23 September 2011

Campaigning Where the Sidewalk Ends

The sky roars overhead as a passenger jet slowly tumbles downward towards the runway with all the grace of a flying Greyhound bus. It’s Saturday morning at Mark Poloncarz for Erie County HQ, a massive vacant storefront chosen for its acreage of windows facing a busy section of Harlem Road in the Town of Cheektowaga. Volunteer coordinator Ben Swanekamp is there in a t-shirt, ball cap, and black-frame glasses. He cuts a diminutive figure and is the youngest person I’ve seen at a campaign event all season. Mark Poloncarz, at a previous event, announced to us all that Ben was the numbers guy, the guy not only responsible for volunteers, but ultimately responsible for where to volunteer and to whom volunteers should reach.
This morning he’s sending out volunteers to go door-to-door in targeted areas to talk to “non-prime” Democrats—registered Democrats who typically eschew primaries and are thus viewed as potentially undecided. He hands me a folder full of printouts, maps, and directions. On most sheets there are names, ages, gender, and addresses of the fair-weather Democrats with little boxes to check based on how they respond to my suggestion they vote for Poloncarz. There’s even a box to check for the politically disillusioned. “You know, if they say all politicians are crooks,” Ben explains, “and I’m not voting for anybody. We see more and more of that each year.”

Included in the packet is a stump question to pose to voters: “Are you sick of politicians making promises they break or cannot grant once they are elected? Me too…” Here’s where I overestimate my charisma and make up my mind not to follow the script, expecting to win people over by being a good guy and smiling, a decision I would second-guess all day. But I see the wisdom of the prescribed hook, and that it’s based on what most be a common objection to political campaigns, the kind of thing your Aunt Shirley is always complaining about.

Campaigning is never about history, and it’s even less about facts. Most people are either confused by the facts, or they realize that both sides of the debate seem to invent the facts to their advantage. More than anything, politics is about emotion: Can the candidate give the voter a good feeling? One elderly woman revealed this to me perfectly, when I asked her where she came down on the two candidates. “I don’t know,” she said. “I like both.”

Many voters frankly don’t care enough about politics (to be fair, politics doesn’t always give folks reasons to care) to know that the current Erie County Executive Chris Collins has pursued a series of ill-fated and taxpayer-funded lawsuits against any entity that would dare oppose him; that he cut back on county attorneys to funnel money to an outside law firm that contributes to his campaign and called it a win for taxpayers; that he self-aborted his own campaign for governor by making anti-Semitic and sexist remarks; that the Erie County Holding Center has been fatally deficient in recognizing mental illness and drug withdrawal symptoms, leading to an unprecedented rash of suicide and a subsequent lawsuit by the Department of Justice; and that, when Collins finally agreed to terms to improve conditions and settle the case, he declared victory in a press conference, proudly declaring that the taxpayer had persevered a menacing attack by the feds. And he looked good doing it.

He also thought he looked good making cuts to cultural institutions and libraries, but the first person I talked to was particularly galvanized by this action. “I’m here to see if you’re considering voting for Mark Poloncarz?” I asked.

“Oh, you mean anti-Collins? I talked to some Poloncarz people at the Elmwood Arts Festival and told them the only way I’m not voting for Poloncarz is if he kills somebody between now and the election.”

It was a good start to the day, but it was not an indicator of any success to come. As I combed through the names and addresses and knocked on doors to palatial and pedestrian homes alike, I was usually met with silence. No one home, no one coming to the door, and almost no neighborhood noise. Suburban quiet: only the dim hum of the Youngmann Expressway and the occasional jet heading into the same airport, but on a different flight path, than those blessing the airspace over Poloncarz HQ.
I knock on strange doors as part of my day job at times, but it never really gets any easier, and the unease, I soon find out, is completely reciprocal. Out of the 40 doors I knocked on, I was lucky to talk to 15 people, often not even the apostate Democrat on my list. And out of those 15, half of them were flustered, angry, or just couldn’t be bothered.

In the internet age, going door-to-door is going the way of snail mail correspondence: a lost but somehow still valid art. It’s hard for me not to feel solidarity with the postman I see doing Saturday delivery, and I was tempted to hand him one of my handsome Mark Poloncarz placards. But at least he wears a government uniform. I’m dressed in a button-down shirt and jeans, but I feel like a media criminal stereotype: as in the smooth con man. I talked to one woman who nervously told me from behind her screen door she would probably vote for Poloncarz, but I think she would have said anything to get me off her porch. I know from my own childhood that unexpected knocks on the door either meant Jehovah’s Witnesses or one of the last American door-to-door salesmen. Even as a well-mannered white man, I found out Saturday that even selling nothing was a hard sell. I passed three men doing yard work within feet of me and they all avoided eye contact entirely, as if a pedestrian carrying a clipboard was an everyday occurrence in those parts. Pedestrians are a rare breed to begin with out here; I traversed one residential street in Amherst where the sidewalk was inexplicably absent for sections on both sides of the street.

