Niagara Falls is this gorgeous wonder and with some very dark shadows. My first memory of it was riding in a car with a guy who, in retrospect, may have had a thing for me but I was so young and naive and unaware of what the signs looked like. I was 18. He was a nice guy. We were working on a group project, and then he took me to the Falls. He was showing me, the out-of-towner, around his home area. If memory serves me right, he was from Tonawanda. We walk to the edge. Wow. It’s beautiful. It’s normal to him, almost blase. I can tell the whole site is packaged to be an experience, and this is barely notable from the many that make up my first year of adulthood.
Niagara Falls exists on the edge of the eponymous city and as one piece of the backdrop of people’s lives. For instance: Friday morning, I was talking to two of my neighbors. One was taking a group of students to see the Falls, and she said, “I’m going on the Maid of the Mist for the first time!” As far as I know, she’s lived in Buffalo for about fifteen years. “I’ve never gone,” my other neighbor replied, Buffalo resident of about 17 years. “Me neither,” I replied. It’s always there. There is no rush. We take Niagara Falls for granted.
To get to Niagara Falls from the northern part of Buffalo, you drive through rural areas and then industrial ones. So much of urban Buffalo is industrial, Tonawanda has enough to keep some local environmental activists fairly busy, but the northern suburbs are otherwise sparse for smokestacks. Not the city of Niagara Falls. You pass through chemical industries. You pass by vacant factories. You pass under rows and rows and rows of electrical lines suspended high over a metallic frame. It’s an intense grid; it awes me. And then you pass some gorgeous residential houses and to a park and park your car. You walk. And there she is. The Falls. She’s rightfully considered a wonder.
Niagara Falls, for me, has always had an aura of melancholy. It’s been a long time since it looked natural. Seeing the skyline of the Canadian city in my American photos gives it a sense of being manipulated almost to being more akin to a man-made water feature next to a tourist trap. Yet I drive through the city itself with the same recurring thought, despite the chemical industry, when I see the parts where people live, when I engage with the vibrant and wonderful community of people who live there: I could live here. I won’t. My life and heart is in the city of Buffalo.
I feel the same way looking at Niagara Falls as I do standing on the pier at my beloved Onondaga Lake, looking at the Syracuse skyline. This is supposed to be different. The pollution, the development, and subtle signs of political and economic failure are the inheritances that I received from the previous generation. Maybe I feel darkly drawn to Niagara Falls because those elements of the city and natural wonder remind me of home.
There is more, though. Niagara Falls is a magnet for both tourists and darkness. I never forgot the 1998 This American Life on Niagara Falls, the 101st episode, where they interviewed a man whose job it was to recover the bodies of the jumpers. He inherited the job, in a way: his dad did it too. There are other stories about people in Niagara Falls, and they are the stories of those who lived their lives. You can live a very ordinary life next to a natural wonder. That could be Syracuse, but Syracuse didn’t have anyone driving boats through the river, expecting to find bodies of suicide victims.
Niagara Falls attracts daredevils. Erendira Wallenda did an acrobatic routine over the Falls on Thursday morning. I watched it live, before a meeting, it was brief and I have two monitors though my tasks that morning only needed one. It seems so quaint, those sorts of stunts now, in a world where we have so much technology and so much knowledge, to thrill by doing a thing like that. I don’t know, like I’ve been disconnected from the impossibility of physical stunts. Whatever. She did a thing I’m sure not capable of doing; good for her. I watched it unafraid of Wallenda falling to her death because she had a waist harness on (thanks, NY State law!). It was a safe spectacle, in a way. I remember that in the circuses of the day, the thrill seekers were risking death. Death claims us all, but what a privilege to be watching someone else tempt it. What a different set of life circumstances to make the various sides of the coin make sense to the people sitting on them.
Do you know how many people have tried to go over the Falls? I didn’t, so I consulted Wikipedia. I can barely keep the idea in my head that someone was so risky with their life as to try to go over the falls in a barrel or other object, with only hope or confidence to get to the other side? I do not think of it often, the way I avoid thinking of disturbing facets of society. I am so careful with the fact I am living, I cannot fathom such an act as climbing into a barrel and waiting to hit the rocks. The first person, Annie Taylor, apparently expected her trip to lead to fame and fortune and instead died in poverty. Comfortable people do not generally take great risks. Does that human tug to belong somewhere pull some towards the lore of daredevils? I am the wrong person to consult.
It’s not a relic of a bygone era, either. Someone tried a couple months ago. Kirk Jones went over the falls in 2003, purportedly as a suicide attempt and lived. Last April he tried deliberately in a rubber ball in April.. He did not survive. They found his body June 2nd in Lake Ontario. I wish his family peace and comfort.
I confess I kind of hated reading the coverage of Jones, the most recent article was by a reporter who met him 14 years ago, the day after he went over, as many suicidal people do, and lived, as most suicidal people do not. To paraphrase David Wong, there’s two ways to dehumanize someone: to dismiss them or to idolize them. This article, though describing how humble he was, seemed to idolize that daredevil status, like he is heroic because he died a member of the daredevil class. Maybe I’m too deep in seeing it as a mark of concern. I can track my mental health by how many risk-taking behaviors I am engaging in, relatively mild as they are, so I worry about others. I suppose my unease stemmed in part from my own discomfort with the idea of daredevils, with danger as entertainment, with tempting death at all. Niagara Falls entices desperate impulsive people in the same way that the Golden Gate Bridge does or the Aurora Bridge did prior to the suicide barrier. Why idolize the attempts, to entertain awe at the difficult being done, because it was difficult? I personally do not like idolizing daredevils but it seems really irresponsible to idolize suicide attempts. That article felt a bit too close to the latter. When I lived in Seattle, I’d often think about the people who jumped from the Aurora Bridge when my bus went over it. The view was stunning. The view always is stunning from these places. One of the last suicides from the Aurora Bridge, before the suicide barrier was completed, was by a bright but severely depressed girl who had read extensively about people jumping from bridges. I’ve read in various places that they stopped reporting the suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge to keep from creating a contagion effect.
I wonder if there is a contagion effect to Niagara Falls, daredevils and suicide. I hope not. So many beautiful things in the world coexist with darkness. Life coexists with death. Niagara Falls’ beauty coexists with the fact that it tempts people to do things that can take their lives – be their motivation that explicitly, or the thrill. Every time I look at the Falls, I think about how it could kill me. How we sit with that knowledge and talk about these things most responsibly and respectfully? I do not know.
I will think about it the next time I am staring at the water going over the Falls.