Justin Karcher (Twitter: @justin_karcher, Instagram: the.man.about.town) is a Best of the Net-and Pushcart-nominated poet and playwright born and raised in Buffalo, NY. He is the author of several books, including Tailgating at the Gates of Hell (Ghost City Press, 2015). He is also the editor of Ghost City Review.
The Art of Putting Yourself Back Together in Buffalo
A long walk around Buffalo to clear my soul. A man near Allen asks me for a dollar and I don’t have any cash but ask if he wants a cigarette instead. He asks me what kind and I tell him, “Marb Reb.” He thinks for a moment and politely declines. A sudden rush of excitement fills me like a balloon. I love how Buffalo rejects you in very tiny ways. They add up over time, but at that very moment, I’m floating like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade of masochism. He must realize my unhealthy euphoria, because he says, “Thanks for offering me something” and I’m brought down to earth. A couple minutes later on the one corner of Elmwood and Allen, the place where restaurants go to die, there’s a woman dancing for all the cars stuck at the red. She’s smiling, but there’s probably more to the story. She waves at me and I wave back. I love how Buffalo does everything it can to cancel out its tiny rejections. A wave of a stranger’s hand can make all the difference. As I make my way toward Downtown, I realize a few things: this time of the year, every hour feels like the witching hour, that there’s magic everywhere; you just have to summon the strength to conjure it… it might get dirty, it might get depressing, but you gotta do it. A moment of magic is sometimes all you need. I also realize that the closer I get to Downtown, the more I think I hear Xmas music. It’s probably in my head, some Eyes Wide Shut kind of walk, but I won’t plug my ears. Never plug your ears. Maybe I’ll head to the ice rink and find no one there. The night is still young. But first, I need a cup of coffee.
My night is spent on the corner of Delaware Rd and Willowbreeze Rd staring at the little old cemetery trying to read the names on the headstones, but they’re tough to make out. The big plaque though reads, “BURIAL LAND SINCE 1816.” I stand there for a few minutes looking into the dark while listening to some random electronica playlist. I find it overwhelming thinking about how long people have been dying. We still haven’t cracked that quandary of mortality. Anyway, so I make my way to the Tim Hortons up the road, because I need a quick fix of anything and no matter where I’m at in Western New York, I can’t seem to find a decent cup of coffee when the moon’s out. We’re basically vultures circling the sky for caffeine scraps, always making do with whatever’s out there. For better or worse. Walking into Tim Hortons, I realize that they close in like 5 minutes, so I’m impressed with my timing and after I get my coffee, I scan the room – some people still lingering in booths – and I see a familiar face, but I don’t know his name. I would see him at Caffe Aroma all the time. Little cute old guy. Cane. Buffalo Braves sweatshirt. Always reading some nonfiction book. I nod in his direction, he nods back and that’s all I need for tonight. He packs up his belongings, puts on a face mask and heads out. I exit a couple seconds later and lean up against the wall. I puff on my JUUL until the entire parking lot clears out, so it’s just me and all the help wanted signs on Sheridan Dr. Some giant burial land that needs a hug, a nod of the head, for someone to hit the delete button on the keyboard of its longing.
I’m incapable of sleeping in anymore, which is a good thing, especially on a day like today… because it’s the first snowfall of the season. It’ll never get old for me. It’s like magic, as if the sky after months of being bottled up has decided to gracefully fall apart. Each snowflake a feeling and when the ground becomes swarmed in white, I’m always reminded just how many emotions and thoughts we all have. There’s a beautiful unity in the things we have in common. A mountain we can climb to touch constellations if we want. Just don’t fret about the cold. Don’t worry, because worrying is praying to the devil. And I’m thinking about Terence McKenna right now as snow continues to fall, that if you know the words that the world is made of, you can mold it however you see fit. Like a snowman. So maybe I’ll go bare-chested out into today, let all those skyward feelings introduce themselves to my skin. And I’ll assign a word to each snowflake. There’s melancholy. And there’s exuberance. And right over there, draping itself on that branch, is hope. Now let’s see what we can build.
