bizarro land: cleveland's weird, wacky and wholly unexpected delights

Now that the polar vortex finally has receded and we've emerged from our respective huts, it's time to stop squinting at the fireball in the sky and go do something. Sure, the usual line-up awaits: fireworks exploding above Progressive Field, Open Air in Market Square and the dazzling displays of Ingenuity all come to mind.
And we love all those Cleveland classics -- but isn't there one surprise left in this town?
You bet there is: From an annual Pagan celebration to a mysterious urban legend embedded in a downtown intersection, there are things that nobody has told you about… until now.
Oddities, Cleveland Style
Next time you want to stretch your legs at lunch, saunter over to the intersection of W. Prospect and W. 3rd. That strange thing embedded in the asphalt that you've never noticed before is the Cleveland Toynbee Tile. It's part of one of the world's most enduring mysteries that includes hundreds of such tiles scattered across the globe. They typically instruct passers-by to "Resurrect Dead on Planet Jupiter" as part of the "Toynbee Idea." Nobody knows who laid the tiles, which started appearing in the 1980s in Philadelphia. Some believe the Cleveland tile, however, might have marked the end of the crusade.
"To my knowledge, it's unique in the world because it contains what sounds like a farewell message," explains self-proclaimed Toynbee geek Frank Lewis. Lewis is referring to the "Thank you and goodbye" portion of the tile, parts of which are no longer readable.
"Did the tiler come here to Cleveland?" muses Lewis. "Stay in a hotel? Go out at night and put down his tiles? Did he choose Cleveland for his farewell message?"
As you can see, once you've bitten down on the Toynbee root, it's hard to let go. Might as well go and add the movie to your Netflix queue.
Other oddities in worthy destinations include the ghostly J. Milton Dyer Coast Guard Station adjacent to Whiskey Island, the KABOOM mural at 15805 Waterloo Road (where notorious mobster Danny Greene's house once stood until it was bombed in 1975. Greene survived with minor injuries) and the positively surreal portion of the multi-use trail that snakes beneath Interstate 77 in the Metroparks' Ohio & Erie Canal Reservation. Call it a cave created by infrastructure with a howling soundtrack provided by the zooming traffic overhead.