When I returned to Poloncarz HQ, Ben Swanekamp told me what I had seen is normal. That the contact rate is generally around 25 percent, the same chance of flipping a coin twice and getting heads both times. An older man intercepted me on one driveway while his adult son mowed the lawn. He told me he didn’t know how his son was voting and that he himself had moved to Florida. I told him that was too bad as another jet lumbered overhead. “No it’s not,” he said, smiling.

13 September 2011

Tailgate to the Max

Associate Eric Gelsinger as Spielman

It’s September 11, 2011, but I almost forget today is the 10th anniversary of the day that has made September 11 meaningful, because it coincides gracefully with opening day of the NFL season, a sport that is slowly becoming more cultural ritual than mere entertainment. This is evident in my station wagon: My associate and I are decked in Bills jerseys and pondering how bad the team might be this year. Being a Bills fan is like being an intrepid explorer of your own emotional pain. Every year you wait for things to get better and every year you’re rewarded with mind-boggling losses and a sense of lost time. Most chapters in the Buffalo football story read like biblical afflictions—like Job scraping his sores with shards of pottery.

Today’s destination is the annual “tailgate: fundraiser at Macaroon’s Nite Club on the eastern edge of Cheektowaga just before it gives way to Depew. Macaroon’s is nestled inconspicuously in an aging strip mall, the largest tenant of which appears to the Buffalo City Mission Thrift Store. Bars in strip malls have never made sense to me, but this bar operates as a hybrid neighborhood sports bar during the week and a thrasher rock bar on “Fridaze” and “Saturdaze.” They have Blue and Michelob Light on tap and the event calendar Xerox advertises a band called “That 80’s Hair Rock Band” and that you can get a drink for less than $3 pretty much any day of the week. Today our drinks are free, courtesy of the Progressive Democrats of Cheektowaga. At the entrance we are handed a cup and told that “it is good for vodka, rum, and beer, but not all at once.”

The bar is deep, dark, and large. It’s a “Nite Club,” after all. When we walk in around 12:30pm the cavernous room is sparsely populated by around 50 people, half that number being seniors seated at long tables toward the darkened stage area in back. Strong screwdrivers in hand, my associate goes off to mingle, and I go meet the man of the hour, Frank Max.

Perhaps everyone in Erie County has an uncle who looks and talks like Frank Max, chair of Cheektowaga’s Democratic Party. He cuts a classic, Western New York middle-aged man figure, and he’s brimming with blue-collar vitality. Frank tells me he has run for office in the past, but sees himself now as more of a behind-the-scenes organizer, someone who can rally the troops and send them door-to-door in favor of Democratic candidates in the Town of Cheektowaga, and he hopes to do something similar in Erie County if Len Lenihan’s long-anticipated descent from the chairmanship ever occurs. But today’s fundraiser is “about hanging out, watching football, and nothing too political,” he says.

Frank, however, doesn’t mince words when it comes to his prospective bid for Lenihan’s seat, saying he’s the dark horse, outside the inner circle of the party who seem bent on handing the job to Tonawanda’s John Crangle. Max maintains he is the Ryan Fitzpatrick to Crangle’s Trent Edwards of last year’s Bills: If you let the committee members vote, he says, “he can’t beat me.

Frank’s troops slowly filter in to the bar and fill the place. The majority of folks are friends, family, and co-workers, who is currently the crew chief of Cheektowaga’s sanitation department. One younger sanitation worker at the bar declares he’s not too interested in politics; he’s just here for Frank. This is a Frank Max home crowd, a Cheektowaga Democratic lovefest. There’s a smattering of elected officials: Mark Poloncarz, dressed better than anyone in the room, is present at the beginning, working his base; Legislator Tom Mazur makes an appearance; and several judges are no doubt lurking in the offing. My associate strikes up a lengthy conversation with Dick Wipperman, the Buffalo-bred heavyweight who fought some big names like Joe Frazier and still loves talking fighting. On the matter of his attendance at today’s festivities, he’s rather unclear. He doesn’t seem interested in football and he doesn’t admit to any political passion. He’s just glad to be there.

I ask Frank Max his opinion of the team. He says that he thinks they’re on the right path, they’re turning the corner, the light at the end of the tunnel, plenty of room for optimism, etc. Of course, he adds, the team is ineptly run and dysfunctional, but the players have a lot of heart. As I look around the room at the neon guitar-shaped lights and ponder the political situation in Western New York, the refrain rings familiar.

Frank Max at Macaroon's
Before kickoff, CBS airs a pregame memorial to 9/11, and the bar crowd, led by the seniors in back, stand in silence and look in different directions at whichever one of the 17 screens is closest. After the awkward 30 seconds of television patriotism are over, during which I can’t decide whether to place my hand over my heart, take my cap off, or both (I do neither), we head over to one of the back tables to join the heart of the party. There we are informed that this large group, comprising mostly senior citizens, belongs to the Cheektowaga Patriotic Commission, an official town organization without political affiliation. Bills fans, though.

