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The Ambassador

The Ambassador

Well, here was a slate of weather which barely made it feel like I left home. Thick bushel of clouds, gray, nice amount of rain… Yeah, it didn’t look like anything unfamiliar, I thought. I was on an IcelandAir flight, and after nearly two hours of the cabin pressure wreaking havoc on my sinus cavity (my body picked the WORST possible time to catch a cold) and the accompaniment of the Supreme Clientele record from rapper Ghostface Killah, my plane was almost finished with its descent. The clouds were finally broken, and a web of tangled street formations and village-style cottages appeared on the ground below.

Glasgow.

I’m not sure what happened in the next few minutes, but just as my plane touched down, the captain had to pull us back into the air, and we spent the next ten minutes flying a circle around the largest city in Scotland for a second approach. Upon its success, I exhaled the most audible sigh of relief of my life, and I don’t think I’ve ever been able to get away from any transit fast enough. After running through the labyrinth that was Glasgow Airport through customs and getting my passport stamped, I was out. After my 37 years of life dreaming of this very moment, I finally took my first breath of air in the Old World.

It was probably then that something started to really click. Now, whenever I travel, I like to stay in hostels because I love talking to the foreigners. I love learning where they’re from, what brought them to the United States, what they think of the United States, and the little differences between the United States and where they’re from. I always liked to consider myself an ambassador of sorts for my home country because I could have extended conversations with visitors, and I wanted them to feel welcome. One of my more pleasant hostel stays involved watching an MLB playoff game with a young man from Australia who happened to be into American football. Ultimately, though, I was still an American on American soil, so that made my presentation rather limited. After all, real America was literally right outside the door, and any visitors’ opinions were going to be based on their thoughts about what happened to them outside.

Now that I’m sitting here in the Old World, that safety net has been removed. I’m the oddball in the United Kingdom, walking around with the funny accent and strange, messy words. I don’t have some sort of big, official title but that doesn’t make the truth of the matter any less obvious: For the next two weeks, I’m going to be a representative of my country. Most people in other countries will never meet a politician from the US. They might catch me walking around on their streets and have a short conversation with me, though, so it’s imperative that I be on my best behavior and show them the best of the world across the pond. The importance of being a proper gentleman took a long time to sink in with me. My father did everything he could to hammer it into my head, but I’m sure he kept getting frustrated to see me pushing back. (Dad, you can blame the pushback on that sorry excuse of a social code pressed on me by everything else in Buffalo’s environment.) It didn’t really sink in until I moved back to Buffalo and saw myself starting to blend in with everything I hated. It sank in a little more during the uncivilized 2016 Presidential election. Now, as the only American for miles,I can’t afford to screw this up.

The irony is that while I’ve frequently had a contentious relationship with the United States, I’m actually up to bearing this burden. After all, I don’t want the general populace in any countries I travel to to think one person represents me. The United States is not the people running it. It’s not the pundits who are on television screaming themselves into frothing rages. It’s not the backwoods militia bozos talking big about how they’re going to overthrow the government. I’m not sure there any one thing which CAN define the United States, but I don’t want someone to pick up a bad impression of us through what might be the only encounter with an American they ever have.

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Dispatches from the Sarah Smith Campaign

Dispatches from the Sarah Smith Campaign

My desire to stay informed in the goings-on of the world today is currently at odds with my desire to retain my sanity. The presidency has been a train wreck; you know it’s god-fucking-awful, but there’s no looking away. And to think, we seemed to be set on a good course. Gay marriage was now legal, medical care was easier to get than ever, and we were left with the economy in better shape than it was when Dubya left the White House. Things had shifted in a positive direction, so while I have some deep roots in political activism and social justice, I found myself slacking off a little.

We all know what happened next.

Upon these rather unfortunate circumstances, I felt a deep stirring which I hadn’t felt in some time. It was time to get back into political activism and get everyone foaming at the mouth once again. Unfortunately, I had no clue how to do that or where to start. In Chicago, I didn’t need to approach anyone. In fact, political activism wasn’t a thought in my head until I just happened to be approached by a grassroots group in May of 2006. They called themselves World Can’t Wait, and their stated goal was to create enough opposition to George W. Bush to drum up support for his impeachment. Although they originally came to me looking for a signature, they straight invited me to join the group when I gave them the Lackawanna Six story. But me and my relationship to and eventual split with World Can’t Wait is a whole other piece. The bottom line is that, for a longtime activist, I had no clue where to go to get back into politics. Yes, there were the usual outlets, but I have a radical streak and wanted nothing to do with the big parties, political machina, and their dirty money. But I’m a grassroots boy and I was on the hunt for something real.

Back in my native state, a recent electoral victory has sent shockwaves across the country. Democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had won the right to represent New York’s 14th District. She was young and inexperienced, but she wasn’t there to grease the machine, and she wasn’t a child of privilege. She was in tune with her community and had worked real jobs to make ends meet. As I watched her victory, I wondered why my own home district – Washington State’s 2nd – didn’t have a candidate like her. I’ll continue to wonder that until I decide to run for public office myself. But in the meantime, the 9th District DID have someone very much like Ocasio-Cortez. She went by the name Sarah Smith, and after some research, I decided I had found my entryway.

