BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer
The stress from feeling hopeless is getting to Eric McDaniel.
It's not just that year-end finals are a week away for the 26-year-old University of Cincinnati senior.
And it's not only his schedule that's bringing him down. He has been working part time at a law firm and going to school full time for 16 consecutive quarters.
More than anything, Eric feels stressed out and hopeless because he's uncomfortable in his hometown.
"I have a grudge against Cincinnati," Eric declared.
"It's a racist town."
He said that and bit down hard into a soft slice of cheese pizza. Eric chewed in momentary silence as we sat at the coffee bar of the Alley Cat Restaurant on UC's Corryville campus. This was the start of another "Lunch with Cliff," where I treat and people tell me what's on their minds.
Normally, Eric shares the coffee bar and the lunch hour with three other students. They talk about the music videos on the TV over the bar -- "lots of half-naked women" -- as well as "the stuff in life that really matters, like love and being honest. We don't talk about classes or exams."
This noontime, his friends are getting ready for exams. So, they're no-shows at the Alley Cat.
But that's OK. Eric is more than holding his own. He has plenty on his mind and plenty that he minds about Cincinnati. "Everything here is "be calm,' "don't get too excited.' I've been to Birmingham, Cleveland, Chicago and Atlanta. I served in the Army in Germany. Cincinnati is the only place I know where being excited is bad." Sadly, the place the Clifton man calls home is also the town where he feels most estranged.
"I walk down the street, and white people see me as a threat because I'm black. They step off the sidewalk when I approach them, like I really need that much room.
"I'm big," he added. Eric weighs 190 pounds and stands 6-3. "But I'm not that big."
He stands at crosswalks "and women hold on to their purses. Like I'm some crook who's going to grab them. People pull up in cars and lock their doors right in front of me, like I'm going to jump in and drive off.
"Just because someone who's the same color as I am did these stupid things, they assume I'm going to do them, too."
Eric McDaniel is no thug. He is a college student, a marketing major whose desire is "to work smart and get rich by investing." How does it feel physically, I ask, when people see him coming and lock their doors?
"It makes me feel sick," he said, "and I do this." He doubled over as if he had just been sucker-punched. "It hurts in the pit of my stomach."
Eric speaks without a trace of bitterness. He's more exasperated than angry. But what he says could fill volumes. More than any commission on race relations or statistical analysis of differences between the races, his comments put a human face on the subtle, yet pernicious, effects of racism.
And he knows what racism can lead to. Left unchecked, it fosters a helpless sense of hopelessness.
"I feel I really don't matter," he said. "There's nothing I could say to anybody in this city that could change my plight or the plight of anybody like me."
Eric's spirits brightened when Erin Miles, a third-year legal assistant major, sat down at the coffee bar.
"We can converse about anything," Eric said of Erin. "Even if we don't agree."
They launched into a discussion about relationships, creating a man vs. woman dialogue worthy of Oprah.
Erin brought up the subject: "Men and women who argue."
She favors arguments. "When you argue, it shows you care. If you don't argue, you don't care."
"You know what really shows you care?" he asked.
"Not getting into stupid arguments."
Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.