going 'way back to when I lived in Buffalo, New York. A strange,
almost rustic city was Buffalo in those days, still a mill town,
still an important Lake port. Outside the city the Steel Mills
stained the surrounding houses a dull orange and the grain silos
stood in their serried ranks along the shore. To swim in the lake was
to emerge smelling of the dead fish that littered the shore and ear
infections from the pollution were commonplace, but who knew? I
worked in one rolling mill straight out of University, only for a few
months as a recent Union deal had resulted in a settlement obliging
the management to take on extra workers who were not needed as
compensation for a move to modernize production. The bunch of us
newly hired bods wandered around sweeping clinkers and getting coffee
for the regular workers, and I was told in all seriousness not to
sweep so fast because I was 'killing the job'. Pfui. Rabid
enthusiasts for 'workers rights' should take a look at the flip side
in a time when the corrupt National Unions wielded more power than
the most bloated Capitalist ever dreamed of.
I digress. My memories of the Mills seems condensed into one night,
standing in the middle of a cavernous cave of a building, the lights overhead
twinkling like lonely stars in the waves of heat from the
blast furnaces, hearing the siren that announced the passage of a
gigantic crane that spanned the walls from side to side, riding on
its twin tracks under the roof. The little cage that held the
operator sat on top, and from underneath his aerie a cable hung down
ending in an electromagnet, an iron disk eight feet across holding in
casual embrace a dozen or so steel bars each one of which was the
size of a railroad rail. Every few minutes a fountain of sparks shot
into the air as a worker with a twelve foot long oxygen pipe thrust
the end into a crucible of molten steel to burn off the slag.
lasted a month or so- my pride couldn't take being essentially
useless. I worked in a jewelry manufacturing place for a time,
learning to make the models from which the rings were cast, It was
interesting work, and later my then wife and I opened our own
hole-in-the-wall hand crafted jewelry shop. After a couple of years
we upped stakes and moved to Connecticut, and out of the present
returned alone, later, to find Buffalo had changed in many ways. The
opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway that connected the Great Lakes
to the Ocean spelled the end of the steel industry in Buffalo;
foreign imports quickly outsold the local outlets, and grain
exporters found it cheaper to ship direct without the need for
storage and rail transport, so the huge concrete grain silos fell
into disuse. The air was indisputably cleaner and the lake gradually
recovered, but the people began to leave. The great manufacturing
complexes that gave the Great Lakes Cities the name of the 'Rust Belt'
became a series of ghost towns.
a spell in a goods warehouse loading freight my jewelry background
got me into a sales job in a posh jewelry store, the one and only
time in my life I ever wore a suit to work. I was moving up in the
world, at least people seemed to think so. I even moved out of my
slum apartment and got a place in a newly renovated hotel on the lake
front, way up on the twelfth floor. It was only a little one room
efficiency but the view out over the lake was amazing and I loved
living there. Late at night you could see the sunset over Canada
across the lake and the slow strings of lights that were the Lake
Freighters heading for the Seaway.
a moment of euphoria over my improved status I went to a local Boat
Show intending to buy a sailboat to take out on weekends. It didn't
take long to disabuse me of the notion; I might be dressing better
but no way did I have the cash needed to own a sailboat of my own.
Somewhat cast down I was wandering disconsolately around
the sleek Day Sailors and Yachts as the show was ending, when my eyes
were caught by a small unobtrusive craft stuck in the back of a
display. It was spindle shaped, bright blue and seemed to be made out
of some kind of rubbery plastic. There was a small oval cockpit into
which was thrust a bright orange paddle with a blade on each end.
Intrigued I asked the salesman who was boxing up his promotional
material what it was. He seemed tired but game and flashed the kind
of smile you learn as a salesman, all teeth and oozing sincerity from
every bicuspid. 'That? It's a new kind of kayak, it's made out of an
indestructible plastic called Lexan.'
looks like a kid's toy,' I objected, 'Could you really take it out on
Bet!' he enthused, scenting the possibility of one more sale and one
less thing to pack up. 'Why, they take these things White Watering in
Colorado, look!' He showed me a brightly colored brochure but I
wasn't really paying attention. Something about this homely
unassuming little boat had captured my imagination.
how much?' I said without much hope. I was standing next to the
polished mahogany gunwale of a cabin cruiser that looked as though it
would take a second mortgage on my immortal soul to even make a down
you what,' he said in that
I'm-losing-my-shirt-here-but-you-seem-like-a-nice-enough-guy sort of
tone that they make you practice at sales seminars, ' They usually
retail at one fifty, but since this is a show model I could let you
have it for, oh, ninety five? And I'll throw in the paddle and the
splash apron for Free, how about that?'
