Meet the Meetup Guy

Every man [woman] is a good man [woman] in a bad world as he himself will tell you. William Saroyan, Armenian American playwright. Meet: Me. 67. Father of 4. Long-time writer and activist. Artistic type. Time Magazine’s Person of the Year (2011).


September 11, 2011, Jim Luken proudly holds his sign at a New York City rally to call for an end to war in Iraq. Photo: Jim Luken.

The Meetup column is based on the simple notion that: Everyone has a worthwhile story.  I guess I am enough of an egotist that I thought the readers of this newspaper, who may (or may not) read my one-page stories of real people (downtowners) each week, might like to know “the story” of the guy who writes down those stories. The editor and I agreed that the New Year Edition might a good time to try it.

The first thing I would like you to know about me is that I really hate lying, including the constant stream of lies that comes from the mouths of our politicians, talking heads, corporate bigwigs and media types. So, while the form of this column will be a little different (in that I will be asking myself questions that I normally pose to others), I promise I will try to be as honest as I can. But I guess you’ll have to trust me on that.

How did you come to volunteer your services to Streetvibes?

    I’ve been living in the ghetto for the past seven and a half years. After I retired from my maintenance job with Over the Rhine Community Housing, I was looking for another way that I might contribute to what some call “our beloved community.”  Having been a semi-professional writer all my life, I thought I might fit in with the most truthful newspaper in Cincinnati.

What does “semi-professional writer” mean?

       Well, I was a full time newspaperman for a small daily in Vermont at the turn of the century, but all the rest has been what they call “freelance” work. Much of this was writing I did for the International Franciscan Order in war-torn places like Croatia (1991), Bosnia (’93) and Nicaragua (’85, ’86, ’87). I also did a story for the Episcopal Diocese of Cincinnati in Haiti (’99).

Why did you go to war-torn places?

I didn’t get paid for any of that work. I did it for the travel and for the experience. You see, I missed out on dealing with the Vietnam War, because I was in college (Xavier, English) then went into teaching (Elder HS). I waited to go to grad school (Villanova, theater) until I was too old to be drafted (26). I always felt guilty for failing to confront “Nam” personally, like so many others did. So I felt this weird need to know what war was like. Everyone says they hate war. I now have an up-close-and-personal reason to despise war and to fight against those who drag us into needless ongoing bloodshed.

What was it like being in the war zones?

I’m glad you asked. Bosnia was the worst. The situation was so dangerous I had to get inside a UN tank to get me to and from this town (Vitez) about 15 miles from Sarajevo. I was scared s**tless for three solid days and nights. Constant gunfire and shelling, couldn’t sleep, saw whole villages burning. I was all but certain I would never get back to my kids.

What did your wife and kids say about you’re running off to war?

The first time (the US-proxy “Contra” war in Nicaragua), the kids were pretty young. I wrote them a stupid letter, saying (romantically, I guess) that if I were to get killed, they should try to understand it was for a worthwhile cause. I should have had more sense. Their mother told me later that she should have not let me do it.

Was it worth it?

For me, as a human being, it was. Now I know how ordinary people feel when war is happening in their countries, in their midst. Although I wouldn’t wish those feelings on anyone, we all know that Clinton, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Limbaugh, etc., chickened out on Nam, like I did. But at least I didn’t become a war-monger.

Part of me wishes that wars were conducted mano-a-mano between our leaders. If Obama wants to fight Iran, he and Ahmadinejad should duke it out like real men. I know that sounds silly, but it’s not as stupid as waging war is. War is an abomination, and the United States thrives on it. Most Americans are numb to the fact that they live in a terrorist nation. Bombing poor people for ten years is terrorism, whether it’s in Vietnam, Nicaragua, or Iraq. Why can’t people see that?

You are obviously a leftist/liberal. Was your family like that?

       I grew up in a blue collar Catholic family in Mack (Western Hills). My folks were good people but very conservative. I became a kind of black sheep. I much prefer the ghetto to the burbs.

Are you a religious person?

       I was pretty religious for a long time. My wife and kids and I were part of a lay Catholic community (New Jerusalem) in Winton Place. There was a strong social justice component. I learned that I could love a lot of people who were very different from me. I cherish the memory of all that, but I have lost the religious component. The notion of an afterlife simply doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t want to exist forever. And I don’t expect to. I think this is the only chance we get to… what?…make something of ourselves. I bought a bumper sticker not long ago. I have it by my desk. It’s kind of religious. It says: “The greatest sin is sitting on your ass.”

You’re retired. Isn’t this a time when you can sit on your ass without feeling guilty?

      I love life, but—like Robert Frost, I guess—I have “a lover’s quarrel with the world.” I want to change it. I want to be part of making a difference. Frost also wrote, “I have miles to go before I sleep.”  Me too. I know I don’t have a ton of time, but I want to make the best of it.

What do you have in mind to do?

        I plan to keep writing. I’ve done two books, and several plays. I think there’s a few more in me.

Pardon me, but doesn’t writing involve sitting on your ass?

      When your mind is busy, all the rest of you is too. But I have less sedentary things to do as well.

And what, pray tell, might that be?

      You ask the best questions. I have to live up to the honor of being Time’s “Person of the Year.” A protester. Tens of thousands of worldwide protesters were the most important people in 2011. Proudly, I am a part of that

For my entire life, I have prayed for, then hoped for, then given up on, the coming of a popular revolution, through which the world might come to its senses, embrace the poor, and quit the ungodly war games. I always thought I was jousting at windmills.

Then came Occupy Wall Street and the other 800 plus Occupys in 60 plus countries. This is our best, our only, chance. The US has been a fake democracy for a long time. Everyone knows we have government by, for, and of the corporations.

At our Occupy Cincinnati General Assembly meetings, we actually “do” democracy. We actually listen to one another respectfully, and we do our best to try to love one another. Each night, an amazing group called “Food not Bombs” brings healthy food to us and any poor or homeless folks who show up. Much of the time it feels like the heaven I no longer believe in.

Any words of wisdom for your readers, Jim?

Rich, poor, all races colors and creeds… come to the dance. Celebrate the revolution. Be a part of history, a part of changing the world.

Meetup is meant to tell people’s stories in their own words. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the interviewee and not those of the Greater Cincinnati Coalitions for the Homeless, Streetvibes or the staff, volunteers and board members.