The night the town stood still
This story appeared in the March 2003 issue of Columbus Monthly.
Sometime during the second quarter of the Fiesta Bowl, Mohamed Sharif sits at a table in the Easton Barnes & Noble sipping coffee and studying a book, Practicing English Usage. I take the seat across from him and ask, “Would it surprise you if I said most people in this city would consider your sitting here right now, in a bookstore, learning English, while the Buckeyes are going for the national championship . . . blasphemy?”
He gives me a sincere look of agitation and confusion. He’s not upset I’ve disturbed his reading, and he clearly comprehends my question. It is the logic behind my query that puzzles him. After admitting to not entirely “knowing” the game of American football—the other football, soccer, is his sport—he says, “But I don’t get this. Me and my brother used to cut school and steal money from our mom to go to the football stadium in Somalia. We would fight physically, he and I, because we went for different teams. Now, we are grown up. When you are children, I understand this. It doesn’t make sense to me now.”
Like Sharif, I’m not watching the game, either. The main reason is that I’m working. My job is to find out what impact the national championship bout is having on the commerce and goings-on of Columbus this Friday night—a Friday that normally would be bustling with activity, shopping, dining, more.
It’s my kind of assignment; I don’t watch or care about football myself. Yet, I must admit my disappointment at not being able to watch the game while drinking huge amounts of beer at a friend’s big-screen party. Instead, I’m roaming the streets. Before I begin, though, I suspect the story’s premise may be wrong. Columbus is a big place, the 15th largest city in the nation. Surely, I’ll find a whole range of people with interests other than Ohio State football, lots of folks having a good time without proximity to a TV screen.
That is not what I find. In fact, Jan. 3 is the Night the Town Stood Still. It seems nearly everybody in Greater Columbus is watching the Ohio State-Miami game on WSYX, ABC’s local affiliate. Rick White, program coordinator for WSYX, reports that 52 percent of all televisions in Columbus are on that night and 79 percent of them are tuned to the Fiesta Bowl. “The last hour it went as high as 84 percent, certainly one of the highest numbers we’ve ever seen,” he says. Only 4 percent of Central Ohioans are watching “Dateline” this night and 2 percent are checking out “The Tonight Show.”
As this city has grown more sophisticated, it’s been safe to say that there’s a lot more to life in Columbus than just Ohio State football. After this Friday night, though, I’m no longer sure that’s true.
At 8:08 pm, as the national anthem kicks in at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona, the downtown Columbus streets are empty. I drive around amazed at the lack of headlights coming at me. Sure, downtown at night is rarely a happening place. But there are absolutely no car horns, no hustle and bustle of foot traffic, no drunk vagrants swerving along the sidewalks.
It’s as if the city has shut down. For instance, the popular Cap City Diner near Gahanna has closed at 8 pm, two hours early. Bath & Body Works canceled shifts at its distribution center. The Columbus Landsharks, the professional lacrosse team, changed the starting time of its battle against the Ottawa Rebel from 7:30 pm to 3 pm. The Palace Theatre, which was supposed to have hosted Jim Henson’s Bear in the Big Blue House, a popular traveling Muppets kids’ show, axed its Friday evening performance. “The decision was made in conjunction with the producers, and they concurred that the community was really supporting the football game,” says Mike Riley, vice president for programming for the Palace. “With all the attention in the community and media on the game, it seemed like the logical decision.”
I head north to Polaris Parkway to follow a (bad) tip that The Lakes country club has shuttered its doors for the night. (The place is packed for the game.) On the way there, I notice a Skyline Chili fast-food joint that looks as if it’s closed. Upon closer inspection, it isn’t. Why it’s open is uncertain. Three staff members stand around. A staticky TV vaguely depicts football players. “Can I get you anything?” Justin Weley, the manager asks. “Please?”
I tell him no and he seems kind of depressed about that. “Friday night is normally one of our busiest nights,” he says, as he scrubs an already shimmering grill. Only soft background sounds hang in the air—a buzz from the TV, the scouring sound of Weley cleaning the grill. “I’ve never been like this,” he says. “I’ve never begged to make food.”
Next, I take Rt. 23 south to Worthington and the Pontifical College Josephinum. A music group, Early Interval, is giving a concert, A French 12th Night Celebration. The show has something to do with celebrating the 12th night of Christmas. Even if it is only the ninth night since Christmas, you’d think those who enjoy listening to recorders on Vatican-owned property would turn out en masse to make a personal statement about the uncivilized sport of OSU football.
I’m greeted by a man who shares the same hungry eyes and hopeful stare as the Skyline manager. “Here for the show?” he asks.
I disappoint a lot of people tonight.
Grant Wolfe, a trustee of Friends of Early Music and house manager for the concert, is dressed a might finer than the Skyline crew, but he has the same story. Attendance is down, about 50 percent. As the sounds of a harp and flute squeak out of the auditorium, a group of young people, maybe college students, slip away.
I ask Wolfe if he’s disappointed about missing the game. With the veritable calm of a preacher, he takes the high ground: “Believe it or not, there are people who are interested in other things than football.”
But . . . “Of course, I’ve got my VCR recording it. If they win, then I’ll watch it. If they lose, then I’ll just erase the tape.”
My next stop is Easton, the trendy, always-packed hot spot of stores, restaurants and a mega-movie theater. If any place is going to be crowded tonight, Easton will be. Wrong again. Capitalism has been trumped by football. Ghost town isn’t really the right metaphor; there is too much neon for that. All the stores are open, just empty. There’s some foot traffic—most of it, though, moving in and out of an Irish pub where the game plays on the big screens.