After making my way down to the campaign office on Airport Way and introducing myself, I learned that I had walk into a bit of unfortunate timing. Yes, in the back of my mind, I knew the primaries were less than a month down the road, but the list of candidates in Snohomish County was filled with losers and snoozers, and I could never seem to bring myself to care about them. Unfortunately for me, there were only a few things left to do: Canvas, phone bank, and text. Calling back on my old skills as a fundraiser for WNED Buffalo, I picked phone banking.

I’m not exactly proud of how that turned out. I ended up running through three phone banking sessions and one can of (ugh!) Pabst Blue Ribbon before the election came and went. The thing about having done work where you cold call people and ask them for money is that the mentality of such a job never quite gets out of you. When you pick up the phone, you feel the pressure to sell, sell, sell. Your job is running on that premise. And if someone screams at you or swears at you or hangs up, you feel the anger rushing through your capillaries like a jolt of electricity. Phone banking for a political cause is different in that you aren’t there because someone is offering a paycheck. You’re there because you’ve decided you believe in a cause and want to get the word out. Getting hung up on isn’t something that should have bothered me, but even though my phone fundraising days are long in the past, my impending eruption was very real.

Actually, in my first session, there were so few calls that got through that I just straight gave up and went to the International District to place posters. My second session was by far my most successful. A lot of calls got through, and I got to recite the shpiel a lot. Sometimes, I was even allowed to finish. I gave the phone bank that day a good two and a half hours before deciding I didn’t have the willpower take more verbal abuse FOR AMERICA! I started getting so pissed off that I finally had to walk into the office kitchen and grab that corn-syrup-and-cold-urine concoction known as Pabst Blue Ribbon in order to calm my nerves a little bit, but that ended up backfiring when my famously vicious temper started to flare up. I managed to call it quits before any words got out and affected Sarah’s vote. The third session lasted a good 45 minutes before one of the campaign managers told me to just take a rest. I had spent most of the day doctoring posters and taking pictures, so it wasn’t a waste, but when I start to get angry with people over the phone, you KNOW it. I was surprised that I was able to ask for credit card numbers for as long as I did, but when Sarah herself told me she spent nine years doing phone work herself, I tried to troop it out. If she could do this shit for nine years, I could offer my best for an afternoon.

Since I had come in just a few weeks before the primary, phone banking was all I got to do, but I gave it what I had. On August 7, I was right there at the election party for Sarah in Columbia City. I took a few pictures, but I was there mostly because I had invested a lot in my time working Sarah’s campaign, even though my time was brief. I was curious to know how she was doing. When I got to the restaurant where the party was taking place, Sarah greeted me with news: We were surviving. Okay. Surviving didn’t sound particularly promising. Watching the constant news reports on The Young Turks, I kept barely avoiding anxiety attacks. I would look over at Sarah periodically, listening to her, and studying her movements, looking for some sign of reassurance. Hindsight being 20/20, that probably wasn’t the thing to do. She was the one who threw all of her time and resources – her lifeblood – into her campaign. She was the one who was running, and she was feeling everything probably more than the rest of us put together.

Worried, I tried to find new ways to distract and amuse myself. I drank. I ate. I tried to watch the soccer match between Real Madrid and Roma, but it had already ended. I made conversation with a fiery campaigner. Results? Results? Anyone for some results? The Young Turks were already calling the Smith-on-Smith Crime election for Sarah’s opponent, Adam, but ballots would be dropped over the next few days, meaning results wouldn’t be definitive for some time yet. It was around this time that I left – the journey from Columbia City back to Edmonds wasn’t exactly short, and I had work the next day. I Before I left, I was sure to tell Sarah that I was still going to be in it, come what may. I also mentioned the idea of maybe doing something for District 2, since I, you know, live there. What Sarah said when I mentioned that was a show of her character: She offered to advise me should I ever try.

Victoria

Victoria

For a place that’s so close to Seattle, the city of Victoria, British Columbia is a real pain in the ass to get to. That was one of my thoughts as I prepared a trip to visit British Columbia’s provincial capital. Another was, why didn’t I just plan to visit Vancouver? It would be so much easier – just a straight shot to the north on a bus! If you want to talk about travel distance, in fact, Victoria is actually closer than Vancouver. Vancouver is just north of the Canadian border. Victoria is at the southern mouth of the Strait of St. George, right on the Salish Sea. It overlaps a little bit with the northernmost point of the border. And yet, despite being just 60 miles from Seattle, getting there wasn’t easy.

It wasn’t like there was a giant suspension bridge connecting Victoria direct to the Canadian mainland. The city is on an island off the west coast of Canada which is called Vancouver Island. It’s possible to drive there, but all the points narrow enough to build bridges between the island and the mainland are so far north that doing so is a massive inconvenience. A drive with no stops would be five hours one way. A bus ride would take half a day. So that left me with two options: Take the local ferry or the seaplane. The seaplane had better flight times and speed, but a one-way ticket on the seaplane cost as much as the round trip on the ferry. Wanting to save money for an August trip to Europe and a car repair, I opted for the ferry. That presented the question of how to get from my home in Edmonds to the pier by 7 AM. That got sorted out when my friend decided she was willing to massively inconvenience herself to deposit me there, although she made sure I knew I owed her.

