08 March 2007

Some reminiscing about Buffalo

The following are highly disjointed thoughts, and memories from growing up in Western NY. No real content is provided. Rambling and random thoughts to follow.

Buffalo, NY, land of snow storms, blizzards and two months of hot, humid summers. Somewhere in there you can wedge in a sort-of spring and definite fall, each about two and a half months long. From December to April, Winter is King.

Growing up in the outskirts of the City of Buffalo, in one of the better suburbs, but not far from much of anything, I grew up close to the dying heart of American Industry. I can remember when Bethlehem Steel and Worthington Compressor and other large industries polluted things and whenever I visited family in urban Buffalo, in its old 'suburbs' and ethnic neighborhoods, I fell prey to that. Fumes, particulates, noxious odors and all the rest that went with the thriving industry of that era which was felt far beyond the reach of the pollution as the City itself was still vibrant, even after Canada opened the Welland Canal and the old Black Rock Canal was put to shame. Just an hour and a half or so, by car, was another industrial city to the north, Hamilton, Ontario, which, for my money, rivaled anything Buffalo could put out for pollution. A bit closer to the east was Rochester, NY, home of Kodak and really not known for much else, but RIT and Bausch & Lomb and other organizations moved that City, too, from industrial to post-industrial. About two hours to the south was Erie, PA which was already hit by the de-industrialization of the US when I was growing up. Far to the south lay Rust Belt Central, Pittsburgh, PA. South and west was Cleveland, OH and directly west was Detroit, MI on the other side of the highly polluted Lake Erie.

When growing up I did notice the differences in races and ethnic cultures, being half-Polish and half-Swede one does tend to notice these things, but industrial Buffalo had something to grind those things down and smooth them out. No matter what your prejudice *was* everyone there faced the common enemy: King Winter. Winter is an even-handed foe to rich and poor alike, handing the snow and drifts and winds to any who need venture out, be they in beat-up 'winter car' or high class limo, everyone was dealt with evenly, equally, by Winter. There were, indeed, ethnic and racial tensions in Buffalo, do not get me wrong, but when things like riots happened in Miami or Los Angeles, those sitting at the bar and watching same would just shake their heads: 'What was it with those people?' And those doing the head-shaking and sharing of the bar were black and white, asian and african and european and from all points on Earth that had people willing to brave King Winter.

What can one say when the town that they lived near had, as its source of being, the building of the Erie Canal... and as part of the history you learned of the ethnic tensions back then. Bars and other establishments had quite pointed signs out, with one of the famous signs at a bar being: "No Dogs. No Irish." Each ethnic wave of immigrants went through that in Buffalo: Poles, Germans, Italians, Southern Blacks... And all were drawn to this City for one reason: good jobs. Hard jobs. Industrial jobs.

To those working in Bethlehem Steel's sprawling complex, the sure antidote for being half-frozen was a few seconds in front of the blast furnace. That industrial nature of the City meant something different as Buffalo was never a cosmopolitan city, like New York City or Boston. It was a City central to commerce first via the Erie Canal and then as a rail hub second only to Chicago. And those things drew people to work hard, nasty jobs in brutal conditions. One can only fester hatred on an ethnic basis if you can actually perceive the ethnicity of those involved. The blast furnace made *everyone* black. The winters made *everyone* a bundle of clothing that moved. And if your neighbor was in trouble in winter, you *helped*.

Founded by immigrants and established by them, Buffalo became the settling place for folks from Ireland and Poland and those two strongly Roman Catholic peoples brought their traditions with them that lasted, even as the region diversified. Friday fish fry was not just something that got served at home or via a few establishments. Nearly every restaurant, every bar, and many shops and markets all offered a fish fry. Even once the Pope declared it was ok to have meat on Friday, the fish fry continued as something that was now a tradition of Buffalo. It didn't matter what faith, religion, ethnicity, culture or race you were, a good fish fry served many and places competed to have one that stood out amongst others in their neighborhood.

