Rust Wire is pleased to share an interview with Greg Ames, the author of Buffalo Lockjaw, a fantastic novel mostly set in Buffalo.
Here’s a passage:
“Turned out that Buffalonians loved talking about Buffalo, especially during happy hour, which lasted from five o’clock to midnight. Many of them felt an immense tenderness for this town. They were proud and protective of Buffalo. They dipped their pizza crusts in puddles of blue cheese and argued about where to find the best chicken wings in the city. They celebrated happy hour most nights and ate fish fry on Fridays. They had distinctive vowel-strangled accents, and the nasal sounds of certain words (“car” and bar”) rivaled Long island’s more jarring and annoying tonal variations. Their last names were Szwejbka and O’Shaughnessy and Torrentino. They distrusted book learning. Money talked and bullshit walked. They had provincial worldviews, and they definitely considered you show-offish if you used words like “provincial.””
For purposes of this blog, we focused on Buffalo-centric questions. But I also really enjoyed the book from a literary standpoint; there’s James, the likeable but screwed-up protagonist returning home to Buffalo, some very real family dialogue and dynamics, heart-breaking nursing home scenes, and questions every family could face at some point. Ames really captured the smells, sights, feel, and depressing-ness of a nursing home when he describes the main character’s visits with his mother.
RW: Tell us about growing up in Buffalo. Where in the city did you grow up and share some of your Buffalo memories.
GA: “I grew up in Kenmore, a suburb of Buffalo, so I was one of the ‘Kenmorons’ I referred to in my novel. Memories . . . As a third grader I was so disruptive that one day my teacher put an empty refrigerator box around my desk, segregating me from the rest of the class. The box fit around the desk perfectly. It was an unprecedented situation and nobody knew how to deal with it, including the teacher herself. I had a subscription to Mad magazine and the governing philosophy seemed to be: Hey kid, everything in America is fake. Success. Marriage. Careers. Families. Hollywood movies. Don’t be fooled. My first concert was the Violent Femmes at Buffalo State College. I was in 8th grade. Somebody in the audience threw a full beer can at the Violent Femmes’ drummer. The lead singer said, ‘Fuck you, Buffalo,’ and they all walked offstage. Thrilling. Later there would be Suicidal Tendencies, Black Flag, Circle Jerks and Descendents, but I think that first show is still the best I’ve ever seen.”
RW: Growing up, did you like or dislike living in Buffalo? When did you leave and why?
GA: “I liked Buffalo. I hated all the schools I went to, but that would have been the case no matter where I lived. My family moved to Rochester when I was between my sophomore and junior years in high school, and that was traumatic for me. I ended up at a Jesuit high school, a place where detention was called Justice Under God and you had to write ‘conduct’ and ‘discipline’ until your hand cramped. I was expelled three months before graduation. The principal, a man with hair sewn into his scalp, allowed me to take my final exams, alone, in a broom closet across the hall from his office. That summer I moved back to Buffalo for college, because all my friends were there. Over the years I moved away from Buffalo a number of times, but I felt I could always come back if I wanted to.“
RW: I know for myself growing up in Erie, Pa., I began to feel a lot more pride about where I had come from after I left. Did you have similar feelings after leaving your hometown?
GA: “I’ve always had Buffalo pride. It’s a fine city. Some natives are a little obsessive about it, though, and they should relax. They won’t hear a single bad word spoken about Buffalo, and that’s obviously closed-minded—no place is perfect—but this defensiveness comes from being the butt of a joke for so many years. It’s annoying to hear elitists mocking you. Nobody likes that feeling. Some people in the publishing world actually think that if you set a story or a novel in Buffalo or Pittsburgh or Cleveland that it can’t be of interest to anyone outside that particular region.”
RW: Do you think you might ever live in Buffalo again? Why or why not?
GA: “I’m not opposed to it. I still have a lot of friends and family members in Buffalo, but for the time being I’ve made a life for myself in Brooklyn.”
RW: In your opinion, what’s right and what’s wrong about Buffalo?
GA: “I don’t know. The mistakes made in the 20th century seem to be endless. It’s sad to look back at what was and might have been. Read any history of Buffalo and you’ll see a story of corrupt government, passionate citizens who can’t make their voices heard, and the destruction of architectural and other historical treasures. There’s been a lack of imaginative vision. Most of the blue-collar industry has left town but nothing has replaced it. There are few jobs for college graduates, so they move away. City leaders have been kicking around ideas about the waterfront for at least thirty years now. You’d have to ask a city planner or a social scientist to answer this. I’m sure the answer is very complicated. The one thing I do know is that Buffalo is a city filled with intelligent, interesting people, and that’s where any growth and change has to start.”
RW: How much of your book is made up and how much is based on your real life? Are the “urban ethnographies” real or invented?
GA: “Like all writers, I borrow from my own memories and experiences, but this book is fiction. The urban ethnographies are fiction.”
RW: Can you recommend any favorite Buffalo blogs?
RW: Is there anything else you want to talk about that I haven’t asked you?
GA: “No. I’ve probably talked too much already. Interviews make me nervous sometimes because I feel like I’m talking out my ass. I try to give conscious answers about stuff that is largely unconscious, and weeks later I think, ‘What the hell was I talking about?'”