Excerpted from Buffalo Trace: A Threefold Vibration
by Mary Cappello, James Morrison, and Jean Walton
Buffalo Trace consists of three longform essays—one each by Mary, James, and Jean. In the 1980s, in a boomtown gone to seed, we found ourselves, and each other, at SUNY/Buffalo’s famous English Department, known then as a cauldron of deconstruction, psychoanalysis, and experimental poetics. In one description of the book, we refer to ourselves as: a Pennsylvanian poet who gained entry to the halls of academe through the art of theft; a suburban Michigan aesthete seeking the modernism that would distance him from his family’s immersion in mass culture; and a cautious Canadian who abandoned monogamy for triangles of sexual and philosophical desire. The essays tell our very different “stories;” but more than that, they sketch out the intellectual cityscape of our coming into queer adulthood. [Read an interview with the authors here.]
From “My Secret, Private Errand: An Essay on Love and Theft”
Releasing the kickstand of the new blue bike with the chocolate-colored seat made the bike’s bell jostle inside its casing to the tune of one satisfying “ping.” The bike was a collection of pleasures consisting of glides, grooves, grease, and three gears. Riding it was like playing a trombone—it required the same heady lung-strength and bearing down, with the same resulting smack and blare once you got going. It was untried, and so new blue that its paint glistened like caramel on a recently dipped apple. I had only stopped for a moment to get a newspaper at the drugstore on Buffalo’s Elmwood Avenue or maybe a pack of gum or maybe “The Swap Sheet” in search of bike accouterments I could afford. It was to be a quick in and out, so I didn’t lock the bike, figuring I could keep it in view. Perhaps I’d expected the bike would bark if someone dared approach it.
There was a long line that day and the only cash register was one that didn’t afford a view of the street, so I performed a dance while waiting of stepping out of line at five second intervals and bending my head toward the door to catch a glimpse of the bike. It was as though I’d set myself up to fail the game described by Sigmund Freud of “here/gone”—which didn’t make me any less stunned when my next peekaboo yielded a blank: I can still feel that instant of reckoning with the empty doorframe, the way it drew a line around the nothingness like a bad piece of Pop Art with the joke on me. It’s what I’d wanted in place of the blue bike’s pleasures, wasn’t it? This feeling of death.
I ran up and down the thoroughfare and its side streets, astonished that there was neither bike nor thief in view, not even as a pinprick on a far, far vanishing point. Thievery can reduce us to baby talk, and I’m sure I thought nothing more than “That’s that.” And, “All gone.”
Walking home, I’m sure I cried.
I had bought the bike in an instant at the insistence of a man whom I was presumably dating named Bobby Delmonte. Neither Bob nor Robert, he was Bobby. He wore very round glasses inside a pageboy haircut like a figure out of a Hans Christian Anderson tale, and our relationship consisted of one walk, one bike ride, and a visit to meet his parents for a spaghetti dinner. He had recently been divorced and had a child, but, I, too was just a child. I was definitely too young for him, but he seemed developmentally disabled or borderline retarded so maybe the person who set us up thought a graduate student would be just his speed. He would periodically pause in the middle of a date as if to remind himself of where we were and blurt a bulletin: “I’m Bobby Delmonte! And you’re Mary Cappello!” I swear he’d followed this revelation with a squeak, a giggle, and the word “wheeeee.”
Though the bike wasn’t something I could afford on my graduate student wage, Bobby Delmonte insisted that it was the only way to explore Buffalo’s boardwalk, which together we must do. To this day, I do not know where in Buffalo there lies a beach, though of course I understand the city was built on one of the Great Lakes; to this day, I only have two memories of ever visiting a Buffalo beach: once with Bobby Delmonte, and once with the woman who had set me up with him, which made for an interestingly paranoid structure: they must have been in cahoots to render this lesbian straight. Either that or they were part of a bicycle theft ring.
Peggy, who’d set me up with Bobby, had been a friend of Jerry McGuire who was a Buffalo grad who had taught my mother at the college near Philadelphia where at mid-life she earned her BA. When Jerry learned that I’d applied to Buffalo, he invited me over to his house and gave me my first lesson in the teachings of Derrida. He also put me in touch with Peggy who was dating Licastro who was Marty’s best friend, but I didn’t intuit this chain of conduits to Professor Pops except retrospectively.