Three hours after arriving at the pier and promising a safe arrival message when I got to Victoria, I was there. I had been presented with a new experience along the way: I had to fill out a customs form. Although I had been to Canada many times in the past, my last visit was about 16 years ago, before passports were a requirement. Back then, if we wanted to cross the border, we did. But now I had to answer to a customs agent, and after that, I was finally unleashed in British Columbia. My first order of business was to make my way to my hostel, which turned out to be just a 15-minute walk away from the Clipper dock. What happened then was typical me: I was still an hour and a half from my official check-in time, so I decided to go out and get some grub. At the hostel, the receptionist mentioned sending someone to a soccer bar to watch a game. Being a soccer fan myself, I knew exactly what game he was talking about. The Champions League Final was that day, and I knew that my favorite club, Liverpool FC of the English League, was playing in it. I hadn’t counted on being able to actually watch it, and I just wanted some damned food. But in my search for something light, I happened to stumble into a nearby Irish bar flooded with other Liverpool supporters… Who were very vocal. I forgot I was hungry as I watched an exciting, dramatic, and very physical soccer game which the Reds lost, but made their opponents really work for their victory.

After making my hostel check-in official, I set out and soaked everything in. I’ve never hidden my affection for Portland, but Victoria was a smaller, more walkable version of Portland. And despite seeing a handful of Starbucks, Victoria didn’t have the corporate saturation that affects Portland. It’s clear that the colloquial small city where you can sit in the coffee shop and watch the world go by was a perfect way of describing Victoria. And during the early hours of the two mornings I spent in Victoria, I did just that, with my computer, writing away at a piece for my other blog. Of course, I didn’t have much of a choice; my computer didn’t seem compatible with the hostel internet after my first day there. Apparently, that’s a fairly common problem at that hostel.

As I walked around and observed, I saw that the Canadian accent seems to vary in its thickness. From one person to the next, it always sounded differently pronounced. And when that teemed with the sheer number of foreign accents I heard around Victoria, I had trouble deciphering the locals from the visitors. And my hostel even had two or three workers who were clearly from other countries. One had a thick, brogue Scottish accent. But the common stereotype of Canadian politeness abounded, and when I made excursions out of tourist Victoria and into real Victoria, I was treated like an everyday neighbor, even though I was constantly carrying around a camera which plainly gave away the fact that I was a traveler. I received a lot of friendly hellos. At one point, I was trying to buy my lunch in a grocery store, and my card was having trouble being read. It took ten minutes before the machine processed me. In the United States, the customer behind me would have started complaining, and the clerk would have kicked me out of the line.

A city which is small but has a lot to do can be both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, you can walk everywhere. On the other, none of the things worth seeing are that small. Trying to cover serious ground meant not being able to wander aimlessly and take in anything I was looking at, but I like to have my mind occupied, so it was easy to come up with a few things to do. I managed to visit the Royal British Columbia Museum, which had a very cool exhibit on ancient Egypt; Craigdarroch Castle; and the Parliament building. Craigdarroch Castle was the one I was most looking forward to, the one I liked the most, and yet, the biggest letdown. Calling the place a castle was a bit of a misnomer. It’s a mansion that just happens to be very big and be designed with a few turrets. It’s distinction was that a very rich family had built it and lived in it. There were no murder stories worthy of old royalty, and the place lacked any hauntings. I loved learning about the history of it, though, but it was simply the history of a family. The Parliament building had an exhibit dedicated to the women in British Columbia’s Parliament, and the place had the same screening process as any capitol building in the United States.

I never forgot that I was a stranger in a strange land. It was impossible to forget that this was a different part of Canada as well. My experiences in Canada were all relegated to the east until now – I had been in and out of Ontario a thousand times. Fort Erie, Niagara Falls, Hamilton, and Toronto had been semi-regular and regular stops to such an extent that it was difficult to remember I was in a different country. While I never got that different planet vibe in Victoria, the signs that I wasn’t in Washington State anymore were all around. Canadian symbols were everywhere, and little reminders of the province’s British past were common. Fish and chips were a popular menu item in bars, the Union Jack was a popular symbol – it flew independently, and appeared on both the official flag and royal crest of British Columbia – and there were references to the British monarchy in the names of government buildings. And in many other places were little tokens that helped establish Victoria as its own little place: Orcas and totem poles were present nearly everywhere. City symbols, both of them, as if they had popped right out of the ground.

I managed to do a lot during my weekend, but as I left, I couldn’t help but think of the various things I wanted to do but, for one reason or another, couldn’t. I wanted to ride a rental bicycle, visit Butchart Gardens, visit the miniatures museum, and there were several places to eat on my list that I wasn’t able to get to. I tried to get to a place called Red Fish Blue Fish, but the line was always far too long. I also wished I could have walked around the local neighborhoods a bit more. That’s another big curse of placing everything in walking distance – you don’t get challenged to go out into the neighborhood to meet any of the locals.

Victoria is a small city, but it has a lot to do and see. I have a lot of other places I’d like to see in my life, but when I want a rest, it will be comforting to know that a relaxing place like Victoria is right there.

