Hello CLE: Cheap Tricks

Experiencing Cleveland doesn't require breaking the bank. Some thoughtful planning leads to great deals and bargains.

In my former life, I spent my money on me. I dressed up. I went out. I spent enough cash on dinners with friends to open my own restaurant. But since becoming a mom, those days are a faint memory viewed through a fog of baby powder and crocodile tears. My money goes to Baby Gap and Target.

But what if? What if I could be this new mommy me, and still salvage a little of my former adventurous self while squirreling away some money in the old diaper bag?

That kind of mental leap requires more than a few baby steps.

So I begin by heading to the Rockefeller Park Greenhouse, a balmy respite from the gray winter we've had. I'm hoping the tropical air will clear my head and prime me for a day of my former favorite pastimes: shopping, eating, shows.

This free attraction on Cleveland's East Side has plenty of admirers — even a Friends of the Greenhouse club — but this morning I'm the first of the day's visitors, allowing for some much-needed alone time. Four female statues, one to symbolize each season, stare mutely at one another across the greenhouse's grassy mall. The outdoor gardens are silent, waiting for spring.

As if enchanted by the quiet, I step into a mini cathedral teeming with life and take a deep, humid breath. The two-story anteroom is dripping with vines and leafy greens. A path through the greenhouse leads me to a Century Plant cactus the size of a hippo, rubbing arid shoulders with a dozen other varieties of desert beauties.

Wandering through here, I realize, is cheaper and quicker than schlepping to yoga class. I feel calm and centered, less scatterbrained than I have in months. With this newfound focus, I'm ready to try my hand at the version of shopping that fits my new persona: bargain hunting.

At Unique Thrift on Cleveland's near west side, the parking lot is filling up before the place even opens. Early-bird shoppers are poised for the hunt, ready to swoop in for the day's best deals. New merchandise is constantly rotated onto the racks, and each Monday the entire store is 50 percent off to make room for new goods. Today's savings are marked on a big board hanging overhead. Items with blue and yellow tags are half off.

I wander through the packed aisles, overwhelmed by piles of merchandise stacked on top of each clothing rack in this warehouse of used stuff: a mishmash of tablecloths by the changing rooms, well-loved board games piled atop the children's clothes aisles.

A sign advertises the store's "treasure hunt experience," and I nod in silent agreement. It's a hunt all right — and suddenly I'm inspired. A lime green T-shirt I pluck from the hanger (slogan: "Go Green with Gumby"!) is full price, but with a green tag that reads just $1.49, I still manage to purchase it with pocket change.

Now I'm in the mood for digging. I steel myself for Sweet Lorain, but when I get there I realize how unprepared I am. The 8,000-square-foot tribute to the stylishly secondhand is crawling with people. The displays cover every inch of the space: a rainbow of colored lamps hanging from the ceiling and mod furniture arranged, Ikea-style, into faux living rooms.

I pine after a $550 orange-and-brown retro couch, and check out a bowl filled with black-and-white portraits of somebody else's mom or brother, labeled "instant relatives" and marked at 50 cents apiece. My brain starts whirling with mathematical formulas as I calculate how much money I can drain from my bank account.

Then, I remember: baby steps.

Luckily, my stomach grumbles before I can reach for my wallet, and I realize it's time to head downtown, where my nightcap awaits. I'm meeting a friend for dinner and catching the Broadway musical Memphis at PlayhouseSquare. We're starting on a high note at chef Zack Bruell's newest place, Cowell & Hubbard.

It's easy to spend money on Bruell, who favors a swashbuckling, extravagant approach to cuisine that uses only the best ingredients. But even peasants can feast at happy hour from 4:30 to 6:30 each afternoon, and again from 9 p.m. until the restaurant closes.

The menu is svelte, just five $7 dishes. But Cowell & Hubbard's bar food ranges from pork belly and pickled vegetables wrapped in lettuce cups to fried shishito peppers with homemade fried pork skins. We even duel for the slices of fingerling potatoes under a perfectly seared scallop with a to-die-for truffle vinaigrette.

We finish the last of our $5 drinks, a glass of Cava for me and the daily cocktail special for my friend (a play on gin fizz), pay our bill ($50 with tip for three shared appetizers and two drinks apiece) and step into the evening air. The Palace Theatre marquee, with its light bulbs dazzling the streetscape, gives us our first taste of the opulence to come. Inside, we're enveloped by marble and red velvet. Built at a cost of $3.5 million back in the '20s, it was the most expensive of the district's theaters. Today, we're practically stealing our way in to a Broadway show at $20 a person thanks to PlayhouseSquare's Smart Seats ($10 Smart Seats in the balcony are also available, for a wider range of shows beyond Broadway productions). 

Our seats in row JJ are near the back of the theater's main level, but also close to the middle aisle. We can see the stage beautifully, and I smugly wonder how much seats like this would cost at the New York City production.

But my smugness soon disappears as I get caught up in the atmosphere of live theater. It makes me feel so connected, to the audience members next to me sharing in my emotions, and to the actors up on stage doing everything with no second takes or do-overs.

As the applause dies down and the lights come up for intermission after an emotional first act, I see my theater date has tears in her eyes. I've been so focused on saving money — and reliving my old, carefree lifestyle — that it's taken me until now to realize the real joys in life are the things you can't put a price on, from the new baby in the house to the time spent with old friends and the emotional connection with a story acted out before your eyes.

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