I turned twenty-seven on Friday. I know that most everyone has the experience of reaching an age at which birthdays cease to be causes for celebration, but I don’t think so many people find them to be the cruel reminder of lost time that they have been for me roughly since I became a full-fledged adult. That is, if I could ever be called that in the first place. I’m sure that by some people’s standards, I never grew up. I’m inclined to agree; I’m just not inclined to blame myself. That’s why birthdays are so awful. They remind me of the speed with which time is marching on even as I remain stuck firmly in my place.
It’s interesting to be a resounding failure starting in your very early twenties, and an educated, ambitious one, who simply never had the chance to even screw up an opportunity. It’s interesting to see the evidence of that failure every time you look out your front door on a hateful city that you never thought you’d have to return to, but then were never able to leave. The Buffalo that I see every day is a place where no one seems capable of living with purpose, achieving social mobility, or bettering their personal character.
It’s actually terrifying to be aging here, because everywhere I look I see reminders of all the different people I don’t want to become. Yet in absence of evidence of any alternatives, it seems increasingly likely that I will become just like some of them if this environment continues to hold me so close to its rust-pockmarked bosom.
I used to have more fire in me. Twenty-seven shouldn’t be associated with this kind of tiredness. Often, I feel numb enough to tolerate the intolerable. Honestly, there was a time not long, and yet too long ago when I came close to vowing to kill myself if I wasn’t out of this town by a certain date. The trouble now is that I can’t for the life of me remember when that date would have been. Was it the start of this summer? Next January? The previous January? My twenty-seventh birthday? I can’t remember. It doesn’t seem to matter anymore. I am exceptionally well-distracted with the ceaseless struggle to find each day’s work and survive the week, and I am exceptionally well-deluded into thinking that therein, somewhere, lies a future change of life.
But then when I venture out of my home office, I see the change of life that comes over time, in absence of a transformative moment, a firm knock of opportunity, a breaking point. Who shall I become, among these? Perhaps by the time I’m in my mid-forties, my home business will be truly legitimate, and I can be like the shop owner around the corner, working irregular, overly demanding hours for a success so modest that in the fullness of middle age he is still living without health insurance.
Or maybe I need not look so far into the future, and instead I can aspire to be like my close peer and lifelong resident of the Blackrock neighborhood, who is consistently and profoundly more successful than I, which means at present that he’s been tasked with managing and fundamentally reorganizing a nearby gas station for eight dollars an hour. Perhaps I can aspire to that without waiting to decay with age, though I doubt it. Given my past history, it seems that even to be willfully exploited is too much for me to ask of prospective employers.
If, however, I could by some chance succeed in letting myself be exploited, then I can look forward to being like my brother, seven years my senior, slaving at management of a kitchen in exchange for a salary far short of the absolute minimum threshold for middle class, and too beat-down and molded into complacency to seriously seek a better way of life, while middle age looms. Then, if I succeed in emulating that image, I can look forward to also becoming like my parents, both lonely people whose lives have apparently lacked any efforts at positive change for years on end.
I have to get away from these people, and I’m losing the capability to even imagine how that would happen, which is in turn inching me closer to the terrible outcome I want to flee from. But it’s not family that I most fear becoming. It’s all the little bearers of shattered lives or simple minds that shuffle about me day after day. The few who possess the means for a decent life still seem either desperately adrift or else aloof and arrogant behind the bitterly ideological walls they’ve had to build for themselves to keep the tragic reality of this rust belt hellscape out of their emptily contented little lives.
The rest are a tragedy unto themselves. Yesterday, I heard shouting outside my home and went out to make sure nobody was being hurt. At the end of my street, a young woman was ranting and throwing things at who I presume to be her boyfriend. I walked in that direction to make sure everything was all right, my phone in hand, ready to call the police. For all I could tell, the woman was just throwing a tantrum, and the man was not returning the physicality, so I didn’t really know at what point to intervene. In my uncertainty, I just ended up sitting nearby, next to a man who shook his head at the fighting couple and started talking to me as soon as I arrived.
