Lane Avenue

Lane-Avenue-Suspension-Bridge

Though High Street might represent the city’s nerve-packed spine and, well, to properly extend the metaphor, I suppose you’d have to say Broad is Columbus’s waist, though to me it seems much more like a carpenter’s level, stabilizing all with a steady straight line through the middle, in this space I would like to throw out the hypothesis that no other road in town boasts the wattage per square foot as Lane Avenue. It isn’t even my favorite avenue the city has to offer – that honor would have to go to the two-headed Henderson/Cooke monster, charting a seriously strange trajectory through a series of different locales. But you have to at least entertain the argument that over the relatively short stretch of roughly four and a half miles, Lane Avenue is the most densely packed action hub within C-bus city limits.

For first-hand proof, and this only occurred to me a few days ago, while contemplating this piece, I can offer the experience of working four different jobs on W. Lane Avenue alone – The Cooker, Camille’s, Tommy’s Pizza and Wild Oats. It makes as much sense to mention these establishments at the outset as anywhere else, so here we go:

The Cooker:  300 W. Lane Avenue

Though my friend Bruce had warned me to steer clear of  this operation, I was hard up for holiday cash and decided to wait tables here part time anyway. This would have been 2003 and they were on their last legs. By this point it was one of those places – and many of you have experienced such, I’m sure – where management is taking it out on the help because there aren’t any people coming through the doors. Apparently they thought we worked in the advertising department or something. As a result, when working doubles, some of us would stroll up and drown our sorrows at The Library between the two shifts. Needless to say this pretty much negated the whole “holiday cash” concept and may have put me in the red on this enterprise. During more prosperous times they were notorious for scheduling small armies of servers for every shift, then cutting people immediately as the level of need became apparent. This could explain why their ads were pretty much a constant presence in the classified section. Until the entire franchise went out of business in 2004, that is.

Camille’s Sidewalk Café: 1305 W. Lane Avenue

I wound up at this one on my own accord, and really enjoyed my time here. This was the 2004 edition of my “holiday cash” experiments, and proved a shade more successful. I was actually part of the original crew who opened this store. Craig, the manager of this operation, was about my age or possibly a little younger even, and must have been one of the best character judges on record – his hiring process was to continue bebopping around behind the counter, without pause, making a wrap or what have you, while firing questions at the interviewee, and would decide on the spot whether to hire this person or not. And during my time here, I have to say, this method of his produced almost nary a dud.

This location was the first restaurant in Ohio to have one of those flavor adding machines for the soft drinks, whereby you could pump cherry or vanilla or whatever into your pop. At least this is what some bigwig told us when he flew out for a motivational pow-wow, prior to the store opening. They played good music here and the work was easy yet fast paced. Food was also pretty decent, and I didn’t stick around long enough to get bored with it.

Unfortunately you do run into some baffling decisions from management now and then, basically anywhere you might work. They were happy with my production and had moved me up the ranks – if you really want to call it that – to their core handful of store openers. There were some brutal winter mornings trudging here in the pre-dawn hours, let me tell you. Still, this was only a part-time job. When I asked to have the week from Christmas to New Year’s off, they refused to grant it. So I informed them that I would be quitting, instead. Sometimes these places shoot themselves in the foot because they want to make some weird point, and are afraid of setting a precedent.

Tommy’s Pizza: 1350 W. Lane Avenue

This place was even better than Camille’s in the part-time side gig department, and I still feel bad about the manner in which I left. The manager, Teresa, was a shopper at Wild Oats and that’s how I landed this job. I had promised her I wouldn’t flake out and just stop showing up…but then eventually flaked out and just stopped showing up. Matt was getting married in Montana and asked me to be his best man, and I never quite got around to asking for the time off or lining up anyone to cover my shifts. And never went back, subsequently.

“You should have told me!” she chided, the next time I saw her in Wild Oats. And what can you say, she was right.

