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Buffalo Unbound: A Celebration

Yes, you’ll find upstanding citizens and goodhearted
people everywhere, just like you’ll find sociopaths and
tail-pullers. But I do believe Buffalo’s designation as the
City of Good Neighbors, where a true friend lends you his last pair
of long johns, is not only earned but deserved. The examples go on
forever, from residents returned to their homes in eleven days and
not the six weeks federal agents said it might take after the plane
crash, the well-documented community assistance and generosity
shown to victims of disaster such as the Amherst family left
homeless by a mudslide and a Kenmore clan who lost their home and
family dog in a Christmas Eve blaze, to the unrecorded acts of
humanity performed on a daily basis for friends and strangers
alike. When Extreme Makeover: Home Edition shot an episode
in Buffalo last fall, over 4,000 volunteers turned out, including
many local craftsman. It was the largest number the TV show has
ever seen and more than triple the number they typically attract in
other places around the country.

One trait in particular I feel necessary to highlight is that
when a butcher calls out “Who’s next?” in Western
New York, five people don’t yell out their order as is the
case in Me First Manhattan where “Excuse Me!” serves as
a direct threat rather than a polite request or an apology.
Similarly, the height-challenged don’t stealthily move to the
front of a waiting crowd as if they’re just trying to see
into the display case when they’re in fact strategically
positioning themselves to catch the eye of the next available
counterperson. No siree, when the “next” call goes out
at Wegmans supermarket people look around to see who is NEXT.
Meantime, the old or infirm will almost always be ushered ahead in
case they’re in a hurry to get to a washroom. The employees
at Wegmans are also terrifically pleasant and when asked for help,
instead of proffering one of those vague sweeping arm gestures,
will actually take you directly to the item you’re searching
for. The staff also has a fine sense of humor, as evidenced by the
routine of my friend’s son, who liked to glue silver dollars
to the floor in front of the beer coolers on Saturday nights. On
Fortune Magazine’s list of “100 Best Places to
Work,” the family-owned supermarket ranked third this year
and has been in the Top 10 for the past eight years.

Similarly, it’s with dignity that people shovel their
driveways and mow their lawns along with the yards of their older
relatives. Yes, some folks hire a service, but none would brag
about it, well aware that personally attending to these tasks is a
badge of honor rather than something to be looked down upon as a
form of labor beneath them, including those with good jobs and more
degrees than a thermometer. Just the opposite, shoveling is often
hailed as the secret to longevity after sponge candy. Stories about
plucky old people almost always contain a line about how they were
still out clearing the walk at age 92. “I finally said,
‘Grandpa, at least wait until it stops snowing so you
don’t have to go right back out and do it again. But he
wouldn’t listen. And the Bills were playing the Patriots at
one o’clock.’” In fact, some people take such
pride in their snow removal skills that upon finishing the clearing
out part they use the shovel to go around and edge their

Meantime, if you’re wandering around a parking ramp in
Buffalo helplessly clicking your key with the hope that your
vehicle will call out to you, rest assured that not one, but
several perfect strangers will offer to drive you around in search
of your car, the author says from experience. Rotarians are
particularly dependable for this activity, and talented at locating
my make and model.

By United States standards, Western New York has been settled
for a long time. Before police stations were organized, fire
brigades were formed, hospitals were built, phone lines erected and
snowplows roared through the streets at dawn, people had to look
out for one other and form networks of protection. And even as
local services evolved, if you were an immigrant, a minority, or
from the lower ranks of society, they weren’t necessarily
there to ensure your safety and well-being.

Next, the area is steeped in agrarian roots, and if your barn
was on fire or the family had typhus, it was the nearest neighbors
who determined whether or not you survived. Thus it wasn’t a
good idea to do anything to piss off said neighbors, even if you
didn’t like their politics or religion or music all that
much. Nor was it a good idea to hold a grudge because their dog
made peeing on your pachysandra appear to be a job that he was
getting paid to perform.

My South African born husband is astounded that people in the
Midwest walk into each other’s homes uninvited. What does he
think the word “Yoo-hoo!” was invented for? Certainly
not just to be a beverage. Furthermore, as most Buffalo bedrooms
contain an electric blanket, one rarely risks interrupting couples
having sex on the kitchen table, even with their socks on.

Winters are protracted, or as Samuel Johnson said about
Paradise Lost, “None ever wished it longer,”
and deadly storms on the eastern end of Lake Erie hit hard and
fast. We are all too well aware that Mother Nature has stacked the
deck and she’s no one to fool with if you value Father Time.
Car trunks contain a shovel and blanket. A Buffalonian’s last
words are rarely, “Hey y’all, watch this!” except
perhaps in the ice fishing community.