In fact the neighborhood was still the basis of thinking in Buffalo right up to the Rust Belt era and having Polish relatives living in Kaisertown was a bit of a juxtaposition, to say the least. During the early 20th century, the idea of local shopkeepers and butchers and bakers predominated and in those old neighborhoods it was literally one of each per block or two. Once these neighborhoods were no longer the outskirts of the City and incorporated into the City, many of those went out of business, but walking through the neighborhoods one could still see the places of business now converted to homes.

And as one may guess the old ethnic neighborhoods slowly changed and morphed, but locales kept their names and the fish fry, extended outwards into the post-WWII neighborhoods that sprung up just outside the city limits. Also gone was the cobblestone streets that were laid by hand by immigrants, and more than some few on the Polish side of the family remember that and formed a family crest of trowel, cobble, boots and shovel. The City was built from the ground up by those people and when later paving was put down, it was put down over the cobblestones, so that when Winter tore the asphalt asunder, one could still see the cobblestone foundation of the city streets.

As I grew up the industry receded as competitors from Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and other places started to do the industrial work cheaper. Bethlehem shuttered its operations and for the first time ever, folks in the immediate neighborhood got to see white snow fall on their homes, instead of industrial gray snow that they were used to. Those neighborhoods in Lackawanna vacated and new immigrants from the world over came to do other jobs that were springing up and to just live damned cheaply. The last happening at the site was when Poland *bought* the entire steel works and dismantled it to ship it back to Poland as it was better than their 1920's era steel works that had been given to them by the USSR after it had been looted from Germany.


In the 1970's my Uncle Edward went to visit family in Poland and came back to tell the stories of it, under Communism. Even *before* Solidarity, the Polish People knew Communism would not last... they had seen Empires come and go before and this Russian one had no staying power. Many a Nation had taken over Poland, and yet it always emerges from their carcass once the dreams of Glory have died. Under Communism I got to hear first-hand not only of the standard things that one learned about authoritarian regimes: repression, spies, secret police. But there was something even further that was shocking. The regime was petty.

When sending clothes and canned goods and such to Poland in care boxes, it was asked that we stitch up items inside cloth and the box entire if it could be managed. It was done so they could see what had been broken into and what had been pilfered... and the resultant rags were of use to them, too, and the cloth if it was long enough. We were enjoined to send them *any* cast off clothes or goods, as even those that could not be fit to extended family members could then be bartered with others in the community. Cold hard US currency was a godsend and a dollar went very, very far in that era, and so those were put into odd places in clothing, shoes, boxes where the family would know where to look, but an inspector intent on theft for him or herself would *not* look.

That was the face of Communism: not only vile and repressive, but petty and theiving.

Just as the Rust Belt hit the US contained two of the largest Polish cities on Earth: Buffalo and Chicago. Not Polish-American, but Polish entire. Of course the Polish language had morphed so what was spoken in America had all sorts of strange words that made no sense to those directly from Poland and took awhile to figure out, and my Uncle related his problems in his broken Polish in getting ideas across that had no words in the native tongue, but had been invented for local American use.

Western NY was devoutly religious, not only in Roman Catholics, but numerous Protestant, Methodist, Jewish, Orthodox Catholics... The Roman Catholic cathedral had come into some disrepair, but it was being renovated and could find support not only amongst its parishioners but amongst the neighbors who had enjoyed community events there, too. Bingo proliferated not only for the game but for the social interaction and all were welcome in any church running such. That was rarer out in the suburbs where I directly grew up, and the local churches were not cheek-by-jowl with neighbors as they were in urban Buffalo proper. It was not uncommon to walk by storefronts and see: deli, bakery, church, dime store. Not even an alleyway to separate them. Even being non-religious due to upbringing and personality, I grew to enjoy the rich fabric of life that the various religions imparted to the community and the life and outlook they sustained.

I can remember the talks by family members of why they were going to visit one church over another and how the pastor at one had an interesting topic while the other had grown a bit pedantic. That would not change even when pastors were no longer locals, but from overseas as very few Roman Catholic priests were to be found in the local environs. Along with Easter and Christmas mass were also events such as the Blessing of the Pets, which always brought a gaggle of people with their pets to receive the blessing. In the suburbs were the pancake breakfasts and such that had service after the meal, and no one looking askance if you did not attend it but were there for the community aspect of things. That hard effort to build community and sustain it paid off, over time as all of the religions learned they had to work together because they, too, were targets of King Winter. If a poor man dies outside the locked doors of your church during a snowstorm you were seen as not only failing your calling but failing the community and being a poor neighbor.

