Dear JetBlue Customer Service Department,
Thank you for stranding us in Upstate New York for longer than we had planned over the holiday season. I understand it’s not your fault there was a blizzard in Manhattan, thereby closing John F. Kennedy airport for 24 hours. I’m not even bitter, particularly, that we had to cancel our plans for a trip to Florida for the New Year. Just do me one favor in return for my patience, would you? Read about the day we spent in Buffalo yesterday.
We had lunch at a Wendy’s, having planned to eat chicken in the Anchor Bar Inn next door, where the town’s signature hot sauce was invented in 1935. But there was an hour-long wait, and let’s face it, you can get Buffalo Wings anywhere.
We were supposed to be in Florida, as I mentioned. So Wendy’s was a substitute option in a substitute state. The radio station from across the Canadian border said it was minus-six degrees Celsius outside, and Wendy, in an effort to prevent her homeless-looking diners from getting too comfortable, had only adjusted the temperature inside to just above freezing.
Buffalo’s official nickname is “the City of no illusions,” and as I tucked into my Ultimate Chicken Grill burger and baked potato, listening to three middle-aged Buffalonians discussing a dead baby at the next table, I began to understand why. The woman’s daughter, it seemed, may have been responsible for killing the baby, her grandchild, and so, was to be barred from the upcoming memorial service, pending an autopsy. This had upset the bereaved grandmother.
“I don’t know how it died,” she said to her friends, in a deep voice, cigarette-ravaged like a man’s, her face imploding into a mouth where many of her teeth should have been. “But there’s always two sides to a story.”
Suddenly one of her companions, who had been asking questions about the baby, picked up the other man’s meal coupon — it had come courtesy of Wendy — and changed the subject.
“Hey, this is for a free cheeseburger,” he said, turning it over in his hands.
Cue an argument.
“That’s mine,” said the other man, as my wife, Sue, and I were leaving, with the grandmother silent, looking down into a Diet Coke that tasted, if it were anything like my own, strongly of dishwashing detergent.
“You remember, my teeth were knocked out when I got hit by the gun,” the woman said, as the door closed.
Sue looked at me as I nodded to say yes, she heard that right.
Since we’d planned to go look at some buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in Florida, I had wondered optimistically if there were any still accessible up here in the New York snow. But it turns out Buffalo knocked down Wright’s earliest commercial commission in 1950, just as the architect was attaining international renown. Mostly what remains of the Larkin Soap Company Administrative Building, built in 1903, is a vacant lot next to a car park. In the shadow of a smokestack, a single plaque bemoans the destruction of a building that heralded, said the plaque, America’s “transition into the modern world.”
One pillar still stands, part of the building’s former foundation. Sue stood next to it as I took a photo from across the road, imagining the vast structure in all its glory as I pondered what the people swinging the wrecking ball must have been thinking. Did they think they weren’t good enough? Did the roof leak? Or can cultural currency devalue so rapidly that a thing can be considered wondrous when constructed, and still so, a century later, but worthless, half-way in between?
Here’s what it used to look like:
After lunch, we drove past a store called Rust Belt Books, and I stopped the car hoping I might find something distracting inside. A woman wearing two sweaters and some fingerless gloves was behind the counter, playing Tom Waits songs on the stereo, slinging eight-dollar books of Beat Poetry. I kept looking until I found a hand-printed poem by Ohio poet Russel Vidrick called “Everything Used To Mean Something.” It had a picture of Van Gogh’s chair on the cover, only the chair was on fire, and it seemed to fit perfectly in the moment. Much better than Jack Kerouac’s Satori In Paris, this was my Satori in Buffalo. A Satori, Kerouac wrote, meant a God-given kick-in-the-face in Japanese. And these are the first nine lines:
Used to mean something
Now it means mostly nothing.
All is lost. Faith lost.
The stage lost.
That falls is mine.
Humanity is a filthy beast burning
On an altar in my kitchen.
Except the word “altar” was misspelled.
When things are bad, I sometimes have a perverse instinct to see how much worse I can make them, and still take it. It’s like doing a series of oblique crunches and then adding a medicine ball and an extra twist at the top, except existential exercise, a kind of spiritual strength testing. Just the way I’m wired, I think. There’s nothing too sinister about it.
“So, what’s up with Buffalo?” I asked, handing over the seven dollars for the poem.
“Well, I like it,” said the counter lady. I couldn’t read her sincerity. “But it seems like a lot of the people who have been here for a long time are angry about the place.”
Angry, or they’re leaving. Buffalo’s population decline started in the 1950s, and in 2006, the city had the same number of people as it did in 1890, according to Wikipedia. Hearing that I only planned to be in town a few more hours, the bookshop lady told me to go to City Hall and climb to the top. A couple of the other bookstore patrons smilingly agreed.
“Oftentimes, you have it all to yourself,” said a guy about my age in a brown leather jacket. In 2001, USA Today voted Buffalo the winner of its friendliest city contest, and I suppose I can see how that happened. The depressing atmosphere must be like the heat in New Orleans making everybody more courteous, or politeness in England — if we didn’t have it, we might very well kill each other. But I appreciated their consideration and marked it down in my mind.
