#CLEBAREXP stands for The Cleveland Bar Experiment, not experience. But it is an experience. It is multiple experiences. These experiences are many and mostly liquid.
The experimenting started in May last year. It was just one Thursday night for a few pals in Ohio City. And then it became a second Thursday night. Instead of going to the same old haunts, they decided to mix it up. And then the mixing it up became the game, the experiment. Every bar in the city. No repeats allowed.
No game plan. No girls. Just beer.
Drinking at every bar in Cleveland means drinking at some 464 bars, according to the Experiment's unofficial reports. They've been to 110 so far. They've got years to go. It's another Thursday, so they're off again.
Tonight, Scene's along for the ride...
8:43 p.m. Having emerged from an Americab minivan we stand in an anticipatory clump outside Erie Tavern near East 55th and St. Clair. Erie is a small corner bar with one of those conical spires, vaguely Motherlandish.
We number three from Scene. We are here to meet the gang, the CLEBAREXP experimentalists themselves, and here they come now tumbling out of RedKiaSUV, on which the chrome absolutely gleams, looking hale and rosy-cheeked.
They are likewise three strong. Here is Man 1, Pat Cornely, gray sweater-vest over white turtleneck. White high-top Chucks and a faded OSU cap. He is a patent attorney and he is happy to see us. He is one of the core. Also Damon Taseff, Man 2, in OU ballcap and Patagonia jacket which looks comfy comfy comfy. Also, Joe Boyd, DD (a necessary blessing in such an endeavor), Man 3. These men are from Ohio City and do things like babysit each other's kids.
But no time for pleasantries because we are denied at first go at the Erie Tavern.
DENIED. Not once but twice. Denied! And it gets worse. Erie looks eerie but also (for the task at hand) open — through windows, we see a woman go to work on bag of potato chips and the surly tender of bar tends bar — but they say no. Closed. "We're closed," is the quote reported to us.
We are not regulars, clearly, nor locals, obviously.
And so we cram into RedKiaSUV and onward we go toward bar No. 2, because we shan't be deterred. It's actually bar No. 3 — Sterle's Slovenian home was No. 1, "but they close at 8 on Thursday for some reason," says Pat en route to Mitzi Jerman's, down St. Clair, where we are denied again. TVs visibly on in windows, but door is locked. These are not auspicious beginnings.
(We later learn that we may have only had to ring the bell to gain entry at Mitzi's — one of the little quirks about each place you don't know until you go there but will never forget, like a secret password to get in or something — but for the moment):
"I need a beer," says Damon and he means on the double. Good thing right down the street we've got The Union Club, into which we happily stroll and the official experiences, such as they are, begin.
9:09 p.m., Union Club, 2549 St. Clair Ave. Pat keeps saying Lopresti's Union Club, and it's hard to tell if that's part of the name or something else. This wasn't even on the list tonight but Pat assures us that the Cleveland Bar Experiment is beholden to no itinerary.
"We don't often plan," he says. "Often we just go to a neighborhood and drive around until we find a place. This night was probably the most planned night yet, and the first two bars are closed." He shrugs.
We've gathered around one of the Tetris-piece tables, throwing back Bud Lights while we wait for others to trickle in. Todd Sheppard arrives first, another regular on the Thursday outings. Then Chris Garland, having trekked from Columbia Station where he moonlights as a DJ. They got denied at Erie Tavern too. Chris mentions the bartender being most displeased with repeated knocks on the door.
Union Club is sparse, apart from our motley and most amoebic crew. Large bedraggled man with t-shirt erumpent with belly nurses Bud-heavy in silence that looks like despair.
There's a raised area in back for pool and merry-making. A cigarette dispenser squats near the bathroom in the back. "At half the bars we've been to, people smoke," says Todd.
As for decor, it's all Union literature and evocative props of same: ranks and files of hard hats line the wood paneling behind and above the bar. Signage and decals for the promotion of cement masons, carpenters, electricians, etc. appear in unexpected corners. Plus Wahoos everywhere and signs of the "God Created Liquor to keep the Irish from Conquering the World" ilk.
Joe, our DD, is ordering onion rings for the whole class, and they arrive in two red containers.
Question: How good were the onion rings?
Answer: Really good.
Conversation now has drifted to women. All the current CLEBAREXP men are married with kids, kids whom the guys put to sleep before they come out for the Thursday camaraderie. Though they've publicized their activities on Twitter, the general assumption is that women would spoil the fun somehow. It's the Cleveland Bar Escape.