If you’re caught on the wrong side of a storm and need
assistance it’s just as likely you’ll be dependent on
an ordinary citizen as a platoon of rescue workers. Similarly, a
stranger in trouble may knock on your front door or car window.
It’s for this reason that if you call and wake Buffalonians
in the middle of the night, they insist that they weren’t
sleeping, because you’re probably stuck somewhere and they
have to come and get you and don’t want it to appear to be an
inconvenience. Remember how you decided who to be friends with as a
kid based on pool ownership, well this is the criterion for making
adult friends (assuming you don’t have a large Italian
family) --- who will come fetch you in a storm?

Bowling remains a popular sport in Buffalo because you stay put
while the ball automatically comes back to you, without anyone
having to chase after it. Throughout its history, Buffalo has never
been a transient town. Families tend to stay in the area for
generations. Residents sit out on sprawling front porches. In fact,
few cities have porches this size or as many of them. Neighbors
know what you’re up to and with whom. Big Brother is watching
via the earliest known social networking site-good old-fashioned
gossip, making the world a smaller place since 500,000 BC.

It’s been said that Buffalo isn’t a small city or
even a small town, because of its famous one degree of separation,
but merely a large living room. Even the paper, The Buffalo
,despite its coverage of world and national events, feels
more like a village chronicle by including an appeal to The
Lancaster High School Class of 1965 for volunteers to help
celebrate their 45th reunion, a save-the-date for the South Buffalo
American Legion chicken barbecue, tips for family fun, a report on
a lawn tractor stolen from a garage, a long list of birthdays, and
plenty of space for locals to chime in with a point of view about
what’s going on at home, across the nation, or around the
world. There are problems and solutions --- when cinnamon
toothpaste irritates (try Magic Mouthwash), excessive dog
scratching (Listerine, mineral oil and water in equal parts), and a
spirited debate as to whether a basement or first floor laundry is
best. If your tastes run more to the racy and ribald, you’ll
need to turn to the Amherst Bee police blotter, which
diligently tracks the nefarious doings of scheming squirrels,
marauding raccoons, attacks by psychotic deer, naked people
sprinting through backyards, geese tapping on library windows, lawn
ornament decapitations and disappearances, and even the occasional
shirt caught in a blender. Criminals be warned: Western New York is
a place where the police still capture evil-doers by tracking their
footprints through the snow.

When I sat down to speak with Charity Vogel, daughter of
Buffalo News reporter Mike Vogel, it turned out her father
once worked with my uncle Jim
“Never-bring-a-knife-to-a-gunfight” Watson at the
Buffalo Courier-Express. When I was 10-years-old I’d
waved the two men off at the Erie Basin Marina as they set sail on
a training exercise aboard the Norwegian tall ship Christian
Radich. In other words, Google Earth isn’t watching Buffalo
area residents so much as everyone they know from work,
church/temple/mosque/synagogue, school, sports, and the cry baby
matinee. Trips to the mall or stops at gas stations almost always
involve running into acquaintances. Therefore, do not perform
smash-and-grab robberies, leave the scene of an accident, or think
that nude sunbathing, cross-dressing, or a karaoke addiction can be
kept on the down low. Your parents and/or children will know about
it in the time it takes to say the rosary. And definitely
don’t have an affair in Buffalo. My sources tell me that one
needs to go at least 20 miles out of town. But Baltimore is even
safer. There’s a saying about small towns that just as easily
applies to Buffalo: If you don’t want anyone to know about
it, then don’t do it.

It’s not easy for cats and dogs without homes or
caretakers to survive our Wuthering Heights winters. The stray
pooches that once populated the area are largely gone, having been
taken in, joined the wild packs roaming Detroit, or else traded
their fur coats for Ray-Bans and a life in the Sarasota sunshine.
However, there are an estimated 100,000 feral felines and
that’s where the Cat Ladies come in. Unfortunately,
“Cat Lady” is often used in the pejorative as in
“Crazy Old Cat Lady,” possibly because it sounds like
“Bag Lady.” But it shouldn’t be and they live
among us as teachers, toll collectors, nurses, carpenters and
Scrabble champions. In fact, many have Master’s Degrees,
PhDs, and prettily appointed homes, granted, with lots of cat
bric-a-brac. A small percentage of men even fall into this regal
cat-caring category, who work tirelessly to fix and feed strays
living outdoors year-round, rescue their kittens, get them
veterinary care and place them in good homes.

