A Celebration of Extravagance
It’s 7 p.m. on Chippewa Street. The night is cold, but not frigid; warmth comes from open doors and patio heaters set up by sympathetic bar owners. Revelers dressed in everything from suits to dresses (neither tied to a single gender) to those big Cat-in-the-Hats everyone thought were cute in 1992 wander in search of alcohol and company. Everyone has cell phones, and all watch as coeds bare their most intimate anatomy for little pieces of plastic. It is the beginning of what promises to be a crazy night, and it is the beginning of my night as a homeless man.
Ahh, Fat Tuesday. The night for celebration, drinking, and feasting before the Christian period of self-denial, Lent. The notoriety and excitement of the annual citywide parade and party in New Orleans has extended as a tradition for cities all across America, and Buffalo is no exception. On Tuesday night, Artvoice put on its ninth annual Mardi Gras parade, and the city came out in force.
The reason I decided to celebrate Mardi Gras as a vagrant was not one that came easy. It’s a night of endless possibilities, and the party looked ready to last. However, to appreciate the true meaning of the holiday, to find my Mardi Gras-spirit, so to speak, I felt it necessary to step away from tradition, and view the celebration with a new perspective: that of the vagrant, one who doesn’t know the meaning of excess. Getting lost for a few hours helped, too. So, allowing myself only two five minute warm-up breaks, I walked the streets of Buffalo for six hours as a bum.
For the most part, partygoers will ignore an indigent citizen, content with fixing their attention on the next drink, the next bar, and the next makeshift toilet. A few inquired as to whether or not there were beads on my person. There were not. Most walked past without more than a glance, most likely because they thought I was drunk as well, or they somehow knew what an idiot I felt like and didn’t want to make things harder on me.
Being homeless on a winter night in Buffalo sets a lot of limits on where you can go. Past a certain time, everything closes, and the places that do stay open usually look down on free use of their heat and space. The historic Buffalo Club on Delaware Avenue was particularly unwelcoming. Sporting traded beads and casually sipping whiskey, the majority of patrons looked pleased when the doorman ignored me. Secure in their removal from the Chippewa crowd, high society seemed disinterested in entertaining pro bono. As one finely dressed gentleman remarked into a cell phone on his way to an Audi, “Yeah, Mardi Gras’s fun, but it’s overrated.”
Hollywood and “My So Called Life” Christmas specials had conditioned me to believe that the final refuge of all those exiled and astray was the house of worship. Not so; the area churches were all closed. Surely, said TV, there must be a resident priest, whose only role is to open his doors and his heart to the needy. Nope. “Business hours” for every church within fifteen minutes walk of Chippewa Street happen to be about the same as banker’s hours. And these people don’t even pay taxes.
One place was waiting with arms open and heat blasting. It was that neon wonder, the suburban halfway house: the all-night gas station. The teenage girl behind the desk asked about my day, directed me to the rest room, and provided a comforting presence in the absence of any other social contact. For the experience to have the full effect, spending money was out of the question, but I hit the ATM up for twenty bucks. Just in case I couldn’t take it. Five minutes later, on my way through the parking lot, I noticed some of my comrades in destitution soliciting customers for spare change. They looked at me not with the grim realization of a brother of the streets, but as an impostor; at best, competition for the cold shoulders of the gas station patrons. While my Columbia fleece and New Balance sneakers were in fact lighter than their tattered army coats and work boots, I can’t say I blamed them.
My travels took me as far out of the city as Kenmore, and as far into the city as Lafayette Square. Somewhere along the way I came upon the Buffalo City Mission. The mission offers a bed and a plan to the Buffalo homeless, making it their duty to infuse Christianity into the lives of those who need the most direction. Rev. Gregory Regis, a chaplain at the Mission, believes this is needed to end the self-destructive behavior of the indigent population.
“If all you do is take one of these guys and dress them up in a new suit,” says Regis, “he’s still going to be the same guy.” The facility includes a full kitchen and food pantry, a chapel, and dormitories for members of the program. With a budget of $2-3 million, Regis says the average donation is 23 dollars.
In an average winter, the men’s facility takes in anywhere between 120 to 150 homeless males. The numbers go up in warmer months because transients can move around more freely. While the Buffalo City Mission encourages the Christian way of life, at base they offer a warm bed and a hot meal to those who can’t get one on a regular basis.
“We’re a safety net for the community,” says Regis, but not so for my Mardi Gras experience. The offices were closed by the time I got there.