All that I recall of my first visit to Buffalo and its campus was getting lost in a series of interlocking stairwells that menacingly arrived at locked metal doors. (Later I would learn that the campus’ architect had also designed prisons; later still, studying Foucault in the university’s cell-like rooms, I’d come to see how all schools were modeled on prisons and vice versa). The only other image that lingers from that first trip was the freak accident whereby a gust of wind funneling inside the un-buttressed walkways outside Clemens Hall literally yanked the contact lenses from my professor-host’s eyes requiring him to balance them on the tips of his respective index fingers while steering his car on the drive back to the airport. It was the Shakespeare and Psychoanalysis seminar I attended that convinced me this was a great place to be, and on my second visit I stayed in Peggy’s apartment while she stayed with Licastro in his.
I didn’t sleep well that night. Peggy had a friendly black cat, but at the time I didn’t know how to co-habit with a cat and was afraid that, sensing my trepidation, it would attack me. The office of off-campus housing was just across the street from Peggy’s apartment, and the next day I holed myself up there with another inhabitant of its tiny, anxious room. Jim Morrison wasn’t exactly a flaming queen, but he was wry and russet-haired, red-bearded, and jubilant. He made the plodding prospect of looking for a place to live on a grad student’s salary into a form of cavorting, and I felt instantly I’d found a new, fast friend. He was clearly gay, but what was I? He’d pause to ask about what I was reading and who I aimed to work with; he had read all of Nabokov—I mean everything—and was looking forward to a class with Irving Massey. Reluctantly, he’d suggest we’d better turn back to the task at hand, but then he’d be prevented by a gaspy, wheezy laugh every time he read out the description of another apartment whose paltry promises knew no irony. Details like “hot plate included”; “new shag rug”; “located atop pet store”; “Chihuahuas and other small dogs ok”; and, “ten short blocks to 44 Bus Line” were not lost on us.
Peggy was petite, but she wore open-backed high heeled clog-like sandals that made her taller. She had long, dark hair and was young and muscular in a floral print dress. I was surprised to meet her boyfriend, Licastro, who, at my twenty something years, struck me as a grand-dad. He’d recently undergone surgery which may have explained why he was cranky and ashen. A striped, off-the-shoulder shirt applied a feminizing European touch to his ailing body as did his Italian cross-width slipper-like flip flops. These did nothing to off-set the disturbance of my glimpsing a drain or catheter tube that was still in place or of my sense that he was overly-thirsty and generally un-well.
Once at the beach, Licastro made an even deeper, lasting impression. There weren’t many other people at the beach and even though the three of us shared a blanket, we seemed nestled into the individual cubbies of our separate books. I had brought W.S. Merwin’s translations of Antonio Porchia’s aphorisms with me to read. Licastro must have asked me about my plan of study, and I replied that I was “a poet.” He must have used one of those peculiarly Italian plosives to express his exasperation like “Boh!” or the in-breathing, “Oofah!” before he launched into a lecture that shames me to this day.
“Poet!” he screeched. “How do you dare to call yourself a poet?!”
He then explained how a “poet” was something that only a handful of people in the world could claim to be. How the appellation required age, experience, toil, and so much more—it was a sensibility and a lifestyle, it depended upon maturation and a higher vision along the order of Dante. It was possibly not something that could be taught, and it should certainly never be claimed for oneself.
He winced as though my using the word “poet” to describe myself were more painful than the effects of his recent surgery while he continued disbelievingly to murmur the four-letter word under his breath: “She says she’s a poet!”
“Say instead you ‘write poetry.’ That’s all any of us can claim to do,” he said.
I heard him say, “Don’t claim what you cannot be.”
From “His Masters’ Voice”
The second year we moved to the West Side—Mary and Bill and I. An intimation of compatibilities and a reserve of accumulated affections had induced us to find a place together. Dan, my roommate in the first year, wanted to be out closer to school anyway, and since my crush showed no sign of waning, I thought some distance could be just the thing. We moved into a big Victorian house on Norwood, halfway between Bryant and Summer, a midpoint that marked a dividing line between the middle-class homes at the Bryant end of the street and the more lavish ones that lined the rest of the block, growing more palatial the closer you got to Summer. The houses were set close to the street and slightly above it, giving the rooflines an even more imposing air.
Ours was something of a hybrid, grand and elegant but with hints of an impending decline. Green with yellow and red highlights about the gingerbread trim, it had a canopied wraparound porch fenced with ornamented spires and eight carved pillars that held up the balcony above. It was winged and bayed, with a steep, multi-faceted roof and a pentagonal cupola, complete with weathervane, jutting up at the top in the front northeast corner. I dubbed it the House of the Six Gables.
