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Grocery Store Loyalty

Grocery Store Loyalty

The grocery competition in Chicago really wasn’t much of one. The two major stores there were Jewel and Dominick’s. While Jewel was the more prevalent of the two – and let’s be honest, by far the more convenient if you were in need of an emergency CTA pass – Dominick’s was the clear cut above. After moving into the little West Town apartment there which came to define my time living there, a Dominick’s soon opened up six blocks away, and grocery shopping became easy. My previous option was to jump the Western Avenue bus and take it the distance from Chicago Avenue to Addison Street, so having a brand new Dominick’s within walking distance was a wonderful thing.

This last Christmas, with my immediate family now based entirely on the West Coast, my sister and I compared grocery store notes as we drove through her adopted hometown of Sacramento. One of the big chains down there is Raley’s, which almost came off as two separate stores. If anything, the Raley’s I visited in Sactown bore more than a passing resemblance to Ghetto Tops, a Tops at the Abbott/South Park intersection that my family avoided at all costs. Seattle has three major chains: Albertson’s, Safeway, and Fred Meyer. Albertson’s and Safeway are both glorified convenience stores, so they’re not even worth writing about. Fred Meyer is an excellent store by any standard, and it’s my usual go-to when I’m in need of a particular product that can’t be found at Trader Joe’s. But as I talked grocers with my sister, we both ended up coming to the same conclusion: We miss Wegmans. “I think we got the best of the grocery stores in Buffalo,” she said to me.

That sentiment isn’t unique, either. A few months ago, I was having a chat with a woman I was thinking of asking out. She was a native of Rochester, and when I mentioned that I was from New York, the first thing she asked me was about my grocery store loyalty. I gave her the shpiel: The only objectively good chain I’ve found in the Puget Sound Megalopolis is Fred Meyer, and even Freddie’s at its best is half of Wegman’s at its worst. A friend of mine in Chicago was born and raised in the Syracuse area, and a deep appreciation for Wegmans was one of the things that bonded us as upstaters.

Of all the unique qualities Upstate New York natives are instilled with, loyalty to a grocery store might be one of the oddest. But as my sister and I came to find out after living outside of the state for awhile, we were born into the cream of the crop when it comes to local grocers. The two of us had the fortune to be raised in an area in which Wegmans isn’t some great phenomenon, but something normal. The quality and selection and service in Wegmans is less a treat than something we’ve come to expect from every grocer in the country, and although we’ve both been living outside of New York more than long enough to understand we’re never going to find it again, we’re still downright upset that we’re not getting it.

We learn the hard way the common refrain of Upstate New York natives: There’s no Wegmans. It’s weird to be moving far away from New York and be bragging to people about a chain of grocery stores, but quality is quality, and this is what its come to: A freaking GROCERY STORE may be a tangible reason why the population of several metropolitan areas in New York aren’t smaller. (Wegmans worked this into a TV ad a few years ago, and managed to cop Alec Baldwin into the spot.) The people there have developed a loyalty to Wegman’s normally reserved for ubiquitous national brands like Coke or McDonald’s. No matter how far we get from our roots and how much good the regional chains are, they never quite manage to get out from the shadow of Wegmans.

Upstate New York expats never forget our roots. We wear our Empire State qualities with pride. When the Buffalo Bills recently played their first playoff game in 18 years, I watched the game with a group of 250 other fans, most of whom could recite the lyrics to “A Mule Named Sal.” The Bills, however, are merely a visual representation of our nativity. Not everyone can claim to be a football fan, or even a sports fan at all. All of us know that one of the things that binds us, even above sports, is a loyalty to a grocery store.


St. Patrick’s Day

St. Patrick’s Day

What if I proposed a certain holiday where we celebrated Africans by dressing up in plastic clothes that were the colors of their flags, eating chicken and waffles, wearing things that said “Kiss Me I’m African,” and basically turning the day into a giant frat party where we celebrate the worst of the Hollywood stereotypes about African-Americans? Maybe the answer to that question depends on your political leanings: If you’re a liberal, you’re probably already calling me a racist because this idea IS as racist as all fucking hell. If you’re a conservative, maybe you’re saying that if we’re going to do that with African-Americans, we should be doing it with people of every race.