Living accommodations in Buffalo did vary highly by income, with old or even ancient homes from the late 19th century and early 20th the norm in urban Buffalo, and larger estates in set aside areas also from that era. Then the City expanded around all of that for a first ring of neighborhoods. Then a second. After WWII the rise of the automobile allowed the creation of true suburbs, not fully dependent upon the City itself. The Thruway around Buffalo helps to delineate that,with everything from the center to the Thruway the City and then the suburbs around it. Older neighborhoods outside the City and Thruway did exist, but it was a rough-and-ready rule for trying to find places. Those changed as things went on and the industries receded meant that old receiving areas, especially one in the Clinton-Bailey intersection would see things like farmer's markets show up to allow farm goods to come in via the cross-state Thruway right into urban Buffalo and also gather folks from the suburbs via the Thruway there to purchase farm fresh goods and produce.

During the 1960's the State University was a 'hotbed of radicalism', and by the time I got there in the 1980's it was a 'hotbed of apathy'. Yes, the old, trenchant, tenured radical profs were still there, but they were getting long in tooth, and no longer all that radical. And going to that University, one got to experience another sort of authoritarian regime that grew up to cause that happen. When the University expanded, it did not try to buy up housing areas adjacent to it nor even in the nearby suburbs, but, instead, bought cheap land about 10 miles away and started building a new, large campus. To get between the two, the University ran a shuttle bus. Also the University had not planned properly for expansion and had far too few parking lots for its majority commuter student population.

The anomalies of that was amazing, as students had to take buses nearly everywhere to get anywhere. That, of course, was the point and the University had grabbed the old Student Union which had been bequeathed, building and all, AS a Student Union. The students got the eponymous 'Student Activity Center' which was a bit hard to get to, not really connected to anything and sterile. The old, turn of the century, beautiful Student Union got turned into office space. As I was graduating the talk was that students would get charged for the convenience of the University having two campuses via a bus fee. Add that to the parking ticket squads and then removing about 20% of the parking spaces to be for instructors and professors while they made up less than 1% of those needing to commute and you get the idea of what things were like there.

And the sterility of the SAC was more than represented in the rest of the new buildings, which I had come to term 'Early American Prisonblock' unless it was 'Neo-Modern Reflective' or just 'Industrial Warehouse'. Walking between buildings was done via 'The Spine' which more or less connected everything but not as directly as one would ever like. then walking along it I started to realize that the heavy 'Fire Doors' were not placed optimally for fires... but were placed well in case of riots. And one of the student housing blocks was created in an Escheresque formation where no two adjacent floors were at the same level and sometimes you could walk around a building and descend one level while not changing floors. Not even spiral, because of the indirect paths one had to take.

It is quite an experience coming during the first few days and seeing all the bright engineering students, mostly from China, but also India and South Korea, so bright and even a few with briefcases... and then at the end of the semester the haggard looks, rumpled clothing, backpack slung over one shoulder, head down, hair askew, the very look of someone who has been ground down by the system. Yes the University had a 50% washout rate for engineers in the first two semesters, something it was very *proud of*. On the Computer Science side I got to experience my first class with over 700 people in it! You, too, could feel like a cookie coming out of the cookie cutter. Personal problems with my health and some needing to re-organize my life took a couple of semesters out for me, but I returned and scrapped my CS track and did the broad-based 'take any class that looked interesting that you could get into' sort of deal. Actually, that turned out to be a huge help, and got me out of the emotional rut I was in and put new and challenging topics like Film History in front of me, as well as sociology, geology and political science. After that I had semesters that featured more geology, a long time love from early on in childhood, and every course on war and warfare that I could find. Luckily, in a University that was once a 'hotbed of radicalism' those courses were sparsely populated and easy to get into!

