It was a little pink poster that caught my eye. Posted outside the Grog Shop, the flier advertised an "Indie-Rock Singles Night" at the Beachland Tavern. It was like finding my own name on the back of a milk carton.
I had come to Cleveland after years at America's great hipster outposts: Chicago, the land of leopard-print spandex; Minneapolis, the far-north outpost of hypercolor shirts; and Portland, a place where hipsters breed like bunnies, presuming bunnies wore skinny jeans and rode the light-rail. After years in these cryogenic chambers of cool, I came to Cleveland versed in all things ironic and proudly fitting into women's jeans.
But after two months here, I had yet to locate the mythological children of Robert Pollard. Where do Rust Belt scenesters play?, I asked myself, as I shot Cherry Bombs with a Tri Delt at the Blind Pig.
Friends had warned me that Cleveland doesn't have a real hipster scene. But I didn't believe them. This is the land of Oberlin College, the preeminent factory of all things effete. There had to be some Atari T-shirt-wearing vegans somewhere.
The flier confirmed my suspicion. I was hot on the hipster trail. A cute version of Ellen Page was sure to bicycle into my life any moment.
So on the night of the event, on a chilly Thursday in February, I launch into indie-preparation mode. I slip into Swedish-made, skintight gray denim. I pull a white V-neck over my head. I tie a gray bandanna around my neck. It's an outfit specifically designed to highlight my hippest attribute: a prominent rib cage.
My wardrobe intact, I hop into my Subaru, blast This American Life, and head off to the event, visions of asymmetrical haircuts nodding nonchalantly in my head.
When I arrive at the Beachland, I am buoyed by the sight of the good ol' red, white, and blue. No, not the American flag — everyone knows America sucks compared to Quebec — but cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, the ironic beer us hipsters appropriated from longshoremen.
Inside, I am greeted by the event's organizer, who hands me a name tag. But instead of my own name, she says, I have to pick the name of an indie-rocker. I go with Britt Daniel, the lead singer of Spoon, but a pang of regret quickly shoots through me: Is Daniel too mainstream? Am I supposed to pick someone more obscure? Or maybe someone so mainstream, they're actually cool? What's a horny hipster to do?
I stick with Daniel, and the organizer assigns me to a table. The event apparently calls for us to play trivia, with everyone switching tables after three questions. The idea, I guess, is to force us to talk instead of brood, which really sucks, since brooding is when I'm most attractive.
But my unease is calmed by the glorious sounds of the Thermals. They're rocking from the speakers above, allowing me to finally make small talk about something that matters. Judging by their faces, though, my fellow singles have never heard of the Thermals. This notion disorients me, like the time I met a hipster who didn't own Footloose on VHS. I'm beginning to wonder if I have come to the wrong event. It's as if I walked into American Apparel only to discover it was actually the Gap.
It's OK, I finally tell myself. They're probably just into something more obscure. But after we switch tables, I find myself once again confused by this new strain of hip. I notice that none of my new tablemates are pierced, nor are there any abstract shapes tattooed on their necks. And that's when it hits me: Everyone at this singles' night is straight.
I find myself at a sudden loss, much like when Feist did that Apple commercial. The hipsters I know lack any sexual orientation whatsoever. They're all queer. Not in the gay sort of way, but in the I'll-try-this-out-to-be-more-like-Michael-Chabon sort of way.
I try to refocus myself. Throughout the night, I've been ignoring the trivia questions, confused by the sight of khakis where I expected rhinestone button-ups. But then they ask a question so easy, I'm almost embarrassed to answer it: "What is the name of Ben Gibbard's solo act?" It's like asking for the carbon footprint of a four-stroke, 150cc Vespa — something any good hipster should know.
After I shout the answer with all the boredom I can muster — All-Time Quarterback, duh — a cute girl walks toward me with a bowl of candy hearts. Later, I will think that the words written on those candy hearts were disgustingly un-profound and should have been penned by Charles Bukowski, or maybe Nancy Drew. But at the moment, I am distracted by the idea of a breathing woman walking in my direction, an event that hasn't occurred since my vintage road bike and I arrived in Cleveland.
She has a sweet face, sort of like Natalie Portman in Garden State, before Garden State went all mainstream and turned Portman into a pop-princess sellout. I begin plotting my opening line, debating internally between "So I was reading some Nietzsche this afternoon" and "Can I borrow your pants?" But as she moves closer, something throws me: She looks like a real woman. She has voluptuous breasts, expensive-looking earrings, and clothes that appear to have been purchased somewhere besides the boys' section of Unique Thrift. What the hell kind of hipsters are these?
I take my candy heart, muttering only a confused "Thank you," and shift my gaze to the 40 singles around me. And I realize that the Cleveland Indie-Rocker is like no other I have ever seen. Missing are the Casio calculator watches, the ironic Tom Selleck mustaches, the turquoise Palestinian neck scarves. Absent are the emaciated physiques, like Amy Winehouse before she sold out and won a Grammy.
Yes, these Clevelanders like music, but they are otherwise normal and earnest. They have attributes like no other hipsters I have encountered, such as wallets and health care plans. And they are able to interact with each other without drawing animal caricatures on their napkins.
As the night winds down, the members of this curious breed begin flipping out their cell phones to exchange phone numbers. I watch from the bar, alone and sipping my Pabst, wondering if maybe I need to switch to a more ironic beer, like Tecate. Eventually, I get in my Subaru and go home. I listen to Thriller on cassette as I drive, but it just doesn't sound the same.