They are waiting-actually standing in line-to get inside of several noisy, crammed drinking emporiums, waiting for the opportunity to be jostled and shoved into a nightmare of private-space violations. Once inside these places, as they are absorbed into steaming, sweaty knots of humanity, deafened by thumpa-thumpa dance music cranked up loud enough to grate the gills off carp in Lake Erie, as they shoot down Molsons after Heinekens after Michelobs after screwdrivers after Tootsie Rolls, they will be laughed at, insulted, ignored, babbled at in countless shallow, inane conversations, grabbed at, spilled on, met and dropped, promised and disappointed, and lured into all manner of sinfulness and self-abuse.
What a party! What delicious insanity! And what an outrageous set of people-nurses and secretaries and schoolteachers ripe in tight summer tops, budding hunks of manhood in polo shirts that draw tight around bulging biceps, long-hairs, preppies, punkers, boaters in Topsiders, fresh divorcees on the make. It could all come together only on Old River Road in the Flats, the heart of Cleveland's industrial center and site of the city's hottest nightstrip.
In the harsh, revealing light of day, nothing could seem more improbable. Then, Old River Road. which runs along the east side of the Cuyahoga from Front Street (near the mouth of the river) to the foot of Superior Hill, is obviously nothing more than a collection of small metal fabricating plants, nautical supply shops, an iron works and auto body shop and seafarer's union office and miniature collection of five trendy retail shops housed, for the most part, in a gruesome row of functionally square, squat dirty brick buildings.
But after dark, when the warehouses and factories recede into the shadows, and doorways of light begin to appear pouring rock-and-roll and raucous crowd noises into the night, Old River Road turns into Cleveland's answer to every cruising strip, boardwalk and coastline vacation spot that most people in this town spend 51 weeks of the year wishing they were back at. The street becomes choked with cars; lines 60 feet long form outside the bar doors; laughing, stumbling drunks lurch in and out of barely moving lines of traffic.
The Flats has a long list of ingredients making it a natural mecca for nightlife, such as outdoor bars on the river, a great cross-section of drinking and entertainment environments within walking distance of each other, a certain gritty charm - the New Cleveland Campaign could list a dozen or so more. But these are really secondary considerations in assessing the popularity of the Flats. The primary reason frenzied crowds flock down there is explained by Karen. a perceptive, dark-haired kindergarten teacher who leans over the rail at D'Poo's and says, "There's nothing else to do in Cleveland-especially on the West Side. We did the hotel bar circuit for a while, until it got too schlocky. This is a meager attempt at a strip, but when it's all you've got, it's all you've got; it's better than anything else Cleveland has going."
So simple-yet so devastatingly accurate. The Flats must be the best because there is nothing else. What downtown has is too diffuse, and in too dangerous an area, to compare. The hotel bar run can be fun, until one tires of driving 30 minutes to get from one to the next just to fend off an endless stream of lounge lizards. And how long can one sit in identical polished brass and stained-glass suburban bars, staring at walls crammed with framed art nouveau/turn-of-the-century advertising/ ski-poster prints that inevitably turn out to be more interesting than the clientele? After the grim realization has set in —Cleveland is dull — what is left but Industrial Hip?
Admittedly, there is more than a mere lack of alternatives to sitting out on the dock at Pagan's or D'Poo's, nursing a scotch and water, watching ore boats slip by like silent dinosaurs, or sipping white wine at Sammy's while gazing through tall, draped windows at the patterns pleasure boats make on the river far below. There is a certain sense of not being in Cleveland. Of being somewhere else. Of feeling like Linda, a bubbly 24-year-old secretary from North Royalton who comes to the Flats because. "It reminds you of someplace like Virginia Beach. You can walk along the street, go to different bars and fee. ' All the boats are cruising in front of you; you know it's not Ft. Lauderdale. But it's like you're on vacation here."
