High above the sun pulses in the haze of an ash-grey sky. It’s a Thursday in late August 1998, nearing one o’clock in the afternoon, as I leave my house and walk north on Mullet Street. In the distance the three smokestacks of Niagara Mohawk electric plant come into view, rising above the horizon of housetops like an apparition – totems to this once frontier town of industry and commerce, gone to rot.
At 27 I’m still living with my mother and going nowhere. If you asked my grandfather, he might say I’m wasting my life reading, going to bars every night. He’d laugh and call me Josephine, after his older sister, because my hair is long. He’ll tell you that what I should be doing is working, that it doesn’t matter if I like my job, just as long as I have one, which, in fact, I do. A month ago, I was hired as a prime-time cashier at Quality Markets. “Prime-time,” meaning just a few hours short of forty hours per week–this, so the bigwigs don’t have to pay health insurance. But since I’m not one of those kiss-ass ladder climbers who quietly endure 50 to 60 hours a week so they can one day become superstar store managers like my boss Jim Hatala, who struts from aisle to aisle, making believe he gives a shit about the crates of milk and canned vegetables waiting to be shelved. I’m not fussed. That’s not to say I’m content, but sometimes just knowing you’re going nowhere can be a blessing. Besides, today is my day off. Thus, I set out as Thoreau once advised, “on the shortest walk perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return, prepared to send my embalmed heart back as a relic” to this desolate kingdom of my youth.
At the corner of Mullet and Dove, I find the severed head of a sparrow on the sidewalk. Its tiny eyes glint in the sun, and its body is nowhere to be found. A swarm of ants covers the head. They look like parishioners moving around a sacred obelisk or temple of some ancient avian god. I’m almost tempted to scoop the head in my hands and carry it away like a talisman but decide against it. Instead, I press on, following some inner trajectory I am not consciously aware of, though I surmise it has something to do with having beers with my friend Walt at Billy Ott’s bar. *
After working the night shift for the sixth straight night at Saint Vincent’s assisted living home, my mother, who was fast asleep when I left, is probably slowing rising, making her way to the kitchen, where she’ll stand with a cup of black coffee and her first of many cigarettes, gazing out the window, watching the birds, admiring her garden of hydrangeas and roses. Slowly her thoughts will lead her to some private abyss where she’ll mull over her life — the choices she’s made, her dreams, all her incessant fears and failures. Then she’ll turn on the radio — and oldies station, Elvis, The Temptations, Dion — and let the music lull her into something close to bliss.
A year before we bought the one-story ranch-style house at 123 West Firth Street with generous help from my grandfather. My mother and I had fled our house on Main Street, where I grew up, leaving behind the leaky roof as well as most of the furniture, for my father, who, though he’d not lived with us since I was eight, was still responsible for the mortgage. According to my parents’ divorce agreement, my mother could stay in the house until I turned 21. After that, my father could do with it as he wanted.
The roof had leaked for nearly ten years. Why my father never had it repaired I did not know. I never asked. Even my grandparents, who bought us groceries and sometimes gave my mother money for the utility bills, never asked about the roof. My mother and I had long ago stopped replacing the drop ceilings that only became waterlogged and crumbled every time it rained. Sections of the carpet in the living room never fully dried and the floorboards underneath buckled. We used to drag out all the pots and pans, the cups and bowls from the cupboards and place them strategically throughout the living room and dining room.
Our new house, a white, three-bedroom ranch style had a finished basement. It became a sanctuary for my mother. She set about decorating with her own unique flair, transforming the rooms into something special, something all her own, the way she transformed the old house on Main Street after my father moved out.
After having left the severed bird’s head behind I continue my journey, mapping in my mind Dunkirk’s entirety, as if every sidewalk crack and cranny were rivers, as if every street I crossed brought me into a new, undiscovered land.
I imagine I’m one of the French trappers, those first Europeans to traverse the land that would one day become Chautauqua County, Dunkirk. It was the French, along with Father Louis – baptized Antoine – Hennepin, a Franciscan of Ath in the then Spanish controlled Netherlands, who first encountered the Seneca and the Erie people, part of the Iroquois Confederation. Hennepin, who wrote of his travels from the Gulf of Saint Lawrence to the Mississippi had been denounced as an errant falsifier.
Zottu Cushing, however, a ship builder by trade, traveled from Oneida, NY with his family, was the first to settle here at the mouth of Canadaway Creek, where the first shots of the War of 1812 were fired seven years after the Cushing completed his cabin.
