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Monthly Archives: April 2011

Get on the Bus

Public transportation. Ohhhh, boy, public transportation. Those who know me know there isn’t going to be anything good coming out of Buffalo for this post.

Buffalo’s public transportation authority, the NFTA, once ran a promotional commercial which featured the President of the Association randomly walking up to people on the street, asking them what they thought of the NFTA services, and getting hearty thumbs up from all the passerby. I was a college student at the time, depending on the NFTA to get back and forth to school, and I always said the same thing about that commercial: If he walked up to me, I wouldn’t actually say anything in response. I would simply clock him in the jaw and move on.

There’s a simple rule regarding the public transit in Buffalo: Those who praise it probably aren’t praising it per se, but rather praising the fact that the system is so small and buses so few and far between that the praise of those from the old commercials – allowing the benefit of the doubt that they are in fact real and not simply actors – is merely for the fact that it’s able to stay out of the way as they drive to work in their cars. Buffalo is the smallest city in the entire world to have a subway system of its own, so there’s that, I suppose. But the subway goes for a six-mile stretch along Main Street. The southernmost stops bring the subway above ground and turn it into a lightrail line for the main leg in downtown Buffalo, from the Theater District to the HSBC Arena. Passengers can ride for free on that stretch.

Fact: Buffalo is one of the most segregated cities in the United States. Another fun fact: The NFTA has been publicly blamed for the city’s problems with segregation, and any Buffalo resident who has ever had to catch a bus through the more impovershed areas of the city can probably tell why. You get a bus an hour at the day’s travel peaks through those parts of town. A wait can be upward of 45 minutes in the early PM hours, and that was before the serious cutbacks began.

You do NOT miss your bus in Buffalo, ever, for any reason. If you do, you have two choices: You’re either going to hoof it or make new plans.

The CTA, Chicago’s public transit association, never did manage to escape my wrath either. But whenever I was in a conversation on the failures of the CTA, I always felt obligated to make my own addendum: The L and the buses may not run on time, but they sure as hell ran, and if you missed the bus you needed it didn’t automatically cause the time apocalypse. In ten minutes, 15 tops, another one would be along soon enough. No, the CTA’s ridiculous inflation rate for a ride isn’t acceptable in the slightest, but the CTA gets the job done.

The CTA is given a nice accent by the Metra, a system of commuter trains which run out to the suburbs. Metra trains only run once per hour, but they are never late and so you always have a good idea of how long it will take to reach wherever you’re going.

People in Chicago have no idea how good they have it with the CTA. The CTA is far from perfect, but if people complain about it too loudly, I dare them to come and try to live in Buffalo for awhile.

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My Return to My First Church

Easter was a bit of an awkward day for me. I spent the night before watching The Ten Commandments and counting the number of scriptural inaccuracies (my computer exploded), dance scenes with beautiful women (my calculator exploded), and scenes which were a boom-chika-ba-ba and three articles of clothing away from being porn scenes (I broke the fingers I was counting on). I was nervous about my return to Salem Lutheran, the church of my youth. It was three or four years since the last time I set foot in the place at all. Since I last visited as a full member, it had been around eight years, two religions, two cities, and two forms of facial hair. I’m well past the point of no return these days, and trying to sit through a traditional church service at all now puts me at a level of discomfort which is rivaled only by the feeling I get when I’m in a high place.

My family’s friends, people who had unquestionably accepted me as one of their own back when I was confirmed, welcomed me back with open arms. It could have been enough to make me forget I was ever gone in the first place, but during the service I was struck with the familiar absurdity that helped drive me away from organized religion in the first place: The fact that, despite Christianity being an all-inclusive faith, I was not allowed one of its most revered sacraments – communion – without some arbitrary members only coat. As I was long removed from the church, earning the right to communion would involve months of confirmation class lectures again. Fortunately, I have no intention of reinstating my Salem membership, so the whole thing doesn’t matter.

It still came as a bit of a shock after my experience at Wicker Park Grace, which always practices the inclusiveness it preaches. I was always welcome to the communion table there despite having never gone through an official confirmation process, or in fact even being a follower of the religion preached there.

