Captain’s Log: After three weeks on Planet Vegas, my mom and I discovered the oxygen-heavy atmosphere, wild inhabitants and alien rituals were actually turning us into amoebas. Obtaining permission from Star Fleet to abort the mission, we beamed back to Buffalo less than one week ago. We felt eager to find new jobs and new civilizations, but the Enterprise was not cleared to leave Star Base VII until yesterday. Unfortunately, our first mission nearly killed my second in command…
My brother works for a charity store, picking up donated furniture and, on slow afternoons, helping out behind the cash register. During his stints behind the register, he’s made friends with a woman who visits regularly in search of items to renovate her nineteenth century home. The other day this woman, we’ll call her Olga, told my brother she had an apartment for my mom available in her house.
We visited the house yesterday. It’s one of those tall affairs with a deep front porch, windows of odd sizes and placements, and wood siding painted egg-yolk yellow. I shook Olga’s hand, remarked on how warm it was, and she squeezed both mine and my mom’s, saying, “Oh you poor dears, I know! It must be so cold outside!”
Which it was, so much so that several layers, a blanket-sized wool scarf, and a downy coat still didn’t seem quite enough to ward off the frosty bite. But not inside Olga’s house. Inside Olga’s house, a long green velveteen sectional welcomed with brightly colored Indian-print pillows dotting it. Stacks of books and bags of clothes she was preparing to sell didn’t detract from the warmth of fringed drapes, rich colors, and an indefinable sense of clean coziness.
She led us around to the back entrance to the apartment she’d fitted in upstairs, and left us to “dig around” for a while. The unit is small but sweet, with a curved doorway into the living room, a window seat in the bedroom, a spacious balcony, a deep freestanding bathtub, and glistening white enamel sinkboard in the little kitchen.
Olga joined us, gently pulling more information from this mysterious mother-daughter team looking for an apartment “for her, except for the first few months, while we both live in it.” When she asked how we’d wound up in Buffalo, my mom said to me, “Tell her your story,” and I had to ask, “Which one? Where do I start?”
My mom told Olga she loved the apartment but wanted to “sleep on it,” and we set off for a job interview in neighboring Williamsville. The man who had originally contacted me about an administrative job had waited until the day of the potential interview to say that, yes, he did want to meet with me that afternoon. Dressed decently and already en route, I agreed to head that way after seeing Olga’s apartment. We took the short, straight-line subway to the end of the line and waited for the 48C bus to Williamsville, a charming “village” just outside Buffalo.
The bus passed quaint shops and postwar housing developments full of the kind of brick houses that have big picture windows and beige carpeting inside. The man waiting to interview me had given me patchy directions to his office, my main goal apparently being to find the Frito-Lay warehouse on Wherle Drive. Peering at the small map on the bus’s printed schedule, my mom and I tried to predict its route, as we circled a community college, turned onto Wherle Drive, and then to our disappointment, turned off Wherle before passing any fried snack food depositories.
We passed a Frito-Lay delivery truck going the opposite direction, which was the clue I needed to form a daring plan. We would disembark from the bus at the next main intersection, and walk down that road back to Wherle, probably finding ourselves right across the street from the chip house. But, once we’d climbed down off the bus and over a mound of snow onto a triangle of sidewalk, we found ourselves in a forbidding landscape. Several lanes of traffic stood between us and a long stretch of Best Buys, Applebees, and the TransitTown Shopping Mall. On our side of the street was a gas station ringed with ice, beyond which, any remaining sidewalk had long been buried in three-foot piles of frozen snow.
Walking any further than the diesel pump seemed out of the question, and my mom was beginning to utter short birdlike sounds of confusion and despair.
I called my guy again, who said I was on the right track navigationally, and that he’d be there a while longer if I could still make it. We hopped back on a bus going the way we’d come, and off again not far from where I’d seen the mystical Frito-Lay truck.
My mom and I looked up and down the road, with industrial parks on either side, no sidewalks, and the temperature dropping every minute as afternoon tiptoed toward dusk. Another Frito-Lay truck passed.
“It’s got to be that way,” I said, pointing after it, up Wherle, beyond the bus’s last stop.
“How far?” My mom asked, as she wrapped a second scarf around her neck.
“As far as we just drove on the bus, because it’s going up to where we came from, but on this road,” I said, assuming that would give her a clear idea that it was 100% totally walkable.
“No way,” she said, shaking her head and heading the opposite direction, toward the next bus stop. “I’m not walking off for some indeterminate length in this weather.”
Admiring her use of the word “indeterminate,” and realizing that even if I could find the office, I’d never want to make this trip again, I gave up my quest and followed her to the bus stop. As we walked I felt a sudden chill sink into my toes and looked down to see dark wet triangles across the tips of my boots. We stood on the side of the road, pulling our scarves tighter, glancing at the clock on our cell phone, and moving from one foot to the other. Finally my mom asked, “Is it possible to get frostbite like this?”
At which point my mental condition began to rapidly deteriorate.
The sky was a pale gray-lavender with lighter gray clouds high overhead. Cars passed, uncaringly, in either direction. We had no sidewalk, shelter or bench, just a little blue sign to give us any reason to wait there. Behind us was the parking lot of a community college, quiet in late afternoon. Before us, a low building that looked like the kind of place Donald Sutherland would experiment on blind people in a bad sci-fi movie. I had only mild sensation left in my feet, and was trying to avoid the uncomfortable but increasingly popular notion of frostbite. We were miles and miles from my brother’s apartment, warm transport, or food.
Hypnotized by the distant traffic lights, watching for anything resembling a bus, I wondered what the hell this was all for.
My mom began campaigning for shelter in a nearby building, suggesting we find a lobby and call a cab. I protested for several minutes, saying I knew a bus was coming at any second and besides, the Donald Sutherland building didn’t look like a place that welcomed civilians, and the community college was separated from us by a parking lot so deep I wasn’t sure I’d be able to cross it on my ever-numbing feet.
Finally she took a step to cross the street, saying, “Come on, I’m going.”
I shook my head, muttered, “You go on, I’ll just wait here,” finishing with what my mom claims was a genuine whimper. At that, she insisted we go. I slowly turned my head to review our options, said the community college looked slightly more welcoming, and off we set for the ECCC School of Dental Hygiene.
Stumbling into the yellow-lit foyer, we collapsed on a bench, took off our boots, rubbed our tingling toes, moaned, and called my brother. He was very wisely at home, and found and called a Williamsville cab for us. As the sensation in my extremities returned, I began to rant to my mom about the ridiculous cruelty of chance, that my well-intentioned effort to find a job in “damn Buffalo” would land us in the middle of nowhere, freezing to death. And for what, I demanded, for what? So I could earn next-to-nothing at a dumb admin job! Was this really how this was all going to work, I asked, my voice rising and socks melting, I was going to be tortured by the weather and limited public transit just because I was trying to be responsible in this dumb burg?!
My mom wisely said nothing.
The ride back to the Buffalo subway station cost thirty dollars, during which I stared into space, huddled in my coat and hat while the heat filled the car. We took turns dozing off on the short subway trip, until at last I nudged her and we stumbled upstairs and into the cold darkness.
My mom heated up both of the casseroles she’d made that week, we turned on “Frasier: Season Three,” and my brother and I made a white cake with white frosting, of which I polished off about a third. I emailed Marcus and Uke, asking them what I’d asked my family: Is this really how this is going to work? took a shower, and climbed into the bed I’m sharing with my mom, to dream of dry socks.