The settlement was renamed Chadwick’s Bay, after Solomon Chadwick, who built a log cabin at the foot of Dove Street. His hospitality and cordial manner it was said attracted fisherman to the harbor which was named in his honor. Yet it was Elisha Jenkins, a local proprietor and exporter, who on a trip to France for his firm, beheld how the harbor of Dunkerque reminded him of Chadwick’s Bay, and thus the little fishing community on the shores of Lake Erie was named Dunkirk in 1818.
Walking east on Fourth Street, all the cross streets are named for birds: Canary, Swan, Pelican, Eagle, and Lark. I pass the old mansions, many of which were built by former presidents and supervisors of Brooks Locomotive Works. Rhodes House and First Gross House, built in the Queen Anne style, with gables and a rounded enclosed front porch, is painted battleship gray. My favorite is The Stapf House, built in the Italianate style in 1870’s by jeweler and real estate agent John Stapf .
Standing there trying to imagine the lives of the people who once lived there, I realized it’s been eighteen months since I returned from a disastrous cross-country road trip with two hippie women and a dog named Moonrise. I say disastrous because I was in love with one of the said women even though I knew she was in love with a stunt pilot who lived in a tiny bungalow north of L.A. To hide my disappointment, I drank myself into oblivion in New Orleans, made a fool of myself in Baton Rouge, and Chimayo, puked my way through Burbank, Reseda, and Simi Valley.
Picture it: me blubbering and drooling drunkenly across five states, looking at her with imploring, bloodshot eyes, like Quasimodo gazing at Esmeralda. The whole fracas ended as you well might imagine, with me licking my wounds and retreating back to the safety of home, just in time for my cousin’s wedding and atone for abandoning my mother.
Since then, back living with my mother, my life has become a working my shift at Quality, going home to sleep a few hours and then heading out to the bars until the wee hours. In between I revised the novel I’d started somewhere west of Albuquerque. It was about another trip I took the previous October after quitting a not too promising job at a local radio station. When I told my boss I was sick of making commercials for local hardware stores and the Chamber of Commerce, that I’d had enough of the Top 20 Country Countdown and the weather forecast he looked at me with the same bewildered shock my grandfather looked at me and asked what exactly I planned to do with my life. “Hitchhike across England and Ireland.” I said and watched his face sag into the gray pudding that it was.
Now, home with my mother for the past few months, the writing wasn’t going well. Sure, I’d finished two handwritten drafts and managed to send it to various literary agents and publishers, but each one sent back form letters telling me in the most boring language that though they appreciated the chance to read my work, they would not publish it. Failure, it seemed, was the one thing I could succeed at.
On the nights I didn’t hang out in the bars I’d fall asleep watching Nightline with Ted Koppel, only to wake at one or two in the morning. I’d pour a cup of cold coffee and sit in the darkness, waiting for something to happen, some cataclysm—an earthquake, a flood, or nuclear war—something that would thrust greatness upon me, and if not greatness, then render my life, with all its absurdity, completely and finally useless. For a while I entertained notions of going to Bosnia and bearing witness to the carnage and suffering that played out nightly on TV. What I longed for was the kind of transformation Damiel, the angel in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire who was assigned to listen to the thoughts of post-war Berlins, longed for, to shed his heavenly armor and experience life to its fullest, to feel love and feel pain, even though it meant he would also become mortal.
After a few weeks of revising my novel and dreaming about Sarajevo, I was hired by Kelly Services to work at a local juice factory. My assignment was to shovel cranberry slop into a neat pile as it shot out of the ass end of a machine. It was awful. I felt like I’d been plunged into the depths of William Blake’s satanic furnaces. The noise was horrendous, the heat devouring. In my mind all I could hear was my grandfather’s mocking voice: “He doesn’t want to work. He just wants to grow his hair long and get drunk!” Was he wrong? One thing was true: I didn’t want to spend the next forty years stocking canned foods or bagging peoples’ groceries, and I sure as hell didn’t want to work in a juice factory. It will come as no surprise then, that after working only three hours at the juice factory—blisters blooming on the heels of my hands like stigmata—I walked out during break time and never looked back.
Feeling down and out for my inability, or unwillingness to press on like my grandfather had done and how my mother was still doing, working the night shift at an assisted living home, I started volunteering, at my mother’s suggestion, at a local soup kitchen. “It’ll do you good to help people,” she said in between drags of her cigarette. “Get you out of the house, stop feeling sorry for yourself.