 

When a Fan Dumps the Team

When a Fan Dumps the Team

Every sports fan has thrown the accusation around at one time or another: They’re the truest of the true blue, and someone else is just a bandwagoner. Of course, the common perception is that all the serious sports fans hate bandwagoners, fans who only pay attention to the team when it’s doing well. It’s a pretty easy thing to say when you’re younger and have plenty of time to follow every sport under the sun, but as I grow older, I’m starting to give bandwagoning more of a second glance than I used to. I’m an adult, and I have interests, hobbies, and duties out of the sporting realm. And as my mileage keeps racking up, I’ve been prioritizing my life more.

Sports are still a big part of my life. They always have been, and they always will be. But my view of sports has changed, and a couple of things about them dawned on me: One is that they are a form of entertainment, no different than movies or graphic novels. The other is that, like those, and every other form of entertainment for that matter, sports require a willing investment of time. And time is a resource that no one has in abundance, and no one can get it back when it’s gone. When someone chooses to follow a sports team, they’re saying that they believe that team is a worthy investment of their free time. Maybe the team is close to them in some way; maybe they just like the playing style; maybe they’ve been inspired by an incredible show of last-minute resilience; or maybe the team has just been entertaining as hell. Yes, fans frequently choose to throw money at the team as well, but that’s optional. Teams mean time. Sports mean time.

The sad truth is that there are a lot of good reasons out there to give up on a team, if not switch a loyalty outright. There’s no reason to try to be stringent European-style fans of a team if that team is perfectly allowed to pick up and whisk itself off to another city willing to take it. And all of those reasons come down to one thing: The team has been wasting your time, and you don’t think your team is a worthy investment of your precious spare time anymore. For me, that’s lately been baseball. Although I was once an all-in baseball fan, America’s Pastime has lost the pull on me that it once had. There’s a variety of reasons for that: The increasingly sluggish pace of the games (they’re averaging over three hours now, and I can’t watch reruns of Mariners games on ROOT without them cutting forward multiple times); the fact that MLB knows the pace is an issue and keeps taking half-assed measures to speed it up; the self-righteous legions of fans bitching about respect while demanding Pete Rose be reinstated; the old men yelling at clouds that the game is perfect the way it is; and the sabermetrics people lording equations over the sport’s legends.

The thing with baseball, though, is that I still recognize its aesthetic beauty as a sport. For everything wrong with it, I’m still capable of being awestruck by the quick-strike precision of a perfectly executed play, and moved to cathartic joy by a great story or a masterful performance. (See: Cubs, 2016 Chicago.) If I get offered a chance to spend a pleasant afternoon in The Safe watching the Mariners – or better yet, the Rainiers – you had better believe I would jump right on it. The point is that, despite all its flaws, I haven’t totally given up on baseball. If pressed, I’ll still gleefully admit to caring about the teams I’ve adopted and cheered for over the years. Although I’m only a nominal baseball fan these days, baseball hasn’t darkened my soul or wiped out my ability to experience the emotions that go with loving sports. Baseball still brings out a lot of my best, even though I don’t watch very many games anymore.

I can’t say the same for every team I’ve ever cheered for. The Chicago Bears pissed me off so much that I had no problem just dumping them after moving away. They just weren’t worth the effort to try keeping up with them. And why would anyone want to waste their time with something that leaves them feeling like they’re rotting from the inside out? Childhood attachment can only take a person so far. If the magic, wonder, and even heartbreak and frustration starts to get replaced by too much soul-sucking indifference, lethargy, laziness, and abuse of fans’ goodwill, it’s time for even a lifelong diehard to pack it in. Do you still get excited – or at least look forward – to seeing your favorite team? Or do you flip on the station, curse the sports gods, and endure the games? When new information comes along, do you cautiously hope for the best or just read to see what trash talking is going on about them? Yes, I’ve heard all of the reasoning and excuses, particularly that annoying metaphor about the family: We know all about how our families may be flawed, but we love them anyway, yada yada yada. But that metaphor invites a corollary: If the family becomes abusive, you are well within your right to leave them and never have anything to do with them again.

The Buffalo Sabres have become abusive.

It brings me no joy to say this. The Buffalo Sabres – my team growing up, a team which I recently said was my favorite team ever in my other blog – have finally decimated their relationship with me to such a point that I’m not sure I’ll ever fully return to them. That’s saying something, because the Sabres started playing in 1970, just 11 years before I was born. The Sabres and I kind of grew up together, and despite missing the years of The French Connection, I was there for an awful lot of the moments that have defined the Sabres: Malarchuk’s carotid, Mogilny’s defection from the Soviet Union, May Day, Hasek’s Hart, No Goal, The Bounce, The Fight, The Buffaslug, the President’s Trophy year, and the Ice Bowl. I was frustrated in 1998, pissed off in 1999, heartbroken in 2006, and resigned in 2007. I saw rotten finishes in a lot of years, first round playoff exists in just as many, and still persevered. The Sabres, no matter how they did, still offered excitement, escape, and pride. Being a Sabre meant having a huge chip on your shoulder and a need to prove that you belonged in the NHL, among the greatest hockey players in the world. They never did manage to get over the hump, but their identity had a roughneck appeal which fans wore with pride. There’s a reason their nickname was once The Hardest-Working Team in Hockey.