What a weekend. I watched a urinal cry a lifetime’s worth of sadness before I told the bartender that there’s something wrong in the bathroom. I was at a dance party on E Utica where I couldn’t see what was right in front of me and it was nice, being left in the dark like that. There were leather bears doing coke on islands of rhythm…I admired their insatiable need for honey but was jealous of their desire. There was a back porch where the lights, like Xmas stockings, were hung up with care… it illuminated the backyard just enough and I saw so many trees. All the city forests you don’t know about, all the different ways you can get lost. I imagined Bigfoot having a panic attack somewhere out there and to calm their nerves, they had to scratch up the bark until there was nothing left. I guess love happens when you beat your blood into the dirt until there are roots. There are worse ways for the heart to flourish, but never disguise your feelings. I saw my past, present and future come together as one on that cryptozoological porch. It was a little scary, because it’s tough to tell if we’re overdeveloped or under-demolished… and I prayed for any kind of answer, for blueprints to fall from the sky. But anyway… there were New York poets with English accents and dirty buckets as big as buildings for all the cigarette butts. The waste was piling high and as I was staring at our dirty parts, I made a decision to never stow away my feelings, that from now on, I will always admit my hurt. There were good conversations at least, about how Bangkok is nothing like Buffalo or how some people are just not cut out for the cold and if that’s the case, how do they deal with the turbulent weather inside their brains? Maybe we don’t and there are always storms and no urgency to solve them… people with problems always hovering in doorways. We try feeding them quesadillas, but they enthusiastically refuse… their shadows fall to the floor and start crawling toward the light. I will always find it beautiful, how we scrape by, day by day, not knowing anything at all.
Walking from Eric’s apartment to my house is a 45-minute walk. More like half an hour the way I’m sprinting through the Kenmore night like a comet learning how not to chase after its own tail. That’s how I’ve always been really, so desperate to harness the fire burning in my brain. It can be dangerous, always internalizing heat like that. Sometimes it makes you want to die. And the last couple of weeks, my mind hasn’t been right. Like a fistful of ancient debris from the Big Bang. How your old demons, or at least the echoes of them, are constantly following the new you. So you start feeling that the new you isn’t quite so new after all. But I assure you it is. There’s just a painful faith keeping the good parts whole. It’s always turning to us in dreams and asking for help. It remembers rolling around like a dog in a soil of molecules when everyone seemed a little more bonded together, but a memory is a memory for a reason. I’m coming around again though, this time with another pair of eyes. And I’m very excited for everything I will see. Tonight, the afterdark ghost town of Kenmore is my playground. It’s like 60 degrees in November and every storefront seems necklaced in otherworldly lights. I have a long conversation with the buffalo sitting on the bench outside King Condrell’s. We talk about what it means to really have a sweet tooth, how it’s not about ice cream or pastries, but it’s about embracing the good in everyone. Then we both stare at the never-ending ice cream in their right hand and start weeping. How the world, despite our best intentions, forces us to hold onto something that only sets us back. I wish them well… all life demands struggle. I make my way up Delaware Ave and come across The Wedding Agent, Buffalo’s experts at providing extraordinary items for your special celebration, and as I peer through the window, all I see is an empty showroom. Two thrones with nobody in them. I chuckle at the Swarovski bloodlessness. Then I begin to wonder if there’s an invisible reception happening, phantoms having the time of their lives. It’s a nice thought and I smile to myself. Hope keeps us alive, like how stargazing is one of the best side effects of depression, like how it’s healthy to say goodbye to what’s clogging you up, all that rust-stiff euphoria that gets you nowhere. And so I keep walking toward Sheridan Dr still loving the world.
