Buffalo Unbound

City of Great Neighbors (and Cat People)

Yes, you’ll find upstanding citizens and goodhearted people everywhere, just like you’ll find sociopaths and tail-pullers. But I do believe Buffalo’s designation as the City of Good Neighbors, where a true friend lends you his last pair of long johns, is not only earned but deserved. The examples go on forever, from residents returned to their homes in eleven days and not the six weeks federal agents said it might take after the plane crash, the well-documented community assistance and generosity shown to victims of disaster such as the Amherst family left homeless by a mudslide and a Kenmore clan who lost their home and family dog in a Christmas Eve blaze, to the unrecorded acts of humanity performed on a daily basis for friends and strangers alike. When Extreme Makeover: Home Edition shot an episode in Buffalo last fall, over 4,000 volunteers turned out, including many local craftsman. It was the largest number the TV show has ever seen and more than triple the number they typically attract in other places around the country.

One trait in particular I feel necessary to highlight is that when a butcher calls out “Who’s next?” in Western New York, five people don’t yell out their order as is the case in Me First Manhattan where “Excuse Me!” serves as a direct threat rather than a polite request or an apology. Similarly, the height-challenged don’t stealthily move to the front of a waiting crowd as if they’re just trying to see into the display case when they’re in fact strategically positioning themselves to catch the eye of the next available counterperson. No siree, when the “next” call goes out at Wegmans supermarket people look around to see who is NEXT. Meantime, the old or infirm will almost always be ushered ahead in case they’re in a hurry to get to a washroom. The employees at Wegmans are also terrifically pleasant and when asked for help, instead of proffering one of those vague sweeping arm gestures, will actually take you directly to the item you’re searching for. The staff also has a fine sense of humor, as evidenced by the routine of my friend’s son, who liked to glue silver dollars to the floor in front of the beer coolers on Saturday nights. On Fortune Magazine’s list of “100 Best Places to Work,” the family-owned supermarket ranked third this year and has been in the Top 10 for the past eight years.

Similarly, it’s with dignity that people shovel their driveways and mow their lawns along with the yards of their older relatives. Yes, some folks hire a service, but none would brag about it, well aware that personally attending to these tasks is a badge of honor rather than something to be looked down upon as a form of labor beneath them, including those with good jobs and more degrees than a thermometer. Just the opposite, shoveling is often hailed as the secret to longevity after sponge candy. Stories about plucky old people almost always contain a line about how they were still out clearing the walk at age 92. “I finally said, ‘Grandpa, at least wait until it stops snowing so you don’t have to go right back out and do it again. But he wouldn’t listen. And the Bills were playing the Patriots at one o’clock.’” In fact, some people take such pride in their snow removal skills that upon finishing the clearing out part they use the shovel to go around and edge their masterpiece.

Meantime, if you’re wandering around a parking ramp in Buffalo helplessly clicking your key with the hope that your vehicle will call out to you, rest assured that not one, but several perfect strangers will offer to drive you around in search of your car, the author says from experience. Rotarians are particularly dependable for this activity, and talented at locating my make and model.

By United States standards, Western New York has been settled for a long time. Before police stations were organized, fire brigades were formed, hospitals were built, phone lines erected and snowplows roared through the streets at dawn, people had to look out for one other and form networks of protection. And even as local services evolved, if you were an immigrant, a minority, or from the lower ranks of society, they weren’t necessarily there to ensure your safety and well-being.

Next, the area is steeped in agrarian roots, and if your barn was on fire or the family had typhus, it was the nearest neighbors who determined whether or not you survived. Thus it wasn’t a good idea to do anything to piss off said neighbors, even if you didn’t like their politics or religion or music all that much. Nor was it a good idea to hold a grudge because their dog made peeing on your pachysandra appear to be a job that he was getting paid to perform.

My South African born husband is astounded that people in the Midwest walk into each other’s homes uninvited. What does he think the word “Yoo-hoo!” was invented for? Certainly not just to be a beverage. Furthermore, as most Buffalo bedrooms contain an electric blanket, one rarely risks interrupting couples having sex on the kitchen table, even with their socks on.

Winters are protracted, or as Samuel Johnson said about Paradise Lost, “None ever wished it longer,” and deadly storms on the eastern end of Lake Erie hit hard and fast. We are all too well aware that Mother Nature has stacked the deck and she’s no one to fool with if you value Father Time. Car trunks contain a shovel and blanket. A Buffalonian’s last words are rarely, “Hey y’all, watch this!” except perhaps in the ice fishing community.

