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The Interview: Michelle Hill

It admittedly felt awkward interviewing Michelle Hill anywhere other than St. James Tavern, the venerated neighborhood haunt that proudly defies the rules and the odds of operating any credible, working-class watering hole. An afternoon conversation over coffee almost felt like we were both somehow cheating on the St. James. Even if 2PM is mid-morning for [...]
J.R. McMillan



It admittedly felt awkward interviewing Michelle Hill anywhere other than St. James Tavern, the venerated neighborhood haunt that proudly defies the rules and the odds of operating any credible, working-class watering hole.

An afternoon conversation over coffee almost felt like we were both somehow cheating on the St. James. Even if 2PM is mid-morning for the typical bartender, Hill is anything but average. She wasn’t born into the family trade, nor did she set out to up-end convention or drag a doomed bar back from the brink. She actually stumbled into a business from which most patrons stumble out.

The former debate team champion had considered a career as an attorney. But when her father bought the failing Lee’s “Ten-O-Two” lounge more than two decades ago from a retired postman, it was the young Hill who soon took over daily operations on one condition — she was going to run it her way, without exceptions or apologies.

She spent her final two years at Ohio State cramming for classes and pouring pints most of her college cohorts were barely old enough to order. Sometimes sleep just didn’t fit into the schedule. It was a punishing pace and an entirely different “bar exam” than she had anticipated.

Upon graduation, Hill cashed in her sweat equity by promoting herself from bartender to owner, buying the place from her father whose original plans for a hillbilly bar never panned out — back when Italian Village was better known for boarded-up homes than budding hipsters. Hell, even stretches of the Short North were still pretty sketchy.

“There was nothing around us, just empty buildings,” recalled Hill, a Columbus native who moved to the Short North as teenager after stints in Clintonville and Gahanna. “The first time I went into a bar was with my dad at 17. We lived right behind Short North Tavern.”

Bars then are almost unrecognizable from what they have sadly become today, with strangers slipping in and out in silence after hours of staring at their phones to avoid any inadvertent eye contact. Pop swill and blaring bass fill sterile spaces with streaming music. The only influences forging the thinnest human connection are arbitrarily important sporting events spurring the most banal verbal exchanges possible. From first downs to last calls, the neighborhood bar is almost an anachronism.

What makes St. James Tavern tick isn’t what it has, but what it doesn’t. There’s no pretentious patio banter, no sports bar shtick, no endless news cycle, no free wifi. If that’s what you want, go be anonymous somewhere else. A neighborhood bar knows you by name.

Michelle Hill has the fearless approach of Sam Malone, the finishing of Diane Chambers, and the old soul of Coach all rolled together. (And with her degree in psychology, you might even get a little Frasier Crane if you’re lucky.)

“There are so few places left for conversation. People have to scream over each other. Even a lot of restaurants are like that now. Some people are uncomfortable unless there’s enough noise to keep them from talking to one another.”

The bar used to have two televisions years ago, but when one fizzled out, Hill was in no hurry to replace it. People mostly stared slack-jawed at them anyway. She recalled catching someone watching a Shake-Weight infomercial once, which only left Hill shaking her head.

“I had a bartender who used to turn up the volume on the TVs during football games and pretend she couldn’t hear me. You don’t realize how invasive they are until they’re gone. Two months later, my bartender called to tell me the other one stopped working too. I remember it because it was Halloween night, “I told him, ‘Let’s do an experiment, we’ll go to the end of the year without any television and see if anyone misses it.”

Few did, Hill didn’t, and there hasn’t been a television set at St. James since. The warm, orange hues of the tavern’s knotty pine paneling are also unmistakable, perhaps to me in particular. They’re the same wooden walls my grandfather used to line the den he’d turned into a makeshift music room, likely about the time frame one of the bar’s many predecessors did as well. I remember as a kid playing my first vinyl records on his old turntable and how the whole room seemed to resonate like one giant wooden instrument. That’s what discerning musicians and astute listeners may love most about St. James. The whole place hums, and having the most meticulously curated jukebox in Columbus only amplifies it.

“When it’s all concrete and glass—that industrial chic look … maybe it works for your bar, but not for mine. It’s all empty echoes; there’s a warmth that’s lacking. I prefer the pine.”

