No cows graze in Columbus, but did you see the unicorn?

From a story in The Columbus Dispatch written when I was writer-in-residence at the James Thurber House. During my summer in Ohio and the land of Buckeye donuts, I served as a writing coach at the Dispatch, taught writing as a visiting professor at Ohio State University, and led a class of young writers at the Thurber House's camp for kids. And I can confirm that there were ghosts - and at least one bat - in the attic of the Thurber House.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

I’ve been listening to people complain that Columbus, Ohio is too big.

Others complain about its reputation as a cow town.

I haven’t seen any cows.

But then again, I’m from New York. I’m not sure that I would recognize one.

I haven’t seen anyone wearing overalls Downtown, except me.

But Columbus is beginning to sound like New York City.

Cars head north or south on High Street with every window rolled down for cross-ventilation and the pounding beat of a stereo thundering out into the street. When someone drives by at night, the windows rattle and the walls vibrate.

In New York, these deafening car stereos are considered a mark of success by arrogant teen-agers, most of whom have never heard the smooth sounds of Frank Sinatra and couldn’t care less about James Thurber.

Once newly minted musicmobile, piloted by a young man who wouldn’t have heard three firetrucks wailing behind him, was so loud that I swear I saw the unicorn in the garden move.

Well, it’s not an actual unicorn.

The unicorn is a bronze statue in a lily garden across the street from Thurber House, 77 Jefferson Avenue, that celebrates one of Thurber’s best-known tales, A Unicorn in the Garden.

In the story, a man wakes up his wife to tell her that there’s a unicorn in the garden and it’s eating roses.

“The unicorn is a mythical beast,” she says.

She calls him a “booby” and tells him she will put him in the “booby hatch.” The wife calls the police and a psychiatrist, and when they enter the house, she says, “My husband saw a unicorn this morning.” They cart her off and ask the husband if he has seen a unicorn.

“Of course not,” he says. “The unicorn is a mythical beast.”

The husband lives happily ever after.

Now if this scenario were repeated in New York, it would take on a different twist altogether.

For one thing, most people don’t have gardens, so the closest thing would be a terrace. A Unicorn on the Terrace doesn’t quite have the same ring.

Rose don’t grow on terraces, so the unicorn would be eating a potted plant that couldn’t be identified or a leftover wooden dresser that one was meaning to throw out but couldn’t get out of the apartment.

When the wife calls the husband a booby, he would probably ask her to repeat it into a video camera so that he would have evidence for their divorce proceedings.

Psychiatrists don’t make house calls.

The police, arriving 45 minutes later with their guns drawn, would search the house for unicorn, going through closets and cabinets before filling out a missing-person report.

Animal-rights activists would complain that because the unicorn couldn’t be found, there must be a police cover-up.

There are plenty of boobies in New York.

I’m certain that there are plenty of boobies in Columbus who resemble Thurber’s people.

But they’re spread out, not packed into skyscraper apartment buildings as in New York. Walls are thin there, hallways and entranceways congested, and more people know your business than you think.

And they have no patience.

I’ve crossed streets in Columbus while 25 cars wait to turn. So far, no one has honked the horn, bellowed through the window, cursed at me or given me the finger.

In Manhattan, my foot wouldn’t even be off the curb before one, if not all, of the above had occurred.

People walk in New York City. Not necessarily by choice, but because it’s the only way to navigate through streets and around people.

I stopped at the mall in Columbus (we don’t have malls in New York City) and found at least a half-dozen shoe stores specializing in walking shoes.

But I rarely see anyone walking.

I’m looked at strangely as people toot their horns and ask me if I need a ride. Being sensible, I won’t accept a ride from a stranger.

So the rest of the world drives by with windows rolled up, air conditioning blowing and music going full blast, and I’ve got concrete under my feet.

I like the exercise, and it helps burn off those Buckeye Donuts.

People here aren’t as thin as in New York.

In New York, you pay more to eat less. There are women’s clothing shops that carry only sizes 6, 8, and 10. I figure I’d have to buy two of everything and sew them together.

In Columbus, however, women have hips, and there are plenty of size 12s on the rack.

There’s less makeup, too.

In my neighborhood, a trip to the supermarket to buy dog food necessitates wearing at least mascara, foundation, concealer, eye shadow, blush, and lipstick.

I haven’t seen too much lipstick on line at Kroger.

It really comes down to one thing: New Yorkers think vertically, Ohioans horizontally.

Developers spread out from Columbus, swallowing farms and towns.

In New York, developers gobble up sun and sky.

People think differently when they’re stacked on top of each other.

You can be anonymous in New York, but you really can’t get away from anyone. In Central Park, you can’t really lie under a tree and meditate. You could doze off and find your wallet and shoes missing. Or worse.

Twenty minutes out of Columbus, you can find some woods that a bulldozer hasn’t touched – yet.

Even Downtown, you can get away from civilization, if only for a moment.

I walked through Deaf School Park and looked at the shrubbery. A New Yorker wouldn’t appreciate the topiary garden. I figured that someone must have had a lot of time on his hands.

Next to these elegantly sculpted Parisian women lay a (real) man sleeping on top of a picnic table, his arms folded over his ample middle, a can of beer lying on its side.

That’s a familiar sight at home.

A couple from Columbus described themselves as common folk.

In New York, you describe yourself as type A or type B, give your astrological sign and generally end the conversation with “I have an appointment with my therapist.”

I wouldn’t say that things are slow here in Columbus, but one evening I hit a particularly rough spot. So I spent the night reading the telephone directory.

The Columbus telephone book is a rather unusual one. I’ve never seen so many names that are also nouns and adjectives.

There are Blues, Greens, Blacks, Whites, Browns, Gray, and a Maroon.

I found a Yin and a Yang, a Tootles and a Zook, more than one Rambo, Farmers and Holsteins, a Cowman, Lamb, Hogg, and a Steer.

It’s a book fill of Queens, Princes, Jesters, Bishops, Damsels, a Shah, a Munster, a few Looneys, Cranks and Crooks.

You can search for a Daft, a Bobo that’s Boffo and go out with a Bang.

There are Lemons and Limes, a Missouri and a Nebraska, Kings and Kongs, Friend and Foe, a Hobo with a few Hicks, a Ding and a Dong with a few Frisbys tossed around for Good Luck.

You can Hoot at Fate and Ho and Ha at an Idol.

Man, Gents, Pop, Daughters, Cousins, Dames, a Bridgegroom and a Groom could be Wedd and then have a Fling with a Heimlich and Gallop with Fickle Fowls.

You can Yo and Yep, Woo a Tweet and a Twitty, and Zapp a Zag.

I didn’t find any Cows in Columbus.

But I found a few Moos.

But let’s not Dilley Dalley.

I think there’s a unicorn on my terrace.

Originally published in The Columbus Dispatch. Arlene Schulman lived in Columbus, Ohio for a summer as journalist-in-residence at the Thurber House. Originally posted here on December 2010. 


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