He materializes before us. He’s holding a bright green backpack and his dirty feet are jammed into a pair of tired flip-flops. A razor has not touched his face in weeks and a sad desperation shrouds his eyes.
“Nope. Sorry my man.”
“There’s rain on the streets.”
We nod without stopping.
“Joe!!” he yells. He accentuates his frustration with a loud stomp on the cold wet street.
“Poor guy, he’s obviously off his meds.”
I nod but move us forward. My time in New York City conditioned a ‘keep-walking’ mentality along vacated streets that is hard to shake.
“Where is everybody?” I ask for third time.
My wife zips her jacket a little tighter and pushes her hat against her ears. She shrugs.
Main street. Buffalo, New York. Ghost-town on a Saturday.
It’s a shame. The city has an old-time sense of beauty. Art-deco buildings thrust into the grey sky and intriguing architecture differentiates one building from the next. The streets are clean and wide and straight. No sirens pierce the air and the closest we come to witnessing road rage is a polite beep met with a short wave of apology. We are alone and it is quiet in a once thriving city.
It isn’t quite the start to our tenth anniversary vacation I had envisioned.
The sounds and smells of the Anchor Bar (home to the original “buffalo wing”) are a welcome respite from our chilly walk from one end of the city to the other. It is the day before Monday Night Football, our beloved Bills hosting that dark winning machine from Massachusetts, and the atmosphere has a buzz to it.
Bills paraphernalia hangs from every inch of the restaurant and waitresses deposit an endless supply of pizza and wings, dressed in jerseys and tee shirts of their favorite players.
We indulge in a beer to quell the fire from our wings, and laugh at a crying child behind us. The dad is new and starts negotiating. The kid is winning and my wife looks at me, “She’s trouble,” she says. I agree. It takes a little effort to stop myself from saying “You’re doing it wrong,” in the smug tone of a veteran parent. Instead we cheers our bottles and take a selfie. There is something deliciously satisfying about vacationing without kids, and watching new parents fail around you.
“I miss the boys,” we say simultaneously.
We spend the morning of gameday at Niagara Falls. I fill my camera with slo-mo video of the falls, trying, and failing, to capture the power and magnificence of this natural wonder. I lean against the railing and watch millions of gallons fall hundreds of feet to the river below as an endless mist rises to the heavens. Raging waters upstream and calm waters downstream, it is a paradox of nature that mirrors the human soul.
I’m glad we stopped.
After a quick nap and a trip to the store for some tailgating essentials, we head to the stadium.
It is hard to encompass the tailgating scene outside New Era Field. Music and sizzling meat from thousands of grills, fills the air. Flags snap in the breeze, and though their red white and blue is injected into the shape of a charging buffalo, and not the stars and stripes, they are undoubtedly American.
Everyone appears happy and no shortage of ‘cheers’ or high-fives exist. Strangers welcome strangers and positive energy vibrates through the gravel of sprawling parking lots.
This is Buffalo.
Standing at our seats, watching the game unfold, shoulder to shoulder with strangers, the stadium roars. This is what is great about being a die-hard fan of a 2-6 team.
Every third down stop, every first down, every catch, every sack says, “Something is about to happen, something magical. This is where we turn it around.” The heart of the team thrums through your chest as people bang on aluminum seats and whoop until their throats are sore.
Opposing fans live on a knife-edge of fear. They do not revel in a win, just relieved they haven’t lost to a lesser opponent. As the game continues they become desperate to crush the soul of the hometown fans. It’s a team they just do not understand. How can you love something that breaks your heart again and again? How can you cheer when your team is down? How can you hold-on when the season is tossed about like a cheap raft on the Niagara river?
Heart and magic.
I can’t think of a better place to celebrate our anniversary.
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