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Guest Column: Returning to Athens is for foolish, brave alumni

By Joe Donatelli

I’m writing this at the kitchen table of our rental house on Central Avenue. The circular glass table slants from left to right, as does the entire room. Our home is a collection of geometric wonders — mysterious round shapes in the carpet, rectangular doors that refuse to fit within rectangular doorframes, a random circle cut into the wall and what I like to call our Picasso Kitchen Window.

A random circle cut into the wall

Why am I telling you this? You might be an alumnus. You might, perhaps after a few aquariums at Homecoming, have had this thought: “I should go back to Athens — to live. I’ll go to Court Street every night, eat Lucky’s cheese sticks every day and rent a giant house on Mill Street!” But you didn’t go back. And you know why you didn’t go back? Because you are a reasonable human being who makes good decisions, that’s why.

My wife and I are not reasonable human beings who make good decisions. We left our home in Los Angeles and returned to Athens for four months this September. We graduated from Ohio University in 1998, and we wanted to live in Athens one more time before we had kids and bought a house and then life went by real fast and we died. What follows here is what we learned the last four months, and by “learned” I mean survived. If you’ve ever thought about living in Athens again, fellow Bobcat, here’s what you can expect.

The

For starters, you will severely lower your standard of living from, say, modern suburban Columbus, Ohio to 13th century France. The average Athens rental is of such poor quality that it would not surprise you at all while living here to see a man wearing a burlap sack push a wheelbarrow down your street yelling, “Bring out your dead!” And you won’t think it odd at all. You’ll just turn to your spouse and say, “It’s Tuesday. I thought we brought out the dead on Wednesday. I’ll call the city.”

Our tilting house, which was no doubt built directly on top of an ancient burial ground of tilting houses, was in disrepair upon our arrival. Walls were covered with dead bugs. Windows were unwashed. The previous tenant — our working theory is that he was a chain-smoking orangutan — never replaced the broken light above the bathroom sink. When we moved in, the only light in the bathroom was an un-shaded lamp, which was perched precariously on a tottering shelf above the toilet. It gave the bathroom a distinct “put the lotion in the basket” vibe.

The un-shaded bathroom lamp

On top of that, whatever lived in the house before us ripped the cold water knob out of the shower, so we replaced it with a wrench, which allowed me to fulfill my lifelong fantasy of pretending to be a friendly neighborhood mechanic who lives in the crappiest house ever.

You will experience other indignities. Our handyman left in the middle of fixing our shower to go drive his cab. Our neighbors, who smoked all the time, possibly even in their sleep, tossed their trash into our backyard until the city made them stop. Someone stole the front wheel off one of our bikes. Over Thanksgiving weekend a mouse moved in. (We believe it was scared away by my wife’s screams, which shattered several windows on West Green.) This house was the worst place I’ve ever lived, and I say that as someone who once rented an apartment in a building where a homeless guy with a warrant out for his arrest used to nap on top of our washer and dryer.

Much like my Irish ancestors who lived in squalor when they moved to America, we took refuge in public establishments. As citizens of Los Angeles, where it’s not uncommon to borrow against your mortgage to pay for happy hour, we were delighted to discover that Athens remains, well, not Disneyland for Drunks, because Disneyland is kind of expensive, so let’s say Kennywood for Drunks. Bellying up to the bar and buying two cocktails with a $5 bill and getting change back is something you will Facebook your friends in Chicago/L.A./D.C./New York about.

Wrench/shower handle

As 30-somethings, we found Tony’s and Jackie O’s to be age-appropriate, and we enjoyed a few nights at Lucky’s and The Pub, where aquariums are still inexpensive and you no longer have to hand over your ID to get one.

A word about Uptown fashion: Everything has changed. It’s not uncommon now for men to wear long pajama bottoms or sweatpants to the bar. Someday soon a guy is going to walk into the The Crystal wearing nothing but a soiled bath mat and no one will notice.  

Where some guys seem to be competing to see who can meet the most women while putting in the least amount of effort, many women do the opposite. They dress up as if they’re going to a really hot dance club, even though there are no really hot dance clubs in Athens. You imagine them thinking, “Well, in the time it will take me to do my hair, makeup and nails, put on my clothes and pre-game, maybe someone will build a dance club next to the CVS and we can go there.”

Eventually you will explore Athens beyond Uptown, and you will be pleasantly surprised by the number of activities you can partake in that don’t conclude with you being yelled at by Athens’ finest while you’re passed out in someone’s shrubbery. We went full-moon kayaking at Stroud’s Run, rode zip lines near Logan, hiked Old Man’s Cave, rode the bike path to The Plains, attended the Pawpaw Festival, took in a few plays at Stuart’s Opera House, ate fancy dinners at Rhapsody in Nelsonville and 9 Tables in Athens, rented a cabin in the Hocking Hills and went to Shade Winery. OK, there’s no escaping it. You will drink in Athens, but at least at Shade you can do it all fancy near a pond.

You will inevitably notice that much has changed since you’ve been here. There are a couple of tanning places on Court Street. Wal-Mart is here now, which is incredibly convenient. The new Baker Center is nice. Kroger sells sushi. There is a budding local food and beer scene thanks to businesses such as Jackie O’s and Vino de Milo. Shy students who once stared at their shoes now stare at their phones. And just like when you went to school here, there are a good number of OU students who radiate energy and intelligence, and it feels good to be around them. This place still takes in timid 18-year-olds and spits out confident 22-year-olds.

Should you go back? Should you return to Athens for a semester or a summer or a year or for the rest of your life? That’s up to you.

We lived in a decrepit house where we were terrorized by wildlife in our own living room, shared a roof with neighbors who don’t comprehend they live in a world inhabited by other people, waged daily battle with parking enforcement and prayed that no one in town needed a ride to the airport while the handyman was fixing our home, which for an unforgiveable amount of time, had no lock on the front door.

We’ll probably be back.

Joe Donatelli is a freelance journalist. He was managing editor of The Post from 1997-98. You can follow him on Twitter: @joedonatelli.

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