Fast forward to the Pegula era and the team is toxic and bleeding from every orifice. The last few years have been the worst of the team’s entire history. I understand that some of the very early teams posted worse numbers, but at least they played with a sense of purpose. This year was supposed to be the coming out after the tank. Jack Eichel was healthy again, Kyle Okposo was back, Evander Kane seemed to be keeping his issues to a dull roar, and Zemgus Girgensons seemed to be a star on the rise. After Dan Bylsma was exposed as more of a wingman than an actual coach, he was fired and replaced by Phil Housley. Although it was Housley’s first head coaching gig and his past as a Sabre and one of the greatest defensemen ever reeked of typical old fan enticement, House did come with credentials: He had been an assistant coach for the Nashville Predators, and helped them create a tempo-deciding offense which got them to the Final. The long nights of the tank were over and the Sabres were expected to post some real points.

Ah, the tank. Remember that? That absurd multi-year race to the bottom for Connor McDavid which backfired when the Sabres lost the right to draft him? Yes, they still got Jack Eichel out of it, and Eichel is a beast. He’s by far the best player the Sabres have,  but his output isn’t quite a point-per-game rate. Yes, his output is impressive; the 177 total points he’s put up in 209 career games so far is nothing to sneeze at. But that’s not a superstar number, and he’s getting dwarfed not only by McDavid, but by even younger contemporaries like Patrik Laine and Auston Matthews. He’s also proving to be injury prone – he missed close to 20 games the last couple of years. And while the Sabres have the making of a core, what the tank cost them was far more than anything than can be measured in manpower. It created a losing mentality, and now the Sabres have nothing to offer other than lethargic, uninspired, and defeated play. And while grabbing Eichel was a step in the right direction, it’s clearer every day that the front office assumed all the team’s problems would disappear once they got him. They’ve whiffed on almost every other Draft pick, and on too many free agents. The team’s goalies are trash.

In December of 2016, I happened to catch an ad on Facebook from a page called NHL Fans 365. They were looking for admins. Ordinarily I might not have given it a second thought, but my mother died the month before, and I returned from her funeral only to learn that I had been unceremoniously dismissed from my job for attending it. Grieving and newly unemployed, I was looking for a way to keep myself distracted, and something like that looked like it would fit the bill. When I checked out the page, I saw that it already had very active admins for both the Sabres and the Chicago Blackhawks, so I looked to cover another team. I also knew that the league had created a new team for Las Vegas, the Golden Knights, just a couple of weeks before. I was immediately attracted to them on the name alone because my first little league hockey team had also been called the Golden Knights. So I applied as an admin for the Knights, thinking they would at least be good for a few yuks. Which they were in the early goings, between their screwed-up announcement presentation and their naming fiasco. But I also watched in amazement as they got their act together and started making a lot of brilliant structural moves. They signed the Chicago Wolves as their AHL affiliate and jumped on Gerard Gallant when he became available to coach. Then I watched them whiff again in the Expansion Draft, taking a bunch of bottom rung players meant to be nothing but trade fodder for Draft picks in future seasons. When I was asked to create a video outlining my predictions for the Knights, I said, tongue firmly in cheek, that the upcoming season would be the greatest season in the team’s history to that point. Which it would be, of course – it was their first season, so it would be their best no matter what!

As it turned out, I was more right about that than I could have possibly imagined. The puck dropped for the first time in Las Vegas just a few days after a horrific mass shooting as a Las Vegas music festival. From there, the Vegas Golden Knights became the best story in sports. Charging out of nowhere, the Knights lifted the shaken spirits of their city while setting a number of potentially untouchable records for expansion team success. Swarming with a group of misfit flying speed demons, the Golden Knights attacked with a hard forecheck and an offense that terrorized opponents with short but intense bursts. When the regular season ended, the Golden Knights had accumulated 51 wins and 109 points; only the Jets, Predators, Bruins, and Lightning had posted more. They won their division by an eight-point margin and, as I write this, are one victory away from going to the Stanley Cup Final. When the announcement of the team name went wrong back in November of 2016, owner Bill Foley laughed it off and promised that the team would do better on the ice. Who would have thought he’d still be laughing at this time?

It’s a stunning contrast to what was happening in Buffalo. The Golden Knights have gotten a ton of things right. From their over-the-top, perfectly Vegas opening ceremony to their track meet style of skating to their gorgeous jersey color scheme, the Knights have more than met the ultimate directive of a sports franchise. They’ve entertained, inspired, and given Las Vegas a real source of civic pride. (I’ve even managed to get my father to pay attention to them.) The Sabres attempted to give the fans some light recently by retiring Dominik Hasek’s number (a richly deserved honor) but half-assed the presentation.

I have a history with the Sabres, and I can never forget that. They’re one of the few interests I shared with the rest of Buffalo. My mother held on to the Alexander Mogilny jersey I had when I was a child, and I own Pat LaFontaine and Jason Pominville jerseys as well. My little league teams got to entertain Sabres fans by playing between periods at Sabres games. I used to fall asleep listening to Rick Jeanneret call games. My favorite piece of sports memorabilia is a brick from the old Memorial Auditorium. But the more time goes by, the longer I live in Seattle, the more the fighty, chin-up team I fell in love with as a kid feels like a distant memory. I adopted the Blackhawks when I moved to Chicago, while they were at the bottom of the league standings, and even though they just came through a slog year themselves, they’ve given me the joy of three Stanley Cup victories. The Sabres have become one of the most pathetic operations in sports during that time, and even with the first overall Draft pick, there’s no reason to believe they’re going to get turned around soon. And with almost all my emotional links to Buffalo now severed and there being little reason to so much as visit, I’m hard-pressed to think of a reason to keep cheering for the Sabres. Especially not with Seattle being a near-certainty for expansion in the next year. Following the Sabres from way out west is a hassle and watching them has turned into a chore.

