Category Archives: Buffalo

Getting Kicked Out of The Croatian Club

I want to tell you this story because it’s so Buffalo, and Buffalo is the unifying theme of my life right now. Buffalo isn’t my hometown. I grew up two hours away, meaning I have a very similar cultural background but none of the local history is woven in with my own personal history. People can care about that around here, meaning my experiences are slightly flavored with being an outsider. I am from Syracuse, so consider them salty. But “not my hometown” is different than “not my home”. I am here. My husband and kids are here. I am weaving my life around the web of networks that already existed.

My friend turned 30 and she chose to celebrate by having her friends ride the bus, the Giant, Centrally Planned Uber, if you will, to a bar crawl. All bars were notable places. I was just there for the ride. Riding the bus to a bar is the closest thing I’ve got to reliving my fading youth. Why not mark mortality that way? It was evening, I gave the kids strict instructions to listen to their father and off I went into the bitter cold. I’m absent-minded, so I didn’t bring gloves as a way to protect myself against the possibility of losing them. But it was cold. It was the cold that hurts your face. It was the cold that makes us all tough. It was the cold that gives the city the unifying cause of a common enemy. It was also the cold that should have been here in January, not March. I had a magic transfer where one bus is waiting after the other bus. I watched daylight dim behind steep-peaked doubles as the bus passed through the West Side. Stepped off a stop early and I meandered into a Local Beer Establishment, Community Beer Works. Since I skipped dinner I became tipsy on the single, excellent stout. An American Studies PhD student and I were friendly ranting at each other about all’s that is wrong with capitalism and it’s like I’m 24 again. I belong.

We’re off to the Croatian Club via the 5. The 5 was also the bus I took in Seattle to get to work and my home from downtown; the 5 is the name of the main highway in Seattle and the Skyway in Buffalo; 5 is the route that goes through New York. So many important transit routes, and my tongue ties up which coast it’s I-5 and which coast it’s Route 5 and does “the 5” mean the bus? Nobody else does this. Most people in Buffalo have always been in Buffalo. My bus-bar hop companions are exceptions. We exited the bus, detoured into a convenience store on the edge of Tonawanda, and eventually find the Croatian Club. To get in, you walk into a nondescript building and enter through what is, as far as I can tell, their pantry. We entered a room that’s empty except for the bartender and a man sitting at the bar. I figured one of us were a member if we were going. Nah. I figured that if not, the process must not be too arduous. Well. Did you know that to join the company of the only patron in the room, you have to be a Member, a process that involves $20, an application approved by the president, and Knowing A Guy? Presumably it doesn’t have to be a guy, per say, but no strangers allowed. Some pre-existing member of some gender must sponsor you. Rules meant to keep people like me out. Three years living here does not erase that I am not from here, that whether I wish to be or not, I am still a stranger. In any case, no, we didn’t know these rules. “This is a Private Club,” a very stern, if polite enough bartender told us as she asked us to leave. My companion attempted to bribe her with a generous tip, but no: nothing resembling impulsive planning will make us welcomed.

I discretely snapped a picture of the exchange between my friend and the bartender. This is all funny to me. Usually my sense of alienation and exclusion comes in circumstances where everyone says that all are invited and welcome. Their words betray being blissfully or willfully ignorant of social signalling or boundary-making, or that saying everyone loves each other doesn’t will it to be true. If you say, “Nah, this ain’t welcoming” you risk almost gaslit denials about how the problem isn’t the criticized, it’s the criticizer. Beyond that, I’m white. I am not accustomed to the explicit act of being excluded, the unapologetic and undeniable drawing of a boundary meant to keep me out. Usually it is a bit more, what’s the word… subtle. And class-informed. This is almost refreshing except it involves being expelled into the bitter, bitter cold. It seems the Croatian Club sided with the enemy in Buffalo’s existential fight. Whatever, Croatian Club, you won this round: boundary drawn.

