135 Toledo, OH: The King

Rudy's is one of Packo's rival hot dog stands across town. The owner, Andy, was the brother-in-law of the man who worked next door to my office in Chicago. The restaurant was a 1950s-style drive-in, like you might find in a Hopper painting. It had large plate glass windows on three sides. Inside, vinyl slide-in booths bookended linoleum-topped tables.

Andy was working in his office when I arrived, but he came out to greet me. He was in his fifties, meaty and dark-skinned, with big ears, and weary brown eyes behind thick-lensed glasses. The red skin of his neck bore a white surgical scar. He spoke with a deep compassionate tone and an accent belying his Greek origins.

"Let me get you some ice tea, and we'll sit down." We sat in the first booth by the door, mysterious mismatched partners like Hopper characters. In fact, like the title of the Hopper painting here in Toledo, we were "two on the aisle."

"You won't be able to find much isolation in Toledo," he warned me. "It's very diverse. The people of Toledo, they like variety. You go to certain small towns, all the restaurants is hamburgers. In Toledo you find anything. For a while Toledo was used by most of the big chains as a testing ground. 'If we don't make it in Toledo, we won't make it anywhere.'

"In the summertime, every week there is a festival. This weekend coming up, the Islamic Center has an open house. Two weeks ago was the Syrian-Lebanese. A week after was the German-American Festival. Two weeks after that is Greek-American." He chuckled at the extensive list. "In every language, they have these things.

"What else?" he asked, shrugging.

"I'm surprised," I said, "that it's so small a town yet so diverse."

"Yes. So am I."

"Do all the communities get along?" I prodded.

"No problems as far as I know. There was a report in the paper about a week ago or so about the census. They say a neighborhood is 90% black. Or it's 90% white. But it just shows you where people live. It doesn't necessarily reflect their attitudes. Well, just to give you an example. The young girl there behind the counter?" He pointed to a lanky blond teen laughing along with her weary-looking thirty-something female co-worker during the dead mid-afternoon hour. "She's from Russia. The other girl is white, but she has two kids from a black man. What I'm trying to say is: The mixture is getting in such a way that you don't find people in isolation. In my place it is not recognized, the racial lines. I work with all kinds of people all day long. And I see all kinds all day, as customers. You have Hispanic customers, you have the black, you have the white, you have all kinds. You have some little problem with them, if you fight it, you lose your best friend. That's what community's all about."

He rubbed his hairy hands together and looked me in the eye. "I been doing all the talking. Tell me what else you want to know."

"How long have you lived in Toledo?" I asked him.

"Since 1969. It's a nice city. Love it. Toledo, back when I came, it was known for the glass, and Toledo Scales. They're not here no more. Well the glass company keeps changing, Libbey and Owens, but it's the same one. For example, this is from Libbey." He picked up the glass my iced tea was in. "Some of the changes that you see, they hit you right away. I just came back from West Toledo. And I looked to my right on the corner of Sylvania and Lewis there. And I remember back in the old days there used to be an old bar there. I used to sell to those people. A big Rite-Aid Pharmacy now. They demolished the whole block. One of the changes that I think is most noticeable is that the Greek Community then, they were more or less concentrated in one area of the city. Now, they are all over the place. Same thing with the Polish Americans. Everybody's everywhere. It is changed a lot. I think for the good.

"America is a melting pot," he continued. "Toledo's a pool. You get to Chicago or you get to New York or one of the big cities, and you find Chinatown or the Greek Town and you find them isolated. The ethnic communities are in certain areas of the city. That is not the way it is here.

"Uhh, what else?" he mused and rubbed his chin. "Basically that's it about the town. Small enough but have everything."

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