It's Thanksgiving Eve, the barfly's holiday. Liquid on West Sixth Street is so packed it's hard to move. But Melinda Urick stands out.
Top Five Mistakes Cleveland Guys Make When Trying to Meet Women
As a public service to my fellow men, I asked Mel and her friends what guys they meet do wrong. I'll skip the blindingly obvious (don't talk about sex right away, don't start a conversation with "You're hot" or "Nice ass"). Here's my report from the field.
1. Don't make the usual conversation or ask women out to the usual places. "Be unique. Say something I haven't heard before," Mel suggests. Have an adventure in mind when you ask her out, at least for once you're past the awkward first date: rock climbing or canoeing or some other surprise. One guy invited Mel on a full-moon walk in the Metroparks, "one of the most memorable dates I've ever had," she says.
2. "They try to impress you with what they do," complains Dani, who's unimpressed. Your work is part of bar talk, but if you lean on it too heavily, they notice. "Granted, some girls are all about the money," Dani concedes-- but guys resent gold-diggers, so why play their game?
3. It's great if you have things in common, but don't fake it. "I can usually see right through them if they play that whole 'me, too' game in the first five minutes," Mel says.
4. This should be obvious, but pickup lines don't work. Mel says she hears, "Don't I know you from somewhere?" way too often. At least be specific. "Do we tan at the same place?" Better to just walk up and introduce yourself.
5. Last but most important: Don't, really don't, ask her why a smart, beautiful woman like her doesn't have a boyfriend or isn't married. You may think it's a great compliment, that you're gushing over your amazing luck at having met her." But they make me feel as though I'm a bit pathetic," says Mel. "It's as if they're saying, You're 27! What do you mean you're not married yet? What's wrong with you?" she explains. I suspect guys rarely use that line in a bigger city where people marry later. I ask Mel if she hears it from guys in other cities. "No, I don't!" she says.
Yeah, she's that girl, near one end of the bar, talking to two guys.
Her strikingly pretty face, framed by long, wavy, brown hair, telegraphs her personality: She has a big, wide smile and a mischievous look in her blue eyes. She's friendly, energetic and sunny, sarcastic more than sweet. Her T-shirt, partially hidden under an off-white suit coat, reads, "Make like a tree and leave." But her smile's inviting, and her outfit and hair look casual, low maintenance.
So, one by one and two by two, guys try to catch her attention or navigate toward her through the ever-growing crowd. Studied nonchalance and steady grips on their pints cover up their eagerness.
A bespectacled guy in a checkered shirt hangs back while his dark-haired friend in a brown jacket, the alpha male for the moment, tries to guess Mel's age. Alpha, wisely, lowballs it. As Mel's friends-- Tonia, blonde with big green eyes, and Dani, part-Asian with a lovely round face-- arrive on the scene, she tells them she's going to Hawaii with him.
"He told me I look 22 and he has two tickets to Hawaii!" she says with moderate enthusiasm that shows it's just bar talk. Mel reveals she's 27. No response from Alpha; he's cool with that.
Mel's a Liquid regular, drinking here up to three nights a week. She works here on Browns home Sundays, selling bottled beer on the back patio while perched on the edge of a hot tub in a bathing suit.
Other regulars nod a greeting, buy her a drink. (The bartenders know her favorite: Jack-and-ginger.) Her smile also draws in guys who don't know her at all. A guy with short, almost-buzzed hair comes over and tells Mel he's new in town.
"Did I meet you in the last few nights, when I was really trashed?" he asks. He must wonder why she waved at him on the way in. No good reason-- "Just a 'Hi, have fun' wave," she explains later-- but Buzz doesn't question his luck for long. They settle into conversation, tuning out the chatter, the alternative-rock thump-and-thrash and the wide-screen TV's jump-cutting sports show.
Buzz asks what Mel does for a living. She says she works at SouthPark Mall. He asks which store. But Mel's too careful for that. She knows the drill: "They stop by. 'Oh, I was just shopping.' Yeah, sure." So she gives him five guesses.
Guess, Banana Republic, The Gap ... all wrong. (She works at Limited Too.) Sensing her boundaries, Buzz gives up after a minute and moves on.
