Lost without My Morning Find
Earl Hunt's death leaves his corner a little quiet.
When word came via email that Earl died, I was rambling through Over-the-Rhine. Brushing off some rustiness from a day of writing, fighting off the impending darkness of winter afternoons, and trading blue light for daylight.
I was nowhere near Earl’s corner, the southeast corner of 14th and Race, where he sat rain or shine and sometimes snow to sniff on cigarettes he was supposed to quit, riff in good nature with those who walked by, and witness the many changes that came to this cross-section of Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine. Its old architecture and new breweries reflected, in a way, Earl’s changes too.
The air was humid and moist for December. The now purpling skies were indicative of troubling rain.
Each step felt heavier, weighted down by thoughts of Earl, his impact on neighbors, our wandering or sometimes staccatoed conversations, and how he tapped on our shoulders to get us to pay attention in the neighborhood like he tapped on his cigarette, to keep the fire lit and let go of the soft ash.
Ten years ago, when my husband, Mark, and I planned our move to Over-the-Rhine, we weren’t pioneers, like the many tourists or those who came after us wanted to believe. There had been people living, working, and playing in Over-the-Rhine for any number of years. It was only whether they were seen, and by whom.
Earl placed high in that category, though given his deep voice and rumbling laugh, he was hard to miss.
A transplant from many places, including Akron, which we had in common, as well as both being Browns fans, Earl landed here by fate and circumstance, following many alcoholic binges and an invitation from a friend for a place where he could find help.
That place turned out to be the Drop Inn Center, a ocean-blue painted shelter for those experiencing homelessness, formerly located at 12th and Elm, across Washington Park and diagonally opposite of Earl’s stoop. As the center’s cook, Earl nourished hundreds of residents, and was known for his beef stroganoff and a little bit of saltiness too.
It was that saltiness that first attracted me to Earl. I needed to adopt a little pepperiness to balance out his dose of salt.
My walks before dawn originated during our move to the urban core and swiftly became routine. Photos from those early months were uploaded to social media and tagged as “morning finds.” But what I captured in digital form never measured up to what I could capture in person. As I developed my street smarts, my feet tested out the boundaries, always returning me to where the people gathered.
The stoop at 14th and Race was one such place. And that congregation centered their day around Earl.
Earl rising in the morning, lumbering out of his back apartment to open the gate and sit on the limestone rail, igniting his first cigarette. Earl at lunchtime gulping down a Sprite he bought from a quick stroll to old Kroger (before they relocated). Earl smoking while seated in his forest green Honda, parked near his home but never in the same spot, radio turned on to maybe Lincoln Ware or a random CD that still spun in his player. Earl at nighttime, watching the sun on its final hours’ orbit and before its splashdown behind Cincinnati Music Hall.
At age 78, he was a social nexus for the neighborhood in a way Nextdoor never achieved. Bikers stopped to say hello, dog walkers and folks who knew Earl from “old times” too. If my neighbor, Patty, was in town, she carried sacks of fruit from the peach truck to Earl’s door. On Sundays, he’d make his way to the old Nast Trinity, where a suburban church sponsored free breakfasts. And if we were out for a Sunday night stroll and heading for ice cream, my husband made sure Earl got in his licks.
During one particular spring, when I was being followed by a troubled individual, my toes wasted no time pointing me toward Earl and those circling his stoop.
Earl’s life had been filled with plenty of difficulties and hardships. And also a life where he flourished, under the watchful care of Over-the-Rhine Community Housing (OTRCH), congenial neighbors, phone calls to doctors he called friends, and a few tortellini salads I whipped up for him over the years (he preferred no olives).
My walks were never complete without a stop at the stoop. And should I be detained or distracted, he shouted, “Hey,” from his porch to get me to pay attention.