Televisions aren’t the only amenity Hill has subtly sabotaged. The jukebox is the one hint that the bar has changed at all in the century or so that the building has been there. It’s a digital jukebox, but barely—old enough that the company that supplied it doesn’t technically service them anymore. They even have a backup hard drive just for the St. James, recognizing that to replace it entirely with anything more modern would be impossible, if not blasphemy. From the Pixies to the Replacements, she curates the soundtrack of St. James Tavern as deliberately as the taps.

“I picked every artist, every album, and every song on that jukebox. It’s part of the personality of the bar. I’ve disabled the feature that lets you search and select songs online. No one is playing Britney Spears in my bar. Tom Waits will be there forever.”

But it’s those taps that are the tavern’s claim to fame in Columbus. St. James is the oldest craft beer bar in the city, undisputedly so. (College kids were still drinking Zima when Hill took the helm.) It’s still a service industry bar that now draws in artists, musicians, and creatives who have moved into the once abandoned area as well. But the beer selection is as exclusive as it is eclectic—and not in some poser, beer snob sort of way either.

“We don’t have the most handles. Some places have 40 or more, but 13 is enough for us,” Hill explained. “People get overwhelmed. There are even studies that show too many options make people less satisfied with their decisions. But if you give people ‘chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry,’ they’re confident in their choice. We have something for everyone.”

Taverns have historically been hotbeds for political action. The American Revolution was practically organized in one. St. James is no exception. It’s as much a part of the bar’s personality as the pine walls and Hill herself. Where some business owners shy away and stay on the sidelines, Hill embraces causes close to her heart and those of her clientele. From serious to snarky, the bar has become a platform for social change. (In fact, if you’re still looking for a new calendar of not-quite-nude dudes, proceeds from the annual “Men of St. James” help Women Have Options ensure abortion access.) After a career setting trends and ignoring others, St. James Tavern nearly met an untimely end this past August.

“I closed the bar up the night before, got home around 3:30, and fell asleep around 4 like always. We were supposed to have a Rhinegeist tap takeover scheduled that day as a benefit for CHOICES, to assist victims of domestic violence. We’d been planning it for months. I got up at around 10:30 to do one last blast on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I wasn’t even really awake yet when my phone started blowing up with texts, ‘YOUR BAR IS ON FIRE.’”

Hill raced to St. James in time to see thick smoke pouring into the sultry summer sun. Once firefighters gave her the okay to go in and survey the damage, she wasn’t sure what she’d find.

“It was the most frightened and relieved I’ve ever felt, all within a few seconds. It looked awful, but the fire was contained to just that one storeroom. Every painting from a local artist was untouched. That’s when I started to cry.

That local love would soon be repaid. By luck alone, a couple leaving Fox in the Snow had walked into Mission Coffee that morning and asked if they were roasting because there was smoke coming up from between the buildings in the strip they share with the tavern. Fire trucks were there within minutes. If it had been 4 or 5 in the morning, firefighters said, the whole building would have been gone. Hill spent the whole day grabbing whatever she could from the fire, with coffee and water provided by her pals at Seventh Son next door. Collin Castore, one of the brewery’s owners, pulled her aside to make sure she was okay, and told her that all the local brewers were already lined up to throw a benefit for her and the St. James. It was an unexpected gesture that Hill, always on the other side of such events, was reluctant to receive. While the insurance would cover the fire, Castore persisted—”so let’s do it for your employees”—and by the following day, nearly two dozen breweries were eager to ensure the entire St. James staff would also be covered until the bar reopened. A little more than a week later, on the same afternoon as the solar eclipse, brewers who are fierce competitors on any other day came together to make sure St. James Tavern didn’t go dark as well. Craft brewers know when someone picks up a six-pack in Columbus, there’s a good chance they had it first at the St. James, and they have Michelle Hill to thank for it. So they did.

“It was emotionally exhausting because the place is a huge part of who I am. We were closed for seven weeks, but it seemed like an eternity at the time. A bar can be rebuilt, but it’s the brewers and our customers who made sure we would recover.”

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Former OSU player starts career as Columbus Firefighter

614now Staff



Former Buckeye and New Orleans Saints running back running back Antonio Pittman is trading the pads and helmet of the gridiron for a fire hose and a...different helmet in his new career, according to ABC6.

Having recently graduated from the Columbus Fire Academy, Pittman is now on his first week on the job at fire station 12 on the city's west side.

