In the summer of 1992, I had just finished my first year of college. I was living at home, driving every day to the Cincinnati airport to clean rooms at the Radisson. I was living through my first heartbreak, reading Middlemarch in the evenings and watching Days of our Lives on my days off, and depleting my lovelorn tears through exhausting labor. With a friend from high school, I shuttled my giant gray Oldsmobile to the hotel parking lot every morning. Could there be anything more small-town midwestern girl of the early 1990s than this?
This was back when hotels had restaurants, plants, and fountains. In the break room at lunch time, the housekeepers ate the leftovers uneaten by people we couldn’t imagine. I still can’t. Who went to the isolated airport motel for lunch? Most of the people staying at the hotel were pilots and stewardesses. Still stewardesses in 1992? Probably. Maybe they didn’t eat the chicken we later plowed through after a morning of cleaning bathrooms and making beds. Lifting mattress after mattress to tuck sheets into hospital corners is heavy work. I had bruises on my wrists from the repetitive weight of the king sized rooms.
At the Radisson, I was learning. The housekeeper who trained me showed me to pick dried shit off a toilet rim because “we don’t have time for that.” I learned never, ever to drink from a glass cup in a hotel room. Guess what else we didn’t have time for? My fellow housekeepers were older white women. They were probably thirty-two. I would think they were so young now. My mentor in toilet cleaning had both an older husband (“m’old man”) and a boyfriend. She and the boyfriend met in the bar at the next town down river from where I grew up. I thought I had learned a lot my first year in college. I had had my heart broken, after all, but I couldn’t fathom adults who had both husbands and boyfriends.
I learned not to touch too closely on beds. I cleaned up eye-opening messes. So much blood and shit. Even today, I can see shit in a carpet if I close my eyes, even I still don’t know how a person shits on wall to wall carpet.
WNKU made my work and heartbreak bearable that summer. We weren’t allowed to watch TV while we cleaned, but we could to listen to the radios in the bedside alarm clocks. One day, I was tuning through stations and heard “Yucky Bugs” by Jeff Warner. “Come on down, let’s go out, we’ll have a bug squashing party tonight.” Folk music on the radio? I didn’t know that could happen. I started tuning all the alarm clocks to 89.7 whenever I entered a room. That was back before WNKU had a strong signal. I could only get the station on one side of the hotel. I could get it in my car for a few miles on the highway before we crossed back into Indiana from Kentucky. I learned all the catch phrase, “WNKU: your acoustic connection from the concrete campus.” I loved the Friday morning request line. I learned about musicians I still love today, like Richard Thompson.
Other people have more exciting WNKU stories. Nobody nurtured the local music scene better than WNKU. They hosted concerts at Cincinnati bars and helped musicians make the leap to making a living at music. My story is about cleaning up messes and making hospital corners to a soundtrack. It made me less lonely. It made me look forward to fall, going back to school and maybe looking for love again.
WNKU is shutting up shop, sold off to a Christian broadcasting station. In the last 20 years, they’ve been able to make enough money to sustain their work. The world, too, has changed and what we think about the value of radio and the common good.
But I will never forget the way that WNKU sustained me in the summer of 1992, 25 years ago now.