Updated: Feb 14, 2019
In seven years of my long distance relationship, I had never been to America just to see my partner. Once Green Day’s Revolution Radio Tour was over, I decided it was about time. I planned to go to my partner's hometown of Oakland and see Lights in San Francisco while I was there. They said they’d buy me the tickets for my birthday… but San Francisco sold out and in a panic, they bought Buffalo, New York instead. I’m not sure I even realised then quite how random it would be to go from England to Buffalo. Nor did my mum when she realised that Niagara Falls, which she’d always wanted to see, is near Buffalo and decided to come too.
When people ask me how I afford to travel, a recurring answer is that I will snort at ‘why don’t you just fly direct?’ No, I booked a Ryanair flight to Dublin, a Norwegian flight from Dublin to New York and a Greyhound to Buffalo. It wasn’t even the most ridiculous route I’d ever taken. It would take about 36 hours, and seemed quite quick.
Until the ‘beast from the east’ (read: weather that is considered tame outside the UK and Ireland) came along.
Two days before we flew, our flight to Dublin was cancelled. At the time, transatlantic flights were still going, so in desperation to make ours, we paid more than we could afford for a new flight to Dublin. An hour later, Dublin Airport closed for the weekend and our transatlantic flight was cancelled.
Norwegian kindly rebooked me to fly from London a day late. However, this meant we’d miss the Greyhound. Clearly trying to claim the best joke of 2018, my travel insurance said ‘I’m sure Greyhound will understand.’
Annabelle called Greyhound to explain my situation, since they were ignoring my messages. They then sent me a surprisingly nice reply and asked me to call them. I figured calling an American number would cost less than a new bus ticket, so I spent 30 minutes (£17.10) on the phone to a very confused man. They took the changed ticket fee ($40). Then, very guiltily, he said ‘uh, sorry, the system won’t let me change your journey because of bad weather. The roads to Buffalo are all closed. We can’t send any buses.’
All I could do was laugh at this point. I’d turned down two jobs for this trip, and was starting the job I’d got a month late for it. Providing we could get to Gatwick Airport, we’d still go. At the worst, we’d wander around Manhattan on very little sleep.
We were on the National Express to Gatwick when we heard the last flight to New York had been cancelled. Even when we got our boarding passes, I would not believe this was real until we landed at JFK. Not going to lie, I was nearly in tears when the plane took off. Even more so when I stepped out into the poorly staffed passport control. My mum was detained as usual, though this time I got an explanation that it was something to do with her name. They asked her ‘are you coming to see more Green Day shows?’
Now we had to deal with Greyhound. While we were on the plane, they actually sent me the ticket I never received after the phone call, along with an apology that made me feel bad for dissing them. I felt less bad when I explained my situation, shouting into one of the booths at Port Authority Bus Terminal, and I was greeted with the much-loved Greyhound attitude of ‘pay $40 for new tickets or you’re not getting on the bus.’ The lady insisted she couldn’t find our booking. We didn’t have much choice, so we hesitantly handed over the $40. Then when I read her our new booking reference again, she looked suddenly guilty and handed the $40 back. The system wouldn’t let her print the tickets, she said. So she gave us directions to a pizza parlour with Internet access. That is how, at 3am, we printed out Greyhound tickets in a Manhattan pizza joint.
My mum, struggling to walk with her rheumatoid arthritis, sat in the Times Square McDonald’s while I wandered around to take photos. Whenever I’m back in New York, I gravitate back towards the St. James Theatre, where I saw Green Day’s American Idiot in 2011. If you think I’m weird for keep going back, even though Frozen is now playing, just wait till you see what I did later.
I arrived back at McDonald’s to find that my mum had been thrown out. She’d tried to explain that she was disabled and couldn’t carry all our bags out, but the lady kept telling her ‘don’t do this to me, mommy’ which was Very Rude. They were nicer in 2011.