In the past few years, Earl’s health began to fail. His eyesight grew dimmer. His blood thinner. As a condition of returning home from one hospital stay, a few of us neighbors cleaned his apartment and scrubbed off layers of cigarette tar. We shoveled out more stacks of books than the library set out during at their annual sale, and though he had no way to play them, his collection of cassettes and CDs rivaled Goodwill’s. Later, Earl badgered me for throwing out an original edition of a Prince Purple Rain CD. I swore I didn’t, but scoured Amazon and eBay until its replacement was located.
It had been a while since I made tortellini salad or done anything for Earl, my mind and body traveling elsewhere. Or the iternant part of me, during the #MeToo movement, was somewhat resistant to someone who still called out, “Hey, Baby, when you gonna make more of that salad for me?” But I’d come to terms with that and perhaps Earl had too after my occasional rebukes.
The pandemic brought about a forced separation from many who interacted with Earl. He was older and certainly health-compromised. Two months after the city-wide shutdown, I noticed Earl was absent from the swale in the limestone stoop. “I’m fine,” he said when I called later. “No hospitals?” I asked. “If I need one, I’ll call,” he replied. And phone he did, for slippers, stomach medications, or salads. For Earl felt comfortable asking his neighbors to respond to his needs. Had he always been like that? Or had he developed that confidence after attaining sobriety and helping many others on the same path? I don’t know.
I hadn’t seen Earl in a while. Late summer, when he stopped returning to his stoop, the rest of his story unfolded.
A staff member from OTRCH emailed. Earl had been admitted to the hospital and part of his left leg had been amputated due to infection. This was coming over time as I had bought Earl several pairs of slippers to ease his chronic foot pain.
His mother, who telephoned him every week, and other family members had already visited. Surely he would recover, even if he might never grace the stoop at 14th and Race again.
During the height of Earl’s health challenges over the past months, I was in recovery like everyone else, experiencing the loss of a singular direction during the pandemic. Being a caregiver and advocating for caregivers was my work. But I didn’t want to be one in that moment to anyone, including Earl.
The most recent barrage of emails between neighbors and caregivers pierced a hole in my armor. Earl was still inpatient when I wondered, could I stop in to see him. I was fully vaccinated and boosted. And time had taught me, while I rarely stopped to wait for it, it, in turn, treated me the same.
The universe answered with that final email. A visit was no longer possible.
That afternoon, I circled around Vine Street and altered my path to cross the former threshold of Earl’s. On the inside of his Honda’s window, someone taped a photo of Earl, along with a tribute from OTRCH for his work as a beloved community member. I placed my cold hands on the windshield, like I did whenever a Sinatra song queued up on the radio, my deceased mother communing with me in musical form. Windows shaking from the tremors of buses whisking by, I felt Earl’s presence, his rough hands that cuddled my dog, Enzo, and also, allowed Enzo to lick the nicotine off his nails. When my dog died, Earl had cried a little, a sign of his humanness which he didn’t like to let me know was there.
A few younger guys huddled around as I stood close to the car and read the tribute aloud. “Damn, Earl’s dead,” one of them said. “Damn,” I said back. A part of me imagined a chuckling Earl seated on his stoop and leaning back a few degrees, batting his hand in the air, and in a low groan, saying, “Oh, come on, get outta here.”
The truth was, Earl wasn’t just my morning find, he was everyone’s. And he didn’t just belong to the morning, he belonged to the seasons. The ones that swiftly pass us by. The ones we don’t get back. The ones we think, we were the winds that shifted the geography of a place, only to learn those brisk or gentle breezes were the ones that molded us.
That evening, Mark and I took our customary walk around the park blocks carrying with us two votive candles, a lighter, and a last cutting from my roses, the petals shrinking away from their stems. We placed the offerings on Earl’s stoop. Mark flicked at the lighter, waving it over the candle wicks. I could almost smell Earl’s cigarettes flaming up. We grasped each other’s hands and squeezed out our goodbyes.
It was a rare moment when silence descended upon that corner. And now, it would for all time.