Sunday, September 20, 2009


Helen and I were standing near the railing at the edge of Niagara Gorge, just downstream from the Falls. We could hear the roar of the falling water. I leaned over the rail and far below I could see the angry water rushing over the rocks, and the white foam, the tourist boat approaching the falls, and people in yellow raincoats on the walkways of the Cave of the Winds Trip.

"Come on, look down! It's amazing", I told Helen.

"I don't like heights", Helen said.

"So this was a good place to come then."

This fact about her had not come up, or maybe it had and I forgot. Probably the latter. Oh, wait. She told me the same thing when we were at the top of the World Trade Center.

Helen and I were on our first vacation trip together by airplane. Our first trip at all was to Boston by train, and by this time we'd gone to Washington by train too. But when you have to go way out to the airport and go through all the rituals of air travel, it becomes a bigger deal. We were grownups now.

As this was 1984, we had actually been official grownups for a time, and married to each other for most of it, but shut up, you. We were grownups now. We had flown in a plane, and found the airport shuttle from Buffalo International Airport to the Niagara Falls hotels, and checked in using Credit Cards. We were in a place neither of us had been before, and we were going to go exploring.

You might expect that as grownups, we would rent a car too, but it would have done us little good. Helen had learned to drive once but had not actually driven a car in a good long time, while I, the city kid, would not see the need to learn at all until 1997 when we bought a house in New Jersey. One of the nice things about Niagara Falls is that if you pay a little extra to stay close to the falls, you can walk to all the overlooks and to some other things too.

For example we went to the Schoellkopf Geological Museum. You might think that's boring until you learn that it stands at the edge of the cliff overlooking the gorge, right next to where a huge rockslide broke off in 1956 and destroyed a power station. Maybe it will happen again and you can be part of it! Inside there are rocks, photographs of rocks, and exhibits about water falling off rocks. The World Wide Web (on the rare pages that have been updated) tells me it is now known as the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center. That will bring the crowds.

We also went to the Turtle, a museum of Iroquois culture. This I thought was pretty good. A lot of art and craft was on display, and in a performance space people in traditional dress were showing ceremonial dances. Exhibits told about the Iroquois nation and the relations between natives and settlers from Europe. It wasn't crowded. And it closed some years ago.

But it's really best to go see Niagara Falls while you're there.

Helen and I spent a fair amount of time wandering around in the state park looking at rushing water. It's hard to explain why this is, but there is something amazingly impressive about the rush of the water. Probably it's the sheer power of it. In deference to Helen's dislike of heights, we skipped the observation tower, but she decided she could take the Cave of the Winds Trip.

The Trip, as it is called, starts in a stone building on Goat Island. You go in and take a raincoat, and then you go down an elevator inside the earth to come out close to the bottom of the gorge.

Then it gets crazy. You have to go out on wooden plank walks getting hit by spray from the waterfall, which is right there next to you. I thought this was great.

Many years ago there was a thing down there called the Cave of the Winds, where you could actually go under hanging rocks behind the falls, but spoilsports had it closed when part of the roof collapsed, and were proved right a few years later when the rest of it came down. Oh so they were right. But they've still got the plank walks, and I really recommend it. Even Helen liked it. It wasn't high up— it was deep down.

The two below are views from Goat Island, which is in the middle of the river, dividing Niagara Falls into two falls.

This first one looks west to the Horseshoe Falls. You can see part of the huge plume of water drops that forms above the falls. That's Canada on the far side. Helen is standing in the middle of the picture, and it's hard to see, but I think she's waving.

The one below looks east toward the American Falls, which is a just a white blur as seen from here. That's Rainbow Bridge.

One day we walked to Canada. It was right there, over Rainbow Bridge. I don't know what argybargy you have to go through now to walk across ; probably undergo a background check in advance, show a passport and three forms of identification when you get there, wait while they check your name on The List, take off your shoes and get sniffed by dogs, and sign a document swearing that you are not now and never have been a member of Al Qaeda. We just told the Canadian people we were visiting for the day, and told the American people on the way back that we were citizens, and they just nodded their heads. No one asked about drugs.

Below are two photos taken from the bridge. I wonder whether they allow photography now.

The first one is a breathtaking panorama made by expertly combining the other two. It looks as if I had one of those panoramic cameras, doesn't it, instead of the little 110 Instamatic. Really though, this is what you see. Left to right: American Falls, Goat Island, Horseshoe Falls in the distance, and the coast of Canada.

The American Falls. The small separate section on the right, next to Goat Island, is called Bridal Veil Falls. The Cave of the Winds Trip is immediately to the right of it, but all the plank walks are blurred away by the mist.

The Horseshoe Falls, mostly obscured by the plume. The international border runs through the Horseshoe Falls channel of the river. I think the two dark lumps in the water are Maid of the Mist tour boats.

