Cleveland Shows Some Love in the Prelude to Republican National Convention Week

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Rally and protests take to the streets around the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland on July 17, the day before the start of the Republican National Convention. Photo: NurPhoto/Getty Images

This week, New Girl creator Liz Meriwether will be in Cleveland covering the Republican National Convention for Vulture.

“We have bulletproof vests for you,” a New York Magazine editor told the journalists coming to Cleveland on a conference call this past Wednesday. “Oh my God!” I responded. My voice was very weird and high and I realized too late that I wasn’t on mute. I was sitting in my home in West Hollywood, where I’m never more than ten minutes away from a cold-pressed juice, and the reality of what was waiting for me in Cleveland was finally sinking into my dumb Los Angeles brain. The conversation about bulletproof vests was followed by a suggestion to wear steel-toed shoes and swim goggles to keep the tear gas out of our eyes. At this point, I was … I think the word is “panicking.”

I write comedy for television. The reasons I would wear steel-toed shoes and swim goggles at the same time are: 1) poorly executed Mad Max costume, 2) total nervous breakdown, or 3) the apocalypse has come. But, even then, I don’t think I would survive the apocalypse long enough to need the goggles. Comedy writers are the first to go in the apocalypse. We are completely useless to a society in a state of nature. “If you’re getting bulletproof vests, I’m a woman’s extra-large.” I was off to a terrible start.

So when I stepped off the plane in Cleveland, I was expecting End Times. Instead, it was just 9 p.m. on a Saturday. I didn’t have the address for our Airbnb pulled up on my phone when I got to the taxi stand, which would have been a punishable crime in New York. I apologized and took a step back. The wiry, white-haired guy working the stand just laughed and said, “Don’t worry, there’s no trap door that’s going to open up.” “Yeah, totally, hahaa.” I responded, with what I think was an extremely cool vibe. But Cleveland felt like one big trap door to me, and I had not had time to buy steel-toed shoes. 

My first night here, I barely slept. Bright lights blink at random through the windows of the Airbnb, which makes the room feel a little like the set for a Tennessee Williams play — if the set for a Tennessee Williams play also had a fridge magnet that read: “Why do dishes when you can do daiquiris?” I woke up anxious and hungry. I strapped on my Keds, which are the shoe equivalent of toilet paper and rubber bands, and I stepped outside.

People in Cleveland are not wearing steel-toed shoes. They are not wearing swim goggles. People in Cleveland are wearing T-shirts that say "Cleveland." Also: “You can’t spell Miracle without the CLE," which sources tell me has something to do with the sport of basketball. T-shirts I saw include: “Black Lives Matter,” “You Can Pee Next to Me,” and an acrostic made out of the letters of Cleveland that began “Christ Lives Eternal.” I saw an “Elect Jesus” billboard, a pro-choice billboard, and a billboard for Maker’s Mark. An older man with a “God Loves Everyone: No Exception” T-shirt made full eye contact with me and said “Good afternoon,” which I realized a few seconds after he walked by was an act of politeness. “Good afternoon”? Who says “Good afternoon” and makes eye contact? The world is falling apart. The country is divided. Good afternoon?

At an event near the Hope Memorial Bridge, most of the T-shirts said “Stand for Love” and a small brass band was playing. Let’s take a second for that. I don’t know if it’s because of the life choices I’ve made, but I’ve never actually seen anything I would describe as a “small brass band.” I did the only thing someone from L.A. knows to do when she experiences something new: I took a video with my phone. Then a man walked by wearing the kind of hat that blocks all UV rays and also all opportunities for sexual intercourse. He smiled and called out, “Hi Marty!” The person I’m assuming is named Marty smiled and hugged him back. People knew each other and were happy to see each other. “I’m sure you know Bob and Barbara!” someone called out to a friend. A woman offered me a free bottle of water, and when I shook my head, she said, “You need some. Put it in your bag.” A young boy took a bottle of water, and another woman called out, “Say thank you!” “Thank you!” he said. What was this place?

“Stand for Love”? I assumed this had something to do with LGBT rights. People don’t gather on the streets and talk about “love” if it’s not a political protest, right? What was happening? I asked the woman sitting next to me on the curb. She was immediately friendly. “It’s for peace and love.” Wait, “Stand for Love” means that we are all literally just standing for love? What about love? Love as a concept? I was in black sunglasses and looked confused. She turned away.

Some people in “Stand For Love” shirts were talking to a cop. “Clevelanders are all laid-back people," one of them said. "We are a classy city.” The cop agreed: “If anything happens, it will be outsiders.” Someone congratulated the cop on the way the police had handled the Cavaliers' victory. The cop nodded. When it comes to sports victories in Cleveland, he thought there was “more of a shock factor — is this real?” People laughed. I pretended to laugh. Someone said: “Wait till the Indians take it.” I nodded, because I’ve seen Major League. The cop asked what this “Stand for Love” thing was all about. A man in a neon T-shirt explained it was an event started by a woman at a church that grew to encompass many churches in the area. This event was “bipartisan.” It was “a preemptive move to define our community before the national media does.” So, we were here on a hot Sunday afternoon trying to define what Cleveland stands for before the actual convention began. A woman walked by the cop, put her hand on his shoulder, and said, “Stay safe.” He thanked her.

The “national media,” from what I could tell, were the people wearing clothes that weren’t appropriate for the weather, with four or five things hanging from their necks at all times — cameras, camera bags, passes, more passes. They were the ones off to the side, trying to light a cigarette in the wind or typing on their phones or standing on rooftops pointing cameras down. Or, I guess, me. The event was late getting started, and I got impatient and decided to just stand for love by myself and walk alone across the bridge, which should tell you most of what you need to know about me.

When I got closer to the arena, the area got more desolate.  A couple of state troopers sat in a car behind an enormous fence. There were two soldiers on the bridge taking pictures on their phones. Rows of bikers peeled down a street below. An airplane circled pulling a “Hillary for Prison 2016” banner. Another had “Protect Real Marriage.” Everyone was waiting. To me, it felt like the whole city was waiting — waiting to see what the “outsiders” will do, waiting to see if the definition of what Cleveland is to the people who live here is strong enough to survive the week. I had the feeling again that we were all standing on a trap door. I don’t know. I was probably being overly dramatic, because I was very hot and very lost, but then I remembered I still had the water the woman had forced me to take. I opened it and started to drink. I don’t know if I “stand for love,” but I can safely say that I stand for people who give out free water to the people who need it.

When I made it back to the other side of the bridge, the march still hadn’t really begun. Someone was singing a song, and it sounded like the only lyrics were: “Circle the city with love” and “Free the prisoners.” I didn’t know what prisoners they were talking about. All the prisoners? They wanted to free all the prisoners? You know what, let’s just assume they wanted to free the prisoners who needed freeing. A spontaneous back-rub chain started in front of me and kept going longer than I was personally comfortable with. Maybe I was wrong about those UV-ray-protecting hats. Maybe in Cleveland, wearing a large sun hat with drawstrings and a neck flap doesn’t prevent you from having intercourse. Maybe these people wouldn’t just be standing for love tonight, maybe they would be doing all kinds of things for love. I hoped so. I walked past a line of bike cops wearing bulletproof vests. Stay safe, I thought. I hope the hardest thing you have to do this week is save Scott Baio from himself.