U.S. News

08.04.14

Toledo: The Town Too Tough for Toxic Water

Toledo, Ohio, just spent three days without water. It’s unlikely anyone in the town noticed.

The city where I was born and raised, Toledo, Ohio, just suffered a three-day water crisis. Five hundred thousand people couldn’t drink the water because an algae bloom in Lake Erie produced a toxin called microcystin. The toxin is so poisonous that that you couldn’t use Toledo’s water to bush your teeth or take a bath and it would kill your pit bull if you put it in his dish. You couldn’t boil the water because that would increase the concentration of the toxin. Exposure to microcystin results in abnormal liver function, diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, numbness, and dizziness.

Or, as we Toledoans call it, “Monday Morning.” I would have worried about this water crisis if it had happened in some fancy place where la-di-da people carry spigoted bottles of water with them everywhere they go—as if they were their own hamsters. They wouldn’t have been able to handle it. But la-di-da people also buy that water in Fiji and have it shipped thousands of miles, so maybe they would have been fine. In any event, screw them.

Toledo is a tough city, a factory town, a freight train junction, a lake steamer port. You know that poem Carl Sandburg wrote?

Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the    
nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders…

In the first place it’s poetry—pantywaist stuff. And it’s supposed to be about Chicago, them with their ritzy Miracle Mile shopping and their hoity-toity architecture tours and their art museums full of stuff that any Toledo kid could paint with primer on the fenders of a ’72 Pontiac Grand Am.

Toledo is the City of the Big Shoulders. When I was growing up we had high school football teams with average defensive linemen bigger than anybody on the Seattle Seahawks. A weak-kneed poet-type like Sandburg probably didn’t have the nerve to go to Toledo.

Toledo is full of Hard Harps, Bucket-Head Krauts, Bus-Sized Bohunks, Huge Hunkies, Mean Hill Billys, and Bad-Ass Blacks—and I’m talking John Henry-was-a-steel-driving-man bad-ass blacks.

And then there are the tough Jews. Local gambling legend “Schick” Shapiro didn’t get his razor blade nickname by being a sharp CPA.

There are tough Lebanese too. M*A*S*H actor Jamie Farr grew up in Toledo. His family ran a butcher shop in a part of town so tough that their specialty was broken leg of lamb. (Joke stolen from Rodney Dangerfield, who told me he’d played Toledo. “Tough town,” he said.)

“How tough is Toledo? We’ve always gotten our tap water from Lake Erie. I mean back when that body of water used to catch fire.”

And there are the Poles. Toledo Polish joke: “How many Polacks does it take to beat the crap out of you? One. And she’s his grandmother.

How tough is Toledo?  We’ve always gotten our tap water from Lake Erie. I mean back when that body of water used to catch fire. I remember being out on the Lake in a cabin cruiser with my uncle (who ran the pinball and slot machine rackets in Toledo), fishing for carp and lamprey and the occasional washtub full of concrete filled with the pointy loafers of some Fredo Corleone who’d tried to muscle in on the pinball and slot machine rackets in Toledo. Erie was a sewer. We would have considered an algae bloom to be a welcome sign of ecological renewal.

You may wonder why Jamie Farr’s character on M*A*S*H, Toledo native Corporal Klinger, wore a dress. Because that’s how tough he was. Klinger’s references to Tony Packo’s back in Toledo (damn good Hungarian hotdogs) indicate he’s supposed to be a Hunkie or a Bohunk or Polack. Probably went to Central Catholic. Klinger wasn’t wearing a dress to get out of the war.  He was wearing a dress to get back in the rumbles with the rich mackerel-snappers who went to all-boys St. Francis Assisi. (“A sissy”—get it?)

You know who else was tough enough to wear a dress in Toledo, Ohio? Gloria Steinem. She’s from there too.

Toledo takes a lot of ribbing. What do you do for fun in Toledo?  Go out and leave a six-pack at the Tomb of the Unknown Bowler. Yes, we bowl in Toledo. And we throw the ball side-arm.

Then there’s that John Denver song, “Saturday Night in Toledo, Ohio.”

They roll back the sidewalks
precisely at ten,
And the people who live there are
not seen again.

Twerpy folk-singer. No wonder nobody invited him to the VFW, the American Legion, the Polish Eagles, the Friendly Sons of Hibernia, the Free Masons, the Moose Lodge, the Elks Hall, the UAW clubhouse, or Tony Packo’s, where he would have seen everyone having a beer.

Which brings me to my point about the recent water crisis in Toledo. Who the hell ever drank water in Toledo? Danny Thomas was also from Toledo. He invented the comic “spit-take.” Why did he do a spit-take?  Because somebody put water in his glass.

What we use water for in Toledo is mud—the Toledo Mud Hens. Jim Thorpe played for the Mud Hens in 1921 and hit .358.

When the pioneers reached Toledo it was called “Frogtown” because the place was a swamp.  Think the Frogtown settlers rinsed their tonsils with something that was “too wet to plow and too thick to drink”?  They nursed their babies from the corn licker jug.  

As for bathing, a beer rise is supposed to give a healthy sheen to ladies’ hair, so why not soak the rest of the body in it? And beer instead of juice boxes for the kiddies or in your pit bull’s doggie dish? Keeps the kids quiet and puts the pit bull in top form.

When the water “crisis” began I emailed my high school friend Lenny back in T-Town and asked him how things were going.

Lenny answered, “Got plenty of ice (bags in my freezer that were already made), plenty of beer, wine, and scotch. Called my friends Cindy and Gary and they came over and we put steaks on the grill and smoked cigars and got drunk. What water shortage?”