We found our way back to Port Authority, which I am sure is the door to a different dimension. Walk away for 30 seconds and you will never find the spot you left again. The staircases and lifts do not lead to the same places. It’s like warp panels in a Team Rocket Hideout, except the people there are worse than Team Rocket. All who wander are probably looking for the exits.
I may have just been sleep deprived, but when our driver Bob started up the bus, I was nearly crying again. It seemed we were on schedule. I didn’t sleep much. I was probably too busy freaking out that we were going to make it.
We were halfway to Buffalo when I got a text from Annabelle saying they had to leave for work. Before Lights. At this point, I had to laugh. At least we’d have 36 hours together. Better than sitting in England shaking my fist at the beast from the east.
We arrived in Buffalo in the afternoon. Clouds had cleared for a sunny blue sky. We wanted to just sleep, but we knew the weather might worsen and forced ourselves onto the 40 bus to Niagara Falls. Towards the end of the route, we could see the Canadian side’s skyline and mist rising from the Horseshoe Falls. It seemed a bizarre concept that across the river, a border, was a different country.
Stepping off the bus at the visitor centre, a sign welcomed us to a Wonder of the World. Everything was closed. The roads were empty but for the occasional beat-up car that rolled by. It did not look like a site that could host a Wonder of the World. My mum and Annabelle pointed out, though, that the rumble we could hear was not traffic – it was the Falls. We picked up a map in the visitor centre and headed down. I also found a Poké Ball.
What struck us most was the sheer power of the water. It was difficult to judge how deep it actually was, because of the build-up of ice and snow that sat like clouds around the Falls. Mist rose, unwavering, to cloud the skyline. We wandered around, though we were perhaps too tired (and cold) to appreciate it fully.
My mum was still in a lot of pain. We’d seen it now, so we decided to get her warmed up with a well-deserved coffee in Starbucks. As we walked back, the sun began to set, flooding the streets with a rich orange. My mum loves sunsets, but she couldn’t walk much further. I hesitated before, armed with my camera, I charged back off down the street and, in Annabelle’s words, skidded down a snowy hill to get back in time. The sun had dipped below the skyline now, but I caught the ethereal pink tint it gave the mist as it set.
Once we were there, we thought we might as well wait for the illuminations. To pass the time, we headed for the bridge to Goat Island. We had no idea where we were going, but getting lost in America is one of my many specialties after sleeping behind bins, right? It was a pretty easy path, actually. I had hand warmers in my bag, but I didn’t get them out because I wanted to save them for a worse time, despite there being at least 10 more packs back at our Airbnb. I apparently learned nothing from Turin. Anyway, we found the best view we could of the Bridal Veil Falls while everything was closed off. The illuminations were either late or not coming at all, but it was still pretty.
Finally, we walked over to the best vantage point we could get for Horseshoe Falls. I charged past a canoodling couple to plant my camera on a pillar. Since everything was shut and I had no idea what the Canadian side was like – it was difficult to imagine it being so much better – I thought this might be the best I could get. Annabelle doesn’t get to canoodle with me, they just have to make sure I don’t fall off a cliff taking photos.
Feeling slightly ripped off by the lack of illuminations, we began the walk back. At points, the pathway was pitch-black and we had to use our phones’ flashlights. We craned our necks for any sign of illuminations, but there was just darkness. I was beginning to worry about my mum. We hadn’t planned to be gone so long. We were searching for a good spot to climb back up the hill, without landing face-first in snow, when Annabelle turned and pointed.
We stood and watched for a while, but we were too cold and tired (or at least I was) to hang around too long. I was conscious, too, that it was a Sunday and the last bus back would probably leave soon. My mum was fine when we relocated her in Starbucks, aside from worrying that we’d been eaten by a weirdo. On our way back, we stopped off at Walgreen’s for food (even if we weren’t too cheap to eat in a restaurant, everything was shut) and got off two stops too late while talking to a man about his night shift. We trudged through snow until Annabelle said they could see the red W. There wasn’t a single ready meal in there without meat, but I did acquire my American staple, a 50¢ honey bun.
