Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Katrina, Katrina; Buffalo's Super Bowl Projections

(take two)

After Super Bowl 44, I was part of the collective sigh when the empty streets flooded with cars leaving friends and family's houses. It wasn't quite like the good old days when the streets had emptied for the Bills, but you could still feel the collectively held breath letting go. Everyone in Buffalo must have been rooting for The Saints.

There was no big party afterward in Buffalo this time, although we might have hung out to watch the one down in New Orleans on TV. We never could do it ourselves in Buffalo, even with four chances in a row! Damn!

President number 44, Super Bowl number 44, Buffalo finally cheered a winner! In the aftermath, I still feel as quiet about it as I felt among the cars gliding through our gears on Main St. after the game. Even while we were cheering wildly, we knew that change for the better is barely visible through that glass darkly; our future doesn't look so promising these days. But we did project the winner this time; the underdog finally won!

The one who played us up on the big screen for the Hollywood version was so much better looking. That might be flattering, except that no one seems to care about Buffalo in real life. It's as if the sudden disasters are the only ones which count. The ones which are unaccountable except as an “act of God”, even when they were predictable.

Mardi Gras coincided with the Presidents' Day Holiday-weekend this year. How fortunate for the revelers. I stayed home and watched a re-run on my computer of the PBS Frontline show on the crash of flight 3407. I should have been watching the Olympics, but that just seems like a another re-run all over again. I must be getting old.

This morning as she drew my blood (alright, I am getting old), the phlebotomist wondered where all the money for Haiti came from, if people in Buffalo can be allowed to live in bombed out houses starving. She wasn't getting rich on my blood, and that's for sure. We had a good time, which is a funny thing to do while getting blood drawn.

How does one deal with regret, then? Looking back, we could have avoided so many of our permanent scars: the Kensington Expressway almost completely tore us apart, just as similar projects did to so many Northeast cities. Its right-of-way downtown has been scabbed over now with low-rise offices and institutions.

We could have had our Great University on the waterfront. Heck, we could have faced down Robert Moses and kept our waterfront in the first place. We could have built our light rail from lots of somewheres to downtown, and then we could have had something other than our ghost-town after dark. I hope Chippewa Street lit up for the Mardi Gras celebrations.

Maybe these scars are just birthmarks; indelible parts of our character? I remember as a kid, when Mom used to take us downtown to buy school clothes. I'd gotten a new red Naugahyde winter cap with earflaps, back when Naugahyde was cool. It made me feel really proud. We used to stick our heads out the windows in those days, riding over the skyway bridge even before it had any safety barriers. My older brother looked way cooler in his green hat with the flaps turned up. I looked like a dork.

Regret for me is watching my new red hat float down and away from the skyway bridge. My terrorized heart went floating with it, tugging me in a direction opposite to a red balloon wanting to float upward. I pulled my head back in like a scared turtle, and stared silently at the back of my brother's seat up front. Now that I think of it, until I went bald I pretty much refused even to wear a hat after that. I look pretty dorky in hats.

Hey New Orleans, our politics are almost as corrupt as yours are! Our schools are just as bad! We suffer natural disasters too, except that ours are laughable. We suffer whiteouts that the rest of the country just makes fun of. And although we don't generally show our tits, we get just as drunk in public as you do on St. Patrick's day, say, or at the Bills games. Chippewa St. ain't Bourbon Street, but still!

What we lack is cool. The harder we try to make ourselves understood, the more our nasal Buffalo twang sticks out. But as they say in Hollywood, when one theater closes, another one opens. No, really, we open nearly enough new theaters around here to make up for the ones that go out of business.

We were once even grander than the Big Easy, but we never were as down and dirty cool in our decadence. We came on our decay the old fashioned way - we earned it over time. Hell, we never got it together enough even to put a roof over our stadium, and it would make a lot more sense here than in New Orleans. But at least our roofs hardly ever blow off, although if we did have a roof it might have a hard time containing the blast of our crowds.

