Sunday, October 19, 2003

Cincinnati was made for riverboat life

Leaning on a ledge in the sunshine, watching the Creole Queen glide by like a frosted cake with an eggbeater outboard, you can almost, just about, nearly dream yourself back to an earlier Tom Sawyer time, when Cincinnati's Delta hub was a muddy riverbank.

For a few days of Tall Stacks, our city found its own time zone again, living life at a slow walk, drifting along on the easy rhythm of the river.

You could feel it on the Serpentine Wall, looking down from the bridges, listening to banjos on the landing or, probably best of all, from the deck of a riverboat.

My favorite view of Tall Stacks this year was the one that catches you by surprise as you walk across the grass on Bicentennial Commons. As you emerge from a grove of fruit trees wearing red berry beads, the river peeks through the yellow leaves, sparkling in the sun like a blue-green magic spell. And then a giant relic of floating history the size of a drive-in movie screen almost takes your breath away.

It's like stumbling on a Gone With the Wind plantation bobbing along in the middle of the Ohio River.

Even the trees lean out over the water to see what's coming next.

Thursday was a day to use up a whole crate of cliches and several truckloads of superlatives. Beautiful day. Perfect weather. Doesn't get any better than this. What a great day for Cincinnati.

Snatches of conversations floated on a flirting breeze.

"... too many people,"' someone griped as the crowd gridlocked its way past a booth for Cincinnati Water Works (free samples) and the Metropolitan Sewer District (no thank you).

When's the last time we heard about "too many people" in downtown Cincinnati?

"Whoever did it, it is rude," a teacher barked as she herded a litter of grade-school puppies.

"Wow, I need to get a closer look," said a boy who looked about 7.

"People want their pictures taken with us," Cincinnati Police Lt. Kurt Byrd said with a laugh. "I guess they think we're boat captains."

The children ran and skipped, while an elderly couple slowly made their way down to a boat ramp, negotiating each step like a mortgage.

The General Jackson out of Nashville went waltzing by, all 274 feet of her, looking like a Holiday Inn on a raft.

Once upon a time, mournful steamboat whistles sang Cincinnati's song and the names of the boats spoke of adventure and faraway places. Majestic. Delta Queen. The Belle of Louisville.

Once upon a time, floating hotels that paddle along at the speed of an afternoon shadow racing an hour hand were fast enough.

Today, it's almost inconceivable to move that slowly, except for a brief joy ride that takes less time than waiting in line to board.

James Gleick, author of a book called Faster, says we suffer these days from "hurry sickness." Symptoms include anxiety. Clipped speech. Fragment sentences. High blood pressure. Frustration. Stunted relationships with friends and family.

We call it "stress" or other names, as we sit on a super freeway - crawling at the speed of the Creole Queen.

We can't turn back the clock. But maybe our riverboat past helps to remind us why Cincinnati's pocket watch often seems a half-step slow compared to the rest of the hurry-up world.

Maybe it helps to remind us that our past and our future are not in the suburbs. Only a great river city can make history come alive and glide by like a dream.

E-mail or call 768-8301.

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