the pull of the ordinary


I haven’t been going anywhere or doing anything. Of importance, I should add. Even writing this simple blog has become a task so boring, I idly pick at my cuticles as I think of sways in which to project how completely uninspired I feel. Things used to be important, but I suspect perhaps they were only because I was going into severe debt for a single piece of paper. A master’s degree doesn’t mean much when you’re stuck in retail management in a damp, grey city that cracks the fluid between your joints like ice. Writing came easy, at least then things were making sense to me; I was observing, always attuned to goins-on, trying to rejuvenate the mundane into something of grandeur. align it with the ornate aesthetic of wording, turning phrases and description. I can’t exist anymore with the separation between the succulent worlds of knowleges I desire to write and the everyday life and anxieties of, mainly: paying rent, shopping for groceries, making appointments, meeting with friends and colleagues, work, work, work, shopping, curating relationships, sleep, dinner. I no longer know what it IS that I DO. What I DONT do is infinite and oppressive, but even worse is what I DO INSTEAD of tackling my indifference and creating something amazing, to me. This is writers block. This is a life crisis, of the smallest and most selfish kind.


“Slowly I began to understand fully that there was no place in academe for folks from working-class backgrounds who did not wish to leave the past behind. That was the price of the ticket. Poor students would be welcome at the best institutions of higher learning only if they were willing to surrender memory, to forget the past and claim the assimilated present as the only worthwhile and meaningful reality.

Students from nonprivileged backgrounds who did not want to forget often had nervous breakdowns. They could not bear the weight of all the contradictions they had to confront. They were crushed. More often than not they dropped out with no trace of their inner anguish recorded, no institutional record of the myriad ways their take on the world was assaulted by an elite vision of class and privilege. The records merely indicated that even after receiving financial aid and other support, these students simply could not make it, simply were not good enough.

At no time in my years as a student did I march in a graduation ceremony. I was not proud to hold degrees from institutions where I had been constantly scorned and shamed. I wanted to forget these experiences, to erase them from my consciousness. Like a prisoner set free, I did not want to remember my years on the inside.”

bell hooks, Where We Stand: Class Matters: “Coming to Class Consciousness”

I plan to read this, finding it strange I never once came across a piece by bell hooks, although I know of bell hooks. Although my immediate reaction was YESSSSSS

Finally: the fire

There is a still silence that fills a room right before something terrible is going to happen. Premonitions become acute, popping out at you from behind each mundane step you take, but of course, this could always be thought of as hind sight through soot and cinder. A strange, sweet metallic smell as you unlock the door three hours before; the electric clicking off as you’re reheating leftovers from a lovely engagement dinner the night before.

Smoke quickly rolls into every crevice that once brought you comfort: the spaces between your mismatched glassware in the cupboard, the softness in the sweaters hanging in the closet, your cat curled up on his favorite spot on the couch. The acrid clouds billow across the most sacred parts of everyday life and sting your eyes open as as you fumble to find what you care for. The billowing fur of your old faithful cat. A pair of slippers. The voice of your boyfriend calling for you to hurry out, with only socks on his feet.

how often are we able to recognize the peace that can come in a moment of panic? If you’re lucky, you wont have to lose a pet in a house fire, so I’ll assure you there is a beautiful way, through the flicker of eye contact and a quick exhale, that your mind will process that everything will never be as it once was. Calmly understand there will be loss, but don’t reflect until you’ve run straight across the street among the rubberneckers, the lackadaisical firemen.

Goodbye, Eleanore.

Everyone mentioned how they “knew” she was going to die today, but my skepticism of proclamations of fate forces me to believe that this ‘knowing,’ or attunement everyone feverishly claimed to possess, is nothing more than the desire for her death to come manifesting as a camaraderie of otherworldliness. My mother claimed, “It’s not looking good.” bluntly, as if she put a wool sweater in the dryer accidentally. This was a day after Eleanore returned from a stay in the hospital for a small infection. She showed no signs of approaching death. She watered her Christmas Cactus, scolded a fellow St. Elizabeth’s resident for sleeping at the dinner table, and talked to my dead grandfather in the passing September cloud cover, thick and grey as dirty socks.

To everyone’s credit, Eleanore claimed she didn’t have much time left, once back in the hospital with another infection. Her body wasn’t responding to any attempts to cure the infection, it began to spread through her body like smoke silently billowing from underneath a locked door. I sighed into stages of relief while she remained hunched in a boxy hospital chair, reveling in the simple joy of oatmeal warming her belly. Her arms were bruised like an old fruit forgotten at the bottom of the bowl. The blooming pools of purple swirled up against her paper skin; a topography of a broken body. With her palms facing the sky, resting on her matchstick thighs, she sacrifices a drowsy, “Look what they’ve done to me! Stuck me with all sortsa pins!”

To avoid the sour talk of pain, I promised to bring her a fresh pink ribbon for her hair, and her favorite scandal magazine, The National Enquirer. One blind eye drooped  and dentures chattered under the weight of Haloperdol and Fentanyl. She requested a hot fudge sundae from McDonald’s. We agreed that we weren’t focusing on her survival, but the eventual future where guilt dries up from our heavy, soggy conscious. The sundae would stay intact longer than she would, just as the bouquet of purple flowers on her windowsill barely began to droop under the fluorescent lights before she was gone.