The Bills force a fumble on the opening kickoff, and with smoke still lingering over the field from the pregame ceremony, the Bills launch a short touchdown drive. The place starts rocking and the Bills never really look back.

30 August 2011

Office Call

Health care is good.

Health care is important.  
Been having lower back pain for almost ten years, of varying intensity.
Somewhere I decided or it was recommended or I was compelled to see a Podiatrist.
I’ve always been scared of the podiatrist, having seen one years ago with a deeply Germanic name like Mohnenberger and the pain he inflicted on my feet filled me with dread my teenage mind unfairly associated with Nazi experimentation.
I arrive on time and proffer my ID and insurance card to the receptionist.
I fill out the new patient paperwork. Under “Are you pregnant or do you expect to be pregnant” I enter yes, just to see if they notice I’m not a woman.  
I’m ushered into a very small exam room and told to sit on the exam chair and remove my shoes and socks.
The chair is small and uncomfortable and makes my back hurt. It feels likes something made in the 1950s, when people were smaller. She raises it up so that I’m sitting in a ridiculous position with my naked feet pointing directly at the receptionist in the next room.
The sterile paper my feet rest on will not stay put and keeps sliding around.
The doctor arrives and proceeds in a workman-like manner to process the patient, ie me. It’s all about getting me in and out.
He has me stand and he tells me I over-pronate. I have to ask him to explain this.
He tells me the best thing to do is to get inserts to place in shoes. He tells me they cost $35 and then $25 to place in my shoes.
He goes about it, fumbling in the closet I can see between my feet looking for the inserts which he measures and cuts using my shoes and feet as his yardsticks.
It is only then that I realize I will be charged $60 for this.
He puts them in my shoes and tells me to come back in a week, and bring him my other shoes.

20 August 2011

Chris Drury in Hockey Heaven

courtesy of ohforfun.typepad.com
Where do great athletes go when they retire? The well-trodden paths are broadcasting and business, supplemented by charity events, speaking engagements, golf tournaments, and sporting events where a piece of them still belongs. Am I the only one who hates it when athletes retire and then immediately hit the broadcasting booth where they just smile on TV and yuk it up and don't offer any more insight than Uncle Dave would after a six-pack? OK, exceptions are Charles Barkley and Cris Collinsworth, but for everyone else there's a large disconnect to me as a sports fan. My relationship to the player ends after he stops doing what he does best, playing a stupid game. It's just hard to imagine that the guy in your TV wearing a suit and tie and breaking down a play has anything to do with the guy you watched, in Chris Drury's case, play with more guts and magic than anyone you've ever seen. Chris Drury has announced he's retiring from hockey while spending time with his ghosts in Williamsport, PA., the site of his legendary and improbable Little League World Series performance in 1989, where he pitched a 5-hit complete game shutout of Taiwan and added two runs-batted-in.

Drury was a special, once in a lifetime player. Never the fastest, never the hardest shot, certainly never the biggest, and never really an elite scorer,  he formed (along with Danny Briere) the leadership of a team that came a period away from a Stanley Cup showdown with Edmonton in 2006. But he made up for all his physical limitations by being heady, not making mistakes, and scoring exactly when the team needed it. I don't know if there's been a better clutch scorer in recent hockey history than Chris Drury. Sports Illustrated's S.L. Price had this to say about Drury in 2007:

Drury is, in fact, one of the greatest clutch players in sports. Ever. At 13 he led Trumbull, Conn., to its shocking win over mighty Taiwan in the 1989 Little League World Series, five months after helping his Greater Bridgeport Pee Wee hockey team win the '89 amateur national championship. Ever since, the wins and the honors have rolled in like boxcars: a state hockey title in high school, an NCAA title his freshman year at BU, the Hobey Baker Award as the nation's best hockey player, the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie. Hardly a prolific scorer, Drury knocked in four playoff game-winning goals that first year for Colorado, and two seasons later, stepping out of the shadows of Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg, he scored 11 goals in the Avalanche's 23-game playoff run to the 2001 Stanley Cup title. He has tallied 12 playoff game-winners -- one more than the great Lemieux -- and his four overtime goals in the postseason are tied for second most among active players.

Chris Drury's most unforgettable moments in Buffalo both came in 2007. In a February game against Ottawa, Senators head-hunter Chris Neil lowered a dirty blindside shoulder straight to Drury's head, concussing him. I remember watching this game live, the Sabres were having a magical season and went on to win the franchise's first Presidents Trophy. I remember the shot of Lindy Ruff, masking the anger of all of Buffalo in his bright red angry pumpkin face, audibly yelling at Ottawa coach (Brian Murray?) "DON'T GO AFTER OUR FUCKING CAPTAIN!!" Of course Briere and Drury were co-captains, and they complemented each other well in those roles. Briere was fiery, mercurial, flashy, outspoken. He carried grudges and was deceptively dirty, never above a spear or a high-stick. Drury almost never spoke (I can't even remember what his voice sounds like), he was never dirty, always composed, ready. But at the moment that Lindy Ruff was going all Mel Gibson from the bench, there was no doubt, in my mind at least, that Drury was the team's heart and soul.

