excerpted from the forthcoming novel The Man With the Divided Back
There are only three cities in North America which can claim to be the location of a presidential assassination and Buffalo is one of them. In 1901, Buffalo hosted the Pan-American Exposition, and instead of being remembered for its exciting display of electric lights, its fabulous exhibition posters which have since become vintage collectors items, or its carefully designed buildings, gardens and walkways, it became known as the place where President McKinley was shot twice and subsequently killed by a very thin and quite angular anarchist from Detroit named Leon Czolgosz.
The summer of 1901 was full of rain, which is never good for the spirits and even less desirable for an outdoor fair. Attendance was not as high as expected, though close to eight million people came for the Electric Tower (lit with hundreds of eight watt bulbs), the sporting events, the artificially constructed African, Eskimo and Mexican villages, the displays of exotic caged animals, and for the opportunity to ride the exposition’s most sensational ride—A Trip to the Moon for the cost of fifty cents. Thomas Edison went to the moon, as did the Governor of New York. So did President McKinley when he arrived in early September. The sights were indeed endless and required attendees to spend two or three days on the grounds, cultivating the “exposition tan” despite the slathering of various anti-tan creams. Women carried parasols and brought picnic lunches, while men wore suits and stylish shoes from London. There were camels, recreations of Bavarian castles, an Infant Incubator on display in the Midway, and everywhere, everywhere was the evidence of how wonderful the future was about to be. The land of America was good and light at the beginning of this 20th century, and each night the Star Spangled banner descended upon the exposition, while young boys threw their hats in the air with the excitement of the electricity, illuminating the crowd long after everything should have been dark.
The City of Light, however, would soon no longer be remembered as such.
It was at the Exposition on September 6th, that inside The Temple of Music a man waited in line to shake the president’s hand, his revolver covered by a handkerchief.
Secret service fooled by a napkin!
For eight days he almost recovered. On September 14th, he died.
Before his electrocution Czolgosz said, "I killed the President because he was the enemy of the good people—the good working people. I am not sorry for my crime."
But his last words, the ones which Kotter felt to be very troubling as he learned his history in grade school, were: I am sorry I could not see my father.
The convention, for which Kotter was dressing carefully to attend, was exactly one hundred years to the day that President McKinley had been assassinated. The Temple of Music, a temporary structure, had long since been dismantled and although one of Kotter’s most prized view cards was an image of the building, he wasn’t quite satisfied with the knowledge that he would never be able to see its insides.
We are enjoying Buffalo and the Exhibition. I am sending you a card of the temple of music where our president was shot.
Yours in love,
It had cost him fifty dollars.
The Buffalo Niagara Convention Center had recently been occupied by a state-wide dentist’s convention and as he arrived Kotter was pleased to see the banners with teeth and lips had been replaced. Walking underneath the raised block of the building, he didn’t smell dried piss or the wet newspapers collecting in grey stairwells and a woman in denim smoked a cigarette.
Ten bucks for a hand job, she said.
Kotter went inside.
Admission was free, and Kotter read the floor plan carefully—a listing each of the three hundred and sixty-six display booths organised by the collector’s name and collection type:
Booth # 1: Amos, Adwartu. Salt and Pepper Shakers.
Booth #2: Adams, Henry. Civil War Letters/Correspondence.
There were similarities between his Collector’s Convention and the long ago Exposition of 1901. The Buffalo Convention Center was fully equipped with electric lights, for instance. The 1901 fair displayed one of the world’s first x-ray machines (the use of which might have located the missing bullets in McKinley’s chest, and, perhaps, have saved him), and here, in the convention center at booth # 194, was an Idaho doctor’s collection of leg x-rays donated by patients. Here you can see the break in the femur, he illuminated the black and white pages for every passer-by.
The room was orderly, full of administrative sounds like announcements and doors opening and questions and there weren’t enough toilets. Aqua-coloured port-a-potties lined the north wall while women waited in groups. Wires from temporary light fixtures and internet setups stretched across the floor, flattened with duct tape and covered with red pieces of carpet. The ceiling was high and full of fluorescence.
Among the collections listed were the usual selections of stamps, coins and baseball cards. These were at the bottom of the hierarchy as the most common collectibles—like the one book everyone has read for the summer—they were scorned as too common. The children’s toys were in this category: My Little Ponies, Cabbage Patch Dolls, and Beanie Babies. These were traded or bought for a few dollars, depending on the year of production and whether the item had received a hair cut or sustained dog bites. The male toys always sold for more: Packaged GI Joes, New In Box (NIB) Star Wars figurines, Micro Machines, old Atari game systems. Kotter’s toy selection as a child had been minimal, his mother relying on an upturned plastic bucket with a wooden spoon, or the items she’d pilfered from her job that day. One of his favourite playthings had been a plastic Jesus with long fibre-optic threads sprouting from his plastic head. There was a cord where it could be plugged in, and the plastic thread-hair would illuminate pink, blue, orange. Like a firework’s just gone off in his head she told him.