There are actually two Tommy’s Pizza locations within just a couple miles of one another on West Lane. Prior to getting hired here, I’d only eaten at the one down the hill, on campus. This Upper Arlington-ish location, at 1350, it has two pizza ovens – one of the more modern conveyor belt types, but also an old fashioned Italian oven, which we only used by request. Demand for that remained pretty robust, though, and on Friday nights, the owner, Rick, had a tradition of coming in for a few hours to man the Italian oven himself. He basically received the local celebrity treatment during these shifts, as customer after customer would make a point of drifting past the counter to wave and say hi. From where I was standing, though, he sure had a deer-in-headlights look about him most of the time, during these encounters, playing along but trying to figure out who this person might be.

Those of us on the pizza making line had a TV mounted above us, and you got pretty good after a while at vaguely paying attention to it at the same time you were assembling your order. Jeopardy seemed to be on half of the hours I spent working here, and workers would race to see who could shout on the correct answer fastest. After a while you got exceptionally good at sensing if anyone was behind you, because as crammed in as we were, with just a tiny walkway separating us from the conveyor belt oven, one false move could spell disaster.

The pizza here was curious in that one ingredient alone seemed to transform it from pedestrian to magical. I tried it both ways, and for whatever reason, this garlic salt we sprinkled on top kicked their pies into some other realm of awesomeness. I’m not sure why this would be the case, just a winning combination of ingredient alchemy. Though trying this at home with basically every other pizza brand ordered or baked throughout the years, garlic salt has never had anywhere near the same impact as it would on a Tommy’s offering.

As the person firing the pizzas into one end of the conveyor oven would not be the same person retrieving it on the other end, you had to have codes for transmitting what was special about this pizza if, say, someone made a request that wasn’t immediately obvious. These would be communicated by placing one slice of a pepper atop everything else in the exact center of the pizza. I don’t remember what the various colors meant, but a red bell pepper might indicate no salt, a banana pepper might mean let it get a little crispy, et cetera. Then you’d take the pepper off before traying or boxing the pizza.

A couple of times I was handed the giant pitchfork for popping air bubbles in the pizza. You would stand at one open side of the conveyor and stab them as they slid into your realm, a surprisingly entertaining task. One night, a bunch of us were bored and decided to bake pizzas in all manners of weird configurations. Among the most surprising finds was that strawberries on a pizza have no flavor whatsoever.

Wild Oats: 1555 W. Lane Avenue

With nearly six years of service time here, I didn’t even have to look this address up. It hasn’t changed, though Whole Foods bought them out, knocked down the building and re-established a base camp in the same spot. I actually don’t even know where to begin describing this place. A whole book could certainly be written about my experiences here – and has been, actually. I finished my first draft quite some time ago and it just might see the light of day one of these years.

There are in a way so many hysterical tales about this wacky establishment that I’m too paralyzed to even find the starting point right now. To summarize the basic dynamic, though, the fate of this particular store and the company as a whole – which at its peak ran to roughly 150 franchises – demonstrates what happens when you take a hippie concept and attempt, with mostly unsuccessful results, to convert it into your standard monolithic grocery corporation, a la Kroger or Meijer or, yes, even Whole Foods.

When I started here in 2001, we were doing $300,000 a week in not that big of a store, in a neighborhood that wasn’t even really geared toward any kind of major retail enterprise. The mall next door was still a ghost town of a dump, Howard’s barber shop was still chopping away, diagonally across the street, and much of the current business landscape further west on Lane didn’t yet exist. Our own shoddy, patched over building seemed to be sinking an inch or so per year on the back end, a state that led many to dub it “California.”

By the time I left six years later, we were doing about half the business, despite the mall next door being completely revamped and reinvigorated with actual paying customers. They’d briefly attempted jamming our aisles with a bunch of conventional products alongside the natural, organic, and local ones, a disaster from which the company and definitely our location never really recovered. The CEO was an alleged “turnaround” guru who golden parachuted out of this mess before we completely went down in flames. I was still under employ here when the announcement was made that Whole Foods had bought us out, throwing what was still their closest competitor a lifesaver in many respects, but they hadn’t gotten around to changing the names over or implementing their entire structure yet before I left.

