This is the digital version of Broken Rituals, the futuristic article in No Boundaries magazine, released fall 2021, depicting Buffalo in 2051. Our authors were given a 12 page report compiled by area professors, researchers and non profit leaders about the city we might have by then, if we get to work now. Those authors then let their imaginations run wild.
The entire production was presented by West Side Promise Neighborhood.
This article is presented by Frequency Massage on Connecticut Street in Buffalo’s west side.
(All references to actual persons or actual stories are purely coincidental)

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Broken Rituals

Written by Lauren Zazzara
Illustrated by Renee Helda


Slouching into my desk chair, I feel the bitter rush of black iced coffee sloshing through my veins as I rub the accumulated mucus from the inner corners of my eyes—my morning ritual. As the September sun streams its creamy light through the window, I tap open the Queen City Today news app to peruse our current live stream. Miranda looks predictably gorgeous this morning as she covers a story about Bills pre-season. Viewers, meanwhile, are predictably horny in the comments, the majority of which are focused more on her chiseled physique than that of the Bills’ newly recovered quarterback, who has finally been cleared to play after an offseason spent recovering from the ACL tear he suffered during Super Bowl LXXXII. It’s not surprising that management has secured Miranda’s feed to load first; despite the fact that pre-season is far from breaking news, it’s no secret she’s one of the only reasons why our subscriber list is currently longer than Buffalo Now’s.

I scroll to the next feed, the one I manage, which for the past month has featured solely Pan-Am Exposition 2051 content. However, for the past few days it has simply streamed an endless loop of the same pre-event feature story coverage that most of our viewers stopped watching days ago. But new content is soon to come—a calendar notification pops up to remind me that “Rachel Interview” is scheduled for noon.

The Exposition is in two days, and each beat of my heart I feel is a second counting down to this dreaded interview, the most high-profile of them all—which I know my assigning editor only delegated to me because she thought I’d be excited about it. My steadily increasing despondency has them convinced that I’ve been assigned “too much fluff,” and that this impending interview with Rachel Potter, CEO of Farm2Table, “Western New York’s most delectably convenient food-shopping experience”—who will be giving a major presentation at the Exposition—is sure to snap me out of it. Because, truthfully, Queen City Today would be lost without me, their only journalist with any sort of experience now that they can only afford reporters fresh out of j-school.

It’s already 10AM. Drinking coffee on an empty stomach never does me any favors, but the anxiety-induced nausea this morning makes it impossible for me to swallow anything more solid than a banana, so I mash one up with a fork and eat it like a teething infant. Being a reporter has been nothing like I’d once imagined. Most of our “high-profile” interviewees demand to approve all materials before we go live—and the immorality of it quite literally makes me sick. Yet still I cling to my “Senior Reporter” title as if to a bad relationship.

It’s hard to tear away from a nearly lifelong dream. The summer I turned seven—in 2020—my older sister attended several Black Lives Matter protests. After one particularly chaotic altercation, she returned home trembling uncontrollably from the aftershocks of a Taser still rippling through her nerves. Deemed by my parents too young to actually participate, I clung to the news, and I was confused to see the accounts of national media channels differing so vastly from the stories my sister told. The videos she showed me of rubber bullets tearing gaping wounds into the unprotected bodies of protestors, clouds of teargas choking crowds in the midst of a global pandemic, snipers aiming rifles from the tops of buildings at those armed with nothing more than signs and megaphones. That was the summer I was convinced that I was going to become a journalist, one who would tell the real, truthful stories. Of course, it was the naiveté of adolescence that convinced me that somehow I could tackle a corrupt national media system funded by some of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world.

As I’m brushing residual banana pulp from my teeth, I see a text from my editor pop up on my smudged smart mirror: “Good luck today! You’ll be great. The most important thing is to remember what Rachel means to Queen City. Haha no pressure! :)”

Before Farm2Table became a household name, each of Buffalo’s neighborhoods had a locally owned community garden where residents could purchase fresh produce. But since opening their first farm in some of the city’s empty green space about five years ago, Farm2Table has single handedly taken out every other local garden in the area, buying them out or forcing them to close down entirely. Their strategy was to consistently undercut prices by underpaying their growers, ensuring every other local farm couldn’t compete—and then gradually raising prices once they had effectively formed a monopoly. The 100-percent increase in price for a bag of apples over the years has ensured that I don’t follow that old “apple a day keeps the doctor away” adage.

But it’s not just their prices—shopping at a Farm2Table garden is, admittedly, convenient. Beyond produce, they offer free-range meats, bakery items, fresh dairy, etc. They’ve revolutionized online grocery shopping—customers can request every specific detail of what they want, from “avocados due to ripen in 48 hours” to “70% white meat rotisserie chicken.” With their “photo-synthesis” service, you can simply send in a photo of your grocery list and their shoppers do the rest, delivering it to your doorstep at whatever day and time you select. I’m even guilty of regularly using their “expand your palette” option, where they send you the ingredients for surprise, custom Farm2Table recipes. And as much as I’m loath to admit it, each one I’ve tried has been delicious.