Mel talks to about 20 guys on a typical night out. She meets them at Liquid, where she starts drinking around 9 or 10 p.m.; at the martini-chic Mercury Lounge or the dark, crowded Blind Pig; at Panini's while she's grabbing a sandwich; and at Tramp or Funky Buddha, where she hits the dance floors until after 2 a.m. She'll exchange phone numbers with six or seven guys, programming her cell number into his phone, typing his into hers.
Most often, she won't go out with any of them. Sometimes, she just wants to talk to a guy once more. Or she takes a guy's number to get out of a conversation (then pretends she accidentally deleted it). She's gone on dates with 10 guys she's met at Liquid and seen two of them for a couple of months each-- but most of her first dates fizzle. Stuck with a stranger for an hour, without alcohol's buzz, she feels awkward.
"The people who I've dated long term, I've known from day one that I'm attracted to them, I like them, I want to get to know them," she says.
Mel seems like the Cleveland guy's dream date: a loyal Browns and Tribe fan who watches ESPN SportsCenter every morning, who can match guys drink-for-drink at the bar and always stays past last call. Yet she's despaired of finding the right guy in Cleveland. She's tried online dating, speed-dating (the meet-20-guys-in-60-minutes games that bars host), Cool Cleveland's Art/Tech/Dance parties, even being cute and coy at the grocery store. None of it worked.
She knows that Clevelanders marry young, draining the dating pool; a lot of her friends are settling down. She also thinks the city has a big, confining "bubble" around it, too settled and quiet to contain her thirst for adventure. She's asked guys she's dated to spend a night camping with her, but they've never gone, except for the stoners who wanted to get high in the woods. She wants a boyfriend who'll go rock climbing with her, who'll take her places she's never been-- but she meets guys in such ruts that they've never even been to the Rock Hall.
"It's as if people here are so stuck here, they're afraid to branch out," she says. "They're afraid to try new things."
By Thanksgiving Eve, she's had about enough of Cleveland dating. Craving "change-- change all around," she's moving to Phoenix in three weeks to enroll in a new college, live with her sister and see what life's like outside Ohio. She says she's not moving to find a man, but she hopes it'll be a nice side effect. She's well aware that she's leaving the eighth-worst city in Forbes magazine's "best cities for singles" survey for a town in the top 10. Out-of-town guys she's met seem more worldly, outdoorsy, adventurous: cowboys on a road trip to Nashville, guys visiting Cleveland, Arizona men she met online, one of whom wants to take her to the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle.
None of these guys know that once they meet Mel, they're cast in a drama with an audience of hundreds. During 2004, Mel became the most entertaining chronicler of single life in Cleveland, the literary voice of the Warehouse District party girl, through her Web log, "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Your Boyfriend."
That's why I tagged along on her last few nights on the town here: to see the grand finale of her Webcast year of ultimate singledom and to find out through Mel and her friends-- who live the nightlife at several times the speed of those of us not quite as young, pretty or wild-- why so many people say it's rough to be single in Cleveland.
In 2003, Mel was living in Solon with her boyfriend and their dog, Niko, drifting toward domesticity. She wanted a ring, but she didn't want this: He didn't like going to the bars, didn't have that itch for crowds, chatting, drinks with friends, being a cute couple on the town.
Then, he made one of those guy mistakes that drive a girlfriend away. Paranoid that a male friend of hers might be a threat, he read her diary. To hide her secret thoughts, Mel moved them somewhere more private: the Internet.
She created a Web log (blog for short), anonymous at first, about her nights at the bars, "meeting new people, realizing that there were people out there that were better suited to me, that I was having a lot more fun with." She named the blog "Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Your Boyfriend" (lifelibertypursuit.blogs.com) as a joke about her crushes on unavailable guys and her bad-girl phase years ago, when stealing someone else's man seemed like a challenge.
Mel put her name on the site after she and her boyfriend broke up in October 2003. Since then, her online diary has recounted all the disappointment and heartbreak of a year of dating. But she's rarely sad and never alone. Actually, she's having the time of her life.
On Mel's site, Cleveland's singles scene looks endlessly fun and dramatic, full of clowny but charming boys and tipsy, pretty girls. Mel takes her digital camera everywhere, snapping pictures and posing: licking the Buddha at Funky Buddha, buzzing around downtown on Halloween wearing only a little bee-striped bikini and a headband with antennae that guys liked to play with. Her funny, fast, clever writing captures a six-hour club crawl in a few fun paragraphs. If, at 3 a.m. this weekend, you weren't slumped over in a vinyl booth, letting the buzz of alcohol and dance music fade into your ham and eggs, she'll make you wish you were.