I had a friend once who worked in Advertising. He told me that every
day before beginning work he and his co-workers would stand by the
coffee machine and chant, 'New and Free, Free and New ! Good for me
and good for you!' You think I'm kidding? Take a look at any product
mind the pop psychology, I was sold. I paid him the money and humped
my new purchase home, ignoring the startled looks from pedestrians
and drivers alike.
say you never forget the first time you try anything. I remember like
it was yesterday the first time I laid the lightweight plastic boat
on the lakeshore , climbed into the cockpit facing shoreward and
pushed off backwards into the water.
water was calm, and the little boat floated like a duck, the water
line rising to about the level of my waist, so that I was literally
sitting below the surface. I used one paddle like a canoe paddle, and
slowly began to turn the boat to open water. Inspiration struck and I
alternately pushed one side and pulled on the other, and the Kayak
spun like a top. Then I put some muscle into it and the bluntly
pointed prow shot through the water like a torpedo. It was the most
incredible sensation: I was the
boat. I could feel the waves slapping my bottom and the slow heave of
the deep water beneath. Lake Erie is not as deep as some of the Great
Lakes, but the freighters that ply its waters are as large as all but
the most massive of the ocean going vessels.
first day I followed the shore about twenty feet out, down to the old
factory docking facilities. A lot of salvaging had obviously been
going on, there were dangling cables and bits of machinery both in
and out of the water. I nudged the Kayak through a maze of rusted
iron girders and looking over the side I could see the humped shapes
of giant pulleys lying on the bottom amid tangles of chain. Light
streamed through shattered windows illuminating the depths with an
eerie greenish glow, while overhead the oil smeared gulls swooped and
screamed triumphantly. I left and paddled further out, encountering
some kind of jetty midway that connected with the mainland. There was
a corrugated concrete launching ramp, and I pushed my way up
backwards still in the boat, like a beached walrus. I was resting my
forearms on the paddle admiring the view when I heard a voice behind
me say, 'Hey, you can't just tie up here! You gotta pay docking fee!
That's five dollars!
was an instant of the sort of shock you get when you find yourself
accused of trespassing, followed by a laugh as reality took hold. One
push and I was floating free, and in seconds the voice of officialdom
was fading behind me.
were many such excursions in the weeks that followed, while back on
dry land events were also moving forward. I met a woman and we seemed
to chime together in an unusual way and before too long we were
talking about marriage. We were both veterans of failed unions, both
different and misunderstood, and that seemed a basis to build a
relationship on. I had yet to learn that simply being different ain't
ever enough. After a proper church wedding that still makes me wince
remembering – there was no family of any description, just a lot of
friends of one or the other of us – the marriage itself lasted
about six months before my missus moved out, and that was that. I'd
already quit my sales job and gone back to coveralls and safety boots
at the warehouse. I'd lost my apartment in the converted Hotel, which
was a pity, but I got a place in a run-down apartment building on
the fringe of the Red Light district on Chippewa street. Back in
those days, when nearby Toronto was too straight-laced for fun, Canadians came over the Peace Bridge to Buffalo to tie one on and see
the strip clubs. I rented a studio in an office building overlooking
the street- it was small with a huge window that took up all one end,
and there I painted away, with the Kayak suspended from a sprinkler
Harbor was where the small boats were moored- small meaning anything
from a one man sailboat to a private Yacht . Protecting the anchorage
was a huge concrete dike, called the Breakwall, that shut out the
winds from the North that used to come down from the frozen wastes of
Canada in the wintertime, smashing the ice floes and piling up
mountains of shattered ice on the shore. Even in summer the storms
could be bad enough to wreck the big ships. Up till now I had
confined my explorations to where I could see the shore, but one day
I decided to take the Kayak out to the Breakwall, a thin dark line on
the horizon just visible from land.
was bright sunlight with a sharp breeze that made the air seem colder
than it was. As I paddled straight out the water became choppier and
I had a moment to wonder exactly how I would cope with a sudden
storm; it didn't seem to matter. I was gripped by a strange
excitement, a feeling that there was something significant about this
awhile I could see the grey mass of the Breakwall more clearly. It
was shaped like a trapazoid in cross-section, about
twenty feet high with a flat top , and sheer sides with no shelf to land the boat on.
I was not exactly tired because the wind had been behind me, but I
knew from experience that the trip back would be harder with the wind
against me. Far in the distance, though, I could see the waves
breaking on something light colored at the base of the wall, so I
turned the boat and headed in that direction. I could feel underneath
me the slow heave that told me I was in very deep water and I began
to feel slightly uneasy. There wasn't another boat in sight and in
the Kayak I knew I would be nearly invisible anyway.
approached where the waves were breaking and gazed in awe to where
the wall, a fifteen foot thickness at least of reinforced concrete,
had been smashed in through from the other side creating a
triangular gap through which one could see a vast expanse of open
water all the way to the invisible coast of Canada. I learned later that a storm had driven one of the lake freighters, massing at around seventy thousand tonnes, head on into it. The rubble and
aggregate had piled up creating a miniature beach that sloped steeply
down to the water, where numerous sea birds and gulls had taken
advantage of the isolation and the protection afforded by the
towering walls to build their nests.
bit of hesitation, then I turned the Kayak and crawfished backward up
the shingle until the boat was securely lodged and I could climb out.
The birds, all of them so white in the sunlight that they seemed to
glow, rose in a body and circled around me crying sharply. I
found myself in the middle of a spiral of birds rotating around me
higher than the Breakwall, and I threw my head back and saw at the
apex a perfect circle of intense blue sky...
all there is to tell. Some weeks later I quit my job, loaded up the
car and left for California.
you ask me what the meaning of this story is, I'd have to say that
there is one, but I don't know how to explain it. You
had to be there .