I dropped my rental car in Amherst, near Buffalo in Upstate New York, and, on a whim, decided to walk the five miles back to my hotel. In winter, such an impulse could prove fatal, but in summer it’s just lonely. Suburban anywhere in America is not engineered for pedestrians. I walked along the littered margins of the roadway, through untended wasteland, and across paved strip malls to reach my destination. Along the way, I passed a middle school so sere I mistook it for a prison and encountered only two other walkers, a young woman who resolutely refused to make eye contact or respond to my greeting and a young man who grinned and shrugged. The woman seemed embarrassed to be car-less, I think the guy shared my sense of absurdity at being so completely alone in the heart of suburbia, a world of cracking pavement and roadside detritus.
Hungry, I stopped at The Olive Branch, a franchised food trough, where I was offered a nice house red and a gadget upon which one may play video games for $1.00 each. Happily, I had my Kindle reader and could forebear the electronic joys of car-jacking and killing while awaiting my pasta e fagioli.
Back at the hotel, the television was abuzz with the racism, sexism, and bad hair of the Republican front-runner, a billionaire named Trump. (The name invites a limerick, but I can’t be bothered.) Given the choice of that or baseball on television, I resumed reading Hemingway’s Nick Adams Stories, now published together in chronological order.
Buffalo to NYC:
Amtrak from Buffalo to New York City is a long day’s journey. I booked Business Class to enjoy more comfortable seating for this passage through the heartland of 19th Century America. I fantasized meeting Joanna Lumley and pitching her to re-trace my entire journey with a BBC film crew – ‘Joanna and Jack’s Absolutely Fabulous Journey Around the World in 180 Days.’ We’d have cigars and brandy together at the Roosevelt House in Shanghai, be later ejected persona non grata for demonstrating in support of Falun Gong in Tienanmen Square. Joanna’s tougher than she looks.
This reverie was interrupted by hunger and the reality of Amtrak’s commuter cuisine, microwaved hot-dogs paired with plastic short dogs of Cabernet. Although the frankfurters had a nice ‘pop’ when masticated and the wine was far better than its presentation, I can’t feature Joanna stooping to such vulgar fare. Perhaps Amtrak could be induced to offer a brief reprise of a first class dining – hot-dogs and sauerkraut with chips, served on bone china, with real silver, and wine in Waterford Crystal.
The train passed through Rochester, where Frederick Douglass made his home. Rochester was a hotbed of Abolitionist activity before the American Civil War and the destination station of the Underground Railroad. Arriving there, escaped slaves had a devil’s choice, remain in Rochester where they were very welcome, but exposed to capture and return under the Fugitive Slave Law, or escape to Canada where slavery was illegal, but former slaves unwelcome socially. Many chose the former and their descendants still live in Rochester, proudly tracing their ancestry to the bravest and luckiest of the self-emancipating slaves.
Along the way to Albany and on to New York City we passed by acres of auto salvage, shanty towns, and train yards where sprayed graffiti marked the empty walls and carriages. Groups of children, descendants of slaves and slave catchers, played in puddles and wetlands. They paused to grin and waive as the train flew by.
At the end of the long day, I took a commuter train to New Jersey, to spend the weekend with old friends before continuing on the Washington, DC, America’s capitol city.