Mist rises from the falls in this daytime photo
View of Niagara Falls from Buffalo, NY. Photo by Wendell Williams

In the previous installment of Random Acts of Kindness, I shared how I miraculously was able to cross another of the many places I thought I’d never see off my list. And soon after, because of an Act of Kindness from a friend, a chance to see one of the wonders of the world materialized out of a silly conversation. 

We were just talking about all the places we couldn’t go to because of the pandemic, kind of playing our version of Travel Jeopardy. But we figured out there are a lot of places domestically we can go, many on day trips without flying. We eliminated one place after another based on a lot of factors and finally agreed we could both handle a 6.5-hour jaunt to Buffalo. Why there? Because of the added value of Niagara Falls and Canada being only 20 minutes or so north.

Williams poses for a selfie with his friend

My friend and travel savant. Photo courtesy of Wendell Williams

I’ve always dreamed of going to the falls. I’d heard stories from my mom about it being a honeymoon spot, especially for African Americans during the height of “Jim Crow” when most destinations we think about today — like seaside resorts — were not an option. Even places “up north” like Atlantic City were segregated with its “Chicken Bone Beach” reserved for Black Americans. My family used to spend a week there every summer growing up without me ever being aware of the phenomenon of racism. My parents even attempted to purchase lots for Black families to build on out near the racetrack. I still have fond memories of AC, including my first concert alone: The Fifth Dimension on the Boardwalk’s world famous Steel Pier, which I really miss. 

We were concerned about the distance. It seemed so far away in my mind and on the maps. But after making a detailed plan, it was just a short sprint for two senior drivers alternating two- and one-hour shifts at the wheel.

We began with a 5 a.m. departure to avoid the infamous D.C. beltway morning rush-hour traffic When the sun came up, we were blessed with the most beautiful sunrise as we climbed up the mountains of western Maryland heading towards Breezewood, the turnpike, and Pittsburgh while giving us this great view of the expansive green valley below.

Having lived in Michigan, Ohio, and Pittsburgh, I was a turnpike veteran and expected to be jockeying for position with hundreds of tractor trailers all morning. But in what seemed like a “Twilight Zone” episode, truck traffic was almost nonexistent. Next thing we knew, we had bypassed the Steel City and were headed north on 91 towards Erie, Pennsylvania with clear skies ahead on a bright and beautiful day for a drive.

We started to see Erie signs and looked left. I remembered why they are called “The Great Lakes.”  All I could see was water all the way to the horizon, and Erie is the smallest. It was then I thought about something else on my bucket list: seeing all five. Living in Ohio and Michigan, and occasionally traveling to Toronto has given me the opportunity to see four of them but one still eludes me: Superior or it’s Native American name “The Great Kitchi Gummi”, largest of the lakes holds 10% of the world’s fresh water. I am not sure how but hopefully I’ll get to cross that off as well.

After leaving Erie in the rearview mirror, we saw the “Welcome to New York” sign in what seemed like no time at all. I don’t know what the record driving time is to Buffalo but we must have broken it, which put us there way before our 4 p.m. check in time.

The buffalo is sporting a top hat and dress coat

A buffalo statue in Buffalo, NY. Photo by Wendell Williams

As we GPSed to our downtown hotel, we could see how grand of an old city Buffalo, New York, truly is. In another Random Act, my friend (who is in my opinion a travel savant) hooked us up with a great room with a view of the lake and city in this old restored building built like a fortress. It now doubles as an entertainment complex with restaurants, a deli, rooftop bar, office space, condos and two floors of hotel rooms. What vision the planners must have had. In D.C., the wrecking ball would have just knocked down this grand example of a gone era of craftsmanship to put up some boring glass and steel box. But I could see from my window that all over downtown there were many more architectural gems like it, which made my friend excited because she works in historic preservation. So we were able to combine our two passions into this trip: me seeing how homeless people are faring and my friend seeing how old buildings are preserved and used in the modern era.. 