Salem holds an Easter breakfast, which was my purpose for showing up. After talking to most of the regulars who knew me, it was apparent my folks hadn’t spent a whole lot of time telling their Salem friends about my return. Everyone was surprised to see me, and more so to find out I would be staying indefinitely. Just like my first public appearance on St. Patrick’s Day, about half the statements that came out of my mouth were about how the economy in Chicago had tanked. Some asked the whereabouts of my sister, who will be moving to Ithaca from Brooklyn in a couple of weeks. No one had any idea that I wasn’t there just for the holiday.

I was lucky to see my old friend Melissa, who had apparently abandoned Salem herself a few years ago and only popped in every now and then. She said she was very frustrated with the lack of changes that occurred at Salem until the recent arrival of the new minister. After the service – half of which I spent helping clean up after the breakfast, something I was instinctively inclined to do per my old duties at Wicker Park Grace – I roamed the church grounds a little bit, and I ran into Melissa and my mother having a conversation about churches. Melissa was explaining that even though she was away from Salem for awhile, she couldn’t shake the fact that the people there knew her, and it was where she was raised and the place she considered her home.

In the respect of the people there who know me, Salem is definitely my own home too, and I certainly intend to take up the other members on their invitations to stop by every now and then. But the difference between Melissa and me is that she was always a lot more confident in her faith than I ever was in any faith. Of course she would consider Salem her own spiritual home. It’s silly, with all she’s been through, to wonder if she has ever questioned her faith. I know for a fact that she has. But her ideas on religion and spirituality apparently were enough in line with Salem’s for her heart to have never truly left the South Buffalo church.

My interpretation of Lutheran Christianity may be very different from the one Melissa picked up from Salem. I always received conflicting messages – was I saved through good works or through baptism? I also picked up the idea that questioning was a bad thing, and my confirmation class (in which the minister probably set his all time record for parent-minister conferences in regards to my attitude toward it) was always more focused on knowing what the teachings were rather than why they were. I had a somewhat lackadaisical attitude toward religion when these factors were all added up, even though I considered myself a good Christian. In the young adult and adult Bible classes, I was contentious and I exchanged barbs with the other people in it more than once. We had a pompous holier-than-thou discussion leader who always followed some of the wackier ideas propagated through the Christian media – in particular, he was one of those idiots who believed Harry Potter led to Devil worship. I really can’t consider Salem a spiritual refuge.

It was what led me to try to find a new place that accepts non-Christians when I returned to Buffalo. I really don’t consider it a home or a refuge anymore, just a nice pace to visit and talk to people sometimes. In the meantime, my contently troubled soul is still housed at Wicker Park Grace back in Chicago, which is one hell of a drive every Sunday. But it’s way over there that I can ask about things that disturb me, where I was around friends who are also spiritually orphaned. In nearly every sense, it’s still the place I consider my home.

Book Borrowing

I’ve come to the theory that you can’t appreciate the quality of a good public library system until you find yourself using a system that’s entirely different. I don’t plan to do a whole lot of complaining about the systems in either Chicago or Buffalo. Both of them are very good at what they do, but it can be quite a shock to see just how the concept of borrowing books can differ from one place to another.

Chicago’s system is more expansive than Buffalo’s. But this, of course, can easily be expected. Chicago is the third largest city in the United States, and Buffalo probably hovers around number 60 or so. So it’s a given that Chicago’s system is going to have more books and more copies of any given book as well. Chicago’s system has a bit more of pretty much everything; the main library branches in downtown Buffalo and the Chicago Loop are respectively two stories and ten stories. The Chicago system has more computers, a media room for kids, and a nice mini-theater where I once lucked out enough to hear author John Updike speak.

The Buffalo system never was good about holding events, but it does contain a nice coffee shop.