If tiles of Toynbee, isles of whiskey and concrete caves sound too intimidating, take a literary safari of the artistic sort through the branches of the Cleveland Public Library. There's a walrus lurking in the Eastman Branch, a formidable yet delicate wind chime at the Glenville Branch, a (rather large) view of Tremont in the year 1926 at the Jefferson Branch, and no less than eight different friends of Alice in Wonderland at the Carnegie West Branch (including a White Rabbit and a Blue Caterpillar).
Don't forget your camera, because although they dutifully click the "like" button, your Facebook friends are really sick of the pet chinchilla photos.
Authentically Fun Food
For international food fun with flair, start at Szemerszky's Bier Garden at Sterle's Country House for family style outdoor dining on picnic tables amid smokers filled with housemade sausages, which are tucked into pretzel buns and topped with sauerkraut. And who can resist the rodeo of dim sum carts stacked high with steamer baskets full of buns, dumplings and other exotic treats at Li Wah (bonus points for ordering the chicken feet). Or belly up to an authentic Salvadoran pupuseria at La Bendicion, where handmade pupusas arrive from the griddle crisp, corny and oozing with melted cheese. At less than two bucks apiece, you might never again brave the golden arches.
Free Worms!
Calling all fish-curious: On Saturday, May 3, from noon to 4 p.m., the City will waive licensing requirements during Free Fishing Day to kick off its campaign to reintroduce Clevelanders to North Coast Harbor and Voinovich Park. Hence, you'll be able to drop a line with no strings attached.
"It's an opportunity for everyone to come out and try their hand at casting a line," says Gina Morris, director of marketing and public relations for Downtown Cleveland Alliance. "Some people have never done it before."
No tackle? No problem. Approximately 100 fishing poles will be available on a first-come, first-served basis. "We'll provide the worms as well," adds Morris. That's all well and good for the fish, but if the humans get hungry, rumor has it the Fired Up Taco Truck will be on hand. 
A Festivus for the Rest of Us?
Truth: One can only take so many art walks and street festivals.
So here's the alt list: Kick it up at the Tequila Fest with your big-shoe dance debut (ala Pee Wee) and a celebration of all things agave. Hit the stinky Garlic Festival to test the efficacy of your mouthwash, while supporting the North Union Farmers Market; visit the Duct Tape Festival to get yourself into a sticky situation, and to experience odd delicacies like the BBQ pork sundae and the taco in a bag; pop over to the Chalk Festival to draw out the fun and take part in a 16th century Italian Renaissance tradition. Wind up the summer on a "magickal" note at Cleveland Area Pagan Pride Days, where you can learn a few new spells, pick up some mandrake root and, at long last, feel comfortable wearing your cape in public.
Familiar View, Fresh Look
No matter how long you've lived here, there are things you never see until someone points them out. For a mere $12, take a City Life Tour and have someone else squire you from Ohio City to Little Italy and all points in between. For two and a half hours, Jeff Kipp of Cleveland Neighborhood Progress chats up the group on Lolly the Trolley (yes, Lolly is hokey, but loveable) about contrasting architecture, local haunts and all things that make urban living vibrant.
"We see worker cottages right next to Victorians right next to contemporary town homes," says Kipp. "Our message is centered on livability, the quality of life that exists in the city's neighborhoods and the stories that come from the people living there. We provide the unique histories and stories behind the scenes as to how these neighborhoods evolved over the last couple of decades."
Contrast that close-up street-level view with a high-flying visit to the Terminal Tower Observation Deck for spectacular 360-degree views of the city that can extend up to 30 miles on a clear day.
Playhouse Square: Behind the Curtain
Sure, the Square gleams like a jewel beneath the marquees, but what about its hidden secrets: the pulleys and works that festoon backstage walls, the haunted dressing rooms, narrow stairways…? You can tiptoe through all of it during the free monthly tours at the hands of a trusty RedCoat as she tells tales and draws back the curtains. And for a break from the dreaded multiplex, the Cinema at the Square is one of the most fun activities you still haven't gotten around to. The August 2014 line-up has yet to be announced, but with previous offerings such as Rear Window, A Hard Day's Night and Tootsie playing on a giant screen at the posh Palace Theater, it's bound to be good. And yes, the ticket price will still be five bucks.
Get Your Move On
Kickball, football, softball, volleyball? We've got that and then some, like euchre and skeeball. All that fun centers around two local social clubs, Cleveland Plays and Hermes Sport and Social, which offer up a bevy of leagues to join. Venues include Battery Park, Whiskey Island, Mulberry's in the Flats and a host of area nightclubs. As for the cornhole action, they’ve got leagues of their own courtesy of Cleveland Cornhole, which promises that "anyone can play."
For something completely different that offers a mid-day boost with a twist, local "happiness incubator" Thrive Cleveland is offering up Lunch Beat at the House of Blues on May 6, which event organizer and Thrive founder Scott Simon describes as "basically a huge dance party," complete with healthy snacks.
"The goal," says Simon, "is to be healthy, de-stress, connect with others and unite Cleveland in the process."
Flying High, Laying Low
The Mall is picnic-perfect just about any time, but it turns into a spectacular DIY party during Labor Day weekend when the Cleveland National Air Show descends upon the 216. Frisbees will fly across the expansive new lawn (or convention center roof, depending how you look at it) while the Blue Angels scream overhead. The view for watching the mind-numbing aerial acrobatics could not be better. The schedule is a bit dodgy, but they usually take flight between 2:30 and 4 p.m. every day of the show. So toss an extra sandwich in the basket and arrive early. Bring the bocce ball set and folding chairs. The first sonic boom will rattle your bones. Than you'll collect yourself and lay back on the blanket next to your main squeeze. Lace your fingers beneath your head and cross your ankles. Now blink up at the sky while the Angels chase away what's left of summer.
It simply does not get any better than this.

Read more articles by Erin O'Brien.

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit for complete profile information.