Recently, C and I shuffled off to Buffalo for a short visit with family. Leaving Brattleboro is always an adventure, partly because we hardly ever do it and never know what we’ll find out there. This time, it seemed as though everywhere you looked, the future was being installed, and folks, it wasn’t pretty. In fact, it was almost scary.
Our first jolt of the new normal came in the outer Albany area where we’ve been stopping at McDonald’s for years for a quick bite before we hit the Thruway. This time, there was only one young woman at the counter with maybe 5 or 6 customers in the lobby. She took our orders and our money, and we waited. And waited. While we waited, we had plenty of time to examine the pair of giant order kiosks that sat across from the counter. The helpful screen displays told us that they were not operational just yet but coming soon! for our convenience (and to make the only human faces you ever see in these joints – the counter guys or girls – redundant).
Not to overly rag on McDonald’s but there was another odd feature of this restaurant. In the plastic and impersonal eating area was a television, set to a channel that seemed to show exclusively cattle auctions. You could hear the auctioneer rattling off the numbers. Now McDonalds sells a lot of beef but showing us cattle while we eat them seemed almost strange. Needless to say, we took our food to go.
Speaking of screens, people in Buffalo are no different than anywhere else. They all have their trusty phones about them all the time in case they suddenly need to text someone or check the news or whatever. We also got to watch lots of cable TV, which we haven’t been doing since we cut the cable two years ago. The cable filler shows are as bad as they ever were, but realizing that there is sufficient demand to show hours of cop shows where real cops arrest real people was frankly depressing.
Then there were the cable news shows. Wow, they really don’t think we can handle more than one topic at a time, do they? The topic the weekend we were there was Stormy Daniels and Donald Trump, and the news anchors and pundits managed to talk about that and little else for three days straight. It occurred to me then that people who get their news mostly from cable news networks are going to have a very skewed and limited view of reality. But maybe it’s easier that way.
We listened to the Kentucky Derby preshow and race while making dinner (it was on the kitchen tv). That was when we learned that one of the top horses was in being exploited by an online media service (owned by another online behemoth), such that every mention of this horse was an advertisement for the sponsor. Now I know crass commercialism is and has been part of sports for a long time but using a horse in the Kentucky Derby to market product just seems beyond the pale to me.
In order to fulfill our self-appointed obligation of getting out and doing something while in Buffalo, we visited an historic home, designed by a very famous architect and recently refurbished. Now usually historic home tours have one price and you pay it and they tour you around the house. But not at this corporate historic site. Their innovation (which I’m sure is widespread practice now) was to create two tiers of tour: an expensive “basic” tour, which staff and volunteers made sure you knew was “basic,” and a much more expensive tour for the elite that included the entire home. The price of regaining the respect of the docents? $35 a head. So concerned were they that the elite not run into the riff raff on the cheap tour that they repeatedly hustled us along to make sure that the two tours never met.
That said, it was a lovely house and Frank Lloyd Wright had every reason to be proud of his achievement.
We also visited the local grocery store, a regional chain called Tops. Tops is the poor man’s grocery store, in contrast to the palatial Wegmans which I dislike. Fortunately, Tops was closer to where we were staying anyway, so we went there. I actually like Tops but I was surprised to learn that without a tracking card, the prices are anywhere from 2-3 times higher! Fortunately, the store is embroiled in a PR problem (more on that later) and checkers generously offered us the discount anyway when we told them we were from out of town.
Since Buffalo is a retail town, we decided to check in at the mall and see what mall shopping has come to in 2018. And while this mall was enormous with at least 100 stores, it was not that different from malls I’ve visited all my life. A little cleaner perhaps and shoppers a bit more sparse, but otherwise, it was a mall. Where the shock came (and really, why bother being shocked) were the prices. It seemed like $50 was the base price for almost anything, with women’s clothing coming in even higher for the most simple items. We stopped into one mid-range women’s clothing shop, and found that even the markdowns on the sale rack were mostly over $50. As for the new stuff, forget about it.
Only at Macy’s were prices more I line with anything I could imagine the average Buffalonian paying, but here again there was a rub. The prices weren’t cheap — just moderate — but the quality was simply crappy. If you want to pay reasonable prices for clothes, you will get garmets made of thin synthetic fabric, poorly sewn. Ah, the future! Ain’t it great?
What really helped me put it all together was the business section of the Buffalo Sunday paper, which read like the death knell of the common man. We all read together at the kitchen table where we learned that the kiosks in McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants are, in fact, a response to the effort on the part of fast food restaurant workers to get a living wage. Yup, one industry response to Fight for $15 was to invest in machines that would help them reduce paid staff.
We also learned that Tops, the grocery chain, is in bankruptcy, having been saddled with hundreds of millions in debt by their former owner (Morgan Stanley) BUT it is still giving its top executives million dollar bonuses. This story has apparently inspired much ire in upstate New York, and the newspaper was trying to explain it to readers, even as they acknowledged that the bonus scandal was the sort of thing that invariably causes “controversy.” Indeed.
The paper capped off its register of gloom with a review of a new book from MIT Press preaching the mantra “big is beautiful.” (The title is a direct slap at E. F. Schumacher’s 1973 book Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered.) According to the authors of “Big,” small businesses are neither the backbone of the American economy nor even particularly desirable given that, on every measure that matters to the scumbags who wrote this book, big corporation are simply better. In short, the sort of small local businesses that made America the land of opportunity are now obsolete, along with so much else.
Later that day we headed home, and rather than stopping at any of the crummy chain restaurants on the Thruway, we opted instead to get off in Canajoharie for a late lunch. The southern side of Canajoharie where we found ourselves is mostly abandoned Beechnut factory buildings but the toll booth operator told us to turn right and right again to get to the diner, and sure enough, on a narrow dark street a few blocks away was a great little diner where we got a tasty American lunch served on a plate, with pickles, and learned for the first time that the high winds that had hit Buffalo the night we arrived had knocked out power in Albany for two days. Ah, local news! The food was good, the prices were reasonable, the waitresses were friendly, and the food was served fast – much faster than at McDonald’s. And so, restored in body and spirit, we wended our way back to the Thruway and home.
Meanwhile, the future we glimpsed on this sojourn is out there — bright, shiny, and efficient as only a fully tech-designed future can be. People will like it, maybe, or maybe they won’t. But it can’t hold a candle to the real life it’s replacing and the real people it’s displacing. That world is going fast and when it’s gone, it’ll be too late to miss it.