Mel swoons online over guys she likes, such as Clay ("what a cutie!"), who she met at Liquid the Sunday before Thanksgiving. She quotes guys' stupid pickup lines and rude passes at her. She's demure about her relationships' intimate details, but she drops the F-word into the blog enough that some friends can't read it at work; it's blocked as a sexual Web site. Her site comes up when Web surfers, using Google as a love oracle, type in topics such as "ways to get over your boyfriend," so Mel obliges with racy jokes and sarcastic dating advice. Here's item No. 4 from her "How to Break Up With Your Boyfriend" tip sheet:
"If you catch him with another woman, a slap in his face is good-- or hers. This works best in a room full of people. Careful while intoxicated and misconstruing information. This act comes back to haunt: Hey, weren't you that girl..."
Now, 700 to 1,000 people read Mel's thoughts every day. Fan mail rains into her inbox when she writes about a breakup; hate mail stabs at her when she looks like she's having too much fun. People recognize her at the bar, buy her drinks, talk about their favorite story from her site.
"From what it sounds like you and your friends dig up each weekend, Cleveland is something else," a Los Angeles filmmaker e-mailed her. A 29-year-old Washington state trooper reads her site on his patrol car's computer. A soldier from Cleveland, stationed in Iraq, offered to send Mel pictures of himself and friends with no clothes on, holding their weapons. "Please do not tell the president we are naked in Iraq," he wrote. ("That sums up everything for the whole year," Mel says.)
Mel, who's from Mentor, won some high-school journalism awards but claims she suffered from writer's block for several years. Meanwhile, she earned an associate's degree, took classes toward a bachelor's, waited tables, served coffee, worked as an office assistant and became one of the most popular regulars in the Warehouse District.
"She's very cool, very good-looking, very upbeat," says Cleveland city councilman and West Sixth Street barfly Zack Reed, after Mel gives him a big hug at Liquid one night. "You always want to have a good time with her because she always wants to have a good time."
"My life is an open bar," she says. Mel knows so many bartenders and managers, not to mention the other guys she meets, that someone's always coming up to her with a drink in hand and a cheery, "Here you go." But her cocktail-napkin philosophy runs deeper, too. "If you know me, you know pretty much everything about my life," she says. "I'm not hiding anything."
Mel walks to Liquid's door to talk to the bouncer, Dani dances nearby to hip-hop and Tonia borrows the bouncer's little white penlight and starts checking IDs as people walk in. The bouncer doesn't mind, because Mel's running her hand up and down his neck with a nonchalance that somehow seems more friendly than seductive.
Mel and her friends' partners-in-crime routine looks like such fun, it doesn't matter how the quest for guys goes. They've developed aliases to give to guys they've just met. Until Mel feels comfortable with a guy, she goes by Loretta. Tonia, who's met too many liars in the Warehouse District who pretend to own their own businesses or work for Fortune 500 companies, pretends she's Ashley. Dani goes by Dani. (She doesn't want her real name published.)
Tonia sees a cute guy with a dusky, olive-skinned look, wearing a bright blue beach shirt. "What's up with the ID number on his neck?" Dani asks, nervous about his shady-looking tattoo. But Tonia's already heading over to him. His friends approach, and Dani joins them. "I'm Ashley," Dani says; they've switched names. But the guy turns creepy really fast. He proudly tells Tonia that the tattoo is a Sicilian word: "fight," she thinks he says. Tonia gives him her ex-boyfriend's number, passing it off as her own, and moves on.
Mel met Tonia and Dani only two months ago, but they go out together a lot. Since Mel's longtime friends are settling into marriage or relationships with long-term boyfriends, she's found new, very single friends for clubhopping. "We're all the same person," Mel says: three fun women thirsty for drinks, dancing and female camaraderie.
But Mel isn't really the same as her friends. Dani distrusts guys she meets in bars; they're usually players, she says. She's hard to please, quick to decide a guy isn't worth her time. Tonia loves meeting new people as much as Mel does, but while Mel's tired of Cleveland guys, Tonia loves Clevelanders for being genuine, loves Browns fans for painting their limos orange. Since she got out of a bad relationship, Tonia's been dating but not getting serious with anyone. "I'm never going to be in a relationship again," she says. (Never? Well, not for a long time, she demurs.) Being single is "so much more fun. You do so much more."
