I lived in Buffalo for a year. One year. I came in July, which goes against every piece of moving advice, if you’re looking for it. It was sticky, hard to breathe, helped none by the dark hardwood floors and walls of our new-old house, three stories up, with only our knees and tired backs to carry the weight of every trunk, pack, and collapsing cardboard box. It was a long day.
My partner and I spent that first night in sleeping bags rolled out on the sloping living room floor. The air didn’t move, but we slept like lions. That first night in a new home can tell you a lot, can tell you if you’ve made a mistake, if you’ve wasted your time. The night felt good - what a relief.
We woke up early and didn’t stop moving until late that night, desperate to settle in and let our minds wander to other things. I don’t know what we did for dinner; I don’t know if we had a shower liner or a working television yet. My memory is fogged glass now - one of the many casualties of COVID's quarantine - but every move looks about the same anyway, so I'll wager a guess: returned the truck, hid the box of too-tight jeans I convinced myself I could do something with, panicked at the sudden sound of nearby fireworks, sweat, argued with Kevin, laid down on the couch in an otherwise empty living room and convinced myself it was all worth it.
The house was crooked, aching like an old man bent over a river unable to take a drink. Towards the end, one of my daily nightmares was coming home to find the kitchen and balcony had slid off like icing on a hot cake. Where the fridge used to be, just open air and the evergreens. There were birds in the attic - squirrels, too, for a minute - that kept us up all winter long with their cooing and their nest-building. I'm an absolute sucker for the innocence of animals, but when their stench wafts into my clothes - or their dead bodies appear at the foot of my wardrobe - my empathy runs dry. By March, they were gone, and immediately replaced by several hundred horse-sized flies. How I missed the corpses then.
There was a marvelous maple tree full of fat leaves that swayed behind the bookcase. It sounded like water when it moved. One morning, I woke up to the sound of men chopping it down. Whap! - it's swollen trunk struck the pavement. It felt so wrong. The only consolation I took was the bright red ring in the wood that indicated the tree had been sick, and likely would have collapsed anyway.
Aside from us, there was a couple that lived in the back (whom we saw the night we moved in and never again), and a young woman with cats on the first floor. She, too, wasn’t home for more than three days that year, so the house was quiet. There was the front porch. A Nap Cubby converted into a Podcast Room converted into an alternative office converted into Nap Cubby 2.0. The yellow room. The balcony, where our friends liked to sit and drink their coffee. We spent every waking moment here, for a year. Any other time, I would have rejoiced - it was so big, so bright, in stark contrast to the New York City studio I'd writhed in through the early months of the pandemic - but it didn’t keep us from feeling confined, and terribly, horribly bored. The late-night drum beats from the neighbor's house, the lame drag-racing down dark streets that would set every baby in a one block radius off at once, that all weighed on my head, and it kept me from sleeping too soundly especially as lonely winter turned belly up to inevitable spring.
That isn’t Buffalo’s fault necessarily, just a side effect of living in a place with other people when there isn’t much to do. It’s a good city. It takes a lot for me to say that because I’ve come to resent it. It’s a large town, empty, incestuous, madly in love with itself, terribly naïve and ignorant to the rest of the world mostly by choice. In a moment of rage at our isolation, I referred to it as a desolate Canadian bus stop (which isn’t entirely inaccurate, but it is a narrow description). My partner is from here. It shows in the way he greets people, also in his idealism. The people here are grounded optimists. They seem neighborly to each other and, otherwise, completely disinterested. The younger people, though, I never spent enough time with to get to know, so that’s all conjecture.
Most of my views on native Buffalonians came from an indistinguishable brick building tucked between a sleepy cul-de-sac and a river, brown, often freckled with deer. I started working as a wellness leader at the assisted living facility in September of the year that moved quickly and also not at all, well-suited for the people inside. They had all cropped up here, in houses like mine, on streets like this. They had all gone to the same high-school, years apart, and married into each other’s families. One particularly sweet mother of two once wrote in a short story: "I grew up next to this very sweet little girl, and we were best friends. They moved away when we were in school, but then last week, guess who moved into my room and is my new roommate? Here we are!" They were also perfectly American, which is to say they held distinguished xenophobic views of the Irish and Italians but held names like McLaughlin and Rossi. They were hard-working folks who had grown tired: even now, ten years into retirement, their hands ached from decades of cutting steel and sewing buttons.
