In 2004, a Baltimore reporter called me to talk about Cleveland's inferiority complex. Her thesis: Like the residents of Baltimore, we think of ourselves as the punch line to every bad joke.
I should have cut her off right there and said, "No, no, no. Ancient history. Let me tell you why we love our city."
Instead, I said this: "People outside of Cleveland think so much better of it than we do here. We're so insecure and defensive. There seems to be this need to explain away some things about Cleveland."
When I saw my words in print, I cringed. Looking back, I think I was afraid of coming off as a civic cheerleader for the town I covered as a journalist. So, instead, I echoed the naysayers who love to fuel dying narratives about this town I love.
Never again, I vowed. It's been an easy promise to keep. Ask me about Cleveland, and you'll have a hard time shutting me up. I know I'm not alone, but sometimes I feel a little lonely.
At the end of last year, in a single week, I did three things that got me thinking about why Cleveland needs to hear from more of its storytellers. First, I joined fellow writers in Oberlin for a book talk about Cleveland. Then I attended a book signing in Westlake for another local writer. Two days later, I left PlayhouseSquare in tears after watching a Christmas play in which working-class Cleveland and Public Square played starring roles.
By the week's end, all I could think about was the power of story and the need for more of us — "us" being everyone who lives and works in Northeast Ohio — to contribute to the greater narrative of Cleveland.
When is the last time you told someone why you live here? Have you ever?
I don't mean to suggest that we should cast a greeting-card glow to life in this challenging region. But honestly, despite the rocky terrain, you and I are still here. There are reasons for that. There's the narrative we should be sharing, one story at a time.
The book talk in Oberlin was a gathering of writers who'd contributed to Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology. It is not a chirpy book, but it does have a happy back-story. It started when writer and editor Anne Trubek sent this message: "I'm pulling together, quick and dirty, an anthology about Rust Belt Chic — trying to get ahead of the curve on what is quickly a trending topic. I'd love to talk with you about getting involved in some way ."
She and co-editor Richey Piiparinen asked, and more than 30 writers, and several photographers, agreed to contribute. In record time. For free.
The book is a jumble of mixed emotions. We were not building a yellow brick road. In one of the darker pieces, titled "Not a Love Letter," Jimi Izrael writes: "I love Cleveland — she holds everything that is dear to me. But I avoid her, if I can." Still, Izrael had to write about her. He can't quite let her go, and we're better for it.
In its entirety, Rust Belt Chic is a love story, the moody kind, with accusations of betrayal and evidence of forgiveness. We show up for book talks, in various configurations, because there's just so much to say about our Cleveland. No matter our grievances and heartbreak, none of us is willing to give up. If we're still talking, the marriage counselors like to say, there's hope for reconciliation.
Comedian Mike Polk has a new book, too, titled Damn Right I'm From Cleveland. My husband Sherrod and I showed up on a Friday night at Barnes & Noble in Westlake for his book signing. The place was packed. We stood in line because we wanted to meet the young creator of the viral video tribute to the Cleveland Browns. In it, he stands in front of the empty stadium and wails, "You are a factory of sadness!"
Polk was polite and shy, and seemed overwhelmed by the crowd. So very Cleveland of him. His book has plenty of bad-boy humor — the mother in me sighs at all the chick jokes — but I love parts of it, too. From his sampling of bumper stickers only a Clevelander is allowed to suggest:
IF YOU CAN'T AFFORD TO LIVE HERE
YOU CAN'T AFFORD TO LIVE
LOSERS AT SPORTS
CHAMPIONS AT LIFE!
TOO UNPOPULATED FOR A TERRORIST
Question: Does Polk love or loathe Cleveland?
Turn to page 49, and we understand why. There's little Mike, wearing Browns gear in more than a dozen childhood photos, chronicling the typical Cleveland immersion experience. I could swap out a dozen photos of my own two kids — or our second grandson, born Jan. 3. This grandma hopes to post soon a Facebook photo of baby Leo in his new Cleveland Indians onesie. Like his grandfather and mother before him, he'll know the team's history and believe anyway.
Two days after meeting Polk, Sherrod and I settled in to our seats at the Allen Theatre to watch A Carol for Cleveland, Eric Coble's play based on Les Roberts' novella by the same name. Again, a full house. The first time one of the lead characters mentioned that the story takes place "right here in Cleveland, Ohio," the audience roared. Every local reference triggered chuckles and chatter, feeding a deep, unnamed hunger.
I called Roberts to tell him how much I loved his story, which chronicles an out-of-work steelworker from Pittsburgh who is lifted out of despair by the kindness of Cleveland, where no one is a stranger for long. I congratulated him for the play's success, and we started talking about why we both love this town.
Roberts didn't grow up here, but he's called Cleveland home for more than two decades. He was supposed to stay for four months, but he kept coming back to do research for his novels. Finally, in the early 1990s, he surrendered.
"I just couldn't stay away," he said.
"I came when it was booming, I've been here when the Flats and everything fell apart, and I'm here when it's coming back," he said. "Every time I drive into downtown Cleveland, I feel my blood moving a little faster."
I know that feeling. I'll bet you do, too.
That's a story you should tell.
That's a story so many of us yearn to hear.