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The tiki bar is weirdly welcoming and home-basey, never mind the presiding "WARNING: If you are carrying a firearm, you may be guilty of a felony...etc." nor the massive jars of hand sanitizer currently dwarfing our bottles of brew.
Hold the phone. A pizza-pan-type dish is covered with mini shot glasses in our vicinity and a woman is pouring Patron shots directly from the bottle of Patron into the little shot glasses. There is no special cap on the Patron to regulate portions. Note that there are max 30 people in this bar right now.
We down the Patron. In an improbable feat of courage and/or skill, Chris snorts some Patron off the upended plastic shot glass.
We run to the bathroom and wizzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. A huge screen displays the dance floor's (in)activity and we see ourselves in our peripheries as we scurry back, past the futuristic chairs and the DJ and yet another "Happy Birthday" sign, and follow the boys out of the darkness and into the night.
Recovered audio excerpt, recorded in RedKiaSUV somewhere on mostly desolate St. Clair Avenue:
"I assumed it was going to be more like, ah, Payne Cafe."
"I honestly had no idea. I guess I've driven past it a few times, but, I don't know..."
"See? And now what are you doing to do? You're going to stop from now on."
"Right, like, 'You know what? I could go for a little free Patron right now!'"
"I guess what I'm saying is I'm like a creature of habit. For probably 90 percent of my life I haven't left the, like, five-block radius of my house. And I just got, like, youknowwhat, we just gotta go to some other places."
"That's the beauty of all this."
"It's a great big city. It'd be great if everybody did this. Everybody gets so caught up in their little routines and they go to the same bars and blah, blah, blah. It'd be nice if everybody just spread out a little bit and met some people and blah, blah, blah."
"Drinks can unite people."
"Listen, I always say this: Alcohol is the great equalizer. It doesn't matter where you're from or what you do. You're all the same people. And this is the other thing about people who drink: They're all pretty laid-back. You know? Nobody's really on edge. And you know what else I think - wait, man, you're going the wrong way. You need to go south a bit."
10:53 p.m.-ish, Mardi Gras. It's all sort of very apropos, several of us comrades remark, that we'd wind up at a place called Mardi Gras mere days after the holiday of same. Gone are the beads and the crawfish boils, however. We celebrate little more than Thursday night in Cleveland now. "Thirsty Thursday," someone says, though that line's clearly been worked over many times before with this crowd.
There exists at this point in the recollection of the night a sizable void in clear-cut memory. Topics of (remembered) conversation include: Richard Simmons, the 1919 Chicago "Black Sox" scandal, tacos, taco-flavored things, how sick we all are of this interminable winter, nipple tattoos.
The Cleveland Bar Experiment is the medium for stuff like that - the conversations, the getting-to-know-this-city, the mutual love for people and place. Certainly this group isn't breaking new ground here. They're tapping into the simplest of pastimes. This sort of adventure could happen in any city in America with any sort of people. Thing is, these guys are making it happen. It's active.
With a dash of organizational vigor, we gather for a group photo half-on and half-off the dais near the front window. In looking back, the gang comes off all excitable and not completely unlike Barrie's Lost Boys mid-feast. We had gorged well, but there remained a hefty slab of work on our table. Sleeves rolled up.
On the way out the door, someone suggests Magic City. Sounds nice. We've still got time for another spot, right? We all pile into cars and shuffle back toward St. Clair.
As a family now, we've settled into a groove, no doubt. "It's always an adventure," Damon says. The Experiment is such that shots are called in the moment. Total freedom. An entire city of suds at one's fingertips.
A few of the guys wander on into Magic City - and promptly return to sidewalk. "This place is a strip club!" "I see." There's a general murmur of "Hmm, well, we could..." "Nah, man, let's go." "But, then, of course..." "How about some chili dogs instead?"
Lesson No. 178 of the Cleveland Bar Experiment: Chili dogs are a known trump card.
11:39 p.m., Steve's Lunch. "You will not feel safe in the bathroom. Didn't Damon say there was a big hole in there?" "Yeah, well, you don't step in that."
Such is the introduction to Ohio City's infamous and beloved Steve's Lunch as we tumble out of RedKiaSUV onto concrete. Some of us are first-timers here. Others have scarfed meat beneath the fluorescents for years. Others are verrrry familiar with the whole bathroom situation.
A handful of regulars line the bar, shoveling chili-clad tubes into mouths and rifling through the day's news. Exiting the aforementioned bathroom - and this shouldn't be a surprise AT ALL to us - is a burly, cross-eyed man who's kind of listing to starboard. We scan the menu on the wall; items are described one-by-one on colorful 8.5x11s. A rack of chips (both "red" and "blue" Doritos, we're told) maintains the munchie vigil behind the counter. Most of us order a trio of cheese dogs (cheese, mustard, onions, chili), and consider that a more perfect nightcap just does not exist.
Muffled conversation turns toward next week: Where should we go? Of course, that'll all be figured out when the time comes. For now, we debate the finer side of late-night hot dogs and share stories from earlier in the evening. "Remember when...!"
We Scene writers are dropped off at the corner of West 25th and Lorain, watching with wistful eyes as RedKiaSUV trundles back toward the various homes of CLEBAREXP regulars. Our own destination lies somewhere in Tremont, so we begin our walk and kick around quickly fading memories of the night. Those chili dogs were really something.
Would we join the Cleveland Bar Experiment again? Sure. That's the point. But perhaps on our own terms.
Some undefinable voice flits back to us in the present moment: "It's a great big city. It'd be great if everybody did this. Everybody gets so caught up in their little routines and they go to the same bars and blah, blah, blah. It'd be nice if everybody just spread out a little bit and met some people and blah, blah, blah."