Buffalo, Books & Beer

There was, not terribly long ago, something called the “Buffalo Trail.”  In a way it had everything to do with pioneers, but not of the Laura Ingalls Wilder variety.  The Buffalo Trail was a lecture circuit that grew out of the New England “lyceum” debate scene of the first half of the 1800s, and its regulars included people like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.  The circuit was named after Buffalo because Buffalo was a big deal – it was on the literary map.

Perhaps this is a coincidence, but the “Buffalo Trail” earned its name only a short time before the Queen City of New York State became one of the nation’s largest beer producers.  (See Forgotten Buffalo, Buffalo Spree, and Artvoice for more on that fascinating subject.)  I don’t know if the founders of B3 had this in mind when they set out to bring Buffalo’s beer renascence together with “untapped” elements in Buffalo’s writing-and-reading scene, but it makes their literary endeavor even more poetic.

Two Buffalo writers – Matt Higgins, author of Bird Dream, a book about parachute-less wingsuit pilots, and Brian Castner, author of the Long Walk, a memoir about his time as a bomb technician in Iraq – realized not long ago that the Buffalo literary scene is too much geared toward the “bowtie crowd,” with stuffy atmospheres and intimidating authors, while event organizers struggle to get writers to the Nickel City – despite our supportive arts community, literary history, and charms of food, drink, people, and architecture – because Buffalo is too far off the modern-day circuits.  Or there’s a stigma or something.  Or a curse.  Whatever.

Like the greatest writers, all of whom set out to write the books the wanted to write, Matt and Brian want to bring Buffalo the sort of literary event they’d want to attend (and: spoiler alert: you’ll want to attend this too).  “We just get together, drink some beers, talk about the last book we read,” says Brian.  See the video below for more about their project:

If that convinced you, you can stop reading and donate here:


Meanwhile, I’ll keep droning on for the folks still riding the fence, clicker fingers frozen over “Contribute.”

We all know about Mark Twain (and often act like he spent much more time in Buffalo than he really did); fewer know that William Wells Brown, the first African American novelist, lived on Buffalo’s North Division Street; and very few Buffalonians know about the Buffalo Trail.  By my measure, too few of us know just how many authors live and work in Buffalo today.

And how many do we regularly sit down and share a pint with?

B3 promises to put Buffalo back in touch with the wider literary world, and Buffalonians in closer communion with their own hometown writers – all while celebrating books and beer.

Now, this isn’t a Buffalo-bashing post.  (Twenty-fourteen would be a poor time for that, wouldn’t it?)  Our literary scene is noble and well-supported; it’s a strong branch of the always-interesting always-evolving Buffalo arts scene.  But as Matt and Brian note, our literary events sometimes lack, ah, yeast.

Just Buffalo does great work bringing big-name authors to town, and novelist and Canisius College Creative Writing Director Mick Cochrane, with the help of the Hassett family and other contributors, continues to bring authors who seem to always come shortly before winning an award (like recent visitor Phil Klay) or shortly after (like last year’s guest Tracy K. Smith).  These authors, from Colm Tóibín and Seamus Heaney to Dean Bakopoulos and Joyce Carol Oates, came to define my career at Canisius – their visits were the highlights of the year.  But Just Buffalo woos its authors with huge audiences and huge paychecks (at least from a Buffalo perspective, people), while Dr. Cochrane combines his charm, skills at the genre of “author introduction,” and some rare voodoo which remains an object of mystery to his admirers and, I assume, competitors alike.  But with B3, Buffalo’s literary scene could offer authors a Rust Belt-style opportunity they wouldn’t find in San Fran or New York – a new “let’s talk about books and life and stuff while drinking beer” way of putting on literary events – bowties permitted but not required.  The new Resurgence Brewing Company, which has since its debut this summer kept solid and surprising beers flowing into (and out of) its spacious West Side beer garden, offers the perfect venue.

But if a Buffalo-style lit-readin’ and beer-drinkin’ tradition like this is going to get from beer mat sketch to reality, it will need leadership, an influx of cash, and major recognition in the community.

Luckily, Matt and Brian have the leadership thing figured out.  We can help with the rest.

