For the past decade, I lived in a small college town near Cleveland; for the last three years I have been dating. The boys are more plentiful inside the metro area, so I was introduced to Cleveland by being introduced to Cleveland’s men.
The thing about dating in Cleveland is that most guys in Cleveland are from Cleveland. Even if they’ve left for long stretches, garnering Ivy League educations and embarking on careers elsewhere, many come back. Or at least the ones I met, the ones not quite ready to be called middle-aged who are looking for a woman of a certain age to take to dinner.
I have had my heart tickled and bruised and enlarged. But the most sustaining and surprising love I found was with the city. As guys introduced me to the hot spots (Velvet Tango Room, Parallax) and undiscovered gems (the best Metroparks walk, the last bar in the city with a working pinball machine), I learned about their — and Cleveland’s — histories and aspirations and foibles.
I was smitten with the civic pride I found in all the men I dated: the IT manager, the actor, the lawyer, the real-estate developer, the machinist. There’s a rootedness to this town that defines it, making it enormously compelling, like the hard-fought beauty of the ISG steel plant as you drive over the Lorain-Carnegie bridge. The city, like many of the men I dated, has depth and beauty tinged by failure and regret.
Last spring, two things happened at once to cement my burgeoning relationship with Cleveland: I decided to move to Shaker Heights and the Cavs made the playoffs. LeBron James became the fulcrum around which the personal and the civic converged.
I want to be cynical about LeBron, but he is just too great of a guy, too perfect of a metaphor. My Cleveland boys want him to succeed, because as LeBron goes, so goes Cleveland. If the Cavs make it to the next playoff round, if LeBron stays in town, they feel the city has a chance. And although I am sure there’s a bit of projection involved here, I think LeBron gets this too, that he will measure his success on civic as well as athletic terms. He’s become one of my Cleveland boys: doing his damnedest to prove himself so as to prove Cleveland’s integrity, panache and heart.
During last spring’s playoff series with the Wizards and Pistons, I fell hard for the city, swept up in the full rush of romance, expectation and belonging. I decided to watch as many games as I could, in as many different locations as possible. Unfortunately, one of my favorite Cleveland boys is such a bedrock Cavs fan that he insisted on watching the games with his father, on the same side of the couch where he has watched Cleveland sporting events for the past 30 years. There, he could be assured of silence during the game and appropriate patter during commercial breaks. He could also be assured of safe, comfortable, familiar surroundings to console him if the Cavs lost too soon.
That left me to fend for myself. I was arranging to meet someone new, but the only time our schedules allowed was during the sixth game of the Wizards series. I said sure, let’s meet, but somewhere with a television set. And please forgive me if I say, “Hi, nice to meet you,” while looking over your shoulder at the game.
We met at the Prosperity Social Club, in Tremont, where I had never been before. I loved it. It had everything I like in a bar: divey atmosphere and excellent food and drink. The kind of place that is just as comfortable in a tux as in jeans, to paraphrase an online dating cliché. Plus an awesome jukebox, a pool table, a mini-bowling machine and the most lyrical watering hole name ever.
There were two small TV sets in the corners above the bar and a scattered crowd. We could play get-to-know-you and, whenever at a loss for conversation, watch the game. By the fourth quarter, after I had drank two nice glasses of Zinfandel and downed fried oysters, we were on our feet by the bar, joined by the kitchen staff, enraptured by the game. When Damon Jones hit a three-pointer in overtime, the bar erupted.
I had found passion.
I watched another game at Panini’s, where the cacophony of television screens screamed at us mercilessly and the crowd was too young to understand yearning. I went with my Cleveland Heights boy, an old lover, now a good friend. He’s not much of a sports fan but, as he put it, you can’t be from Cleveland and not have some sense of what’s going on sports-wise. It’s a civic intuition, just like expecting gray in November. We lost that game, which was just as well, because we weren’t expected to win, considering the sports curse and all.
I chose Great Lakes Brewing Co. next, and asked a sports nut from my former small town to accompany me. He’s originally from Miami, so he follows Cleveland teams with bemused distance. He can coolly predict just how far they’ll go and not be saddened when they fail. He wants the city to succeed too, but he’s comfortable making the sort of “Come on, it’s Cleveland!” comments that break the hearts of my other Cleveland boys.
The Cavs fell behind quickly, and the conversation turned toward other topics. The folks around us were good-naturedly pessimistic. They did not think we were going to win, and that was OK with them. After all, if we went too far in a championship series, how would Cleveland understand itself? It’d be like a longtime bachelor considering marriage, which he’s always said he wanted while letting woman after woman pass by. The change in identity would be too unsettling. After all, he’s a lifelong bachelor. After all, it’s Cleveland.
Meanwhile, back in my small town, something interesting was going on. The nights I had explored the city to see games were the nights my 6-year-old son, Simon, was with his dad. The nights he was with me, we watched the games together.
Simon developed a huge crush on the Cavs, his first sports puppy love. “Le-Bron is the best player in the universe!” he proclaimed, fists held high in the air. “The Cavs will be the champions!” The kids were talking about LeBron at school, and my son was spending his recess carefully noting all the various versions of LeBron uniforms his classmates were sporting. I bought him his own No. 23 jersey, which he wore to school every game day. I felt a pattering of maternal love explaining blocking out and the shot clock to him. I found myself crying helplessly every time the “We Are All Witnesses” commercial aired.
The playoff run, of course, eventually came to an end, the Cavs proud losers. Then I made a down payment on a house in Shaker Heights.
My son is now a second-grader at Fernway Elementary, which people tell me is a storied Shaker school. (I have learned to drop “Heights” from the name like a native.)
I took Simon to our first Cavs game early this season. We sat way, way in the back, and the players were, in my son’s words, “teensy-weensy.” But he loved the game: He was entranced by Moondog, kept me continually updated on exactly how many points we were ahead and praised LeBron’s headband. On our way out I told him he could choose one thing from the souvenir shop, so now he has a LeBron bobblehead atop his dresser.
In my new 44120 ZIP code, LeBron stands guard, nodding when prodded, and I feel at home. Cleveland is a place I can commit to: complex, missing something, yearning for more, informed by a checkered but fulsome past, and vulnerable enough to allow hope to triumph over experience.