CLEVELANDJason Wojnicz had just broken up with his high school sweetheart that spring day in 1999.
They had been together for almost five years and were engaged to be married, but it just wasn't meant to be.
Admittedly disparaged and broken-hearted, Wojnicz decided to "see what the gay side of my life was truly like."
So Wojnicz, who was openly bisexual since he was 13, went to the Flex Bathhouse, then located here in downtown on 9th Street.
"I was at the bathhouse for 45 minutes on a relatively quiet mid-week afternoon. I got freaked out and left, but, the very next day, I went back and applied for a job," said Wojnicz, now 32.
He was immediately hired as a night-shift housekeeper, and later worked as a clerk, on its maintenance crew and in other areas.
Flash-forward to the present, and Wojnicz still is an integral part of Flex Hotel & Spa, now located on Hamilton Avenue near Cleveland State University. He is the assistant manager for this sprawling, multi-dimensional, clothing-optional gay funfest that encompasses more than 55,000 square feet and claims to the world's largest bathhouse.
"I absolutely love this company," said Wojnicz, who is single and one of 17 full-time Flex employees. The facility has about 30 overall employees, including part-timers.
Flex is an sprawling entertainment haven for the gay community, featuring pools, tanning beds, a weight room and much, much more. Just consider what's offered at Flex:
Hotel accommodations, including a Presidential Suite that features a piano
Traditional spa rooms with TV's for private viewing
Indoor and outdoor pool
Steam room maze that spans 4,000 square-feet
Eucalyptus vapor room
High-temperature Russian sauna
Free computers to use and free WI-FI
5,000 square-foot gym, which includes free-weight dumbbells up to 100 pounds
State of the art tiered-seating theater
Full kitchen and full bar, with a free daily buffet
Parking for more than 200 vehicles
"It's less of a [ traditional ] bathhouse and more of a community center. You'll find people who come here just to hang out," said Jerry Szoka, 47, who, since March, has been the facility's general manager.
The busiest days are Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays, followed closely by Sundays. Monday is the busiest day overall, mostly because Flex offers $1 locker rentals then.
Flex averages about 300 patrons daily, with 800 on busy days. During their few peak periods annually, Flex has hosted more than 2,000.
Customers range in age from 18 to 92, and Wojnicz said he has spotted patron's passports from Iran, Korea, Pakistan, Indonesia and Guam, among other exotic locales.
"We've gotten a lot of press off the fact we are the world's largest bathhouse, but it's not something we've pushed of late," noted Wojnicz. "We're getting more international business now [ than in the past ] , particularly from Asian countries."
The Cleveland Leather Awareness Weekend ( CLAW ) in late April draws the biggest crowds annually to Flex, followed by Cleveland Pride, and three traditional holidays: Memorial Day, Labor Day and New Year's Eve.
Cleveland is one of three finalists, along with Washington D.C. and Boston, to host the Gay Games IX in 2014and Flex officials anxiously away the late-Sept. announcement by the Federation of Gay Games ( FGG ) .
"We're salivating," for the announcement, Szoka said. "We can't wait for it to come to town."
But to Cleveland, commonly called the Armpit of America?
Yes, to Cleveland, Szoka said. "Some people like armpits," he added, laughing.
Wojnicz stresses that there is plenty more to Cleveland, such as its art community, walking paths, bicycle riding paths, horse-riding trails, museums galore, an incredible zoo, exotic ethnic food and, of course, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum.
"Clevelanders give Cleveland a bad rap. If you're from Cleveland, you spend most of your life trying to get out. And the moment that you do get out, you're doing everything possible to not come back," Wojnicz said. "Winter is very harsh. The only place that has a worse winter is Buffalo. The amount of snow that we get here is incredible."
That, perhaps, explained why winter is the slowest time at Flex. Summer, on the other hand, is hot, literally. The place then often is crammed, ideal for cruising.
Flex officials have been trying hard to erase the evil bathhouse image.
"The sleaze factor … we've done what we can to remove the stigma of the bathhouse [ name ] . This is not a two-stall shower with four lockers," Wojnicz said. "We've abolished and removed the icky. We keep this place immaculately clean. We've even removed the name bathhouse; we are the Flex Hotel & Spa."
Wojnicz said the only bathhouses he knows that even remotely compare with Flex are Steamworks Chicago and Steamworks Toronto.