Brief bubbles of controversy over Farm2Table employee rights, price gouging, and monopolizing the local grocery industry have been swiftly popped by publicity surrounding Rachel’s countless volunteer and donation initiatives. And, she has Queen City Today wrapped around her finger. Rachel pays big bucks for us to have a cooking stream on the app utilizing exclusively Farm2Table products. The conversion rates from it are insane, and it is, essentially, the only reason why we are still in business—and she knows it.

Naturally, Queen City Today is starving for exclusive coverage of Rachel in advance of the Pan-Am, where she has promised to present the latest in farm technology: a chemical-free method of expanding the lifespan of produce to a minimum of two months. She has made it clear that she intends to take her interview—and her hefty advertising budget—over to Buffalo Now if she detects even an inkling that the interview is turning sour.

*********I’m meeting Rachel at her loft office downtown, located in one of the largest mixed-use buildings in the area, which also harvests wind and solar power and filters rainwater thanks to some of her generous donations. By the time I’m dressed and ready to leave, the metro is due at my stop any minute. Suddenly, I see a text appear on my smart door from a number outside of my contacts, but the universal caller ID labels the messenger as a Robert Walker.

“I have a really important story about Rachel Potter that I need to share. Please, let me know if you can take the time to talk to me.”

Messages like this aren’t uncommon. Many of them are from people who simply want their fifteen minutes of fame, and most of the time, their stories aren’t necessarily newsworthy—the majority turn out to be petty grievances, acts of revenge, triple dog dares, birthday shout-outs. Therefore, I ignore it and continue on my way.

I run down to meet the bus, which, per usual, is on time down to the minute. Sixteen minutes later, I’m at Rachel’s door.

“Come on in,” Rachel says hurriedly as she opens her office door to me. “Go ahead and make yourself comfortable while I finish getting ready.” She’s standing in front of a mirror, pinning back a few tendrils of hair, checking to make sure her lipstick hasn’t smudged outside the lines.

“Thank you for taking the time to meet with me today,” I say quietly as I make my way into a chair, placing my bag on my knees to disguise my trembling legs. I set my phone into its tripod and check to ensure both of us are in frame and the lighting is suitable. Then I turn on my transcription app, which will translate everything we say in real time and transfer it to a document to be reviewed later.

“I’m really pressed for time, so I’m sorry that we will have to make this as quick as possible,” Rachel says as she sits down at her desk and smooths out her dress. “I had an urgent meeting come up and I have to leave in about 20 minutes. But I’m sure I can get you whatever you need before then.”

“Great, we can get started right away then,” I say and glance down at my notepad, take a deep breath, and press record.

“Hi Buffalo. This is Erin with Queen City Today, and I’m here with Rachel Potter, CEO of Farm2Table, Western New York’s most delectably convenient food-shopping experience. Rachel will be presenting her company’s brand-new food preservation technology at the Pan-Am Exposition this weekend. Thanks for joining us, Rachel.”

“Glad to be here,” Rachel responds with a serenely confident smile that is strangely endearing, a slight gap between her front teeth serving as a reminder—perhaps purposeful—that she is indeed, human. “Yes, I will be introducing this exciting new technology this weekend, and we will be working with our various locations to implement it on all of our produce in the coming weeks. Ultimately, it’s going to help our consumers save money. We’ve all been there when we’ve bought a box of greens with the intention of eating a salad every day for a week, and then, well, life gets in the way. Now, all of our produce will stay fresh for at least two months, so you never have to waste perfectly good food.”

“That sounds like a win-win for everyone, Rachel,” I say, willfully swallowing back down the vomit rising up my throat. “It’s just like you, too, looking out for the best interests of your consumers. Tell us, how do you think this new technology you’re presenting will revolutionize the grocery industry?”

“Well, it’s a patented technology, so of course we are planning to start expanding our locations regionally and nationally so that we can provide this service to as many consumers as possible. We think that it will ultimately encourage more people to purchase fresh produce, because they won’t have to worry about wasting money if they can’t eat it all at once. So, we’re looking forward to seeing the environmental, economic, and health benefits, starting with our community and eventually spreading across the country.”

After a few more minutes of back and forth, Rachel says to camera, “Well, unfortunately I have to leave you all now, as I’m off to an important meeting with the Lake Erie Conservation Consortium. But I’m looking forward to speaking with you all this weekend at the Pan-Am Exposition. Be sure to be at the West Side Stage at 1:30PM on Saturday.” She turns back to me. “Thank you, Erin, and everyone at Queen City Today, for having me today. We’re looking forward to enjoying the fruits of our labor with our city’s shoppers.”