Everyone knows the story of the frog in the kettle who never knows enough to jump out until it's just too late. While the kettle's heating, the frog just feels nice, and sunny, and like it's in a hot-tub, maybe. Somewhere along the line, the frog's energy has been robbed, and by then it's too late to late to do anything about getting cooked. It keeps getting hotter and hotter until, well, until it's all over.

Is that what happened down in New Orleans then, when the sea swells overwhelmed your dikes? Or is that what happened to us up here, dying slowly across so very many years. Who do we all wait for to save us from ourselves? If only Buffalo could pull the rest of the country down the way that Greece is doing for Europe, maybe we'd get a rescue package too. Isn't that where the Olympics got started?

We got our start here in Buffalo at the Westward Ho! Terminus of the great Erie Canal which changed the world. We were once the gateway barons of lumber and leather and grain and imports and even propeller airplanes and automobiles. We got hit by further West, young man, and then the St. Lawrence Seaway, which took the Midwestern shipping right past us. And then the National Defense Funded Interstate Highway System made our 'biggest switch-yard on the planet' railroad nexus redundant too. Our breadbasket grain elevators were emptied.

But hey, how 'bout them Bills now?! And how about our fiber optics? Build it and they will come? In your dreams! They check out the Falls and leave. Or they rifle though our stores and leave. Or they take their education and run.

I guess, looking at that frog, you can just feel contempt that he didn't have the sense to jump out when he could have. Most of the talented people who grew up in Buffalo or went to school here have done that for as long as I can remember.

Turn around froggie, and let's call it suicide redundantly? You can eat the frog's legs, but shouldn't you have killed him off ahead of time? Or is Buffalo like a lobster, without an advanced enough nervous system to register pain. Yeah, that's it. We're just too stupid (but watch the top, Julia, watch the top).

And everybody down in Haiti now is looking for that silver lining, like all those people had to die before the centuries-long tragedy could be turned about? Where were we all before when it was a slow motion death?

If you are a slave, you have been made an object. If you are raped. If you are taken for your beauty only. Or for your wit. Or for your money. If your actual life is not worth paying any attention, then you have been made an object. And if you live through it, then all that you have left is your humanity. And right there, as Victor Frankel reminded us, is the only choice you've ever had in your life. To be human or not to be. It's a choice and not a grant.

But so much of the time we only know how to do back unto others as they have done to us. Not because we're mean, but because we never really did understand that we were being made into objects ourselves.

In New Orleans, the pre-gaming before Fat Tuesday was even more extreme than the party which happened the day before we must begin our pretense of mourning. Because today we are alive, even though tomorrow that asteroid might hit, as they made such good fun of in those Super-Bowl ads.

And I just love to watch Sarah Palin roast herself in the media kettle without even knowing that she now looks and acts more like Tina Fey than Tina does. But what does it say about my humanity, then, when I feel such glee that she makes a fool of herself?

Palin just really wants to be the object of your attention, and I just want to take her down. She's a lightning rod is all, for the entire country's frustration that nobody, seemingly nobody at all, is paying any attention at all to their interests. Everyone's gaming everybody else, and the big corporations make their margins gaming your ability to predict your limits and then hitting you when you cross the line. A tsunami of debt, and it's all our fault, somehow, for wanting.

Well, we're still here in Buffalo. We're still human, what's left of us, and lots of people are coming back home now that the bubble's burst elsewhere. We're not looking forward to some disaster larger than the laughable ones, which still kill lots of people if you really want to know. Walking around in circles snow-blind, or maybe dropping from the sky because the airlines want to outsource responsibility, or just on the streets from guns since all the money has skittered out to the suburbs because our desegregation was stopped at the city line. By Nixon, of all the wonderful people.

And those suburbs won't share a dime with the city whose teats they suck at. As they compete against each other to push their property values higher on the backs of the schools even they won't fund???

That plane came down in Buffalo, they've determined now, because of "pilot error." The steering column was literally shaking at him in his hands, announcing an issue which just simply couldn't be ignored. The idiot lights or warning buzzers or flashers couldn't be counted on to be enough. The pilot pulled a deer-in-headlights move, and bolted in the wrong direction. Would you have done any better? How many such situations have you prepared for?