A native of Akron, Pittman played for Ohio State from 2004 to 2006, and was part of the number 1 ranked team that defeated number 2 Michigan 42-39 in the "Game of the Century."

Pittman was then drafted by the New Orleans Saints, but was forced to retire from the NFL following a persistent knee injury.

"My goal was just to play football and honestly, I did that. And the dream was to have a ten-year career and to retire at 32 years old and be off in the sunset and just living comfortably. But you know, plans change and in life, you have to adapt to the change," Pittman told ABC6.

"My goal was to one day give back to a community, a city that's given me so much. A city that changed my whole outlook on life as a kid growing up in Akron."

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The Rest Is History: Couples in Columbus share their stories of falling in love

Mitch Hooper



Illustration by Sarah Moore

If Hollywood would ever pick up a romantic comedy about a couple falling in love in Columbus, how would it look? Would it be an epic story ending in an intimate proposal on the Scioto Mile, or two strangers bumping into each other at the Varsity Club on game day?

Funny enough, both are very plausible.

This month, we wanted to answer the question: what do love stories in Columbus look like? And what we found is sometimes love stories don’t happen in Columbus; instead they happen because of Columbus. While some folks were high school sweethearts who rekindled the flame, others struck up conversation in countries far away just because they shared the same ZIP code. In part, where you’re from shapes who you are, and for these couples, the capital city holds a special spot in their hearts. And, as the saying goes, the rest is history.

Rachel Grauer and Aaron Guilkey

Aaron and I first met in the early 2000s at Eli Pinney Elementary in Dublin. He was my first boyfriend in fourth grade and broke my heart on AIM (AOL Instant Messenger, for the young folk). We didn’t speak a word to each other all of high school, thank you high school social hierarchy. I went on to OU and he to OSU. We reconnected after college while on a bar crawl in the Short North and the rest is history. We are getting married September 2020!

Lauren Sheridan and David Tripp

All of this is true: We met at a Clippers baseball game. It was a team outing for work. I worked with his mom and she was setting us up. This story is meant to be a complete disaster. Thankfully, it wasn’t. Our first o cial date was at 16-Bit, where we would take our engagement pictures over two years later. He lived in Arizona for 10 years before moving back to Columbus in 2016. It’s been fun reintroducing him to the city, especially our food and beer scene. I can’t imagine having these adventures with anyone else.

Misty and Erin Dickinson

We met at Rendezvous Hair Salon, where she is a hairstylist. Then we spent time together at Drauma at the Bluestone, followed by a night out for a Nina West show at Axis complete with dinner at Union and after party drinks at Macs. We were with my friends and I o ered to walk her to her car which had been towed because, well, Columbus. I stayed with her until we finally found her car at 3 a.m. We started hanging out a lot after that while we both swore we were “just friends”! Almost five years later and we are back in Columbus after a two year move to Tampa. We married (twice, but the story will be way over 100 words! Second time at LaNavona), and have a thousand Columbus stories. Columbus is our home. The place we love and always come back to. There is no place like it.

Kellie Anne and Carl Rainey

I moved to Columbus from LA in 2014 and met my now-husband a month after the move. We found out quickly that we were both California sports fans and went on our first date on Halloween. Lakers vs. Clippers was on the TV at the bar, so we made a bet and the loser had to pick up the tab. My Clippers beat his Lakers, so he had to pay up. We’ve been inseparable ever since. We got married March 23, 2019, and I’m so happy to call Columbus my forever home now!

Daniel Custer and Jenny Harris

I met Jenny on a wine cruise in Santorini, Greece. I saw her from across the pier before we boarded and knew I wanted to chat her up—she was gorgeous. She and her friends sat by me on the catamaran and we began telling one another where we were from. When it got to Jenny, she said she was from Columbus. I said, “Where?!” and she said “Grandview!” We spent the rest of the weekend together, along with the past three years.

Brittany and Ethan Monk

We met as employees at Scioto Country Club in UA. He was a broke server and I was a broke student working as a hostess. We spent many holidays away from family but with each other. We are complete opposites that were impossibly attracted to one another. We married and have 2 children. Still opposites—I work in clinical research and he is a musician and stay-at-home dad. We both have made Columbus our home!

