September 5, 2010


Baseball, blues, brick & bakeries in Buffalo

Buffalo is the kind of city you could love. The winters might be cold but the people are so warm.

Local columnist Donn Esmonde wrote on Friday that it should become the permanent home for the National Comedy Hall of Fame, as a solution for how to develop a part of land that is currently up for debate on the city’s Canal Side neighborhood.

“No city has better claim to the Comedy Hall of Fame than Buffalo, which has been the butt of more jokes than perhaps any other place in America,” he said. “Getting it here would be our revenge on the rest of America, a classic lemons-to-lemonade turnaround, a way to take our reputation and make it work for us.”

It’s true that I had never heard anything particularly nice about the place. I knew the winters were freezing beyond belief and other than that, I had only heard Buffalo talked about in negative comparison to Niagara Falls nearby, so that I came to associate it as the nasty armpit that was unfortunately close in geographical proximity to one of the unofficial natural wonders of the world.

That’s unfortunate.

I ended up there after five nights of camping in Roxanne in secluded spots, so being in a big city and in my own room inside a house was a welcome change of scenery. I arrived at Luigi’s house sometime after 4 o’ clock in the afternoon and we marveled at seeing each other in the States, for once. Usually, we hang out Mexico. I’ve known him for about two years, ever since we became friends on the island when he came and stayed at the hotel and was one of those few, special guests with whom I truly, truly bonded and with whom I hung out, as if we had been friends forever. Even when he stopped staying at our hotel and rented a place on another part of the island, we kept in touch and he would come over for dinner with some of my other friends or to parties where I was invited. He is one of the easiest people in the world to be around and you can talk to him for hours and hours. Stories, ideas. Ideas, stories. Stories, ideas and observations.

Before I got there, he warned me several times not to be alarmed by the neighborhood. It looks rough but it’s fine, he assured me. And it was. I wandered along the streets around his house with Rennie a few times and yes, I saw lots of ramshackle houses with chipping paint and unkempt yards, but I got the nicest smiles from people hanging out on their front porches. A block away is an Italian family bakery that looks like a rundown, abandoned building until you walk in and climb the stairs and see the glass case filled with pastries and the best bear claws in the world, which we kind of indulged in one morning. Then, about a mile down the road from him is where one of the really nice, really hip parts of town begins. It’s called Elmwood and it’s full of tree-lined streets with grassy medians in the middle and solid, imposing mansions lining each side, reminding one of the steel industry that helped build Buffalo back in the day.

That’s how Buffalo is: a mix of rough and polished but all of it seeming to blend together into one, beautiful, working combination. I broke my three-night rule to stay at Luigi’s for four nights, kind of justifying it by the fact that I was going to spend my fourth night with another Facebook friend who I met about a year ago, because Luigi had given her my contact info to look me up when she was on the island for vacation. But on the night that I would have moved from his place to hers, her apartment was full with her nieces, so Luigi told me to stay at his for another night— or two; it didn’t matter to him.

And so we hung out with a lot of his friends, most of whom he has known since grade school and who call him Louis, and I got to meet the gal he is seeing and hear how she was living in California and had more or less put down roots there, when she decided to return to her Buffalo hometown to raise a family, so that now she is nearly a decade into her homecoming and starting a new business. I also got to meet his brother and his sister, who are still settled there, having also raised children and stayed put to care for their elderly mother. And everywhere we drove, Luigi could point out a place and say, “That place has been there 100 years,” or “My friend owns this place,” or “This hardware store is a real Buffalo landmark. The guy that runs it is the best.”

After about three days of this— packed baseball games and blues shows, and long, long walks past the historic houses and around the lake and along the river, and being around all these people who clearly had such a fondness for this gritty city that I had always heard such negative things about, I asked Luigi if it was just the fact that he is a native who has so many friends who are also natives that I felt like a lot of natives still lived there, happily settled, or if it was really one of those cities that kept its residents close and content.

Actually, he said, a lot of people are leaving Buffalo and the population is going down. The business and property taxes are too high, he said, so no one can afford it and everyone is just doing what they have to do to get by. He’s right. This article talks about the hit that Buffalo also took when the manufacturing industry took a dive, and according to 24/7 Wall St., it’s the No. 1 Dead City in America, which the report authors apparently determined after analyzing 50 years of data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

But when people come back, as Luigi has done summer after summer for several years now, he said, they find the warmth of the people to be extremely welcoming, which this article completely backs up, even posing the question: is Buffalo getting better as it gets smaller? There is also a vastly different impression to be had in the late days of summer, as opposed to the bitter days of winter, Luigi said. The cold, snowy months are every bit as bad as everyone says, he told me (which is why he flees for warmer soil every November to May), and “people forget that it’s an entirely different animal in the summer.” Outdoor cafes on the docks. Boats in the water. Summer festivals. Live music. He and I ate twice at a place called Pano’s and we could just tie Rennie to one side of the terrace and there was always a breeze coming through and Rennie always had a spot of shade and a cup of water, and it was perfect. I could have stayed there all day.

I also couldn’t remember ever having met so many honest, genuine people in one go. I had the most meaningful, open conversations there with almost everyone to whom I was introduced. There was enormous interest in my project, and so many questions about how I was doing it, and so many complimentary words of encouragement. In return, people were candid with me, talking about their lives in great detail: past tragedies, yearnings, hope, dreams, fears, goals, what’s important, what’s not important. It was like the Land of No Walls and in a really good way.

On the morning of my departure, Luigi came into the kitchen to bring me a small, wrapped package that had been placed on the front porch, between the screen door and the front door. I opened the card to find a handwritten note from his sister, wishing me well and telling me that I was her hero for doing this trip of mine, and inside the box was a selection of scented soaps for me to use during my travels. And the weather had just changed overnight, so that winter was clearly nipping at summer’s heels, and I had to borrow a Buffalo sweatshirt just to walk Rennie, because I had not stocked my winter wardrobe yet, but the sun was shining and I didn’t feel cold in the slightest.

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9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Stephanie Cheatley
    Sep 5 2010

    You have perfectly captured the reason people enjoy their lives despite a hostile climate. If you’re locked inside all winter your only choice for quality entertainment is making real connections with real people.

    • Sep 6 2010

      Thank you for the nice compliment. You might have just given my project at least a tiny bit more focus.

  2. hillary
    Sep 5 2010

    congrats! you made me want to visit Buffalo! The city board of tourism should hire you.

  3. SirenaSteve
    Sep 6 2010

    Sweatshirts? Winter wardrobe? Does Roxanne even have a heater?

    • Sep 8 2010

      No, not in the camper, she doesn’t. Just the cab.

  4. Brad Wareing
    Sep 8 2010

    I just love your writing. I am so bummed I missed you by a day.


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