Here’s a news flash: We’re already doing it with at least one other ethnicity. (My hypothetical liberal up there might argue that we’re doing it with two, since there’s a strong case to be made that Thanksgiving is the same thing.) The Irish are dragged into the spotlight on St. Patrick’s Day for such a holiday for such a thing. St. Patrick’s Day is considered a minor holiday in Ireland. Although the Irish who immigrated to the United States brought it with them as a way of holding on to their home, America has turned it into the ultimate excuse for public drunkenness and debauchery.

I don’t think it was my parents’ intent to instill me with any sense of pride in my lineage, but it’s something that happened. I’m not sure it could have been helped: Buffalo is a VERY Irish city, and I was raised in the most Irish part of it. The South Buffalo Irish District served as the city’s Irish ghetto during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the influence of the old Irish guard there was still very powerful when I was born. A lot of the residents were from the Motherland straight or first-generation born in the United States. There are several Irish dance troupes, Irish flags line a section of Abbott Road, and the street names are written in both English and Gaelic. Although St. Patrick’s Day in Buffalo is stretched out into a season and everyone has a lot of fun, there’s a traceable solemnity underneath all the festivities. The Irish population in South Buffalo knew its past well and everything during St. Patrick’s Day took place in honor and recognition of our history, in both Ireland and America.

At one of the first Irish festivals I ever attended, I stood staring at a wooden door sign, trying to decipher it. It said, “now hiring – Irish need not apply.” My Mother spotted me looking at it and whispered into my ear, “See, it happened to your people too.” It hammered home the point that America’s playing field was never quite as level as it was supposed to be, and told me there was a lot my school history books were leaving out. As I got to learn a little bit of the history of Ireland, it started to create a sense of real ethnic pride. I had been taught by my school system that all people were of some color. But it was learning what I did about Irish history that I started to identify as an Irish-American. I even have a few subtle ways of showing my pride – wearing subtle hints of orange and green, telling people how much I love salt potatoes and soda bread, trying to stay up to date on old Celtic gods, and learning the origins of several well-known St. Patrick’s Day traditions. Even though I have an English surname, grew up as a practicing Protestant, and am the first to say what a huge asshole the real St. Patrick was (really, we’re talking Columbus-level assholery here), I always held true to my Irish lineage.

I was excited to move to Chicago and celebrate my first St. Patrick’s Day in my new home. I had heard all the stories about the parade in Chicago and the way the Chicago River was dyed green every year. So as I left work at the Symphony that Saturday, I made a zipline path right to the Michigan Avenue bridge, where everything was taking place. Now, I’m not a dummy – I’ve seen all the ridiculous hats and loud horns and novelty t-shirts in stores. I also thought, who buys this crap? I had never seen anything like them being worn around in Buffalo.

In Chicago, they were everywhere, and my heart just sank as the realization hit me: The people around me saw St. Patrick’s Day as nothing but a reason to have their heads in the bar at the top of the morning. I was finally wearing the moccasins of all the Native Americans I had once denounced. What they felt during Thanksgiving was now what I was thinking of St. Patrick’s Day. Hell, I even have my own version of the people telling me that I should just suck it up and get over it because it was supposed to be an honor that celebrated something good. All the liberals who were jumping on people about Thanksgiving being a bastardization of real history were now telling me to kiss their blarney stones over St. Patrick’s Day.

Maybe it’s the Catholic guilt present everywhere in my home neighborhood eating at me, but I never forgot that. As I walked along the Chicago River watching the drunken revelers, I couldn’t help but feel like there was something very wrong with the whole scene. Were these people even Irish? Did they have any kind of lineage to call their own? Why did they feel the need to claim mine, and why did they just want to hold the Hollywood version of it?

I’m not sure how many of the old Irish stereotypes I live up to, but I do identify as an Irish-American. I think one of the most important things I got out of that St. Patrick’s Day was the fact that I see it as my duty to tell people about Irish history and the origins of many of the Irish traditions they’ve come to know, and correct their perceptions of them when I can. Fortunately, I’ve found that most people are pretty receptive.