When play resumes, Murray inexplicably throws his number one line on the ice, Spezza, Alfredsson, Heatley, a line that would carry the Sens to the Cup that year. It's hard to imagine what Murray would have been thinking, putting them out there right after the Sabres top player had been drilled by a cheap hit to the head,  someone spending as much time as Murray had around hockey had to know retaliation of at least, edgy play, was on the docket immediately. Ruff wasted no time in putting Adam Mair, Andrew Peters, and Patrick Kaleta (in his NHL debut, I believe) on the ice and they in turn wasted no time in initiating one the most memorable brawls in Sabre history. Watching the replays on youtube, I'm amazed the linesman even had the chance to drop the puck, Kaleta and his man were already sparring. 

The other moment came in the playoffs, a game 5 against the Rangers in Buffalo, I think the series was 2-2. A 1-0 Rangers game until late in the third when the Rangers got called for an icing with 13 seconds left. Drury won the face off, controlled the puck into the corner, feathered it out front for a shot from the slot area and headed around the other side of the net where the puck magically found his stick on a rebound that he quickly shot through traffic and into the net to tie the game 1-1. Watching the play even now makes the hair on my neck stand up. The Sabres were the winningest team in hockey that year but something had been missing in the playoffs, they looked flat and didn't seem as dominant as the team that lost to Carolina in Game 7 of the Conference Finals the year before. This Drury goal was the first moment I thought that Buffalo had a shot to win that year. I've been watching hockey for twenty years or so, and it's so rare to see a player with that combination of determination and luck. Drury has always been a kind of phantom on the ice, magically disappearing and reappearing exactly where he needed to be at the right time
But where does Drury go now? He's not that old but his knees are bad enough that no team wanted to sign him, forcing his hand into retirement. It was hard enough watching him leave Buffalo due to incompetent ownership, he's the kind of player that as a fan you just wait 20 years for someone like that to be on your team. It's hard for me to believe that Drury's done, though I know if he says he's done, he's not going to pull a Forsberg or Favre, he's done. With hockey. I watched his last regular season game, Rangers vs Devils. Drury had been almost the entire year due to injury, and coming back at the end of the season, you knew he was playing through pain, trying to get his legs under him to help for the Rangers push into the playoffs. He scored a magnificent goal, charging the net and falling to his knees to shovel one by Brodeur. Vintage Drury, half-dead coming from nowhere to do something necessary but totally unexpected, every time. 

Somewhere in the digital collection, I have a talk by the poet David Antin in which he explicates his notion of poetic line as being something extra-literary. It's part of his whole vision, of course, of poetry being something more than just "that literary form defined as having line breaks." He ends up describing a friend of his who ended up pursuing three of four drastic career and life changes, from bohemian artist to housewife to marathon runner to mathematician (I'm probably losing some of the exact facts, but that's the outline). I hope Chris Drury's next turn is equally great, and that none of us will expect it when it happens.

18 August 2011


The humidity has sharply decreased so that now the day's heat just feels hot and lovely and there's been this inspired wind blowing through. Great day for the sailboats. Not a great day for the garbage-pickers who dare enter the Erie Basin Marina.

I guess after you drive in from the suburbs in an air-conditioned luxury car with the windows rolled up and the doors definitely locked and you want to go get on your yacht and forget about the cruel, cruel world, the last thing you want to see someone going through your garbage. Maybe this means that the other side's bottles and cans are too refined for the vulgar process of recycling?

The nicer parts of my neighborhood (read mostly white, middle class) are littered with lawn signs for Judge Joseph Fiorella, a Buffalo City Court judge. I don't know much about the guy, except for that he's presiding over the NFTA Police vs. anti-war protesters case, and I'd surely vote for him if he can find a way to gracefully dismiss the prosecution's case. There's been a lot written about the case and there's even a Youtube video out there if you're interested in finding it, I don't want to rehash the whole story here, suffice it to say that the NFTA police played a big role in escalating a mostly innocent demonstration. So Judge, let Nate Buckley, Eliott Zyglis and Jason Wilson off, they're not trouble makers. Do that and I'll ignore the strange race-politicking found in the image on the side of your campaign utility truck parked in the neighborhood and strategically placed at the Farmer's Market on Saturdays.

Judge Fiorella wants the "People's" vote

I continue to see ash trees everywhere. I can't shake a spooky kind of feeling about them, like they're living ghosts, and whatever knowledge, intelligence, and beauty they possess, they'll never be the same. 

Drove down to the foot of Smith St. tonight, known by many as the access point to the behemoth Concrete Central grain elevator on the Buffalo River. On the way, we passed that bar in the First Ward on South Park, Adolf's. Always kinda makes me wonder. Anyway, huge stands of Japanese Knotweed down there, like little bamboo trees, looking vigorous and healthy. 

12 August 2011

Buffalo Loves You Too, Lee!

