21 January 2013

Losing Avtar Gill Is Like Losing a Skyline Chili Ingredient

This morning, I searched through old photos on my computer, looking for an early photo of Avtar but I couldn’t find any. Surprised at first, I then realized that when I first saw Avtar-- probably 13 or 14 years ago-- I used a film camera and I don’t have anything remotely that old on my computer.

Downtown & OTR was “pre-renascence,” back then so there were no frequent public events like we have now all over downtown. Fountain Square had one restaurant. Washington Park was a pathetic remembrance of Cincy past. The Reds still played in Riverfront Stadium. Mike Brown was the NFL’s worst owner (that part is still the same).

Back then, Avtar was a rarer sight because there were fewer people and fewer events. Perhaps it was this circumstance that gave him more time “between gigs,” time he used to make his own caps. In those days, Avtar actually sewed his own caps and sewed the words into the front face. Given the relative permanence of sewn words compared to his later 'markered-up marquee' style, his early hat messages were more broad in scope than his later timely, topical messages but in every case always positive and unifying, never negative or divisive.

The first time we talked might have been in November 2000, when the Trans-Atlantic Business Dialogue was meeting downtown at the Omni Netherland (now Hilton). The TABD was basically an international version of the Koch brothers, at least that’s how I and a few thousand other irritated citizens viewed its closed-door meetings between industry and government.

Avtar was among those thousands and at one point we found ourselves standing next to each other. We talked briefly and exchanged names. He told me he was from Sri Lanka. I think he said he used to work for the Metro but I’m not sure, I might be mixing up memories.

As the years passed, Avtar was a regular figure at just about every public event downtown. I remember watching him alternate between being exotic bait for snack-hungry suburbanite cameras one minute, and friendly familiar face of the common man the next minute.

Avtar wasn’t big, or loud, or rich, or powerful. He probably never even set foot in any of the bars, clubs, galleries, theaters, or restaurants that we’re told need to exist for people to want to be downtown. On the face of it, there is really no conceivable reason at all why a dude with odd hats would make a lasting impression or be missed by those of us who felt part of the same community.

But there he was, month after month, year after year, in every park, square,  street, and lawn, sharing his love for his city and its people in his own unique voice. It was a little thing, but it was a little thing that was always there and always sincere. And as I look back, it makes more sense than ever that Avtar never ventured into the bars, restaurants, etc. that make downtown’s social scene. Those are important parts of downtown, but they’re still parts. They’re manufactured. They come, they go, they change. But public spaces, street festivals, rallies, protests... that’s where the people are, that’s where the energy is and that’s where a city’s vibe is borne. I think that’s where Avtar wanted to be.

In the end, the man who first struck us as a downtown oddity, a sort of human sidekick to flying pig statues, had become a downtown icon, an endearingly human sidekick to chili spaghetti and everything else Cincinnati. If the flying pig statues disappear tomorrow we won’t miss them; they are ersatz icons. We will notice their absence, but we won’t miss them. But next time a crowd gathers somewhere in downtown or OTR, people will notice that Avtar isn’t there and yes, we will miss him and his simple, sincere love for his city and its people.


Anonymous said...

Well-stated. While I am absolutely in favor of much of what has happened in downtown and OTR in the past few years, I also hope that we never stop being the kind of city that produces an Avtar Gill.


WestEnder said...

Agreed. A city's characters are part of its character. And I'll take The Hat Man over The Naked Cowboy (who is actually from Cincy, believe it or not) any day.

VisuaLingual said...

I especially appreciated the simple and clever ways in which he gave himself a voice -- an economical system of signs on a hat. People like Avtar don't always have a voice, or know how to give themselves a voice, but he most certainly did.

5chw4r7z said...

I imagine being on Fountain Square for St pats day, we won't quite know whats missing, Avtar will be like that tooth that's been pulled. Only noticed once in awhile when your tongue is surprised there is an empty space where once there was something.