Listening to the radio this morning, I was treated to another bout of unintentional humor from the city of Buffalo. Apparently there’s going to be something opening in Buffalo on October 16th called the National Preservation Conference. They mentioned this on the local NPR station, WBFO in the context of a story about how Catherine Schweitzer, the local co-chair of the event, is trying to impress upon everyone the need to clean up their neighborhoods. They even termed it an effort to “make Buffalo sparkle.” I’m afraid it’s going to take quite a bit more than a spit shine and some elbow grease to make a city with a thirty year history of rapid decline suddenly coruscate beneath the admiring eye of a handful of out-of-town visitors. It’s classical Buffalonian behavior to voice such optimism as to suggest that that’s exactly what we can do, though.
What I found humorous – hell, downright hilarious – about this story was the simple fact that I was essentially listening to an entire city population’s surrogate mother trying to tell them to clean their rooms because we’re going to have company. I don’t think anybody who recorded or ran this story thought much about the implication that came along with it, that we just aren’t at all used to having visitors. I found myself very much wanting to ask Ms. Schweitzer if she kept to this same practice in her own home, waiting until the day before the in-laws were set to come over for Thanksgiving dinner before imploring her household to clean up a little.
Mind you, I’m in no position to judge such behavior. I’m just the same way. There are times when I am assiduously organized and I vacuum and dust according to a regular schedule. But there are also long spates of time during which I don’t do a thing to keep a nice house, precisely because I rarely expect to have anyone over. Then of course when someone announces that they’d like to visit, I find myself scrambling around trying to conceal the evidence of my own squalor.
On the other hand, I don’t really understand the impulse to put one’s home into a state that is unfamiliar even to oneself just to impress guests with a false personal image. The reason I’m ashamed of my clutter and dirt when it builds up is because should anyone see it, they’d be getting a one-sided vision of me and my lifestyle. I’m really not like that. I truly have every expectation that I would always be better than that if I had the least bit of regular traffic over my floor to provide me with that motivation. I clean things up for myself sometimes, but if you don’t plan your visit accordingly, you only see the version of me that drops the dishes in the sink and then goes right back to work and subsequently neglects them for a week, the version of me that keeps a year’s worth of magazines in a lopsided pile next to the doorway, the version that buries things that he uses beneath things he doesn’t want.
In the case of Buffalo, though, what other version is there besides the one I know, with all its filth, decay, degradation, and neglect? How are we supposed to portray ourselves? As the long-ago city that I’m told once stood on this spot in the 1940s? Or as the theoretical place that we might be the median income was an order of magnitude higher, if our industries had never collapsed, or if anyone actually came here or had reason to?
See, I wouldn’t be criticizing Catherine Schweitzer here if it really was as simple as a friendly warning that we’re bringing out the good china tonight, so we might want to pick up a little. She said “make Buffalo sparkle,” and then she gave some examples. She was compelled to particularly emphasize Court Street, which she pointed out was a pedestrian thoroughfare, then proceeding to complain that it was lined with giant planters that are standing completely empty, and as far as anyone can tell always have been. She mentioned a Verizon phone booth that was standing crooked after being hit by a car. For those who don’t want to disappoint Ms. Schweitzer, she would like these things to get taken care of in the next two weeks. Also, reaching into the rather more mundane, she chided people to pick up all the scattered trash, although she didn’t mention whether she meant from their own yards, from the vacant, crumbling building on their left, or from the vacant, crumbling meth lab on their right.
I forget to pick up around my apartment and then find myself scrambling to do it when someone is on their way over. I get that; I can accept the same behavior on a citywide basis. But I can’t quite imagine myself waiting until my mother calls and says “I’ll be over this afternoon” before I, for instance, hang the door back on its hinges, or pick up the broken glass off the carpet, or shot-vac the flooded bathroom floor. I’m not sure that I can say the same for Ms. Schweitzer, and I’m honestly very interested to know what her guiding impulse in this case is, apart from being charged with a task tantamount to trying to get Salt Lake City, Utah geared up for the National Homosexual Monogamy Convention. Did she suddenly acquire the opinion that our urban blight and infrastructure problems are important things to deal with now that somebody’s going to be in a position to judge her personally for them? Or is it just that she actually hadn’t realized what this place actually looks like until some outside influence compelled her make an objective assessment?
Knowing what the people in this town are like, I’m genuinely worried that that’s exactly what it was.