If you’re caught on the wrong side of a storm and need assistance it’s just as likely you’ll be dependent on an ordinary citizen as a platoon of rescue workers. Similarly, a stranger in trouble may knock on your front door or car window. It’s for this reason that if you call and wake Buffalonians in the middle of the night, they insist that they weren’t sleeping, because you’re probably stuck somewhere and they have to come and get you and don’t want it to appear to be an inconvenience. Remember how you decided who to be friends with as a kid based on pool ownership, well this is the criterion for making adult friends (assuming you don’t have a large Italian family)─who will come fetch you in a storm?

Bowling remains a popular sport in Buffalo because you stay put while the ball automatically comes back to you, without anyone having to chase after it. Throughout its history, Buffalo has never been a transient town. Families tend to stay in the area for generations. Residents sit out on sprawling front porches. In fact, few cities have porches this size or as many of them. Neighbors know what you’re up to and with whom. Big Brother is watching via the earliest known social networking site–good old-fashioned gossip, making the world a smaller place since 500,000 BC.

It’s been said that Buffalo isn’t a small city or even a small town, because of its famous one degree of separation, but merely a large living room. Even the paper, The Buffalo News,despite its coverage of world and national events, feels more like a village chronicle by including an appeal to The Lancaster High School Class of 1965 for volunteers to help celebrate their 45th reunion, a save-the-date for the South Buffalo American Legion chicken barbecue, tips for family fun, a report on a lawn tractor stolen from a garage, a long list of birthdays, and plenty of space for locals to chime in with a point of view about what’s going on at home, across the nation, or around the world. There are problems and solutions─when cinnamon toothpaste irritates (try Magic Mouthwash), excessive dog scratching (Listerine, mineral oil and water in equal parts), and a spirited debate as to whether a basement or first floor laundry is best. If your tastes run more to the racy and ribald, you’ll need to turn to the Amherst Bee police blotter, which diligently tracks the nefarious doings of scheming squirrels, marauding raccoons, attacks by psychotic deer, naked people sprinting through backyards, geese tapping on library windows, lawn ornament decapitations and disappearances, and even the occasional shirt caught in a blender. Criminals be warned: Western New York is a place where the police still capture evil-doers by tracking their footprints through the snow.

When I sat down to speak with Charity Vogel, daughter of Buffalo News reporter Mike Vogel, it turned out her father once worked with my uncle Jim “Never-bring-a-knife-to-a-gunfight” Watson at the Buffalo Courier-Express. When I was 10-years-old I’d waved the two men off at the Erie Basin Marina as they set sail on a training exercise aboard the Norwegian tall ship Christian Radich. In other words, Google Earth isn’t watching Buffalo area residents so much as everyone they know from work, church/temple/mosque/synagogue, school, sports, and the cry baby matinee. Trips to the mall or stops at gas stations almost always involve running into acquaintances. Therefore, do not perform smash-and-grab robberies, leave the scene of an accident, or think that nude sunbathing, cross-dressing, or a karaoke addiction can be kept on the down low. Your parents and/or children will know about it in the time it takes to say the rosary. And definitely don’t have an affair in Buffalo. My sources tell me that one needs to go at least 20 miles out of town. But Baltimore is even safer. There’s a saying about small towns that just as easily applies to Buffalo: If you don’t want anyone to know about it, then don’t do it.

It’s not easy for cats and dogs without homes or caretakers to survive our Wuthering Heights winters. The stray pooches that once populated the area are largely gone, having been taken in, joined the wild packs roaming Detroit, or else traded their fur coats for Ray-Bans and a life in the Sarasota sunshine. However, there are an estimated 100,000 feral felines and that’s where the Cat Ladies come in. Unfortunately, “Cat Lady” is often used in the pejorative as in “Crazy Old Cat Lady,” possibly because it sounds like “Bag Lady.” But it shouldn’t be and they live among us as teachers, toll collectors, nurses, carpenters and Scrabble champions. In fact, many have Master’s Degrees, PhDs, and prettily appointed homes, granted, with lots of cat bric-a-brac. A small percentage of men even fall into this regal cat-caring category, who work tirelessly to fix and feed strays living outdoors year-round, rescue their kittens, get them veterinary care and place them in good homes.