For me, the true nobility of the cat lady is in her willingness
to care for Persians and Himalayans, felines with hippie-length
hair, and lots of it. By all appearances it seems their only
occupations are to eat, sleep, shed and poop themselves. I’m
just thinking that you may as well help out around a kitty

It’s easily possible to fill every day volunteering at the
SPCA, local shelters and clinics, and attending the Feral Cat Focus
Dinner, City Kitty, the ABC (Animal Birth Control) luncheon, the
Crohn’s and Colitis fundraiser, and many good-hearted folks
do exactly that. Meantime, Operation PETS accepts strays twice a
month on “Freaky Feral Fridays” for spaying and

Most of the benefits are held in February and March, right
before “kitten season,” when everyone would otherwise
be too busy with hands-on rescue work. My favorite event is where
the cats actually climb up to Jesus in “suffer the little
children to come unto me” fashion, but on all fours. It was
at this particular silent auction, where between a three-story cat
condo and twin hemp scratching posts, I was surprised to find a
gift basket filled with analgesics and cough suppressants? Did they
know I was coming?

My aunt had twelve cats at one point. She wasn’t supposed
to shelter that many felines in her apartment and so when the
landlord came by she traded on the fact that they all looked alike
and so long as they stayed about four in a room with a few under
the beds, she could get away with saying she had only five.
Something similar happened in my friend Julie’s Italian
Catholic family. Her grandmother had twelve children, which was not
all that unusual for Buffalo back in the day, but they lived on a
street with German families and didn’t want to appear
déclassé, and so only four kids were allowed out to play
at a time, also under the assumption that by looking fairly alike
and moving around quickly, they couldn’t be told apart all
that well.

Along with my former Sweet Home teacher Kathy LeFauve, my Aunt
Sue is now busy

full-time with cat rescue work, and so she no longer raises the
exotic looking sable-colored, golden-eyed Burmese. I have to admit
that I miss going to cat shows with her, where as a kid it was my
job to bring Bloody Marys around to the judges all morning.
Analyzing cat coats and features was obviously incredibly stressful
work. But nowadays Aunt Sue always has a houseful of adorable
foster kittens waiting for good homes. A retired English teacher,
she writes up their Purrsonality Profiles in brilliantly creative
and impressionistic prose, which has resulted in a

100 % adoption rate. Most begin with “Perfect Pussycat
Companion”…as I understand that the word
“pet” can sound a controversial note in cat

“Those who say that we are in a time when there are no
heroes just don’t know where to look,” Ronald Reagan
declared in his first Inaugural Address. He went on to say that
they can be found among farmers and factory workers and people on
both sides of the counter. “They are individuals and families
whose taxes support the Government and whose voluntary gifts
support church, charity, culture, art, and education.” And
cat shelters, I might add.

Aside from its several nicknames such as “Queen
City,” “Nickel City,” and “City of
Light,” Buffalo is not known by any catch phrases the way
Beirut was “The Paris of the East” and Nashville was
“The Athens of the South.” Buffalo is not called
“Gateway to Eden, NY --- Home of the Original Kazoo Company
Factory, Museum and Boutique Gift Shop,” even though it is!
Or else as the first stop on the road to nearby LeRoy, NY, the
birthplace of Jell-O! Likewise, one doesn’t often hear St.
Moritz called “The Buffalo of the Swiss Alps” or Aspen,
Colorado, referred to as “The Buffalo of the West.”

That said, although there are cities named Buffalo in many other
states --- Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, North
Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, West
Virginia, Wyoming and two in Wisconsin --- when a national
newspaper or magazine says “Buffalo,” they almost
always mean Buffalo, NY, home of God’s Frozen People.

Despite the fact that the weather is cold for a good part of the
year, Buffalonians are a warm, generous, high-spirited, and
neighborly people, proud and protective of their turf. This is
easily visible at any home game of the Buffalo Sabres, Bills or
Bisons, and something my husband experienced firsthand a few years
back. As mentioned, my husband was born and raised in South Africa,
though his ancestors were Dutch, which immediately raises the
question, if people from Poland are called Poles then why
aren’t those from Holland called Holes?

Unfamiliar with the exalted level of hometown pride, he went
around asking anyone who would listen, “So why did people
first settle here and decide to stay?” This is somewhat
understandable if you appreciate that my husband didn’t grow
up pulling on wool hats, covering the windows with heavy gauge
plastic and scraping his car windshield, thus rendering him out of
his element in the Great White North. And his visit was
during a particularly bad winter. However, tribal loyalties
prevailed and constituents immediately translated his question
into: Why does anyone in his or her right mind live in
? Leave it to say this was an unpopular conversation
starter, or rather, it made him about as welcome as a Saturday turd
at Sunday’s market, as we like to say in Western New

Along similar lines, on minus ten degree days Buffalonians do
not go around saying, “Is it cold enough for you?” This
is considered to be just plain stupid, like saying
“aye” to Canadians. Buffalonians take advantage of
winter by skiing, snowboarding, skating, snowmobiling, tobogganing
and sledding; crossover activities occasionally necessary to get
the mail or walk the dog. This past winter the first annual Powder
Keg Festival offered tubing, snowshoeing, broomball, a snowman
building contest, live music, a soup and chili cook-off, a Saint
Bernard-led parade, and the world’s largest ice maze. The
Guinness Book of World Records judge on hand, Amanda Mochan, also
judged locals as being “really friendly.”