It seems that it might have been the little decisions that went before which are the ones that really count.

And so then it's the industry's fault, for hiring such an under-tried and trued guy in the first place? Or are wages set according to how much people really want a job? Lots of people want to fly, and should we blame them?

Why isn't it our fault for demanding no slack in the way that the prices get set. (As if the corporations would cut us any slack if we gave it to them!) One only hopes that those teabaggers will be happy with their caveat emptor nirvana. Let's whittle down our government even more now, even though it didn't even have enough regulators to be aware, much less to do anything about what was going on with the airlines. Don't we remember how much we longed for good government back when Katrina hit?

Wait until after the fact and then bring on the multi-millions to investigate the obvious.

Or Toyota now, you know, pundits wondering what's the connection among all these seemingly unconnected failures; what could be the holistic issue which relates brakes to acceleration? Maybe it's the whole "drive-by-wire" concept, except how the hell does that relate to issues with the steering? Surely that part has not lost its actual connection to the wheels?!

There was a general systems failure, despite the need to assign blame. Toyota, not the hot wheels label, the "good old reliable" Buffalo-style label rather, just simply made the wrong decision at lots of little places along their line. No one of them seemed to merit coming clean, until they were forced to come clean and then suddenly a whole lot of little retrospectively wrong decisions are getting swept up into their mess, and so the holistic problem is what is it now about Toyota culture which has them protecting the brand at all costs? So that, in the end, the brand might get, well, not destroyed exactly, but tarnished surely?

It's a culture of deny deny deny, until the least of us feels responsible for a situation not of her making, because none of us was smart enough or prepared enough to see it coming. It's a culture of denial, as anybody knows who's tried to collect on insurance, whether for health care or on an “act of God” caveat in New Orleans. As anybody knows who's tried to pin responsibility on somebody in power.

Some lowest common denominator always has the veto power now, and so Sarah Palin can say "retard" when she means it satirically, but not when she means it seriously. But seriously now, who can tell her difference from Tina Fey? There is no difference at all anymore between earnest and satire except in point of view. But nobody's really laughing. There's lots of finger pointing, desperate for an object.

Protect brand America, I guess. But when the Supreme Court grants rights to corporate “persons” as if they also were inalienable from their pursuit of happiness, something's gone very wrong. Big corporations have the money to drown out your voice and mine in elections, as if they haven't been using it that way already.

Don't we remember that women and blacks never had the vote in the first place? That more than half of us had to fight off that same supreme court to even get to vote?

Grim? Even the Bills are probably not about to stay around these parts. Our stadium looks like the WalMart edition, and Toronto has one with a flip top right around the corner. In the same dense media market, only cooler. Way cooler.

Bring in the outsourced quality. Pay something under half of the wages of dignity. Because people are willing, at least, to have something rather than nothing.

We never pay attention until it can make us look good. But we're not looking so good, America, we're not looking so good.

Will we make stone soup then, the way they did here in Buffalo when the superstars came to town for our home makeover, Buffalo style? Can we be like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, and find that we'd always had what we needed within ourselves? Or will we just grab for the bowl to see who gets it first and fastest, and then let the tears come flowing out when we watch the story get retold up on TV or at the movies?

Make of yourself an object, and treat yourself the way you do your dog. Excellence is what you've always had, if you were to nurture it. And how do you treat your dog? I'm thinking a lot better, sometimes, than you treat your neighbor.

We could choose not to take responsibility for someone else's claim of excellence on our behalf. (Nothing wrong with a little partying now and then though!) That pilot could have used to read "The Message to Garcia" written by our man right here in East Aurora. There's room for personal responsibility.

Excellence is not something you're in the audience just to witness. It's not only in the Super Bowl, or at the Olympics, or flashing off the balconies in New Orleans, or on the screen from Hollywood.

There's also excellence in comparison to you. We still have a chance to win the real competition. Or maybe we already have, except let's not tip back the Gatorade just yet.

1 comment:

Publisher Colossal Books said...

see William Brown, "American Colossus: the Grain Elevator, 1843 to 1943" (Colossal Books, 2009).