I read the poem to Sue as I got back into the car — she had been too cold to get out — and told her where we were going. As luck would have it, I married a woman who is only too willing to experience the odd Satori herself, and she laughed at the poem, instead of threatening to divorce me.
On the way to City Hall, we passed the Liberty Building. So called because it has two such statues on the top. Hold on: Wasn’t this the city of no illusions? How many down-to-earth people do you know with two statues of liberty on their roof, facing in opposite directions?
Buffalo City Hall began construction in 1929 and was finished in the Great Depression. I actually had to lighten this photograph, slightly, because the grey Buffalo skies are their own kind of eclipse. Just like Moscow, isn’t it?
On our way in, another very friendly Buffalonian pointed us to the rickety elevators and we pressed the button marked “24.” When we got to the top, we didn’t jump, but I did do some thinking. Like the grandmother at Wendy’s had said, “there’s always two sides to a story.” So I resolved to consider Buffalo’s.
Looking out over the city, constructed in an elaborate spoke pattern around the core, with the frigid breeze coming off Lake Erie, I pondered how it must feel to have staked your claim in a place, only to see the madding crowd heading to the next place over. At the same time, I admired Buffalo for its bygone dreaming quality, its thwarted ambition. In the basement, insight struck in a huge bathroom filled with Standard porcelain and a toilet that still flushed like a steam ship leaving harbor: Buffalo is a city that once had illusions, but was stripped of them in the Great Depression, and hasn’t recovered since. It’s a place to channel shattered dreams, to understand what’s really at stake when a risk-taker asks himself the question, “what is the worst that can happen?”
We went and saw The Martin House, designed for Darwin Martin, one of the executives at the Larkin Soap Company. Here I am outside it, trying my best to smile:
Of course, old man Martin lost everything in the Depression and died, destitute, in the house in 1935. His family fled soon after, and half the house was demolished. Just recently, it’s been rebuilt at a cost of $55 million, according to our tour guide. It is the first of Wright’s works, anywhere, to be rebuilt after having been torn down, and it’s quite something.
Like the Larkin administrative building also built by Wright, the Martin House once had a nine-foot plaster cast of a Winged Victory, taken from the Louvre in Paris. Over the years the winged victories have been destroyed, but the restored Martin House — turned over to the City of Buffalo in exchange for unpaid back taxes in the 1950s — now hosts a restored statue of its own.
Frank Lloyd Wright built a lot of buildings that outlasted the good fortunes of their occupants. Poor fellow even had some of his own family murdered by a hatchet in the one he built for himself. But does that mean he shouldn’t have built them? I don’t think so.
So we drove to Niagara Falls, which was freezing cold, and contemplated what it might be like to jump off, over the precipice.
Unlike calling JetBlue’s automated service line, it would be an action you could control, at least, or have some power over. Or as Kodak founder George Eastman wrote before he stuck a Luger to his chest in nearby Rochester, aged 77: “To my friends, my work is done, why wait?”
Eastman may have invented commercial photography and given away $100 million in his lifetime, but he never had a family to photograph, and lived with his mother in a 55-room mansion until she died. What secrets did his wealth conceal, we wondered, as we stopped in at the Eastman House on our way back home? What possessed him to mount an 11-foot elephant’s head in the conservatory, where he would receive his guests?
Talk about the elephant in the room.
Eastman had a second Luger in the closet in his bedroom, when he shot himself. Just in case the action on the first one failed. Sadly, they don’t make much of his death on the tour of his home, but I found it fascinating.
Just outside Niagara there’s a Casino, so we decided to bet $20 on red at roulette, asking simply: “What’s the worst that can happen?” Beyond spending a few hours in December at a casino in Niagara, obviously.
Around us, thousands of baby-boomers sucked down cigarettes, their families elsewhere for the holiday season, as the ball trickled around in the roulette wheel, looking for a place to land.
“All around us, people are ruining their lives,” said my wife. “People are risking their families, everything they’ve ever built. Right now.”
Then the ball fell in our favor. So we high-fived, cashed our chips, and fled.
Try as I might to resent you, JetBlue, I actually had a wonderful time. I feel bad for Buffalo, obviously, but I also gained a rare sense of life being truly worth living from the experience of being stranded there, thanks to you. I’m not saying I would have chosen it, of course, and the emotions I experienced were complex. But I guess that fundamentally, sometimes, one has to look an emotional mouth in the gift horse. And let ‘er buck.
I posted a video on this blog a few months ago, an interview with the British actor and writer Stephen Fry, in which he said it’s best to seek out unpleasant experiences, things you wouldn’t normally choose, to experience personal growth. I’ve been reflecting on it often since then and can assure you that I’ll direct people to it if they ever care to ask me what I think of your airline, before booking.
Don’t take this the wrong way. I really did have a wonderful time in Buffalo.
Matt Davis (who is now booked on a flight out of Syracuse tomorrow morning, to New Orleans, via JFK, and really hopes not to get booted off it…thank you…)