Here I would find people I connected to deeply, despite the 70+ year age difference. These folks wanted, desperately, someone to listen to their stories. For many of them, it was a last-ditch effort to pass on their ideas to another person.
It was a strange place to be at twenty-three, and then twenty-four.
This is where I met Betty, or, more truthfully, where Betty met me. She picked me out, almost demanded to know what my name was and what I was all about. She was wearing a pink velvet jumpsuit and cat-eye glasses.
“What’s your name?”
I told her.
“I like you, and I like the way you do things here.” she said.
“I like you too, Betty.”
She was a girl scout leader for fifty years and collected everything from ribbons to flowers to cough drop wrappers. During a brisk, mid-October walk, donned in three sweaters and a yellow rain jacket, she pointed out leaves she wanted to take home. It was my job to fetch them. Once I nearly slipped and tumbled down the embankment which would have spit me out to the freezing river. She belly-laughed so hard, she fell back onto a bench and huffed her inhaler.
I could do this forever, I told her. She sighed, said she hadn’t been outside since May.
“Feels good.” The wind tousled her gray hair like an old friend. She was beautiful, frail, perfectly in her place.
My shift ended and I had to return her to the facility, even though, if we had it our way, we would’ve frolicked into the woods and lived like the witches we were. I clocked out and put an arm around her shoulder, promising I’d see her tomorrow.
“Bye, kid. Thanks for everything.” She said it like she knew this was the last day we’d ever have together.
Days later, we were in lockdown, suffering from a terrible outbreak of COVID-19 that would last well into the next year's January. Shifts were limited to standing in doorways in full PPE asking if snacks could be fetched. We looked like Martians watering potato plants. It was pathetic. Most of my residents didn’t even acknowledge my knocks, going so far as to lock their doors to avoid facing the awful truth. Betty, on the other hand, got a kick out of the whole thing.
“You got any rum, Buzz?”
“Mm. I’ll tip you if you’ve got any rum.”
“I don’t drink rum at work, Betty.”
“Mm. You’re sure you’re Irish?”
She laughed at her own joke and then coughed on her own laugh. Her roommate rolled her eyes and muttered something under her breath. Betty didn’t pay her any mind.
Death is a big looming bird at a nursing home. It’s not a secret I and the nurses keep to ourselves; we can all see it out there on the eaves. So-and-so didn’t sleep much last night. We’re just waiting for his son to call. It’s what we’re here for, so there’s no dread or surprise attached. We are the valet staff, the lobby-boys in the final bed and breakfast. I like to think of it that way.
Betty died in December. I wish we had more time.
Spring covers Buffalo like a warm cotton sheet. You forget how many people live here until they pour out of their houses like fire ants, invigorated by the sun and the rain and the brimming of boats on the lake. You can’t get away. Everything is suddenly very, very alive.
When I told the residents I was moving again, this time to California, they nodded and politely congratulated me. If I prodded, they’d tell me not to go. Once you leave, you never come back. I’ve heard that a lot these last few months. I wonder if it’s true. Buffalo feels like a place where a slightly different version of myself could be very happy, but for this iteration, I feel I’ve arrived ten years and two kids too early.
From here, you can see the cherry tops of downtown cut flat against the sky, the full trees like paint-brushes breaking up the pavement, the slices of yellow haunted park, the flickering News sign. It all swirls together until the edge of town where the fields run suddenly empty. Drive past that and you’ll realize you’re on an island floating in the middle of the Great American Sea. Ah - so that’s why it feels so isolated, so utterly strange and watchful and lonely. Maybe that’s COVID. Maybe that's me. Buffalo has a hard time letting you in and letting you go. We are the same in this way.
I lived here for a year. One year. My partner is from here, and it shows in everything that he is: friendly, but sharp in that distinctly eastern way, wheels always spinning, hands outreached in skeptical compromise, gray sky, clouds full of ice, frigid rivers, rolling meadows.
I don’t know if I’ll ever be back, but it was home for a while.
For a while, she was everything.