First published in Scene Magazine: http://www.clevescene.com/scene-and-heard/archives/2015/12/04/you-green-boy-an-essay-on-the-flats
My first night at the Boat Club, a white tablecloth restaurant in the Flats, a platinum blond, spiky-haired server named Janice yelled at me: “Hey new kid, what’s your name?” she barked. Her long, crimson nails could have cut a jugular.
I told her and she ordered me, “I need salads out on table seven, can you handle that?” Then she walked away carrying a tray of food on her shoulder like a beach ball.
Mark, the owner, who dressed like a Brooks Brothers mannequin, played up the fact that “big time” Flats developer Jeff Jacobs was a member there during my interview for the busser/dishwasher job. “Lots of heavy hitters come in here,” he said as we sat at a table that had a view of the city skyline and boats chugging up the Cuyahoga River. “Big tippers, too.”
Before I even had a chance to dirty my apron, however, Mark and his wife Diane came out of their office at seven o’clock and stared across the sea of empty tables like the hosts of a failed dinner party. They sent me home early because the place was only busy on weekends. Rumors started flying that it might close.
I’d just finished my sophomore year at Middlebury College and was home for the summer. From Wednesday through Sunday in June of 1994, hordes of people descended on the Flats entertainment district to party in downtown Cleveland … and streamed right past the Boat Club to Shooter’s next door.
Janice wasn’t the only one who had it out for me. Sue, the manager, saw me clearing dishes a few at a time, so she grabbed my elbow like I was a four-year-old and showed me how to fill up a tray. Then, on a Friday lunch shift when the place was empty except for two guys drinking Bud Lights in the corner, she made me fetch a bucket and scrub the walls after she caught me leaning on them. I made sure I was busy after that.
Desperate to prove myself to them and make friends, I began clearing tables and bringing out salads before anyone asked. When the dish room was clean, I went back to the kitchen to scrub pots and pans. I ended each night with food under my fingernails and a wad of one small bills in my pocket. With no appetite after scraping plates for six hours, I lost 20 pounds that summer.
Arriving at 4 p.m. was the perfect time to see the shift change in the Flats, as its daytime identity, that of an industrial working neighborhood with freighters as big as city blocks plying upriver and gravel trucks shaking the street to its cobblestones, gave way to neon clubs blaring dance music. The Flats were our Miami Beach on the Cuyahoga, an entertainment district slapped on top of a 200-year-old neighborhood, yet Cleveland’s gritty past – railroad tracks submerged beneath layers of concrete, rusting metal bulkheads sliding into the river, stone pylons for old bridges – poked through the glitz.
Cleveland has always been divided between east and west, but the Flats are where we come together to drink, dance and eat questionable gyros at two in the morning. In high school, we borrowed our parents’ cars to go to all-ages shows at Club Peabody’s, funneling into the Flats and parking in shoddily paved lots where concrete from bridges fell onto cars. The half-mile strip of restaurants, bars and warehouses-come-nightclubs had an old brick powerhouse that once ran the city’s trolley lines and was now an arcade, TGI Friday’s and dueling piano bar, and a railroad bridge jutting into the sky lit up by purple floodlights.
As the summer went on, I became friends with a balding, 35-year-old pastry chef named Mark. He taught me how to make a few things in the kitchen so he wouldn’t have to cook for me when I worked a double. We played teenage pranks like putting tabasco in each other’s Cokes. On long, slow afternoons, we holed up in the men’s room and played guitar where Sue couldn’t find us.
One time he was trying to teach me a Rolling Stones song and I didn’t get it, so I asked him to show it to me one more time. He burst out laughing as I tried to play it again and again, always a step behind.
“You green, boy,” he said. “You green.”
A few weeks before I went back to school, Mark took me out for a beer at Shooter’s. After some small talk, he told me that a woman he’d been casually dating had become pregnant, and he was the father. They’d had a falling out and the last time he stopped by to see her, she would only talk to him through the screen door. I already knew this because the other chefs, Joel and Rich, had told me – there are no secrets after you work back-to-back 12-hour shifts with someone – but I acted surprised.
Mark was a working-class Catholic guy, and neither he nor his ex-girlfriend considered abortion to be an option. He broke down at the bar and started crying, his face screwed up in anguish as he wiped the tears away. I had no idea what to do, so I just patted his shoulder and told him it would probably be OK. Then with one last heaving sob, he sucked his grief back inside and we both pretended like nothing had happened. We headed to our cars and said goodbye.
When I came home for winter break, I went down to the Boat Club but there was already a “for rent” sign in the window. The party in the Flats began winding down for good a few years later when three people drowned and the city set up a task force to deal with crime and safety issues. In 2005, a developer announced plans to rebuild the east bank with high-end apartments, restaurants and night clubs and, after an agonizingly long wait during which Cleveland suffered through the housing crisis, the financial crisis and the Great Recession, the Flats finally reopened. The beers are now $6 but the South Beach atmosphere is still there in the new dueling piano bar and nightclub with an outdoor pool.
I only saw Mark one other time, about 10 years later, at a coffee house benefit concert for a local nonprofit at St. Paul’s Church in Ohio City. He was playing there with his band. I hadn’t thought about him in years, but the experience of working in the Flats had made a deep impression on me, as I was exposed to another, working-class Cleveland. I felt embarrassed that we’d completely lost touch after we were so close that summer, but truthfully, neither of us had really expected our friendship to last beyond those walls.
After we’d locked eyes, Mark came up to me and asked, “Didn’t you used to work at the Boat Club?” I said yes, and he said that he remembered me. I wanted to say something, ask how he was doing and where he was working now, but I chickened out. He walked away and I haven’t run into him since then.