A friend remembered that there is a bar around the corner on Tonawanda Street, Kate’s, and we stumbled into it. It was dark and fluorescent and the bar was crowded with people obviously familiar with each other. There was an older woman with long blond hair behind the bar, demanding all of our ID’s. We obliged, and bought drinks, astonished at how inexpensive they are. My whiskey set me back $3.50 plus tip. We described to the crowd, who seemed sincerely interested in who the heck us strangers are, what happened with the Croatian Club. They were surprised? I guess being barred isn’t a common experience? A woman who did not know we existed 15 minutes prior generously bought us a round, the universal language of welcome at bars. She later comes over, and we found out that she’s a cosmetologist who looks significantly younger than her actual age. She gave us her skincare secrets. We shared the cupcakes my friend made with everyone there. We chatted with each other and strangers. I had *another* drink purchased for me by a woman a decade my senior, and I buy one for her. My friends and I talked, and talked, and talked. I was drunk, happy, and felt at home.

I looked at my phone and dashed out to catch the last bus to Black Rock with a minute to spare. The transfer was well within what I consider “close” and I walked home, betting my feet moving quickly will 1) keep me warm and 2) hasten my arrival home. I was correct. I scampered through familiar streets at an unfamiliar hour of night. I admired the big church on my way and listen to the hum of the nearby highway. I noticed for the first-time that an often-passed house looks like it’s a style older than the rest. I admired the height of the houses on my street. I feared nothing but numbness. I was home.

We moved to Buffalo a week and a half more than three years ago into the apartment we live in now. I realized the other week, while I’m in my daze, that this place became home, this place became where I do not want to leave. I cannot pinpoint the moment. Was it when I started seriously thinking about my career long term and bounded it geographically? Was it when I chose to stop taking an aggressively adversarial approach with policy disagreements, realizing the conflict was part of a relationship I might have forever? Was it when I decided to trust my next-door neighbor with my deep, dark secrets? Was it the cumulative effect of choices that chipped away at ground until I sank in? The geography of my life mimicked the rootlessness of a young person chasing work. It appears I have found some solid ground. My claim to ownership in the area will be disputed by those who have been here longer, who know the right people, who feel integrated in a way that excludes me. Sure. Fine. Whatever. I find and make the places where I belong. I am here.

EDIT: I’d later find out that Kate’s is a biker bar? Sure. Why not.

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Filed under Buffalo, Personal

the cause ain’t lost if you’re still pursuing it

“Fear makes you do the wrong things.”
my next door neighbor

“Trust that you can cope.”
my closest friend

Buffalo had its “Ferguson”. There were protests.

I decided to go. My professional networks had been advocating for more police training for a long time, and this on top of an incident where a suicidal man was deliberately hit by a car and I was angry. The circumstances lined up so that I could go. I had no idea how it would go; this protest was by the police station. My friend had told me that the holding center only lets you call 716 numbers, which no one in my family has, so I flipped through my phone to find one. Listen, if you trust me enough to tell me the state of your heart, I’m going to trust you to be the messenger if I end up in jail. I promised my spouse I would not get arrested and seeing me sharpie phone numbers on my arm gave him pause. Always be prepared. I also promised I’d only stay out an hour.

I showed up, borrowed a sign from a UU acquaintance, put those biceps of mine to work holding it up. I’m only 5’2, so if I don’t hold it ~up~ no one will see it, but this piece of posterboard in the 19 degree wind was nothing compared to the usual 30 pound child in my arms. I believe that’s what they call “transferring skills”. Stood for awhile. Shouted a few things. Maybe 100 people showed up. I, uh, left once I felt I could no longer do the calculus on my risk of breaking the “don’t get arrested” promise. For me, that is the point that I stop risking. I bent the time promise and arrive home to put my kids to sleep. (No one got arrested, by the way.)

You know when you show up that all you’ll be is an extra body in the crowd, hoping that enough other extra bodies show up for the relevant people to notice. You don’t know if it will make a difference. If am seeing the same faces all the time, I know everyone else will recognize them too. I constantly fight the feeling that the sun rises and sets regardless of whatever I do during the day: so what? Threats of futility don’t stop me from fighting the larger fights most of the time. As Dessa raps, “probable lost cause but I got a thing for long shots.” I know that nothing changes unless someone does something. I am someone. So I do something, and hope for the best. Causes are not lost as long as you keep pursuing them. So I keep pursuing it.