For me, the true nobility of the cat lady is in her willingness to care for Persians and Himalayans, felines with hippie-length hair, and lots of it. By all appearances it seems their only occupations are to eat, sleep, shed and poop themselves. I’m just thinking that you may as well help out around a kitty hospice.

It’s easily possible to fill every day volunteering at the SPCA, local shelters and clinics, and attending the Feral Cat Focus Dinner, City Kitty, the ABC (Animal Birth Control) luncheon, the Crohn’s and Colitis fundraiser, and many good-hearted folks do exactly that. Meantime, Operation PETS accepts strays twice a month on “Freaky Feral Fridays” for spaying and neutering.

Most of the benefits are held in February and March, right before “kitten season,” when everyone would otherwise be too busy with hands-on rescue work. My favorite event is where the cats actually climb up to Jesus in “suffer the little children to come unto me” fashion, but on all fours. It was at this particular silent auction, where between a three-story cat condo and twin hemp scratching posts, I was surprised to find a gift basket filled with analgesics and cough suppressants? Did they know I was coming?

My aunt had twelve cats at one point. She wasn’t supposed to shelter that many felines in her apartment and so when the landlord came by she traded on the fact that they all looked alike and so long as they stayed about four in a room with a few under the beds, she could get away with saying she had only five. Something similar happened in my friend Julie’s Italian Catholic family. Her grandmother had twelve children, which was not all that unusual for Buffalo back in the day, but they lived on a street with German families and didn’t want to appear déclassé, and so only four kids were allowed out to play at a time, also under the assumption that by looking fairly alike and moving around quickly, they couldn’t be told apart all that well.

Along with my former Sweet Home teacher Kathy LeFauve, my Aunt Sue is now busy

full-time with cat rescue work, and so she no longer raises the exotic looking sable-colored, golden-eyed Burmese. I have to admit that I miss going to cat shows with her, where as a kid it was my job to bring Bloody Marys around to the judges all morning. Analyzing cat coats and features was obviously incredibly stressful work. But nowadays Aunt Sue always has a houseful of adorable foster kittens waiting for good homes. A retired English teacher, she writes up their Purrsonality Profiles in brilliantly creative and impressionistic prose, which has resulted in a

100 % adoption rate. Most begin with “Perfect Pussycat Companion”…as I understand that the word “pet” can sound a controversial note in cat circles.

“Those who say that we are in a time when there are no heroes just don’t know where to look,” Ronald Reagan declared in his first Inaugural Address. He went on to say that they can be found among farmers and factory workers and people on both sides of the counter. “They are individuals and families whose taxes support the Government and whose voluntary gifts support church, charity, culture, art, and education.” And cat shelters, I might add.

Aside from its several nicknames such as “Queen City,” “Nickel City,” and “City of Light,” Buffalo is not known by any catch phrases the way Beirut was “The Paris of the East” and Nashville was “The Athens of the South.” Buffalo is not called “Gateway to Eden, NY─ Home of the Original Kazoo Company Factory, Museum and Boutique Gift Shop,” even though it is! Or else as the first stop on the road to nearby LeRoy, NY, the birthplace of Jell-O! Likewise, one doesn’t often hear St. Moritz called “The Buffalo of the Swiss Alps” or Aspen, Colorado, referred to as “The Buffalo of the West.”

That said, although there are cities named Buffalo in many other states─Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, West Virginia, Wyoming and two in Wisconsin─when a national newspaper or magazine says “Buffalo,” they almost always mean Buffalo, NY, home of God’s Frozen People.

Despite the fact that the weather is cold for a good part of the year, Buffalonians are a warm, generous, high-spirited, and neighborly people, proud and protective of their turf. This is easily visible at any home game of the Buffalo Sabres, Bills or Bisons, and something my husband experienced firsthand a few years back. As mentioned, my husband was born and raised in South Africa, though his ancestors were Dutch, which immediately raises the question, if people from Poland are called Poles then why aren’t those from Holland called Holes?

Unfamiliar with the exalted level of hometown pride, he went around asking anyone who would listen, “So why did people first settle here and decide to stay?” This is somewhat understandable if you appreciate that my husband didn’t grow up pulling on wool hats, covering the windows with heavy gauge plastic and scraping his car windshield, thus rendering him out of his element in the Great White North. And his visit was during a particularly bad winter. However, tribal loyalties prevailed and constituents immediately translated his question into: Why does anyone in his or her right mind live in Buffalo? Leave it to say this was an unpopular conversation starter, or rather, it made him about as welcome as a Saturday turd at Sunday’s market, as we like to say in Western New York.