When I was Your Age: The Real Version

When I was Your Age: The Real Version

Here’s a post that’s been popping up on Facebook a lot from my Buffalo people:

“I grew up on (random street name) in Buffalo, NY during the 80’s and 90’s, during a time when everyone treated each other like family. We went outside to play, got dirty, and we didn’t eat fast food, well maybe McDonald’s but not very often. We ate bologna and salami and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cooked food, and got ice cream from the ice cream truck. We ate penny candy, yes I said “penny,” because that’s how much it cost back then. We played Mother May I, 1 2 3, Red Light Green Light, Hide and Seek, Truth or Dare, Monkey in the Middle, Tag, Dodgeball, softball, basketball, baseball, kickball, football, rode bikes, and raced against each other in the street. We cried if we couldn’t go outside and play. There was no bottled water, we drank from the tap. We watched cartoons on Saturday morning, we walked to the corner store, and we rode our bikes for hours without a cell phone. We weren’t AFRAID OF ANYTHING. If someone had a fight, that’s what it was – a fist fight. Kids didn’t have guns when I grew up. The street lights were our curfew. School was mandatory and we watched our mouths around our elders because ALL of our neighbors were our parents so we knew if we didn’t we were in big trouble when we got home.

Re-post if you’re glad that you came from a close-knit community and will never forget where you came from!”

This is idyllic-binder bullshit. All of it. While this is the prevailing oral myth passed from generation to generation about Buffalo these days, I have a unique hatred for this version of it because it seems to be snaring people who I thought wouldn’t become so Buffalo-ized. In other words, I see it being posted by people whom I’ve long believed know better.

This post is the ultimate embodiment of Buffalo’s refusal to change its guard. It drives me nuts, and not just because its platitudes revolve around a generic kidsville where every Boomer claims to have been raised.

Let’s break this ridiculous sucker down. First, you’ll notice that there’s nothing unique about it. It’s the life of kids from 80’s sitcoms, which does sum up the city in its desire to stay inside its fake little bubble. A post like this says to the rest of the world, “we never moved on.” It says that yes, someone saying it has seen that the planet left the past behind, but their little corner of the world has refused to acknowledge it.

The first delusion of this post is right in the first sentence: The whole neighborhood treated each other like family. It’s true that Buffalo has some close-bonded neighborhoods, but in this case, the bonds are all a bit TOO close. If you’re thinking of moving in with the hopes of integrating yourself into the action straight off, you’re going to have your work cut out for you. What this post doesn’t say anything about is the way they welcomed the newcomers with baked gifts. That’s because that doesn’t happen. You’re going to be welcomed by a lot of closed doors and binds, and that’s in the best-case scenario. There’s a good chance the people in your new neighborhood are never going to come around, and if you’re a minority moving into a white neighborhood, just forget it. My close-knit neighborhood where everyone treated each other like family chased every minority that tried to move in right back out in a matter of months.

For next couple of sentences, the food comes up, and it’s purely kiddie food culture. You can tell because processed junk gets brought up in a nostalgic way. Now, anyone who really missed processed meat sandwiches can go out, buy the ingredients from the grocery store, and make them at home, but I’m guessing they don’t. That’s because we know it’s bad for people. That line about not eating fast food just isn’t true – fast food is one of the primary dietary staples of the city. The people of my generation in Buffalo ate it all the fucking time. They just don’t recognize anything outside of national chains as fast food, which is why all the pizza and chicken wings they chowed down aren’t being counted. I’ll give them this: At least they’re eating local fast food. But as for the platitude about not eating fast food, don’t believe a word of it. And no, nobody cooked food, either, unless microwaving frozen and boxed dinners from the grocery store suddenly counts as “cooking food.” Ice cream from the ice cream trucks was an occasional treat, but most people got theirs from grocery stores as well. And anyone who repeats that penny candy bullshit to you just needs to be smacked in their fucking face as hard as possible. Penny candy has never existed in our lifetimes, so anyone feeding you that line better be a grandparent.