From that I started to reinforce my knowledge of Earth history, astronomy, warfare as it has evolved over time, how the individual fits within society, and such things as the works of Chaucer in the original Middle English. Eclectic? Yes! Strongly so, as I also did my bits with economics and what little math I needed to get through to a Geology degree. That gave me broad exposure across the University population, and allowed me to interact with all sorts of great people from across the planet who somehow had their governments talk them into coming to the icebox of Buffalo. I learned about Korean history and how they view the other Nations and peoples around them, and their proud traditions that predate anything in China or Japan. Japanese students were generally aghast at how students actually *asked questions* of instructors and professors, but soon learned that this was how America retained its vibrancy: we never take anything for granted and require that every angle on everything be thought out.

More than a few students from India and I did feel sorry for those that were in graduate student positions helping out on classes taught by professors that had a less fluid teaching style. Very interesting to come in and have the grad student say: "I don't know why he gave you these problems!" Truthfully I had that across a number of classes and labs, where professors had not actually bothered to teach the material, indicate what was necessary, what was needed to be found and even where to find it.... in other words, you could try to teach the course yourself! Of course it would *also* be handy if the grad student had any idea of what was going on, too. I remember beating my brains out on one structural geology lab and unable to come to any conclusion on displacement analysis of structures. Gave up, got to the lab where others had gotten there hours earlier and they were at a loss. The graduate student came in and announced: "This lab is impossible to do, I'm sorry for all the wasted time everyone has put into it, but Professor _____ doesn't even know how to do it."


All of this leads to interesting times talking with folks after class, continued discussions at the more central cafeteria area or its more deli-style adjunct. One discussion, I think it was after a sociology class, went something like this with a student from S. Korea:

'Do you know that when I was coming to America and heard all the stories of racial tensions and riots that my family was worried about it?'

- I would imagine they were! What do you think of it now that you're here?

'I really don't know! I still see things like that on television here, but it isn't in Buffalo. Why is that?'

- Well, most of the Cities you see with riots have populations that have large minority populations that have had problems finding work and haven't been too encouraged to do so. When one comes to Buffalo it is for a *job*... for all the size of the City it is a very large Town in spirit.

'How do you mean that? It looks like a City.'

I would smile at that, for Buffalo does look like a City. But perhaps not a modern City, with so much early 20th century architecture and the influence of the industrial era at work.

- Buffalo started out as a working man's town. The Erie Canal and transport work, then early industry, then heavy industry and becoming a main off-loading point on this part of the Great Lakes. Then the major railroad yards helping to move things along. Curtiss-Wright had a factory here for aircraft development and production, as well as Bell Aerospace. Steel was the leader, of course, but industrial and blue collar jobs flocked to Buffalo for cheap energy, cheap fresh water, ready transport via rail and across the Great Lakes. One didn't move to Buffalo for museums, artwork, orchestras or culture in general. Buffalo isn't a cosmopolitan City. It is a working man's town built on the hard labor of those who lived here and families that came and placed the bricks on the cobblestone roads and laid the railroads and dug the canal out. Buffalo is not a City of enlightenment but a town to raise a family.

'But, why no riots here? You do have high unemployment and low wages, just like in LA and Miami. They have riots and you don't, here.'

- The promise of America isn't in high culture or large cities. It is in making yourself into someone that you can respect by your work. We do have racial tensions, but the common thread here is that this was a town to come to not to be a part of a ghetto community, but to take a job and work hard at it. Those in the large cities have forgotten that part of the promise: you work to be free.
As I would later state it the grand vision of America isn't in the skyscrapers but in the neighborhoods and families that build them. That promise of America is cashed in on in the blue collar towns and cities of the Nation, where it is not forgotten that one is not free to work, but one works to be free. That is forgotten by many who decry the Nation today, and yet put little actual effort into working on the problems. If you can't be bothered to think about the solution, then proudly declaiming the problem is of little help for the compact is to build *a more perfect Union* and NOT decry that it is not perfect.

But that is what you get for growing up in a town turned into a city. And everyone in Buffalo is equal... before King Winter.