Unfortunately, Chicago has so many people that problems have sprung up from the library system not being quite successful enough. Chicago’s main branch has well over 100 computers, all of which will be occupied unless you show up whenever the library opens every day. If you try to get a computer on a Sunday, you may be stuck waiting upwards of two hours on a day when the library is open for only about five hours. Although, with the wide selection of books available, you’ll have plenty to read while waiting for your turn on the computer. If you miss your session, it still counts towards the two hourlong sessions per day the system allows you, and if you don’t accomplish everything you need to in a single session, you’re not going to be allowed any extra time to finish. Even if you got extra time, it wouldn’t matter because there’s still going to be someone waiting in line behind you anyway. The Buffalo system has less than 100 computers, but there is very rarely a crowd beating you down for a turn on the computers either. When your hour is up, it’s easy to go up to the help desk and ask for a few extra minutes.

This contrast manifests itself even further if you try to get onto a waiting list for a reserved book. If a book is popular, you can still get it delivered to the local branch in Buffalo within about two weeks, tops. In Chicago, I don’t think I’ve ever waited less than a month. I order The Beatles’ Revolver album and waited six months. When I received word that I had s reserved item waiting for me, I didn’t actually know what it was, as I had not reserved anything in awhile and forgotten I even ordered Revolver in the first place. I assumed after the first few months that my name was removed from the list for some reason and accepted the fact that I would never see it. But it is quite a testament to how good the Chicago system is that they were so determined to get me that copy of Revolver, even if I forgot about it.

Chicago’s main branch is an impressive brick building with statue owls perched on the roof, while Buffalo’s gets lost in the shuffle of faceless office buildings. But Buffalo’s smaller, localized branches make up for what the downtown branch lacks. Buffalo’s localized branches look like they were all built from the ground up with the sole purpose of holding books in mind. They feature open spaces and walls lined with books, with plenty of room to move around. Chicago’s local branches are crammed with equipment, with the people basically in the way. Some of the local branches in Chicago are little more than storefront businesses which happen to lend books.

The way the systems handle fines is where the Buffalo system really establishes itself as the front runner. The Buffalo system understands poverty and transportation problems and is more than willing to accommodate and forgive. When I first left Buffalo, library patrons were allowed access to their accounts even with fines on their cards, as long as those fines didn’t exceed five dollars. Since leaving, the system has apparently allowed people to incur fines of up to ten dollars. Once the limit is maxed out, your account is suspended, which means you can’t borrow anything; you’re still allowed to use the computers.

Chicago’s system should understand poverty, but it holds a much better grasp of gangster strongarming. You are simply not allowed to be late in returning any of your items. If you are, your account is cancelled until your fines are completely cleared, and in Chicago an account suspension means you can’t use any of the available services, not even the computers.

Bicycling Against Nature

I’m finally on a bicycle again, free to go almost anywhere in Buffalo. The experience of cycling in Buffalo, though, is proving even more different than cycling in Chicago than I thought it would.

I always had the nagging feeling that riding a bicycle in Chicago was a little different than riding one in Buffalo, and with the differences so fresh in my mind now, I can finally place my finger on it. It isn’t just the cosmetic, man-made atmosphere that’s different, but the natural environment as well.

Chicago is in Illinois, a midwestern state on the northern end of the great plains. New York is a lot more mountainous, with long expanses of road that dip and swoop through the rural areas, and Buffalo sits at the edge of Lake Erie as a small cranny at the foot of one of the many mountain ranges in the northeast. The artificial surfaces in the cities themselves reflect the general terrain – Chicago with its slightly tilled land slants and Buffalo with it’s numerous hills.

It’s easy to alternate between pedaling and cruising in Chicago because a cyclist can cruise for however long he can stay on a bicycle. Once you start forward, there isn’t much to stop you. In Buffalo, how long you can cruise depends on how much velocity you can pick up for an uphill ride. The land layout means you can potentially cruise for longer, but you also have to ride up the occasional slope, which means pedaling well after your legs are tired and aching, when you would like nothing more than a decent slant so gravity can take over and you can give your legs a brief respite.