Now we come to the point of the activities, which is just funny to me now. People claim they used to do these things, which got them outside for fresh air and exercise. Now the question is, what’s stopping them now? There are organized leagues dedicated to most, if not all, of those games mentioned. It’s not that someone who posted that can’t go back out and do those things. It’s that they won’t. I chalk this one up to being a bad side effect of what happens when people develop too much of an obsession with the interests and habits of “proper” adults, and that phrase holds almost no meaning in Buffalo. Proper adults drink beer and watch TV. And no one cried about not getting to go outside and play. They played video games, because this was the time the age of video games was starting.

Or they played with the toys that their favorite Saturday morning cartoons were created to sell. I hate to come down so hard on this part, because I have the same fondness for those same cartoons as everyone else in my generation. So after all my anti-corporate, anti-studio ranting, it was grounding to learn that toy companies were busy back then making cartoons to sell already-existent toy lines, and not the other way around.

The original author of this post seems to have a thing for kids bicycling. He makes two references to it. This is another thing that’s funny to me, because if the author is native to Buffalo, they probably have a cold heart toward cyclists. I’ve already spent a lot of words in this blog writing about Buffalo’s attitude toward cyclists, so the only thing to think about now is how many people who were brainless enough to repeat this post have assaulted cyclists after becoming adults. Cyclists are like door-to-door salespeople in that the older they are, the less people are eager to see them. Little kids? Great! Teenagers? Just don’t pull anything outrageous, you little shit. Adults? You need to be killed. I can only hope repeat posters are cyclists themselves, because if they’re not, there’s a good chance they hate cyclists and have verbally – and maybe physically – assaulted a cyclist at some point, since bicycle hate is a prevailing ethos in Buffalo.

My friends and I were never afraid of anything either, and here are some things we did: One friend broke another’s arm; we climbed on top of a moldy and old tool shed that was older than our parents but still being used; climbed down to the bottom of a bridge; climbed back up that same bridge using a vertical pillar with lots of sharp rocks below; ran through mazes of tall sidewalk grass while onlookers threw rocks; brought down a phone line; ran screaming across backyards which weren’t ours; fell off low-hanging tree branches; and chased cars which were driving down the street. No, we weren’t afraid of much, even if we could be killed. Fistfights were part of playtime, and bullying was seen as a toughen-up tactic rather than a mental scar. (I had a neighbor who swore by the advice that a bully would leave me alone if I ignored them. This has never been true in any time or space. I’m pretty sure said neighbor hasn’t been very far outside of Western New York.) If someone had a REAL problem with someone else, the knives came out. The Police were called in at school at least five times.

School? Mandatory? You don’t say! Well, I guess it would have to be. Where else could a teenager find a teacher to try to beat up? Yes, this happened at my school; in fact it was so commonplace that, after one particular assault which was covered on the news, the big deal in school was that the footage showed by the station was of a student/teacher attack that happened at a different school. It amazes me that anyone could write with any pride about how school was mandated, because my schools all specialized in propaganda. Most of my schooling took place in the inner city, where City Hall didn’t care for real education. They cared that we knew just enough about the American Dream to let our corporate overlords do our thinking for us and were blatantly grooming students for 50 years in the nearest factory. Or the Military.

I’m sorry, but if all your neighbors are your parents, you’re from a creepy neighborhood. People complain about how social media invades privacy, but if you’re from a place like this, you probably never had much of it in the first place.

Naturally, here was my response to this post, altered to be realistic:

“I grew up on (street deleted) in Buffalo, NY, during the 80’s and 90’s, during a time when everyone treated each other like family unless they were outsiders, who were all suspicious intruders. We chased every minority that tried to move in off the block. We didn’t go to McDonald’s; well, maybe once a week, but we fucking gorged on fast food – pizza and wings from local joints ARE fast food. We ate bologna and salami and other kinds of unhealthy processed trash, microwaved food, and got ice cream from ice cream trucks if we were lucky. We ate penny candy – yes I said “penny,” because I’ve now confused reality with stories my grandparents told me about their childhoods. We played Mother May I, 1 2 3, Red Light Green Light, Hide and Seek, Truth or Dare, Monkey in the Middle, tag, dodgeball, softball, basketball, kickball, football, baseball, rode bikes and raced against each other in the street; healthy activities that got us fresh air and sunshine but which we now get together and deride and disparage people who do those things as adults while we sit on our asses drinking beer and watching football. If we couldn’t go outside to play, we stayed inside and played video games; hell, we did that anyway. There was bottled water, but we were too smart to buy it; we bought ice water for a nickel at local fast food places instead. We watched corporate advertising disguised as cartoons on Saturday morning. We walked to the corner store for junk and rode our bikes for hours without a cell phone but but now hate and try to kill anyone we see on a bike. We weren’t AFRAID OF ANYTHING, which is how my best friend nearly killed himself climbing a bridge on Cazenovia Creek and brought down a telephone line. If someone had a fight, someone would get stabbed. Kids didn’t have guns when I grew up. They just had knives. School was mandatory but we never worked or studied. We watched our mouths around our elders because ALL of your neighbors were fucking creeps who despised anything that was different and didn’t meet their weird obsession with “normality.”

Re-post if you’re proud that you shed your when-I-was-your-age binders and have vowed to never repeat the same lines of bullshit to any kids that grown-ups used to tell you about what things were like when they were kids!”

Dispatches from Knife’s Edge

Dispatches from Knife’s Edge

Knife. So they decided to officially call this monster Knife. Winter Storm Knife, cutting across the heart of Erie County.

Maybe it’s meant to evoke some sort of ferocity, but I can’t help but think of it as a little bit kitsch. In Western New York, no one ever refers to winter storms by their proper names. We just refer to them by the features of them that everyone remembers. There is the Blizzard of ’77, for example. That’s all we need as an automatic reference to the legendary Blizzard of ’77, which everyone born after that year knows about. The Blizzard of ’77 is the standard by which every other bad winter storm is judged in Buffalo. I was born four years after that disaster, but I’m old enough to have seen some pretty hefty storms. I have recollections of the famous ’85 blizzard, when then-Mayor James Griffin voiced his battle cry for waiting out snowstorms: “Stay inside, grab a six-pack, and watch a good football game.” There was the Gridlock Monday storm of 2000, which dropped 35 inches and forced everyone driving home at the time to abandon their cars and walk home. There was the White Christmas storm of 2001, an anomaly in an otherwise mild winter which deposited 83 inches onto the city in four days – pretty much the entire snow measurement for an entire winter.

This current arctic blast currently dropped 75 inches in a little under two days, and it kills me that this is only the second-highest snowfall I’ve ever been in. (So far.) This is definitely beer and football weather; my school has been closed every day this week except Monday, which is the one day I don’t have classes. And so, with all my homework done, I’ve settled into backburner mode, except my version of beer and football so far has been tea and basketball. I managed to get out once to take a few photos during he calm before the current, second wave of the storm hit.

There’s a travel ban in place, so there won’t be any going anywhere until it’s time to visit the grocery store. When things clear up a little bit, I might try to go outside for a quick walk, but that’s out of the question for now.

You would never know right now that most of yesterday and today were sunny. This storm wasn’t simply some snow – it was a squall; a whiteout so complete that in my community, going out to shovel meant not being able to see the street.

There’s an odd process to having cabin fever. When you first realize you’re trapped at home, it’s easy to shrug, smile, call into work, and sit back with a nice beer to enjoy your day off. Snow days rarely go beyond that first day, and by the end, you’re refreshed and happy. You start getting sick of the walls by the second day, though, and not getting to go out starts getting boring. By the third day, you just want the snow to stop so you can get to the bar across the street. I tend to look for a little bit of variety – it’s a reason I like to be outside. Although I’m not at my breaking point right now, my routine during Winter Storm Knife has involved a lot of reruns of How I Met Your Mother and Futurama, college basketball and New York Knicks games, and movies. I usually have my workout done in the late morning or early afternoon, which knocks an hour to an hour and a half off my day between the workout itself and the fact that I’m usually so wiped out afterward that I end up napping at some point.

