At the Broken Places

Be careful with memory, should you ever have the chance to hold one. It’s fragile and hurts. If you squeeze too tight, or not at all, the October wind might catch the pieces, turned to dust, and sweep them away along the floor, passing before a gritty window-framed streetlamp, and silhouette, for a moment, a ghost.

It was ghosts that brought me to Buffalo Central Terminal in New York at the Dawn of October in 2009. Prepared to crawl through sooty hallways and moldy tunnels, I’d signed up to look for them, joining for seven weeks, a pilot reality show consisting of me, four other cast members, and a camera crew no more than fifteen, trucking around in an RV across the east coast. One week gave us 90 degrees in Florida, the next brought our heads down, jackets clenched tight in a fist at our necks while the freezing rain made early appearance for the season in Buffalo.

Like the French oubliettes found across Europe, holes in the ground below many prisons, where men were left to die without food, water, companionship, or sunlight, Buffalo immediately struck me as a place forgotten. The fall colors in the trees would have been more arresting were the day sunny. Instead, raindrops peppered the windshield and the sky was a flat gray that sometimes accented itself with a low-hanging layer even darker than above. A hawk flew over the trees, black against the sky, carrying with it more a feel of a scavenger than a predator.

We came to Buffalo Central Terminal in the late afternoon, saving a few hours before nightfall. The neighborhoods before the old train terminal were vacant and blank, poverty stricken. We guided the flashy black RV through the suburbs, drawing only bored looks from the passerby. Many small homes were boarded up, X‘s spray-painted across front doors in orange and pink easily reminiscent of images of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. The lawns were overgrown with weeds and tangles. Occasionally there were nicer patches, like flowers growing in some forgotten back lot, treading the line between overtaking and being overtaken, prey and predator. Two friends threw a football in a side street where the asphalt was split and cracked against stained concrete.

Coming out of a the section of rundown homes, we hooked a corner under a freeway and caught our first glimpse of the Terminal, towering over the land like the skeletal carcass of some ancient Lovecraftian god, washed ashore and beached dry, forgotten.

The place carried an echo in its natural wrongness. Built in 1929 and abandoned in the early eighties, the terminal used to see thousands of passengers a week. The fifteen story tower rises up from the main concourse, once containing rental spaces, apartments, coffee shops and restaurants. Now it’s empty. The fourth story looks out to downtown Buffalo, bright, the way a city should look from say an airplane or bus, homey, running. Three miles from the city, it’s dark.

Papers are shoved to a pile three feet deep in a corner of the room spreading halfway across the floor, oozing like a sludge broken through a dike. We picked up one of the papers once, studied it; a browned invoice for food from the seventies, pickles and condiments, a kind of clue that lingered in time, reminding us that somehow, forty years ago, people had food to eat here, cooked, warm, served..

For the first night and much of the second, we scrambled up eternal concrete stairs with reels of cable, flashlight clenched between teeth instead of numb, dirty, working fingers. The walls were barely stripped ribs, conduit and wires dangled into depths, bare. We wandered empty apartments, each room indistinguishable from the one preceding, holes in the walls, graffiti across doors, windows too thick with grime to see out. A pentagram and racial slurs coated one wall.

Stairway to Heaven was sprayed in script above a winding stair likely grand in its day. The stairs led another story underground, below the mezzanine and concourse, to a dark trolley lobby, waiting for passengers who’d never arrive. Behind the final staircase was a tunnel we never explored, a black hole that led deeper still below the terminal, where animal eyes would shine in the glare of our lights for a second before losing form and fading into shadow again, where a lonely chair rested before an empty doorway, dusty decorative grapes accenting a memory, where once or twice we thought we heard voices, whispering.

Crew shot B-roll while we began analysis on the evidence, secure in the hotel. They built jibs and rigs, rolling time lapse of the swirling storms as the twilight fell and shooting slow rising angles with the light casting long shadows. Often they were accompanied by a security guard as they probed the deeper corners of the structure where our standard investigation didn’t reach. In these places, the concrete beams had collapsed, littered with rust like a fungus crawling along the girders and the walls from the leakage of the elements, looking more like the innards of that archaic beast dredged from the depths of a sea and left to rest in the sleeting Buffalo autumn.

Many times they encountered drifters tucked into these deeper folds. What brought them here, these homeless? I imagined a vagrant on the edge of the interstate, avoiding the crowded, lonely cities with the art-deco architecture that once likely spoke to refinement and class, that now looks gothic. What  was it about this towering, broken structure that called to them in the cold? Was it the spiraling tunnels underground, the broken windows of the sprawled out connecting buildings, tracks little more than split ridges along debris? Security regularly drove past, rattling the locks and walking about the perimeter with a spotlight, but the place stretched too far, towered too high, depths, intricate, security in the labyrinth, a reversal of a mythological binary that so speaks to its dark presence.

“What are you doing here?” A man in fatigues and an old coat asked the crew, squinting against their lights when they found each other in the pits of the building.

“We’re shooting a television show,” the cameraman answered. “Ghost Hunters.”

The man snorted. “There are no ghosts here.”

Indeed, our investigation produced no results to present to our client or the television audience at home, no spectral flickers from hallway doors, no disembodied voices recovered on digital recorders.

There were no ghosts. But this place was haunted. Not with spirits that flicker past in shadows at the end of the hallway, but the kind that echo along the distant empty corridors, the kind that murmur like the crowds that exited the train, excited to finally be at their destination. Now, should there be any excitement, it was to be out of one cold, snowy hell in favor of a different place, a purgatorial place of waiting,

I’m a ghost hunter. And this place scared me.

I use mechanical devices to ease communication between this world and the next, to find some kind of truth in the mystery, the romance in the unknown, picking through only dusty remnants. This place was different. It was not some portal to another realm, where the veil is thinner; it’s a place of brick, stone, and broken concrete. It’s a place that speaks of not a transition to another place after death, but a place itself, dying and forgotten, alone in a dreary world, a standing monument of our own mortality, what was once great, now empty, only barely alive. It scared me the way an Intensive Care Unit scares others, where death has not yet clenched his fist and taken another, but where you can feel him lingering, waiting, a vulture circling.

Everything will be forgotten.

Once, and just for a moment, I moved to a corner, where a window had been busted out, where in the distance I could hear a train slowly pushing through the night, rackety on old tracks, without passengers, only cars.  For a moment I imagined the sounds of the passenger’s feet and chatter, the whistle as the train arrived, looking out atop the Mezzanine above the terminal, sunny afternoon light filtering through the towering three story windows at each end.

For a moment, I kept the place alive.

Photo (c) John Whelchel. More work can be found at:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/tronjohn/

Copyright 2010 Karl Pfeiffer

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One thought on “At the Broken Places

  1. suzieashby says:

    Karl,

    How are things going? I hope all is very well. I was so happy to see you posted. I love this. You write very well and I love wee ghosties. I will get back as often as I can to keep reading your work. Light & Blessings.

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