Buffalo and Chicago are also both well-known for their extreme weather. Chicago was nicknamed The Windy City back in the 1870 for good reason. (The nickname even picked up an acquisition myth of its very own which is officially taught and widely believed in Chicago.) But Buffalo’s wind isn’t without punishing hardships of its own. The wind on average is actually faster in Buffalo by about 1.5 mph according to national weather statistics, but that doesn’t mean Chicago goes easier. The wind in both cities just plain hates your guts. It will attack you differently in both places, but it’s similar in that it does everything it can to discourage even a staunch cyclist.

When the weatherman on TV tells you the wind is coming from a certain direction, that has no application to anyone outside. Wind swirls and gusts all around on the ground level, and what this means to a cyclist is that it will always feel like you’re riding against the wind. On numerous occasions, I’ve likened going into the wind in Chicago to casting a spell that allows you to walk through walls, then attempting to walk into a cliff just as the spell is beginning to wear off. Chicago’s wind is more focused and relentless, always blowing at your face with a fury, and it will never, ever let up. The closer you get to Lake Michigan, the harder the wind blows. There is a very small pocket in Chicago at the intersection of Franklin Street and Jackson Street – right where the Sears Tower sits – that acts like a giant outdoor wind tunnel, even on days when the wind is blowing at barely a whisper everywhere else in the city.

The wind in Buffalo does let up on occasion, but unless your timing is always in tune with the weather, it will be blowing at you pretty hard when you’re trying to climb a hill. When the wind does let up, it usually does so to switch the angle it’s hitting at. The wind in Buffalo slashes and cuts from every conceivable front angle, like it’s researching you and changing attack strategies like a professional boxer. Like Chicago, it blows harder the closer you are to the lake. When you get to downward slopes, however, the wind can act as a brake.

Cycling in both cities has different obstacles – I’ll be writing more about them in the future – but like everywhere else with a bike path, you just have to adapt as best as you can.

The Inevitable Post About Chicken (“Buffalo”) Wings

My first experience with chicken wings (Buffalonians will NEVER refer to chicken wings as “Buffalo wings,” they’re just “wings” or “chicken wings” in a formal setting) in Chicago was a nightmare I couldn’t wake up from.

I had journeyed up to a nice drinking hole in Wrigleyville where they sold chicken wings for a quarter every Monday, except those Mondays when the Cubs were playing home games. But it was February, so I wouldn’t have to worry about the Cubs for another month.

First of all, a single order of wings in Chicago is apparently just eight wings, not ten. I can only wonder what double and triple orders in Chicago are. But missing two wings from my single order was nothing compared to being asked what kind of sauce I wanted on my wings. I literally swallowed a scream, staring blankly for about ten straight seconds before choking out the phrase “What are my options?” After the bartender read off a list of sauces, I reluctantly ordered the buffalo sauce. It seemed to make sense because these were, after all, buffalo wings. After awhile, I was treated to a basket of wings which were about the size of my thumb.

The bar I was in had notably been given an award for the best wings in Chicago.

I had no clue how to order chicken wings. In Buffalo, ordering chicken wings is a three-word phrase before the waiter or bartender smiles, nods, and walks away to deliver the order. The three words are the size of the order, how hot you want it, and the word “wings.” My family typically ordered by saying “double wings hot.” It’s given a bit of variety by the size and heat: Triple mild wings means you want a triple order of chicken wings with a mild sauce. Wings, medium single means a single order with a sauce that has a kick but won’t burn your tongue out. The wings themselves are considerably bigger than your thumb. In some of the more popular spots – like the Anchor Bar, their birthplace – they can be the size of your fist.

I’m not complaining about something one city does well that the other doesn’t today. I’m only explaining a small difference in the food culture, but one that becomes important if you’re from Buffalo. Chicago sees chicken wings as just another bar food to munch on while the Bears beat whatever unlucky team they’re up against this week into the turf. In Buffalo, however, a Chicago native might be surprised at the elevated spot Buffalo culture holds for these simple treats.