At some point, I started having some odd thoughts. What is this sudden obsession with putting Fritos on everything now? Is someone out to destroy bacon?

In any case, the city was well-prepared for the storm. It’s Buffalo, and snow happens, and getting hit with it in July wouldn’t surprise us. Before the storm came on Monday, I had an appointment with a podiatrist scheduled, which happened to be very good luck on my part because I was able to bicycle to his office. I was caught in the rain (yes, rain) on the way back, but it was nothing I hadn’t endured during my messenger years. The news outlets had been reporting on this storm for a few days by then, and it was due to hit on Monday night. We knew what we were in for; by late evening, everyone was already tuned into the broadcast stations to see the list of the next day’s closings. I think we were expecting a big whiteout but an otherwise minor emergency; two feet, two and a half tops.

You know things are bad when the newspaper delivery lets up, and this is our third day without a morning newspaper. The owner of the Buffalo Bills started offering $10 an hour plus tickets to the football game to drop by and dig out Ralph Wilson Stadium. Then he was shamed for it while drivers were advised to ignore the offer; people gave up when the snow didn’t stop; and now it was just reported that we’re not going to have a local football game to watch while we drink this week; the game is being moved to a different location altogether.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much to tell on the macro level because no one here has been able to see much of anything. I know only what I’ve seen on TV: The Weather Channel is trapped at an inn in Hamburg. One of the local TV stations was trapped for hours at a gas station. Both are giving us periodic updates, mainly as filler: “Hey everyone, it’s still snowing!” Now we know what they must have felt like in the south last winter. All that’s left to do now is wait for the snow to let up and look for ourselves to pop up on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report soon.

Shouldn’t We be Dead by Now?

Shouldn’t We be Dead by Now?

Physically, I’m living out in the uncivilized backwoods of Buffalo, New York, but my head spent most of the day in Michigan. There are a few reasons for this: First is one of my good friends from Chicago, who was originally from Michigan and has chosen The Great Lakes State as the location for her wedding today. Another was a recent football game where the Detroit Lions killed the New England Patriots, and no I don’t give a shit that it’s still only the preseason. Third was the fact that I spent a good part of the day checking up on some facts I recently learned about Detroit housing prices; I knew the city had good houses available for prices as ridiculously low as New York City has them for prices that are ridiculously high, but it turns out that some of those places are priced in the hundreds of dollars. Not hundreds of thousands; not hundreds for monthly mortgage; but hundreds as the full prices of the houses.

Rob reinstated his annual cookout today after a two-year hiatus, so it was my first time attending it since the original was created around our college graduations in 2005. It was very subdued compared to what it had been, since we’re both mature adults on the cusp of opening up exciting new chapters of our lives. I spent a lot of the day joking with others about how I was going to move to Detroit and buy a house just like his for $500. It was a very settled gathering even for me, because most of the people there had seen me around by then and knew me and I was able to feel pretty comfortable. Between Detroit jokes were games of Kan Jam, water guns, and face-stuffing. There was a little bit of reminiscing with Rob too, after I noticed that one of the trees in his backyard had a sturdy brand leading to the roof of his tool shed. It took me back to the days when both of us were young kids living on Abbott Road in South Buffalo, using a big tree to climb onto the roof of the old tool shed. This time, a rather horrifying thought came with the fond memories: Just how old was that tool shed on Abbott?

I took the issue to Rob, who told me that old tool shed existed before his grandparents moved into that old place on Abbott. In other words, the place was rotting from the time we were born to the time they finally tore it down. Of course, that’s presuming they did tear it down. Neither of us have been back to the original houses in awhile, so someone could have turned it into a bomb shelter which doubles as an ice cream parlor for all we know. And there we were back in the day, climbing all over it like your average Spider-man wannabes. As I left the cookout and thanked Rob for the invitation, he confessed that he hadn’t been able to get that thought out of his head himself. Great minds think alike, and these two particular great minds were hit with a scary truth: Holy shit, we should be dead by now!