After unpacking, a shower, and change of clothes, we were ready to explore the city. But our minds were on the wonders just 25 minutes north of downtown. And like two little kids on Christmas Eve, we couldn’t settle down or wait until the morning. So we turned right around and headed back out to see what we came for, the Falls.

They weren’t hard to find either. Once we got within a few miles of them you could hear that powerful roar, faint at first then louder, as we crossed that last bridge into the city of Niagara Falls. We had no idea it was it’s own living city. We made a few wrong turns against the advice of our GPS. At my age, I still can’t completely surrender to apps like Waze and Google Maps.  Just following the sounds, we got closer and closer as we weaved through the city. Until there it was in all of it’s majesty. 

Wendell holds a smiley face balloon prior to letting go

We released the smiley-face balloon at the Falls for Valerie Jordan of “Random Acts of Kindness: A Valentine for Valerie” to have her with us on this journey, as we do on all our trips. We take something of hers to leave. Photo by Wendell Williams

We parked and started walking because you can only drive so close before continuing on foot. I still stutter thinking about my first look at the Falls. I was silenced by it’s awesome power and the moment for me was very spiritual as I stood there wondering about the Power that created it. To say that I was stopped in my tracks would be an understatement, the same held for my friend as we stood there gazing at the power of nature. It was even more interesting to see the faces of all the different people who were experiencing the same special moment. Almost no one was talking above a whisper out of respect for one another’s emotional take on their encounter with Mother Nature. 

Then we had dinner there and headed back to rest up for the big first day in Buffalo. The next morning we woke up early and ready to explore. 

We were just going to wing it when my companion insisted she find the best breakfast in Buffalo, which put us at odds. I confess that I am a Denny’s guy who isn’t looking for ambience or atmosphere with his eggs and pancakes, but she insisted. After a lot of driving around, even stopping twice to ask construction workers, my friend thought they knew the best places to eat. We attempted a bipartisan compromise to not ruin the start of the day and settled on breakfasts in separate locations, which turned out to be a Random Act of Kindness toward each other.

Both restaurants turned out to be on Delaware Avenue, a long, wide, tree-lined thoroughfare stretching from downtown Buffalo all the way out to the suburbs in the other direction. So after dropping my friend off, I headed off on a 25-minute drive through Buffalo’s neighborhoods. I couldn’t wait to get back and scoop my friend up to show her what I discovered just getting out for breakfast. So we drove around getting lost and continued to find more treasures. 

We spent the entire morning “oohing” and “aahing” about this building or that one. I got so caught up in her pursuit I momentarily forgot about my interest in reporting on the conditions facing the homeless community. It was then I noticed: “Wait a minute, where are they?” I thought maybe I was in the wrong part of town because I wasn’t seeing anyone.

But upon further review where I felt I should be finding people, I started to recognize a single homeless person here and there and occasionally a cluster and then more as I headed in one direction towards a church that had spiked my curiosity architecturally the night before. I had stumbled on a trail that led to ground zero for homeless services in downtown Buffalo. 

When I saw it, I couldn’t believe I had almost missed this chance. We had driven by it multiple times as we explored the area. And there they were, my brothers and sisters, in that park in small groups of two or three people. 

The “Homeless Jesus” statue and sign located at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral. Photo by Wendell Williams.

“Why aren’t there more people out?” I wondered. It seems the city of Buffalo may have sanitized its homeless people’s presence downtown. I never saw any heavy-handed police action towards them but I noticed that they were always in motion. You’d have to have lived this life to better understand my observations. But trust me, I could feel the cat-and-mouse game homeless people have to play was afoot in this seemingly nice clean city. 

In downtown Buffalo, most of the historic buildings have been given a new life and purpose by institutions, corporations, nonprofits, and tenants. Buffalo also appears to have housing at diverse prices, allowing people to remain in the city. Churches seemed to be anchored in many of those neighborhoods, providing outreach to families, homeless citizens, and schoolchildren.

This was the mission of the old church I was approaching, St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral, stretching a city block with a separate restored historical building housing its  community ministry focusing on helping those on the streets and in the beautiful tree-filled park next to it. 

