Crash Course

You'd have to be crazy to let someone you don't k now spend the night (or a week) on your couch for free. You'd have to be nuts to travel the world (or just our city) depending on the kindness of strangers. But that's exactly what we did to c

It's 5:58 a.m. I beat the alarm by two minutes. When my brain catches up with my eyes, I remember I'm in a stranger's basement.
The bed is a mattress on the floor, next to a ping-pong table and not too far from a foosball game. It's freezing, and if this were my own bed, I'd be tempted to dawdle under the covers a while.

But I'm in an swank ranch-style home in Brunswick. The owner, Michael Flury, designed it himself  before his two tours in Iraq. The TVs have big screens. Fish swim in tanks built into the walls.

Walking upstairs, it's apparent that Michael and his roommate have already gone for the day, leaving me alone in the house and trusting me to lock up. Boxes of raisin bran and oatmeal are on the counter, offered as breakfast.

Hanging on a hook above the kitchen counter are two sets of keys. One of them belongs to the Nissan Z sports car that's parked in the garage. I could easily take it for a quick — and I mean quick — ride around the neighborhood.

I'm in the middle of a week of couch surfing, crashing with folks I've never met who've agreed to let me sleep in their homes, use their showers, eat their food and give them no money in return.

It's an experiment of sorts. Hundreds of Northeast Ohioans are registered as couch surfers. These aren't all crunchy hippy types, as I expected, but people from all walks of life. I think they're crazy. Someone likely will murder all of them as they sleep. But hey, I'm biased and jaded. I decided to subject myself to this because self-misery can be entertaining writing fodder. Unless I die, this is guaranteed to be journalistic gold.

This is the second house I've surfed in. The night before, I stayed with a Polish couple in Westlake. Later in the week I'll be staying with a young, single, female artist in Ohio City. Almost all the hosts have used one of three Web sites in their own travel: Couch Surfing, Global Freeloaders or Hospitality Club. Flury, who owns the Brunswick digs, has traveled around the world without paying for lodging. I'm the first guest he's hosted.

This is unnatural. Maybe that's because of my upbringing, where my parents insisted I should never trust strangers. Maybe it's my chosen profession — which prides itself on skepticism. (One college professor's advice: If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.) I've taken this to heart. Hell, I don't even trust my best friends. But I don't care who you are, inviting someone you've never met into your home is darn scary, and trusting someone willing to host you for free should make you question their motives and empty your wallet of all cash and credit cards.

Yet, most people who couch surf shrug at the level of trust required: Most people aren't anyone you should worry about! Nothing bad has happened yet!

But, seriously, doesn't this just sound nuts?

with sleep still in his eyes, Aaron Rehnert opens the door, and he is not happy. It's 7 p.m. He's in boxer shorts and a white T-shirt. And, while he can't believe that his roommate isn't home, he isn't exactly surprised to see a set of strangers at the door.

I'm not going to go into this experiment blind. So before finding a couch myself, I decide to hang out with some people who do this regularly.
The small apartment in Little Italy where Aaron and his roommate, Mike Ols, live has become a way station for couch surfers. The idea was Mike's, and Aaron agreed with one condition: If there's a negative vibe, the person gets turned away.

This evening, the groggy Aaron and momentarily missing Mike are awaiting the arrival of the latest batch of surfers — a guy from Spain, two from Germany and one from France — who will join their first-ever guest, Luis Márquez, who is also from Spain. Luis had been attending a conference in downtown Cleveland before heading on a wandering road trip east, and is in the middle of a week's stay at the apartment.

Even without visitors, Mike and Aaron are running short on space. Their visitors now outnumber couches, and they will now have to surf beds and floors, too.

"Come on in. Make yourself comfortable. Mike should be here soon. Mike was supposed to be here already," Aaron says, pausing as he opened the door. "I need pants."

You've got to give some credit to Aaron for having an open mind. Not that long ago, he had no idea what a couch surfer even was. He didn't even know Luis was coming until the night before his arrival.

The concept of couch surfing has been around for a long time: Someone will bounce from home to home, staying on a relative stranger's couch for a night or two when passing through. Usually it's a friend of a friend. The Internet, however, has revolutionized the concept.