As I returned to the Chippewa area to check up on the festivities, it had almost reached midnight. The party was still raging on, but it was getting seriously cold at this point. Hotel lobbies and hospital waiting rooms started to look like oases, and after hearing the fourth chorus of “WOOO!! LET’S SEE SOME TITS!!” outside the Sphere, I decided to use the last of my five minute warm-ups at the Hampton Inn on Delaware. But the breaks were imaginary. No place lets you stay long. Restaurants try to seat you or throw you out. Bars make you pay to get in, and buy drinks to stay. The phrase, “a taste of honey is worse than none at all” came to mind, but luckily for me, the Hampton Inn staff was content with staring at me suspiciously as I rocked back and forth in front of their gas fireplace for a few minutes before kicking me out. As a “visitor,” and not a “guest,” I wasn’t even allowed to use the bathroom. Have it your way, Hampton.
The hotel’s freshly watered parking lot aside, the temperature had fallen to about twenty degrees on the street. The Center for Disease Control’s website defines the symptoms of moderate hypothermia as “Shivering intense, muscle incoordination becomes apparent, movements slow and labored, mild confusion, may appear alert.” Yeah, that sounds about right. More than mild confusion began to set in as I seriously pondered why the hell I was outside on a night where the spit froze to my lips, and the blood had been gone from my hands for so long they started to pale and swell up with lymph. At this point I had been living for maybe five hours through conditions the homeless take in stride for days, the simple reason being that no other option is available to them.
The drunken Mardi Gras crowd was a double-edged sword from a panhandler’s point of view. When you have no place to go for help but begging for money, drunk people can be helpful in that they are friendly and charitable. However, most just make fun of you. If you ask for directions, people look at you like you’re an idiot. If you ask for a ride, like you’re crazy. If you ask for money, you might get some, but it’s an opportunity for the inebriated citizen upon whom you depend for life-sustaining funds to flaunt their money and lack of responsibilities. At this point in the night, it began to make sense to me why so many of the homeless spend what they make from panhandling on booze. It keeps you warm in the short-term, and guards you a little bit from the shame of having to ask people with so much that they don’t value at all if they have a spare quarter or two.
It was shooting for 1 a.m. when I met Al.
Al had just gotten a job at UB’s Center for Inquiry the week before, but would not get paid until Thursday. To his name, he had sixty cents. Canadian.
“I don’t even have bus fare…” Al said, as we walked down Delaware towards a “place” that he may or may not have had on Utica Avenue. “I wash my clothes in—I don’t even wanna say, man, I’m embarrassed.” He had just met me maybe half a minute before, a grown man with a job at UB meeting a student of UB with less life experience in twenty years than this man reaped in a night; and he was too embarrassed to tell me how he washed his clothes.
Remarking on the Mardi Gras celebration, Al showed how truly happy and excited he was to see everyone having such a good time on the streets that were and are his home. “It’s crazy down there,” he said in reaction to the echoing cacophony that was Chippewa Street. “I saw a guy staggering there…It wasn’t even 10 o’clock, man. Crazy…” The smile on his face betrayed none of the internal dialogue that may or may not have preceded his asking me to buy him some food.
I gave Al fifteen of my twenty “emergency” dollars, pointed him in the direction of a grocery store, and spent the rest of the night feeling guilty about the other five. He could have just rounded the opposite corner and taken my father’s hard-earned money to the nearest liquor store. Or maybe he went a few blocks further and found a crackhouse on Michigan and celebrated Ash Wednesday morning in the cathedral of the addicted. Cold, tired, and ornery as I was, I couldn’t find it in me to care. Whatever gets you through the night, Al.
Reaching my car, ridiculously unlocked and miraculously still parked across from the monument at Lafayette Square, all I could think about was how my hands couldn’t make fists anymore, and how I wasn’t shivering anymore, and whether that was a good or bad thing. Now, complain as I did, I had been walking the streets for maybe six or seven hours of what was a relatively mild night for Buffalo. I had had three hot meals throughout the course of my day, and when I got home I could fall into a warm bed; never again having to digest the concept of hypothermia outside of extended cigarette breaks and that one Voyage of the Mimi episode. Still, I drove home shaking like I had just been born, and didn’t regain full feeling in my limbs until I had been in bed for two hours.
I can’t help but think I didn’t accomplish my mission. There’s no way the spirit of Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, or whatever you call it, is a guy named Al who works for a UB think tank. Nor is it a parade of boozed-up twenty-somethings, pushing extravagance to excess for one night before giving up chocolate bars for forty days. But I think, through the course of my night, I gained a little insight into a life where the greatest concerns are survival and survival, and where there’s no time to value arbitrary holidays, just the real life spaces between five minute warm-up breaks.