And it wasn’t ours, of course. We entered by the back way, a route that confronted us daily with the stark contrast between the lush garden we had to walk through to get there and the untended back door and dusty hallway onto the dark stairs that led up to our quarters. We had the whole third floor, part ballroom and part attic, with a crooked hallway leading back to the large bathroom and three bedrooms. There was one big open room with little alcoves and cubbyholes here and there around the perimeter, a five-sided nook at the far end corresponding to the outer cupola. At the center a large shaft rose from floor to ceiling, a conduit for the chimney of a fireplace below, with four wooden benches built in around the base. A single high wooden shelf ran the length of two walls, a foot or two below the high ceiling. These touches gave the place a rustic air.
The owner was Carol Simmel, a psychotherapist who met patients in the downstairs parlor. She had a chilly manner and a habit of gazing beyond one in conversation. She’d studied with Erich Fromm but her own practice seemed to have a faddish, est-y quality. She spoke often about “getting in touch” with this or that. She treated only women, as far as we could tell, and had women-only gatherings every Friday night. Despite the presence of two or three dour teens skulking about the premises, no husband was in the picture. In fact, Carol lived with Molly, a much friendlier woman with a toothy smile and a mop of gray hair. The living arrangements down there were as much of a mystery as ours would have been, if we had not been able to say we were graduate students. That always explained a lot.
Mary had a gift for creating environments, a poet’s spirit and a curator’s hands. The only decoration at my place on Main had been an artificial plant that I placed in a corner as a joke, and the only thing I brought to the new household was a long couch upholstered in cheap tightly-knit blue polyester. Mary’s inspired yard-sale finds furnished the rest of the place with a surprising warmth, matching perfectly with the blue couch and the one real piece, an elegant cherry-wood side table Carol had given us, one of her cast-offs. Real, living plants prospered in every corner, the walls lined with colorful posters. A used, beat-up brown Barcalounger looked unpromising at first glance, but Mary was sure it would blend in perfectly once set into its proper place at Norwood, and she was right. It was the finishing touch. Mary cooked real meals, and many evenings a week an aroma of garlic and oregano would hover over the apartment until being dispelled later the same night by the smell of Bill’s canned corned beef hash with onions.
The atmosphere seemed free and rich, full of energy, a place where one could really live, a place like home.
Under Mary’s influence Norwood became a hub of the grad-student community. New students came to stay while they were looking for places of their own. One of them, Jake, as soon as he arrived, took up the slack left by Dan’s departure, crush-wise. In the few days he stayed with us, he would loll about the place wearing nothing but a skimpy pair of white shorts, and I was enamored of the way his brownish-blond chest hairs curled around his little pink nipples. He was All-American Boy with a bit of a dark edge, a type I went for at the time. The second night I invited him to share my bed; he said the blue couch would be fine. I told him it was a standing offer, and he thanked me. Sometimes the All-American Boy side took over entirely, and he was too polite to know when he was being hit on.
Hardly a day went by without a visitor—Gwen clambering up the fire escape and coming in through the kitchen window calling “Yoo-hoo! Yoo-hoo!” Or someone coming home from school with Mary for a dish of pasta with homemade gravy. (I was learning slowly you were not supposed to call it “sauce.”) Hardly a week went by without a party, spirited gatherings around the blue couch and the brown Barcalounger, hardly a month without a banquet. We were supposed to be having “round robin” potlucks in the neighborhood but most of the time it ended up as dinner at our house. Shrimp scampi was the biggest hit, though Mary and I’d had to spend most of the day on the unappetizing task of de-veining the shellfish. Once, at one of these feasts, Bill insisted on serving up his corned beef hash, and Mary and I worried that it might be an embarrassment, but the guests loved it. “I think it’s a charming meal!” said Gwen.
Our routines were familial yet happy, even the ones entailing drudgery. Every few weeks, when the counters grew slick and the dust-bunnies rampant, we’d haul out the brooms and mops and pails and mount what we called a “cleaning frenzy,” Joan Armatrading wailing joyously on the tape player while we swept and scrubbed in time. Thursday nights Dan would come over and we would gather around my little portable RCA solid-state black-and-white TV with the broken antenna and watch L. A. Law. Sundays we went to the launderette on Bryant, where the attendant, a greasy-haired man in gray horn-rimmed glasses who was missing every other tooth, would climb into the big aluminum trash bin and jump up and down, condensing the already-discarded garbage and making room for more. Sitting out in front one afternoon waiting for clothes to dry, we saw a boy walk by with a dead bird hanging by the neck from a string attached to the end of a stick he held.