By most accounts – including those of both Rob and me – we should have fallen right through a rotting soft spot on the roof and been impaled on an upturned pitchfork or something. We also should have broken our necks around Cazenovia Creek, hurt our shoulders falling out of trees and climbing fences, and been repeatedly bruised from our rough sports games. Both of us agree that it’s something of a miracle we’ve managed to last this long.

South Buffalo is a real rough and tumble place where kid safety is a concept somewhat disregarded in favor of letting the kids figure everything out for themselves after nearly getting killed a few times. The people there write off a lot more dangerous child behavior than most what about the children shriekers. For god’s sake, the most popular little league sports in the area are hockey and lacrosse! South Buffalo is a place in which deluxe safety accommodations don’t go much further than placing plastic shields into the electrical outlets. Those who don’t use them are quite confident in their kids’ ability to learn after zapping themselves once or twice.

Even by those standards, the two of us were nuts. We spent a significant chunk of our time learning to scale a ten-foot chain link fence to get into each other’s yards, then learning to scale slightly shorter chain link fences whenever we needed to get from Abbott Road to Marbeth Court in a pinch. Of all the things we did which would cause hysteria in any concerned parent, that was the thing we thought the least of. We also hopped from backyard to backyard with an alarming regularity. There was one occasion when Rob managed to bring down an entire phone line, and another when he wrapped a glave around a phone line. He seemed to have a talent for avoiding electricity. When an electrician visited us once, Rob was actually able to chase him up the telephone pole while me and a couple of other friends stood at the bottom removing and replacing the small steps the poor worker placed there so he could climb the pole. We also managed to crawl into a broken basement window.

When we got a wee bit older, our frequency for dangerous behavior actually increased as we got privileges to visit Cazenovia Park regularly without supervision. There are points along the creeks where there’s a drop of about 20 feet into onto the bank of the creek, without any fences to hold back unsupervised kids like Rob and Me. Let’s just say learning which parts of the cliff could be scaled required a bit of trial and error. We also took trips down to the foot of one of the creek bridges. When we got bored of doing that, we ran around in the middle of the local golf course whether or not there were golfers there.

Both of us were out of our minds, but Rob was the more athletic of the two of us and the most prone to high-risk derring-do stunts. If we made one of our periodic journeys down to the foot of the southernmost bridge at Cazenovia Park, Rob would occasionally insist on using the back landing to climb back up to the bridge. The part we used to climb down to the foot was slanted, but the other end was straight up and down. Rob would climb the up and down part, even though there were nice, pointy rocks at the bottom. I never tried to follow suit because even if I wasn’t lacking the physical strength, the idea of doing that was a little too insane for me, even back then. He was also the one who occasionally discussed the idea of diving into the creek by jumping off the Cazenovia Street bridge, something I had to talk him out of repeatedly. Of course, he had to talk me out of taking a flashlight to explore the sewer drain on the bank of the creek, so whoever was the better of the two of us is perfectly debatable.

Even as we started to get old enough to be aware of what would kill us and what would merely cripple us for life, we still found ourselves crossing Cazenovia Creek by bicycle on one occasion and walking across the concrete bank on many others. While that wasn’t very dangerous by itself, getting onto the fenced-off concrete bank could be dangerous in certain parts. Of course, we always thought the trickier parts were the perfect spots to get onto the bank. For good measure, we rode our bicycles on the park casino. (I still do this!)

Still, it’s the earliest days from when we were both living on Abbott Road that stick out in our heads because we had a nice, big, safe backyard which our twisted imaginations turned into a real barbershop of parental horrors. We had a swing set…. On which we removed the swings so we could climb the side poles to the top bar, which we would try to cross hand over hand. We had a jungle gym which we rolled over onto every side and placed next to the tree so we could climb the tree, enabling us to finally reach the tool shed roof. We climbed up a wheelbarrow situated forever against the tool shed. Rob’s backyard had one of those giant electrical wire spools which we used for log rolling.

Going over our stunt backlog now, in our maturity, Rob and me can’t help but wonder: And our parents thought video games were bad?

