By the time the cab plowed into the snowbank, it was settled: Cleveland and I were through.
It was a December morning, 2004. I'd arrived in Cleveland that Thanksgiving from Northern California, where I was born, raised and coddled into a brand of pansy largely unknown to Midwesterners – a man who did yoga and talked about his feelings out loud. I knew no one. I'd never lived alone. I'd never driven in the snow, and had never driven drunk, and yet everyone in Cleveland seemed to be expert at both.
Those first few weekends had consisted mostly of solo missions to all manners of Cleveland bars, chosen mostly based on the likelihood that anyone from work would catch me drinking alone. (The Gold Club, a classy little place on the edge of downtown, seemed to be the safest choice.) If I did stay home, the echoes of my empty Coventry apartment, all crown moldings and actual mold, usually chased me next door to my neighbor's apartment. I watched TV and flirted with her endlessly. She mostly talked about her boyfriend.
Then, finally, Christmas. I'd booked the first flight out, desperate to be back in the gentle embrace of my homeland, a place where tailgates included red wine, where a basic knowledge of show tunes wasn't a Class B misdemeanor. But a storm had hit, and for the first time I couldn't get my car out of the parking lot. I called a cab, but when I told her the location the dispatcher actually, audibly, laughed. So I dragged my suitcase through the snow to the corner of Cedar and Coventry and waited in the dark.
The cab came a half hour later, and we slushed toward the airport. He said something that everyone seemed to say those days – "YOU MOVE TO CLEVELAND FROM CALIFORNIA WHY THE FUCK YOU DO THAT?" – and just as I realized I had no answer, the cab started to slide. Eventually I would learn how common this is, how to a Clevelander, pirouetting across several lanes of traffic is just something that happens every winter, like Christmas Ale or Zach Reed getting a DUI. But in the moment, as we completed our fifth rotation and plowed into the snowbank, saved only by the desolation of midtown Cleveland, I was still wondering why cars here didn't need chains in the snow like they did back home. And I was scared. And I was asking myself, in an Albanian accent for some reason, "YOU MOVE TO CLEVELAND FROM CALIFORNIA WHY THE FUCK YOU DO THAT?"
Ten months: That's how long I thought I'd live in Cleveland. In 10 months, I figured, my bosses, Scene's owners, would see the folly in wasting such robust literary talent in a cultural wasteland and ship me back to Scene's sister paper in San Francisco, trading me for a Really Cheap Journalist to Be Named Later. They would deem my prose elegant yet street-wise, "Hemingway meets the writers of Boy Meets World." They'd probably give me a bonus for my trouble, and I'd probably spend it on Gold Horse Bucks.
But then something strange happened. I started to get comfortable. And I started to love things that, to a 25-year-old Californian, were uniquely Cleveland.
I learned to appreciate urbanity. I grew up deep in the suburbs, a haze of big-box this and strip-mall that. Cleveland was entry-level city living. Everyone I knew drank in the same nine bars, lived in the same downtown loft, had slept with the same seven people, none of whom was me. When my first 10 months passed – Hmm, they must be waiting till I sweep those prestigious Cleveland Press Club awards – I moved from my Coventry shit hole to a shit hole downtown, and my world got even smaller. Nothing was off-limits, nothing out of reach, except those Press Club awards.
I learned to love living alone, a luxury not afforded to my friends in the Bay Area, where rent prices mean roommates until marriage and beyond. I loved watching my apartment devolve into a city dump every week, and I loved sprucing it up every Friday night in the hopes that a drunk Dayton grad named Megan would come home with me to eat frozen pizza and tell me about her dad.
Cleveland, I learned, was also a great place to experiment, and not just with your liver. The stakes aren't so high when the rest of the world thinks you slipped into Lake Erie in 1994, so for me, Cleveland became the Land of Fucking Up Without Anyone Noticing. I tried out for a minor league basketball team, despite having the build of a strangely tall midget. I accused The Investigator Tom Myers of murder for no good reason at all. Even more recklessly, I canoed the Cuyahoga River, a journey I can't recommend less. I even landed a spot on a local public radio show, and then promptly got blackballed. Not fans of long stretches of dead air, those radio guys.
By the time I looked up, 10 months had turned into four years, and I couldn't really see myself leaving. And that's when Cleveland taught me its cruelest, its most Rust Beltian, lesson. That's when Cleveland broke my heart.
The tanking economy was squeezing the life from Scene and its competitor, Free Times. The papers merged. My bosses finally called. You're paroled, they said. You can finally leave Cleveland. I gathered my things and said goodbye at whichever bar was serving dollar drafts that week, which, if I recall, was all of them.
I left in July of 2008 for Denver. I watched wistfully from afar as the feds ascended Mount Dimora, the first corrupt official I'd ever loved. I was alone in my apartment for The Decision, looking around for something maroon to burn. Alone in my apartment, which for some reason cost more than $400, I flipped through the channels in search of my new town's Carl Monday, but no one had the guts, or the trench coat, to be Carl. There wasn't a dollar Molson in sight.
I'd lost her, my first city love, forever – or so it seemed. There was one saving grace: When I arrived in Cleveland all those years ago, I vowed to never fall in love with a girl from Cleveland, lest I have to spend another Thanksgiving in, you know, Cleveland. During my time there, the women of Cleveland had mostly obliged, keeping their distance for the sake of geographic destiny. But right before the merger I'd met someone at a bar. We talked, over the romantic swells of the Wu-Tang Clan, and we kept talking after I left for Denver. And soon enough I was back at a bar in Cleveland, proposing to her in the icing of a cake, because nothing says "I love you" like buttercream icing and three shots of Jameson in a glass made for one.
And so it is that this Thanksgiving, like I did 10 Thanksgivings ago, I fly to Cleveland and drive east toward downtown and up Cedar. Only this year, if the car starts spinning, I'll just look out the window at my adopted home, and I'll say, "YOU MOVE TO CLEVELAND FROM CALIFORNIA WHY THE FUCK YOU DO THAT?" And this year, like every year since, I'll have the answer.