Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Valley Parade thru the Old First Ward

Whenever Sam and I make our yearly foray in the Old First Ward for the Valley Parade, I expect to see a banner straddling South Park Ave. that reads "Welcome to Reagan's America." There are few places that have been so shaped and defined by the politics of a particular era. My unionist Grandfather voted Republican for the first time in his life when he voted for Reagan. For those eight years, my grandfather hung his head as if he had been charmed by a snake oil salesman. In retrospect, industry would have skipped town regardless. Reagan merely bought them their airline tickets.

And to further not blame one person (or a party), there's something particularly American with our abundance of space that makes it easy to use up one place and abandon it for the next more virulent territory. Who wants to keep revisiting the Perry Projects? My father and mother wanted to escape. We took off west.

And because of that, whenever I roll the red wagon through the crowd to weave Sam to our spot in front of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, I do so with all the detachment of a tourist.

This year we went to the parade with Dave. My husband hasn't gone to the parade since he was a teenager and he reluctantly went this year. He gave up drinking years ago as a first big step toward freeing himself from the stereotype of working class guy. I take a moment to see the shadow version of my husband along the parade route. I can imagine him as a teen, reveling in smoking and drinking beer in public but then I can even see him much older, the man he could have been if he hadn't quit, still drinking a little too much, stumbling away from his family to drink a little more, having forgot a long time ago what he wanted for himself. The problem with alcohol is that years of it can make you myopic.

Sam doesn't care about any of this, he likes the floats and the candy and necklaces that gets thrown from them. Our neighbor makes the "Goin' South" float. Every morning as we headed off to school, we saw the construction of the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Sam is excited to see it finished.

Then the bagpipes play, I look for my uncles. There's Billy marching with the police as he always does. He is why we're here. This isn't for Billy's benefit, he's been doing this for so long with and without family members showing up, I'm sure he's always surprised when he sees me in the crowd. He waves to Sam. Billy knows we'll leave long before the party begins.

I don't feel like a tourist after I see him. There are many places I've lived but there is only one place that I come back to again and again. Let the rest of America find the next best place, I'm standing still watching for my cousin marching with the Hibernians and our niece Caeley high stepping with her Irish Dance troop, flouncing those fake Irish curls. Maybe reclamation can begin with family~it's why I keep coming back.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Busting Sod

Every March I try to get outside to bust sod. The weather in March is at its most temperamental—all the seasons can happen in one month—snow, sleet, rain, high winds, sunshine. This Friday it’s supposed to be 70 degrees but snow threatens the week after. Not that the weather isn’t temperamental all year round in Buffalo.

The year I moved here, the snow fall reached 7 ft in 2 days. I complained to my mother who was in Seattle at the time. She said, “The weather is the wonder there and if you don’t start appreciating it, you best move.” Since she’s moved here, I’ve repeated this to her so often, she wishes she never said it.

But she was right.

And from that perspective, March is truly the most wondrous month of all.

So far I’ve only gotten one day to bust sod. I’m planning on building a raised vegetable garden. My pumpkins last year, grew over the fence into my neighbor’s backyard. Vegetation grows in abundance here. This year, I want to plant a Three Sister’s Garden—beans, squash, and corn.

Our backyard is typical for South Buffalo, a long rectangle, sunken in the middle, two chain link fences and ol’ rickety wooden one, and a blacktop driveway leads to a small garage. Dave and my father often sit in the back and reminisce about their South Buffalo boyhoods when they ran the fence line hopping from garage to garage, squirreling their way through the neighborhood. There’s a 35 year age difference between them yet it’s the same reminiscence. I don’t want them to put ideas into my son Sam’s head.

Last week, Sam and I began to bust the sod in the backyard or rather I busted up the sod and he collected worms. Busting sod is simple. I dig into the recently thawed, moist ground with a shovel; unearth the matt of grass along with a hunk of dirt. I shake the dirt from the roots, toss the grass away and then break up the clumps of loam. I plow my fingers through the loose soil and plop the worms into the palm of Sam’s waiting hand. Later we’ll sit in the kitchen and watch the robins peck through the dirt pile for those same worms.

