Cleveland. The mention of that city, in the rest of the country, invokes a roll of the eyes, and a vision of the quintessential rust belt town; rife with urban decay, dead industry, litter, corruption, and of course, rust. One trip to that pile of smoldering rubble they call a town, and that vision is affirmed. I’ve suffered the woes of being required to travel there far too many times for one life, and our drive there for the New Year’s Day was hopefully, as I’ve always found myself wishing on my way out of town, my last for a very long time. Go to Cleveland? I’d rather visit the hospital. As a patient.
My mother’s family emigrated from Macedonia, and instead of picking West Palm Beach, or Taos, New Mexico, they headed straight for the nexus of the coldest and filthiest. Cleveland. Maybe there were jobs there back then, or the streets weren’t quite as choked with trash and vermin in those days, but for some reason, like LeBron, they had a choice. Unlike Lebron, they chose poorly.
I always wondered why my grandmother got married at 15. After all, she wasn’t pregnant, and it wasn’t an arranged marriage. Years later, I realized that she got hitched so early because it was her ticket out of Cleveland. Featureless, minor-league Columbus probably seemed like Oz compared to the major-league craphole she was escaping. And I thank her for doing so every time I see that miserable place on the lake, which is only on TV.
Still, her siblings and mother stayed behind, so at least once a year, my own mother would drag us to whatever great aunt or uncle was hosting whatever birthday, or whatever wedding, or funeral. I cannot remember the events, only the dread of going, and the joy of returning home, even as a child. The fact that many of my Cleveland relatives were complete assholes was only a minor part of the equation.
So two weeks ago, my wife decides that she hasn’t bought her father quite enough for Christmas, and comes up with the idea of buying him Browns tickets. She goes online, and picks up four of them for their season finale which was, of course, the last regular season game, the post season being out of the question, this and every other year. This year’s Week 17 game was on New Year’s Day, the latest installment of their hopelessly one-sided “rivalry” with Pittsburgh. It’s a rivalry alright, if you consider a dozen cockroaches versus a can of Raid a “rivalry.” Anyway, I thought, “Okay, fine. It’s a nice gift for the old man, and I enjoy checking out new stadiums.” I was game for getting out of the house on New Year’s Day, and taking my son along with us to the game, so he’d get the full experience of why he’s lucky to live in Central Ohio, or anywhere but up there.
Boy, did he ever. I-71 pierces the Greater Cleveland area like a lance into the belly of a giant sewer rat. “Hey Jake, check out those houses,” as we drove past the oh-so tasteful 1950’s vintage turquoise, pink, and lavender cracker box houses in Parma. There’s a 100’ banner next to Progressive Field that shouts about how Sherwin Williams has been based in Cleveland since 1860. Does anyone in Parma know this? From an airplane, the houses look like someone puked up a bucket full of Necco wafers. Paint your homes, Parma jerkoffs, they’ve come up with new colors since 1953.
Of course, I-71 brings drivers right into the rotten, burnt out guts of the city, a Mordor of dead industry. That’s always entertaining enough, and it’s kind of interesting to see the grave of what was once a heavy manufacturing district. It was also fun to explain to my son how fluids can have different densities, and therefore can be lighter or heavier than one another, and that when a city is sufficiently choked with pollution, these properties can contribute to the river running through it to catch on fucking fire. “I get it dad, oil and gas floats on water. But how does a river catch on fire?”
I don’t know kid; I just don’t know. “Look around,” was my only answer.
We got a long, protracted look at said river, because that’s where traffic stopped dead. For an hour. A three mile long, honking, road-raging testament to a complete lack of planning and mismanagement of one of the city’s very few attractions.