Nicole Erdeljac and Andrew Crowell

We spent the day (separately) at the 2019 Memorial Tournament and were hanging out at the Bogey Inn afterwards. He was standing at the bar and I was behind him, waiting to be served. His friend kept accidentally hitting my shoulder while trying to reach over me to get his attention. I was visibly annoyed when he asked me to tap him. But, I did. We spent the rest of the night dancing to the live band and had our first date a week later at the Columbus Arts Fest, once again, dancing to the live sounds of Anderson East. The rest is history!

Tracie Lynn and Adam Douglas Keller

It was one month to the day after my mother had lost her battle to cancer in 2007. It was one of my favorite nights for being out in Columbus—Red, White, and Boom. After my sister’s and my friend’s group persistently encouraged us to go out for fireworks and time with friends, we agreed. We needed something light and fun. What could possibly come of that?

I’ll never forget the moment that I made eye contact with this handsome, tall and smiling man. He had happened to be out with a mutual friend of our group. We made small talk, listened to live bands, and, well—the rest is history. Nearly 13 years later, we now have two great kids, two dogs, and a rich, full life in Columbus. This is the city we met in, and the one we made a life in. I couldn’t ask for a better love story.

Rebecca Scha er and Peter Yeager

We met at Ledo’s, the first bar on our OSU senior bar crawl list. Flash forward 12 hours later at World of Beer, we bumped into each other again and he handed me a raw russet potato with his name and number written on it in Sharpie. Super weird and random but it did the trick. I called him my soul mate to his face that night. Last winter he took me around town. We stopped at both those bars, reminiscing about our time together. He asked me to be his wife in the middle of the same World of Beer where he gave me that first potato, hiding the ring in a large toy Mrs. Potato head. There’s no other way I would have liked the beginning of our story to go.

Victoria and Ryan Metzinger

I met my amazing husband in Columbus on a blind date set up by mutual friends (sounds very 1995, but it was actually 2011). He suggested a casual drink at Grandview Cafe and I upped the ante for dinner at Third & Hollywood. We continued to Spagio and ended at Grandview Cafe and the rest is history! Now, with two beautiful boys, our WiFi network will always be labeled “Third and Hollywood” as an ode to the perfect setting for a first date. We also visit the restaurant every year on our anniversary and it will never lose its luster.

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Arts & Culture

The Interview Issue: Author Saeed Jones




Each January, we feature the movers and shakers of the city in in-depth, in-person interviews that dig into their backgrounds, their plans, and what ties them to the capital city. While our interview issue subjects are all Columbus-based, their stories are universal. So settle in, cozy up, and give yourself some you-time. You’ll want to read every word.

Saeed Jones has traveled across the country promoting his new memoir and chosen Columbus for his own next chapter.

Author and new Columbus transplant Saeed Jones finally has a break after wrapping up his 16-city tour to promote his new memoir How We Fight for Our Lives. It’s a book that isn’t solely about his past, but is designed as an earnest conversation with readers. The book succeeds Jones’ previous poetry collections and a stint as Executive Editor of Culture at BuzzFeed, and is already receiving numerous honors and highly- publicized acclaim.

“It took a long time to write the book, almost a decade. So, I had a lot of time to think about writing it [being] one thing, but when you publish it, it becomes something different. I tried not to think so much about other people and the audience, but I think I trusted that if I could write to myself sincerely [and] candidly, that would be a bridge for other people,” he said. “It’s like you’re encountering someone when they just had a transformative experience. Something that’s really important for me in my writing is the cost of silence and the ways we silence ourselves. I think it’s powerful—as a writer, with the fortune I’ve had in my career—for people to be like, ‘I’m going through it’, and for me to be one more person who goes, ‘Me too.’”

Though some authors intend to tell their stories later in life, Jones wanted to focus his story on the time period from his upbringing in Texas through his mid-twenties to capture a specific ethos that informed his narrative. Concerned that segments of his life would become deemed irrelevant to readers, he found the immediacy of the news sparked him to publish the book sooner than later. Soon after Jones considered writing in detail about the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, which shifted the LGBTQ+ conversation, the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting occurred.

“Whenever I would get a little hard on myself about the book’s intentions, it felt like America would go, ‘We gotta do this now,’” Jones said. ”Everything’s not perfect but a lot has changed from 1998. [While writing,] I was like, ‘I don’t know if it’ll be a perfect book, but it’s gonna be the book that I want and need now.’”

