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February 15, 2011 » 9:26 am

Breakfast at Tucker’s

Last month, I decided to fly out to Cincinnati to surprise my older sister on her most recent “milestone birthday.” I hadn’t visited in a while, and in the interim, she had given birth to her second son, Benjamin.

As a present, I wanted to give my sister space. Those of you with kids know that parents of young children — especially babies — basically have negative amounts of time.

My plan was to hang out, take care of the kids, and do what I could to create some space for both her and her husband so that they could have some time for themselves. My only agenda was to get to know my newest nephew, Benjamin, while wreaking (quiet, manageable) havoc with my eldest, Elliott. I had no plans to spend much time outside of their apartment, much less explore Cincinnati.

As it happened, my trip coincided with a large snowstorm and bitter cold. While that sounded terrifying to this native Californian, it had an unexpected silver lining: snow days! School was cancelled for both my nephew and my brother-in-law, Isaac, a teacher. I had come to create some space for my sister’s family, and the weather ended up creating space for all of us.

We put that time to good use. I went sledding for the first time with Elliott and Isaac. As you can imagine, I handled my inaugural trip hurtling down a hill on a frictionless surface with skill, comportment, and aplomb.

The following day, we had breakfast at Tucker’s, a small neighborhood eatery that’s been serving down home food for over 60 years. To understand the significance of the place and our meal, you need to understand the story of the neighborhood.

My sister and brother-in-law are musicians and teachers. They live humble lives in a part of town known as Over-the-Rhine (“OTR” for short). As with many artist enclaves, OTR is very affordable, which loosely translates into “bad neighborhood.” It’s the poorest, most violent neighborhood in the city.

My sister lives across the street from Washington Park, which is a haven for drug dealers and miscreants. In 2001, a white cop shot and killed a young, African-American male in OTR, igniting city-wide racial tensions that had been building for years and resulting in the worst urban disorder since the L.A. riots in 1992, which I had had the misfortune of experiencing first-hand.

OTR is a challenging place, but there is something special about it. For starters, if you look past the poverty and pain, you can see that the neighborhood is beautiful. The brick buildings evoke an old elegance, dotted with dilapidated storefronts and the occasional quirky gallery, perhaps foreshadowing the hipster gentrification that sometimes seems inevitable for these little enclaves of starving artists. The hipsters come because of the artists, but the artists come because of the beauty, the charm, the essence.

The essence of OTR — indeed, of Cincinnati and perhaps of the Midwest as a whole — seems to be community. Unlike my adopted hometown of San Francisco, people who live here tend to come from here. They are tied to their neighborhoods, their churches, their local haunts, their people. As Isaac, who comes from nearby Dayton, said to me the other day, he loves living in Cincinnati, because Cincinnati is home.

For many who live in OTR, Tucker’s has been a favorite eatery for generations. Down the street from Findlay Market, on a battered street under a nondescript sign, there are maybe six tables and a long counter inside of Tucker’s.

The service is wonderful… if you don’t mind waiting a very long time for your food. They greet everybody warmly, they keep your coffee cup filled, and they take their time cooking the food. And that’s fine. The food is good — healthy portions of rib-sticking, diner food, all made from scratch — but that’s not the main reason people come here.

People come for the people. They come to rub shoulders with their neighbors. Everyone from the community comes here — the owner of the store down the street, long-time residents, the pastor from the local church, local politicians, homeless people, young artists. Because the place is so small, people often share tables with strangers, and they walk away friends. Tucker’s is a haven, a melting pot in a neighborhood that has seen violent racial strife.

People come because they’ve always come there. Maynie “Ma” Tucker and her husband, Escom, started the restaurant in 1957. The place hasn’t changed much since. Their son, Joe, and his wife, Carla, run the place now. Escom died six years ago, but Ma Tucker, now 90, still works in the kitchen.

Earlier in the week, two gunmen had entered the diner and attacked a customer. The customer walked away unharmed, but two women were shot, including Carla. Both women were fortunately okay.

Tucker’s had shut down for a few days. Unbeknownst to us, it had just reopened the day we arrived. The place was packed, as it always is. People greeted each other warmly, as they always do. The service was good… and slow, as it always is. Ninety year old Ma Tucker popped her head out of the kitchen from time to time to check on things, as she had been doing for over 60 years.

You would not have known that anything had happened earlier that week if not for the journalist taking video, and even she melded seamlessly into the room. She just seemed like another local artist who had come to ply her craft and enjoy the morning at Tucker’s.

When we sat down, Isaac spotted the local pastor, Father Gregory, sitting at the counter, and went over to greet him. Father Gregory joined us for breakfast and filled us in on the history of Tucker’s and the meaning it had in the community. He himself had come here since he was a child. As people walked in and out, they stopped to greet Father Gregory, who smiled and chatted with everyone. Isaac knew several people there as well. They were colleagues, neighbors, fellow church-goers, and friends.

Of course, people were happy to see Elliott, who always seems to make people smile and laugh, and he greeted Isaac’s friends warmly as well. I watched my nephew interact with people comfortably, and thought about how — at six years old — he had already established roots here in the community.

Time always seems to slow down for me when I visit friends and family in the Midwest, regardless of how busy I actually am. People there are in love with their neighborhood, their community, their home.

I’ve lived in San Francisco for 15 years and in California for most of my life. I love it here. And I’m lucky to have friends all over the world, some of whom I’ve known since I was a child. I stay connected with them via technology that has been around for most of my adult life, and I even have opportunities to see them face-to-face on occasion. It’s a wonderful world of connection and community that, for many, is new and exciting.

For some, it’s scary. There’s a sense of loss, this notion that all of this virtual hyperconnectedness will disconnect us from place. I understand that feeling, because when I visit my sister and her family in Cincinnati, I feel what I’m missing.

But it doesn’t have to be a choice. Community is not a zero-sum game. For me, visiting my sister’s family in Cincinnati, becoming part of their community for even a few days, enjoying breakfast at a place like Tucker’s, all of this is a visceral reminder that, at the end of the day, behind all of the wires and waves and screens, it’s about people. It’s about connecting to other living, breathing human beings. How we do it and where we do it may evolve, but why we do it and how it feels when we do is fundamental and constant.

This is the wonderful video that Carrie Cochran, the journalist who was at Tucker’s that day, created:

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