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So much free parking. So many empty schools. So many aborted and half developed exurbs, suburbs. Such low rent. So many hollowed-out malls with shifty-eyed security guards and put-upon bored kids. Such cheap produce. So many aging classmates who never left. What a lovely parks system. What a dirty lake. So many new casinos. Such unbelievably wide pot holes. What nice turnpike pit stops. What a low sales tax and minimum wage. What a greying population.

Our grandparents or parents moved here to have children, to make steel or cars, to teach at the college, to work for NASA, to mine salt from underneath Lake Erie. The schools were good then they say. The land was cheap, but there were plentiful amenities. It was a proper city, but not an intimidating one. Eastern Time, rustbelt industry, nonregional dialects, diverse-ish populations, Midwestern sensibilities. Such promise. What times they had. The suburbs grew for decades, schools and houses appearing steadily. And now they shrink, dry out, and empty.

Researchers call it the Cleveland Brain Drain. We grow, we suck all the nutrients from the dirt, we learn, we save our money, and we leave.

We take jobs in the eastern cities, with their steep rents and narrow streets; we hide in expensive, drafty bars in Chicago or St. Louis, bragging about what we know; we add degrees or men’s surnames to our names; we flee to LA or San Fran or France or Lebanon and show everyone back home all the pictures. We are smiling and small against big backdrops.

We come back briefly to collect Christmas presents, roller coaster rides, hugs, memories, estates, condolences. We do not call enough. We spend our money on stupid craft brews that all taste the same – bitter – instead of on plane tickets.

We are statistics. We move by trends, like the grandparents and parents who brought us here. They placed their roots beside the veins of salt that ran beneath the lake. We have placed thin roots in the air. They quiver and shift as the times do.

When we visit, we enjoy the low sales tax, eat the 99 cent peaches, roam the empty sidewalks, reflect in the windows of our closed-down high schools, and prepare to leave again. A huge hunk of us stays. But not the brain.

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