No matter how many times the weather throws a temper tantrum and interrupts the spring, the robins, the return of the geese, the crocuses and pussy-willows a bloom let me know that spring is marching in. That same day we saw the robins bobbing for worms, I caught our neighbors’ daughter Ella on our swing set. Hers is much nicer but the grass is always greener (no matter how busted up) over the chain link fence. It’s not only the pumpkins that know no boundaries. She had twisted the chain on the swing and then let it take her on a spin. Yet another sign of spring.

There is something about doing the same thing every year: Digging that shovel into the sod, breaking up the dirt and running my fingers through the cold ground that seems to break up time itself. Time stops being linear. All these moments—Ella on the swing, Sam and I digging for worms, my father and husband reminiscing—begin to seem as though moments can be magnetized. They attract one another until they clump together—moments from this spring and previous ones and the ones I imagine in the future. I hear those moments clicking together as if every spring was happening at this very moment.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

First Ward Parade

The First Ward parade is one of two parades attend—the other being Buffalo’s Pride Parade. And this year for the first time a Pride float was included in a St. Patrick’s Day Parade in NY State. For such a staid community, this is progressive.

The First Ward was the first neighborhood built in Buffalo and it became Irish when the immigrants moved in over 100 years ago.

We usually park near the end of the parade route by The Perry Projects. Aunt Ann and I bundled ourselves and Sam up, then pulled him in his red wagon to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. As you near the parade route, you can see the old rusted Granaries in the distance. They appear as end caps to the street. We met up with Mitch—my uncle’s finance. Danny proposed at the parade last year (see previous blog entry). Whenever I walk along the streets of the First Ward, I’m reminded of the movie Hope and Glory which is about a boy and his friends playing in the rubble of WWII. The juxtaposition of youth against the ruins of war is quite striking.

And so it is at The First Ward. That image of squads of Public Servants marching along the ruins of industry strikes me the same way. Add to it the fierce wind and rain. I can almost hear orchestral music swelling in the background. I watch it stream by me like a private movie screening.

But then someone tossed me a can of Genny beer. The crescendo reached the coda.

I’ve seen so much of continental U.S. from coast to coast and pole to pole—land and city scapes. I’ve felt restored, enlivened and gentrified in those places. But those places want not.

Whenever I’m at one of these kinds of events in Buffalo, the religious word “witness” comes to mind. Why I feel compelled to do this is a bit of conundrum for me. I’ve never understood what the importance of putting eyes or ears to an event could mean especially if I’m sharing it with other eyes and ears. If a tree falls in the forest and everyone in South Buffalo hears it, does it matter if I heard it too. Especially me. I don’t think participation is going to bring South Buffalo back to its former Glory. I don’t even Hope for that.

I’m enchanted with forging on in the rubble. I want to play in it; see my uncles and cousins march in it. I want to bundle my boy in rain gear and roll him up to the front line of it.

I simply want to witness it.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

My Uncle Proposes at the Old First Ward Parade

One year ago, my uncle met Michele at the end of the parade route. Today, he proposed.

He wore a kilt and asked a couple of bagpipers to play as he got down on one knee. He offered her an emerald set with two diamonds. She said yes.

We met up with them later. I popped the champagne. My Uncle Billy gave a toast. What a celebration.

My uncle is 54 years old and has never been married. Sometimes love comes later for us South Buffaloians. But when it's true.

Monday, February 23, 2009

From a Steel Plant Comes Windmills

I wrote this as the Reflection for the Trinity@7 service. I read it last night. My mother Trudy Cusella edited it. It's all in the collaboration.