The statue depicts Jesus sleeping on a park bench

The “Homeless Jesus” statue and sign located at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral. Photo by Wendell Williams.

I wasn’t sure who actually “owned” said park. I was still thinking “Where is everyone?” when I saw the huge green sign with the park rules displayed in a manner I know lends to using trespassing as a tactic to keep homeless people from congregating in a nice peaceful place. The sign was just a few feet from the “Homeless Jesus” statue of Christ laying on a bench covered up sleeping. I had missed it the night before thinking someone was actually sleeping outside. The irony was that in today’s Buffalo, He would’ve been subject to arrest. In a lot of cities, there are ordinances that criminalize homelessness by banning sleeping outside. I’ve run afoul of them myself. Some other compassionate cities and churches around the country have started to commission and display this statue — including D.C., outside of Catholic Charities at 10th and G Streets NW — to bring more attention to the problem of increasing homelessness.

Now this is decades after the “problem” was featured in nationwide fundraising efforts like HBO’S “Comic Relief,” which raised millions of dollars to eradicate homelessness with the help of Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal, the late Robin Williams, and other big-time celebrities in the 80s. Well, it’s 2021 and the movement is still a day late and dollar short in bringing an end to homelessness. And where are the Hollywood types now? They moved on to the latest cause du jour. But you and I know for certain that a lot of those same celebs would move heaven and earth with their money and influence if someone was abusing puppies on a similar scale. 

Our original plan was not to return to the Falls that second evening. But in a “Random Act of Kindness,” someone told us about how seeing them lit up at night was a totally different experience and that we didn’t want to miss after coming this far. 

Lights illuminate the falls.

Nighttime view of Niagara Falls from Buffalo, NY. Photo by Wendell Williams

So we spent the afternoon looking at the early twentieth-century commercial and government buildings and churches in the core of Buffalo’s downtown. At times we tied up traffic as we put the flashers on, jumped out and took pictures. It seemed like people knew we were tourists and just tolerated us. I knew that “d*** tourists” look because we do the same here in D.C. But it was worth it because we got some great photos before taking the slow route back to the Falls.

This time we walked to the other end of the American side of the Falls. Where we were standing directly over one of the falls the day before, now we were in position to see all four of them.

My brother had warned me to make sure we wore jackets but because the weather was so nice, we forgot and paid dearly for it. Although the Maid of the Mist boats and the walk over the Falls was closed due to COVID-19, it was still wet and now cold. Not pouring down raining wet but more like a constant mist. As the sun slipped behind the horizon over Canada, the temperature really dropped quickly — but we were here to go the distance. We hung in there until our resolve was renewed by seeing the lights warming up in the gorge below.

It started slowly. “This is what I am freezing for?” I said, not realizing it wasn’t dark enough yet for the colors’ effect to fully take place. When it happened, the colors got stronger and darker until I felt the magic of the word of mouth advertising. It was a wonderful sight that made us momentarily forget the cold. We just couldn’t leave now. At about 9:30 p.m., it was not pitch dark yet but the colors were bright enough. Then, after a half-hour of amazement, we took a quick vote and it was 2-0 to get the h*** out of there. As we shivered our way back to the car, we could only wonder what the Falls would look like later that night at the suggested peak viewing time of, surprisingly, 2 a.m.

As we got in the car, cranked up the heat, unfroze, and started to drive away, we reviewed our day and the time we had.  As we hit the highway we instinctively started our planning for the trip home the next day. We again used the strategy of leaving before rush hour and were on pace for a record return home. But somewhere close to Erie I got another bright idea. I would use the GPS and for some ungodly reason had to stop at every single Walmart along the route in search of my White Whale: certain flavors of a generic sugar-free drink sold there. 

Now, I am not sure how much time this madness caused us. After five or six stops, I never found those elusive drinks. But in a Random Act of Kindness, my friend got into my scavenger hunt, too. I felt blessed to have someone who allowed me to pursue my sometimes wacky impulses without complaint. After dinner in Frederick, Maryland, we were home and I was able to cross another place off my bucket list thanks to a little help from my friends.