And it’s safe to say that cold weather capitals such as
Western New York can take credit for the surge in scrapbooking. In
pursuit of this perfect indoor hobby one spends hundreds of dollars
on albums, craft punches, stencils, inking tools, eyelet setters,
heat embossing tools, personal die cut machines and templates,
vellum quotes, stamps, RubOns, edging scissors, pens, lace, wire,
glitter, fabric and ribbon, or a desktop publishing and page layout
program with advanced printing options and scanner if you want to
go the digital route, only to realize that a January getaway to the
Caribbean would’ve been less expensive.

Despite a growing season that falls squarely into the category
of being stingy, locals work hard to create award-winning gardens,
oftentimes by starting those seedlings on the kitchen countertop in
Dixie riddle cups way back in February. In fact, Buffalo has the
largest garden walk in the country. And it’s free. Take that
Forbes magazine Misery Index! In fact, the garden walk has
been so successful that it was recently transformed into a
five-week festival.

Songwriter Jack Yellen (1892-1991), who emigrated from Poland
when he was five-years-old and grew up in the Buffalo area, scribed
“Happy Days Are Here Again,” which became Franklin
Delano Roosevelt’s campaign theme song in 1932, and that of
subsequent democrats, until it was co-opted by Reagan Republicans
in 1980. Yellen was always amused by the fact that he wrote the
song in just thirty minutes for a relatively unheard of movie
called Chasing Rainbows released a few months before the
stock market crash of October 1929 marked the onset of the Great

Although we proudly claim our share of standouts and eccentrics,
the denizens of B-lo don’t have a tremendous interest in the
peccadilloes of politicians and rehab stints of celebrities.
We’re more apple brown betty than crème
. The Buffalo and Erie County Library has a first
edition of American writer Henry David Thoreau’s
Walden (a.k.a. Life in the Woods) in its fabulous
rare books collection. However, Thoreau is not necessarily a hero
in my hometown. Despite his belief in the divinity of manual labor,
Buffalonians know that Thoreau was wrong about a lot of things.
First, you don’t traipse off to live alone in a cabin in the
woods because

a) it’s boring, and b) you might freeze to death. And
let’s rather call Nature Boy’s cabin a dorm room
because he walked into town almost every day and regularly went
home to raid the cookie jar and have his laundry done. Plus his mom
delivered care packages containing homemade meals, pies, and
doughnuts every Saturday.

Thoreau most famously said, “The mass of men lead lives of
quiet desperation.” Now one could just as easily say this
about Bills fans, but I beg to disagree, and believe that those
fanatics outside in subzero with DOLPHINS BLOW painted in blue
across their bare chests are passionate, engaged with humanity, and
leading lives of thunderous hope, not only for that Super Bowl
ring, but for their children to have good lives in a world devoid
of poverty, disease and brutality. And they’re thankful not
to be home to the Detroit Lions.

Second most famously Thoreau said, “If a man does not keep
pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a
different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears.”
Now picture a high school marching band stomping around outside on
a crisp fall Buffalo day with the bassoonist turning at the 20-yard
line, timpanist heading off toward the concession stand, and all
the while everyone is pounding out flats and sharps exactly as they

Henry Thoreau died from bronchitis after going out alone on a
late night expedition in a rainstorm to count the rings of a tree
stump. Shortly before he passed away his aunt asked if he’d
made peace with God. Thoreau told her that he didn’t know
they’d quarreled. This seems a good place to mention that he
was a Unitarian, and helped to advance the belief that man was a
part of nature, not separate from it. However, he was such a devout
Unitarian that he had to resign being Unitarian because he felt
being Unitarian precluded him from being a joiner.

No, Buffalonians have it right. Join the club and pay the dues.
Find others. Celebrate your joys and mourn your losses together.
Stick with the herd. Swim with the school. Stay with the flock. And
my mother says to wear a hat.

Excerpted from BUFFALO UNBOUND: A Celebration © Copyright
2011 by Laura Pedersen. Reprinted with permission by Fulcrum
Publishing. All rights reserved.

Buffalo Unbound: A Celebration
by by Laura Pedersen

  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • paperback: 196 pages
  • Publisher: Fulcrum Publishing
  • ISBN-10: 1555917356
  • ISBN-13: 9781555917357