Chicken wings in Buffalo are serious business. People are capable of holding long, drawn out arguments over the best places to go for wings. We argue the best way to cook them, the best sauces to use, the best way to reheat the leftovers. We argue about the best foods and beers that go with chicken wings. (Duff’s, the Anchor Bar, Just Pizza, and La Nova are frequently mentioned in fights over the best wing makers.) It is Buffalo, after all, which is the home of the annual National Buffalo Wing Festival, which draws chicken wing makers from all 50 states and 34 different countries. A funny note about the Festival is that it only began in 2002, after being inspired by the 1999 movie Osmosis Jones. In the movie, Bill Murray boasts about having tickets to Buffalo for a chicken wing festival. That’s right – the chicken wing is so much a part of the local culture that the city took it for granted, blindly overlooking a fantastic tourist festival idea until someone saw a children’s movie and asked “Hey, why isn’t there an actual festival for chicken wings?”

Chicken wings are very rarely eaten as appetizers or snacks. Most of the time, we order them alongside a pizza because they go together so well, with a good beer on the side. Wings in Buffalo are part of the cultural lifeblood, and the people won’t have it any other way. We love our wings, we’re happy to show them off, and a traveler from Chicago might be shocked at the number of suggestions he receives when he asks about a good wing joint.

When ordering chicken wings in Buffalo, stick with the three-word phrase I taught above. If you ask for “Buffalo” wings, the server will look at you like you’re nuts. The Buffalo Wings were a professional roller hockey team housed in HSBC Arena in 1999.

Bit by the Big Apple

People in New York live their lives in the towering shadow of New York City, and the relationship between the upstate cities and New York City is love/hate on the best of days. At its worst, well, there are secession movements in both parts of the state. Upstaters resent the association between New York state and New York City for a lot of reasons.

Almost 20 million people live in New York state, and only around 8 million live in New York City. Even so, those upstate believe – not without reason – that the state government is concerned primarily with New York City’s interests. I’m known for being anti-tax to an extreme, and my often fiery rhetoric against taxation began when I learned that tax money from Buffalo was being funneled into New York City to pay for sports stadiums.

I thought I had escaped the shadow of New York City when I moved to Chicago, but it turned out that Chicago has a lack of self-worth which should come off as sickening to anyone from New York.

Buffalo is a city which, since its decline, has been searching for itself, trying to carve out its new identity. People from Buffalo have a fierce pride in their hometown and are very quick to cut any ties to New York City attributed to it when they travel. Buffalonians want to establish the fact that their hometown has a distinct identity from New York City and will go out of their way to make sure you know the difference between downstate and upstate.

After doing that, Buffalo people tend to wave off New York City as a fact of life. They don’t care about us, and we don’t care about them. We’re comfortable in our own skin, doing our own thing the way we think it should be done.

Chicago is the opposite. Chicago already has an identity, but is hell-bent on ridding itself of it. Mention you’re from New York – doesn’t matter what area – to someone from Chicago and watch their eyes glaze over in awe. Chicagoans see New York City as a kind of exotic destination akin to Tokyo or Paris and constantly aspire to be more like those places.

Chicago isn’t aware of the fact that it is already a well-known, world-class city. People know about it. When you tell a traveler about it, they can make immediate connections to the Sears Tower (and no, no one calls it the Willis Tower), the Chicago Bulls, Al Capone, and a lot of the city’s other attractions.

One of the things that truly struck me about Chicago is how often the idea of being more like New York City came up. The reference to New York City was always – and I do mean ALWAYS – made. Forget the Chicago has a cultural identity all of its own. Architects talk about the Chicago School of Architecture and economists frequently defer to a way of thinking known as the Chicago School, which is popular among libertarians. There is a style of blues music called the Chicago Blues. Forget the role Chicago played during the prohibition era as one of the capitals of bootlegging, which played a big role in getting prohibition repealed. Forget the great fire, which resulted in Chicago rebuilding itself in its current form, the 1893 World’s Fair, Upton Sinclair writing The Jungle, and the role during the Civil Rights movement.