The next day, my mum and Annabelle were pleased to find a Starbucks near Toronto Coach Station. We were in line when Lights’ Skydiving started playing. I grabbed my companions and exclaimed ‘it’s Lights!’ You’d never hear her on the radio in England, but of course, she’s Canadian. That was nice build up for the show tomorrow.
I knew the relatively new Yonge-Dundas Square – supposedly similar to Times Square – was near the coach station. We headed there first. It’s cute, but it is definitely not Times Square.
Our next stop was the Graffiti Alley. On our way, we accidentally found the Toronto sign, which we also wanted to see. Toronto’s clean streets were more akin to a British city than anywhere we’d been in America – a sort of cross between the two. The CN Tower rose tall above the city, visible from every gap between buildings.
I didn’t expect much of the Graffiti Alley, but it was actually one of my favourite parts of the day. Neon colours and art from surreal to political filled every inch of the surrounding walls. I suppose I would like it, being an arts graduate.
My mum was interested in the architecture of the Royal Ontario Museum, so that was our next stop. The route took us through Chinatown, where we acquired appropriately cheap souvenirs. We planned to eat our one not-so-cheap lunch at a vegan restaurant up there, but of course, it had closed for the afternoon by the time we arrived. Instead, we caught the subway back downtown and ate at Chipotle, where I had no idea what was going on but went with it.
Afterwards, Annabelle had to catch their flight home. I reminded myself that sometimes we didn’t see each other for a year or more. 36 hours was better than nothing. Still better than sitting at home, shaking my fist at the beast from the east. Still sucked, tho.
I hadn’t yet acquired a shark on this trip, and could not let my search be halted. There was an aquarium close by. It closed in about fifteen minutes. We got very lost in the skywalk and ended up walking about three times the distance we needed to. A woman approached us as we hurried up the aquarium steps.
‘BUT THE GIFT SHOP IS STILL OPEN, RIGHT?’
‘Oh… yeah, of course!’
So that was how we had security let us into an aquarium, a few minutes before it closed, by the exit door just for the gift shop. I knew when I spotted sequins that I had found Toronto the Shark. Mission accomplished.
Before the sun set, we went up the CN Tower. One level was shut, and there were 3-4 rows of people sitting by the available window. Some were filming the sunset, others had their backs to the view and I’m not sure why they were still there. My mum couldn’t see and had to sit down. Because of the closed level, entry to the SkyPod was free, so I joined the line. I was rewarded for the wait with stretches of glittering city lights, only fading out when they met Lake Ontario or the horizon. The sheer size of the city, and the height at which I looked out at it, were almost humbling.
Finally, we wanted to see the skyline at night, so we got a bus to Polson Pier. There, we found T&T Supermarket! A real supermarket! Food! Rushing in 15 minutes before it closed, we bought a couple of microwave meals, a bargain pack of seaweed, cactus fruit and a huge box of cakes for $2. I had found a supermarket, in the middle of nowhere, in Canada. My life was complete.
We then proceeded to get thrown out of a parking lot while trying to photograph the skyline. There was probably a better view further down, but at this point we were so tired and cold we settled for a more friendly parking lot.
I was thinking that a pretty photo of the skyline would be a fitting end to our day, but no. A fitting end was finding T&T Supermarket and being thrown out of a parking lot.
Assuming I did not need to roll out a bivvy bag in -5°C for Lights, we slept late and went to a slightly unsavoury-looking pizza place for breakfast/lunch/dinner. I had four layers on and was melting inside. Ironically, it wasn’t actually that cold outside. The line at the Town Ballroom was longer than I expected, but certainly more relaxed and less rabid than a Green Day line. While we waited, we chatted to a guy who plays music as heirlo.