It’s like gambling, but with your energy and mortality.

My family and my faith gives me the strength and support to be bold. I do my best and I hope it matters. The last four years have taught me I am a person of limits: energy, time, and resources. I spend them with as much discernment as possible, trying not to waste them. It can be hard to know, hard to let go of the need to control, to reduce the uncertainty until the only thing certain is the uninterrupted status quo. I cannot let that be to the extent of the limited power I currently have. Small candles sometimes burn down houses in my city. I think of that a lot. I will one day die. I think of that even more often. It is not so much a fear of death I have, but a fear of leaving the people who lean on me to fall to the ground. I do all I can. The fear of failure is real. The fear of futility is real. Fear can make you do the wrong things; fear can drive you towards the illusory safety of inaction. That is the wrong thing.

Try, try, try.

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Filed under Buffalo, Dystopia

The City as a Power Machine

If I had my act more together, I would have already written about the Buffalo Open Data policy. Fortunately for you, Aaron Krolikowski did, and you can read about it here. One of the ideas that Krolikowski has spread is the utility of “small data” versus big data, that with more information open, you’re able to operationalize common problems into the data available. His post gets into some of that. I love the idea and think he’s right. So of course I’m thrilled to see that there is a process in the works to get the information on the portal, and that the person in the city government tasked with getting the ball rolling is doing so in a more open and transparent way, being open to new ideas.

Government has the distinct position of being the only institution that everyone in a geographically bounded area has in common. We are a pluralistic society, so we don’t necessarily belong to the same religion, industry, or social groups. We are all in different phases of life. Government is the social entity that we use to ensure we can all live together and keep everything functioning. In an ideal system, it would be collectively owned and equally influenced by everyone. That’s not how it actually works, but the more local you are, the more individual people can have a say, and the more one can take ownership and effect change concretely. So in the case for open data, this is making information available that directly impacts the community I can go out and touch. Federal policies can be a bit more abstract.

Government is, in many ways, the keeper of the social contract, as the state exists to monopolize violence. We consent to it, hoping that the terms are more or less just. It’s not perfect. Some may argue it’s not even good. But it is what we have, the only thing in common. If you try to break the government, you are, in effect, trying to break society. I worry that is what I am seeing on the federal level.

That is not what I am seeing on the local level. In some cases, I am witnessing municipal leadership of some places asserting their boundaries and distinctiveness. Buffalo’s Open Data policy was being shared with the public the same time that federal agencies were being told to cease communicating with the public.

Decentralized power is one way to deflect tyranny. The more power local governments keep of the day to day and the choices of whom stay in the border (I’m honestly too angry about the refugee policy to write about it in any way resembling coherent), the better off we will be. Local government has a great deal of power to determine local people’s quality of life. This power must be understood by our president or else he wouldn’t be threatening to “send in the feds” to Chicago. The more that we can instill citizen-participation in democracy – the genuine, meaningful way – at the local level, the better off we will people. Open data helps. Deliberative democracy helps. Districts that aren’t gerrymandered helps. We should focus on doing whatever will create a more equitable society.

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Filed under Buffalo, Dystopia

Clay

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I have been known to dig up some of the front yard, pull out the rocks, and knead the clay into something my kids can play with. It takes some work and water, but boom. Next thing you know you they made a play dinner set, or a play person, or a ball, and I created plausible deniability for my own play. Best yet: the mess stays mostly outside.

I want my kids to play with raw materials because I worry about truncating their imagination. I feel my own atrophying, as life gave me VERY SPECIFIC THINGS TO ACCOMPLISH to take place of the aimless wondering childhood affords. To the extent parenting is trying to protect your children from your own bad experiences, here I am. Each year brings more questions than facts. And the vision I had in front of me of what the world could be starts slowly aligning more and more with what is, instead of the hopeful vision un-moored and un-anchored to reality that I had not even seven years ago.

