Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Buffalo

I have just returned from a two day trip to western New York, where I conducted about ten hours of family history research.

Just a few observations:

 -- Buffalonians are old.  The median age is 38.6, well above the national average, and close to sixty percent of the population is 35 or older.  In Houston, my home, about 42 percent of the population is 35 or older, and the median age is closer to 32.  The difference is noticeable: there aren't many kids in Buffalo.  There are, however, lots and lots and lots of old people.  They drive Buicks and use coupons at fast food restaurants.

--Buffalo is stuck in a time warp.  Driving from the airport to my hotel, I set the radio to scan the FM dial.  Within a half minute, I'd heard snippets of Billy Joel's "You May Be Right", Queen's "Killer Queen", and Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back In Town": every station is a classic rock station.  And there may not be a place in North America where there are more middle aged men sporting earrings and pony tails.  It's unnerving, standing next to a guy on the far side of fifty and noticing that long and wispy thing curled in the hood of his jacket is not an unusually large piece of lint; it's the trailing end of his 'do.  And nothing will disabuse you of the notion that you'd look jaunty in a little gold earring, than seeing someone roughly your age with such a hoop protruding from his creased, middle-aged lobe.  Not a sight for the weak.  I ate breakfast one morning in a place called Amy's Cafe, a friendly little joint that appears to be run by a collective of gentle souled, Whole Earth lesbians.  I saw an advertisement for a Hertel Avenue establishment called Terrapin Station, "Proudly Serving Your Grateful Dead Needs Since 1988."  Jerry Garcia died in 1995.  Apparently word hasn't reached Hertel Avenue.  I don't know of another place, aside from a few isolated enclaves in Greater Boston and possibly in the San Francisco Bay area, where people even have Grateful Dead Needs.

-- The North Tonawanda police LOVE their sirens.  I was in North Tonawanda for a total of twelve hours this weekend.  In that time, I heard sirens six times.  "Must be a crime wave," I thought.  A quick check of the "Police Blotter" section of the online edition of the Tonawanda News turned up the following offenses from the weekend: a citation for fishing without a license; a citation for driving an uninspected vehicle and for having an inadequate muffler; two DWIs; a charge of second degree harassment; and a charge of third degree assault (which I think is something like giving a guy a wedgie).  Based on the insistent drone of the sirens, I thought the Capone gang was back in business.

-- Buffalonians smoke.  Smoking happens in Houston, but it's an activity that's touched by a deep sense of shame.  You see the smokers, milling like pigeons outside of office buildings, sad little clusters of three and four, slump shouldered and eyes downcast, avoiding the glances of the clean-lunged passersby.  In Buffalo, everybody smokes.  And
they are unapologetic about it, dragging deep and blowing great plumes into the air, tossing their butts with a flick of thumb and forefinger, every man Humphrey Bogart, every woman Marlene Dietrich.  (This is not entirely fair.  First, not everyone smokes.  I noticed no small children smoking.  And there is an interesting subgroup in Buffalo -- call them The New Urbanites -- who mostly work white collar jobs in banking or education and who live in Buffalo because of its fortuitous combination of inexpensive, quality housing, close proximity to Toronto and Manhattan, and ample opportunities for hiking, camping, canoeing and cross-country skiing.  These folks, robust and ruddy as kids in a Komsomol recruiting poster, all drive Subaru Foresters.  They are Unitarians.  I fear them.  Second, there is a grand difference between feeling like Bogart or Dietrich, and being them.  These Buffalo smokers -- from the beer bellied goodtime gals dressed in full Buffalo Sabres regalia to the wizened, leathery little guys perpetually dressed in work clothes, even though they haven't held a job since Chevy shut down the Vega line back in '77 -- they aren't a pretty sight.)

A Komsomol poster.  This one says, "Thank You Comrade Stalin, for our happy childhood!"


Bogey. If he were in Buffalo, he'd be wearing a Carhart coat over a flannel shirt and a Buffalo Sabres knit cap. 
And he'd have a ponytail.

 -- Buffalo is beautiful.  There are the obvious glories -- the majestic Falls and the amazing Niagara Gorge, the ample turn-of-the-last century architecture, the blessed lack of traffic (Buffalo's population density is 727 people per square mile.  Houston's is 3,330 per square mile.  There are more than a million people in western New York, but that's less than a quarter the population of metro Houston, and they are so spread out, you never feel crowded), the char-broiled Nirvana that is Ted's Red Hots -- but the beauty is deeper than that.  There is a resilience here, a commitment to community.  At 2:00 on a Monday afternoon, the North Tonawanda library was filled with people, people reading books, people using the free Internet service, people doing their taxes.  They were out in force, talking to one another, complaining to one another, commiserating with one another.  I saw the same thing in restaurants and grocery stores, this fellowship of survivors.  You don't see that in Houston, where people tend to go from home to car to work to car to drive-thru and home again with a minimum of human interaction.


I have enough material for about a month's worth of entries.  More tomorrow.

3 comments:

  1. Last time I was in Buffalo I saw a kid, about 7 or 8 years old, riding a Huffy with what appeared to be a sucker in his mouth.

    I was driving at the time, but I slowed down the car to tell the youngster that, for safety reasons, he should save the sucker for later.

    Well, it wasn't a sucker it was a cig. I was shocked! I think I managed to blurt something out like, "Stinkin' brat kid! Smoking! Your parents!"

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  2. My mother used to roll down the window of the car as she was driving us to school, and yell at the smoking kids, "You'll stunt your growth with those cancer sticks!" The only reason I never received a punitive swirly in response is that I went my entire junior and senior high school career without ever using the restroom at school.

    I had the bladder control of a god.

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