Mel's the opposite. She can't wait to get married. She's used to being close to someone; she lived with her last boyfriend for four years and with her high-school sweetheart for six years before that. She's from a large family and she wants to start one of her own.
Her vision of marriage is exciting, optimistic and a little naive. "I hope it's fun!" she says. "I'm looking forward to it." She sounds like she wants married life to be as exciting as her single life, but with the ultimate party guy, someone with whom she can hit the bars until death do they part. "Once you find somebody you really enjoy spending your time with, I think it can be a blast. Then, every day is something different," she says.
Some of Mel's settled-down friends call Liquid a meat market. They can't imagine dating a guy they met in a bar. But Mel's just trying to meet someone who shares her interests. "I like the nightlife, I like going clubbing, I like going dancing and I want somebody who enjoys those things along with me," she says.
Tonight, no one's standing out from the crowd. Liquid's studied mix of style and ordinariness-- club-chic couches below a TV set to sports, decor that nods faintly to industrial fashion clashing with an autographed photo of local Playboy Playmate Carmella DeCesare-- attracts a crowd that dresses up but doesn't show off many quirks or rough edges. Men in striped shirts dominate the room. Dani and Tonia chat up two guys in blue shirts with wild yet similar patterns, but the guys bore them and they drift off. A bit later, Dani turns around abruptly, says something to Tonia about a guy molesting her and rushes toward the door to find Mel.
"We're heading to the Blind Pig, right now," Mel says. I try to meet them there after I get my coat and settle my tab. But there's a line at the door. When I finally get inside, I can't find them. I call Mel's cell phone twice, but only hear crowd noise and some guy saying, "Hi, Melinda" before I'm cut off. I give up, go home and read about the rest of the night a few days later on Mel's Web site. She met Mario Lopez, who played A.C. Slater in the old TV show "Saved by the Bell," at Tramp, went to Panini's twice for sandwiches and reeled from the effects of a couple too many Jack-and-gingers:
"I opened up someone's car door to attempt to find a ride home, and then was kicked out by his girlfriend. I drunk-dialed too many people between the hours of 1 and 4 a.m."
Then, she fell asleep at Dianna's, the 24-hour diner in Lakewood.
The Thursday after Thanksgiving, Mel and her girl-posse gather at McCarthy's Ale House for one of her last Lakewood bar nights and pronounce the crowd "dead." Plenty of people sit at the bars and tables and mill around the floor, but, unlike most Thursdays, there's room to walk around and empty spots in the corners.
Twice as many men as women have shown up for Ladies' Night, even though women were handed $5 just for walking in the door and draft beer is $1.50. "I'm not quite sure why," says Mel's friend Katie, a tiny, wholesomely cute woman with brown hair, round cheeks and bright brown eyes. "I do know it makes for a good evening."
A wiry, hyper, blond guy darts up to Mel's circle and tries to moon them, but gets little response. Stefanie, the token married woman in Mel's posse, grumbles about the guy "showing us his nasty little white ass." Except for a barrette that gives her brown hair a softly feminine look, everything about Stefanie is sharp: her thin angular face, pointed nose, archly drawn eyebrows, prominent cheekbones and acid tongue. She watches her friends' search for men from a tranquil remove, making barbed comments. "Nine times out of 10, he's either shady or an asshole or ugly or looking for temporary action," she empathizes.
Mel's wearing the off-white suit coat again, this time with a black flower on the lapel, over a little brown top. She just got her hair straightened and highlighted, she's more made-up tonight and she looks sharp, perfect. Now, I can see why guys tell her she's intimidating.
Apparently McCarthy's, like Liquid, attracts men who buy their outfits together. Two guys wearing matching white polos over matching white T-shirts with blue jeans come up to Mel and her friends. One, with little curled blond bangs, does most of the talking. He tells Mel he's from Arizona. The other guy keeps quiet and holds his hands together in a little tent-- that hand position that's supposed to be a sign of wisdom and power in office meetings.
Guys approach Dani as we talk, guessing that a man scribbling in a notebook isn't real competition. First come the white polo-shirt guys. Then Ralph, an engineer. Then a young bald guy in a white turtleneck who wants to do a shot with her, but not while I'm around. He's "not doing any surveys."
