Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Buffalo Loves a Parade

This past weekend marked the annual celebration of the street off which I live. It’s an odd festival for my part of Buffalo to organize and observe every year, considering that there’s really nothing of interest on Amherst Street. Oh, it’s an up-and-coming neighborhood, by Buffalonian standards, but by no means does it have enough to warrant its own parade. There’s a large Catholic church, a couple of bars, a florist, a pair of tiny, private galleries, and the sausage shop in which I used to work. It’s really only the last of these that gives the entire event the sense of being an event at all. My former employer set up space for bands in the parking lot, and grilled sausage for attendees. The rest of the neighborhood offered a collection of garage sales.

I hope my description makes it clear that June 18th was not exactly Mardi Gras in the Blackrock neighborhood of Buffalo. And yet the crowd that assembled to watch a parade of high school students, church staff, and supermarket employees was tremendous. When something is happening in Buffalo, however mundane, everybody from miles all around goes there to see what it’s like when the streets aren’t desolate save for the homeless and the criminal.

I made certain to make an appearance at the sausage shop. I enjoyed the last set of music, talked with my old coworkers and their friends, and even enjoyed some vegetables, which the proprietor saw sufficient demand for in the presence of me and one other vegetarian. Chatting with and increasingly drunk acquaintance of my old employer, I found myself being pulled into a would-be debate about the merits of the city in which we live. It came up out of nowhere, and vanished conveniently when the conversation was interrupted, but it was enough to constitute a new addition to my constantly growing list of examples of the delusion of local residents.

I had overheard the two men standing near me talking about the gravitational power of this town. One talked about having lived in Florida for ten years before finding himself pulled back into living in Buffalo, at which point I interjected that he should count himself lucky that he got away for that long, considering that I had less than five years free from its clutches, and that ignores the summers I spent back here. The other fellow somehow took each of our stories as a jumping-off point for a familiar assertion about how great a community this is to live in. But his explanation seemed confusingly contradictory at a glance.

He explained that he was a psychologist, and that he had been poised to take a position at a respected institution in the Hudson River valley. He spoke of the job that he almost had in the most enviable terms, and it was clear that it would have been an excellent career move for anyone in his profession, as well as a means to easily support his family and an opportunity to live somewhere truly picturesque. But, he went on, his mother was then diagnosed with Parkinson’s and he had to return here with his wife and child to be near family. He went so far as to say that the first couple of years were hellish, in that they all felt weighed down by their obligations, which had interrupted a life that was moving upward.

“But what are you going to do?” he said. “You learn to deal with things the way they are, and you make the best of it.” And then, in what was to me a baffling leap, he added, “And Buffalo is really wonderful when you stop and look at it. But you have to really stop and look at it…”

It was at that point that someone else drew his attention and the conversation fell off, but not before I had just begun to respond. “I’m with you up until that last part,” I had started to say, and I noticed a quizzical expression cross his face before he turned to look elsewhere. Apparently, then, he was not about to immediately grasp the source of my opposition to his idea that looking closely at the negative circumstances you’ve been compelled to accept somehow makes them objectively better.

You see, it seemed to me that his exposition on what had brought him back to Buffalo, what his life might have been moving towards otherwise, and what it was like for the first years after he returned, all should have led inextricably to some sort of appropriately negative commentary about the place in which he now lived. But with his last handful of comments, it was as though he was actually describing his own process of self-delusion and then deliberately ignoring it.

“You learn to deal with things the way they are…” Yes, of course you do. That is a necessary skill. But what it always seems to me that proud Buffalonians and other convenient optimists don’t understand is that continuing to live within the confines of your circumstances is not mutually exclusive with accepting their reality. The simple fact that one lives in Buffalo, or Cleveland, or Detroit, or just in poverty, or in a war zone, or any other unfortunate surroundings does not mean that one ought to see those places or those situations as good unto themselves. In fact, doing so is harmful. Emphasizing the positive only prompts us to forget not only that our lives could be better, but also that everything around us can be better. If we believe all is well, it strips us of the motivation to make things better, and though it’s comforting, it’s also wrong.

I will not accept this perspective, no matter how ubiquitous it proves to be. Buffalo isn’t an ideal home because it has parades on ordinary streets; it’s awful because it’s parades need only turn the corner to find themselves marching past the rows of crumbling homes that everyone ignores while they try to have a good time any way they can.

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