Consider this the final installment in our Substance Abuse Trilogy (I’ll blame another brutal winter in the Rubber City):
Athens, Ohio, was an interesting place back in the late-Seventies. I was there earning a Journalism degree from Ohio University after spending a couple of aimless years without a major at Miami University. Nothing against the “Yale of the Midwest”… it was just an unsettling experience going to a school where the kids were more conservative than my own parents.
Athens was another story altogether. At the time, Ohio’s minimum drinking age was 18, and the town had plenty of bars to take advantage of it. In fact, almost every other structure uptown was a bar, and virtually every demographic had its own drinking establishment – hipsters, townies, stoners, nerds, foreign students, East Coasters… I think the handful of jocks who mistakenly enrolled at OU hung out at a wet bar in someone’s basement. Greek life also was an afterthought on a campus that resembled a Gold Rush mining town.They even sold beer at the student center, which was jammed with kids every Friday starting around Noon. Any faculty member who scheduled a class on Friday afternoon was quickly banned from campus, never to be seen again.
My sister Mary lived outside of Athens with her husband, Chuck, in a little town called The Plains… very charming. I’d go there often for wonderful home-cooked meals and some mild ball-busting from Chuck, who seemed to revel in the fact that I was just as scatter-brained as his wife. Chuck’s cousin, Ned, ran the best restaurant in town, Chiccalini’s – sort of a hangout for older transplants from the East Coast (Chuck and Ned were from Teaneck, NJ). One of the bartenders turned me on to the music of Django Reinhardt. I was deeply moved. I even fantasized about putting together my own Hot Club of Athens and playing every week at Ned’s joint, then I realized I’d never be able to play like Django. But I digress…
Amazingly, I managed to maintain a GPA of three-point-something (I was never good at math) – maybe even miraculous when you consider all the distractions uptown and my part-time job at the city’s cultural hub, School Kids Records. It was a step up from my previous gig as a delivery guy for a beer carry-out. That’s right, it was perfectly acceptable to bring cut-rate cases of Busch directly to students who were either too lazy or drunk to make the short walk uptown. I’m surprised they didn’t serve drinks at orientation.
We moved mountains of vinyl at School Kids. But we didn’t sell a lot of records to average students, if it were possible to define such a group at OU. The ones from New York and New Jersey tended to have more disposable income than those of us who were fleeing economic ruin in Northeast Ohio. But the biggest spenders at School Kids, by a large margin, were wily desperadoes from the hills and hollers south of town – the Meigs County Varmints.
Law enforcement was relatively lax in this little corner of Appalachia, where the Varmints cultivated the number one cash crop in Meigs County, marijuana. And they had become quite skilled at using the area’s rugged terrain as cover for their very profitable farming enterprise. A few owned small planes to move product out of state. All of them had big wads of cash, ready to spend at our humble establishment.
One Varmint was a sweet guy who seemed genuinely interested in broadening his taste in music. He popped in the store one day while I was playing the first album by the David Grisman Quintet – an organic melding of bluegrass and gypsy-influenced jazz that showcased Grisman’s prodigious chops on mandolin and the amazing Tony Rice on guitar. Here’s a little taste… Dawg’s Rag/David Grisman Quintet
“What the hell is this and where do I find it,” the Varmint asked, sensing that our broad categories of rock, country, blues and jazz were virtually useless with Grisman. I confessed that I brought it to the store from my own collection, mainly because I was sick of listening to Dan Fogelberg for eight hours straight (back then, big-selling albums were returned in droves for any number of reasons… I had about three crates of Fogelberg at my feet – evidence of the record industry’s eventual demise).
“I’ll buy it from you,” he said, without actually opening the door to any kind of meaningful negotiation. I faced an interesting dilemma – should I do a side deal with a man who probably has several firearms concealed on his person, and thus part with a hard-to-find album I’d grown quite fond of? Or politely tell him that it’s not for sale?
“Sure,” I quickly replied, expecting little in return. He tossed me an extra twenty and thanked me profusely as he took the Quintet and about two dozen other albums with him into the night.
Several months went by before I could find another copy of the album. But I also had a few bucks left over to go next door – the bar on the left, as opposed to the one on the right – and share a round or three with my friends.
I often wondered what life was like on Reefer Ranch, with a small Cessna in a nearby field and a few crusty old farmhands sitting around the fire, listening to Grisman and Rice jam on Opus 57 and Swing 51. Maybe they piped the Quintet into the barn, where barefoot women and children packed the final product into massive baggies. Or, they simply flew in Grisman and friends to play at the company picnic.