When I cannot consider the possibility of something, when it seems too scary, it is holding something too true, to frightening to accept.

Am I cynical?

No! Of course not!

Uh.

Uh.

Oh no. I don’t like that label.

Like the label carried more of a stigma than the actions that earn it. (I think most people are at that place with racism and sexism). Listen: I recoil any time someone suggests some facet of me doesn’t conform to some ideal-type of humanity, because of course I don’t. No one does. No living person is the realized ideal of humanity. Humanity is the empirical fact of humans.

Here, there was some discourse asking us to trade-in skepticism for action. I saw more than a couple places decrying reticence to join, reticence to act as cynicism, using the term as yet another label to file someone under “Bad Person” and it can feel like we have an awful lot of scarlet letters being embroidered, just waiting to be pinned. I am pretty aware of that dynamic, and am trying to keep some distance from it.

I am a skeptical person. I am a policy and data wonk. I need to know the limits of what I know. Some of what I heard described as “cynicism” felt like a really personal attack, because it appeared to be attacking those traits of mine. Usually I’ll just be like, “Fine, pin the scarlet letter on me, and go fuck yourself.” Here, I was like, “no no no no no… of course not…” It’s so threatening to how I consider myself, I could not consider the mere idea.

Another: cynicism as a form of cowardice. Man. Being accused of cowardice is too personal. I consider myself a reasonably brave person, I do stuff that scares me and makes me uncomfortable a lot. The truth is also that I likely have more anxiety than the average bear, requiring bravery to function normally. Whatever. It works for me.

Another: cynicism as a defense mechanism against disappointment. Oh. Uh, that one is a thing I do. I’ve tried to teaching myself reflexively not to want stuff, especially fancy stuff, because not wanting is easier than coping unrequited desire. (I’ve actually only recently really given in to that. Moderation can be harder than abstention.) It haunts my world. Despite my current circumstance being a very happy marriage, I can show you the scars from previous unrequited love. Despite having enough resources to ensure that not only I, but the two little humans in my care, are materially comfortable, I am still haunted by the anxiety of times when my resources were insufficient. So that was when cynicism sounded real to me, and I sensed that the rest of my reactions may have been defensive ones because the truth was too real for me to like.

But still! Cynicism is something I understood as a pessimism. Am I pessimistic? Did I become that way without even realizing it? Have I traded in hopefulness for reality? Am I sticking to what’s made, forgetting to imagine a better future because I am too afraid of the likely possibilities?

I was telling a friend that I do not know. And he told me that cynicism is like anything else in that you’re never 100% of what the trait-ideal is. That was comforting, because perfection is something I cannot do. Staring at cynical traits? Sure. I can do that.

My family is really into this guy’s channel on YouTube where he, as a hobby, makes stuff like huts and forges entirely from materials in the earth around him, his hands, and his knowledge. (Check him out, his stuff is enthralling – Primitive Technology.) We all did, at some point. Human beings creating our world with what is in front of us, but what shows up in front of us is beyond our control. Sometimes it is nourishing, and sometimes we need to protect ourselves from it. I think about this every single day. He’s really creative. I see ground and he sees a forge that can smelt iron. I admire that trait. To take what is in front of you and create something better when it is really, really difficult, that is admirable.

I want to be able to assess what is around me with more certainty than exists. The seductive simplicity of just using what I can make, relying on only myself, is limiting at best and a mirage at worse. How to stay brave enough to let myself be vulnerable in the pursuit of a better society? So far all of my bravery is that I know I have the support of friends, loved ones, and a supportive community. May I support them as much as they buoy me.

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Filed under Buffalo, Dystopia, Personal

Fire

The day after my country voted to elect a political neophyte to its highest office, whose campaign platform was essentially fascism and nostalgia, my area’s symbol of the past burst into flames. The steel plant that was once was the economic engine of the region caught fire as everyone was hearing the results. The fire was huge. I should not be using past tense; it’s still burning as I write this.