So, again, click to donate, chip in, get your ticket, whatever.  $5 buys entrance to one of the “spring semester” events; $20, a ticket and a B3 pint glass; and so on until $500 to nab entrance to a session, a pint glass, a t-shirt, signed copies off all three spring semester books, and a dinner in Buffalo with Matt, Brian, and a visiting author before heading to Resurgence for beer and conversation with the rest of the community (who will be jealous, in a neighborly way).

See you on the Buffalo Trail.


Stirling Castle, featuring a lesson in rugby and several aphorisms

St. Andrew’s Day, celebrating the patron saint of Scotland (the one with the jaunty cross), is for many of us at unis across the country a celebration of the end of our first semester’s classes, and the free museum openings and cultural events from the highlands to the lowlands, from Fraserburgh to the Firth of Forth, make this an excellent opportunity to take a break before papers and exams.  With exactly that in mind, I booked a Megabus ticket for Stirling (£4 round trip) to take advantage of free entrance to Stirling Castle, about which I knew nothing, other than that Mel Gibson once captured it from the British.

After a drive of about an hour and 10 minutes (reading the critic Johannes Voelz on Emerson – I couldn’t make a complete escape from Uni) I started off from the Goosecroft bus station below the Thistle Shopping Centre and did my best to find the castle – as always, in Scotland, without a functioning Google Maps.  I managed somehow to avoid the charming, busy, shop- and pedestrian-filled “Old Town” and wandered instead into a grimy fogged slum of massage parlors and solicitors of the Saul Goodman variety, and also caught no sight of the castle – a true feat, as this massive hulk of different stone structures thrown up across seven or so centuries occupies the highest point in the town.  I was expecting something like the dramatic Edinburgh Castle, visible from just about anywhere.  Instead I found a few shuttered pubs and a betting office already open at 11.  But I did stumble on a sight that made me catch my breath – at least I’m fairly sure it was this, and not the endless incline of the cobblestone street: the Wallace Monument appeared nobly on a promontory in the valley below, only a few shades darker than the mist-wreathed hills all around it.

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Edinburgh’s Christmas (or, how I finally found out what a ‘Hot Toddy’ actually means)

Edinburgh is a multicultural city, a cosmopolis, one of the great European capitols.  I often pause around three o’clock on a clear day to catch the sun paint the minaret of the Central Mosque across Potterrow from George Square in brilliant amber and warm beige (and later, I might head to their kitchen for £5 curry).  Friends have reported spending time at a Zen Buddhist priory by the beach at Portobello; and to walk down Princes Street is to hear the pleasant discord of Scots slang canting off rapid Mandarin babble, peppered with Americanisms, colored by the sound of a Zulu choir, and a man playing the sitar (on Sundays) or devilish blues git-fiddle picking (on Fridays).  I compare this with my hometown, Buffalo, home to an overwhelming German-Irish-Italian majority, a vast contingent of African American Protestants, and defined by the family names of its early German and English high-church worshipers.  Buffalo has an old and established Jewish population, of course, and a growing Muslim population – but we don’t yet have Edinburgh’s cosmopolitan culture, nor will we ever have Edinburgh’s history of atheist, deist, or free-thinker thought, dating back to the Scottish Enlightenment.  But in Buffalo, even nominally Christian organizations carefully craft inoffensive ‘holiday’ communications, while the bastions of capitalism swelling to their greatest annual girth proudly plop Santas in the hearts of their consumption-temples, without ever using the word “Christmas.”

As an American, then, I was surprised to find, on Edinburgh’s commercial artery of Princes Street, spotlit signs heralding the all-encompassing “Edinburgh’s Christmas.”  The University long ago established Edinburgh as one of the capitols of the secular world (if not yet the capitol of an independent country) but secular or no, the one thing a Scot’s Scot will never be is PC.  Scots cherish their Christmas traditions (one of which is the hot apple toddy – more on that later).  More importantly: absolutely everyone is invited to their party.


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Two Trips to Glasgow: Adult Jazz, Kelvingrove, and 50,000 Graves

First Contact

Chance found me in Glasgow twice this week.  I had plans to come to the city for a day trip, to walk around and visit the Kelvingrove art and culture museum, but good vibrations led me to buy a ticket to the Adult Jazz show at the Glasgow venue Broadcast last Thursday night – I was meeting the writer Sam Edwards, who’d clued me in to the group – and I prepared to see two very different sides of the city.