There’s no trouble finding a parking spot. I slide into one right outside the front door of the swanky chain restaurant P.F. Chang’s China Bistro. The restaurant normally would have a wait of up to two hours, the bartender says. Three tables in the whole place are occupied. A few people crowd around the TV with the bartender. “We thought about putting in another TV and decided against it. We didn’t want to be that kind of place.”
Consequently, P.F. Chang’s is an empty kind of place.
A few blocks over is the 30-screen movie theater, which usually is mobbed on a Friday night. The space in front of the AMC ticket booth stands vacant, however. A single person hands his movie ticket to the usher and ascends the escalator alone. It’s library-quiet.
Lataya McRae, the ticket taker, stares at the ceiling. So who has come to the movies tonight? “A lot of young kids,” McRae says. “Oh, and there was one guy who came up and said, ‘Who gives a damn about the Buckeyes?’ I don’t know why he said that.”
He apparently felt compelled to explain himself.
Nearby is GameWorks, normally a frantic environment of flashing lights, pounding music and a pulsating orchestra of beeps. On a usual Friday night, the line is five deep for a try at Skee-Ball. Now, there’s a small scattering of people in scarlet and gray jerseys at the bar and some kids running amuck through the maze of machines and ersatz motorcycles and skateboards. One group turns the main arcade room into its very own football field, tossing a plastic football—the kind sold at the counter—over the air-hockey table. Many of the machines are mute. Others occasionally beep awkwardly as if calling out to be played.
“It’s ridiculously slow. We’ve been playing the games,” says Julie Johnson, who’s working the front desk. “I don’t even know why she’s still here,” she says, nodding toward her co-worker, slumped against the counter, her head propped on her hand.
My next destination is a strip mall on Morse Road, site of the Ohio Festival Theatre. Maybe, just maybe, another kind of cultural event will have attracted some interest. I notice a wax figure blocking the glass door; maybe it’s a burglar deterrent.
I’m startled when I see the figure’s eyes following me. Then it opens the door and in a quiet voice says, “You’re late. Come on.”
I apologize for not being there to watch the play and explain my quest. She explains that she is the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, or, actually, portraying the character of the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. She’s on break between scenes.
Tonight’s play is Tony Kushner’s 1993 Pulitzer Prize winner Angels in America. It looks at the AIDS epidemic during the Reagan years and the state of the nation through racial, religious, sexual and social issues. Characters struggle to find meaning in a world apparently abandoned by God.
The cast of this production struggles to find meaning in a play that has virtually no audience.
“About seven people showed up,” says the ghost of Rosenberg, whose real name is Teri Maiers. “We kind of expected it tonight,” she adds defeatedly, admitting that in this contest between arts and sports she is on the losing side. Either that or she wishes she were watching the game rather than staring forlornly out the front door. I can’t ascertain which.
I leave her to reassume her stiff, silent pose. (The company, it should be noted, shut down soon after the Fiesta Bowl.)
I head back downtown to the 5:01 Jazz Bar near the Arena District. Perhaps jazz purists will pay homage to their art tonight. But members of the Andy Woodson Band outnumber the audience.
Doorman Elwood Ziegler says, “This ain’t Buckeye land. We don’t even know what the score is.” Then he asks me what the score is, and admits he’s been checking in periodically.
Traveling up and down High Street I make the first of several cop sightings. At 10:45 pm, seven cop cars are parked in a row outside a Donatos just north of High Street and East North Broadway; the same number of cops sit inside watching the game, getting ready to go to 11th Avenue and wait for rioters. Another set of cops watches the game in a campus-area Wendy’s. When Miami’s Todd Sievers ties the game with a field goal at the end of regulation, the officers clutch their heads. They are alone, except for the employees who’ve come around the counter to join them.
Even crime, it appears, has taken the night off to watch the game.
Time is running out and I’ve yet to find a place filled with folks who’ve taken a stand against being sucked into the OSU football mania. I drive to Little Brother’s, the counter-culture, antimainstream rock hall. Punk rockers don’t care about football. Everyone knows that.
As I walk in, I immediately know I’m wrong. The lineup includes three prominent local groups—Templeton, Faimount Girls and Di Di Mao—that normally would pull a good crowd. Attendance is sparse at best. The two TVs above the bar . . . tuned to the game. The game is simply inescapable.
I ask the doorman, Nate Gillies, for the score. He barely looks away from the TV. “It’s still tied right now. I don’t care, but for some reason. . . .”
It isn’t eloquent, but there it is. Just like Gillies, I don’t really care about the Buckeyes, or football for that matter. But for some reason I want to watch it, too. I don’t know if it’s because of the level of play, the fact that the home team is in the big game or just that everyone else—and I mean everyone—is into it.
I take a seat at the bar. A woman tells me she’s a preschool teacher. “I hate football, but I was all excited at work today. It was the only day in my life that I wore an OSU sweatshirt.”
She says, “Yeah, I hope we win. Fuck Miami.”
The Buckeyes and Hurricanes do their back-and-forth overtime thing. The bartender with pigtails to her waist squeezes her fists and lets out a high-pitched scream at one dramatic point.
“This doesn’t even matter to me,” she says, “and it’s making me sweat.”
The rest of us who don’t care continue to watch, near breathless.
Somewhere in the bar, a band plays to an empty dance floor.
Jeff Parker is a freelance writer.