If you twisted my deformed wrist, I would admit to still caring, but only because the Sabres are so intertwined with my identity. I’ll always love my childhood team, but I’m afraid that team is in the same place as my childhood: The past. As for the future, it’s with the deepest sorrow and regret that I say: I can’t take it anymore. The Buffalo Sabres aren’t worth my time or emotional investment. For sanity’s sake… I’m finished.

 

The Near-Juror

The Near-Juror

I’m not an anarchist, but I’m damn near. My problems with the idea of overly large and restrictive governments and unregulated corporations (which I consider nothing but governments with money) started with the law when Bush Junior made a national fiasco out of arresting a group of my friends and then turning them into case point A for why Iraq needed FREEDOM! I’m not sure if we can safely say that the legal system in the United States itself is a given. What IS a given is the fact that everyone thinks it’s totally fucked up. The precise WAY in which it’s fucked up depends entirely on who you ask, but it’s a given mess. The strange thing is that for all the complaining people like to do about it, no one seems to want to have any part of trying to clean it all up. I’m not going to haughtily declare myself above the knaves right now and go around shaming everyone. I am, in fact, not that much different. After returning from my holiday visit to my family in California, I wasn’t exactly enthused when I saw a jury summons from the district court of Lynnwood sitting on my bed.

My first thought was the same as everyone else’s when they get summoned for jury duty: Whoever’s on trial, I will see them fucking hang!!! My second thought was also the same as everyone else’s: What excuse to get out of this gives me the perfect balance between plausibility and inarguability? Finally, the rational part of my brain managed to break through. It reminded me of something: If anything, I was getting a chance to be an insider in this system I was always griping about. If I wasn’t able to get out of it, why not embrace the opportunity as a chance to keep a wrong from possibly happening?

And I did want to get out of it. Missing two days of work was going to force me to delay a trip overseas I’ve been dying to make as it was, and if that wasn’t enough, I had also just started looking for a new place to live. (The circumstances surrounding this situation were very unique, and will probably show up here sooner or later.) Yes, the courts promise compensation for jurors, but that compensation is rightfully regarded as a joke. It’s about $20 a day. In other words, it’s lunch money for whatever nice cafe or teriyaki joint happens to be across the street. When weighed against my travel plans and the money I was losing, that just wouldn’t do. So I made a couple of cursory calls to the local justice department, only to find out that I had called the wrong number. I was looking for the city court, not the county court, and I had lost the city court’s number. So, having informed my supervisor – who made sure to photocopy my summons – I sucked it up and went in to Lynnwood court.

Going into the court, I first filled out my information. Then I was hauled into the back, where I was placed in a room with about 17 other people. Looking around, I started mentally practicing my Henry Fonda juror speech as I sat there doing nothing else. I think the court wanted to make sure the jury was free of possible outside influence, because there weren’t even any courtesy magazines. Me and all the others waited for what felt like an eternity, and I tried to ebb the flow of self-doubt questions going through my head: Would I be able to do the right thing if I thought everybody else was wrong? Would I tell a few inadvertent lies when questioned in order to make a last ditch effort to get out of it? Id I really want to involve myself in a case for someone I never knew existed, and would never see again?

When it was time to do the movie and television show thing where we all answered whether or not we had the stuff to be a juror, everyone was taken into the courtroom at the same time. The case was explained to us, and the folks who invented this system clearly weren’t idiots; they’re not going to ask us why we think we’d be good jurors, because probably a few too many people regaled them with that handy line about being able to tell if someone is guilty just by looking at them. So what they did was give us the skinny on the situation and ask the entire group questions at the same time. Answers were a few words, tops. The Judge seemed to be a pretty cool guy. He had a sense of humor about his field, explaining that we weren’t jurors just yet. We were merely members of the veneer, and six jurors would be chosen depending on the way we answered the questions they asked. “Leave it to lawyers to invent a fancy French term for a phrase,” he said. The lawyers weren’t quite as endearing, and I got the feeling that one of them was trying to make his entire case right on the spot.

After the little getting-to-know-you/questioning session, we were all placed into the back room again, and I sat there and soaked up the scenery. The most incredible thing was how prevalent the people who wanted to escape were, and how open they were about wanting to get the hell out. During my second visit to Lynnwood court, there was an old guy there who was griping about the fact that he was asked to show up at all. All the times he had been summoned to the court, and he had never been needed before because all the cases he had been summoned for were settled out of court. There was another, slightly younger than me, who was bragging about the subtle missteps he had taken on purpose in order to get everyone to see him as an unfit juror. He didn’t seem satisfied that they would let him off for sure.

