The constant, despairing news about the city was wearing. At Johnny's Downtown that evening, I facetiously exclaimed that NASA had announced that the sky over Cleveland would fall at 8:05 p.m. There were those who believed me.
That's how the idea for the song began. Minimizing the peril of the falling sky and the awful sound that it would make, I observed that the real problem with the town is not economic development, brain drain or job loss, but that it has no song.
Sure, "The Drew Carey Show" theme song, "Cleveland Rocks," showed promise, but the town needs to be spruced up in a way that only a ballad would help.
New York has "New York, New York," San Francisco has "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" and they've prospered. It's only logical that a hit song would lift our spirits and give the resurgent Convention & Visitors Bureau of Greater Cleveland some lift and lure to attract visitors and their money.
Cleveland has never been comfortable about promoting itself. Look around. There are only a handful of statues. The truly historic sites are unmarked. And there is no real saloon in town with old photos and memorabilia of the kind that attracts tourists to San Francisco and New York.
It is obvious: We need a song. And Mike Petrone did not miss a beat. Quick, talented and much applauded, he's a breeze on the keyboard and gives Johnny's an edge over the rest of downtown's nightspots.
He'd write our song.
Over in the corner of the bar, where the Greatest Generation sips wine and Grey Goose, there was uneasiness. Any mention of a song means the inevitable appearance of the man who aspires to be Cleveland's Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett.
Popularly known as Cleveland Bob, he is a lawyer and former bar association president who practices his avocation at Johnny's bar, where he sings to a hung jury.
The Greatest Generation, which likes its music soft and nostalgic, regards an evening with Cleveland Bob akin to sitting through a war-week festival on The Movie Channel. The guy from San Francisco begs to differ, though, because Cleveland Bob sent his mother-in-law back to the West Coast with warm memories of our city and an autographed CD.
So, in this nostalgic environment, the idea for a song took wings. Within days, Petrone and his wife, Tina, had collaborated to write the music and lyrics, Cleveland Bob was humming it and the guy from San Francisco was touting what a song had done for his former hometown.
ehind a smile with a return address, Petrone began singing it every night. People started to ask for it. Tina devised a marketing plan. A recording session was set with Helen Welch, who sang with the British Broadcasting Corporation, and Cleveland Bob. Tourism officials stopped by to listen. City Hall asked if the rumors were true. "Is there really a song?"
There is. It's called "Shhh ... I'll Meet You in Cleveland."
New York is too crazy.
San Francisco's expensive
And Vegas ain't right.
Miami's too hot and I'm sure not goin' to Greenland.
Pack your bags, we're leavin' this evenin'
Shhh ... I'll meet you in Cleveland.
The emergence of the song was a definite sign that the municipality's morale was being restored in a melodious manner. And the sky never did fall: The clouds were too thick that night.
Using City Hall's inquiry as an excuse to visit San Francisco and investigate the merit of the venture, which was growing more serious by the drink, I headed west.
You do not have to listen very hard to hear San Francisco's song there. Homeless musicians play it along the piers on harmonicas, plastic saxophones and combs covered with wax paper.
You hear it at John's Grill, where tourists are lured by, of all things, the bird from Humphrey Bogart's "The Maltese Falcon," which sits sullenly above the bar. A waiter whistles the song at the Washington Square Bar and Grill. And a cable-car operator advises tourists to leave neither their packages, purses nor hearts when they depart.
On a stunningly bright day on the patio of MoMo's, across from where the Giants play baseball, the ocean breeze gives the noon hour an edge. The hostess, Boom Boom, takes the chill off with the suggestion of a table and a drink.
I explain I'm here about a song and its impact on the city. She says that the tune made a great deal of difference to San Francisco. It mirrored the town and the way people who visit feel about it. "You hear it all the time and the tourists love to sing it in the karaoke bars," she says.
Then, I tell her that the guy from San Francisco sent me to MoMo's. "I'll tell you a secret," she says. "I've heard him sing. Whatever you do, don't let him do it."
I explain about Cleveland Bob's desire to sing. With a knowing look, she strongly recommends Tony Bennett.
Then, in a twist of fate that the Greeks describe as deus ex machina, the strangest thing occurs.
At about the time I am at MoMo's in San Francisco, Cleveland Bob — on the other side of America at Park Avenue and East 52nd Street in New York City — peers across the traffic and sees a tall, gray-haired man in a light-blue suit.
It's Tony Bennett.
"Mr. Bennett!" Bob yells above the din. Bennett stops and searches for the source of the raspy hail. Cleveland Bob doesn't even wait for the traffic light. He dodges cars, taxis and trucks, and a bus. He needs to say hello to this man.
Bennett, at 81, an affable fellow who still performs, talks about playing Cleveland early in his career. The two walk a couple of blocks, discussing tunes and nostalgia.
They agree to stay in touch.
Later, I press Cleveland Bob for details.
"Did you tell him about the song?" I ask.
"No," he replies, "but I have his card in case we need backup."