A Month Back in Buffalo, the City Formerly Known as …

I didn’t miss Buffalo until news of Snowvember crossed the Atlantic, and found its way onto a BBC report.  The autumn blizzard didn’t put Buffalo on the map, but it did give my European friends a better understanding of New York State geography.  For months, each introduction had followed a predictable pattern:

European: “So, where are you from?”

Me: “Buffalo, New York.”

E: “Oh, cool!”

M: Cool?  No, there must be some – 

E: “Like, Manhattan?”

M: “No.  Like as far from Manhattan as Edinburgh is from Paris.  Like, Niagara Falls.”

E: “Ohhh – Niagara Falls.”

Once Snowvember hit I’d introduce myself as a Buffalonian and meet with a kind of reverence (even from the Scandinavians!).  Scots would say, “Ye had sum radge snow there, eh?”  “Looks like it,” I’d say – and I wished that I was back home, shoveling it.  I read my old friend and colleague Kevin Daley’s narrative account of Canisius College’s “snow days for days,” and what has already become a legendary snowball fight in the Canisius quad.  It was a clear November night in Edinburgh – balmy, a Buffalonian might say, in the upper 40s Fahrenheit.  I poured myself a mug of hot chocolate.  It felt like a lie.  By late November, after a trip spanning five months and four countries – with no breathers in between – I was ready to come home.

Photo courtesy Robert Kirkham, The Buffalo News.  For more photos of Snowvember 2014, check out the BN gallery.

Tim Wu, writing for the New Yorker, didn’t have to work hard to convince me that airlines want to make (economy) passengers suffer.  In a recent article, Wu argued that the relatively recent phenomenon of “Economy Plus” (and the rumored advent of “Economy Minus”) expedited boarding, seat preference, pre-ordered meals, and other price-tagged superfluities require more  to attract customers than their inherent incentive – they require airlines to disincentivize the plain old economy ticket, by making the standard flying experience as uncomfortable as possible.  According to Wu even the Red Baron enjoyed more leg-room in his open-cockpit than cramped United customers in 2015. Airlines continue the inefficient practice of boarding the seats in order, from only one end of the plane, to encourage upgrades.  And the number of airlines that keep the free booze flowing – a luxury necessary to catch any sleep in the stiff-backed seats, or to trick oneself into being entertained by in-flight fare like the abominable Lucy, to which I subjected myself on my return flight to Buffalo – is steadily dropping.

The promise of a few pints with a professor the night before my flight out of Edinburgh blossomed into a mild bender, which surprised no one, and helped me dig a sleep-hole deep enough to leave me feeling all-around decent when I woke, pre-dawn, to catch two buses to the airport.  The Stobart prop-plane from Edinburgh to Dublin met all my expectations for a commuter flight; but the AerLingus flight from Dublin to JFK was tolerable only because it was two-thirds empty, which allowed the beleaguered lot on board to wander aimlessly and stretch ourselves across rows of empty seats.  Enduring a lighting scheme as gray and comfortless as an understaffed blood-test clinic at five in the morning, I entered a six-hour insomnia-trance.  I thought about “Buffalo things” – Jim’s subs, Bob and John’s pizza, Marco’s sangwiches, plenty of snow, chopping down a Christmas tree.  Throughout the previous six months I had corresponded with other Buffalo expats – we all joked that we had chosen to leave our hometown at the very moment, almost down to the month, when Buffalo became the new darling of “Underrated Cities” viral listicles and entered a period of greater optimism, fueled by the medical corridor, downtown development, the Pegulas, and young people moving back to the city, than any of us could remember.  But I wasn’t thinking much about the New Buffalo – if I was thinking anything, zombified, anaesthitized, and moving to a soundtrack of the Strokes, it was about the comforts of the Old Buffalo.  I grit my teeth and willed myself through a five hour layover at JFK, my mind fixed on what I knew would be waiting for me when I landed for the last time at 11pm that Friday night: a reheated Hungarian banana pepper, stuffed with sausage, garlic, and cheese – just one of the many Buffalo luxuries I’d been missing for six-months.

Blue Monk was popping, but not too packed.  After passing out at home and waking up late Saturday morning, I picked up a six-hour shift for my friends at the Village Beer Merchant.  Conventional wisdom would have had me hit the sack, try to get back on a normal sleep schedule.  But I had just one month in town – I meant to use up all of it.

So once the gang rolled up to Buffalo’s premier craft beer bar, I was heartened to find Old Rasputin, an Imperial Russian Stout (my favorite) from the never-disappointing Cali craft brewery North Coast, on tap.  Malty, bitter, rich, dark chocolatey, with hints of tobacco, the stout was everything I wanted after months of crisp but unadventurous German pilsners and playing-it-safe basement-temp hand-pulled English ales.  Barely had the froth pooled in the bottom of my glass when we were off again – to Mulligan’s, to Nietzsche’s, into a monthlong string of spontaneous North Buffalo reunions in Grandma Mora’s and Del Denby’s, odd side-trips to places like Grant Street’s Gypsy Parlor, many happy returns to the old favorite Founding Fathers, and mornings drinking bottomless coffee cup at Bertha’s Diner.

Not much has changed in the Buffalo bar scene since I left in July.  Exceptions include 716, a promising outpost in the burgeoning Pegulaville/Canalside money-magnet; the suddenly popular Gypsy Parlor; and local bartender Keith Miller’s innovative “Christmas Shot” (Frangelico, Bailey’s, RumChata, and Rumplemintz shaken over ice, for anyone interested).  But rumors abound – about bars, brews, and things totally unrelated – so many that I expect my next trip back to Buffalo will be marked more by wide-eyed exploration than comfortable nostalgia.