"I'm a very picky person," Dani says. "Very rarely do I meet guys I like." More often, she meets guys who have "numerous girls they call up, none of which are special. They could care less about them." Finally, Dani gives someone a chance: a scruffy guy in a blue stocking cap and an inside-out gray sweatshirt, a look that stands out in the preppy baseball-cap crowd. He buys Dani a Jack-and-diet and tells her she looks exotic.
"My mom's Korean," she says.
"She has a beautiful face," he says to me. Somehow age comes up. He's 13 years older than her, which doesn't seem to bother either of them.
As it gets late, guys who actually know Mel and her friends show up. First comes Anthony, the guy Katie's dating. They met at school. He stood out, Katie says, "because he didn't chase me," but let her strike up the conversation.
Then, around 1 a.m., a man appears next to Mel. He's older than the average guy she meets, tall and sturdy, attractive in a standup-comedian way, with a face that's both cute and funny. He stands next to her like he belongs there. He knows about her blog and jumps confidently into conversation about it.
"I think your readers want 'Sex and the City,' " he says to Mel, who's just mentioned that traffic on her site dropped while she was dating someone.
Mel tells us she'll end "Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Your Boyfriend" at "the end of singledom." Once she's married, she'll keep blogging, but "on a different level." She also wants to convert her site into a book-- part-memoir, part-advice-- titled "Why Do I Keep On Dating Guys With One-syllable Names?"
"Do you think people who read the blog want a happy ending?" the guy asks slyly.
It turns out the mystery guy is Clay, the "cutie" Mel mentioned on the blog two weeks before. Mel was sitting in the hot tub on Liquid's patio when Clay first saw her. Other guys were hooting and asking her to pose for camera-phone shots. Clay didn't want to seem like one of them, with his tongue hanging out. So he stayed cool, kept talking to his brother on his cell phone.
He laughed at the scene, asked her, "How's the water?" and stuck his hand into the froth to test the temperature. That's how Mel tells it, anyway. Clay says he's sure she didn't notice him outside. But when Mel went on break, she walked right up to him at the bar and started talking-- completely confident, he says, even though she was wearing only a terrycloth robe over a bathing suit.
The day after the McCarthy's trip, Mel writes:
"I got kissed last night. It was nice to have chemistry with someone unexpectedly."
The next Thursday, she posts a picture of her and Clay from her going-away party, along with two messages.
"Dating in Cleveland. Feh! Of course, life and luck would have it that I would meet someone more than wonderful a few weeks before my move."
And this one: "I've spent the last two days in bed. I'll be honest, I wouldn't have spent them any other way."
A few days before she left town, Mel started crying in the West Sixth Panini's. "He's not worth it!" eight different strangers told her. But she says she was crying about how much she'll miss Cleveland. She posted a list on her blog of 25 things she'll miss: the blueberry pancakes at Big Al's Diner on Larchmere Boulevard, inline skating along the lake, the panhandler on St. Clair Avenue who somehow knows her name.
Now, she's in Phoenix, enrolling in Arizona State University to study TV production and starting jobs at a bar, a shop at the mall and on a film shoot. She stopped writing the Arizona guys who wanted to take her out. She talks to Clay on the phone three times a day. They're going to try a long-distance relationship. He often flies through Phoenix for work and on the way to visit his brothers.
Clay, who's 39, lives in Westlake and works in sales and marketing for medical associations. Mel has "a smile that fills a room," he says. "She's approachable. ... She's just fun, not afraid to poke fun at herself." He's only looked at her Web site once, briefly-- it felt like spying. He's trying to be cool about her writing about their relationship.
"I think the key to dating is letting each other have their own identity," he says.
Mel e-mails me: "I've never met someone so uncomplicated and real, not to mention someone that can appreciate my sarcasm. I can be around him for hours talking and laughing. He's probably one of the most genuine people I've ever met/dated."
Mel got everything she wanted: freedom, a year of excitement, material for a blog and a book, a boyfriend, still more adventure in another state. Can she keep all of it: a stable relationship with a Cleveland guy and her new life, full of change, out west?
Maybe being single was the easy part. A relationship as exciting as her single life? That'd be something to write about.
Amber Matheson contributed to the reporting for this story.