It was at the soup kitchen, where I served food, washed dishes, mopped, and swept the floor that I met Walt Poland. Walt was in his late sixties but looked at least one hundred — like some biblical prophet. He wore a long white beard and slicked back, greasy, hair, which curled over his collar. His mustache, which covered his mouth, was stained yellow from all the cigarettes he smoked one after the other. and He had long fingernails that looked like talons. Yet it was his eyes that I first noticed. Even more than his beard, or the way he walked, slow and lumbering, with great effort, like a tree. Walt’s eyes were a milky sapphire that confronted the world and everyone they met with a cautious, yet child-like innocence. It was obvious however, that Walt had long ago freed himself from the confines of innocence. A Morse Code specialist during the Korean War, he returned home and lived for a time on Long Island with his first wife and dabbled in photography. Aside from bartending gigs at the VFW and other local clubs, Walt’s life was a mystery. How he ended up alone, living in the shelter above the soup kitchen, I had no idea, though judging from his daily alcohol consumption it isn’t too difficult to piece together. I’m sure if I asked, if I plied him with enough beers, played his favorite songs on the jukebox, he’d tell me, but the truth I enjoy the mystery. I’m content not knowing. I prefer Walt to remain the grumbling, soft-spoken, enigma he is. Somewhere between serving him a plate of spaghetti or a third cup of coffee the subject of beer came up and seeing something in common he invited me to stop by Billy Ott’s, where he spent each afternoon after leaving the kitchen.
“An absolutely new prospect,” Thoreau wrote, “Is a great happiness…Two- or three-hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a country as I expect ever to see.” At the corner of Central Avenue, I stand in front of a vacant lot where, before I was born, the Hotel Gratiot once stood. Across the street the new city hall, built on the site of the old city hall which burned to the ground in 1925, looks bored, if not oppressed with a look of lassitude, like an old pensioner waiting out his last days.
With a deceiving facade that gives it a sense of depth, it boasts twin Tuscan columns between square corner piers that stand out only a few feet from the front wall. What to make of this marvel of civic governing, this imposing hunk of law and order?
At Washington Avenue Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton School, formerly Saint Mary’s, stands like an ancient citadel. It was here I attended school from kindergarten to eighth grade. Inside these brick walls, in these classrooms and hallways I felt a certainty about the world, and my place in it. Outside of my family this was the only place I felt like I belonged, felt loved.
Crossing Park Avenue, making my way past US News and Lake Shore Savings Bank, I see to my left Quality Markets. The giant “Q” on the marquee sign is burned out and reads “uality.” I walk diagonally through the parking lot, kicking a beer can until it gets lost under a car. On Main Street I continue north.
During Urban Renewal’s reign of terror in the early to mid-70’s—that dimwitted brainchild of ambitious city planners—nearly the entire city was decimated. Places of industry, Mom & Pop stores, even Koch’s Brewery closed. Dunkirk was no longer the place to be, as it was during my mother’s youth. “People from all over the county used to here to shop.” she said. “There was book- stores and clothing stores, candy stores, ice cream shops and bars. Now all we have are drug stores, dollar stores and parking lots.”
In front of M & T Bank is a plaque commemorating the first train to arrive in Dunkirk on May 15th, 1851. At the time Dunkirk was still a frontier town, the final stop for the New York & Erie Railroad, the longest railroad in the nation, stretching 446 miles from New York City.
On board the locomotive which left New York at six that morning were President Millard Fillmore and Commodore Matthew Perry, among other dignitaries, including William Seward and Horatio Brooks, founder of Brooks Locomotive Works.
My mind does cartwheels as I imagine myself entangled in this surreal carnival where the U.S.S. Michigan, anchored in the harbor, giving a thirteen-gun salute and the 65th Regiment Band played “Yankee Doodle.” Lost in this dream, I momentarily forget my main objective of the day: to meet Walt for beers at Billy Ott’s, which is still several blocks away.