A roving bus boy or barback type offers us five free tunes on the jukebox, and because it's early, we have another round and select five of the finest songs they have to offer.
9:32 p.m. Rolling south along East 36th Street now, while the unassuming facade of Payne Cafe looms. No bigger than a button, really, tucked between two taller brickwork buildings. Joe is working the GPS as Pat touches base with someone on the phone — establishing his whereabouts with the family, quite likely. Neon flickers ahead. "Open," thankfully.
Inside, the lone bartender holds court before an empty room, save for a woman knee-deep in the video game terminal's flashing lights. Apart from the blips and bloops coming from the game, it's quiet here. We've disrupted a stillness, though it's not clear whether that's a positive or negative development for this little joint. A paper cut-out "Happy Birthday" sign hangs from the ceiling. It's similarly unclear when the party took place. Weeks ago? Years?
Sidle up to the bar and order a round for the boys. We make it a raucous affair immediately. Fresh smokies are advertised, though no one leaps at the offer. "That's something we see a lot — smokies," someone says at some point.
Chris lights up the jukebox with the Stones' "Beast of Burden." Meanwhile, by the way, three Bud Lights total $6 here. The gang ambles toward the pool table in the back, letting their eyes graze the mostly drab interior of the place.
"What we should have also done is bathrooms — like pictures of every bathroom," Todd says, nodding toward another gent slipping into the commode. And he's right. Some of the WCs in this town are downright hellish. Others, of course, are gorgeous temples of relief. Payne Cafe leans steadily toward the former; the sink is located outside the bathroom. (This whole bathroom conversation will come up at irregular intervals throughout the night. At one point mid-commute in RedKiaSUV, Damon will interject all non-sequiturlike: "We've seen some pretty disgusting bathrooms.")
AC/DC's "Hell's Bells" now, and Chris gleefully takes credit for the swing toward the 1970s, while also adding, "There's no rhyme or reason to the songs we choose." The jukebox features, in sequence, Santana, Keith Urban, Dean Martin and Jamie Foxx's "Unpredictable." The whole room is represented by the Bar Experiment crowd, so there's no backlash. But would this sort of musical takeover be welcomed at other, more off-the-beaten-path bars? Really, would the Cleveland Bar Experiment as a group — as a concept — be welcome everywhere?
"So far, nobody has ever had anybody come up and say, 'You shouldn't be here,'" Todd says. By this point, more than 100 bars deep, the guys have hit every Cleveland neighborhood from the crotch of downtown to the concrete outskirts of Union and East 93rd. Among the notables: Cinema Lounge (blue LED lighting friggin' everywhere), Ronda and Mike's Place (that was tough to find, but they eventually nailed it [it's on Lorain]), B&G Tavern (the 100th bar and a consummate favorite among the group; it's in their backyard, but they'd never been there before).
"Plans," firmly enmeshed with quotation marks by this crowd, tend to go awry.
"There's a lot of computer help. Google Maps is really helpful," Todd says. "Sometimes you just go into Streetview and look around the neighborhood without having to drive it."
Earlier in the week, though, Pat says, he drove up and down St. Clair scouting the warm welcome of neon signage and errant outdoor smokers. Looked alright. After tonight's madness, they'll notch five more pins to the map of the city's bars. Recently, someone arrived at the number 464 - quantity of liquor licenses pulled in Cleveland - though no one can confirm its accuracy. Pat quickly adds that Payne Cafe isn't on that list, so who really knows at this point?
For illustration: Remember Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart? He once tried to define pornography in terms of the threshold in obscenity law. "I know it when I see it," he wrote. That's kinda how the crew here approaches the Experiment, (at times) less the obscenity.
"If most of your business is about food, we're probably not going there," Todd says. "We wouldn't go to Applebee's. Is there an Applebee's in Cleveland city proper? I don't even know."
The conversation bubbles onward at all times. Topics include: the Progressive Field Social Suite, Ohio University, onion rings, Detroit politics, nipple tattoos. These guys are quite clearly the archetypal "buddies" out for a weekly jaunt through the hometown saloon circuit.
"We're having at least another beer, right?" "Sure, whatever." "What's next, anyway?" "Sweethearts, next to Hi-Lows." "The Hi and Low, have we been there?" "No, it's closed. It looks like it's closed. It was shuttered when we went by." "It's on the list, though."
