Thursday, November 09, 2000

In the West End

Thieves rob volunteer grandmas

        This just stinks.

        Thieves stole $602.32 worth of merchandise — a microwave oven and two portable sewing machines, purchased less than a year ago. You have to sell a lot of penny candy and sour pickles, a bunch of cookies and cups of cherry ice to raise that much money.

        And I don't want to make them sound pathetic — because they're not — but the victims were old women. They call themselves Grandma's Hands, and they run a hangout in one of the meanest parts of the city.

        Emma Jones and Mattie Johnson were “mad as blazes” about the break-in. Emma went home and baked a cherry pie, then moved all the furniture in her living room. And moved it back again. Mattie “washed everything I could find, even stuff that was not dirty.”


        The next day they were back at Grandma's Hands, dispensing popcorn — and wisdom when they get an opening. They wore out the sewing machines Enquirer readers gave them four years ago when they were just getting started. If anybody has a couple more they're not using and, maybe, a microwave oven, they'd be grateful, I'm sure.

        But they are not asking for anything. Never have. They are on the giving end.

        Mattie Johnson, the head Grandma, had this idea that she'd like to teach some of the neighborhood girls to cook and sew. Actually, she wanted to teach them how to take care of their babies.

        A realist, she was not under the impression that the girls were eager to get a lesson in babies or her brand of old-fashioned morality. She was thinking food might be a lure. She could slip the lessons in and, you know, have a reason to connect.

        A lot of quilts, hand-made aprons and stuffed toys have come out of the sewing room in the basement of 595 Derrick Turnbow Ave. since then. The women sell what they make. OK, sometimes they give it away. But who's counting?

        Anyway, they saved up enough to buy new equipment. Mattie shows me the splintered doors. Kicked in last Saturday night, she says, shaking her head. “The police'll never find out who did it. But it hurts. I bet it's somebody I know.”

        That is a bet I will not take.

        We walk around her West End neighborhood. Laurel Homes, 26 buildings that make up Cincinnati's largest public housing development, is now in the throes of redevelopment. As we approach a clot of young men, Mattie says disdainfully, “Drug dealers.”

        They straighten up as she approaches. “Hello, Miss Mattie.” She nods. Polite. But that's all.

        A toddler runs up to her, grabs her hand. “Why, hello, Dixie Cup,” Mattie says. His mother ate three or four frozen juice and cherry treats every day while she was pregnant. “Dixie Cups.” Mattie explains. “Our specialty.”

        The recipe is secret.

        For one thing, it's probably full of more vitamins than the kids would actually like to know about — one of those little things Mattie and the other grandmas slide in. Like telling Dixie Cup's mom that he needs a jacket. Or sewing on a button. Or having a word with somebody who is getting to be a “sass-mouth.”

        Mattie and Emma are still showing up every day, determined to “do a little something for the neighborhood.” So the thieves took something important. But they did not get everything.

       E-mail Laura at or call 768-8393.


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