If I spend time outside, I can generally count on finding half a dozen people in the course of an afternoon whose social status is wildly indeterminate. I still remember my first encounter with the deplorable Eric Starchild, who wanders the streets of Buffalo selling single plastic beads on black strings for exorbitant prices. When first he spoke to me, I thought for sure he was homeless and that that was his way of getting by and making the most of the hand he had been dealt. Years later, I found out that he comes from an upper-middle class background, and after putting up with his attempts to advise me on how I could easily fix my life and have a career, I now have to restrain myself from punching him in the back of the head every time I see him walking somewhere ahead of me.
The fellow I encountered yesterday was of a similar sort. He specifically described himself as coming from a wealthy family, but also as not being rich anymore. That still left some doubt in my mind, as he sat there with his grocery cart and half-empty forty ounce bottle of beer, as to whether he was homeless, poor like me, or just another pretender who has still holds the financial means to do something with his life, but chooses not to.
I had a pleasant enough conversation with the fellow, though I could tell from the start that he was just slightly crazy. It took about thirty seconds of conversation for him to reference mechanisms of government control, and another minute to get to his pronouncements about chemtrails. He was perfectly coherent by and large, even relatable, but he’d filled the gaps in his worldview with self-assured paranoia. He quite reminded me of a fellow I met on a Greyhound bus once, who talked to me with great clarity about many things, but occasionally told stories about how the FBI had been sending agents to monitor him in the guise of such people as his ex-wife’s new boyfriend. I quite like talking to these people. It’s intriguing to see how a person creates a consistent mythology to explain the tragedies of their lives, and how in the best of cases, this can seemingly avoid seriously impairing the person’s perception of reality in other areas.
I am especially interested to talk to these people now, because a spent a solid couple of years cresting toward the edge of insanity, and communicating with people who have inched past the barrier is the only thing that suggests the possibility that I am not irreversibly headed towards the hideous outcomes that have been realized in so many of the people that surround me. On the other hand, most of the people I’ve spoken to who have embraced such paranoia have been roughly twice my age. How many times did they near the edge and draw back while they were still young? How much longer do my inexplicable and inexpressibly crushing failures have to persist before I manufacture conspiracy theories to make sense of them?
I may have already been suffering under the weight of those failures for six years, but conceivably there could be decades still to come. Nothing, after all, exists to give me confidence that it will ever change, unless I can count the fact that I’m feeling pretty stable in my advanced age. But as it happens, it was actually the instability that served to make me feel like I had it in me to fight an intolerable situation, to literally run away from this town with thirty dollars tucked into my shoe if the future here began to look bleak enough.
I fear the sort of person I will become if I remain as invisible as I am for much longer. I fear it all the more because I no longer have the same confidence in my resistance, yet I still see every bit as much to resist, everywhere I look. In five horrendous years in Buffalo, I don’t think I’ve met a single person I genuinely respect. Those older than I are chilling images of the things that this town does to a person. They are vessels for the display of various unique admixtures of hopelessness, paranoia, ignorance, unjustified arrogance, complacency, prejudice, and greed.
To date, the only person I have seen with any regularity whom I can say does not make me intensely sad is, oddly enough, a toothless old woman who sits smoking near the bus stop by the old Showplace Theater. She has been as vividly damaged by her own life as all the rest of them, but somehow she is wonderfully pleasant to everyone who passes by, and it is a pleasance unpolluted by the relentless ego that motivates so many other local people to reach out to one another.
This woman, alone among all the others, seems to have found a way to inhabit this place with a character of quiet dignity, and I applaud her for it. But still it is not good enough for me. If, God forbid, I reside here when I am near to her age, I would never want my own dignity to be quiet. I want it to rage against the systematic theft of lives. I pray that this silence in me now is just a passing phase, and that age is not taking the fire from my blood.