I wrote this as the Reflection for the Trinity@7 service. I read it last night. My mother Trudy Cusella edited it. It's all in the collaboration.
Tonight while we are experiencing one of our coldest winters, I thought it might be fitting to talk about how Forbes magazine recently released its list of America’s most miserable cities. Buffalo was rated eighth on that list. Forbes misery scale is based on inflation, unemployment rates, commute times, weather and violent crime. What strikes me about this list wasn’t that Buffalo was on it but the reactions to it. From people who do NOT live in the area, I hear, “Well, that seems just about right.” While the reactions I get from people who DO live here is, “Unfair. Wrong. We always get blasted because of the snow when other cities endure far more freezing temperatures. Buffalo is a great place to live. It should be ranked as one of the best.” The divergent responses are an odd contradiction. One of the charms of living here at least for me is that Buffalo is a city riddled with irony and you must live here to truly appreciate that about it.
I’ve lived here for years and I enjoy it. And, I enjoy the fact that Buffalo makes it on those dubious lists. I’m not a masochist. I don’t invite gloom. I once lived in a city ranked in Forbes magazine as the best place to live and I was miserable. Now I’m happy in a so-called miserable place. Personal irony.
Sometimes the complexities of cities—its network of buildings, environment, people, business, roadway and culture—make it difficult for us to see our relationship to it. This is when I attempt to embody the complexity. I try to see the city as a character—personify it. I visualize a person. Then I can see what kind of relationship I’m having with this person.
Prior to moving here, I lived in Seattle. Now for me Seattle was a young man in his prime. To make him more easily understood I’ll use a stereotype. He was a quarterback of the high school football team. All American. Smart. Gorgeous. Homecoming King. We all knew that guy. Maybe some of you were that guy or a female version of that guy. I was not. I liked smoking cigarettes at coffee houses. That guy never noticed me. I witnessed his glory days from the sidelines. And that’s how I felt living in one of the best cities in the country—sidelined. Fighting traffic and expense everyday. I wasn’t in the game—I didn’t work on one of the corporate campuses, I didn’t have money for a condo by the water, boating makes me motion sick. I was enthralled by all the city had to offer but ultimately I felt dejected, isolated, and disheartened.
Now, Buffalo personified creates a very different character. Buffalo may have been the quarterback at one time—perhaps when it was given the moniker The Queen City in the early part of the twentieth century but that was one incident in a storied past. The Buffalo character has seen his day in the sun and so have his knees, back and elbows. And the pain of the age and self abuse has made this man cranky, difficult and challenging. He’s busted up and down on his luck. When he drank, he drank whiskey neat but now he’s in a 12 step program. Tonight is Oscar night so I’ll give you a visual in the form of an Oscar contender. The actor who would play Buffalo personified is not the Adonis Brad Pitt but Mickey Rourke. Mickey Rourke, the Wrestler, the aging actor awaiting a comeback. He may be passed his prime but he’s still in the ring. You can’t be sure if this man is capable of lasting change. It’s because you don’t know that you are willing to give him your hand. You don’t just root for him; you become part of his story. You don’t reach out to him as some sort of co-dependant gesture to try to change the unchangeable. You reach out because with this man reaching out matters. It could change his life and yours. Suddenly you are no longer on the sidelines. You are involved.
Earlier we read Yeats’ poem Lake Isle of Innisfree. I picked it because in the hands of master, you can see how places really do fill us up with their character. Tonight on my way here I passed the place that is my Innisfree. While my place isn’t nearly as quaint or peaceful as the real one, it is a place where contradictions converge, where cynicism and hope meet, where I feel a spiritual shudder.
I’m sure you’ve seen it as you drive along Route 5 in South Buffalo, just before you get on or off the Skyway. This area is being developed in fits and burst. I come to it along Tift Street. As I crest the hill over the train yards and drive just beyond the old dump that is now a nature preserve, I arrive at the foot of Tift where the lake meets the city. From the rubble of Bethlehem Steel, windmills turn. Small red lights at their center flash like a beacons drawing me ever closer. It’s as if they broke through the earth and rose up on their own—a flower sprouted from industry. New life blooming in waste. More irony.Everything becomes waste and waste makes what comes next possible. A renewable resource from a spent one. Our defeated past becomes our hopeful future. Windmills from a steel plant.
But this doesn’t just happen at the foot of Tift street. It’s happening tonight, right now, right here. We came from those weather worn, dark, empty streets of the city into an old church to gather for music and prayer and poetry. This is the way we reach out to awaken the spirit of our city.
A young beautiful boy striding the pinnacle of his ability and talent throws a perfectly spun football under the lights. He’s wonderful. And I challenge any 15 year old not to be enthralled by this Brad Pitt image. But it’s reflected glory. Our man, Mickey, is challenging. He’s not content. He can be down right miserable. He needs change. And he’s looking straight at me and at you, waiting to see what to do next.