Quite so. The secret to shaking off that trapped feeling in Cleveland is ironically, not to run from the city, but to get to the heart of it, to the river and railroads and piles of iron ore and dust and grime, to that place which is so Industrial Hip. so Ultimate Cleveland that it could be ... someplace else. Not Florida, certainly, and not the nicer places on the East Coast, but yes, sitting next to the yachts tied at the dock, with the breeze off the lake, and the whistles of the tugboats and trains, and the imagination goosed just a bit by this third drink, one could be ... out of Cleveland. No need, then, to ignore or try to blot out the stench of the river: the eternal scum and debris that floats along its surface; the broken glass in the streets; the never-ending clouds of dust and dirt; the pall of carbon monoxide generated by idling automobiles that hangs thick in the already-carcinogenic Flats air. Revel in it! Embrace it! It is all part of Industrial Hip, and all a fitting backdrop for the mad dance of escape.
Escape begins arbitrarily tonight at Fagan's, the cavernous, friendly bar that anchors the north end of the strip. Pagan's is actually three bars in one; a high-ceilinged beer hall in the front with plenty of carousing room; a "beach bar" out back, where a long dock harbors everything from sailboats to 40-foot yachts; and inside, off the beer hall, a smaller carpeted area with a fireplace that could almost be the living room in a country mansion-assuming that the country squire's taste ran to Pac Man, Galaxian and pinball machines.
In the beer hall, four bartenders and two waitresses are already struggling, at 9:45 on Friday night, to keep up with the rampaging thirst of a singing and dancing college-flavored crowd. Noel and Ellen, both 21 and from Lakewood, and both exuding the rosy-faced freshness one would expect of wholesome young Cleveland women pursuing college degrees in Cincinnati, have only a minute to confide that when they talk about the home town at school," All you hear about is the Flats." before grabbing their Millers and scampering away to join their friends. It is their last chance to get a seat. By the time Alee and Mary, the Irish duet that leads the singing at Pagan's on weekends, get to their tribute to Bobby Sands and rousing ballads like "Give Ireland Back to the Irish," there will hardly be a square foot of floor space-let alone an empty seat-to spare.
Time, then, to elbow one's way back to the beach bar, where the seats are also filled, but there is night air, and a cutoffs and T-shirted waitress to send after a Heineken. The frat-bash atmosphere mercifully dissipates out here, replaced by a low-key pseudo-yacht-club hum broken periodically by the whistle and clank of trains roaring over the Conrail lift bridge, just 50 yards away. Boating casual is the look here-Topsiders, cutoffs, T-shirts for men, striped terry tops for women, and, when appropriate, rain slickers. Boating casual is the approach, too-that young hustler is typical, walking around asking women how their bottoms would like to sit on his boat.
No use trying to catch the eye of any of the women standing in line back in the living-room area; that is the waiting line for the ladies room, and everyone in it is nervously preoccupied with other thoughts for the moment. Dijon, an energetic 34-year-old executive secretary, must break away from flirting with one of the off-duty deputy sheriffs working security at Pagan's for a good 20 minutes to make a ladies room run. In the meantime her friend Bobbi, a tall 31-year-old Lake-wood woman who looks about 27 but moves through the chaos with the ease of a six-year veteran of Flats bars, muses on the allure of the area. "I think part of the attraction is that it's a slum. There's that element of danger and excitement down here. What I like is that you can come dressed to the teeth, or in a tank top and cutoffs, and feel equally comfortable."
True enough at Fagan's. But down the road, where the moon dips to what seems to be rail level along the Main Avenue Bridge, and the lights on the third floor of the Riverview Building glisten faintly on the railroad tracks below, that all changes. Drastically. So much, in fact, that when Cheryl and Teresa, two heavily made up 28-year-old West Siders who are dressed for their regular Friday-night run through the discos on that end of town, walk into Sammy's. Cheryl turns to Teresa and says, "What are we at a wedding reception?"
Since this is only their first visit to Samy's, Cheryl and Teresa can be forgiven for not knowing that here, on the edge of the Flats, is the newest hangout for Cleveland's beautiful people-and for so many others trying hard to be beautiful. The spanking clean, sandblasted brick walls, off-white draperies, and spare unfinished wood, marble and putting green carpeting decor almost screaming THIS IS A CLASSY PLACE should have alerted them. But the clothes! How could one miss the dazzling array of men's three-piece suits and summer coordinates, pastel-colored jackets and dark slacks with matching handkerchiefs carefully tucked in the breast pocket, the promenade of fashionably thin ties and hair cut short above the ears? Or the walking women's-designer shop of silk camisole tops and Ralph Lauren polo shirts, unconstructed summer jackets, classic white skirts, neon-bright red or turquoise bandit pants gathered tight at the ankles, and mandatory high-heeled sandals? How could one not notice the hours and hours that went into trying to look so... it's-just-some-summer-thing-I-had-laying-around-that-I-threw-on-as-l-was-running-out-the-door.