Buffalo’s Response to a New Orleans Mardi Gras: St. Patrick’s Day

South Buffalo is Buffalo’s own version of Brooklyn. Brooklyn is officially a part of New York City, but it retains such a unique distinction that its denizens don’t allow themselves to tell people they’re from New York City. They’re from Brooklyn, damn it, and being tied down in name with those greedy fat cats over in Manhattan is annoying. So it goes in South Buffalo; no resident or native of the city’s lower third is ever from Buffalo. They’re all from South Buffalo, a culture away and geographically separated by the Buffalo River to make sure the Irish immigrant population doesn’t mix with the good, respectable Americans who were born in this country. This being the case, South Buffalo maintains a very powerful Irish flavor which is especially obvious during the Christian holy season of Lent, and during St. Patrick’s Day.

In the Irish Heritage District, Irish flags add flair and color to street lights, and street names are given in both English and Gaelic. Traditional Irish dance academies like Rince Na Tiarna and Clann Na Cara provide links to the culture of the motherland, and the people identify their areas by the closest Irish Catholic parish.

In Chicago, they dye the mouth of the Chicago River green and throw a parade. Nice gestures, but all they also did more to remind me that in Chicago, St. Patrick’s Day is seen as just that – a day. You wear green, uncork a Guinness, call everyone “lad,” and hope your hangover the following day in manageable. St. Patrick’s Day in South Buffalo is less a day with a weekend parade than a festival which lasts through the entire following week. It is comparable to the observation of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. The traditional music and dancing appears in many places in the neighborhood, the food is more readily available, and Guinness, Harp, and Bailey’s flow. Some of the restaurants and pubs even serve food and drink with a green tint. The only thing it lacks in comparison to a New Orleans Mardi Gras celebration is the publicity. St. Patrick’s Day in South Buffalo is serious business.

The shadow of St. Patrick’s Day was looming by the time I arrived in Buffalo. On my last full day in Chicago – which happened to be Mardi Gras (with my actual departure on Ash Wednesday, which seems appropriate) – I was expressing my thankfulness to my friends for being able to get to Buffalo in time for the St. Patrick’s Day festivities. I had anticipated the music and beer and the opportunity to get back in touch with the Irish community that had played such a dominant role in my childhood.

Rob was good enough to pick me up from my locale in West Seneca isolation and take me to the old neighborhood. When we got the the Buffalo Irish Center, where many of the big festivities were taking place, he introduced me to a handful of his other friends. Rob had been impressed with the way I inserted myself into Chicago’s countercultural elite. He told me how cool it was that I was taking an active role, weaving myself into the fabric of my adopted hometown. He didn’t tell me that he was doing the same thing in Buffalo, but to a lesser extent. Rob talked with pride about his competitive barbeque team, Buffalo Meatheads, and gave me extensive crash lessons on the local music and flavor.

Penny Whiskey’s Irish folk/rock fusion provided the evening’s soundtrack with a combination of traditional ballads and original rock. The band used bagpipes and a flute in their set while finding enough clout to add a Riverdance song to an AC/DC song. Rince Na Tiarna danced. After Rince Na Tiarna’s set, the general public took to the dance floor itself in small waves. Rob and I only drank mildly; I had a glass of Harp, having drank my obligatory Guinness earlier in the evening, and a small cup of Bailey’s. It was Val, Rob girlfriend, who gave everyone the most memorable drunkenness anecdote of the evening. After one too many rum and Cokes, she slid off her chair. While walking back to the car, she complained about her big toe being stuck to her sock, removed her shoes and socks and threw them aside, saying it was fine if no one picked them up (I picked them up anyway), only to wonder where they were just before getting to the car. Rob decided to take her back to his house before dropping me off.

Rob and I both spent the better part of the evening explaining my absence. It was more often than not Rob who initiated those conversations, probably just to explain who I was and where I’ve been to people I might have otherwise known fairly well myself if I stayed in Buffalo. The two common refrains for us were “He’s been in Chicago the last few years,” which is what Rob said when introducing me to his other friends, and “The economy there tanked too,” my reply to the inevitable questions about why I came back. People were confused about why I would want to leave a 21st century cosmopolis like Chicago, the third largest city in the United States, but even so, I was treated like the prodigal son.