My misunderstood hometown
Buffalo is far more than its accumulated snowfall
I have tried for months, without success, to write a column about my hometown of Buffalo. First because of the hideous mass shooting that occurred there in May. And now because of the frightening lake-effect storm over Christmas that has taken more than three dozen lives. This has been a supremely tough year for the Queen City of the Lakes. (Sorry, Cincinnati. Buffalo, too, claims the title of Queen City.)
When I was young, I dreamed of nothing more than becoming a reporter for the Courier Express, Buffalo’s feisty morning paper. The Courier was considerably more interesting than its stogy afternoon rival, the Evening News. No surprise, then, that dullness triumphed; during my second month of graduate school for journalism, the Courier folded forever. Its closure ended my aspirations and left hundreds of journalists out of work.
But a different path opened when my then-fiancé and now-husband, Pete, who grew up in a Buffalo suburb, wanted to attend graduate school in Boston. We soon moved to Massachusetts where the news competition was cutthroat, newspapers prospered, and I landed a job in a few weeks.
We’ll be gone for two years, tops, we told each other. It didn’t happen.
Yet our careers, and family, flourished in foreign soil. I wound up writing for four newspapers, including the New York Times. Pete became a high-level statewide director of adolescent substance abuse treatment. We raised two great kids.
But in nearly 40 years of living in New England, including 25 years at my current Connecticut address, I have never stopped referring to Buffalo as “home,” a habit for which my children never fail to tease me.
Home is nearly always a place of complicated love, few places more so than the misunderstood city on Lake Erie. I missed Buffalo for years, particularly when we lived in Boston. Beantown in the 1980s was profoundly unfriendly to outsiders, convinced of its superiority in just about everything and contemptuous of Rust Belt cities. Upon hearing I was from Buffalo, people occasionally congratulated me for moving away as if I had just escaped from a prison camp, something that never failed to utterly enrage me. They knew nothing of Buffalo’s world-class orchestra, its beautiful 19th century architecture, its sunny, dry summers or its down-to-earth culture, more Midwestern than Eastern. They didn’t see the good that I saw.
Buffalo, to me, was a town where, like the bar in the television series, “Cheers,” everyone knows your name. At least in my neighborhood, where the equivalent of Cheers was a bar called The Place, open since the 1940s. Pete and I went there one evening around Christmas after being away for a few years. The falling snow muffled all sound as we walked, but when we opened the door to The Place, there was a blast of color, life and music; every person in the packed bar was singing Christmas carols.
As the last notes dissolved in laughter, the waitress, Mary, recognized me and signaled that we should take the last open table, in the back. While squeezing through the crowd, I could hear people say, “Now, isn’t that a Casey?” “Why, there’s Jane’s daughter.”
It made me feel like I had entered a warm nest. It’s always been the way I think about Buffalo.
The city is simply so much more than snow, or its unemployment rate, or its blue-collar heritage or its current struggles. And Buffalo is far more than the sum of this year’s tragedies.
During the days-long Blizzard of ’77, which before this recent storm was the worst in the city’s history, my father insisted that my sister Ellen figure out the bewildering PBX plug-and-connect telephone switchboard at the Buffalo chapter of the Red Cross. The operator couldn’t make it to work, and someone needed to manually connect phone calls . Dad was the chapter’s disaster director and he knew an emergency when he saw one, so he drafted Ellen to help. Over three days of the unrelenting wind and awful weather, she connected some 6,000 phone calls.
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One came from a man who had moved to Buffalo the week before. He sounded scared. “I’m from Cleveland, but I’ve never seen snow like this and I don’t know anyone here,” he said. “Listen to me,” Ellen said. “Put on your coat, go next door, ring the doorbell and introduce yourself.” It took some convincing, but he said he would try. The next week, he called Ellen back. He went next door where a crowd of neighbors welcomed him in. They had all gathered for a potluck dinner. He said he made a dozen friends, a fact that didn’t faze Ellen, or me. The city, we thought, would open its arms. And it did.
So as horrified as I was by the awful tragedies from the recent blizzard, I was unsurprised by the stories that showed the good in others. Like the 10 members of a tour group from South Korea taken in for days by a kind couple who now say they intend to visit their new friends in Seoul next year. Or the father, panicked as his wife went into labor, who got help from area doulas who did FaceTime calls to help him deliver his little girl. Or the seven stranded staff members of a Target store who kept an eye out for people who needed help and ended up taking in two dozen people – and making a Christmas dinner for them.
This time has been punishing for the city. The death toll may not yet be complete. Things may become more challenging as the snow melts, then freezes again.
Yet my hometown is more than its accumulated snowfall. It may have a national reputation for cold weather. But it’s still one of the warmest places I know.
Buffalo will always be home.
Very thought provoking article. As I reflect on it, I consider several places where I have lived “home.” Those places hold important and meaningful milestones in my life. I have been in my current location just over 5 years and I have yet to call it “home,” though I do enjoy living here.