The smoke was so intense, it looked like a storm on radar, following the path of the wind. Yesterday, my spouse, who works 20 miles northeast of the site, smelled burning rubber and plastic.

fire

My photo from Buffalo’s City Hall observation deck of the smoke, after it had turned white.

I thought it was abandoned. Turns out that it was housing a bunch of small businesses with far fewer employees than the steel mill needed, and it’s weatherworn appearance was simply, well, the result of weather. The local fire departments are collaborating in efforts to extinguish it. They have to disassemble the structure as they work. One report likened the building to legos, with lots of smaller compartments that the water of the firefighters just will not touch without demolition.

The smoke sent toxins into the air and the mayor declared a state of emergency in the adjacent neighborhoods and asked residents to evacuate. Some did. Some refused.

The rage of the fire is dying down, though it’s being stubborn and remains. Diligent, capable, and brave people are continuing to calmly work, to contain it, to extinguish it, to ensure the fire does not hurt others.

Indeed.

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Filed under Buffalo, Excessive allegory

Light/Shadow/Action

photo by ali10 on morguefile.com

photo by ali10 on morguefile.com

I live in the City of Light, and you can tell by the proliferation of shadows, which most people suggest are inevitable. It’s how it’s done, they say, you cannot have light without shadows. Seemed that the shadows were a matter of positioning – maybe we could create some circumstances where the photons are more evenly distributed. Mirrors. Spotlights. Flashlights. Fire. Something. We need vision. We can do this. It’s light. It’ll become clearer as we try things.

So a few things happen when you start to do it:
1) First you try mirrors, but it doesn’t reflect the light as much as it reflects images and it blocks the view of the other areas. They have an exaggerating effect – the people in the bright areas see everything as bright, and the people in the shadowed areas feel more shadowed still. The mirrors exaggerate the narcissism of the illuminated, able to more easily view their splendor, presuming a preference of this very image for everyone else. The city does not get brighter in the meantime. Next.
2) OK. We got spotlights. But spotlights draw a lot of power. You need to plug them in to draw electricity, right? Well. Turns out the brighter areas are the more powerful, erm, electricity-rich areas abundant with plugs, so you’re illuminating the adjacent areas only. Everything gets kind of washed out when shadows disappear. A lot of people will say it’s better, but many more will say that the distinctiveness is gone – this is not the place we knew. It looks different. It feels different. We can’t live here anymore, they say, it’s blinding.
3) You try flashlights, nice and portable flashlights, for the areas not so adjacent. And yay! There’s more light. But flashlights have a funny habit of taking your eyes out of adjustment and making the surrounding area seem darker. They also don’t make much difference. The children are drawn to them – you get the cutest photos! – but they make shadow puppets, which is sort of defeating the purpose. Some of the folks see the flashlight and point to the spotlight as either aspiration or cautionary tale. There’s no such thing as a unified opinion on this one.
4) Seeking a softer ambiance, you hand out candles. The light is dimmer, but maybe it’ll illuminate the shadows. But the candles get dropped. And the candles usually burn out when they hit the ground, but every now and then, they land on something paper, something fabric, or worse: something explosive. The next thing you know, the area is light itself – matter converted to energy converted to heat and City of Light becomes less metaphor and more metaphysical reality. And then it’s gone – fires are notorious for burning out. Even while it was here, the fire created more shadows.

I live in the City of Light, and you can tell there is light by the proliferation of shadows, which we’ve yet to figure out how to escape.

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Filed under Buffalo, Excessive allegory

In the Wake of White Supremacy

I’ve been taking the approach with the people of color in my life that I take with people I know are in the midst of, or just past, some trauma: I try to be extra kind and I wait for them to volunteer information without prying, assuming if they want to talk about it, they will. The reason is that sometimes people want escape, sometimes people do not want to be triggered, and sometimes a rehash just hurts. I don’t want to hurt people. Yet, I don’t know if waiting is the right thing to do. It can come off as indifference. It can come off as denial. It can come off as tacit approval of whatever is causing ill. I’ve been talking more with the white people in my life, yet! That can also feel clannish. There is no perfect action, of course. There are just preferential mistakes.