Sunday nights Mary and I would lounge in one of our beds, hers or mine, and listen to Dr. Ruth give sex advice on the radio, guffawing at her blithe discussions of the mechanics, her meticulous instructions to callers about the best ways to masturbate. We were each realizing new facets of our queerness mutually; we ventured to a “gay/lesbian social” at UB, one of the first ever, where I hit on a shy kid who practically dashed away. It was probably for the best; it was not good form to be fraternizing with the undergraduates anyway. “You like the little guys,” Mary observed slyly as we left, impersonating Hansel and Gretel freshly escaped from the witch, with put-on Dr. Ruth-ish accents, all the way home.
Due to the shift in space or the sufflation of time, I saw Buffalo differently from there. Walking east on Bryant to catch the Lockport bus on Main, I would traverse neighborhoods from the West Side’s decrepitant elegance, past the stately Manhattan-style apartment buildings that hemmed the breadth of Delaware Avenue, to the once-fine houses along Linwood broken into roomers’ dwellings, all scarred edifice, chipped paint, and sagging shingle.
I was one of those who saw the city by foot or by bus. We who knew it that way were different from the seldom-seen residents of the townhouses along Richmond down by the Music Hall, or the mansions up and down Oakwood. It was not a city of pedestrians, all in all. The few you met might have mean, cracked lips, hard chins, hard eyes. They were to be forgiven. In spring and summer they’d look to the skies, stunned by the rare clarity, in fall and winter turn their gazes down, empty them out, incurious, in no hurry to learn what new tricks the ground beneath their feet, cloaked in leaves or snow, had up its sleeve. The going was always rough.
A hard city to live in, I would sometimes think, watching from the warmth of my table through the big side window of the Elmwood Lounge. The bald tire of an old man’s late-model Mercury spun in a rut of ice out on Utica, an old woman in an astrakhan coat and gray babushka pushed her hobbled-wheeled grocery cart through a driving snow against a cruel wind.
It was not as hard for me because I did not really live there. I was a mere tenant, passing through. Yet I would have to join them. I too would have to go out and face the weather, to get home.
From “Buffalo Trace”
Sometimes I think I chose Buffalo just because it was not too far across the border. True, you had to skirt the periphery of a great lake before you could drop down into the States, but the Maple Leaf train from Toronto got you there in a couple hours, give or take some time for the border crossing. If things didn’t work out, or if I needed to take refuge in the Great White North again, it was just hovering behind my back. It “had my back” as it were.
Something about Buffalo’s Exchange Street Train station, its unlovely brick building, the trash strewn tracks where I stepped down, knapsack in tow, the menacing shadow of the concrete freeway that overhung the train itself, putting us all in the dark—something about that eroded edge of a city that had seen better days, that had in fact, stopped trying to “better itself”—something about the very air I drew in, humid, rust-scented.
It gave me permission.
I had crossed over from Canada, where I had spent my teen and college years, back into the United States, where I had been born; from the land of peace, restraint, and conscientious social policy, to the land of belligerence, excess, and a who-cares attitude about what you want and how you’re going to get it. Glass shards crackled underfoot as my new housemate, Gus, opened the trunk of a dull bronze Plymouth Valiant.
“From the salt on the roads, you know, in the winter,” he said, in reference to an iron coil that poked up through the rusted floor. He was only a little older than I was, but looked at me shyly through a swatch of prematurely gray hair.
Buffalo was giving me its best performance of a Prime that had decidedly Passed: the days of heavy production were over in the steel belt of North America, and although this was true for Canada too, I hadn’t felt it so acutely until my arrival in this place that called itself the City of No Illusions. I didn’t quite realize it yet, but it was as though a switch had flipped in me, or a muscle relaxant was starting to take effect. All the ways in which I had held myself in, or abided by my own strict guidelines, I was quickly losing track of. Something had to crumble, for something else to emerge in its place.
The process had already begun in the “gap year” I had spent in Quebec City, where my high school sweetheart and I had traveled after getting our BAs in Vancouver’s bastion of left wing radicalism, Simon Fraser University—built only a decade earlier on the top of a mountain. Leaving home for university had been as much about flight as about getting educated; in fact, looking back on it now, maybe that was when I got accustomed to the fuel that propelled my forward motion, that high-octane combustible known as “escape.” No wonder so much of my subsequent displacement was marked by an urgency to leave something behind, as I moved from Vancouver to Quebec City, from English to French, from the rain fresh evergreens of the coastal West to the righteous separatism of the Parti Québecois, and finally, to America’s once-upon-a-steel town, now in sad decline. If I lacked a “goal,” it was no big deal anyway, it seemed to me. Goals were for business majors, not thinkers. I was a thinker. And you could not tell in advance what you might think up. And then, write down. I might not know what I was heading toward, in my series of decampments, but I felt very acutely the compulsion to leave.
