S, in spite of himself, had many reasons for feeling anxious about the impending move. Sure, Cleveland was a top spot for the kind of training that he needed at this point in his career. And sure, he was excited about crème de la crème-ing in his little blue and green badge. It was the job he had coveted for the better part of the year. It was about to become very, very real.
But he couldn’t quite shake off the memory of his first visit in February, for an interview that would last an entire working day. The track up to meet the rest of the department started with a 6am bus ride, the doors hissing open in the heavy winter air. The landscape a blur of white and grey. A firm and certain desolation, and a cold beyond anything that even Ireland had ever thrown at him, the locals telling him it ain’t so bad this year. Back in Australia, colleagues and seniors slapped him on the back and offered hearty congratulations ; though those who had done the Cleveland tour before sneaked in a few commiserations as well. Jeez, there was nothing to do. It got pretty rough. Some even mimicked their accompanying wives, wilting in misery and ennui.
The newsletter they sent out to prospective residents were filled with so much positivity that it was begging you to read between the lines. You can do it! (“Yeah, it’s shit, but don’t give up!”) Averages 150 sunny days in the year! (“Waitaminute … what are you not telling us about the other 215?”) The newsflash about the 3 girls escaping a decade of imprisonment and abuse in the basement of a Clevelander didn’t help too much either. The scary stories kept on rolling in. At the airport, the customs officer threw us a funny look and said, “Cleveland? Really?”
So Cle-town had a bad rep – but plans were in full swing, and we were soon on the mother of long haul flights: Brisbane – Sydney – Dallas – Cleveland. We touched down at midnight, and took a taxi to a really nice hotel downtown. Til we find some digs, this was our new home.
When we finally opened our eyes after having slept off the fatigue, we were greeted by the first views of the city from the massive glass windows of our room. The sunlight picked out the accents of the structures around us gradually. We were looking upon a series of bridges spanning across a wide waterway, which I assumed would be the Cuyahoga River, roughly splitting the city into east and west. Now we had to reconcile the standing structures with the labeled pinpoints we’d been studying on maps.
The first few days of moving to a new place is incredibly un-fun. Paperwork, waiting in line, applications, social security numbers, the unknown, bank accounts, real estate. We navigated on foot, and slowly learned to use the bus system. We figured out what lay vaguely east and what stayed west, and the names of the long avenues that spanned the whole plan.
It’s hard to ignore the sense of something grandiose about the city. Buildings were large and foreboding, and often coupled with monuments half way to the clouds. On our way to Lorain Avenue, we crossed a bridge as opposing as it was wide, the middle section marked by leviathan statues of serious-looking men, somewhat at odds with the toy cars they were holding. A wagon, a cart, an automobile, an industrial truck. Like ancient settlers playing with Hot Wheels. Elsewhere, there were monuments to the war – sailors and soldiers watching over Public Square. And then monuments to leaving the war behind – a man rising heavenward from a bed of flames. Famous leaders, artists, thinkers, sat around in stone everywhere in the city, as if a band of masons had gotten to work and couldn’t stop. The buildings, too, were impressive – Clevelanders were not shy of piling stones up to the sky. Nor did they forget to be light-hearted about it. There were also an abundance of giant electric guitars gaily painted, hanging out near bus stops. And can someone tell me about those big snakes that sometimes stand guard outside of certain warehouses?
Yet for all that was gregarious about the build of the city, there was hardship here, too. You see poverty in the pocked clothes and downtrodden shuffle of those who are toiling in life, trying to keep themselves and their families afloat. Waiting in line at the government offices, pent up frustration in their lips and tiredness showing under their eyes. Hanging around downtown near the Tower City Square, trying to work out a solution, keeping company in the sun. Then comes the rain, where life just gets a little more slippery and the atmosphere just a little more stifling, with the sickening sweet smell of trodden tobacco rising from the street.
But people were friendly, and we hardly ever crossed a street without being said Hi to. We never had to spend too long looking lost before someone came to gently show us the way. Welcome to Cleveland! they all exclaimed, You have a nice day, now! We heard the life stories of taxi drivers, barbers, waitresses and an imam. Not to mention the countless people we sat next to while waiting for the bus.
My favorite part about Cleveland is the way that a pocket of pure loveliness suddenly opens up when you least expect it to. We were scurrying around on a hot and humid summer’s day, trying to tick things off our list of errands, when we suddenly stepped into a shaded nook. There were chairs arranged in curved rows to flank and cobblestone path, and every so often a funny saying would pop up from the metal rails. The serenity took your breath away and slowed your steps. At the end of the path, a golden nest made from planks, with an opening at the base through which you could enter. All of this so that one can have a place to read. After a moment, I realised I was stepping on names, embedded in the stones which formed the floor of the nest. “For ~ , who saw the beauty in everything.”
That’s another thing they’re good at here: remembering people.
I should put in a good word about the fun variety of foods that we had while navigating downtown. Soba and ramen in Noodle Cat, todu and split beans in Flaming Ice Cubes, the heartiest sandwiches in Potbellies, and artistically rich desserts in Greenhouse Tavern. I gotta say, though, I’m nearly cured of my coffee addiction seeing that everything tasted like soap suds. We’re still in search of an amaaaazing sushi place, however, in our last Asian fusion restaurant, we did come away with this:
One day, after viewing a prospective apartment right on the water, we headed inland via East 55th street. After surviving the highway crossing, we padded cautiously through a few blocks of derelict buildings. It was a hot day, made muggier by the fumes from the passing traffic. We reached a street where some kids were waving card boards and yelling, “C-A-R W-A-S-H!! Support the youth C-A-R W-A-S-H!!”
We didn’t have a car, so we got a flyer instead. There was an unmistakable smiley face and the words Promote Positivity. It was so infectious. Around the same time, I spotted an ice cream stall on the corner of a rough-looking block. It boasted 30 different flavors in cartoon cones with arms and faces, which made the severity of the block disappear. Sure, there were bars on the window, but the friendly ice cream man peeled off his gloves and came out the door to greet us as we were eyeing the choices. I picked butter pecan, of course, and S took black cherry. As we waited, I fished out my phone to snap a picture of the spray paint sign. S shifted nervously on his feet and looked around. I looked around, too, and smiled as the kids waved their car wash sign about. Leaning in, I puckered up for a pre-ice-cream smooch and S was nearly knocked over by my deficiency of street sense!
“You take out your phone, kissy-kissy, they take out their gun!!”
I exploded in laughter!! A half-second later, the ridiculous situation descended upon S’s jittery nerves and he laughed as well. Here we were, buying ice-cream cones, surrounded by kids with skinny legs jumping up and down trying to get people to a car wash, but because of a bunch of stupid stories, we were supposed to be worried about getting shot!
The moral of the story is: Cleveland is a sweet and awesome city. And a handful of stories shouldn’t trump your own eyes and ears in making your mind up about a place. Having said that, this narration has just begun. I wonder what else we’ll come across over the next few months…
So for all the caution we were exercising in this brand new city, one of the only few snapshots I had to show for was this one:
I promise I’ll try and add to that on my next trip Downtown.