Tonight while we are experiencing one of our coldest winters, I thought it might be fitting to talk about how Forbes magazine recently released its list of America’s most miserable cities. Buffalo was rated eighth on that list. Forbes misery scale is based on inflation, unemployment rates, commute times, weather and violent crime. What strikes me about this list wasn’t that Buffalo was on it but the reactions to it. From people who do NOT live in the area, I hear, “Well, that seems just about right.” While the reactions I get from people who DO live here is, “Unfair. Wrong. We always get blasted because of the snow when other cities endure far more freezing temperatures. Buffalo is a great place to live. It should be ranked as one of the best.” The divergent responses are an odd contradiction. One of the charms of living here at least for me is that Buffalo is a city riddled with irony and you must live here to truly appreciate that about it.

I’ve lived here for years and I enjoy it. And, I enjoy the fact that Buffalo makes it on those dubious lists. I’m not a masochist. I don’t invite gloom. I once lived in a city ranked in Forbes magazine as the best place to live and I was miserable. Now I’m happy in a so-called miserable place. Personal irony.

Sometimes the complexities of cities—its network of buildings, environment, people, business, roadway and culture—make it difficult for us to see our relationship to it. This is when I attempt to embody the complexity. I try to see the city as a character—personify it. I visualize a person. Then I can see what kind of relationship I’m having with this person.

Prior to moving here, I lived in Seattle. Now for me Seattle was a young man in his prime. To make him more easily understood I’ll use a stereotype. He was a quarterback of the high school football team. All American. Smart. Gorgeous. Homecoming King. We all knew that guy. Maybe some of you were that guy or a female version of that guy. I was not. I liked smoking cigarettes at coffee houses. That guy never noticed me. I witnessed his glory days from the sidelines. And that’s how I felt living in one of the best cities in the country—sidelined. Fighting traffic and expense everyday. I wasn’t in the game—I didn’t work on one of the corporate campuses, I didn’t have money for a condo by the water, boating makes me motion sick. I was enthralled by all the city had to offer but ultimately I felt dejected, isolated, and disheartened.

Now, Buffalo personified creates a very different character. Buffalo may have been the quarterback at one time—perhaps when it was given the moniker The Queen City in the early part of the twentieth century but that was one incident in a storied past. The Buffalo character has seen his day in the sun and so have his knees, back and elbows. And the pain of the age and self abuse has made this man cranky, difficult and challenging. He’s busted up and down on his luck. When he drank, he drank whiskey neat but now he’s in a 12 step program. Tonight is Oscar night so I’ll give you a visual in the form of an Oscar contender. The actor who would play Buffalo personified is not the Adonis Brad Pitt but Mickey Rourke. Mickey Rourke, the Wrestler, the aging actor awaiting a comeback. He may be passed his prime but he’s still in the ring. You can’t be sure if this man is capable of lasting change. It’s because you don’t know that you are willing to give him your hand. You don’t just root for him; you become part of his story. You don’t reach out to him as some sort of co-dependant gesture to try to change the unchangeable. You reach out because with this man reaching out matters. It could change his life and yours. Suddenly you are no longer on the sidelines. You are involved.

Earlier we read Yeats’ poem Lake Isle of Innisfree. I picked it because in the hands of master, you can see how places really do fill us up with their character. Tonight on my way here I passed the place that is my Innisfree. While my place isn’t nearly as quaint or peaceful as the real one, it is a place where contradictions converge, where cynicism and hope meet, where I feel a spiritual shudder.

I’m sure you’ve seen it as you drive along Route 5 in South Buffalo, just before you get on or off the Skyway. This area is being developed in fits and burst. I come to it along Tift Street. As I crest the hill over the train yards and drive just beyond the old dump that is now a nature preserve, I arrive at the foot of Tift where the lake meets the city. From the rubble of Bethlehem Steel, windmills turn. Small red lights at their center flash like a beacons drawing me ever closer. It’s as if they broke through the earth and rose up on their own—a flower sprouted from industry. New life blooming in waste. More irony.Everything becomes waste and waste makes what comes next possible. A renewable resource from a spent one. Our defeated past becomes our hopeful future. Windmills from a steel plant.

