Lost without My Morning Find
Earl Hunt's death leaves his corner a little quiet.
When word came 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 breaking blue skies.
I was nowhere near the corner, 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 Over-the-Rhine’s old architecture and new breweries, reflecting, in a way, Earl’s changes too.
Pausing the podcast playing on my iPhone, I sipped in the moist air, humid for December, the now purpling skies 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.
When my husband and I planned our move to Over-the-Rhine ten years ago, we weren’t pioneers, like many tourists or those who came after us liked to think. There were people living, working, 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 Browns fans which he rarely conveyed that information to those not in the know, 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 ocean blue Drop Inn Center, a shelter for those experiencing homelessness, formerly located at 12th and Elm. As their 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 and I realized I needed to adopt a little pepperiness to balance out his dose of salt.
My walks before dawn originated with the move to the urban core, and swiftly became routine. As I developed my street smarts, my feet tested out the boundaries, always returning me to where 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 fence and sit on the limestone rail, igniting his first cigarette. Earl at lunchtime gulping down a Sprite he bought from a quick stroll to Kroger (before they relocated). Earl seated in his forest green Honda to smoke, 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 Music Hall.
At age 78, he was a social nexus for the neighborhood in a way Nextdoor never achieved. Bikers stopped to say hi to him, dog walkers, and folks who knew Earl from “old times” too. If my neighbor Patty was in town, she brought Earl sacks of fruit from the peach truck. On Sundays, he’d make his way to the old Nast Trinity, where a Hyde Park-sponsored church served breakfasts. And if we were out for stroll on a Sunday night, 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 towards 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, congenial neighbors, phone calls to doctors he called friends, and a few tortellini salads I concocted 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 neighbors cleaned his apartment and scrubbed off layers of cigarette tar. We shoveled out more stacks of books than the library’s 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 do it, but I 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, 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 you,” he said. And call he still did, for slippers, stomach medications or salads. For Earl felt the comfort of calling on his neighbors to ask for his needs. Had he always been like that, or learned that as a way of being after sobriety and helping many others on the same path? I don’t know.
I hadn’t seen Earl in a while, and late summer, when he stopped returning to his stoop, the rest of his story unfolded.
A staff member at 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 bought him several pairs of slippers to ease his chronic foot pain.
His mother, who called him every week, and other family members had visited, and 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 emails poked a hole through that 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 an 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 car’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 hand on the windshield, like I did whenever a Sinatra song queued up on the radio, my deceased mother communing with me while in the car. 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 guys huddled around as I stood close to the car and read the tribute. “Damn, Earl’s dead,” one of them said. “Damn,” I said back. And a part of me imagined a chuckling Earl leaning back a few degrees over that stoop, 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 usual walk around the blocks carrying two votive candles, a lighter, and a last cutting from my roses, the petals shrinking away from their stems. We placed our offerings on Earl’s stoop. Mark flicked at the lighter waving it over the wicks and 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.