Along similar lines, on minus ten degree days Buffalonians do not go around saying, “Is it cold enough for you?” This is considered to be just plain stupid, like saying “aye” to Canadians. Buffalonians take advantage of winter by skiing, snowboarding, skating, snowmobiling, tobogganing and sledding; crossover activities occasionally necessary to get the mail or walk the dog. This past winter the first annual Powder Keg Festival offered tubing, snowshoeing, broomball, a snowman building contest, live music, a soup and chili cook-off, a Saint Bernard-led parade, and the world’s largest ice maze. The Guinness Book of World Records judge on hand, Amanda Mochan, also judged locals as being “really friendly.”

And it’s safe to say that cold weather capitals such as Western New York can take credit for the surge in scrapbooking. In pursuit of this perfect indoor hobby one spends hundreds of dollars on albums, craft punches, stencils, inking tools, eyelet setters, heat embossing tools, personal die cut machines and templates, vellum quotes, stamps, RubOns, edging scissors, pens, lace, wire, glitter, fabric and ribbon, or a desktop publishing and page layout program with advanced printing options and scanner if you want to go the digital route, only to realize that a January getaway to the Caribbean would’ve been less expensive.

Despite a growing season that falls squarely into the category of being stingy, locals work hard to create award-winning gardens, oftentimes by starting those seedlings on the kitchen countertop in Dixie riddle cups way back in February. In fact, Buffalo has the largest garden walk in the country. And it’s free. Take that Forbes magazine Misery Index! In fact, the garden walk has been so successful that it was recently transformed into a five-week festival.

Songwriter Jack Yellen (1892–1991), who emigrated from Poland when he was five-years-old and grew up in the Buffalo area, scribed “Happy Days Are Here Again,” which became Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s campaign theme song in 1932, and that of subsequent democrats, until it was co-opted by Reagan Republicans in 1980. Yellen was always amused by the fact that he wrote the song in just thirty minutes for a relatively unheard of movie called Chasing Rainbows released a few months before the stock market crash of October 1929 marked the onset of the Great Depression.

Although we proudly claim our share of standouts and eccentrics, the denizens of B-lo don’t have a tremendous interest in the peccadilloes of politicians and rehab stints of celebrities. We’re more apple brown betty than crème brulée. The Buffalo and Erie County Library has a first edition of American writer Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (a.k.a. Life in the Woods) in its fabulous rare books collection. However, Thoreau is not necessarily a hero in my hometown. Despite his belief in the divinity of manual labor, Buffalonians know that Thoreau was wrong about a lot of things. First, you don’t traipse off to live alone in a cabin in the woods because

a) it’s boring, and b) you might freeze to death. And let’s rather call Nature Boy’s cabin a dorm room because he walked into town almost every day and regularly went home to raid the cookie jar and have his laundry done. Plus his mom delivered care packages containing homemade meals, pies, and doughnuts every Saturday.

Thoreau most famously said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Now one could just as easily say this about Bills fans, but I beg to disagree, and believe that those fanatics outside in subzero with DOLPHINS BLOW painted in blue across their bare chests are passionate, engaged with humanity, and leading lives of thunderous hope, not only for that Super Bowl ring, but for their children to have good lives in a world devoid of poverty, disease and brutality. And they’re thankful not to be home to the Detroit Lions.

Second most famously Thoreau said, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears.” Now picture a high school marching band stomping around outside on a crisp fall Buffalo day with the bassoonist turning at the 20-yard line, timpanist heading off toward the concession stand, and all the while everyone is pounding out flats and sharps exactly as they please.

Henry Thoreau died from bronchitis after going out alone on a late night expedition in a rainstorm to count the rings of a tree stump. Shortly before he passed away his aunt asked if he’d made peace with God. Thoreau told her that he didn’t know they’d quarreled. This seems a good place to mention that he was a Unitarian, and helped to advance the belief that man was a part of nature, not separate from it. However, he was such a devout Unitarian that he had to resign being Unitarian because he felt being Unitarian precluded him from being a joiner.

No, Buffalonians have it right. Join the club and pay the dues. Find others. Celebrate your joys and mourn your losses together. Stick with the herd. Swim with the school. Stay with the flock. And my mother says to wear a hat.

© Copyright 2010, Laura Pedersen. All rights reserved.