In “The Fourteenth Ward,” the first chapter of Henry Miller’s Black Spring, he ruminates on “The great fragmentation of maturity.” Thus, when in our youth we are whole, and the terror and pain of the world penetrates us thoroughly. We are unable to distinguish with any certainty a separation between joy and sorrow. And now in our exile we live in the mind, in ideas, in fragments. We no longer drink in the wild outer music of the streets—we remember only. And what is it we are remembering, but our long-lost childhoods that now serve as a kind of lozenge to sooth us as we move through these hallways of early adulthood, rooms full rain and the dying, of children’s’ laughter and our boundless uncertainties as we follow one disappointment after another on our hapless trajectories that lead them nowhere.
On the north side of the CSX overpass, I pass the vacant lot where The Main Bowling Academy and bar once stood, the place where my parents met.
In her journal, my mother wrote that the first time she met my father he was “tanned and wearing Bermuda shorts,” and that he was a good dancer.
Across the street a boarded-up building that used to be Miller’s Bar, above which my great grandfather lived in a small, clapboard room.
At three o’clock as I cross Lake Shore Drive and turn right. After a few more blocks my destination is insight. Shit-brown and half falling down, Billy Ott’s shimmers like a mirage. Gripping the door, I momentarily fear opening it, believing it will vanish, that the entire town will vanish, that I’ll be left standing in its vast expanse like those French fur trappers who sauntered through the virgin wilderness, believing they had discovered a land no human had ever set foot on.
When I finally door open, I’m overcome with the stench of cigarette smoke, sweat and stale beer. What kind of establishment have I entered? The house of doomed, some way station outside the gates of the purgatory?
It takes me a moment to adjust my eyes to the darkness, to the burning from the smoke, just as the patrons sitting at the bar are momentarily blinded by the light that follows me from the outside.
“Where you been, you little shit?” a voice cries out. “You’re late.” the words are most and spit out like Morse Code.
Moving forward I see a ghostly mariner hunched over, arms resting on the bar. It’s Walt, of course. He smiles at me, invites me to pull up a stool, waves to the bartender and orders me a draft.
After we cheered one another, I take a drink and look around. The bartender is nonplussed and goes about his routine of washing glasses, emptying ashtrays, and reading a lottery magazine.
Walt’s other drinking companion, John, who looks like he could pass as Walt’s younger brother, sits quietly on the next stool staring at his beer.
On the television, an old western is playing. An ex-union soldier, as Walt fills me in, has been hired to transport gold through dangerous territory, unaware that his partner and old friend is plotting against him.
“I got that guy’s name at the tip of my tongue,” Walt says and spits. “Who the hell is he?”
I have no idea. After a couple more drafts I’m feeling mellow. I nod to John, who flashes his crooked teeth in a half smile as if he’s suddenly remembered something. He pushes the brim of his hat up exposing the wide creases of his forehead. He sticks a dirty finger in his right ear, then falls back into his catatonia.
“Shit!” Walt says, watching the cowboys ride across a desert landscape. “I can’t figure out who that fucker is.”
I turn to the TV again as the cowboy draws his gun, gives his enemy a side-eye as the sun sets behind him. Walt shakes his head. “No idea.” he says again. “Not a fucking clue.”
Everyone has suddenly grown quiet. Walt is chewing his long talons. The bartender is in a far corner of the bar immersed in a video trivia game. On the television a showdown is about to take place. The hero walks toward a group of three men all wearing black hats. Quick camera cuts, close-up shots, guns are drawn, fired. A trumpet, somewhere off screen plays a mournful tune. A buxom, red-haired woman places her hands over her mouth. And suddenly John, just back from the men’s room looks up at the TV and howls into Walt’s left ear, howls like a man who’s been silent his entire life, and realizes he has something important to say, as if his life depended on it. “Randolph Scott!” he howls. “Randolph Scott!” I order one last round of beers before heading home.
“Cheers!” I say to John and Walt, who holds his beer in one hand and his left ear with the other. Thoreau said that the highest we can attain is not knowledge, but sympathy with intelligence.
“Cheers!” I say and finish my beer in three swallows.
Outside again, the sky is purple, like the robe the Roman soldiers threw dice for, blue and pink. I zip my jacket, sink my fists into my pockets and proceed in the direction from which I came. Up ahead, the neon glow of Larry Spacc’s Used Cars sign comes into view like a movie screen, between the overhanging branches of an aging oak. Further, to my right the three smokestacks of the electric plant. I listen to my heart’s uneven beat, keep time with the clap of my shoes against the sidewalk. My thoughts once again drift to Henry Miller and I’m comforted in knowing I have nothing to fear, that this day, and the coming night, like this town, belongs to me. The possibilities are endless.