Maybe Chicago is just too spoiled and whiny to realize what it truly is. But no matter what, it’s this attitude is that made me see that Chicago’s famed broad-shouldered toughness was simply a propagated myth. Maybe it’s just where I’m from; a friend of mine who had moved to Chicago after living a spell in Seattle said she was a little intimidated by how tough Chicago is. But to someone here in blue collar central, it will take maybe a week before Buffalo native in Chicago says “Is this it? Whining about how they don’t resemble New York City? THIS is the broad-shouldered attitude of the big, tough Windy City?”

This Bicycle Life

It took some doing, but I finally found a way to exercise: A two-mile walk through the back roads – or as back road as a road can get out in the boonies, anyway. It twists along the cliffs of Cazenovia Creek and eventually takes me to Seneca Street. The downside is that is really beats up my feet.

I’m missing my bike. Not only would I be able to exercise with it, but having learned of my easy access to Seneca Street, I finally have a direct route into the city. Also, it would save me the blisters that are sprouting up. But bicycle season is finally upon the city – not that it ever actually ends for people like me – and so I look forward to gliding in and out of Buffalo on two wheels.

From my location, the best way in and out of Buffalo is by bicycle. It is, in fact, pretty much the only way since the public transit in Buffalo might as well not be there at all. The one problem that give me pause for thought, though, is the distance. Riding down Seneca Street provides a direct link to downtown Buffalo, but I have to get there through West Seneca and South Buffalo. Basically, I’ll probably be on my bicycle for an hour before I get anywhere which is worth getting off my bike for. Getting to a place in North Buffalo would take some time.

It not that I’m not used to riding such long distances on my bicycle. I did work as a messenger for awhile, after all. But my normal bicycle exercise route in Chicago was up and down the Near North and West Sides. North on Damen or Western Avenue, east on Addison, south on Clark, back west on Chicago. To Wrigley Field and back. It covered probably some five or six miles and it took a little over an hour. I usually rode this route when I had nothing else to do that day.

My way in and out of Buffalo will probably end up taking me the same amount of time it took me to ride from my West Town neighborhood in Chicago to Wrigleyville and back. This means any participation in Critical Mass is going to have to wait until I’m more centrally located.

My greatest concern is that Buffalo is simply not a bicycling city. Cycling is starting to show up in Buffalo in small pockets, and there are now public bike racks. But there are very few bicycle lanes, and the culture here is virtually nonexistent. This is a far cry from Chicago, in which a few thousand people would show up colorfully dressed for Critical Mass – a large bike ride that covered around 20 miles or so on the last Friday of every month.

The people in Chicago weren’t the most receptive to cycling, but most of them at least acknowledged the existence of cyclists and drove accordingly. In more conservative Buffalo, the people are still adjusting to the fact that someone would prefer a bicycle to a car. One of the mental adjustments that goes with the appearance of a bicycle culture, to a motorist, is that his vehicle is literally capable of killing a cyclist and crushing his vehicle completely by accident.

People defensive of motorists will point out that bicycle safety goes two ways, and this is absolutely true. Bicyclists always have to be on the lookout, and certainly there are times when an accident is completely due to the fact that the cyclist got stupid. This argument, however, usually doesn’t take into account the fact that cars are a lot bigger and heavier than bicycles, and so many of those who make it come off as trying to completely deflect blame for accidents. In Chicago, I got into accidents, and one person tried to accuse me of purposely moving in front of her car. This, of course, would raise the question of just why I would try such a thing.

In many ways, though, I feel lucky to have begun cycling in Buffalo before moving to Chicago, because in Buffalo the responsibility of safety is more on the cyclist than it is in Chicago. Motorists aren’t trained to keep an eye out for cyclists because there are fewer of us around, and so the cyclists always have to be on edge, riding like every motorist is an idiot who isn’t concerned with our safety. Which, since so few of them are trained to keep an eye out for those goofballs on the bikes, they’re really not. They’re trained mainly to look out for the other cars on the road.

Hopefully, this will change more in a few more years. With the high gas and insurance prices, more people in Buffalo are beginning to consider cycling as an alternative form of transportation. But with a notoriously stubborn and conservative old guard, Buffalo cyclists are going to have to put up a hell of a fight.