And while most other bathhouses commonly offer 8-hour locker rentals, Flex goes for 12-hours.
"Many people use this place as a safe haven," Szoka said.
The building Flex now calls home was a former Greyhound bus facility, built in 1939, and there are many original items from the Greyhound era, such as wood paneling in some rooms, a sink in one of the bathrooms and the Greyhound dog logo on two doors.
And the old oil pits from the Greyhound era? They are now the indoor pools.
"We pride ourselves on being the friendliest bathhouse in the state of Ohio, and the cleanest," Wojnicz said.
Flex is one of two bathhouses in Cleveland, and one of about 10 in Ohio.
"We often have businessmen stay here as opposed to local [ name-brand ] hotels," Wojnicz said, noting that rooms are half-price from 8 p.m. Sunday through 8 p.m. on Thursday. That means the Presidential Suite carries a low $120 nightly price tag.
Flex will be expanding over the next year or so, added a Glory Hole Maze Room, among other novelties.
Flex has played host to theater productions and also has a rental space available for local LGBT groups.
Not bad for a former abandoned building that was partially cleaned back when Flex purchased it by the same homeless people who had been living there.
Now, Flex offers the only rooftop beach at a bathhouse in the state of Ohio. And its outdoor pool is kept at 90 degrees year-round, while its indoor pool is a comfy 85 degrees.
"The community was really anticipating the return of Flex after the original location closed," before this facility opened, Wojnicz said. "I think the community really likes the current Flex."
And the world should too.
See www.flexcleveland.com .
SIDEBAR: Cleveland rocks!
Flex is far from the only place to go in Cleveland. Check out these attractions:
J Palen House ( www.jpalenhouse.com ) : This charming bed-and-breakfast located in the Ohio City neighborhood features a mix of contemporary and antique touches as well as a charming innkeeper. Try to reserve the loft if you can; it's spacious and even has a window to the living room.
Tommy's ( www.tommyscoventry.com ) : This down-home restaurant features dishes ranging from the sinful ( thick hot-fudge sundaes ) to the very healthful ( including vegan, macrobiotic and gluten-free items ) . Several of the menu items have very interesting names, such as the Mr. Stressa concoction of a BLT, Tommy's own peanut butter, mayo and American cheese on white toast.
Cleveland Museum of Art ( www.clevelandart.org ) : Through Jan. 18, 2010, the museum is featuring "Paul Gauguin: Paris, 1889." There are also numerous events, ranging from fashion shows to after-hours parties.
The LGBT Center of Greater Cleveland ( www.lgcsc.org ) : Find out what's going on with the LGBT community in Cleveland and Ohio at this center, founded in 1975 "working toward a society free of homophobia and gender oppression by advancing the respect, human rights and dignity of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities." The center is a facility and organization that provides everything from HIV/AIDS testing to community events.
Club Argos ( www.club-argos.com ) : This LGBT sports bar has multiple screens, intriguing events ( like Top Shelf Tuesdays ) and very friendly staff members and patrons.
Bounce Nightclub ( www.columbusnightlife.com ) : Despite the Web site address, this gay nightspot is definitely in Cleveland ( on Detroit Avenue, no less ) . There are Karaoke Mondays, Drag King Wednesdays and Free CD Night Fridays.
Krazy Mac's CafĂ© ( www.krazymacs.com ) : More than 20 versions of mac-and-cheese are spotlighted here, including Alpine Mac ( Gruyere, smoked bacon & scallions ) , Black Forest Mac ( wild mushrooms & fresh herbs topped with smoked gouda ) and Six Cheese Mac ( New York Sharp, Cheddar, Smoked Gouda, Manchego, Swiss & Gruyere ) .
Lola ( www.lolabistro.com ) : This dark, trendy eatery in downtown Cleveland is a carnivore's dream, with such menu items as duck, walleye, beef-cheek pierogi and crispy veal sweetbreads. Award-winning chef Michael Symon is also the restaurant's owner.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum ( www.rockhall.com ) : No visit to Cleveland is complete without taking in this institution. Exhibits include "500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll," "Architects of Rock" and "R-E-S-P-E-C-T: The Sound of Soul." However, be prepared to take an entire day if you plan to explore the entire museum ( which, of course, includes gay icon Madonna ) .