Early this afternoon, I received an automatic text from the local sports station, because I'm that kind of guy I guess, that "Adam Schefter of ESPN has announced the Bills have traded Lee Evans to the Baltimore Ravens." My first thought was, "Who the hell does this Adam Schefter think he is!" 

Adam Schefter works for ESPN and amazingly he sometimes [ghost] writes articles [actually written by the editor], but he can by no means be mistook for a journalist. I don't know what he is. He's more of a press secretary, or a public relations puppet stooge from the Oil and Gas Industry. He's got a certain unctuous slickness to the way he talks, but it's hard to judge because so little of what he says is ever meaningful. It was brutal watching him try to report on the recent NFL Labor showdown. He would come on and say his sources are telling him the lockout could end next Tuesday and that's were the information would end. Everything else that came out of his mouth sounded like a high school gym teacher trying to describe what the negotiation process looks like: "Well the owners have put the onus back onto the players and it's really up for the players, the one who were numbers on Sunday, to see if that's what works for them. So it's a process, but I can tell you, sources on both sides of the issue tell me they are committed to a deal that works for them." Schefter is a mouthpiece for hire, a real journalist wouldn't have such unflagging trust of the money men that are his sources: agents, owners, GMs. He's a symbol of what the titanic entertainment corporation that is the NFL has become.

My second reaction to the text was "I'm going to miss Lee Evans." He was long the fastest and often most talented guy on a string of bad teams, never played in the playoffs and he still never complained or turned on anybody. The Buffalo News quotes him as "I’ve loved playing here. The fans really, really make this place special. I’ll always have ties to the Buffalo community, through the people I’ve met. And the friends I’ve made will be friends for life. It’s a fantastic place to play, a great football environment and I’ll always have ties to the community here." Well done Lee!

11 August 2011

Falling for the Ash

I found myself the other night in a full room, the "Community Room" of Philip Sheridan Elementary School in Tonawanda, NY to listen to a presentation on the Emerald Ash Borer. The room was set up like a small banquet was about to take place, like a funeral reception: 12 large round tables with eight seats placed around each one. There were maybe two empty seats by the time the presentation starting, precisely at 7 o'clock. 

There's always something about a space like this that instantly puts me to sleep, just thinking about it. The exterior of the school presents as fairly modern, but the hallway betrays any hint of recent modernity and harkens back to the good old-fashioned modernity of the 50's. Analog wall clocks, that hard, argyle pattern, stone-looking flooring that every school of my youth had. The "Community Room" was a small oasis from the sterility of the hallway thanks to it's thin industrial carpet, round tables, and and a power point presentation all ready to go on a big screen. There was no huge metal pot of coffee with non-dairy powder creamer and sugar packets, but I could smell all that anyway. No giveaways, just a card for a local Department of Conservation Forrester and some informational pamphlets on the scourge, the evil one from Asia, the Emerald Ash Borer. 
EAB hates Abe Lincoln

The EAB is a pretty spectacular looking insect: shiny, green and apparently made of metal. Its effect on  North-Eastern ash trees of the fraxinius genus has contributed to folk speculation among my inner circle that insect is not only made of metal, but is also an alien machine programed to destroy the forests. Anyway, the insect's sparkly green coat is reminiscent of a bumper car. The DEC's number is that 7% of New York State's forests are fraxinius. and the other number to consider is the mortality rate for ash once the EAB enters an area: 100%. The Forrester, Patrick Marren, said that in an EAB-affected area in Lancaster, NY, he found larvae in trees only two inches in diameter. Once hatched, the larvae bore into the tree and consume the wires that keep the tree juiced, growing to a length of about an inch, inch and a half.

The shape that their journey through the lifelines of the tree reveal in bark is rather fascinating, I'm sure Werner Herzog would find it an example of primitive art. Wavy graffiti-seeming S-patterns made by multiple individual EAB worms intersect and loop to form what looks almost like a line-drawing of smoke. These are the marks that have ferried some 50 million ash trees of North America across to other side and will be the seal of death for many millions more. 

Efforts to contain the borer have proved ineffectual, though it was announced that a EAB-loving wasp from it's home range in Northern China, Korea, Mongolia, Japan, and Eastern Russia was set to be released in the United States this month. I found this somewhat alarming and asked for the species name and if this was completely safe. I meant safe for the ecosystems, but he assumed I meant human safety. I was told they look like a "flying ant," they "don't sting," and the only eat Emerald Ash Borer, "they love'em."
The bark gallery images were the aesthetic highlight of the night. A close second was the extremely thick Buffalo version of the Northern-Cities Shift in some of the participants voices. But at the time what dominated my thoughts was that I was surprised to find no trace of nostalgia or affection for the trees and I didn't know why I felt the surprise. But I could look no further than myself, until I was shown an old-growth Ash in Allegany State Park, I don't know if I ever had ever noticed ash trees before. Turns out they are almost a text book tree and they don't have cool acorns like oak, make syrup and turn orange like maple, they smell like pine or make "stink-bombs" like Black Walnut, they don't have distinctive fruit or seeds, and they don't have interesting leaves. They are pretty easy to identify though, once you get used to looking for its spongy, furrowed bark and opposite-leafing structure (only 4 native species have opposite leaves: maple, ash, dogwood, horse chestnut).