Many who do it, like Mike and Aaron, are 20-somethings you would instantly pin as fans of Phish or The Grateful Dead (or, in Mike's case, obscure world music), but others are university professors, husbands and wives with children, older single men.

Aaron was a little freaked out at first. He worried what strangers would do. Would they steal stuff? Would they tear up the apartment? I don't blame him, and I wonder why he ever let Mike talk him into it. Aaron makes me instantly regret telling my editor I would do this myself. I was going to be miserable. In college I didn't mind crashing on the floor. But I'm past this. I'm going to get ripped off somehow.

Mike suggests I learn to have a little faith in humanity.

"Sure, a couch surfer could be a serial killer. Yes, they could come to rob me. But I don't want to think like that. You have to respect what people can be," he says. "Hosting good people is encouraging. It's a beautiful alternative to the 6 o'clock news. It's a reminder that most people are good."
Parked outside the suburban house for my first night of couch surfing, I nervously leave a voice mail for my buddy Dave in Alabama listing the name, address and phone number of my hosts. "Please pass it on to the district attorney if he's having trouble locating my body. You know, if you don't hear from me tomorrow."

He needs some responsibility in all of this. Dave introduced me to couch surfing last summer. After taking on a roommate in his waterfront condominium, Dave was shocked at the waves of visitors this newcomer had coming through. Then, one night a guy named Beano, half-asleep on the living room floor, admitted to Dave that he was a couch surfer — a term he'd never heard before.

Type "couch" into Google and the first result is not a furniture store or a fan site for the former Browns quarterback, but one that connects travelers with folks willing to put them up for a night free of charge. If it's the first hit on Google, it must be popular.

Still, as I park my car on the street, I need a little encouragement. I try to pump myself up, find my inner-Beano.

I expect a dump. Instead it's a two-story house near Westlake's Crocker Park shopping center with a well-kept lawn on a quiet street where young children bounce from yard to yard.

The home belongs to Andy and Kristina Kuzma, Polish immigrants who have been in the United States for a quarter century. Kristina opens the door and gives me a short tour around the house, tells me to make myself at home and dinner will be ready in 10 minutes or so. There's a spare bedroom for me, decorated with pictures of her now-grown children, one of whom is couch surfing in Brussels.

Dinner conversation starts slowly. I smile as I pass the pork, green beans and potatoes. We talk about couch surfing, but eventually discussion turns to how the limited public transportation in Northeast Ohio has defined the way we live our lives. I complain that I would take the bus to work, but the monthly rate is actually more than downtown parking. Andy says the bus takes too long. He has ridden his bike to work before, but the roads are too bike-unfriendly for him to do it regularly.

They also reveal an old Polish technique for getting a fly out of the house: Turn off all the lights, open a door and turn on the light outside. The fly zips out in 30 seconds flat. Unfortunately, Kristina says, the same technique does not work with mosquitoes.

We stay up talking until I'm exhausted. When I plunk down on the bed, I have a hard time falling asleep, even though it's comfortable. The next morning, I wake up before the rest of the house to get to work. The Kuzmas pointed me to supplies for breakfast the night before, but it feels weird being here. I want to leave. I shower, make the bed, and lock the door behind me, as they entrusted me to do.
The next night, I don't even bother giving anyone the address where I'm staying. If I get murdered, someone will look it up in my e-mail messages.

Besides, this ranch is just as nice as the home in Westlake.

Michael, a commander for the Army's Military Police, tells me about adjusting back to civilian life as we munch on quesadillas at a Mexican restaurant in Brunswick. When he first came back from Iraq, he says, he would check the house each night like he was trained to do in a war zone. Gun drawn, he went through each room to make sure it was safe before going to sleep.

He's since pulled his gun a few times on his roommate on nights when the roommate said he wouldn't be home, but came home anyway. Thankfully his training taught him to identify a target before firing his weapon. He's since calmed down, he says.

After we settle our tab at Cozumel Restaurante, we zip back to his place. I grab my bag.

"Do you want to sleep upstairs in the living room or downstairs in the basement?" he asks.