About fifteen minutes late, I said goodbye to my mum as we were handed ‘student visas’ and led inside. DCF, the first support act, passed us We Were Here bags filled with a poster, pin badge and lollipop. I walked faster than I probably needed to onto the floor, where despite the long line, I had a good view. Lights casually walked onstage, holding an acoustic guitar and chatted about how Buffalo, and the venue specifically, were apparently haunted. I, uh, obviously had no idea, so I guess I learned something.
She asked us what we wanted to hear. I yelled ‘Saviour!’ because I was never going to hear it otherwise. It was between that and Quiet, but she went with Saviour. She explained that when she wrote the song, it was so difficult to breathe that each line was recorded separately and put together later, so we’d have to help. It’s on her acoustic EP, but that could not begin to compare to being one of 50 people, seeing it live in such an intimate setting – in Buffalo, New York, even.
After turning down a request for Magnetic Field with ‘well, you just might hear that later,’ she did play Quiet. I’d never actually heard it acoustic and it was magical. The crowd had got over its initial shyness (except me, I just bellowed from the start because I’m British) and sang along. In the last chorus, on the held note of ‘with you-oooooh,’ Lights told us one more time for the ghosts. It was their sound!
Next, her tour manager ran around with a microphone for a Q&A session. The first question was from a lady who asked Lights about her engagement ring, because her boyfriend proposed after Saviour. After a round of applause, silence followed. I thought ‘fuck it, I’ll never have this opportunity again,’ so I put up my hand. I asked ‘do you have any advice for staying motivated on extended art projects?’ and she kindly gave me a detailed answer about how we romanticise inspiration, when in reality it doesn’t always come naturally. She suggested putting in at least an hour of work each day, whether inspired or not, and wished me luck. It was a generic question, but I’m glad I asked. I’ve been trying to take her advice every day since.
After a couple more, we were arranged in a line for a meet and greet. She greeted me with a warm hug, and said Rocket, her daughter, had the same boots; then that my (DIY Green Day) shirt and outfit were adorable. I thanked her and she replied ‘so let me sign something for you!’
She told me to have fun and said goodbye with another hug. I am so glad that ‘don’t meet your heroes’ wasn’t at all applicable in this situation. Her tour manager, who was lovely, asked me where I was from and if I’d flown over just for the show. She’d been to Bristol, where I first saw Lights. The list goes Bristol, Manchester, Buffalo and I think that’s hilarious. I bought a We Were Here shirt that had Buffalo on its list of dates, because how could I not?
Back on the floor, DCF was first up. I enjoyed his story about how his name online has always been Prince DCF, for no real reason, and he decided to finally start playing the part but lost his crown at the first show. My favourite song was John Cusack (I mean, it’s called John Cusack) and at least my emo teen self knew the words to his cover of Misery Business. After Chase Atlantic, a lot of people left and my mum squeezed in.
Lights’ first song was New Fears. She appeared silhouetted against a blinding backdrop to scream the haunting chorus. It was followed by the thumping Savage, sung with the passion that accompanies a fresh emotional wound. Second Go from The Listening was revitalised as if a new song. The crowd screamed along, loudest of all so far, to Toes.
When a ‘pizza delivery guy’ appeared onstage, I didn’t think it was that far-fetched that an overenthusiastic fan had ordered a pizza to the venue; until Lights laughed, exclaimed ‘the pizza is a synth!’ and began Up We Go. The motivating anthem seemed bigger and brighter than when I first saw it in England. Both Lights and I had grown into different, but more confident people.
Siberia was the song that got me into Lights. The crowd repeated the ‘whoa-oh-oh-oh’s unfalteringly. I was definitely melting in my four layers at this point, but I didn’t care. I apparently would sail across the east sea just to see you on the far side.