You see, sometime in the ‘90s, the titans running Cleveland realized that they were going to get a second chance from the NFL. A chance to start all over again, from scratch, and build an NFL franchise. They would even construct a modern stadium in which the new Browns would play. They decided that it would be a great idea to put the new Browns Stadium right on the lakefront; a nice idea, on the face of it, as Lake Erie is the only thing the entire place has going for it, in spite of the entire metro area dumping about a billion cubic yards of gasoline and feces into it monthly. What the decision makers didn’t do is create any kind of way to get to the goddamned stadium. How did that thought process go? After all, the same streets that have been there since the 1920’s are just perfect for funneling in 80,000 people that have come to your city, to spend money, right? And since you put it on the lake, they can only come in from one direction, unless the ticket holder is a Navy frogman or a fucking duck, which makes sense, right? After all, there are only 500 square miles of easily accessible, yet totally desolate post-industrial moonscape where you could’ve put a stadium, so people could actually come and go. And while you’re at it, don’t regulate traffic at all on game day. Wait, you can still post traffic cops that do nothing but earn special duty, satisfying whatever graft-ridden union needed appeased, but keep the streets two-way the entire time, with the normal traffic light timing. And since city buildings just happen to be on one of the TWO streets that head in, make sure that city vehicles are still parked on the streets during game day.
After crawling down Ontario Street, parts of which look like a normal city, but some of which looks like Dresden, circa 1945, we got to a parking garage. We probably would have burned less fuel taking a helicopter there, but it was nonetheless a relief to pull up to the ticket booth, manned by a pasty-skinned young man who looked like he just killed the actual ticket-taker and stuffed him under a van.
I rolled down the window and said, “Hi. Some traffic today. Is it always like this, or just for big games?”
“Twenty-five,” meaning the charge to enter the garage. I barely saw his face move. Perhaps one of the symptoms of being born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, as surely a significant percentage of Clevelanders are, is the inability to change facial expressions.
“OK. Hey, got exact change for ya. This level full?”
Silence, and a blank stare from his dimly lit eyes, barely able to peer out from beneath the heavy lids concealing them. However, a barely perceptible shift in his face, drawn tight by whatever pollutants he’d been exposed to in his short, yet likely half over life, gave me the impression of …scorn? Yes! The disdain of outsiders, found in the denizens of every crack den of a city and every hollow full of inbreds in Appalachia. A xenophobia where anyone with normal chromosomes is alien, must not be trusted, and should not be approached, as they probably use words and stuff. Not wanting to return to a smashed headlight, I pulled away without a word, and found a spot, the ticket-punching mouth-breather I’d just left becoming the most recent face of Cleveland, the latest in a long list of mean-spirited, mulleted, jorts-wearing, Camaro-driving, tacky and rude bastards with whom I’ve crossed paths in that urban cesspool.
We left the parking garage, and found ourselves amongst the throng jamming the footbridge across Route 2. I was confused; there was a jingling noise that the crowd was making, and no one was dressed in any kind of fan regalia. It was then that I realized that the bridge was simply packed with aggressive panhandlers. Once we fought past their zombie-like aggression, we finally arrived at the foot of a very average-looking stadium.
I’m guessing that Kafka had a time machine, and once tried to go to a Browns game, because after facing more transit issues than a wagonload of Mormons with dysentery, we found that once you get to the stadium, you can’t get in. There are maybe 5 entrances, each staffed by half a dozen very dim bulbs, patting everyone down for bazookas and bongs.
When at last we took our seats, I could only think of two things; how the hell I was going to get out of there without a firearm, and how badly I wanted to see the Browns lose. I’ve always been indifferent with regard to the Browns. If anything, I’ve been mildly amused at their fans continued loyalty no matter what they get put through, but now, I will root for them not only to continue losing badly, but to fold as an organization. High headwinds and rough seas for they and their fans will bring me sheer delight, as I guffaw at their futility, wrapped head-to-tow in Baltimore Ravens gear. Damn you, Cleveland, so offensive you have been to my sensibilities for so long.
There was one moment of overwhelming joy, a bouquet of sunbeams that was so unexpected, that saved me from jumping into the foamy chill of Erie rather than face the exodus of dullards in brown. With 10 full minutes left in the game, my father-in-law, trebling the value of the gift we’d given him, leaned over and said, “I’m ready when you are.”
After a headlong sprint back to the car, and peeling out of downtown as though we’d hit a Brink’s truck, I then found what fleeting, miniscule beauty Cleveland has to offer…apparent only when shrinking in one’s rear view mirror.