The first thing we did in Canada was look at the Niagara Falls Museum. This was incredible. It was founded in 1827, and although it had been moved a few times in the 157 years before we saw it, it still had a lot of that grand old concept of a Museum of Curious Things. It did have relevant exhibits like a few of the barrels and capsules used by daredevils who went over the falls. But they also had a humpback whale skeleton, taxidermy of freak animals, a section of a giant sequoia tree acquired secondhand from the 1901 Buffalo World's Fair, a set of shells collected by Louis Agassiz, and most remarkably, nine Egyptian mummies. Have you ever seen unwrapped mummies close up? Well, you could have seen them there, ancient dead bodies, inches away from you, behind glass, under questionable climate control, 120 years after they'd come to the New World. They were later sent off for modern academic study in Atlanta, and when one turned out to be Pharaoh Ramesses I, it was returned to Egypt where Zahi Hawass can see it any time he wants.

The museum later closed, and parts of the collection have been dispersed, like the mummies and the daredevil items. A remnant is now open at another location.

We walked around a lot on the Canadian side. I remember calculating that we did eight miles for the day. Because the river bends about ninety degrees after dropping over the falls, you get a much better view of it from Canada. We ate at a large restaurant overlooking the falls, and by the time we left Canada we could see the evening display of colored lights.

Below, this is what the Horseshoe Falls looks like from Canada, with Goat Island in the background. That's a lot of mist. See the rainbow? It was in the air for a long time. With this much mist around, maybe it's there a lot. They did name the bridge after the rainbow.

Now, I have been saving the best thing for last. I did something in Niagara Falls that was a turning point in my life. I had a slice.

Pizza is not meat and potatoes, or meat on bread, so we had none of that in my house when I was growing up. I mentioned in Slumgullion that I had learned to eat pasta with meat and tomato sauce before my last year of college, and this put me in good stead when I started going out with Helen, who'd had Italian food regularly at home.

Helen worked on me to the point where I'd happily go down to V and T's with her and enjoy several of the "food" dishes on the menu (pizza places tend to describe their offerings as two categories, "pizza" and "food"). I even liked Stuffed Peppers with Meat, despite it being a partially green food. I think it had become an acceptable food item from Helen nudging me to put some cut green peppers into pasta meat sauce.

So there we were, looking for food in Niagara Falls, New York, and deciding to go into the Rainbow Centre (sic) mall that was right there down the block, with the idea that we'd find a food court. And it was in that ordinary place, a mall like you'd find anywhere in America, that Helen pointed to a pizza counter and suggested we grab a couple of slices. What could be more humdrum?

I made a snap decision that I will never forget. I would do it. I was on vacation, and it was time to go crazy. I would have a slice.

I mentioned the incident to Helen today and got a surprise.

"Do you remember what you had on it?" I shook my head. "Peppers."

"Green peppers? Really?"

"They were green and red. I don't know why you didn't get some kind of meat."

Helen should be writing these articles. She actually remembers things. I like to think though that my half baked versions are more fun. That's what I tell myself.

Anyway I ate the slice and it was good. And this was cheap mall pizza. It probably helped that I was hungry.

Before much longer I must have had a taste of V and T's pizza back in New York, and that was it, man. I still eat there with my friends sometimes and I think it's the best you can get. My favorite at V and T's is sausage and pepper. I had totally forgotten that pepper was on my first slice, but maybe that explains half of my favorite. They give you sliced disks of sausage, not the usual crumbled sausage filling you get almost everywhere. Mmmm.

Some years ago I resolved to have pizza one day a week. You know why? So that I would stop having it more often. That's the reason.

The Rainbow Centre has been closed for years now, a victim of the depression in Niagara Falls, New York.

Do you think the World Wide Web has everything? What do you think are the chances of finding an image on the web of an ordinary food court pizza counter in an abandoned shopping mall? Well, here you go:

Thank you to Erica Hayes, photographer, and If they tear down the mall, which might happen, there will be nowhere to put the little oval plaque noting the place where Joe B had pizza. This blog post will be the only commemoration.

Photos are mine, except the two small ones and the last one. Maybe you wish they were larger (if you click them) but they're on grainy 110 Instamatic film and this is about as large as you'd want to see them.

Next time: Steps.


  1. Speaking of Niagara, I just read this piece in Time Magazine (,9171,1924485,00.html ) by James Poniewozik on Ken Burns' Natural Parks: America's Best Idea. Quoting from there:

    The miniseries starts in the mid — 19th century, when nature lovers began urging that the expanding nation set aside areas of wilderness to remain undeveloped and unspoiled. Their cautionary tale was Niagara Falls, which by the 1860s was "almost ruined" — overrun by hucksters and tourist traps, with nearly every good view privately owned. Unless the government acted, advocates like naturalist John Muir warned, Yosemite and Yellowstone would end up the same way. "To Europeans," reads narrator Peter Coyote, Niagara "was proof that the United States was still a backward, uncivilized nation."

  2. But old Niagara was private enterprise! The American Way! Only socialists think Big Government can do it better!

    The land on both sides of the falls and for some miles down the gorge has been park land for a while now. It probably should be a National Park in both countries but it's good enough that it's State and Provincial. There are many tourist traps in Ontario but they're nice polite Canadian tourist traps, nothing too nasty.