Hi-Lows is closed, we will soon find out. For now, we're all lined up at the bar bombarding the still-shocked employee with orders for the cheapest possible domestics. We face a firing squad of Bud Lights, Miller Lites (why the discrepancy in spelling, we wonder?), and a lone Scotch, neat, for contrast.
"Some nights we walk in, have a beer, go to the next place, have a beer," Todd says. "Sometimes it's eat, play pool, and you might get three in. We're not trying for a quota."
It's 10:01 p.m., at least according to the Budweiser digital clock behind the Payne Cafe bar, and we're finishing drinks and more or less deciding to mobilize. Onward. Upward. Eastward. Whatever.
Single-file procession out of Payne, BUT NOT BEFORE Scene journalistically inserts quarter into candy dispenser for handful of peanut M&Ms.
Question: By taste, what year would you estimate the Peanut M&Ms WHICH YOU ATE were manufactured?
Mad-dash to the chariots. Joe's been playing DD admirably, sipping waters like they're specialty G&Ts. He now returns to RedKiaSUV, driver's side, to drive. The rest of us disperse at random along Payne, knowing that among this crowd, seats are available and warm and eager for butts.
The Ohio City guys usually carpool, but a lot of the suburban appendices drive in for the fun — it's not like they're getting plowed. The point isn't drunkenness.
We wind through East Side side streets, convene in a parking lot to confirm that no one knows exactly where our next stop is (in relation to where we are now), but then arrive, magically, at E. something-or-other, off of Superior, under the low-watt buzz of a traffic light which Chris later says is a comfort.
There ye be, sweet Sweethearts. Though what exactly, excuse me, the fuck, are you?
Sweethearts is a club — owned, we later learn, by a "fiery Taiwanese woman" named Judy Ho who's been battling neighbor opposition since she converted the former industrial space into retail and then this nightlife hub for predominantly black crowd (thanks Mr. Naymik!) — a legit club, it appears, because:
We are patted down one-by-one as we enter — thoroughly, we might add — and then congregate for a moment so everyone can look among themselves and take turns remarking that this is the first time that's ever happened on the Cleveland Bar Experiment.
This is bar No. 3 on the night, but No. 113 all-told. It is a festival of neon and strobe, red-blue-green lights alternating ad infinitum. An empty dance floor, with slightly-off-central pole, does the opposite of beckon. Lil Wayne shouts at us through speakers.
Chris, no fewer than three times, on the tiki hut thing at which where we're chatting over beers: "I want one of these for my backyard."
Chris is from Columbia Station. He started tagging along in "October or November" and comes out every couple of weeks. He moonlights as a DJ. He drinks Scotch. At Sweethearts, he doesn't get a generous pour.
Todd points out that this is the first (or maybe second) bar they've seen where beers are meticulously scanned before disbursement and liquors are capped in such a way to regulate portions — keeping the bartenders honest, is Todd's guess.
More Bud Lights.
The tiki bar is weirdly welcoming and home-basey, never mind the presiding "WARNING: If you are carrying a firearm, you may be guilty of a felony...etc." nor the massive jars of hand sanitizer currently dwarfing our bottles of brew.
Hold the phone. A pizza-pan-type dish is covered with mini shot glasses in our vicinity and a woman is pouring Patron shots directly from the bottle of Patron into the little shot glasses. There is no special cap on the Patron to regulate portions. Note that there are max 30 people in this bar right now.
We down the Patron. In an improbable feat of courage and/or skill, Chris snorts some Patron off the upended plastic shot glass.
We run to the bathroom and wizzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. A huge screen displays the dance floor's (in)activity and we see ourselves in our peripheries as we scurry back, past the futuristic chairs and the DJ and yet another "Happy Birthday" sign, and follow the boys out of the darkness and into the night.
Recovered audio excerpt, recorded in RedKiaSUV somewhere on mostly desolate St. Clair Avenue:
"I assumed it was going to be more like, ah, Payne Cafe."
"I honestly had no idea. I guess I've driven past it a few times, but, I don't know..."
"See? And now what are you doing to do? You're going to stop from now on."
"Right, like, 'You know what? I could go for a little free Patron right now!'"
"I guess what I'm saying is I'm like a creature of habit. For probably 90 percent of my life I haven't left the, like, five-block radius of my house. And I just got, like, youknowwhat, we just gotta go to some other places."