But what is an ash tree and so what? In Tonawanda, they were comparing this to the Dutch Elm Disease and the effect it had on the region in a spirit remorseless resignation. Far as I know, there are no epic stories written about ash trees, no celebrities with ash tattoos, and no famous ash-tree painters. Ash trees biggest claim to fame is their longtime use in Major League Baseball for bats, which have since been switched out for maple. I declare the EAB as Unamerican.

Last night walking in my neighborhood looking for them and I found about a dozen ash trees, three of which were in prominent positions in front of homes, providing shade, and standing there stately and proud like only a tree can do in front of a house. I'll admit it, I'm falling in love with the ash. The spectre of their own death is helping, I want to somehow personally not just remember the trees but memorialize the them. But I also want to be able to earnestly say that I miss them one day.

08 August 2011

Bird Island Pier

At the end of Buffalo's West Side there is a concrete walkway on top of the wall that separates the Black Rock Canal from the Niagara River and extends upriver 2 miles all the way into Buffalo Harbor, where Lake Erie is suddenly channeled into a narrow stretch of nascent Niagara. Accessible at the "Foot of Ferry" street, the river there is extremely fast and powerful, suggestive of the immense violence that awaits the water about 10 miles downstream at the Falls.

It's a walking history lesson of sorts and it has at least 4 names. Broderick Park is the name of the area where the parking lot and picnic benches are, and it's named after a distant relative on my mother's side, the Brodericks. Officially it's on Squaw Island, home to Buffalo Waste Water Treatment Plant. There's also a plaque at the beginning of the pier, naming it Nowak pier, after a congressman nicknamed "The Billion Dollar Man," presumably for his skill at getting federal monies spent on Western New York projects. The kind of thing that seem unimaginable as a quality in today's politics. Locals call it simply the foot of Ferry St., an unspoken acknowledgment of area's history as a ferry launch to Fort Erie, Ontario. It's also an important site for the Underground Railroad, a place where slaves attempted to cross to freedom in Canada in Buffalo's early days.

Buffalo's Ted DiBiase
It's long been one of my favorite walks in Buffalo or anywhere, because it's surrounded by water and it just our seemingly directly into the lake and you end up with perspective you would otherwise only get on a boat. It's incredible in all seasons, though in winter the wind is punishing. Colonizing invasive plants grow readily out of the rock and concrete, with a few natives like cottonwood and sumac, and city crews cut it all back every few years to keep sight lines in tact. One summer there was a family of minks living along the pier, and towards dusk you will almost always see great blue and black-crowned night herons, as well as common terns. In spring the channel is full of migrating ducks: goldeneye, scaup, and red-breasted and hooded mergansers, pied-billed grebes, and American coots. It's not always pretty, however, one summer 8 years ago there was the carcass of a calf in the slow moving canal water, a stark contrast to the fast river on the other side. This is how I first learned of the Great Lakes monster that is the muskellunge, having seen a dead one washed up on the pier.

For over a year now, the pier has been closed past the Peace Bridge (short of the halfway point) due to a maintenance issue that is unknown to me, but I think I remember the Army Corps of Engineers being involved. It's relatively easy to get around the fence, and I'm thankful that people do. I've walked the whole thing since it's been closed and I haven't been able to note any overt structural issue with the pier that would preclude it to recreation, and it's an embarrassment to the whole city that it's still closed off. The thick band of razor wire around the base of the Peace Bridge, added since 9/11 doesn't do the pier any favors either.

My favorite aspect of taking this walk is the way it distorts time and space, probably because of the effect the water and sight lines have on you, it always feels impossible to know how far the pier actually extends and how long you've actually spent out there. I don't spend a lot of time on boats, but maybe it's something like that.

If you live in Buffalo or any Robert Moses city for that matter, you know that public areas along the water are hard to come by, and in humid weather it feels natural to go near water. Tonight there were people swimming directly behind the sign warning of sewage, and a number of walkers and fisherman had worked their way around the closed fence to get to the other side and for me it was a great thing to see. I like to think that for all its dysfunction and neglect, Buffalo is an oasis of sanity in a society inching closer every day to a fear-driven police state.

I attended a Washington Nationals game in the inaugural season of their bland new ballpark. I got to the stadium early, looking to find a place for a few drinks before the game. There was absolutely nothing there besides a large boulevard of traffic that felt like a highway. I found a corner store and bought a can of beer, but then there was no where to go. Behind the store, there were a few older neighborhood guys drinking but they didn't look friendly to company. I ended up sitting on the boulevard, hiding the beer behind my legs and taking sips when traffic was moving quicker. Fans were started showing up for the game but still no one was drinking and I felt like I was about to get nabbed at any second the whole time.