Once again, the mind drifts. The decor, the dress code, the soft jazz. The raw bar with shrimp and oysters on the half shell and king crab legs nestled in mounds of ice, the smelly Cuyahoga reduced to a postcard three stories below-it is almost, like the Sammy's ads suggest, as if one had been mystically transported to San Francisco or Boston. For a time. Then the illusion starts to fade.
"I know a lot of people who get bored here quickly," confides Paul, a heavy-set Rocky River computer engineer in his early thirties. "How many people are jazz enthusiasts? Then they don't have meals, and there's nothing to look at, no gimmicks-they need something to keep you here." Ah, but a hot crowd like this-the after-work young professionals, the lawyers and stockbrokers and middle-management climbers who need to be seen at the right places, and later in the evening the middle-aged couples and freshly divorced singles-can even the most respectable place on the hottest nightstrip in town hold them? Paul cannot answer that question; he has left. Cheryl and Teresa are already on their way to Shenanigans. Back in the corner, Sharon and her two girlfriends are more concerned about the men here being too old for them and probably cheating on their wives. A West Sider who acts rather worldly for her 22 years, Sharon takes another long glance around the room and decides, "The people here are still jerks, like everywhere else-but at least they're dressed nice."
That designer veneer of respectability cannot last long in the Flats. Even as the moon slips down to the top of the sailboat masts, just a block away Jimmy Armstrong and his punk band, The Pony Boys, are roaring away in the warehouse basement bar called Pirate's Cove, lashing Out at the social hypocrisy of the older generation. Jimmy, who has lived most of his 22 years in Berea, screams: There's Gloria now with the Furstenburgs/They ought to be slapped for designer fears.
With his acne scars, slicked-back black hair and disfigured upper lip. Jimmy Armstrong may be the most forbidding -looking singer to play local stages. No matter: the original New Wave songs he and the Pony Boys perform rejecting the value system a place like Sammy's lives by is the newest music in town - loud, brash and perfect for Pirate's Cove.
Everything from punk to country goes on stage at the Cove, a classic Cleveland blue-collar rock-and-roll bar that looks like exactly what it is-a huge, dingy basement with a bar, a stage and some tables and chairs scattered around it. No social butterflies or pretensions here. Just loud kick-ass rock-and-roll, and a young, loose T-shirt-and-jeans crowd composed mostly of - depending on what band is playing - bikers or jocks or punks or longhairs or Jack Daniels preppies, and combinations thereof that on any given night is such a human zoo that anybody wearing anything can fit in here.
"Got any good dope?" is enough of an opening line to meet someone, but even that has a bit more social grace than the Cove calls for. The men here tend to be ... well.. . "Let's just say they're not very mature," Cheryl, a 22-year-old car saleswoman from Lakewood with a mass of blond curls, explains. "Like last night this guy grabbed my ass while 1 was watching the band; I turned around and kicked him." "1 got bit in the ass once," adds her friend Kathy, a 21-year-old broadcasting student from Lakewood whose long black hair sways around her bare shoulders as she shakes in her seat to "Spooky Neighbors."
Just bit and grabbed? Count your blessings; there were shootings and stabbings down here when the bikers hung around. There are a lot fewer of them in the Flats since their hangout next door, the Warehouse, was taken over by new owners who are converting it to a preppy bar called The Sports Page. But there is still enough of a lowlife element around for Craig, a young man just barely seeing through a midnight dope/booze stupor, to shrug his shoulders and declare, "If you come looking for trouble, you're liable to find it here."
Jimmy Armstrong, explaining his music to the audience between songs, suddenly screams, "I have nothing to do with Richard Nixon! I have nothing to do with the sixties and seventies. 1 am dealing with right now!" Smash!! on the drums and the Pony Boys give vent to another round of suburban angst, ripping into the defiant chords that are attracting a growing portion of the city's younger generation to the Flats in their search for something different, some tangible break with the dull and ordinary.
