Dating as an adult in Cleveland is like going to the thrift store and discovering everything that catches your eye is secretly stained, ripped to shreds or doesn’t have a job and still lives with its parents.
Every day, my social media feeds are littered with memes from friends going on unsuccessful date after date after date, unable to find someone suitable.
I pride myself on being an excellent wingman to my friends, but I moved to Cleveland already in an established relationship. When that one didn’t work out, my current girlfriend sort of fell from the sky.
Because I never really had to participate in the machine, I’m admittedly out of the CLE dating scene’s loop. So when asked to head out for a night on the town to scope it out, I jumped at the opportunity to observe and learn.
In below 30 degree weather, the social joints lining the congested streets of Gordon Square are bustling alongside neon-lit storefronts. Two young bachelors, presumably straight, are about five steps in front of me.
A gaggle of giggling women shuffle past them on the sidewalk, one too busy scrolling Instagram to realize she is about to walk headfirst into the shoulder of the bachelor sporting a well-worn Wahoo cap backward.
He leans out of the way, and she repays him with a smile and a subtle lift of her eyebrow. Her smile turns into a giggle, and she runs past to catch up with her friends, all of whom are currently hooting and hollering at her to hurry.
Brimming with the type of confidence only a straight white guy in the Midwest can muster, the Wahoo guy exclaims, “I’m maybe a hard four in Boston, dude, but I’m like a solid eight in Cleveland. Why did I ever leave this city?”
Apparently this dude believes women in Cleveland are “lesser-than” and therefore his “stock” is worth more here than in other cities. Weird flex, but OK.
The men reach their destination at the bar across the street, practically oozing machismo after the flirtatious run-in, while the women wait at a crosswalk. I change direction, walk up to Instagram Girl, totally own up to being an eavesdropping a-hole, and ask her point-blank how she felt about Wahoo cap man.
“Oh, I was just being nice,” she says. “I don’t trust dudes who still rock Wahoo to have control of their anger.”
Her friend agrees. “If you’re still f------ with Wahoo, I ain’t f------ with you!”
Sure, WalletHub ranked Cleveland as having the fifth-highest percentage of singles in the country, but Cleveland barely cracks the top 50 in major metropolitan American populations. The dating pool is not as large as we’d like to believe it is, and the small size means that just about everyone has no more than six degrees of separation from any person they meet.
Out of 182 cities, Cleveland ranked 137th in Wallethub’s economics index, which takes into account things like the unemployment rate and the average cocktail price. Not great.
As a queer woman, I can also say with full authority that if you’re part of a marginalized community, that already tiny dating pool gets even smaller. Are you a lesbian hoping to meet a new woman that your ex-girlfriend hasn’t also taken on a date to play board games at the Side Quest at some point in her life? Good luck.
My girlfriend and I have never dated any of the same people, a fact that legitimately shocks any of our other LGBTQ friends and must be a miraculous act of the gay gods. That I’m not from Cleveland originally is solely responsible for this intercession.
I spent the rest of my night eavesdropping on couples in various Gordon Square locations. While I half-feel a sense of unsavory morality openly admitting to listening in on the conversations of strangers, I also recognize that I personally cannot enjoy a meal or a drink with my girlfriend in public without people staring or making crude remarks about us within earshot.
A group of police officers at Local West even once assumed my girlfriend was a sex worker because she is transgender and I, another woman, was paying for her meal.
Cleveland was responsible for at least six murders of transgender women in recent years. I have to worry about whether some drunk a-hole is going to try and kill her when we’re out in public. So in the grand scheme of things, me documenting a woman opening Tinder and unmatching the dude she was on a date with while he was in the bathroom isn’t the end of the world.
I found a couple having their first date at Superelectric Pinball Parlor. The woman, somewhere in her mid-30s, could best be described as a J.C. Penney sale rack granted sentience. While nothing about her was particularly interesting, she had strong opinions about how President Donald Trump keeping kids in cages wasn’t unconstitutional.
Talking politics on a first date was a bold move already, but that hardly compared to committing the cardinal dating sin.
In the 20 minutes I was in their presence, Penney mentioned no less than seven times that she was going through a divorce. Her soon-to-be ex-husband had cheated on her with a woman he met in their neighborhood’s community Facebook group.
She did it. She made her first date about the dreaded ex.
The man who asked her on the date desperately tried to get her to talk about anything else while deadlocked on whatever machine he was playing, a death march to run out the invisible clock on this date.
As I was leaving, I noticed a gal pacing outside the Capitol Theatre. She was yelling into her phone, her warm breath overwhelming her face with fog as if she were a fire-breathing dragon. “You gonna ghost me after one date?” she hollered.
There were a lot of expletives and personal insults about his virility and sexual abilities. (I think you get the point.) She had been stood up, and she was mad.
The rest of the night was uneventful. Lots of boring dates filled with forced small talk and men clumsily trying to buy alcohol for any woman who chanced eye contact.
I still can’t decide if dating really has gotten harder or if we as a species have merely become more socially inept. I counted eight people scrolling through some form of Tinder, Bumble, Grindr, Her or OkCupid during my night on the town.
Maybe it’s just me. But when the major way of meeting prospective partners is heavily influenced by whether we find someone “doable,” before ever having a conversation with them, that’s probably screwing our collective happiness.
As the night wound down, I was prepared to come home to jot down a bitter thinkpiece about how love is dead and dating in Cleveland is a trashy trash fire in a trash can of trash. But then I caught a whiff of hope.
A couple on a date at Blue Habanero were hitting it off swimmingly. Coy body language combined with big laughter, eye contact broken only by blushing cheeks, a sense of disbelief that a date was actually going well and a progressively more polite battle over who was going to pay the bill (they split it).
Every time they looked at each other, I was waiting for Sixpence None the Richer’s “Kiss Me” to start playing.
They left holding hands, and based on the slight jump the woman had in her step when her fingers laced with her date’s, I think this was the first time.
I really hope those two make it.