Back in the USA

Rode down from frigid Canada listening to the Stranglers’ Men in Black hit the American border at Niagra Falls. Canadian side all glutted up with Planet Hollywood type places and Las Vegas casinos, right beside those iconic falls. Big guys and gals with guns on their hips at the border, asking all kinds of questions. Not unkind – but BIG. You forget that about Americans when you’ve been away – especially if you only visit New York City and fly in and out like I usually do – outside the urban centres, they are a race of giants.

Down through Niagra Falls – the American version. The American side over-run with Mafia activity, drug-running, illicit gambling, that kind of thing – which is part of why the border guards at Niagra Falls are always a little meaner.

On to Buffalo, riding through more snow than we saw even up in Toronto. Beautiful art deco buildings, momentos of a time when Buffalo was an important city (read an article today about how the Buffalo Bills might be farmed out part-time to Toronto, so Toronto and Buffalo would effectively share an NFL team.) When I used to catch the train, we’d ride past the old Buffalo Train station. You could just make out the great art deco buffalo guarding the boarded up front entrance, see the holes in the brick around the top of the tower. The train sheds had been abandoned so long small trees grew up where the tracks used to be . . . must have been a grand station at one time. How America neglects it’s heritage – and how strange that in a country as rich and powerful as the US, whole sections of what used to be the heartland should be virtually abandoned.

Stopping at the truck stops along the way. A Tim Horton’s the healthiest eating around and ain’t that depressing. Fat people working behind the counter of the fast food joints, big doughy people with that blunt, slightly shut down look I associate with upstate New York, milling around inside. Not unkind looking, not unintelligent – just  shut down, laconic and guarded in that American way. That’s the first thing you notice crossing the border, how everyone has their guard up here – even if they’re more open and hospitable than people in central Canada when they let that guard down. Sense too that people are on hard times – the recession hasn’t hit the big centres in a real way, they feel it more in places like upstate, and maybe they’ve been feeling it in these places for years.

Still, you can feel some shift in the mood, a tension, a sense of people on edge . . .

Plenty of those black MIA flags underneath the Stars and Stripes, plenty more big, big vehicles – even if they stopped making SUV’s tomorrow, it’ll take a generation to get rid of them all.

The bus was packed. Some queen with silver eye make-up sitting behind me, yapping into his silver cell phone in mellifluous Spanish that bounced off the window and right into my head. Kid sat down beside me, read Rilke, fell asleep, woke up, surfed jazz websites. Our last stop a Burger King, isolated by the side of the road. Bunch of kids behind the counter, all of them fat, all of them moving as if they were underwater while the line iiiiiinnnched forward. Kid that seemed to be the manager some kind of queen as well, which was amusing to see in a semi-rural Burger King. The bus driver, a big old black guy, ordered a giant size soda,  almost as big as the KFC bucket.  Said to the white girl at the cash, in the manner of people who’ve known each other a long time, “Let my people be free!” referring to his passengers and everyone laughed, but man that Burger King was depressing with the flourescent lights, the smell of that goddam awful food – even the fries tasted awful – and those kids behind the counter with their red and white uniforms and pimply skin, that slow mo service. You get the feeling they’re moving through a haze, stuck there on the side of the highway . . . where do they go after work? Is this the only job around? You feel Bush’s America in the decrepit feel of these little outposts, in the big vehicles, the sense of decay, inertia, abandonment – of people who don’t even know or care what goes on in the rest of the world.

Outside New York an hour long sprawl of big box malls, factory outlets, industrial parks.  Manhattan lights along the horizon. Those iconic silhouettes. Down into the tunnel and up into midtown. Poster of Clint Eastwood’s latest movie the first thing you see . . .  Clint Eastwood with a rifle, peering down hard and cold . . . the first thing you see coming out of the tunnel is a man poised to kill other men.

Then mid-town. Big Bad New York, with the theme 50’s restaurant on 34th street, suburban kids chowing down on burgers with the faux period jukebox flashing behind their heads . . .