We spent between 30 and 45 minutes sitting there, in all our awkwardness, thinking about whether or not we’d be picked to be on the jury. There wasn’t any discussion about who did what, or any discussion of the case at all, although we did take points away from one of the lawyers for trying to make the case for his client right during the selection process. During my second visit, one of the other possible jurors talked about his experience being a juror previously. It hadn’t been so bad, he said. The entire case was settled in maybe and hour and a half. Of course, a short resolution was expected in a small civil court like Lynnwood’s. The first case I was summoned for was a case of reckless driving. The second was driving while intoxicated. The first was civil, the second criminal. But it didn’t change the fact that no one was going to be acting as a so-called peer in a major murder trial.

After being taken back out into the courtroom, the Judge started making his announcements: Six people were called forward and told to take their seats in the jury’s section. I missed out both times. One of the jurors called the second time was a man who said he had been called up once before, and he ended up serving on both juries. I was waiting with some form of anticipation during the second trial, as I thought I gave an answer which would have shooed me right in, but my name was never called, and I was free to head out. That was really the part of the entire adventure that everyone was dreading the most. I didn’t spot or speak to a single person who was interested in being a part of the jury, and most of them took offense to the fact that they had even been required to show up in the first place.

The look on the old man’s face during my second visit to the courtroom was one I’ll never forget. He had gotten called up as a juror, and lord, did he look pissed.

 

The Lost Collection

The Lost Collection

I was born prepackaged to become a gamer – my childhood was on the lonely side. Separated from the crowd by introversion, deformity, and a penchant for asking questions that the people of Buffalo believed had no business ever being asked, I found solace in games. It was a natural thing to do, really. My games didn’t reject me. They address me using slurs or names. They transported me to different times and places where I was allowed to deal with my foes in the most vicious ways I could imagine and was seen as a hero.

Since I spent so much time playing video games, it was only natural that I ended up building a strong collection of games that are now quite difficult to find. Hell, in some instances they were rare. The first real consoles that were parts of my life were the Atari 2600 and Mattel’s Intellivision. The 2600, of course, is one of the all-time classic consoles. It created and defined the first generation of consoles. Its presence in my own life was courtesy of Rob, who had a dusty old 2600 which was flickery and buggy. He had it latched onto an old black and white television set which was even more flickery and buggy, and that resulted in gaming as if the games themselves were drunk. Stargate was particularly notable because the constant war between the console and the TV would black out the game, restart it, and shut off the console at regular intervals. We could have made a good drinking game out of it. My friend Chris, who lived in the downstairs duplex, was the one with the Intellivision. Like Rob, he had it hooked up to a black and white TV, but he was the one with the deluxe accommodations because the TV wasn’t buggy, and it had sound.

My first home console, meanwhile, was NEC’s TurboGrafx-16. Now, I had the best TV set of the three of us, but the catch with my TV was that it was the only TV in the house. That meant the comparatively advanced graphics, color, and music required me to have permission from my parents. Still, the Turbo was mine. I loved it, and it opened my mind to a world of lesser-known consoles and games which allowed me access to a complex spectrum of gaming. As my parents were able to save money and bring the family from the lower working class and into the middle class, they were able to occasionally gift me with more mainstream consoles, which in turn became a real video game collection when I entered the working world myself and had spending money.

My video game collection became something to behold. I kept my beloved Turbo, and while my purchasing decisions definitely needed work – Sidearms over Blazing Lazers, Sinistron over The Legendary Axe, and Double Dungeons, well, just Double Dungeons at all stand among my errors – that didn’t keep me from creating a collection which included the first two Bonk games (which I continue to argue are among the greatest platformers ever made), Bloody Wolf (everyone compares it to Contra, but it’s actually the better version of Heavy Barrel), Neutopia (The Legend of Zelda’s most blatant imitator, but still a classic in its own right), Ninja Spirit, and Cadash. Even as I started gaming in the mainstream more, my collection included now-obscurities like Shining Force II, Shining in the Darkness, Kid Chameleon, Flashback, Zombies Ate My Neighbors, Steel Empire, Eternal Champions, Landstalker, and Mutant League Hockey.

My console collection eventually included the Nintendo 64, Playstation 2, Dreamcast, Gamecube, and Saturn. My collection of games grew to include Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Virtua Tennis, Suikoden III, Fire Pro Wrestling II, Virtual On, Pikmin, Skies of Arcadia (the original version), Sega GT, Mars Matrix, Lunar: Silver Star Story, Dark Cloud 2, Final Fantasy IX, and a few other scarce games that I can’t even think of because I owned so many. Building it up took around 25 years, and even as I got older and grew out of time to play video games, it was a collection I proudly pointed at when talking about my qualifications as a gamer. When I left Chicago in 2011, I made a point of having a friend keep it stored up. Which he did, for three years at what I suspect was more personal inconvenience than he would ever let on.

It took another move to lose it.

Now, to make myself clear, I’m not really mad. Hell, I understand. When I decided to pack it in and move to the West Coast, I knew that I would only be able to haul a couple of bags with me, filled with minimal essentials. That meant that once again, my games had to be left behind and I would eventually have to drive a small truck across the country to grab them again. Well… That never happened. My Mother unexpectedly passed away in November of 2016. At that time, I had been in Seattle for a sliver over a year and had only recently found my foothold. I had a very nice room in a shared house, but was otherwise working one of the worst jobs I had ever worked for a wage that was barely legal. I had no qualms about dropping everything to make a mad dash across the country after learning what happened to Mom, and sticking around for a week to see my Father get acclimated. But once again, there was only so much stuff I could recover and, priorities being priorities, I had to leave my video games behind, with the exceptions of my handhelds.