Most of the development buzz centers on Hertel Avenue – fueled in large part, I’m sure, by the steady flow of good news from our beautiful North Park Theatre, which on Veterans Day revealed its street-facing stained glass windows hidden for the past half-century.  Within a week of landing in Buffalo, I heard:

  1. That the former Empire restaurant would become an upscale sports bar (think North Buffalo 716).
  2. That the former Empire restaurant would in fact become a craft brewery.
  3. That Sterling Place, a beloved neighborhood tavern known for its burgers and hard-to-find beers, would become the latest acquisition in the Shatzel food and booze empire, a beer-lovers’ bar in the style of Blue Monk.
  4. That Lloyd’s Taco Truck would open a brick-and-mortar business in what is now Caramici’s restaurant (though the Caramici dessert deli will remain in its current location next door).
  5. That the Lexington Co-Op (currently on Elmwood) would open a second location in the former CVS between Wallace and Starin.

Add to this the continued success of Belsito, a charming husband-and-wife team wine bar in mid-Hertel and the Public House, a craft beer paradise further west; the steady climb of Del Denby’s, long known as a latrine serving alcohol (to anyone), now drawing the under-30 set with its free billiards, Genesee beers, and Slim-Jims; the coming transformation of the Hertel Village Beer Merchant from a grocery into a tasting room and bar; and the addition of the Daily Planet coffee shop on Parker – and you have a street getting younger, sleeker, more diverse, a Little Italy/Arabia that could become one of the most livable neighborhoods in one of the country’s most livable cities.

Hertel Avenue in North Buffalo, after a white-out blizzard that started late on Thursday the 8th and lasted into the early morning of the 9th.
Hertel Avenue in North Buffalo, after a white-out blizzard that started late on Thursday the 8th and lasted into the early morning of the 9th.

And that’s just Hertel.  I won’t spend any more words on the advent of The Public (and the apparent downfall of Artvoice, at least according to the Buffalo News “In and Out” list for 2015), the invention of ice bikes and a new interest in curling; or renewed talk of a Bills stadium on the waterfront.

I watched the Sabres lose last Friday to the Florida Panthers.  Or, rather, I watched them ensure their future loss – my father and I left the First Niagara Center after the first period to watch the Canisius Golden Griffins lose to Monmouth at the Koessler Center.  A return to Buffalo wouldn’t be complete without at least one crushing athletic disappointment.

But, as we left the arena, still hoping to catch a win, I marveled at the new ice rink, built next to the waterfront with a nod to the old Erie Canal.  It was packed, with a line that had actually grown longer since we had passed it coming in at 7.  Downtown Buffalo – on a frigid night – and there was a line longer than a city-block, all young people waiting for something other than a hockey game or a concert.  A painted mark visible under the bundled skaters identified what was once “center ice” at the old Aud – and I flashed back to another bitter winter day, during the Aud’s long deconstruction – a day when downtown Buffalo was, as on every other day in my memory, totally empty – except for us, my friends and I, four teenage delinquents in a post-Industrial wasteland, a cold urban jungle that would look, to an outsider, like a place in the grip of nuclear-winter.  (In fact, I often find myself describing Buffalo to outsiders in just those terms.  “So, what’s your city like?”  “Well have you ever read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road?”)  With no one to catch us – no one in at least a mile, in any direction – we hopped the seven-foot fence, climbed the piles, and disappeared into the bowels of the caved-in Aud, a place we knew primarily from our parents’ stories.  Later that afternoon, with night coming on, we rode back to North Buffalo on an empty subway car – we hadn’t paid for our tickets – carrying one of the Aud’s iconic orange seats.  Just another day for four young punks with a big empty city to play in.

Five years later: people were shouting, a happy pointless irrepressible sort of shouting – as they taught themselves curling, or whizzed past the novices on ice-bikes below us.

Buffalo, I thought – the city can still surprise us.  By the time we reached our car parked under the skyway, I’d caught myself.  Buffalo can still surprise us?  What an absurd, revisionist thing to think.  That’s not something anyone could or would have said ten years ago.  Buffalo was a city of sureties: you could be sure of snow, irrational optimism about sports, hard-earned cynicism about government.  You could be sure of your own local pride and your own local derision, in great quantities and in equal measure.  You could be sure of pretty good food, and great friends who’d never leave.  If you did leave Buffalo, you could be sure of finding another Buffalonian at least within a few miles of wherever you wound up.  None of these sureties have changed.  But the Buffalo I rediscovered on a snowy mid-December midnight had a few beautiful surprises for me.

Now I’m heading back to Scotland.  The national Buffa-buzz notwithstanding, I expect that my future international acquaintances will soon return to the widely held belief that Buffalo is a borough of New York City.  I wish I could have one more impromptu reunion at a Hertel dive – I wish I could check a few more of Buffalo’s recent developments off my must-see list – but another full month wouldn’t be enough to satisfy me on those counts.  I can be satisfied, though, to expect more changes the next time I touch down in Buffalo, whenever that might be.  I’ll always be able to count on the people, the food, the weather – the agony and ecstasy of Buffalo sports fandom, the quiet smiling misanthropy of Buffalo politicians – but I’m also part of the first generation of Buffalo expatriates who can expect the Buffalo they find again to be better than the Buffalo they left.

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