With that I stop recording and let out a deep breath.

“Thanks again, Erin,” Rachel says as she begins packing up her bag.” And we’re still good on our agreement, right? Just send the edited video and article to me before you post it and I’ll get back to you quickly.”

“Sure thing. Enjoy the Consortium meeting.”

“The what?” She looks at me confusedly. “Oh! Yes. I have to head out now, but we’ll be in touch later.”

Of course, I’m aware that she isn’t heading to a Consortium meeting, but all I can care about is high-tailing it out of her office and back into the safety of home where I can eat from the pint of ice cream I’d bought to console myself from the onslaught of deep self-loathing I’d correctly predicted would hit me.

As I’m walking down the stairs back to the bus stop, I find another text on my phone from the same unknown number: “If Farm2Table moves forward with their plans, it will ruin me. Please meet with me. I promise I won’t take more than 15 minutes of your time.”

Strangely, something about the urgency of this message tugs at me.

“I can call you in 30 minutes if you’re free,” I reluctantly responded as I took my seat on the bus. I’m back home with just enough time for a few gulps of ice cream before I set everything up for an off-air recording. The content may not end up being usable at all, but I hope for the best.

A soft, timid, yet low-pitched voice responds after a singular ring.

“Thank you so much for calling me, Erin. I watch you on Queen City Today all the time and I need to talk to you before you publish anything about Rachel Potter.”

“Of course,” I responded carefully. “It’s not a guarantee that anything we discuss here will be published. But I can’t say I wasn’t intrigued by your messages.”

“I’m glad—I thought a true journalistic mind like yours wouldn’t be able to resist a story like this! But really, my livelihood is on the line, so I have nothing to lose at this point.”

“Well, go ahead when you’re ready.”

“I originally owned Farm 54 out on the East Side. I’d been running it for years, and it was popular, too. I knew every person in that community by name, and they knew me. I had regulars who came by each day after work to pick up fresh groceries for dinner. I considered them friends more than anything. But when Farm2Table came along . . . well, I tried to hold out as long as I could, but as you know, it started taking all of the business. At one point Rachel offered to buy me out, but I just couldn’t do it. My customers would think I was a sell-out. So, I closed. But then I realized I desperately needed some money.”

His voice has a pleading edge to it, as if he is desperate for someone to validate his decision. In an attempt to remain neutral, I respond, “So what did you do?”

“Well, I have a pretty scientific background. Studied chemistry in college and all that. And I had had this compound in the works for a while that could extend the lifespan of produce, and I reluctantly made a deal with Rachel that I would sell it to her monthly. We worked up a contract and everything. But of course, it was meaningless to her. She eventually broke every agreement we had. She had her team figure out how to make the compound and just started producing it herself. She even patented it.” He sighs. “I can’t believe I let myself trust her.”

“She’s not worried that you could take her to court?”

“Of course not! She can afford the best lawyers in town, while an attorney fee would bleed me dry, and she knows it. But I have all of the evidence to prove that it’s mine. I saved everything—my notes, experiments, everything. I can send it all to you so you can see for yourself. Rachel’s just banking on nobody believing my word over hers.”

“She is a pretty trusted name around here,” I empathize.

“That’s an understatement! And without that money, I’m done. I don’t know what I’m going to do. My family is on the verge of eviction. But if you share this story and we can just get the right people to care, they can pressure her to pay me out. I don’t know if anyone—even you—will believe me, but like I said, I have all the evidence to prove it. Please, will you think about sharing this before Pan-Am? After the performance, she gives there, it’s pretty much a guarantee that my story won’t get anywhere.”

I see a text come in from my editor: “We decided it would be best to have the legal and PR team handle all the editing, just to be safe. Please send the raw materials when you can.”

At this point, I’m at a loss for words and feel a desperate need to exit the call immediately. Too many thoughts are going through my head, and any more information Robert can provide will only make my paralysis worse.

“Well, thank you for talking to me Robert. Send me what you have. I’ll let you know what we decide.” And I immediately hung up.

For many years, I’d managed to hold onto the belief that my mission, my destiny in life, was to tell those untold stories—until I realized how easy it is to say yes, or no, when it’s just easier than saying no, or yes. I had my morning rituals, my afternoon dissociations, my evening nightcaps to numb the vague feelings of guilt as I covered story after story that either didn’t matter or didn’t tell the whole truth, because at the end of the day, I needed the paycheck.

But suddenly, that same sense of righteous, determined passion that had flooded my entire being at seven years old begins to pulse through my veins, as if I am being brought back to life.

I sort through the materials that Robert has already air-dropped into my files—and the sheer breadth of evidence of his research and experimentation is mind-boggling. My mind is boggled just enough that I grab my phone and begin a livestream to our entire audience, before I have time to think about it twice. “Farm2Table, or Farm2Fraud? We’ve got an exclusive story coming up for you.”