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.