It really doesn't matter how rich or how poor you are: being cooped up in your house for weeks on end because of bitter cold winds and driven snow takes a toll mentally. That is 'cabin fever' and by February it is palpable across the population. Even the 'snow birds' that jet to Florida for a few weeks are hit by it within a few days of returning: a slight chill on the home and white out the window, broken up by darkness of streets and cars and the few evergreen trees. Winter driving skills are a mandatory thing that gets re-learned every winter.

My sister joked: "People get stupid for two or three days at the start of winter, then they get smarter again."

Yea and verily! If you can avoid the first two days after the first blizzard and *not* drive you will cut your accident rate down. And practice your driving skills and be *cautious* but do not slow to a crawl unless you can't see more than 5' in front of you. The first days of a blizzard or just snowy days are ones that see cars parked in ditches, in the triangular medians heading to off ramps, and generally a 'do it yourself' atmosphere in parking lots:
'Hey, you can't give me a ticket! There are no signs and no lines to tell me where to park!'

You get the ticket, anyways.
Mind you with a convent in town and only a couple of 'designated drivers' at same I have been witness to a car full of Nuns blithely going through a red light in front of me at an intersection... yes, there but for the grace of god, go I. They were driving the 'good car' in winter...

Cars are another major thing in the WNY area and many folks have two cars for themselves: the good looking summer car and then the winter wreck. Because of the amount of salt on the roads, high humidity and all that goes with it, cars tend to rust out very, very quickly in Buffalo. So if you buy a *good car* and want to keep it that way, you then buy a wreck to drive in winter. These go by the general name of 'rust buckets' or 'winter cars'.

Rust buckets usually have features not seen in your standard vehicles. Plywood floors are often sported as the originals have rusted away. That said, if the floor rusts out in winter you then have the alternative strategy of the 'Fred Flintstone braking system', by putting your feet through the floor. Rust buckets often feature multi-color designs, due to the replacement of doors and car panels from wrecks. You really don't care what the color of your car *is* at it isn't for show, just to get you to and from work and doing the daily shopping and such. Rust buckets will often have the illegal studded tires, that NY State so handily outlawed and that folks keep on importing for their rust buckets. Many rust buckets feature a cooler in the back seat along with sleeping bag, pillow, blankets, flares, and a stale box of donuts. Inside the cooler is usually a six pack of beer and leftover pizza, plus any other provisions that get dropped in there and forgotten about, like orange juice not necessarily in its container any more. And above all rust buckets have dents, scratches, duct tape and all other sorts of unsightly blemishes, scars and half-hearted repair attempt marks all over them.

Whenever you need to buy a *new* car and some dealership is fool enough to offer a rebate on your present vehicle, sight unseen so long as it drives, then you trade in the rust bucket and turn your previous good car into the new 'winter car'. It will soon be a 'rust bucket'.

Of the great problems witnessed in Buffalo was that of the streets being pot-hole festooned during the year. This was due to ground upheaval by cold weather, poorly laid roadbeds and snow plows that would sheer off any bumps in the road. Soon you had cracks, then bumps then pot-holes. Any break in the weather might see road crews putting a 'cold patch' down in a pot-hole: a bunch of gravel and small rocks all but certain to be washed out by any melt water and ground out by any vehicle tires. Basically, busy work. From spring to autumn would be the 'hot patch' time of new macadam or whatever the lovely composite was that day. One just does not mistake the smell of hot, thick petrochemicals. The road crew would dump some in, tamp it down with shovels or a hand portable pounding rig and move on. The rare crew had a small steamroller. Such patches were more the norm than the exception on any road surface more than two or so years old, and many roads would just be a mass of hot patches laid down year on year. Kensington Avenue as it crossed into Buffalo was notorious as a wheel eater and under body scraper. The old joke went something like this:
A man was pulled over by the police as he drove along Kensington Ave. one winter evening. He rolled down the window and asked the officer - 'Why are you giving me a ticket? I was driving perfectly straight!'

The officer looked at him.