Friday night I walk from Bidwell Pkwy to Symphony Cir straight into the heart of Lit City. In the parking lot of Kleinhans, I’m greeted by a colorful bus with graphics and the words of Lucille Clifton. We have indeed arrived at the gates of the city, and I imagine forgiveness blowing them open. It also feels like there are lights everywhere and they warm my trembling November skin. It’s tough not seeing the enormous potential when art is allowed to meet the public head-on. Public transport is the perfect symbol for poetry… for art in general. They seek to accomplish the same thing: picking up a person when they need it most and carrying them to their next destination. It’s all about positive movement, positive momentum. And too often in this city, we get tricked by negative momentum. It’s an illusion, and we must help each other break it. Anyway, so I head inside Kleinhans and into the VIP reception room where I start swallowing tiny cubes of cheese like I’m Pac-Man. I catch up with friends and colleagues. At one point, while talking to Julio, I compare the creative process to the trailer of Spider-Man: No Way Home, how you can never predict the wormholes that will materialize in the sky or what villains will crawl through them, and you sincerely hope that you’re a different person than who you were yesterday. It’s a breath of fresh air. As for the main event, Chang-rae Lee gives a wonderful reading and talk, and I think what sticks with me most is when he talks about novelists being like sharks: when they stop moving, they die. You always have to chase after inspiration or beauty… it might be the only way to satiate your hunger. And maybe that’s what I’ve been doing lately with all these walks. I guess only time will tell. When the event wraps up, I say my goodbyes and continue walking, this time to Main St and Matinee, picking up a Red Bull on the way there and after I drink it, I contemplate crushing it and sliding it into a mailbox, because good news needs to travel fast… good news needs wings. When I hit W Tupper, I experience a joyous vision. A pillow fight happening tonight. Everybody I know grabbing pillows and taking to the streets. They start beating the concrete with softness, because we can remake the city in the image of our dreams. Something tenderer. A colorful bus that picks you up when you need it most.
I’m staring out the window of the Elmwood Spot while listening to the entirety of Rilo Kiley’s The Execution of All Things. Maybe I’m depressed. Maybe I’m not. It’s tough to tell these days. It seems that everyone is back to wearing masks. Two steps forward, three steps back. Nights like this I just want it to snow. There is an annoying sense of anticipation when it’s this chilly. Like the sky’s holding back. And I’ve never been a fan of coasting on middle ground. Make a decision, one way or another. At least cafes across the city have decided on something: to close early, right before the Muses finish singing their songs. Obviously, I disagree with this. 16-year-old me would’ve never been able to fully explore his feelings or write his shitty poems without those later hours. Katie tells me it’s a crime against artistry to make restless minds work on bankers’ hours. All those hours not available for the taking… I imagine this crooked city clock that has learned to think and act for itself. Maybe it detached itself from some government building. Maybe we can’t see it. Maybe it’s always hungry and zooming through the city right now swallowing up all the hours. Pretty soon, there’ll be no more hours to spare. And we have to go home. And maybe we have to crawl deeper into ourselves without getting closer to any kind of truth. At this point, we would be okay with a half-truth. Or maybe this super corrupt clock whizzes by us, we blink and suddenly it’s morning. The anxiety that takes the shape of a jockey who rides the sun like a racehorse toward our doom. A trail of fire that stretches down Elmwood Ave until it touches the water.
At Jack Rabbit with Kevin for an open mic. We split a plate of tater tots and I stare at the menorah on the shelf above the register. No one wilderness looks the same; everyone has their own struggles. But sometimes our trees meet in the middle. There are prayer candles surrounding the menorah and a nutcracker trying to organize all our pleas for help. Crack through the pain if you want, but it won’t get you very far. I overhear this girl talking about how when she went to House of Charm, she got so drunk and the tab was only $28. A holiday miracle… especially in Buffalo. I run into Gretchen who I haven’t seen in forever. She loves hair and the gossip she hears. Living in a loft Downtown, but still missing the Village. She mentions my first book, how much she likes it. “You’ve always been cool,” she tells me. It’s the little things that lift you up, how every night we fill up balloons with our egos and let them loose in the skies above Buffalo. Maybe they float far away or maybe they get tangled up in powerlines. LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” comes on. “Where are your friends tonight?” Something you ask more and more the older you get. The answers you hear might break your heart, but we press on. When Kevin gets on stage to tickle the keys, he is flanked by two Santas and there are Xmas lights hanging from the window behind him. They flicker every time he sings. It’s a hauntingly beautiful set, songs about King Kong lost in a city where the buildings are jukeboxes. How other people’s music mold the skyline you see. Sometimes you have to smash through the noise to find a song that works for you. A hand to hold. After we’re done, we drive around town looking for an all-night diner, but find none. So we head back to Elmwood, to Louie’s, where the cashier likes my leather jacket. “You’re cool,” she tells me. More balloons flying in the sky. Me and Kevin get root beers and chocolate shakes and talk the rest of the night away.