04 August 2011

Money Drama

I'm tickled silly whenever the major news media incorporates images of "The Long Faces of Wall Street" whenever the latest story of capitalism's sword edge suddenly, but not unexpectedly, cutting back the wrong way. You've seen it: the man in a blue Dickies-type suit with an American flag shoulder patch and his hand over his mouth covering his very, very concerned face, the kind of face we should all be wearing, evidently. Or there's the image of the young broker-type, in a handsome suit, looking up at a presumed digital wallboard of sinking figures, hand stretched under chin, lips pursed. I think that CNN has a stock of maybe 10 such pictures they just yank out every time this happens, it's always the same. Do yourself a favor, do a google image search of the beautiful poetic construction of "Dow Down." Here; I'll do it for you.

The thing that kills me, of course, is that these are the people who have the privilege of demonstrating an economy gone painful, and when the Dow goes back up we can ignore the plight of our cities again, the rampant poverty and inefficient services for the poor. Where are the pictures of the gleeful hedge traders today? The one's cashing in by "selling short" in a sinking market? You can bet on anything in capitalism, even on death. In the case of selling short, traders are able to make money by successfully predicting a drop in value.

03 August 2011

Buffalo Education Blues

James Williams, captain of a sinking ship
I have to admit to experiencing a general malaise before wading into the murky, piranha-infested waters that is discussing education in Buffalo. The dialogue is so vast and tainted by partisan in-fighting and  incompetence on all levels and on both sides. Generally speaking, the sides a pretty well established: it's the Commissioner versus the Teacher's Union with the ineffectual school board seemingly along for the ride.

What's missing here? Oh yeah, the kids! It's no secret that Buffalo has epic statistics for school dysfunction. Chief among them are that something like 75% of black males never graduate high school and something like 50% of kids over the age of fifteen miss something like 50 days a year of school instruction. I don't have the exact figures and I want to keep this post to the point or a recent story in the news.

I want to give credit to the Buffalo News' Mary Pasciak, who has reported intelligently and diligently on education issues in Western New York. The news of the day was that James Williams plans to hire an administrator to oversee and be responsible for Buffalo's worst-performing schools in a budget-year rife with 100-some teacher layoffs (of course many of the young an eager are the first to get fired due to seniority rules). Of course the administrator would be non-union, very-well paid, and deflectionary whipping-boy for the Commissioner to pull out of his PR bag of tricks. Of course the Buffalo Federation of Teachers was all over this, and while the BTF has to admit some complicity in what can only be described as total, systematic failure, kudos to Ms. Pasciak for quoting an unnamed laid-off English teacher saying, "I can't believe someone could take a promotion when [104] teachers who work directly with children are going to get laid off. That's my shock and awe. If you can't name 10 kids who actually attend a Buffalo school, your job is not that important."

Amen. I hope recently upsurgent parent groups in the city are ultimately successful in bringing the dialogue back to kids, because there's no future here without them.

Good to See You

The Face on Mars
Recently I've found myself saying or hearing one of the peculiar everyday expressions that I'm sure is gaining prestige in the conversational foreign language guides to English farewells: "Good to see you!" Hell, it's also a greeting, and I'm sure various forms of it exist in other languages as well (German for sure) so it's not something specific to English, or the American use thereof.

I'm also not entirely sure why it's starting to sound funny to me. Perhaps the sheer overuse. You repeat a word like "streetlight" 50 times in quick succession and by the 15th utterance or so, it's become merely sound, no semantic quality can poke through the cracks of something as jarring as that. But the overuse of "good to see you" is akin to the way the word "interesting" is overused in academic circles. When I was in my last year of graduate school the word lost all meaning to me, it became trite, patronizing, not because that was always the speaker's intention, but the way one kept hearing it over and over it began to lose some of its meaning. Kind of like "terrorism" and "terrorist" in today's news media.

I'm not seeking to build a diatribe against "good to see you" however, mainly because I think it's a pretty sincere expression. I know it is for me, because I generally like people and even people who are not my favorite people to see are good to see every once in a while, especially when your memory of that persons quirks may have faded somewhat, giving you new vantage to maybe learn something new. That's what it's all about.

But I'm curious as to the science of a sincere "good to see you" moment. Is there something about a person's facial signature that invokes a certain hormonal or neural response? There undoubtedly something very powerful in a smile, and I would imagine that people today smile more today than at any other point in human history. But is there something belonging to facial recognition of someone you don't often see? How often do you say it in a farewell to someone who you've barely talked to during your time in the same social setting? And really mean it? For me, it's quite often, even if by using it I secretly acknowledge "I'm pretty happy that all I had to do was look at you, because I really didn't want to listen to you."

01 August 2011

The Job

Google's #1 image for the title of this post
I had the opportunity about a month ago while camping with the family in Allegany State Park to lay down on the extra cot we put on our small porch and do some extended reading, i.e. more than an hour per sitting. I was having problems with my back and was pretty much laid up so I had some time alone with no distractions. And I read. It was maybe the most important event of my summer, from a personal growth standpoint.

