City of light, City of magic: A bizarre, frigid sporting parade far from San Francisco prompts thoughts about the downsides to our city’s many upsides.

Photo by Joe Eskenazi

The disgruntled men wore brown paper bags over their heads and grasped cans of beer openly in their hands — which, for those drinking in public, is the exact opposite of how it’s supposed to go. This did not escape the notice of a pair of passing cops, who directed the literal sad sacks to pour their drinks onto the ground.

They wordlessly obeyed, emptying the Pilsners at the base of the imposing sculpture of Jim Brown in mid-juke. And, in short order, the yellow puddles reflecting the text on the pedestal — Thank you, Cleveland — froze stiff.

The Cuyahoga River was also frozen stiff on Saturday, and far from combustible. Much of Lake Erie was glacial, and many locals worried this odd and controversial parade around the football stadium on its South bank would be beset by obnoxiously cold weather. But, lo, it warmed up to nine whole degrees.

This is just not something you’d see in San Francisco. Separate and apart from the notion of water (or beer) freezing here, we just take ourselves a little too seriously for something like this.

In Cleveland, this is what you do when the football team occupying an alarmingly central slot in area residents’ psyches goes 1-15 in 2016, inducing its beleaguered coach to promise this won’t happen again — then proves him honest by going a clean 0-16 in 2017. You throw them a parade.

Cleveland is a remarkably affordable city. A parade permit runs just $25. And so, under the disbelieving eyes of the bronze relief busts of the great Cleveland players of yore ringing this stadium, an estimated 3,200 people showed up in weather colder than a San Francisco freezer for what was billed as the “Perfection Parade.”

It could have been a rancorous, sloppy affair — but it wasn’t. It was the champagne bottle popped to mark historic, transcendent, ridiculous, surreal success in the department of failure. It was a means of showing up Browns management for despoiling this team without taking — to many — the abhorrent step of boycotting and abandoning it.

It was, believe it or not, a positive event and a catharsis: a party, even. Lost on nobody was that this was the only sort of party these fans could have.

If there are American analogs for the “Perfection Parade,” none immediately come to mind (It was cold. I am still thawing). But, in feudal, 19th-century Japan, disillusioned masses held large, surreal, costumed dancing festivals and shouted fatalistic chants that roughly translate as “why not?” and “what the hell!”

Watching a parade float in which a man pantomimed retching into a Cleveland Browns-colored toilet, inducing a wave of glee from the crowd, that vibe was there: Why not? What the hell!

Someone unironically asked the band to play some Skynard — Cleveland is not San Francisco — and it did. This was a festive occasion. “Today,” said Kevin Beard as he collected donations for the local food bank, “we can’t lose.”

Photo by Joe Eskenazi

In San Francisco, we  do not have the same manner of ingrained, perverse pride in negative assumptions about our home region. Quite the opposite, in fact.  

In 2014, the San Francisco 49ers — the team that once played in Kezar Stadium, where kids who clipped Christopher Milk coupons got in free and could collect and return seat cushions for a penny apiece — decamped to a publicly funded McMansion stadium in Santa Clara. We are now confronted by a ridiculous situation: In a “home” game for the 49ers vs. the Oakland Raiders, the home team plays nearly three times as far from San Francisco as the road team.

The Niners’ long-gestating move was yet another indicator of the locus of Bay Area power shifting south. It was yet another mark of change in a rapidly changing region.

In short: It was not a wholly football-related situation. Browns management, stung by the spectacle of this parade, may yet get its act together. The team will win another game or even many games or even a title. But the 49ers will never again return to San Francisco. Nor will many of their fans.

What the hell.

They used to take their low-riders and go cruising. “All day and all night,” recalls Mission lifer Roberto Hernandez. This team used to be something special, and his neighborhood was the place to be when they won it all.

Photo by Joe Eskenazi.

“The Safeway lot on 30th and Mission was packed. You could cruise from 14th all the way to Geneva and back. That’s what we’d do. And it would take a long time; it was bumper-to-bumper. Crowds would gather on Cortland and Silver and Excelsior and we would just get so much love. God, it was so much fun. ”

As a child, Leroy Bermudez thought these victory celebrations were held every year. At times it sure felt this way. In 1988-89 and ’89-90, it really happened. “It used to get so backed up,” he recalls, “that they’d cruise the side streets.”

Since that time the city has been unmade and remade. So many people have offered to buy Bermudez’s home at 19th and Bryant out from under him that he painted it Niners colors — garish red and gold — and dubbed it “The Faithful House” as a sign of his commitment to his city and its team.

This would appear, at last, be an example of irony free of diabetics being run down by insulin trucks.

By 2013, when Hernandez hosted a barbecue as Colin Kaepernick took the 49ers within five yards of a Super Bowl title, something felt off. His old buddies were all there with their low-riders — “we were ready to go!” But, tellingly, they’d driven them across one or more bridges to be in San Francisco that day.