"That's the beauty of all this."
"It's a great big city. It'd be great if everybody did this. Everybody gets so caught up in their little routines and they go to the same bars and blah, blah, blah. It'd be nice if everybody just spread out a little bit and met some people and blah, blah, blah."
"Drinks can unite people."
"Listen, I always say this: Alcohol is the great equalizer. It doesn't matter where you're from or what you do. You're all the same people. And this is the other thing about people who drink: They're all pretty laid-back. You know? Nobody's really on edge. And you know what else I think - wait, man, you're going the wrong way. You need to go south a bit."
10:53 p.m.-ish, Mardi Gras. It's all sort of very apropos, several of us comrades remark, that we'd wind up at a place called Mardi Gras mere days after the holiday of same. Gone are the beads and the crawfish boils, however. We celebrate little more than Thursday night in Cleveland now. "Thirsty Thursday," someone says, though that line's clearly been worked over many times before with this crowd.
There exists at this point in the recollection of the night a sizable void in clear-cut memory. Topics of (remembered) conversation include: Richard Simmons, the 1919 Chicago "Black Sox" scandal, tacos, taco-flavored things, how sick we all are of this interminable winter, nipple tattoos.
The Cleveland Bar Experiment is the medium for stuff like that - the conversations, the getting-to-know-this-city, the mutual love for people and place. Certainly this group isn't breaking new ground here. They're tapping into the simplest of pastimes. This sort of adventure could happen in any city in America with any sort of people. Thing is, these guys are making it happen. It's active.
With a dash of organizational vigor, we gather for a group photo half-on and half-off the dais near the front window. In looking back, the gang comes off all excitable and not completely unlike Barrie's Lost Boys mid-feast. We had gorged well, but there remained a hefty slab of work on our table. Sleeves rolled up.
On the way out the door, someone suggests Magic City. Sounds nice. We've still got time for another spot, right? We all pile into cars and shuffle back toward St. Clair.
As a family now, we've settled into a groove, no doubt. "It's always an adventure," Damon says. The Experiment is such that shots are called in the moment. Total freedom. An entire city of suds at one's fingertips.
A few of the guys wander on into Magic City - and promptly return to sidewalk. "This place is a strip club!" "I see." There's a general murmur of "Hmm, well, we could..." "Nah, man, let's go." "But, then, of course..." "How about some chili dogs instead?"
Lesson No. 178 of the Cleveland Bar Experiment: Chili dogs are a known trump card.
11:39 p.m., Steve's Lunch. "You will not feel safe in the bathroom. Didn't Damon say there was a big hole in there?" "Yeah, well, you don't step in that."
Such is the introduction to Ohio City's infamous and beloved Steve's Lunch as we tumble out of RedKiaSUV onto concrete. Some of us are first-timers here. Others have scarfed meat beneath the fluorescents for years. Others are verrrry familiar with the whole bathroom situation.
A handful of regulars line the bar, shoveling chili-clad tubes into mouths and rifling through the day's news. Exiting the aforementioned bathroom - and this shouldn't be a surprise AT ALL to us - is a burly, cross-eyed man who's kind of listing to starboard. We scan the menu on the wall; items are described one-by-one on colorful 8.5x11s. A rack of chips (both "red" and "blue" Doritos, we're told) maintains the munchie vigil behind the counter. Most of us order a trio of cheese dogs (cheese, mustard, onions, chili), and consider that a more perfect nightcap just does not exist.
Muffled conversation turns toward next week: Where should we go? Of course, that'll all be figured out when the time comes. For now, we debate the finer side of late-night hot dogs and share stories from earlier in the evening. "Remember when...!"
We Scene writers are dropped off at the corner of West 25th and Lorain, watching with wistful eyes as RedKiaSUV trundles back toward the various homes of CLEBAREXP regulars. Our own destination lies somewhere in Tremont, so we begin our walk and kick around quickly fading memories of the night. Those chili dogs were really something.
Would we join the Cleveland Bar Experiment again? Sure. That's the point. But perhaps on our own terms.
Some undefinable voice flits back to us in the present moment: "It's a great big city. It'd be great if everybody did this. Everybody gets so caught up in their little routines and they go to the same bars and blah, blah, blah. It'd be nice if everybody just spread out a little bit and met some people and blah, blah, blah."