Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Pulfer: The ambassador

Public servant with an umbrella

The family from Albuquerque thinks our city looks very green. And pretty. And pretty big.

LaRita and John Nelson and their daughter, Lesley, are exploring downtown Cincinnati on a weekday when the Reds are playing. So they also think Cincinnati is crowded and, well, kind of exciting. They worried about finding a parking place, but "we just followed the signs to the $1 parking," LaRita says.

Feeling a little green myself, I told LaRita I'd ignored the signs and wound up paying $10 for "event parking."

That's what I get for thinking I know it all.

Clearly, I need professional help.

Diondre Winstead looks out for fools like me. If I drive downtown on a gray day, leaving my headlights on when I park, he will call somebody to refresh my battery, free of charge. He will change a tire, also free of charge. "A lady tried to pay me," he says. "I told her to use the money to get a new tire."

Diondre can recite the current lineup at the Great American Ball Park or Music Hall. "An opera," he says. "Turandot." He can tell you what's on the menu at Palomino. And where public art and public restrooms are located. Some things he has studied. Some things he already knew. He grew up in College Hill, a graduate of Hughes High School. He patrols the central business district on a very handsome black bicycle with an odometer that tells him he covers about 30 miles a day, mostly the same couple of miles over and over. He wears a marigold-yellow shirt and navy shorts.

The tools of his trade - downtown ambassador - include a cell phone, a pager, a flashlight and an encyclopedic memory of phone numbers. Some kids are trying to play with a sick pigeon. He shoos them off and refers the bird to animal control. He reports an overflowing trashcan to his contact at the city.

He is the finder of lost cars and lost children. After a ballgame the night before, he defused an alcohol-drenched confrontation, taking the tension down a notch. Just talking. But he wouldn't have been too proud to call for help from Cincinnati police.

"The cops are great," he says. "If we need them, they are there. Right now." He considers himself a partner, "the eyes and ears." As we walk under gray skies, it starts spitting rain. He unfurls an umbrella, another one of his tools. If you get stuck downtown in the rain, you can dial 623-3427 and an ambassador will show up with an umbrella. Or a jumper cable.

Customer service, David Ginsburg calls it. The chief of Downtown Cincinnati, Inc., which puts the ambassadors on the streets, David says cleanliness leads to more cleanliness. And civility is catching.

Stooping first to pick up a discarded soft drink can, Diondre heads down toward the riverfront. "Game is letting out," he says. The sky opened up, drenching people on the way to their cars. "I used that umbrella a whole bunch," he says later, laughing.

Diondre Winstead is one of 16 ambassadors looking out not only for the Nelsons from New Mexico but for people visiting from Florence and Oakley and Columbus. His theory is that sometimes it only takes one person to make a good impression.

So he pedals that bike hard, covering a lot of ground.


E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com or phone 768-8393.

Howard: Some good news
Korte: Inside City Hall
Pulfer: The ambassador

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