From the Barrowlands.
Kotter heard Barren lands, and always thought it a strange name for a marketplace.
He had three hundred dollars.
There was one postcard booth, which Kotter spent the morning investigating. Along with the woman who collected early die-cut valentines and the man looking for view cards of railway stations, Kotter went through each box regardless of the label on the front. He checked every State and City, Early Automobiles, War Propaganda (Uncle Same Wants You, Women At Work, Loose Lips etc), Capitol Buildings, Ski Resorts, Scottish Castles and Celebrities (Mostly the Beatles and Elvis). He examined the thousands of neatly organised cards in their neatly organised boxes until he finally allowed himself to look:
He purchased one postcard which said,
The dancing is difficult, but I’ll manage. This is no cakewalk! Glen.
The front of the card was the New York State Hospital for the Insane. He had this particular image of the asylum in his collection already, but with a different inscription. He read it over three times, checking the address, noting the zip code, the handwriting, that rare exclamation mark! Did the patients have to buy the cards, or were they complimentary? And what about the ink pens with their artery-puncturing nibs? Kotter pondered for a moment the devastating possibilities held within objects—pencils box cutters pills bottles—especially bottles!
His new purchase he placed inside the two, slightly oversized 4 x 6 pieces of sanded and unvarnished slivers of wood he’d brought for this purpose. Continental size, which was slightly larger than the original cards of the early 1900’s. He placed the wood in his inside jacket pocket. At the same booth, he picked up a fluorescent yellow sheet of paper, but it contained nothing new. Some of the headings rhymed.
• Mould kept at bay keeps a postcard for another day.
• Don’t be mellow, or your cards will turn yellow.
He wandered past Disney music boxes, beer coasters and matchbooks. Older men shuffled thoughtfully from table to table, women in pairs exclaimed over tables of buttons, and school children were herded about with notebooks sketching round boobs or penises and collecting hormones in their bloodstream. Kotter stood before a selection of handmade vintage marbles—the peppermint swirl, the onion skin, the divided core—all displayed in the pockmarked curve of a Chinese checkers board. Hot sauces from peppery countries stood brightly next to a collection of chewing gum wrappers, each piece of silver foil ironed and pressed. The more obscure the collectable the more expensive it became, the higher its prestige. There were crowds around the cast iron banks, all with intact mechanisms that put your coin from Uncle Sam’s hand into his mouth, or from the basketball into the hoop. Kotter’s favourite, even though the paint was in poor condition, was a policeman on a motorbike. A coin fitted into his helmet, and once the coin was placed his motorbike would advance towards the police shed where the coin jerked from the helmet and into the bank. He had his pennies ready, but only the collector operated the banks and Kotter understood.
He wandered on, and an announcement reminded everyone of the upcoming PEZ seminar in room 101 and tomorrow’s preservation seminar on Antique Tomes. Consulting his brochure he discovered tome to be another word for book, and wondered about the hierarchy of language and why people couldn’t ever just say what they meant.
He waited in line at the portable toilets, bought a pretzel and checked the two pieces of wood in his pocket, making sure they were aligned. It was close to noon and the hall was filling, getting louder. The fluorescent light blanked out faces, made everyone greasy, older. He thought he could smell the toilets, or popcorn and someone stepped on his heel.
He passed a table of Montreal Canadiens paraphernalia which included a plastic mug from a gas station give-away.
He touched it.
Rare, he said.
1984, the man nodded.
Kotter moved on towards a table blocked by shoulders and heard the word vagina, quite clearly. Gynaecological instruments? He’d seen that collection here years ago. A small woman from Ohio. Big metal tweezers and bottles of ether.
He looked, but it was something new. Splayed across the white tablecloth was a collection amassed from (he quickly checked his brochure) “years of dedication to exposing the misogyny of male dominated industries and production which value women as objects whose worth is determined by the functions they perform.”
Booth # 345: Wendt, Beatrice. Artefacts in the shape of the female form.
Interested visitors fingered ashtrays where the V of the woman’s ceramic legs held a cigarette wedged jauntily between them. There were nutcrackers, the walnut helpfully inserted at the crux of two silver thighs in demonstration. There were big-titted teapots and long-legged smoking pipes. There was a cardboard cut-out of a suntan lotion model designed for shop windows. There were pink chocolate cunts on a stick and curvaceous brass candlesticks.
The collector was sitting on an ottoman made of red velvet lips. She looked properly groomed, and had Kotter been schooled in the art of brand names or eyebrow waxing, he would have known exactly what sort of woman she was.