Of course, you can't tell me something like that. Fuck if i'm going to travel to America just to sleep in an airport hotel across the road from a mall, so i started looking into options downtown. J was terrified because all you hear up here is how much of a ghetto the place is, but i was headstrong. We arrived at the Greyhound station and i had the route to the hotel imprinted in my head, anticipating having to march through skid row, dodging drug dealers and crack addicts. We turned the corner and there were moms out with kids, teenagers lounging about, people in suits off to work. Hardly a war zone.
After lunch ("fish fry" - apparently New Yorkese for fish'n'chips) we walked down to the most beautiful city hall i've ever seen - 26 stories of art deco magnificence. The interior was dimly-lit with gorgeous murals everywhere. It was buzzing with residents doing city business, though we didn't see a single official. We took the creaky wooden elevator to the top floor and walked up several flights of stairs to make it out to the deserted observation deck. The 360-degree view of the city and surrounds was breathtaking - the place is filled with amazing architecture.
Our lay of the land established, we hit the streets again. We walked up a recommended strip dotted with quaint houses, antique stores, art galleries and restaurants. I was surprised to hear Spanish everywhere because you hardly ever hear it just 2 hours away in Toronto, but apparently there's a large Latino community living in the west side. There was certainly a hell of a lot more good coffee and Mexican food than you get in Canada. After a few miles walk we bused back down the strip and wandered a few blocks east to visit the self-proclaimed birthplace of Buffalo wings - the Anchor Bar. It's tremendously tacky and filled with tourists talking about how the wings are so much better back in Texas (or wherever). But hey, you're in Buffalo, you gotta do it once. The wings were just fine, for what it's worth - as good as it gets when you only have two ingredients to work with. Back at the hotel the nightclub district was starting to pump up; loud music and revelry spilling out onto the street as people enjoyed the summer night.
The next morning we finally saw some of the desolation i'd read about. Without the office workers and the people coming downtown to visit the offices, the place was dead. Most of the storefronts were either boarded up a long time ago or barred for the weekend. Even the CVS pharmacy was closed. It's a little unnerving at first when the only people on the streets are gangster-looking dudes, but then you realize everyone's just changing buses, going somewhere, not hanging around or causing trouble. We took the light rail down to the waterfront and were dropped in the middle of a construction site under the freeway. Overhead i could hear all the Canadians driving to the mall, while in the distance a kid biked circles in front of a block of public housing. We walked toward the pier and encountered a gaggle of tourists who looked lost. Some locals wearing shirts from the local yacht club were milling around and invited us out on the water.
First we cruised out to Lake Erie for a bit, looking back at the city skyline, west to Canada and south to a newly-built wind farm. One of the guys was talking to us about naval history, the old military vessels permanently moored on the waterfront. In a boat out on a lake it sent me somewhere else briefly, things that will never happen again... Then we headed up the river, past the old docks and factories. The only one that appears to still be working is General Mills, billowing out popcorn-smelling smoke. The rest looked like a bomb had hit them - crumbling walls, shattered windows, rust and vines and decay. I love abandoned industrial buildings so drifting past these architectural carcasses was awesome. You could close your eyes and almost hear the ships, the dock workers, the factories humming along 50 years ago. Now it's all just a sad and majestic memorial to a different era.
Back on land we returned to the city center with the plan of busing it out to the mall for lunch. We were so hungry we decided to cab instead, assuming it'd be a short trip. It cost almost $35 - what would have been a $2.05 bus fare. It actually cost more to cab to the mall than to take the bus from Toronto to Buffalo in the first place. Exiting the cab was like stepping onto a different planet, depressing in the severity of its contrast. People buying and eating and drinking and spending and consuming like the end of the world was coming. We had lunch at a chain restaurant they don't have in Canada and walked around for a bit, but it was crushing me. I didn't have any money to spend, and i wasn't feeling comfortable walking around with hundreds of rich Torontonians in town for the day to exploit the cheaper prices. We wanted to bus back downtown, but there wasn't one coming for 2 hours, so spent another $35 to cab it. All up the detour amounted to the most expensive taco i've ever eaten. The food was fine, but the experience was miserable.
Downtown we had a coffee at a local hipster joint, some nachos, then walked to the Greyhound station. We didn't get shot, or mugged, or accosted. A few people said hey what's up, how's it going. Sure, we didn't end up taking the bus through the infamous east side, but downtown was just fine. It actually turned out being one of the most fun and interesting trips i've been on. Even the ridiculously expensive mall excursion was worth it for the insight if nothing else. I am purposefully going to ignore the subsequent debacle at the Canadian border and just reflect on the sights and sounds and smells of a new place, one that pleasantly surprised me and now holds a happy little place in my heart.