I will share this first dream with you. It’s typical of the kinds of dreams I had before I came to Buffalo. I had this dream while still sharing a basement suite with my boyfriend, at the foot of the mountain where we attended university. We were safe together there, for the moment, pooling our slender resources to pay the rent, huddling near the space heater in the damp winters, eating cream cheese and jelly sandwiches, reading our term papers out to each other, playing cribbage deep into the night. It was a Spartan life, but it was our own little charmed circle of two, where Thinking decidedly took place.
But my dream took me back to an earlier scene, the wooden A-frame on a noisy highway where my family had lived in my early teens. We had moved there from the States to take over my grandparents’ motel, but things were not going well.
Mom has decided she will leave Dad because of his drinking. This is in hopes that he will stop and we can then come back. At first her plan is to make him leave, so that we remain in the house. It is morning time and Dad isn’t up yet. Mom is explaining to us what we are going to do. When Dad gets up and learns our plans, his reaction is frustrated anger. He storms out, and I watch him get smaller and smaller as he walks to the ravine at the back of the field behind the Motel. I am watching through the back door and I am torn with anxiety and pain—I want to run after him and tell him everything is okay—but I know it will only hurt him—it is not in the plan. So he disappears when he reaches the back of the field and it’s too late to go after him.
So far, the dream is a pretty straightforward reminiscence of a painful period in those years—my mother did begin to make plans to leave my father, I did feel anxiety about it, my father was distressed by these plans, which in the end, never materialized. But it was not the trauma of a potential break-up that made this dream a nightmare. It was, rather, the visceral way in which I experienced my own complicity with the plan of escape.
I am horribly frightened, and I make sobbing and grunting noises. A huge sow appears in the courtyard, rooting around, snuffling. It is almost as big as a small horse, and it is multi-colored—mottled. It seems to have a set of udders like a cow. It looks big and powerful and dangerous. I pull the screen door shut quickly and lock it so the sow won’t get to me. The noises it makes seem to come from me also. Its head changes a couple of times. Once it looks like a lion’s or tiger’s head. All I can do for awhile is stand there and watch it through the screen door. I am sobbing I think, my tears obscure the sow after awhile. I’m afraid it might break through the screen door.
I am myself and I am a sow in our courtyard, huge and snuffling, displaying its obscene udders, I’m a sow like a cow, but dangerous, too, like lions or tigers or bears, oh my, and I sob and grunt, the sow grunts and snuffles, rooting and sobbing, I’m a big fat sow who stands between me and my father, forcing him away, through the weedy field to the creek at the bottom of the ravine, with all the other trash. We’ll trash him and make a better life for ourselves, but how can you make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear?
The dream was surely infused with the kinds of ugly accusations my father made towards my mother, and though the sow may have been his version of her, it was also myself, whose fearful blubbering sounded all too much like the grunting of a dumb, female animal, rooting around in the courtyard to satisfy its own fleshy appetite.
And so although that was the sort of thing I had “left behind,” it routinely came back to haunt me, no matter how many times I crossed over to other sides.
I say that stepping off the Maple Leaf just south of the border, in Buffalo’s Exchange Street Station, flipped a switch of relaxation in me. For if my years as an undergraduate were about economizing so that I could afford to live elsewhere than in my parents’ home, it was also about economizing in another way, about living a life pared down to disciplined essentials: no smoking, little drinking, no TV (it rots your mind), no parties, conserving gas with an ancient Volkswagen Bug. And most significantly, perhaps, the safety of monogamy, an unspoken pact with my partner-in-escape. Unconsciously, maybe, I sensed that abiding by a code of faithfulness would keep that sow from breaking through the screen door, exposing my own lascivious udders to the world.
All that was about to change.
Buffalo Trace: A Threefold Vibration is available beginning September 2018 from Spuyten Duyvil, Roots and Branches Series, 264 pages. Order wherever books are sold.
Click here to read SEVEN QUESTIONS FOR THE AUTHORS OF BUFFALO TRACE.
SLAG GLASS CITY · Volume 4 · August 2018
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