MY BOSS sauntered over to my desk and smiled congenially, an indication that he wanted to chat. "Where did you say you were moving to?" he asked.
"Cleveland," I replied.
He started to laugh. He laughed so hard that he ended by dabbing at tears in his eyes. "From Washington to Cleveland," he mumbled and shook his head.
I had announced my resignation the hour before, but already I was seasoned to such reactions. Broadcasting a move to Cleveland is like an ethnic joke and a pie in the face all rolled into one. The name "Cleveland" alone has surpassed the oneliner to become the one-worder.
I discovered this fairly quickly -- along waith a number of fascinating facts about Cleveland that my friends apparently couldn't wait to tell me and that I thought perhaps I didn't need to know.
"Cleveland," they'd say with a grin, "isn't that where the river burned?" (Yes, in the summer of 1969 the Cuyahoga River bruned so spectacularly that it damaged extensively two railroad bridges above). And, "Didn't the mayor there" -- here a chuckle or two at the thought -- "set his hair on fire?" (Yes, it's true that former Mayor Ralph Perk punctuated a campaign stop at a steel mill by setting his head aflame with a welding torch.) Or, "Isn't that town about to go broke?" (Yes, in November of 1978 it was on the verge of default, and in December of the same year the default became fact.)
But I moved anyway, and here I am, happy to report that I'm doing just fine. And Cleveland -- Cleveland ain't so bad.
In fact, in many ways Cleveland is not unlike Washington. Granted, Washington has the Hill while Cleveland doesn't. Cleveland doesn't even have a hill for that matter, being somewhat flat topographically. But is does have a city council, and Monday night council meeting have more fun than "MASH."
Right now city politics is experiencing the calm after the storm, with everyone watching our new mayor closely. But over the past two years councilmen, particularly council president George Forbes, made news by likening the former mayor to Jim Jones and Hitler and calling him everything from a communist to a racist. Every once in a while the two would kiss and make up, and such events were hailed as being somewhere between the Camp David Accord and the Second Coming.
Last time they made up they agreed on a plan to pay back bank notes the city defaulted on last December. Unfortunately it was 10 months after the fact, and in that period of squabbling the city passed another financial deadline. Thus it earned the distinction of defautling twice in one year.
The stormy mayor was, of course, Dennis Kucinich, just 31 when he took office in 1977. He called himself a people's mayor and so enamored the business and political community that he barely survived a recall election during his first year in office. But his administration was marked by more trival moments, like the time Kucinich made headlines by having three kids arrested. The crime? Playing in an Empty city pool.
Physically, the city also bears some similarity to Washington. On the Cuyahoga River's Edge (the river, by the way, has not burned for some time and is not likely to in the near future), there's a renovation going on that's turning old industrial warehouses into the chic shops and trendy eateries: Erasatz Georgetown. "For Rent" signs around town are being replaced by "For Sale": the condo phenomenon has taken hold here, too. And the city's train system, a pseudo-trolly that's more "the little engine that could" than the futuristic Metro, is nonethless semi-comfortable, convenient, and usually on time.
But it's the suburbs remind me most of the Washington area. In fact, it was just like home when I discovered a border war in Cleveland, one that makes the Maryland-Virginia dispute look like a minor skirmish.
In Cleveland, there's an East Side and a West Side, each so chavinistic that local merchants profit from the sale of T-shirts that read "East Side's the chic side and "West Sides the best side." Of course I wouldn't stoop to such provincialism. But just in case you're wondering, I wear the one that says "the chic side."
Cleveland has no embassies, no diplomatic license plates, and few high-ranking foreign visitors. Cultural diversity, however, it's got plenty of. There's a Little Italy, a Chinatown, a Little Israel. There are Poles, Slavs, Germans and every other nationality you've heard of, as will as several you have not. In Cleveland it's the Smiths and Joneses who stand out.
It's easy to was philophical about such ethnic variety. One might say it's refreshing to the human spirit or that it fosters a sense of world community. I like to say it's good eats. Pirogi, blintzes, meatballs and gyros in Cleveland are like hot dogs and hamburgers everywhere else, standard fare in one neighberhood or another.
Even the weather in Cleveland has a certain resemblance to Washington's climate. Washington, I don't have to tell you, has interminable, hot, humid summers and relatively temperate, normally brief winters. Cleveland is the same, only in reverse. It has long, unbearable, snew-studded winters and short, mild summers.
This is where the comparison stops. I would like to go on. I would like to surprise you all and say, for example, that Cleveland, like Washington is a fashionable city. Chic. Sophisticated. Au Courant. Glitzy. But then I promised myself I'd tell the truth.
Cleveland, it's true, is not without its culture. The cleveland orchestra is world renowned. So is the Cleveland Art Museum. It is the undisputed (at least on this territory) home of Rock and Roll.
But on the whole, Cleveland is more confortable than chic. It's a big city parading as a small town. It's what people like to say about the Midwest, a little slower moving but very Friendly.
My first Day in my new house found a package at the door, round and covered in tin foil. There was a note attached to it: "Welcome to the neighborhood." The only thing that made me feel good about it was that it didn't tick. With my hands as far away from my face as I could possibly stretch them, I opened it gingerly. It was bread, home-made and warm from the oven. That was just the beginning.
Cleveland is the kind of place where neighbors enter without knocking and show up with dinner when you're not feeling well. It's that kind of city where you don't have to worry which fork you use at the dinner table.
It's the kind of place where people aren't preoccupied with themselves. Clevelanders seem to be (I still retain some of my Washington skepticism) genuine and spontaneous. But why shouldn't they be? They don't have the weight of the federal government measured in every word. They don't feel the necessity of turning every conversion into a major address. You know what? Clevelanders laugh at Cleveland jokes. Sometimes they even make up their own.
I was at a party earlier this year when a Cleveland native said, "I'm waiting for Skylab to fall on the city. It would probably be an improvement." Everybody laughed but me. I was thinking what I told you before. Cleveland ain't to bad. What's more, I ain't moving.