For just about the duration of my days here, we’ve got these two corporate tools brought over from the conventional world, Bob and Tom, who never gelled with the workforce whatsoever. Seemingly on a daily basis you’d have these Dilbert-level bizarre exchanges with one or both of the guys which would leave you even more confused than before. And while we had our share of great customers, approximately 1% I would say were so horrible it was like nothing you’d ever experienced before, they’d have you on the brink of walking out on a nightly basis. On his first day working back in the meat department, my buddy Dan is attempting to talk me down from a series of bad encounters, telling me, “try to calm down, Jay, you shouldn’t let these people get to you…” Halfway through his second day, now he’s the one with teeth clenched, shaking his head and staring over at me with an expression that says, this is absolutely insane. “I’m not gonna last here too long, I can tell already,” he says.

So yeah, a day and a half has him talking like this, grasping the very nature of the Wild Oats experience.

It is true that good friends like him were one of the few things that kept me around during these hard times. That and we meat cutters were paid an exorbitant amount, enough so that I quit Kroger to focus exclusively on this place. However, this thrill is mitigated to some extent in that we were receiving extremely cliquish if not downright hateful vibes from roughly half of our coworkers. Part of it is that we are butchers working in a land rife with vegetarians and vegans, a sin which makes us, as Dan puts it, on par with “baby killers.” Some of it I believe has to do with jealously that our department is making more than any of the other non-management folk in the store, and probably some of them as well. Fortunately, the other half of my coworkers are so awesome and hysterical that I have better, wilder times with them – before, during, and after work – than anywhere else that I’ve ever punched a time clock. And this is saying a lot, actually, considering if nothing else the various places where I’ve waited tables, for example.

More on that establishment will surely follow in these pages. In the meantime, I’m not really sure that an east to west sequential roundup of the addresses works on this page; the eastern portion of this road is mostly residential and, while partying at a couple different locations among these over the years, that’s about all I have to say about those blocks for the time being. Here are some scattershot notes on various high points along West Lane Avenue, however:

The Jailhouse: I actually can’t find the address for this one. Surely it will turn up one of these days.

Fanning further west along Lane finds first a towering cluster of dormitories, one window of which, eighteen or nineteen stories high, proudly harbors a neon Bud Light sign. Visible from blocks away in any direction, this glittering, glowing advertisement reaches people like a beacon, calling everyone within the signal’s radius to cast their cares aside and party. We can’t help but conjecture as to its owner’s identity, whether a polished ladies man leading thousands into battle, or a lonely recluse begging for just one person to arrive upon his doorstep. Or maybe not even a guy at all but a member of the fairer sex, some hedonistic hellcat that can drink every male she knows under the table. 

Beyond these dormitories, the Varsity Club, and further down Ashley’s, a Holiday Inn, an all-night convenience store, a gas station, a restaurant. But interlacing them like stitches are tiny apartment complexes and houses of every architectural stripe and era, high rises even, and a smattering of university buildings.

Hineygate: Informal name (not that there’s a formal one) for long-running tailgate party, Saturdays during Buckeye football games. Lane Avenue is closed down in its entirety along this stretch, and open containers are permitted. My friend Harold somehow lost one – but just one – shoe here during a 2001 installment, which tells you pretty much all you need to know.  This tradition began in 1983 in the Holiday Inn parking lot (328 W. Lane Avenue) up until 2009. Ground zero for this huge party, with live music, food, and alcohol aplenty, later moved to the Varsity Club (278 W. Lane Avenue) instead.

 

St. John Arena: Well, well, as it turns out, though I did not know this until just now, while it certainly appears to face Lane Avenue, i.e. this is the only side from which I’ve entered the building, it actually has a Woody Hayes Drive address. I saw one OSU hockey game here and also came once or twice for their public ice skating night on Tuesdays. Also dropped Damon off and picked him up here when he was on one of the OSU hockey squads there for a while.