The day of the funeral, my sister asked Dad to move out to California. While Dad said he would give it some thought, his voice also conveyed one of those tones: He knew there was now nothing keeping him confined to Buffalo, and so he would be joining my sister in California as soon as he could. It took him a year to get prepared, but Dad made the journey to California in December last year. And like me, he had to travel as lightly as possible. The house had been full of little sentimental knickknacks, which Dad had to abandon if he was ever going to be able to find a reasonable place to live in California. My games were simply too much empty cargo.

That doesn’t mean I have to like it, though. People who got a look at my massive collection who were in the know about video games know I’m probably not getting a do-over on a lot of them. A lot of the games in that collection cost as much as any current release, and a handful of them demand three digits for the hards. And it’s more than just the value – the hards were a source of my pride as a gamer, and infallible proof that I was as serious as I said I was. In the gaming community, a list of games like the ones I owned meant a lot because the few other gamers in my life could say they looked at and played one of the original copies. Many gamers these days know about the TurboGrafx-16, but not many have played any games at all on it, and they probably never got to sniff the original chip copies. The gamers who knew me could give details about everything they loved and hated about Bonk’s Adventure and Bonk’s Revenge.

And so that’s it. I guess it’s time to try to build a new collection.

Grocery Store Loyalty

Grocery Store Loyalty

The grocery competition in Chicago really wasn’t much of one. The two major stores there were Jewel and Dominick’s. While Jewel was the more prevalent of the two – and let’s be honest, by far the more convenient if you were in need of an emergency CTA pass – Dominick’s was the clear cut above. After moving into the little West Town apartment there which came to define my time living there, a Dominick’s soon opened up six blocks away, and grocery shopping became easy. My previous option was to jump the Western Avenue bus and take it the distance from Chicago Avenue to Addison Street, so having a brand new Dominick’s within walking distance was a wonderful thing.

This last Christmas, with my immediate family now based entirely on the West Coast, my sister and I compared grocery store notes as we drove through her adopted hometown of Sacramento. One of the big chains down there is Raley’s, which almost came off as two separate stores. If anything, the Raley’s I visited in Sactown bore more than a passing resemblance to Ghetto Tops, a Tops at the Abbott/South Park intersection that my family avoided at all costs. Seattle has three major chains: Albertson’s, Safeway, and Fred Meyer. Albertson’s and Safeway are both glorified convenience stores, so they’re not even worth writing about. Fred Meyer is an excellent store by any standard, and it’s my usual go-to when I’m in need of a particular product that can’t be found at Trader Joe’s. But as I talked grocers with my sister, we both ended up coming to the same conclusion: We miss Wegmans. “I think we got the best of the grocery stores in Buffalo,” she said to me.

That sentiment isn’t unique, either. A few months ago, I was having a chat with a woman I was thinking of asking out. She was a native of Rochester, and when I mentioned that I was from New York, the first thing she asked me was about my grocery store loyalty. I gave her the shpiel: The only objectively good chain I’ve found in the Puget Sound Megalopolis is Fred Meyer, and even Freddie’s at its best is half of Wegman’s at its worst. A friend of mine in Chicago was born and raised in the Syracuse area, and a deep appreciation for Wegmans was one of the things that bonded us as upstaters.

Of all the unique qualities Upstate New York natives are instilled with, loyalty to a grocery store might be one of the oddest. But as my sister and I came to find out after living outside of the state for awhile, we were born into the cream of the crop when it comes to local grocers. The two of us had the fortune to be raised in an area in which Wegmans isn’t some great phenomenon, but something normal. The quality and selection and service in Wegmans is less a treat than something we’ve come to expect from every grocer in the country, and although we’ve both been living outside of New York more than long enough to understand we’re never going to find it again, we’re still downright upset that we’re not getting it.

We learn the hard way the common refrain of Upstate New York natives: There’s no Wegmans. It’s weird to be moving far away from New York and be bragging to people about a chain of grocery stores, but quality is quality, and this is what its come to: A freaking GROCERY STORE may be a tangible reason why the population of several metropolitan areas in New York aren’t smaller. (Wegmans worked this into a TV ad a few years ago, and managed to cop Alec Baldwin into the spot.) The people there have developed a loyalty to Wegman’s normally reserved for ubiquitous national brands like Coke or McDonald’s. No matter how far we get from our roots and how much good the regional chains are, they never quite manage to get out from the shadow of Wegmans.

Upstate New York expats never forget our roots. We wear our Empire State qualities with pride. When the Buffalo Bills recently played their first playoff game in 18 years, I watched the game with a group of 250 other fans, most of whom could recite the lyrics to “A Mule Named Sal.” The Bills, however, are merely a visual representation of our nativity. Not everyone can claim to be a football fan, or even a sports fan at all. All of us know that one of the things that binds us, even above sports, is a loyalty to a grocery store.