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Did You Peak in High School?

Bar Culture in Cleveland

Local Dive Bars

I recently moved from my downtown Cleveland apartment to a 4 BR house in Old Brooklyn, another offshoot in Cleveland. This new situation is, of course, a roommate arrangement where I am one of four tenants. This is a much simpler setup. I get to save some money while preparing to purchase our third property, though at the expense of no longer being able to walk to work – or anywhere for that matter – everyday in just under 10 minutes.

My experience in a local dive bar
If only neighborhood bars looked this good

Not long after moving in, my roommates and their friends invited me out for a couple hours to a few local bars. What ensued was both entertaining and depressing, yet like a car wreck that causes passersby to rubberneck, I could not help but notice and take notes of the events that unfolded before me.

Dive Bar Clientele 

I will say one thing about local dive bars: They serve some pretty cheap drinks. You won’t find any fancy concoctions or garnishes on your drinks. Be prepared to deal with people that have had a rough go in life. The bartenders may also be the owners being a business owner and bartender will take its toll on someone. That is definitely evident in the level of service you (or maybe just a new customer) receives. However, a dive bar is a dive bar for a reason. It didn’t grow with the times. It stagnated and when you look around you can see that maxim also applies to many of their patrons.

I stepped into the local bar that was less that half a mile from my place. Maybe that was the first piece of information that should have clued me into what to expect. A bar less than .5 miles from a normal neighborhood can’t be good news. Well, as I walked in a could see the hopelessness in many of the individuals sitting around the bar. A 60+ year old Veteran who’s eyes were glossed over, a blonde who was probably in her early 30s but looked like she was pushing 40 and was partying as if though she still “had it”. All those years of partying looked like they had finally caught up with her. A group of guys who were in their stain covered jeans shooting pool. The smell told me as soon as they got off the job they headed straight to their favorite local spot. They were already pretty hammered and it was only 9 pm. They were maybe in their late 20s to early 30s and I’ll go out on a limb and say that one of them was probably the all star jock that never quite made it. The above statements are not in any way judging who these individuals are or what they do for a living, just an honest observation as well as some assumptions that may not necessarily be true.

Looking at those characters I recalled my times as a high school junior and senior going to our local bar. It was a small bar with outdated decor that was located adjacent to a hotel. I remember the individuals that hung around there. They were in their early to late 20s and they were familiar because they were the same individuals that had once been seniors when I was a freshman. The older ones had come through my high school long before I was a senior and yet they were still hanging around this same bar where the high school kids were hanging out. I guess at that time I thought it was pretty cool that I was hanging around some twenty-somethings, but as I got older, grew, moved to other cities and other parts of the world, I realized that these individuals stayed. For whatever reasons that I will never know, they stayed in the same town and continued to visit the same hotel sports bar. Maybe they chose to stay or maybe life hit them with circumstances that kept them from leaving that small city. Who knows, maybe they never wanted to leave. Life can be funny and cruel in that way.

The clientele that I noticed at this particular bar in Cleveland was definitely defining of what people think of when they hear mention of Cleveland. Blue collar. Folks that show up to work and believe that if you continue to work things will just resolve themselves. That’s a very noble way of approaching life. Among this group of bar-goers I’m sure were also the individuals that were forced into unskilled labor because they didn’t – or couldn’t – pursue education past high school, or worse, dropped out to pursue work. Dropping out could have been due to various reasons. Someone may have dropped out because they has no other choice in order to help at home. There’s also the thought process that dropping out or not pursuing college was a better option because one could work and earn a living while college students wasted time not getting paid for 4-6 years, all the while amassing ridiculous amounts of debt. Considering the current times, they aren’t too far off in their assertion.

I am not sure what anyone’s situation really was and I was only creating a narrative in my head as to what could have led them to the circumstances they were in. They 30-something blonde not only didn’t “have it”, but she was also pretty wasted. She was smiling and having a good time, but I could see through the facade. I could see the lack of confidence in her eyes. I could see there was something missing. Could it be she was missing someone to love so that there’s not need for a Girls’ Night out on a regular basis? The group of 3 guys included a fellow who boasted about having spent his entire paycheck on taking his friends out for drinks that night. Here I am talking about moving to a smaller place to save money so I can purchase more property and I was hearing someone as happy as could be about the fact they had nothing left in the bank. I immediately reflected in that moment and thanked my lucky stars because I knew that had things turned out differently that could have been me. Our paths may not have been too different but for a few life decisions I made along with good fortune that came my way. In that moment I wasn’t judging him. I felt for him. However, in that instant, he was enjoying life. Or maybe he was drinking away the pain so that he could enjoy life. Either way, who am I to judge him or take that away from him?

Downtown Cleveland Bars vs. Dive Bars

Comparing downtown bars to a dive bar is unfair. I won’t do it, but I will describe the crowd’s I see in downtown. My experiences were vastly different.

I lived in downtown Cleveland for over a year. I got to know some of the staff at a couple of the bars and restaurants. It doesn’t hurt to be friendly and tip well. It gets you seated after a Cavs game when everyone is waiting 45 minutes for seats to open up. The bartenders, for the most part, were educated and provided entertaining enough conversation. It doesn’t hurt to be offered free drinks or for the bar manager to offer drinks on the house.

I usually found myself sitting next to college students, college grads, business people and entrepreneurs just to name a few of the different types of bar goers there. I even recall speaking to a couple university professors and school administrators, one of which invited me to an open house as I was considering their particular institution as my youngest son’s next school.

I have to be specific as to the area in downtown Cleveland that I am referring to, which is East 4th and the bars and restaurants found there. This cozy corner packs a ton of culinary variety and a hell of a comedy venue in Hilarities. I’ve ventured to West 6th, but found that the best time to go is Happy Hour during the work week. Any time after 10 pm on a weekend and there was just too much “bro culture”. I’m 34. That stage of my life is well behind me. In addition to the awesome restaurants on East 4th, there also exists a Prohibition Era, speakeasy type of bar. The cocktails may seem a bit pricey, but the atmosphere and the art that goes into making some of these drinks is worth the price. The price is not so bad since this is not a place one visits to “get wasted”. A drink or 2 suffice and your wallet doesn’t take as bad of a hit as you would think. Downtown Cleveland nightlife was a welcome escape from the real world. There are no problems in downtown. There are just restaurants, upscale bars, football and baseball fields and a basketball arena in close proximity. Everything you could want in a a city and all within 15-20 minutes walking distance. Great for people watching and entertainment.

If you spend too much time downtown, as I did, you start to forget what the real world looks like. What it is really like for everyday Americans. It’s not easy out there and spending just that one night in a local neighborhood bar/dive bar was enough to remind me of that reality.

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