Umm ... basement.
Couch surfers know what they're doing is outside social norms. They do not even need to be prompted before bringing it up.

"My parents think I'm nuts enough, so they weren't surprised when I told them about it," says Liz Wyglendowski. She has hosted travelers since she was a student at Kent State University, where she now works full time. Her accommodations have improved, too. She's now married and lives in Akron.

She signed up before vacationing in Hawaii. She wanted some local perspective on the island, hoping to escape the tourist traps in favor of an insider's view. She ended up kayaking and playing volleyball and experiencing Hawaii like a Hawaiian.

Jessica Laskosky did the same thing when she flew to China and wandered over to Europe — 18 countries all told — last year. She stayed in a few hostels but preferred couch surfing.

It allowed her an intimacy with the places where she couch surfed that she couldn't achieve where she rented a room. "When you were able to finally meet with someone, you become immediately connected. You're cooking together and sharing a living space, you become so connected. I learned so much about the actual living experience that I could never have learned as a tourist."

Jessica says she tried to go with the flow, relying on her hosts to point her in the right direction. "When I was in Iceland, it was around Christmastime," she says. "I got to help make these traditional flat cakes. It's a northern Iceland tradition. It was this really special thing, this rare thing to experience as an outsider that I got to share with them."

Megan Wilson, an Ohio City resident who regularly makes her apartment a landing spot for couch surfers, says she tries to give travelers a similar experience here in Ohio.

She wants people to walk away from Cleveland knowing more about this place. Sure, there's the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Cleveland Orchestra and the museums. But to many here, what makes it special are the places that don't make the brochures. "I love selling people on the city," she says. "I believe in this city."

She takes out-of-towners to the West Side Market during slow periods, when it's filled with people speaking other languages and buying hard-to-pronounce produce. She takes them to arts events or to a potluck in an ethnic neighborhood. She likes to show them her favorite views of the city, like the passage near the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge with the great view of the train tracks.

"Sometimes we don't measure up on a big national scale, but as a city we have this wonderful character."

By my third couch, I have to remind myself how gracious these people are being.

Tonight I'm staying with a young woman named Heather Iriye. In some ways, I feel like I've become Beano. Or at least what I imagine Beano is like. I work a little late, and I call Heather — who also goes by Sora Sol, her stage name which she hopes to one day use as a circus performer — to tell her I'm going to have to catch up with her later. I totally flaked on the time.

I'm not sure why, but I am not scared at all. I am still a little nervous to meet her. But I am more looking forward to what I would learn from her. Just about everywhere I've stayed I've learned something: How to get flies out of a house, how bad soldiers in Iraq had it during the initial push into Baghdad, where to get good coffee only a short walk from my office.

Three couches in and my paranoia about murder, fraud and ill will is disturbingly absent. The scariest part of couch surfing is how normal it becomes.

After sipping some Arabic coffee with Heather in an Ohio City hookah bar, we go back to her place. If this was my first night couch surfing, I'd be nervous. She lives in a big studio apartment. No walls separate her bedroom from the living room, where I am going to sleep. She even offers me her bed, saying she'll sleep on the futon mattress.

I'm not on edge, but I can't believe she isn't either. Here, a single woman is letting a strange guy crash just a few feet from where she is sleeping.

A week ago, this would have made me feel really uncomfortable. Now there's something kind of comforting about it. Though I'm still a relative stranger, she trusts me.
As my week as a couch surfer ends, a friend asks me if I want to take a weekend trip to Central Pennsylvania for a coal mine tour.

A few hours later my friend, Erica, says that the hotel choices look slim, especially considering she wants to bring her dog along. Choices are sketchy and cheap or luxurious but pricey. I ask if she's considered couch surfing, and she snaps back: "Are you crazy? We could be killed. No way am I doing that."

I'm almost shocked that I suggest it, but I urge her to at least look at a few of the options online. We find a normal-sounding woman's profile, and I drop her an e-mail.

Someone named Jamie responds within minutes: "I will be out of town this weekend. I am willing to let you borrow my little house, though. When would you be arriving?"

Calm down, Erica. We'll be fine.

Trust me.
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