The Schottenstein Center: Okay, so clearly they just like to give these huge buildings the addresses of funky little side roads running behind them. I’ve never heard anyone mention that this was located on Borror Dr. When describing it to people, it has always been on the corner of Lane and Olentangy. However, I’m leaving it here for now because, like the St. John Arena, it’s a can’t miss piece of the landscape if you’re driving up Lane. Numerous concerts attended here over the years, but zero OSU basketball games.

Across the bridge spanning our dormant Olentangy, past this enormous indoor stadium, these signposts of westerly campus sprawl. Leading the way along Lane through an impressive arboretum, underneath the 315 highway overpass and into the pastoral OSU owned farms, before university owned property terminates uphill in the old money nobility of aptly named Upper Arlington.

Kingsdale Gynecologic Associates: 1313-1315 W. Lane Avenue. I only mention this because there is one curious feature to this building, which you can see from the road but may have driven past countless times without noticing. If you look in the middle bank of second story windows, you can see the old neon front sign for what used to be Fiesta Lanes. It’s hanging above the stairwell there as a tribute to the bowling alley which formerly occupied this plot of land.

Half Price Books:  1375 W. Lane Avenue. Other locations in town are larger, but I always liked this one the best. It has the best atmosphere and, for whatever reason, I’ve consistently enjoyed better luck picking up great finds here.

1486 W. Lane Avenue:  Was Howard’s Barber Shop from at least the 1970s onward, if not earlier, until OSU bought them out and demolished the building in 2004. Therefore it currently houses the Ohio State University Office Of Advancement. Regarding Howard’s, I started getting my hair cut here in the late 90s, when they told me at work that I needed to trim things up substantially. One slow march home and a phone book consultation later, I’m in my car, cresting the hill of West Lane Avenue beyond campus. The unfamiliar altitude atop this hill, Upper Arlington, its pastoral tree lined prosperity, the flush green lawns between these well spaced houses rich, detached, immoderate, much like the residents themselves. As if fertilized by proxy through the conspicuous manure aroma, enameling the breeze here via adjacent OSU farms. I find myself at a modest wooden shack, painted bloodsucker red, lost amid this opulence, a mile west of the university. This charming little old school barber shop reminiscent of ye olde Mayberry, with two older gentlemen chopping locks and, somehow, a really hot brunette chick whose waterfall ringlets drop halfway down her back. Time slows down in a warp light years removed from the outside world, though comfortably. Eight dollars apparently doesn’t reserve the brunette’s chair, but it, and a two dollar tip, will buy a brand new me.  

There were actually two guys named Howard, Warner and Salzgaber, conducting the barbering here, along with that aforementioned really nice looking brunette girl. I never had enough nerve to specifically request the curly haired brunette, would usually end up with one of the Howards. Salzgaber bought the business from Warner in 2000, and moved to W Fifth Avenue in Grandview after OSU came knocking (down). Unfortunately, Howard S. passed away in 2017, but his son Danny keeps the family tradition alive down there.

Graeter’s Ice Cream: 1534 W. Lane Avenue. A semi-regular go to back in the Wild Oats days, when you needed a little spirit booster. Typically the gopher would be running over there with at least 3-4 orders on behalf of his colleagues.

Shops On Lane Avenue: 1675 W. Lane Avenue. Fancy semi-newfangled mall which is nonetheless a good 15 years into its remodel at this point. The Rusty Bucket was our most frequented haunt here, by far. My crazy coworker Charlie, busted for drinking at this establishment during his lunch break, attempted to claim it wasn’t beer, that he was imbibing “Rusty Teas.” A handful of my performance reviews were conducted here over lunch. One night my brother was in town and a few of us came here for dinner. Spotting some kind of Blue Jackets paraphernalia – and this would have been 2003 or 2004, i.e. a number of years into their existence – he asked what kind of team this was. Had never heard of them and didn’t believe me, when I explained that this was an NHL franchise.

 

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