Piano lounge, Lafayette Hotel. There’s a bittersweet horse ungalloped on the middle of the bar. Giddy up, but you can’t move. No matter how hard you try. Take this time to grow, to get better. James in his purple fur but the bartender calls him Jimmy. Kerrykate singing Xmas songs. “I hope they play “Greensleeves”,” I say to Kevin, who is sitting next to me. “Is that a Christmas song?” he asks. Might as well be, I think to myself. Eric, this drunk guy, bumps into me and apologizes. We strike up a conversation. From Syracuse, moved to Buffalo on a whim three years ago after his divorce. He hated Syracuse, lives in North Buffalo now. Norwalk, to be specific. Likes it here but has no friends. I ask about the group of people he’s with. He met them at a bar on Hertel and they all decided to come Downtown. Doesn’t remember what bar they were at though. His drink of choice is a Diet Coke and a shot of Fireball Whisky. I watch him throughout the night striking out with every woman at the bar. He’s just lonely. I wait with him outside for his Uber, because he needs a friend. He pukes on one of the tiny Christmas trees. I wish him well. It’s emotionally tough out there for everyone. Back inside, Kerrykate is done and the pianist is flying solo. Lots of John Lennon with some Beethoven thrown in for good measure. He’s very good. The snowman in the corner starts swaying, little bits of frostbite flying in all directions. I imagine catching it on my tongue then running into the lobby and breaking the glass case imprisoning that giant bottle of wine. How I would drink and drink while running through the empty hotel. But I don’t do any of that. Remember, this is about growth and getting better. Instead, I look for the bathroom and come across an empty ballroom. It feels like The Shining, but less murderous. I stand alone on the stage and recite some poems. Everything weighing me down drifts off into the waltz-dust of the future and I have never felt more beautiful.
Today I’m donating plasma and while waiting in line, I strike up a conversation with Elaine. This super nice lady who tells me how it sucks spending Christmas Eve at CSL Plasma, but it’s worth it. She has two rabbits, Coco and Snowball, and the extra money will help buy more hay for her babies. Coco is old, Snowball is young. Snowball’s also in heat and won’t leave Coco alone. I tell her, “My cat is named Coco & I know some dudes like Snowball.” Elaine’s laughing as we both get called up to lose parts of ourselves. As the needle goes in, I stare at the poster on the wall that says, “You’re a lifesaver.”
After I’m done, I walk up Delaware Ave when these two jubilant, possibly stoned, hippies run up to me: “You’re beautiful, we love you!” I wish them a Merry Christmas and they run off to spread more cheer. Their tie-dye sweaters glow like lights in the distance. I imagine them treating the season like a jam band. The cheer never ends until everyone passes out. Never forget that a well-timed “I love you” can go a long way in improving the life of a stranger.
Eventually I make my way to Spot on the corner of Delaware & Delaware to charge my phone. There’s one guy standing alone in the gazebo, a boombox at his feet, and he’s belting out songs from Frozen. A beautiful voice, but no hat to collect any money. Maybe he’s not interested in that, because he’s not making eye contact with anyone. Instead, he’s staring at the sky. With each song he sings, his eyes become a little more focused as if he’s trying to resuscitate any gray clouds. I drink my coffee and simply enjoy the show. Merry Christmas, I think to myself.