Buffalo prepares for the approaching winter by comparing infinite “this time last year”‘s while scowling at the biting wind.

Approaching my car, a slightly beat up Volkswagen Jetta, I gain concern over something glimmering on the underside of my bumper. I feared a trip to the mechanic, until closer review proved the object to be an icicle.

The wind is aggressive with the leaves, and its harshness sends them scurrying beneath my car as I drive. I become startled as the flock rushes through a red light. The sticky grey clouds sag low in the atmosphere, thick with agitation.



Waterfront Elementary School offered many opportunities for daydreaming. The first K-8 magnet school in Buffalo, New York, was built on the same stretch of land as the old, abandoned shell of the Buffalo Gas Light Company Works. Fourth street used to lead directly to the waters of Lake Erie, with the Gas Light building looming only a few yards away from the lapping shores. Later renamed Illuminating Gas Co., the building existed solely to convert coal into illuminating gas for the surrounding residences, which were few and far between in 1848. Waterfront Elementary School was one hundred and thirty years away from being erected directly behind the landmark, a perfectly grey, apathetic point of reference for a dawdling student. Buffalo Gas Light remained planted in the grass like a stout, sleeping hippopotamus as children scrambled around the prickly grass and looming trees with hollowed, cracked trunks during recess.

The land filled up in sedimentary layers, pushing the shoreline back onto itself: through a century and a half, Fourth street was paved and curved back towards Niagara Street, the I-190 thruway hovered above heads as the less fortunate huddled in cardboard boxes in the rubble beneath it. Condominiums spread in twirling, twisting repetitions until there was no space between a backyard and the original lighthouse.

In the early part of this century, a mysterious odor began seeping through the soil that spread between the school and the old building. Children that graduated from Waterfront began high school careers with splitting migraines and weakening muscles. Multiple Sclerosis, Muscular Dystrophy, attention deficit disorder, and Lupus bubbled up in a shockingly high number of bodies that used this soil in a revolutionary set of science class ‘labs’ that were so advanced for such young children, PBS filmed the entire process to be used around the country. We dug the soil up with our tiny bare hands, and visited natural landmarks chosen as plots to be studied over the course of the entire school year, a required one hour a day experiencing the textures of the land. Three feet underground,roughly the height of a kindergardener, barrels of toxic refuse were disintegrating after one hundred years of erosion.

The story barely gained any momentum when it surfaced. The western New York area has a slimy history of dangerous school placements, Love Canal being the nationally recognized blow to an already rusting city. Children there muddled in the soils the same way, experimenting in the landscapes far more terrifying. The Niagara Falls School board purchased the land covering 21000 tons of noxious chemicals from Hooker Chemical in 1953 for $1 and immediately proceeded to build two elementary schools and parceled out numerous plots of land to young families.

“An army of five fifth grade boys bellied their way across the carefully manicured lawn and slipped behind a clump of hydrangea bushes. Quietly they emptied an arsenal of little blue stones from their jean pockets, and…hurled the projectiles at the enemy fort. The stones exploded upon impact shattering into thousands of pieces. The boys jumped up and surrounded the old shed…They nudged Him through an open doorway and down a flight of stairs. He hesitated on the last step. A strange iridescent bluish black liquid bubbled up beneath him.”

Mr. Wagner, our eighth grade teacher, walked us down to the remaining facade without our coats on an October afternoon. He walked us behind the school, through uncleared thickets clawing through fences.

He stared at the ashlar stone with his arms crossed.

“This was Buffalo that will never, ever resurface again,” he raised his arms into the air and held them there for quite some time.

The Place in Which a Thesis Begins

Carol Krywalski and James Latchford were married in Paul’s backyard before the swimming pool was built, long before the click and whir of the large pool filter in the garage. Before the pool’s cement would rub the bottoms of my toes raw and painful to the point of bleeding, or snag the shiny spandex of my bathing suit bottoms when I sat down to just put my feet in.  I would swipe my fingers across the deck to smear those tiny speck bugs we called Bloodsuckers; before the shellacked but slivered pool deck was the site of card games and boxes of wine. It was 1980; I know so from the Gold Circle Photo stamp on the back of the small photo. This sepia world of the plastic porch furniture strewn about the yard; it shaded everyone’s limbs a crisp brown that seems impossible for people with such fair skinned histories in July. Sepia has since absorbed like iodine into bodies and bloodstreams, a poison that surfaced as wrinkles for Mom, and skin cancer for Dad. But here, they are languid and lazy, wispy-haired and as soft as linen, mouths forming mid-sentence O’s; this whole place is a whisper from their ring-mouths, the smoke from their July cigarettes.

When things begin.

Under the soggy, molded boards raised upon cinder block legs, we found the delicate skeleton of Tippie, the gentle tuxedo cat that perished in a garage fire in 1993. My mother attempted to revive her through careful CPR, but the garage was filled with smoke for half an hour too long for any of it to make a difference.

Vertebrae were stacked and curved like a tightrope walker bending and wavering for balance. They were shimmering white through the rancid mud.


(Auto)Ethnography - Buffalo, New York


Allen C. Shelton

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