Photos: Brian Kaiser

After his mother’s passing in 2011, Jones is attentive to their relationship in How We Fight for Our Lives, endearingly dedicating the book to her even after a moment of uncertainty that occurred when he came out. In spite of having a vibrant relationship with his mother, Jones jokes that the two weren’t able to naturally discuss sexuality. Promoting the memoir before Thanksgiving, Jones mentions that some LGBTQ+ readers confided in him about their own awkward conversations with family.

“Sure, it’s important for us to write about clear and present danger, whether that’s police brutality, homophobic or racially-driven violence, [but] I think that it’s also important for us to pay attention to the more subtle hurts that come to define us. Sometimes those hurts are a result of failings; loved ones who just can’t support us because they’re like ‘I don’t get it’ and they kind of give up,” he said. “My mom was working two jobs, so a lot of times she was just tired. She was like, ‘Sorry, we can’t have a heartfelt conversation today, I gotta go to my second job.’ That had an impact on me, and I know that has an impact on a lot of other people in those moments. In any meaningful, long-lasting relationships—certainly family relationships—it is going to be complicated. If you don’t have multiple colors in how you’re thinking about that relationship, the truth is that something is being deadened, something is being intentionally or unintentionally ignored or silenced.”

An avid reader of works by Margaret Atwood and Audre Lorde, Jones recognizes a similar urgency from his memoir through his influence James Baldwin, admitting to reading his 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room repeatedly, revisiting it at different points of his life to gain a new perspective. Identifying with different characters each time, Jones focused essentially on Baldwin’s deconstruction of queerness and social dynamics, which intersected American politics with racial identity. “[Baldwin] wasn’t going to pretend that there was this monolithic Blackness. He wasn’t just going to pretend that there weren’t Black men—who he was advocating for in terms of civil rights— who weren’t homophobic. He was like ‘We’re gonna do all this together’” Jones said. “He’s drawing from his background in Christianity, but he’s changed; he’s not practicing his faith in the same way. He [was] just doing a very good job of showing how we’re in flux and that it’s natural and better to embrace that. I feel like that set me up to start paying attention.”

Habitually enthusiastic about settling in Columbus (or what he calls “the promised land”), Jones speaks gleefully about The Great Migration and Ohio boasting essential Black authors—Paul Laurence Dunbar, Jacqueline Woodson, Hanif Abdurraqib and Toni Morrison. While he notes that Black authors have thrived

in Ohio through a formidable writing scene, in How We Fight for Our Lives, Jones touches keenly on the fragility of Black life. Days prior to our conversation marked the one-year anniversary of the death of 16-year-old Julius Tate, who was shot by Columbus police during a sting operation.

“If we’re able to villainize people we have wronged—and Julius was certainly wronged—it eases the rhetoric of brushing the wrong aside,” Jones said. “It happens so often and so much of our culture grooms all of us to move on. I’m not the one to say what justice for Julius and for Black people impacted by that violence looks like, but I would love to hear it. I have no interest in telling people to be quiet. I’m a writer, so I think a lot about editing and revision, and how you polish and the drafts you don’t want people to see. Cities are text, too.”

While Columbus continues to be a work in progress through systematic tensions, Jones is embracing the city’s tangible LGBTQ+ scene after residing in New York City, Atlanta, and San Francisco. In support of the Black Queer & Intersectional Collective, he attended the Columbus March for Black Trans Women in November, where he felt a sense of cohesiveness within the city. “I feel like the march was a great example of waking me up—unsurprisingly, it’s easier for cisgender gay men to live and feel embraced here than Black trans women in Columbus,” Jones said. “The stakes are high, but it feels possible. Here it feels like, ‘start reading up, go to that march, talk to people,’ as opposed to ‘here’s the finished story.’”

With a story far from over, Jones reveals that his next life work is to write about joy to balance the scales with his past struggle within How We Fight for Our Lives. Avidly writing about pain and loss, he vows to dabble into more written frameworks outside of his comfort zone. “I feel like I’ve written about myself so damn much, maybe learning to write in other forms—fiction—would be fun. I want to learn more, I feel that’s when I’m most alive, when I’m learning and realizing that I’m learning,” he said. “That’s when I feel fully present as a person, not when I think I know the beginning, middle and end.”

Follow Saeed Jones on Twitter and Instagram at @theferocity.

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