I found him in his usual spot, hunkered at a table in a dark corner of a nameless coffee shop. He had two-day stubble on his face and his shirt was rumpled.
Call him Buffalo Joe. He is our fictional Everyman, the imaginary icon of the dashed hopes that hound us. He is the ghostlike symbol of ever-delayed projects, of dumb ideas that got done and good ideas stuck in limbo.
Buffalo Joe was once bright-eyed and eager. Decades of disappointment broke his spirit. Only a flicker of hope remains in his eyes. I was desperate to bring him good news -- not more promises.
"You can leave your coffee shop bunker now, Joe," I said. "Good things are happening."
He recoiled with a snarl.
"I've heard it before. The waterfront will be more than scrub brush. A new bridge is coming. Adelphia will open a satellite headquarters. Go away."
I tried to reassure him. "I mean it, Joe. There's an actual bulldozer at Erie Canal Harbor. We're digging out the Commercial Slip, the most historic site on the Canal. We saved it."
Joe raised a weary eyelid.
"That's nice to hear," he said. "But one thing doesn't make up for the rest of it."
"Joe, let it go. You have to heal."
"How can I heal," he grunted, hands tightening around his coffee cup, "when the wounds are still bleeding?"
He uttered three words that sent a chill up my spine: "Horizons Waterfront Commission."
The year was 1989, and Horizons was handed a blank waterfront canvas. The year is 2005, and the waterfront canvas still is blank. Joe took a sip of now-frigid decaf and leaned back.
"Don't zone out on me, Joe," I pleaded. "This guy Brian Higgins -- he's not all talk, like most of them. He went toe-to-toe with the Power Authority and got nearly $300 million for the waterfront. He wants roads and bridges to lead to the waterfront, not cut it off."
Joe sat back up.
"Yeah, I like Higgins," he agreed. "But what about that damn signature bridge? Not gonna see it in my lifetime. Or yours, you aging yuppie."
I ignored that, and carried on.
"There was an image on the front page of the newspaper of a two-towered, cable-stay bridge. It'll be built by 2010, if all goes well."
" 'If all goes well,' " he replied. "Famous last words around here. All never goes well. Or ends well."
"Joe, you gotta have faith."
"I got three words for you, Mr. Naive," he shot back. "The Rigas family."
I staggered back. It was a clean hit. But I had a counterpunch: Tom Golisano.
"The Sabres may even make money this year, Joe," I said. "The game has changed. Hockey isn't a sedative anymore."
Joe snorted in disbelief. His cynicism was earned. He had been disappointed too many times. I needed something more than Golisano and another bridge design.
"Darwin Martin House complex," I offered. "Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece. Restored and rebuilt by 2007. And Bass Pro, going into the old Aud. Yeah, it's pricey -- but it'll bring folks downtown."
He brightened, rose to his feet.
"You're not fooling this jaded java junkie, are you, Yupster?"
"No, Joe. It's for real."
"Ah, I'll believe it when I see it," he said, hunkering back down. "Next thing, you'll tell me the Skyway is coming down."
I had to break the news.
"Uh, Joe -- the Skyway. Higgins says it will one day be history."
Joe cackled and pulled out a tattered copy of "War and Peace."
"Yeah, right," he retorted. "And I'm Angelina Jolie's date for the Academy Awards."