Moonshine, one of my favourites from the new album that I was thrilled to see live, was next. After the Skin & Earth Interlude, she and the band returned with a piano and acoustic guitars. Banner is on the Siberia acoustic album, but the slightly jazzed up version she played live was magical; and unique to this moment across the world from where I should have been. She introduced Follow You Down from Midnight Machines, explaining that it was originally written for a mermaid movie starring Piers Brosnan, but the movie never happened. That was fine, it meant we got to hear it there instead. The final song of this acoustic set was Muscle Memory. The latter two were both extremely haunting. Bet the ghosts enjoyed (sorry, I’ve been hearing Annabelle’s dad jokes too long).
The acoustic gear was cleared away and the set came alive again with Skydiving. The crowd responded as if it was her first song. I’d seen Same Sea before, but it had a renewed energy that made it a different song. Kicks, another one of my favourites from Skin & Earth, was next. I love the lyric ‘not all who wander are looking for the exits.’ Which is not Port Authority Bus Terminal.
In the lingering Magnetic Field, Lights climbed down and reached into the crowd. People grabbed and rubbed her, but she was unfazed. As the song closed, she spotted me, smiled and grabbed me in a hug. My mum was grinning from ear to ear (and so was I). After Running With the Boys, a nostalgic ode to childhood, the final song before the encore was Giants. Though it was specific to the comic the crowd, screaming it back, undoubtedly related it to their own lives as a rallying call to rise up. They chanted ‘one more song!’ until she returned with the piano and began We Were Here. This was my ‘I came to Buffalo, New York to see a musician’ anthem. Though I could just as easily have related it to any of my stupid adventures, or even my life and relationships as a whole.
The show concluded with Almost Had Me: my favourite song from Skin & Earth and already one of my favourite Lights songs. I haven’t read the comic yet, so I have no idea how it concludes the storyline, but this song for me is about breaking free. Almost being broken by someone you trusted, but seeing through them in time to break out. I love it so much and I screamed along with what little of my voice I had left.
When Norwegian offered to rebook our flights anywhere, I could have gone to see the Green Day side project The Coverups, but I made the right choice. Seeing and meeting one of my biggest inspirations, in one of the most random American cities I could have ended up in, was something I was happy to turn away for. I’m so glad I did. This was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.
On our way out, the man who ID’d me and smiled at my British passport passed me the poster for the show. ‘There’s only one,’ he said.
Before attempting the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, we walked two miles in search of honey buns but alas, they don’t sell honey buns in CVS. I just knocked over two racks of Orbit and Kit-Kats. My mum stopped off at Starbucks afterwards. We’d been sitting there a while when she grabbed my arm and told me to listen. Green Day’s Ordinary World was playing. That was a magical moment that – probably because I was in a random American city – took me back to tour. We were doing well for songs you’d never hear on the radio in England. Unsure what to do about food, we went back to Gino & Joe’s Pizza, since we knew where it was and it hadn’t killed us. There, a man stood up and cackled, then sat back down. He proceeded to keep opening the door. Every time the staff closed it, he opened it again. I think that’s a good example of how I remember America.
We finished our pizza and headed to the Greyhound station, which we seemed to be spending a lot of time at, for the 40 bus. When my mum went to the toilet, a random man coming out said ‘have a nice day.’ America. Towards the end of the bus route, I also overheard:
‘Have a nice day.’
‘I’ve been having nice days for the last 24 years.’
After getting off at the wrong stop, we made a dash for the Aquarium of Niagara. This, too, closed in five minutes. We were greeted with the same soul-destroying ‘hey, guys, we’re closing…’ and replied with the same ‘but the gift shop!’
Having acquired Niagara the Shark, we set a new course to Rainbow Bridge. The silence was disturbed only by a crackling recording of a lone trumpet drifting from a hotel. Like you might imagine as the soundtrack for a ghost town, where a tumbleweed blows by for effect. That accurately describes Niagara Falls, New York in the winter.
We followed ‘pedestrians to Canada’ signs to Rainbow Bridge. The area was completely deserted. Not even the trumpet remained. As we passed through the turnstiles and walked onto the bridge, the sun began to set. The mist from the falls was golden. We could see, before we even passed the boundary line, why the Canadian side was better.