Meetup: P-A-U-L the Scrabble Champion

by Jim Luken

Farm life and city life collided in a heated but friendly board game meet up recently at Canticle Cafe, located in Over-the-Rhine.

Over-the-Rhine’s own Paul Deibold, a guy who totes around a little two minute egg timer and his own worn copy of The Official Scrabble Dictionary, squared off against Iowa’s own Linda Gent. Gent, a farm person, who spent some time in Over-the- Rhine as part of a mission trip.

It was probably the most unusual interview I have ever conducted. I had gone to the Canticle Cafe a week earlier to do a story about the undisputed Scrabble champion of Over-the-Rhine. When I arrived, I found that, in an intense game, still in progress, the champion was being uncrowned. Perhaps “overworded” might apply better to a Scrabble Jam.

But I had tried to meet up with Paul Diebold since I first heard him speak at the opening of the Jimmy Heath House in November.

“Everyone has a story,” Paul had said during his remarks to the gathered crowd. I was certain he was correct. Thus this column was born. This reporter has yet to interview a downtowner who doesn’t live up to Diebold’s assertion.

When I met him a week later, at the same place, it didn’t seem to matter to Paul that he was no longer unbeaten. This time he was playing Scrabble with a woman from the far-off farming town of Washington, Iowa. I could see that the only way I would get my story was to interview them both during the game. So while the one player was determining her/his next word. I asked a question or two of the other player. [I hope both of them forgive me if I have gotten a few of their Scrabble words wrong].

Linda Gent had come to OTR with a group of six teenage girls from her parish in Iowa. The young women were spending the week by involving themselves in inner-city projects set up by Franciscans for the Poor. On this day, the girls were serving donuts and desserts to clients of the St. Francis Seraph Ministries in the pleasant surroundings of the Canticle Cafe. They had spent the morning housecleaning the entire room from top to bottom. [Paul inserts the word “Quag”].

Now Paul is free to talk. He is 55 years old, and has been homeless off and on since the mid ‘90s. He lived on the streets for eight months, but then found a place at the Jimmy Heath House. He makes no bones about telling Linda his opponent about his alcoholism.

“Just beer,” he says. “When I drink the hard stuff I really go crazy. Alcohol is the hardest drug in the world that I know of to get off of.” [Linda plays the word “Zin.” These two are really serious!]

While Paul is thinking, Linda explains that in their rural community, there is some poverty, but not much awareness of homelessness.

“Being here, all the girls have a new perception about what poor people are like,” she says. “It’s very good for us to be here.” [Paul tells her he appreciates what she is saying, as he places the word “Ion”].

Paul explains to me that he has been a roofer on and off for most of his life. He shattered his hip a number of years ago in a fall from a roof he was working on. The leg was put back together poorly, and he must now use a crutch. He finally got approved for government assistance through SSI and hopes to have a leg operation soon. [Linda plays the word “Pagan”].

She describes herself and a “farm wife” and mother, with a part-time job as the parish youth minister. She loves farm life on the 800 acre place she calls “smallish.” [Paul explains to her that in Scrabble each letter of the alphabet is considered a word and its plural can also be a word. So he adds an “S” onto an “R” and then extends six letters down from the “S,” forming “Swindle.” A seven letter word, earning him 76 points. No wonder he’s the (former) champ!]

He tells us that he was one of the first people selected for the new Jimmy Heath House on Odion Street. “Life is so much better now,” he says. “At the beginning, there wasn’t much community. Now there’s a sense of connectedness among the 25 residents. We have meetings. We have cookouts on Sunday.”

He tells Linda that, in order to get an apartment at the Jimmy Heath House, you have to be able to prove that you are chronically homeless and a documented alcoholic.

“None of us started out homeless,” he points out. “ Once you dig yourself so deep, it’s hard to get out.” [Linda plays “omen.” I can see she understands that there is something much more than a game of Scrabble going on there at the corner cafe].

I ask Linda about the “Tao” cross she is wearing. She says they are staying at a Franciscan place in St. Bernard, called the “Tao House.” All the girls were given the famous Franciscan cross to wear. [Paul plays the word “hoarded.” ]

I ask Paul to tell us the best thing in his life right now. He pauses for a moment, then, almost shyly, he says, “I have a new girlfriend. We had a rough time over the winter. She got kicked out of the [Drop Inn Center] because of me. Now she has a place of her own. Every day we get closer and closer.” He is almost beaming. “Now life is so easy. I love her. At first she was shy. I make her laugh. She’s funny.”

It’s closing time at the cafe. One of the teenagers brings donuts around for one last chance. Linda adds her final letter to the board. The game has ended just in time. She tallies the score. 309-261. Ohio over Iowa, sort of. Both players agree it was a fun match, despite the intrusions of the reporter. We say our thank-yous and prepare to leave.

But Paul isn’t ready. He’s as much a storyteller as Scrabble player, and he tells me he has one more story to share It’s a kind of Father’s Day story. He was hoping to tell it on the Bill Cunningham radio show earlier in the day, but had been cut off.

He says it is about reconciliation, and a hard kind of redemption. We go outside. In the bright sunlight, at the corner of Liberty and Vine, Paul talks and I write.

“My Mom was very smart. She grew up in Ashland, Kentucky, and all through school, each year, she got the award for being the best student. All twelve years. Then she got scholarships to Mt. Saint Joe and then Thomas More. She was valedictorian twice. And she was so nice. She volunteered for March of Dimes and a lot of other things.

“She died suddenly when she was 51. I blamed my Dad. He was a mean, drinking, fighting cuss. Sometimes he drank a fifth every day. We had a falling out. It was right after she died, and we spent the afternoon together. He was drinking heavily, and I would drive around the block every now and then and smoke a joint, ‘cause he hated pot.

“Í was bummed out. Everybody was bummed. She had just died. Dad started telling me stuff about my Mom. I didn’t need to hear it. I knew he was doing it just to piss me off. He was try¬ing to piss me off!

“So I walked inside, and he was following right behind me. I had this coffee cup in my hand. I was so mad. I turned around and I was going to swing it at him, smash him in the face. But there on the counter was his next glass of whiskey. And there was this chandelier right above it, and it made that glass of whiskey kind of glow, you know. It looked almost beautiful, shimmering there, catching the light.

“It was all so symbolic. I was mad at the whiskey, not at him. So I took my cup and smashed it against that glass. It shattered in a thousand pieces. Some of them flew into his eyes. He had just had cataract surgery, and he was hurt and bleeding. I helped get to the hospital. It wasn’t him. It wasn’t him. It was the whiskey.

“So we had this falling out. It lasted years. But I was lucky. Not long before he died at 71, I went to see him and we had this reconciliation. I’m glad we did.”

So Paul Diebold didn’t get to tell his story on raido. So the Scrabble champ told it to you, the readers of Streetvibes.