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By Ron Churchill

It's almost a year now since I went mental in the lightning and began plotting my escape from Niagara Falls.

I'd thrown in the towel weeks before. I'd quit my job, found work in Buffalo, and I had to get out. Yeah, I felt a little guilty. I was bailing out. My job had been to report the news.

But there is something a little strange about Niagara Falls, N.Y. I think you know what I mean.

The deeper I looked at the city, the more hopeless I felt. I was a reporter. It was my job to find the news, to go through countless reels of microfilm in the middle of the night, to learn that Niagara Falls had been going downhill long before I was born.

It was part of my job to discover exactly why Niagara Falls is in the plight it is in.

It's true that I was wearing blinders -- that I was in Niagara Falls to look for problems. I'm sure there are many nice things about the city. But I was in Niagara Falls to gather evidence, to try to find the reasons why the city is in such economic turmoil.

I'll admit my story is quite biased. I wasn't focused on Little League games and chicken dinner news.

I wanted to know why, when I walked down Niagara Street, I could see a booming metropolis on the other side of the U.S. border. I wanted to know why I had to wake up to gunfire outside my Sixth Street apartment.

I wanted to know why I kept hearing stories that began with "20 years ago" -- when Third Street was so crowded you could barely walk down it.

I studied government corruption investigations from decades past. I drove around the Love Canal district -- talked with the few people I encountered. I searched for clues, watched them rebuild structures adjacent to the canal site.

I went to meetings where Army colonels talked to us about Niagara County's radioactive landfills. I spoke with lots of local officials.

And all I could see were problems with solutions so massive that I couldn't believe the solutions didn't simply melt as soon as they were put into effect.

At the coffee shop or the local diners, the main topic of conversation seemed to be the state of the city. Residents complained and complained, but they tended to focus on one thing or another when trying to explain why the city was so screwed up.

It was the massive decline of heavy industry after Love Canal. It was government corruption or EPA standards. It was the continuation of the Mafia presence that had taken its Niagara Falls root in the early half of the century.

It was this. It was that. My head was spinning most of the time as I learned more and more about what had happened here and what continued to happen.

Federal prosecutors fed my brain, backing up my belief that organized crime -- for which Niagara Falls is so notorious -- was still rampant in the city.

And then there was Sixth Street.

On the outside, it looked like a regular, two-story apartment house. But I was in the upper -- a nice, clean apartment with a good view of the street.

I could see the little boy nearly every day. He was probably three or four years old but small for his age. He hid behind the big tree when people started yelling or fighting. He watched them very carefully.

When the fighting got really bad, he would dart back down the street and into his house.

His attraction to the space near my apartment was the old typewriter near the big tree. It was a cheap plastic typewriter that needed electricity to make the keys hit the paper. He liked to play with it.

I'll bet the typewriter worked. I took a close look at it one day. But first, there was no electricity near the tree, and second, there was no paper in the typewriter.

It just laid on the grass next to the big tree. It was there for months and months.

So he'd play with the keys, even though his actions didn't give the satisfying report of steel hitting paper rooted to the platen.

The boy was very quiet. I never saw him cry or complain about anything. He'd just type and type, staring at the platen, as if his thoughts were winding up on invisible paper.

At some point in his life he must have seen someone typing, seen the end result: A white sheet full of black marks -- strings of words.

The typewriter stayed there nearly the whole time I lived in Niagara Falls, along with all the garbage and trash along the fence lines, in the alleys, in the overgrown plots where houses used to stand before they burned down.

We never talked, me and the boy. I usually try to talk to kids when I pass them, but I didn't with him. It's because the boy would just stare at me, and I'd stare back. It was like we had a secret. If I was leaving for work, our eyes would meet and lock -- usually for about 10 seconds -- before I got into my car and drove away.

In addition to my computer, I had a couple of typewriters in my apartment, and I wanted so bad to give the boy the IBM ActionWriter that I hardly ever used. I wanted to give the typewriter to his mother and tell her that I would teach the boy how to type, how to type out easy words and maybe make a sentence. I would have taught him for an hour a day, free of charge. But I didn't do that because I really didn't know his family. I didn't know how they would take it, if I offered them a typewriter and told them I would teach the boy. I mean, that would have been kind of strange, I guess.

I hope someday the boy will learn how to type, and how to read and write. But I'm not sure that he will.

In some ways, Sixth Street was kind of cool for me. Nobody really bothered me once they knew I lived there, and I met some pretty interesting people. Since I'm single and have no kids, it was an okay neighborhood for me. But if I had been married or something I'd probably have been worried about family safety.

I really got a kick out of the tourists who somehow found their way into our zone -- which was, and still is, a moderately economically depressed area. At the least.

Glancing around nervously, ducked low in their cars, the tourists would drive quickly, searching for a way out, a way back to the safety of the park, the Falls. Fast. Anyway, that was my impression.

The lightning storm brought the message to me quite clearly. It came crashing down one night after I'd spent about six hours of my own time doing research for a story about possible government corruption.

I'd really been racking my brain for a few nights, trying to put the pieces together and build a solid case, or a solid story. There's a slight glitch when I work as a reporter. When I write something, I have to be able to prove it when it comes out in ink the next day. If I'm wrong (and I've been wrong), I agonize over it for days.

The problem with this particular case, and with the path that I was on, was that it required so much research and evidence-gathering that there was no way I could get paid for it. I had to do a lot of the work on my own and write about other stuff during the day.

The other problem was that I had to live in an area that had been devoured by the problems I was trying to write about.

Believe me, Niagara Falls is best studied from the outside.

Anyway, I realized that I was more or less chained. I was cornered into a position where I could not work the way I wanted to work. So I made an assumption that may or may not have been true.

I assumed that because I was doing the most important part of that work for free, then nobody else really gave a crap about finding the truth anyway. At least, nobody seemed willing to pay for it.

Maybe I'd been spoiled by the long leashes I'd been given earlier in my writing career. Who knows.

I knew I could make a difference. I'd done it before in other places. Could I maybe help make Niagara Falls just a teeny bit better?

I couldn't do it under the circumstances, and a peek down the road didn't look that great either.

I was learning about the problems too quickly. I was drowning in a sea of massive, nearly unimaginable puzzles that were way too big for me to tackle. Niagara Falls is like that. I though a lot about the boy with the typewriter. I went mental in the lightning.

It was an interesting episode. I was in a frenzy, typing at my home computer with thunder pounding all around me. The lightning seemed like it was striking my house with each hit. The more feverish I became, the harder and faster I typed. The lightning became more and more frequent.

I lost track of time. It was very late. I was going berserk on the keyboard as the storm hit its peak. It felt like the lightening really did strike my house -- a tremendous crack of thunder -- and I just stopped. I sat straight up in my chair and I said it. "I'm not ready for Niagara Falls. The mess is too big and things are too backward."

I got work in Buffalo and immediately felt better knowing that I was spending some time in a city that actually had a codified city charter. But I stayed in the Falls for several more months.

I wasn't complaining anymore. People would give me their theories and I'd just nod and nod. Smile politely and agree.

I found an apartment in Buffalo but I still come to the Falls quite a bit. There are things about Niagara Falls I really do like. I just can't remember any right now.

Now, in Buffalo, people still give me their theories about Niagara Falls, and I nod and nod, knowing that I probably know more than what the newspapers say, and hoping that someday I'll be back.

But not until I'm ready to tackle Niagara Falls.

Ron Churchill's website is