'Yeah, only a drunk drives straight on Kensington.'
Of all the winter perils beyond the blizzards and whiteout conditions was something even worse, and dreaded by everyone: black ice. That is the thin coat of ice that looks just like the road surface, until the moment you drive on it. Black ice got me once, very early on a curve on a backroad, making a nice gentle curving turn at 20 mph or so... suddenly the car spun and I was driving in the correct lane in the opposite direction. Faster than I could blink an eye and the white and grayness swirled on the curve as the car spun around. That Volare was a piece of junk and had no stability during the winter until you put 50 lbs of kitty litter in the back. I upped it to 100 lbs and that helped. That car was junk and a rust bucket, perfect for a beginning driver.

A few years later I had the old 'emergency avoidance maneuver' in a VW Rabbit. Now *that* was a car to drive! Compact, FWD and able to corner like nobody's business and didn't need much kitty litter, either. Its nimble maneuvering had gotten me out of one jam earlier and the second time was something to give one the shakes. Driving down Bailey Ave. headed towards the Amherst Campus I was in the left lane on a dry road. The previous snowstorm a few days earlier had been cleared out, salt laid down and everything was looking great. Someone was pulling out of UB Main Street and as they turned to enter traffic the rear of their car just lost it and they spun... and spun... and spun. Obviously an out-of-towner! What was worse is that they would be in my lane ahead of me headed towards me, and the old driving reflex pulled me hard to the right to avoid them. Up and over the curb and I glanced out the window as I saw the front of their car pass about 6" from my door and the horrified faces of the driver and passenger as their car spun by me. Hard back left and I was in the right lane still headed merrily along, fingers white on the steering wheel. The next time I had the car to the shop I was told that I had sheared both the front struts and they could not believe that I had driven a month like that without the car collapsing. I treat cars well and they help me survive, what can I say?

The last bad time in Buffalo was on the Thruway, headed past the Sheridan exit headed towards Main St./Kensington Ave. Snow still falling hard during a blizzard and coming from the Amherst Campus I had gotten stuck in the center lane which was good traveling unless one needed to exit. Which I, unfortunately, did. I passed the car on my right and made sure it was well behind me and started to ease over... between the lanes was a good, thick layer of snow about 6" deep, I would guess. A sharp turn could be very nasty, very quickly, even at low speed, so an ease-over at 30 mph should be safe. Right up until the wheel hit something and jerked the steering wheel around. I recovered but too late, as the 360 dance of Buffalo had begun. I counted 4 full turns and the angle was enough to head me to the roadside and out of the oncoming car's way. I did counter-steer but that is basically useless, although it makes one feel good if an incredible stroke of luck happens and the rear of the car hits solid pack snow. No luck and the final quarter-turn had me facing out into the road, safely out of the lane. Then the car stalled. Once I got over the shakes and started up the car so I wouldn't freeze to death, I waited for a break in the slow moving traffic, and got back into travel mode: one does not let mere winter take over your reactions and if you survive any bit of its jolt, just drive on.

That is one great thing you learn about life in Buffalo: no matter what you do, it can be over in an instant. Being a competent driver is not enough on the roads. And all that 4WD does is make you cocky until you realize that your braking time, even with ABS, is lengthy. My first car with ABS actually only needed to do some amazing work once, and that was to stop because a damned semi had thought the road was open for his wide turn. I would have been able to stop without the ABS, but it did let me know it was working. No matter where you come from, if you drive one winter in Buffalo you will gain winter driving skills. Even on basically *nice* winters, you will gain that and needing to have in a small shovel, kitty litter (or faerie dust as I call it due to its properties to supposedly increase traction if you get stuck), blanket or sleeping bag and some survival rations. That outlook and those skills have gone through the last day of open roads in Yellowstone where many a 4WD car and truck were seen in the ditches, and yet my Honda Civic Wagon just tootled merrily along. Lovely to see such high price vehicles stuck to the side of the road or in ditches or on an embankment, awaiting the tow-truck... or spring... while I got to play 'slot car racer' along the dense ice roads.

Those are some of my rambling thoughts and memories from my life in time in Buffalo, NY.

No point to them... just to get them down.

Because this is a place to store my thoughts and memories.


SERENDIP said...

This was a beautiful post and thank you for sharing.

A Jacksonian said...

Serendip - My thanks and excuse the fractured sentences and such!

Just my random ramblings not too well coordinated or thought out. Will have to do some tightening up on it.