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Tales from a small town

Short stories about life in a small town. Non-fiction. Great reading.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Christmas Eve in Cleveland

I couldn’t believe it. Two tickets to the Cleveland/Pittsburgh game! My wife bought them for us when they first went on sale. Everyone had big expectations about the Browns in the pre-season, so the tickets went fast. She bought these tickets for Jake and I the day they went on sale. The best she could do, given she bought these tickets just minutes before the game sold out, were seats at the very top of the stadium, at the corner of the end-zone. Not what you’d call the best seats in the house, but what the hell? It’s an NFL game, and I’m a life-long Steelers fan, so I didn’t mind.

I was worried because even though I’ve been told I’m a good writer, directions aren’t my strong-suit. Seriously. I don’t mind driving in big cities because I learned to drive on I-270 in Columbus, which is a total madhouse. But I do get lost easily, especially in areas I’m not familiar with. Had we been going to Columbus, I would’ve been OK; but Cleveland? When do I ever go there?

Not only that, but I really wasn’t looking forward to this trip anyway, because if you think about it: Christmas Eve at Cleveland Stadium, with a kid who’s prone to strong bouts of asthma. What could possibly go wrong? (Not to mention he’s also in a neck brace due to a sledding mishap that was so extreme, I named the move he made in his crash, using the naming conventions employed by the Video game, SSX Tricky! Because of his strong German ancestory (from my wife's side), I named it "Illegal Jakkenboy Air.")

I had it in my mind that if the temperature was below 20 degrees, or if it was raining, or if it was very windy, we weren’t going. I told Jake this the day my wife bought the tickets; the neck brace wasn’t making the trip look more likely.

On Christmas Eve, I topped off the tank, checked the pressure in the tires, checked the oil, vacuumed the interior of the car, and went through one of those automatic car washes with the undercarriage spray and the robotic, infrared-guided power sprayarms that spray your tires, brakes and rims. I hate a cluttered car on a long trip. Cleveland’s a 3 hour drive from where I live.

We were running late in traffic. I had a print-off of the driving directions, but those soon got tossed when we got inside Cleveland city limits because all I had to do was follow the traffic jam. I passed a few parking garages, got worried about whether we’d pass anymore and ducked into what I thought may have been the last one prior to the stadium. $4 parking: not bad for life in the big city. There was just one drawback: it was 7 blocks from the stadium.

When we got out of the car, there were enough sirens going off to make it sound like 9-11. Seriously. The wails of the sirens were bouncing off the concrete in the garage and amplifying the noise. Not only that, but the smell of pot was so thick, I'm worried what'll happen if I'm asked to take a random drug screen at work. The good part is, believe it or not, it was partly cloudy and fifty degrees with no wind!! Hell, I’ll walk 7 blocks in weather like that any day! Especially when I found out that parking in the stadium parking lot is $20!

Jake and I were both wearing our #7 Ben Roethlisberger Steelers jerseys which got us heckled by passing traffic, in a major way, for all seven blocks of our walk. (Keep in mind I’m with an 11 year-old kid in a neck brace!)

We get to the stadium ten minutes before kick-off, which I thought was right on time. Wrong! There were the lines. The lines at the front of the stadium were the most obscene in terms of their length. We kept walking around to the back and the lines got shorter and shorter. We picked the shortest line at the back, got in, and had to walk up wheel chair ramps (they don’t have stairs there) that circled five stories up, to get to our seats. We could hear the roar of the crowd with each play, as we hoofed it up those ramps, which seemed like it took forever! We were 15 minutes past kickoff by the time we got to our seats, but we were just in time. By the time we sat down and started waving our Terrible Towels, Pittsburgh made their first score! It was awesome. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect.

We were so far up, it took a while to not want to succumb to vertigo and puke, looking at the field below. It was like we were looking at the game from the edge of a cliff.

About 3 rows down, there were some teenage, drunk and rowdy Browns fans who were getting a little out of hand. There was this kid who was about 17. He was a little too “into” the game. He had far too much of an emotional stake in it (fueled by booze, no doubt). He was yelling and screaming every time Pittsburgh scored, and some Pittsburgh fan who put his arms in the air like the referees do to indicate a touchdown, accidentally spilled this kid’s beer in the process.

Well, the shit hit the fan then! Naturally, a fight broke out and spread quickly. I thought it was going to reach us. I was worried about Jake. I thought about doing a “mosh-pit dive” into the fracas, but then I thought to myself, “How much would I be protecting him, if I was sitting in a jail cell somewhere?” I didn’t do anything, and the fight didn’t spread to us, but it was very emotionally charged for not only those involved, but everyone who witnessed it as well.

From halftime on, it was simply a riot waiting to happen. Luckily, the cops were smart enough to take a predominately a hands-off approach, to let people vent. I think if they would have micro-managed the event with a bunch of arrests, all hell would have broke loose.

During halftime, while waiting in line for pretzels, people wearing Pittsburgh jerseys were yelling, “To the superbowl!” and people wearing Browns jerseys were chanting back, “Fuck you!” It was like a surreal, real-life musical. Drew Carey would've been proud. Like I said, it could have broke out into a riot at any time.

To top it off, Pittsburgh wound up winning, something like 41-0. While Jake and I were walking down the spiraling ramps out of the stadium, people were looking down on us from above, and looking up at us from below, and yelling “Fuck Pittsburgh!” It was a little freaky because we managed, quite by accident, to become isolated from other Pittsburgh fans, making us stick out like a sore thumb. What does Jake do? Keep in mind, he’s in a neck brace: he whips out his Terrible Towel, and starts waving it! I was proud of him for not backing down and flattered that he thought I was big enough to keep him from harm, but I wanted to strangle his little ass for inflaming the situation to the point where things could’ve got ugly.

We kept walking, and we eventually got the street corner that had the street our car was on. There was even the comfort of the Polish immigrant who sold Polish sausage on a street cart. This guy has the best Polish sausages (soaked in hot beer to keep them warm, of course!) and the best part? Only $2 per dog! Damn, that’s good food.

On our way to the car, we stopped by this deli on the ground floor of one of Cleveland’s skyscrapers. It was run by what seemed to be immigrants with brown skin and thick accents, who were from some Mediterranean country, although I have no idea which one. The special? Corned beef on rye with Swiss cheese. These were huge sandwiches, cut from corner-to-corner, just the way I like it. (Only $2.75 – and that’s with cheese!) I bought one each for Jake and I, and we ate there, while waiting for the traffic to die down a little. We got a window seat, and Browns fans walking down the street could see Jake’s Terrible Towel he laid down in front of him. We were getting all kinds of people putting their faces up to the glass and pressing their lips and tongues against the glass while the rest of the people on the sidewalk yelled and screamed.

The guy behind the counter says in a thick accent: “Yo! Big daddy!” There wasn’t anyone big in there but me, so I turned around. He says, “You should shake your dick at them to show them what a man you are!” Then, he steps into a spot where everyone could see his whole body, and grabs himself, and starts shaking what his mother gave him, at the crowd who was smearing his windows. There you have it: local flavor!

That was our day in Cleveland on Christmas Eve. It’ll be a day Jake’ll never forget.