisp fall nights. It is comfort and hometown pride writ large, a fondness perhaps stated best by a group of homegrown rappers when they stress that “Zanesville be the City.”

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One Response to Zanesville is a City of Things Unknown

  1. Audra Micheli Johnson says:

    Excellent post DTL

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