Monday, March 21, 2011

You were up to your old tricks in Chapters Four, Five and Six

We were just in Cleveland this weekend for a family thing. I love Cleveland, and it's not a joke. I went to college there, lived on my own for the first time, met my husband there. I like that town's shape and history, the long straight avenues and the crooked filthy river.

We drove out from Baltimore, arriving at our downtown hotel at about 9pm on St. Patrick's Day. Now, St. Patrick's Day in Cleveland is an ugly affair. Even though Cleveland drinkers are far from amateurs, the poorly-considered dye jobs, plastic costume accessories, and truly epic all-day consumption makes everyone look like a stumbling frat-boy pledge.

But even at that moment - possibly the least charming one in Cleveland's drinking year - and even in that place, which, more so than most American downtowns, has been converted to a pedestrian mall of theme bars, the composed scale and dignified proportions of those buildings made the screeching drunks seem insignificant and temporary. Which, luckily, they were.

When I was in college, the mayor's daughter was one of my boyfriend's roommates. We had nascent urban-design conversations in her parents' kitchen about how on earth to get people to come back to downtown, which emptied utterly after the working day was done. Wasn't too bustling between 9 and 5, either, for that matter. Personally, I liked it that way. Any weekend day, you could run down the center line of any street and holler down the alleys, climb fire escapes and listen to the wind and nothing else.

We kept telling my friend's dad, "It's all about the drinking. Just keep inventing reasons to bring in beer trucks, and eventually people will open bars down there and stuff." We were no geniuses, believe me. It took at least two major sports venues and, I can imagine, tax concessions made to several large corporations in order to really stimulate development down there. But we weren't wrong about the drinking.

There's a great article in Cleveland's free weekly, Scene magazine, about bars that open before dawn. I used to go to at least one of them, but usually not until after dark. Which, granted, in Cleveland is about 3pm sometimes.

It was fun to read Scene again. I had forgotten how fast and loose that paper feels. With all the cussin' and the jokes and the pithy movie criticism ("In 1984, Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves explored the Freudian psychosexual themes of the Red Riding Hood fairy tale. In 2011, Catherine Hardwicke's Red Riding Hood explores that story's capacity for cheesy CGI effects, fake exteriors, bad acting, and oafish dialogue"), it surely makes Baltimore's City Paper feel prim. Fucking prim, not to put too fine a point on it.

Bob and I were discussing this - how much we enjoyed reading Scene and how we sincerely do not enjoy reading City Paper - and one of us floated the idea that Scene writers are recent college grads and part-timers, while people who write for the City Paper actually have some ambition to get jobs in a major market or for a major news outlet or for whomever they imagine is actually going to be hiring writers in the future, which, frankly, hello look who's been writing almost exclusively for free since 2006. Give it up, man. Write for free, you get to swear more. True, you eat less, but this is why your parents warned you not to be a liberal arts major.

In general, it seems like Clevelanders are game to try things, in galleries and on stages, even in marketing campaigns (that's a joke, I know that), that people on the East coast are not.

Here, our willingness to start a Wang Chung cover band or make a musical based on The Wedding Singer is dampened by our desire to not to look stupid in front of New York. In Cleveland, they know New York is not looking at them. They are free to be the spitball table in the lunchroom.

They turn houses inside-out.

They construct the high school stoner's ultimate fantasy hangout:

couchbleachers, by Nate Page, Machine Project at SPACES Gallery, Cleveland

Baltimore has Stoop Stories, evenings of themed storytelling, but Cleveland has StorySlam!, hosted by a guy in a bear suit. Participants are invited to share their 'true until proven otherwise' Cleveland tales, and the audience is invited to create shoebox dioramas illustrating one of the stories they heard, or one of their own. Shoebox dioramas. The ultimate creative leveler.

Pittsburgh is like this too, to a lesser extent. Pittsburgh flies beneath the New York radar, luckily for them. Also St. Louis.

Minneapolis? Minneapolis knows New York is looking at them, and they will put on a musical based on the The Wedding Singer knowing full well that some New Yorker is going to steal the idea and charge Williamsburg hipsters thirty-five bucks a head to sing along to "Pass the Dutchie".

You know you know the words.