"It's the attitude of bands like the Pony Boys more than anything else," explains 26-year-old Chris Holtkamp, a Cleveland Heights expatriate who lives and works on the near West Side. "They're into personal expression, not trying to cop a sound that they know is going to sell. Their music is fresh and new - not like the stuff you hear at bars where they're into the macho/disco or preppy scene, where you have all these old, set patterns of interaction between people."
Holtkamp's words echo half a block down the street-where the moon is now impossible to find, as is anything that requires the eyes to focus beyond 10 feet or so-into D'Poo's, where the same search for the new and exciting, for the escape without escaping, takes on strange and entirely different forms.
Hours earlier, before the crowd had amassed that now makes walking from one end of the D'Poo's dock to the other impossible, Met and Wendy Dinner sat at a table next to the river with friends, enjoying a drink and looking every inch the urbane, worldly sophisticates. And appropriately so.' Originally from Johannesberg, South Africa, the Dinners have lived in England and several parts of the United States, and finally settled in Shaker Heights at the invitation of the Cleveland Clinic, where Mel now does delicate plastic surgery. Wendy has dragged Mel here tonight because, "1 think the area is very quaint, very different; 1 like the atmosphere here. I miss the sidewalk cafes in places like Rome, where you could sit and watch the people walk by. This reminds me of them."
What D'Poo's would remind the Dinners of now is hard to say. The late hour has transformed it into that most standard of all Cleveland singles bars, the meat market.
D'Poo's is another three-in-one bar: a drinking and disco dancing area up front, a restaurant behind, and an open-air bar out back on a dock about half the size of Pagan's. Late in the evening, the singles action is rude and nonstop in all three.
Women of every imaginable size and tight-jeans shape line the bar, the rails and the dance floor in front, dismissing most of the men who catch their eye with a well-practiced three-second up-and-down glance and a disinterested turn of the head. In the hallway going outside, a drunken, earnest young man tells a bored woman, "Well go ahead and leave then," and seems dumbfounded when she turns and walks away. On the dock, a hairy fellow with a loud laugh warns a waitress leaning over his table he might bite the spaghetti straps off her top, then turns, reaches out with a lunge, and barely misses grabbing another waitress. Leaning back in his seat, he tells the male friend who has been watching him, "1 know her, honest." The drunken desperation of the final hour in a singles bar has flowered into other activities inside. A woman who has her hands inside her companion's shirt kisses him for what seems like an unbreathably long time. When she comes up for air, a male friend next to her grabs her in a headlock for another long, sloppy kiss while the man with her hands still in his shirt catches his breath.
The redhead on the dance floor with the fringe running around just the right places on her purple top to highlight her generous endowments is Wendy, a 27-year-old bank auditor from Willoughby who is an almost perfect double for the pill lady in Cheech and Chong's Up in Smoke. This is the third man she has been with tonight:
earlier, she was out on the dock telling number two, "You can't meet people here . . . I've been, y'know, all over ... in Virginia Beach, every girl has a guy . . . people here have their noses in the air ... you just don't meet anybody here."
There are still 20-odd boats tied at the dock, and a drunk who imagines he is Rudolph Valentine has just swung a willing woman over one of the tables for a dramatic kiss when several off-duty sheriffs, oblivious to the waves of unrequited passion washing around them, burst out back yelling "Closing time, let's go," and "Get out of here."
Up and down the strip, the last of the hardcores begin stumbling out of the bars. Up at Sammy's valets are fetching BMWs and Audis for an incongruously dignified crowd. Others are more reluctant to abandon the night's escape. Outside of D'Poo's, a tall, sunburnt blonde stops her shiny silver LTD in a puddle of vomit to talk with a small knot of men who are exchanging punches and drunken insults. In Pagan's parking lot, a dazed woman who fell flat in the middle of the street and is now being carried to her car by a male companion looks up at him and asks, "What's your name?"
On the street in front of the Cove, a small group has started its own after-hours party with a six-pack and the car radio cranked up to full volume. They are too crazed to pay attention to the two young men who stumble past their car, one listening intently to the other, who is saying, "... she was ugly, but that shirt came down to here . . .."
12:00 AM EST
December 10, 2007