I read a few hundred pages of Hunter S. Thompson magazine writing from the late 60's and early 70's, stuff I never had seen before and found terrifically fun and engaging and somehow not at all as dated as you would expect of 40 year old journalism. Maybe more specifically on Thompson later, (the synopsis being I was completely engrossed by the Ruben Salazar story and Thompson is my ideal form of a patriot, for any country) but the reason I bring the whole thing up is this notion of work, first of all, because the sentence that for some reason keeps replaying in my head, although completely unoriginal in its conception, is one in which he says writing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was a enjoyable, fun exercise, as opposed to all the other kind of writing he does which is strictly work, tedious work.

I am in my thirtieth year and perhaps that magic number has brought with it a very adult version self-reflection, one that would have been incomprehensible 10 years ago. Thoughts like: "Do I regret my Liberal Arts background" and "Should I just try to make a lot of money?" and "How do I make a lot of money?" and "Am I a writer or artist, deep down?"

I guess it's hard to identify with any of the two artist stereotypes: The Bohemian and the Gentry Artist. I'm married with two kids, my daughter is about to turn 10, so I've had a more adult mindset than most of my peers I guess for longer. Some of my friends are also married and with young children now too, so I guess I'm slowly not feeling so alone. But for some reason I still don't see an example for myself in so-called "Working Class" art traditions like Harvey Pekar or Darger or shit, even Kafka. I embrace my role inside my family, my role among all these terrific friends in my life, and my role in my neighborhood and community. But I work a job I don't really love and curse it at times for taking away time from the many other things I'd like to be daydreaming about, for lack of a better phrase. I enjoy my job most days and I want to do better in it (I work for our local social services department) but its work.

Years ago while an undergrad student I had a brief exchange with the poet Robert Kocik, and I was immediately curious about his other training. I had heard he was an architect. I was always encouraged, even then, when I discovered a writer who had to pay the bills doing something extra-literary, something completely mundane: Stevens, Reznikoff, Williams. My daughter was already a big part of my life and any plan for my future had to include having some level of good living for us both. I asked Kocik if he did something for money outside of poetry and he replied, "Everything is poetry. It's all related."

Now I love this thought, but I can't say I truly believe it. I think it belongs to one of the artist stereotypes in a way, like only a Bohemian or a blue-blood could even imagine that might be true. At the time Kocik told me that, I really believed it, but it was probably very soon after that while working a breakfast waiter in a chain hotel that I had a fundamental problem with it, not an objection really, just what an negotiating attorney might call a "carve-out." Everything is true, of course, maybe not, and only under certain conditions.

The bottom line is that there's work to be done to make as much of my life "count" towards "poetry" as possible, and I've been writing and feeling energized ever since my back made me slow down and sit in one place for more than 30 minutes.

05 March 2011

Ricky Allen & Daniel Derenda

I'm still thinking of the big drug bust I wrote about yesterday and the Buffalo News' coverage of the arrest of Ricky Allen. I feel a bit foolish for not realizing right away that the authorities must have contacted the News and filled them in on the impending police action, the police must have wanted his face on the first page. The News is a business, and the photograph of a disgraced community leader with no criminal record being lead out of his home by a police unit that looked like it was in training to storm Qaddafi's palace, is a big sell. I get that. 

What's becoming more obvious is that the Police Commissioner, Daniel Derenda (AKA The Mayor's Boy) has a kind of personal vendetta against this man and I'd love to know what it is. This guy wasn't even the drug dealer, there were no weapons or drugs in his home. There were plenty of drugs and weapons to be found elsewhere during the raid, including the home of the brother of a deputy police commissioner, but the News presumably wasn't asked to bring their photographer along for that one. 

Today Mickey Kearns was quoted in the News criticizing police brass for either (a) telling the Reorganizing Committee about the impending raids or (b) baiting Ricky Allen with the information and then nailing him on the wiretap. I'm finding it very hard to imagine a situation where (b) wasn't true.

04 March 2011

Ricky Allen, Are You All That?

Photo: Derek Gee, Buffalo News
I understand that a drug trafficking bust is a serious matter, but color me dubious as to some of the key hidden elements to this story which the is apparently the biggest story of the week for the Buffalo News. I don't get it. The News began running their online headline about the bust midday Thursday and kept on it for almost 24 hours, including a supersized headline in today's print version. Is this really that big of a deal?

I suppose the News would argue yes, being that this guy belongs on a community commission board that dialogues with police to improve relations and "reorganize," and that he may have tipped off his buddy that a raid was in the works (and this conversation was recorded, so the wiretap was running and presumably the narcos, whether they were the DEA, the BPD, or both, anticipated this relay).  But there's something seedy in the media attention of this case that I can't name.

Certainly, my attitude about this wasn't helped when reading Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda's (he of the sham appointment) comments on the arrests and watching him repeat those comments verbatim at the big "drugs on the table" presser:

"He's a despicable human being, a dope dealer masquerading as a community activist." 

Whenever a public figure feigns emotion or anger like this, my bullshit lamp lights up like a slot machine.