As I was nearing the end of my time in Athens, the authorities in Meigs County finally decided to get tough with the Varmints. Helicopters with infrared cameras were used to find the larger crops; specially trained dogs were sent into the hills and hollers to track down smaller stashes. A reporter from the Athens Messenger asked my boss at School Kids if “Operation Buzzkill” would have any impact on his business. His response was clear and concise: “Let’s see, you’re taking about $10 million out of the local economy… the next biggest source of revenue is lunch money… what the fuck do you think is going to happen?”
I can’t recall what actually ended up in the paper, but it wasn’t difficult for me to figure out the math on that one.
Today, someone’s selling posters and costumes at the former home of School Kids Records… R.I.P.
David Grisman, Tony Rice and fiddle player Mark O’Connor on video – tearing up a tune from Grisman’s first album…
thanks for the David Grisman! Something else new to explore.
Tim, can you get out of my head please? The other week I was thinking, “Man, I love all the blues/roots stuff he’s reviewing, but how about some jazz? I love jazz music!”
Then this week, I say, well friend one plays banjo, friend two guitar, guess it’s the mandolin for me. And I even inquire about lessons at the local music shop. And what do I see tonight but a posting about David Grisman!
Keep up the great work.
Thanks! Got a post coming up on Grant Green… I think you’ll like that one.
Did you mean scatter-brained….or addle-brained? I can’t remember which I am!
cool story, keep them coming!
A fun little memoir of Athens. You should be interested in my book on called “The Varmits” coming out in Fall. It is about my time in Athens as a PhD student and living on a farm in Meigs Co and playing softball and hanging out with the Varmits. First, note my spelling, as forever memorialized on a t shirt with Varmt Entry on it and a graphic of a fighting cock smoking a big doobie. I am sure some Varmits had guns, hell, no self respecting farmer in SE Ohio didn’t, but I never saw any of them pack. None had any airplane, and few had much disposal income, although I do know one bought a $40,000 tractor with cash. For a more real and accurate picture of the Varmits, please check out my book this Fall.
I’ll definitely check out your book… Thanks!
Thanks for the memoir Tim! I cut my harmonica chops at Chiccalinis Pasta Palace, sitting in with Randy and Laura Light, and Randy Bare and Keith Reichley…loved hanging out there when I was a sophmore around 77….I remember when my peers were at the Boston concert at Memorial Auditorium I was hanging out at Chiccalinis…Ah Athens, fond memories of the annual Bacchanal on Memorial Day… swimming at Marrieta River Run…hitchhiking to Little Scioto for a bluegrass festival and got a ride from a Varmit named Har ree…..I will look for Teds book as well
After graduating from OU, I bought a farm Meigs County back in behind the property that belonged to the OU Airport and just east of Tewes Turkey Farm on the road to Pomeroy. I bought more than one VW Beetle from the Varmints, who at that time were all Jersey kids who had come to OU, dropped out of school and then really dropped out. I stayed about ten years an then moved on. Fond memories, every single one.
And I’m from Akron. Copley High School.
Hey Patti… I live about 3 miles from your alma mater. I’m fairly certain that one of the Varmints was from Akron — he went on to become a successful and well-respected business owner in Athens.
Loved the Athens vibe and all the music. Too many good times to recount any specifics. Eight of the best years of my life!
romantic but not true, the varmint were a softball team who all members indulged in the fruits of the land.
Hello, I am the wife of the late “Little Joe” one of the original VARMITS (there is no N…) I also live with another of the original Varmits. Some of your facts are a little off base but it was a good read. Some folks will always be remembered through those guys. My daughter is pregnant for the second 5th generation Varmit. Thanks for your blog. Best to All, Beth
I know for a fact there were a sizable amount of Varmits from Chillicothe and a couple from Cleveland as well as a few locals.
There was one from Akron too. I heard he ended up running a restaurant in Athens for years.
I was at OU during that time but in Lancaster, so I missed out on all this fun. I never got to Chiccalinis, but I do know what happened to cousin Ned. He owns a popular restaurant in St Augustine, Florida. Ned’s Southside Kitchen experienced a fire, but has been restored and is set to re-open in August 2014. Y’all should come down and visit!
Oh yeah, I’ve been to the Southside Kitchen several times. Very glad to hear about the reopening. Hope to be there for his Thanksgiving dinner.
Does anyone know what happened to the Varmit named Moses (from Long Island)?
Does anyone remember Big Mike from Brooklyn?
Inspirational times…thank you all!
A Varmit named Moses… Sounds like a song by Tony Joe White.