It’s a Wednesday at lunchtime, and instead of writing term life policies, insurance agent Dave Wurzelbacher is taking orders and clearing plates at Tucker’s Restaurant on Vine Street in Over-the-Rhine. He tells me — although he doesn’t need to — “I don’t really work here. I’m just helping Joe."
A little while later, Dave Alpern, a server at Lavomatic restaurant and post-grad student at UC, gets up to refill my coffee cup. “I help out when I’m here,” he says. He still pays his check after his meal.
The place begins to remind me of an old movie, Bagdad Café, about a quirky, character-filled diner that somehow, almost magically, seems to bring out the best in people. A bleak exception was the morning of Jan. 18, 2011, when two shooters brought a street vendetta inside Tucker’s. Joe Tucker’s wife, Carla, and a young customer, Ranisha Burgin, were injured in what people who love Tucker’s generally call “what happened.”
Carla and Joe’s family-owned restaurant has always been a safe haven on Vine Street. Even during the riots 10 years ago, the property remained virtually untouched except for some broken windows. It’s always been an inclusive place, where the Tuckers welcomed the entire community to enjoy Joe’s crisp hash browns, overstuffed omelets and towering, tartar-sauce-topped burgers — a place that Roadfood writer Michael Stern called “a citadel of culinary hospitality.” That’s why “what happened” was such a shock.
Streetvibes reporter Jim Luken compared it to the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, which had taken place in Tucson just 10 days earlier. “It shook the foundations of one entire neighborhood community,” he explained.
Shook them, yes. But then the neighborhood community began to rally. Mayor Mark Mallory arrived at Tucker’s within hours to express outrage over the violence, and just as quickly the vendors at Findlay Market, where Joe shopped for his ingredients, started to help — and other neighbors were right behind them.
“People understand what it’s all about here (in Over-the-Rhine),” says Mike Bender, owner of Mike’s Meats in Findlay Market.
“We’re really all one business. It’s all about keeping people in Over-the-Rhine. Tucker’s is an establishment, the way Joe’s dad opened it, and Joe runs it. I want to be able to send customers there. I want him to send business here. So if I’m fortunate enough to be in a position to help him, well, that’s what I’ll do.”
Bender said he has donated products to a fundraiser for the Tuckers and some breakfast items to help out. Carolyn and Bryan Madison of Madison’s Produce have also helped Joe with donated produce and are selling T-shirts and buttons for the cause.
“It’s out of love for the Tuckers,” Carolyn says. “But it’s also saying that we won’t give up. We won’t let this spoil the progress we’re making and scare people away. I don’t want the bad guys to win. We want to win.”
Alpern, the Lavomatic server, is finishing his thesis on Urban Planning. Over-the-Rhine is his case study. He talks about how good he has felt since he moved down the hill from Clifton. He sees so many people come to the neighborhood who didn’t before, and knows that most of the bad things that happen are between people who know each other, who have a motive. What happened to Carla and Ms. Burgin happened “in a location that people know is the opposite of violence.” He’s emotional when he talks about this place — “a place I believe in. When I was going through hard times, this is a place where I could come and just … grow.”
Blogger and Over-the-Rhine resident Katy Crossen used Twitter to help pump up the crowd when Joe re-opened his doors on the Saturday following the shooting.
“I think the turnout was pretty solid,” Crossen says. “When I arrived to grab the last stool at the counter, I noticed that none other than Jeff Ruby was chowing down on some grub at a table behind us. I certainly don’t think he was a part of the “tweetup” aspect, but his presence that morning just goes to show that people of all walks of life have a soft spot for Tucker’s.”
Local music favorites Messerly and Ewing played a fundraiser at Mr. Pitifuls, organized to help support the Tuckers, the restaurant and Ms. Burgin. The group’s bassist, Sean Rhiney, volunteered their involvement. “It’s a no-brainer,” he says. “They’re my neighbors. That’s what you do for your neighbors.” He said he was humbled when the Tuckers came over to thank them for playing, since he felt honored to have the chance to help.
Almost $2,200 was raised at the event, which was organized by Patricia Klein and her husband, Reid Hartmann, who are rehabbing a building across the street from Tucker’s. “When something so awful happens, you can either do nothing, or you can try to help,” Klein says.
Joe Tucker is stretched tight — emotionally, physically and financially. Service is slower than usual, but customers seem to understand. Carla was always there to help him run the place, but she hasn’t been back since what happened. The restaurant was closed for most of a week, and that hurt money-wise.
“Carla’s doing better,” Joe says, thanking everyone for asking. “And everybody’s stepped up to help. Everybody at the Market, my customers. They’ve taken me up, kept me under their arm. If I didn’t have this support, I’d be gone.”
That’s what no one wants and everyone is afraid might happen. Sure, there’s a lot of new development on Vine Street, but it’s heavier in the Central Parkway to Liberty stretch. North of Liberty can still feel like a fragile ecosystem. If Tucker’s is on the endangered species list, its neighbors are determined to keep it alive.
There is another fundraiser in the works for April 30 at St. Francis Seraph on Liberty at Vine. A Facebook page, “The Big Tucker: For the Health of It,” will have details as they become available. Facebook has some information on the U.S. Bank account set up for Ranisha Burgin, and Madison’s Produce has preliminary plans to donate a percentage of its proceeds to that fund, in addition to selling Tucker’s T-shirts and buttons for Carla’s expenses.
“What’s the best way to help?” Alpern asks before answering himself. “Just keep showing up.”