Even more tellingly, Hernandez’s new neighbors called the cops on him with a noise complaint. Twice. Both times Hernandez knew the cop who came to his door from childhood (“Hey, I’m from the barrio”). But he doesn’t know his neighbors and they don’t know him.

The men and women you see at low-rider gatherings around town are often decked out in gorgeous, satiny 49ers uniforms. Like the cars they drive, these uniforms are in mint condition; they both signify and celebrate another era. Like the cars — and, increasingly, the drivers — they are of another time and, more to the point, another place.

Two of the sponsors organizer Chris McNeil lined up for the Perfection Parade were the dating sites Farmers Only and Curves Connect, a place for plus-sized couples to meet. Cleveland, again, is a realm that’s very different from the Bay Area. People eat tater tots unironically, shout out “dilly, dilly” in crowds, and make “Make [SOMETHING] Great Again” jokes.

These are not revelatory observations.

And yet, even knowing how different these regions are, it was jarring to this native San Franciscan how many of the dozens of people I spoke with before, during, and after Saturday’s parade were natives and lifelong residents of Cleveland or parts quite nearby. In fact, all of them were. To a man. To a woman. The pressures displacing low-rider enthusiasts and everyone else in San Francisco do not exist in Northeastern Ohio. Essentially, the people who leave are the ones who want to leave. There are not cavalcades of folks moving in from elsewhere, either.

San Francisco’s constant population churn has rendered us a city with an Etch-a-Sketch memory. In Cleveland, however, people remember things. They remember “The Fumble” and “Red Right 88” and, most crushingly, “The Move.

But they remember more. They remember decades of industrial decline and rapid depopulation and race riots and the Cuyahoga River bursting into flames and Mayor Ralph J. Perk somehow lighting his own hair ablaze with an acetylene torch during a ribbon-cutting gone awry. Cleveland, of late, has become a safer, cleaner, and more cultural place to live. But the football team that served as a salve during the bad old days is now itself a source of humiliation, and triggers locals’ mighty inferiority complexes.  

But, through it all — economic collapse and regrowth, burning rivers, great basketball and wretched football — there is an expectation of generational stability in Cleveland that is totally foreign to a San Franciscan. It really does render this Browns team something of a family heirloom to be passed from grandfathers to daughters to grandsons.

How unexpected it was to walk among these people compelled to take to the frozen streets to protest the abysmal product of the for-profit, publicly subsidized business fleecing them out of their hard-earned money and sullying their shared sense of community — and feel pangs of envy.

As the procession hit the Lake Erie side of the stadium, the wind chill factor pushed the temperatures well below zero. Just because these marchers were bereaved didn’t make them saps: There would be only one no-victory lap. Traced on a map, the parade route was, not coincidentally, in the shape of a zero. There were many clever signs on display but perhaps the most clever simply read “I Made a Sign.”

Why not? What the hell!  

Not far from the frozen beer at Jim Brown’s metallic feet, a fusillade of toilet paper rolls were launched toward thousands of grasping hands, where they were used to swab thousands of runny noses. Streams of toilet tissue were, in short order, draped from every tree like impromptu tinsel. Arctic gusts off the lake sent untold amounts of the spaghetti-like, flagellating strands of paper higher and higher into the clear blue sky.

The two-ply streamers circled the stadium hundreds and hundreds of feet above the earthbound procession. Then, like the marchers below, they drifted south, toward downtown, and blanketed the city.

Photo by Joe Eskenazi.




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7 Comments

  1. Mark Rabine Staff

    Actually the displacement for the great majority of people who left Cleveland and its environs from 1960 to 2000 was far from voluntary. Mass eviction didn’t drive people out, unemployment did. The people who stayed that I know had stable employment opportunities, as well as families and the Browns.

    • Mark — That’s a valid point; you can’t drop from 914K residents in the ’50s to 390K today without people leaving. But, while Cleveland is not to be mistaken for an earthly paradise, a lot has changed, since 2000 even.

      The unemployment rate is not dazzling, but it is significantly better than it was in recent years. And the cost-of-living is still relatively low (San Francisco’s microscopic unemployment rate is as much a measure of the Malthusian nature of our local economy than plentifulness of jobs; lose your job here and you’re gone, quick).

      Maybe I’m mistaken, but I would think that if I was a father of three young kids in Cleveland, I wouldn’t be thinking “How are my kids possibly going to be able to live here,” as I am in this city.

      Thanks for the deli suggestions,

      JE

  2. LauraM

    Beautifully written.

  3. Alan Eskenazi

    Great job Joe …
    AE

  4. Vicki Allen Sherlock

    As a former Ohioan living now in California, I think have beautifully captured the heart and history of Cleveland and their beloved Browns.

  5. George W. Smith

    I think it is sad to see sports teams idolized anywhere.

    But there is no community of anything left in SF!

    Only wealthy people, with others hanging on…. 🙁

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