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Leaving, and Loving, Buffalo — One Woman’s Story

14 November 2012 One Comment

The day I left, I stood at the door of my now- empty refrigerator and cried. “I don’t want to do this”. I said, out loud.

I felt as if I were breaking up with a beautiful, doomed, lovable f- up of a man, one who would serve as a benchmark for both the highest and lowest emotional keynotes in one’s life from that point forward.

I came to be with my brother, who had come to be with my sister, who had come for school—one of the few things Buffalo has left is a top rated art education program at a state school price. After my sister completed her program, she left for greener pastures and my brother did too. I stayed on, for four more years, the first two wonderful, matchless and full of discovery, and the last two a gently sloping off ramp that grew incrementally more painful each day.

The end of school and the unexpected losses that came with it- scholarship, a sense of purpose, fellow learners and encouragement, safety and help—and nothing to replace these things. The loss of one friend after another to cities where either jobs beckoned or family lived who could shield them while they started over. The job that started at 40 hours a week and was cut slowly down to occasional 4 hour Saturday shifts. The shame of having to apply for a HEAP grant to keep my heat on during the punishing winter. The cold sweat of having to choose between mushrooms and lettuce at Price Chopper because I don’t have quite enough for both. Finally, the dull, well worn track between the check cashing place that doesn’t ask too many questions, the dollar store, and the bus stop that takes me to my 9$ an hour commission- based collections job, the last job I’d ever work in Buffalo.

But really, I left mostly because the last of my friends, who had acted as a surrogate family, safety net and all around entourage, had left. And they left because there were not enough jobs in their field. Without them, the grinding, crushing poverty of the city became a starvation of the spirit that eventually drove me from my home.

The challenges others might find disheartening—run down neighborhoods full of decaying boarded up haunted houses awaiting the wrecker’s ball, hollowed out downtown surrounded by snobbish know-nothing suburbanites, “the brain drain”, lack of resources so severe it lead me to describe life in the city as “living in a 150,000 person gypsy camp”—those things just added to the ineffable glamour of the city. My city. As they say, if you could make it here….

I fell in love with Buffalo while reading real estate ads that contained the words ‘front house’ and ‘back house’. Any city with its own lexicon was the city for me. For everyone that lived and loved there, Buffalo grabbed them, squeezed their heart, and never really let go.

There were many, many things to love about Buffalo, but the finest thing was the intense, almost maniacal love of the city that the residents had for it—a love that flourished against odds, reason, and reality.

A video submission to “A Cook’s Tour” that convinced a celebrity chef well known for his cynical side to come and see our “cuisine” in the dead of a Lake Effect Snow winter. A website devoted only to the springy, funny, odd jargon one finds only in Buffalo—screamers, pounders, “The Strip”, white hots and all. The fact that a half-assed dilettante writer like me could win a writing contest the goal of which was to include as many local sites as possible in a short story.

This and so much more- the hard winters that gave way to the sweetest summers imaginable. The rush that comes from finally “clocking” the whole town—knowing all the best places to eat, drink, sleep and be merry—and being able to show off your beloved Queen City to your visiting friends. Around every corner, another corner, and that full of wonders that make a mockery of one’s attempts to describe them—a punk kid with a Mohawk play- wrestling a Husky dog in a “city prairie”, two tumble down mansions on either side of him, late July sun bathing the scene in honey. Standing breathless in the observation deck of City Hall and watching my friend point to the places where he played, learned, worked, wrecked his car, fell in love, and came home again. Having a drink in the Polish Social Club, and feeling like you’ve been given some kind of secret you can’t wait to share.

This was what I gave up to seek my fortune in the Far East.

Now I live in the Philippines, working as a designer of training programs for a large, multinational call center. The job, its perks, and the lifestyle I live here (I can literally fly off on a four day vacation with no forethought or planning) is something I would not be able to have in Buffalo, but if I were to win the lottery, I would return in a heartbeat. Not one day goes by that I don’t think about my gorgeously decayed city on the lake and how badly I want to go back.

My friends and I used to dream aloud, not about exotic vacations or living in Beverly Hills, but of “the Buffalo Life”, a kind of ur-bobo lifestyle: Forty- something bohemian aristocrats who’d traveled and repatriated the city and lived in gorgeous, original- plank- wood -floored homes peppered with gift –of- the- artist paintings. They had dogs, they drank fifty- dollar (fifty dollar! Wouldn’t that be fine!) bottles of wine and they went jogging in Delaware Park in the early Fall looking as if they had the world on a string. That was the life we all wanted, and Buffalo held it out so tantalizingly to us—but somehow the last veil was never lifted, the final tumbler in the lock never clicked for us, and that life remained out of reach.

Ultimately, the town wasn’t big enough for the two of us: me and my friends. Someone had to go, and in the end, all of us went.

–Naomi Shira Kelsey