When photojournalist Kevin Van Paassen and I rolled into Toledo Monday, we only knew two things about the place: That it had once been the subject of an unflattering John Denver song and that its local hockey team, the Walleye, has one of the most hilarious logos in professional sports: an angry-looking fish missing a tooth.
It was late in the evening when we arrived, so I booked a hotel downtown, figuring we could wander over to a nearby pub and enjoy a pint on a patio in the warm evening. Unfortunately, every last bar within walking distance was closed by 11 p.m. The helpful staff at the front desk informed us there was just one pizza place in town open late. We plugged the address into the GPS and started driving.
The winding route took us passed shuttered storefronts, hulking warehouses and darkened homes. Not a soul walked the streets. The only signs of life were at a collection of divey-looking strip clubs – I counted at least four – and several windowless bunker-like adult video places.
"I think we just drove into the zombie apocalypse," I said.
Finally, we reached our destination at the very edge of town, a brighly-lit shop in a strip plaza one block south of the Michigan state line. A pair of cheerful, rotund young men behind the counter took our orders. As we sat down to our food, a third guy headed out to make a delivery. Strapped to his belt, in plain view, was a semi-automatic pistol.
"I couldn't help noticing he was carrying a gun," Kevin remarked to the men at the counter.
"We deliver to some bad parts of town. The delivery guys have to protect themselves," one of them replied.
"Does the company provide that?"
"He brings his own," said the pizza chef. "We keep a gun in the shop, too. We've been robbed twice."
"Is this a pretty rough area?"
"No," he replied, without a hint of irony. "This is one of the nicest parts of Toledo."
The city didn't seem quite so bleak the next morning, as the sun reflected off the Maumee River and illuminated the picturesque business district, a collection of well-preserved art deco office towers.
But we were just passing through on our way back from an assignment and didn't have time to stick around. We made a quick stop at the local stadium, loaded up the car with Walleye swag, and hit the highway.