Saturday, 8 September 2007

Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo

Buffalo is unique in my travelling so far in its unmitigated awfulness.
The bus trip down ran an hour longer (from three stretched to four hours) because the immigration control at the 'Peace Bridge' between Lake Erie and Buffalo was chronically understaffed and overaggressive. The ten reception stalls had two, and at times one, officers checking documentation. The security checkpoint had five officers, only one of whom spoke; the others stared with expressions of contempt, suspicion and pity in equal measure. It resembled nothing so much as a gathering of vice-principals.
After promises of a short stay, an expedited exit and my first-born child, I was allowed back on the bus. I wandered uneasily around the Greyhound bus terminal, eventually discovering an ATM, an information booth, and several people eying my bag with interest. I took a free train to the hostel. There was a ramp to assist people in wheelchairs to board the train, though I noticed that it was used exclusively by those too fat to climb the stairs which dropped down from the opening train doors. One woman clambered onto the train, walked the length of the carriage asking for a dollar, then got off at the next stop.
The hostel was entirely at odds with its neighbourhood, in that it was clean and tidy and had white people in it. I got directions to the restaurant district. In my dorm room, a middle-aged man from Los Angeles told me, in a rambling monologue, about the boats he owned and world titles he had won. His success had clearly not afforded him the dental attention that his prominent missing tooth would seem to require.
Buffalo is the home of that famous American treat, buffalo wings. This spicy chicken dish is lauded as the essential food for watching football and scratching yourself. Allen Street in downtown Buffalo is the birthplace of the wings, so I found a diner and ordered a medium.
I shouldn't have been surprised that they were revolting. Many of the culinary contributions America has offered which other countries politely decline I have discovered to be disturbing experiences, not least because eating in the U.S. is not so much a pursuit as an endurance event. A 'medium' was eleven pieces of chicken.
Foolishly in my exuberance I had also ordered a side. The "tuna pasta salad" was larger than the entire Japanese meal I had eaten the previous night in Toronto. Still, I battled through both, as well as the celery sticks and dip which came with the wings.
The wings were a microcosm of the city of Buffalo: desperately making up in spice what they lacked in flavour. I had played safe and ordered 'medium' rather than 'spicy' flavour, and after the fifth wing I congratulated myself on my restraint while wiping hot tears from my face.

The city has two points of interest for me: the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building, the Martin House Complex. Apart from a few historical remnants, there is little left to offer denizens of the Rust-Belt city. There are none of the excessive displays of self-made opulence of which Americans are so fond. Few SUVs roam the streets. No giggling gaggles of girls gush over Gucci. People loiter alone or in pairs on corners, on lawn chairs or sprawled awkwardly on the grass, and give the impression of being trapped here in a city where prosperity has come, glanced round, and left.

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