My numbness grows with every new hashtagged name of someone killed by the police. I don’t have an inherent problem with police officers; lots of people in my life have been, or currently are, cops. They care about their work, they do their best. I do have problems with institutions that do not fix their problems and with occupational cultures that let professional malfeasance go uncorrected. One way to see the killing of Black people in traffic stops and such as an extreme form of professional malfeasance; many in my Twitter feed has argued this is how the system is designed. They aren’t necessarily wrong, in that all power structures are built to be self-perpetuating. I expect more from police officers. I want to dictate the norms of a profession that I am not in, I want to demand they be better than people with authority tend to be, because this profession is funded through my taxes, this profession exists explicitly to serve society at large, and I’m concerned with the boundaries of the society that’s served doesn’t always include everyone in it. I fear the codification of racial prejudice through the enforcement arm – to quote a philosopher-cop I used to TA for, law is pretty much only that which is enforced. I’ve been having the same conversation with a lot of white people – this isn’t really about if cops are inherently bad people, it’s more about what happens when the job done is lacking. Some occupations really need you to rise above prejudices and the big-picture aggregate is disheartening. One way white supremacy reinforces itself is by making everything about the inherent goodness or not, and then defines goodness as a weird socially-located set of intentions for the pale and perfection for people of color.

My numbness seemed to transform into emptiness with Philando Castile. I don’t know why it was him. Maybe it was because I was awake when the video broadcast on Facebook Live. Maybe it’s because his daughter isn’t that much older than mine. Maybe it’s because I recently had my first traffic stop and it was a ten minute speeding ticket and that’s it. I did not watch the video, because the purpose of being awake was to put my son back to sleep. I read Twitter when I rock him to stunt the encroachment of late-night ennui, and that night it was just outrage and sadness. I still haven’t seen the video. I feel like I don’t need to, what I read was awful enough. Then the sniper shot the Dallas Police and I found myself frustrated with the sniper for 1) killing and 2) complicating the narrative because white supremacy demands angelic victims, demands the oppressed rise above all occasions by never having a member of the group do anything wrong. It’s not right of him, of me, none of this is OK. Seems that people are getting a little better at acknowledging that you can demand better policing practices in our country and hold law enforcement officers to high standards *and* believe that the professional malfeasance of some officers doesn’t make belonging to that profession an executable crime. This understanding shouldn’t require people to stretch the muscles of nuance so strenuously, I would have hoped, but here we are.

Sociologist in me understands that oppression requires obedience, and any challenge to dominance gets pushed back. I’m trying to be gentle in the conversations with other white people about Black Lives Matter. No, it’s not perfect. Does it need to be? Does the violence in the white community require we dismiss our own claims to worth? Why are so many people willing to do so for the Black community? I try to be gentle because I don’t want my thoughts dismissed after people know what they are, and that it’s just how I think and to move on. I don’t want to damage the relationships I have with others, for selfish reasons (guys, I really like the people in my life) and it’s also a lousy persuasive rhetoric. I am a gear in this system, and I’m trying to slow the spinning, watching as the rest of the machine continues, as if all I managed to do was shear off some of the gear’s teeth.

Black Lives Matter. My Black friends, neighbors, colleagues, fellow country residents, etc matter. They matter whether I agree with everything they do, they matter whether you agree with everything they do. That’s the thing about mattering – it’s not conditional on perfection or expectations. Black people have the same inherent worth and dignity that all human beings do. This society is, ever so subtly in some ways and overtly in others, structured to diminish that. I’ve been hearing a lot of white people who have beloved people of color in their lives articulating a real fear of loss. I can only imagine what living in a society structured with systemic racism is like when you are a person of color. This is not the world that should be. It needs to change, and that’s work, and that’s slow, and that probably has a longer time horizon than my lifespan. I feel numb. I fear an encroaching sense of futility in the work I do. I’ve been quiet. Know the silence isn’t approval of the status quo – the silence is an imperfect effort to keep space. The silence is the attempt to stand up as waves crash over, again and again, realizing there is no shore, not knowing what to do next.

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Filed under Buffalo, Race