Few people walked the wet pedestrian boulevards of central Glasgow Thursday night.  A bit of advice: traffic on the M8 (Edinburgh to Glasgow) is brutal just about every night between 3 and 7.  The Megabus and CityLink drivers know this, too,  but seem to have no way of combating it; nor do their timetables reflect this.  Plan accordingly. Luckily I left Edinburgh at 5 and was in Glasgow by twenty to 8, and, though my Google maps app was fried, I managed to find Sauchiehall.  A few solid-looking locals sparked Drum cigarettes on benches, and young consumers passed me, heading elsewhere; Broadcast offered warm respite, and craft beer.

As a Sam put it, Adult Jazz is the sort of band that makes you reevaluate your expectations of contemporary music – and then immediately to wonder if you’ve been obsession over wanky alt-pop.  The music is new – newness is the first word, the prerequisite to any attempt to talk about the band’s sound.  But push past this and you’ll find a real fluency and a knack for harmony – harmony which comes in some spinning concentrating gyre out of seeming discord.  You’ll find a masterful pop sensibility (in lines and handfuls of bars that tease you with their immediate mass-appeal), diverse rhythms, and something elusive, the quality, perhaps, that fires your doubt while moving you to return to the band, to listen to their album Gist Is, in full, again and again.  (Maybe after one more go-through you’ll have the right words …)

Before Adult Jazz, though, I was pleasantly surprised by two opening acts.

The first (I only heard mumbled versions of the name, unfortunately) proved agile and energetic.  They blazed through pop, reggae, slow-blues, and heavier fare, all tinged with a smart alt sensibility and floating on surprising three-part harmonies.  They fit Adult Jazz well: although the guitarist took most of the lead vocals and the bass players lines would have been called “show stealing” in any other context, there was something immediately refreshing about the act.  Only after the they left the stage, and Sam and I grabbed a Sam Smith India Pale, did we realize that the group had shown no marks of ego whatsoever – much like the music of Adult Jazz, which, before the show at least, was so complete of itself that we couldn’t imagine it coming from “individuals.”

When my mate and I returned from the bar upstairs with our Innis & Gunn lager tall-boys, the trio G-Bop Orchestra (touring with Adult Jazz this season) had assembled in the center of the floor under a disco-ball.  Across the dark room I could see the members of AG and the opening act looking on and grinning.

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From the Griffin’s Nest: On Halloween Sluts and Feminism

I think experiencing Halloween Samhain-style in Edinburgh this year moved me to write again to the Griffin, responding to an op-ed by an old friend, about what she felt was the the “slut” culture of Halloween, and how that (again, in her opinion) works against feminist progress.

I didn’t really need much of a spur, here – I’m consistently appalled when men and women, some waving the stolen banner of feminism, label a stubborn, creaky patriarchy as “progress,” or the status quo as “all we hoped for” or all that the movement can achieve.  And I’m even more incensed when I hear people complaining about “sluttiness” on Halloween.

Samhain – a torch-bearing procession through Old Town, Edinburgh, and an elaborate pageant outside the National Gallery – was a refreshing reminder that Halloween is really all about death, sex, and drunkenness.  Good ol’ paganism.

So, when so-called feminists, or anyone, really, criticize women who dress provocatively on 31 October, they’re either misunderstanding feminist aims or demanding that the world acknowledge their restrictive set of gendered expectations – but beyond that, they demonstrate their total ignorance of the holiday’s history.

Halloween in Edinburgh looked a bit like this. Oh, and there were plenty of women wearing nothing but tree bark and body paint.

I regret that I haven’t written much f late; I’ve been engaged in my course readings, and a (final, I hope) revision of my novel, R.S.V.P.  Expect more posts in the first week of December, though, because my backlog’s been building steadily: I’ll have reflections and pictures from Bonfire Night, Edinburgh Castle, the local folk music scene, and university life.  And, of course, there are a few adventures from the tail end of my stay in Germany that slipped through the cracks – most notably my sojourn in St. Annaberg, Poland, and a learning how to open a wine bottle against a tree by the Rhine in Köln, on the night before my flight to Edinburgh.

As the Scots say (for everything, always): Cheers.

In the meantime, enjoy this pictures from Bonfire Night/Guy Fawkes Day.  #Deathtotyrants

The view of Stockbridge, Leith, and the Firth of Forth from Calton Hill.