Goodbye 2021, a year spent lost in a forest of broken washing machines where none of us could get clean. Now the future is full of instructions. How to revisit our old haunts, the places where we fucked up the most. Float over them like candy wrappers dancing in the wind raining whatever sweetness we still have left. We’ll be better this year. Our raindrops congregating in the holes of broken windows. The most beautiful bodies of water have a love that always knows where to go. How to wake up not feeling like filibusters, when the worst parts of us are always obstructing progress. Always wondering when the sunrise will sledge our frozen assets. No more loose change in hospital socks, no more grief. How to come up for air, how to tear down all the “help wanted” signs because outer space is possible. Fairytale where we’re a flock of birds carrying our nostalgias toward a landfill far, far away. No more regret, how to breathe in deep. How to kiss the city before it shrinks. How to rile up magicians so they reverse engineer the illusion and we can always recognize the truth… that being alive is such a gift. How to start from scratch, sandpaper gravestones taking the backroad looking for a little porch and the sound of music.
Late last night I watched The Book of Boba Fett, which was the perfect way to start 2022. How to come alive again. We all have a Sarlaac we gotta escape from. Snag extra oxygen from the half-digested things in your mind. Like how recalling positive memories can help ward off depression. Now the ball’s in your court. Use your inner fire to make your escape. Once you’re free, take a deep breath. You might be faced with an unfamiliar world, big holes where your loved ones or best friends used to be. There’s a long journey here and this is just the beginning. But imagine the possibilities. Snow-worn cities airlifted to a different season. No more doorknob lullabies or espresso stretch marks. A paradise where we don’t have to spread ourselves too thin. Life… but the self-destruction in reverse. It might still be messy though. Metamorphically cutting off your hands so they never form into fists. No use for anger as we walk across the desert.
Despite the Lake Effect snow warning and the piles of monoclonal antibodies covering our driveways and sidewalks, it’s been an okay day. New Father John Misty. Starbucks employees walking off the job over unsafe working conditions. How my mom texted me a photo of this perfect rose she found in the yard. Moments of joy in an otherwise absurd world. We can do this. As the wind picks up outside my office window, the only thing I can reflect on is how surprisingly well I’m holding it all together. How humiliation takes many forms. A New Year’s Eve wrecking ball dropping onto an empty home. 3, 2, 1. Debris everywhere. Pick through the wreckage. How time flies. Kind of, but not really. I think I’ll wander shirtless through the streets of Tonawanda picking up windblown shingles. I think I’ll reinforce my chest with other people’s asphalt. The art of putting yourself back together in Buffalo. We can do this.
Last night I spent an hour shoveling. I was looking for the high road, which had been covered up with snow. I found it but wasn’t too sure if my legs were strong enough to walk it. But if I’ve learned anything these past couple months, it’s that things can change at the drop of a dime. Gotta toughen up I guess and adapt, continue to turn my sensitivity into a strength. Whatever that may be. Anyway, after shoveling, I climbed up the snow pile I had made and gazed out at Western New York. All the eggshell empaths pushing shopping carts full of broken thermometers down the unsalted streets. Sometimes it’s impossible to read the temperature of a room and then it’s too late. Then there are the used bookstores disappearing in the blink of an unvaccinated eye. You can hear the ghosts left behind. Oh what a cauldron! So many feelings and ingredients. We’re always looking for the right combination of things. Gravediggers squeezing electrolytes out of wilted flowers. Any way we can regulate our chemical reactions. Or how there’s always a little bit of birthday cake caught in our throats. Secret wishes torpedo through our teeth to get out into the open. Then it’s a free-for-all. I’ll politely decline. Dust from heartaches forming a cherub that takes flight.
The Boyfriend Story
Shifra Sharlin- Potluck
Zach Peckham- Cryptobiosis
Alina Stefanescu- Someone Failed This Man
Rachel Cochran- Girls Kissing Girls
Teresa Milbrodt- Body Painting
Sarah Cavar- Again Soon
Tango With God
Maryse Meijer- ESSEN
Bruce Owens Grimm- Inventory of a Haunted House, No. 3
Jordan E. McNeil- What i Mean When i Say Empath
The Life Cycle of a Storm Cell Lullaby