But this doesn’t just happen at the foot of Tift street. It’s happening tonight, right now, right here. We came from those weather worn, dark, empty streets of the city into an old church to gather for music and prayer and poetry. This is the way we reach out to awaken the spirit of our city.

A young beautiful boy striding the pinnacle of his ability and talent throws a perfectly spun football under the lights. He’s wonderful. And I challenge any 15 year old not to be enthralled by this Brad Pitt image. But it’s reflected glory. Our man, Mickey, is challenging. He’s not content. He can be down right miserable. He needs change. And he’s looking straight at me and at you, waiting to see what to do next.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

What I Wrote about Buffalo Before I Moved to Buffalo

I'll charm the air to give a sound, While you perform your antic round~William Shakespeare
Macbeth, Act iv. Sc. 1

Tiny Square Egg Noodles

March 15th, 2000
Seattle, Washington

I live in an apartment that the landlord originally built for the visitors of the 1962 World’s Fair. Flat roof, concrete deck, and a row of picture windows—motel-like. A place to visit, not a home. Outside, the dripping rain lures me into the kitchen to rout the wet chill with the hot steam of chicken soup.

Besides water, the only ingredient in my apartment to make soup is a package of tiny square egg noodles. I take the tight plastic package from the cupboard and hold it as I write a shopping list—onions, carrots, eggs, celery, chicken, and Asiago cheese. The tiny square egg noodles go back into the cupboard unused; this package of noodles is the touchstone.

My grandfather, who lived in South Buffalo his whole life made chicken soup every week, sometimes twice a week. He modified traditional chicken soup with a bit of barley and a dash of tomato sauce. For my mother’s family, chicken soup was a staple. No one was allowed to eat the last of it. If one of my uncles reached into the refrigerator and found no soup, a report of blame and recrimination issued through the house, “Who ate all the G-damn soup.”

Every year, I spend at least a month in Buffalo. On the day I would leave Buffalo, my grandfather shopped and returned home with a package of tiny square egg noodles, “For your suitcase.” The way he said it made me think the package of tiny square egg noodles were magic beans. All I had to do was throw them in my suitcase and when I arrived in Seattle, I would have a pot of chicken soup. My grandfather died last May and this package is the last of my supply.

My grandfather’s sister Madeline mixed, kneaded, cut her own noodles. The fresh noodles softened her soup. One of their brothers, Salvator, was mentally ill and relied on Madeline to cook for him. One day while making noodles and boiling chicken, she told Salvator to stay for dinner. “Yes, Madeline” he said and then he went to the basement. She heard a shot. Frightened she called the police. Papa, my other grandfather and a detective, heard the call and recognized his daughter-in-law’s maiden name. Papa was the first police officer on the scene. He found Salvator dead. When Papa returned to the kitchen, he said to Madeline, “Finish making your soup, there’s nothing else you can do.”

Home for me is where my family cooks and shares their meals. I was not raised in Buffalo, nor have I lived there the last fifteen years of my life. Regardless Buffalo is home. On both sides of my divorced family, my grandparents’ dining room tables are family hubs. On my paternal side, Nana and Papa serve in courses. There are as many as nine if you count the sandwiches Papa pushes during card games. On my maternal side—my Gram holds court at the end of her dining room table: coffee, cigarettes, bacon and eggs in the morning; and ham sandwiches with sweet pickles on rye for her guest in the afternoon. On these dining room tables, my family eats roast beef, roasted potatoes, shells and ricotta, manicotti, Italian wedding soup, zucchini frittatas, barbequed spare ribs, NY steaks, pizza and Pepsi, chicken wings, and chicken soup.

I work in the restaurant business and in my family there are many good cooks, but I tend to be an inarticulate connoisseur. At my most peevish I say, “not so good,” or if it is good, I say, “Tastes just like Nana’s.” I’m not suggesting that every dish has to taste like my Nana’s to be good, but after eating I want to feel like I did as a kid—dazzled, full, loved, and sleepy.

But here is my snafu—when I cook, I’m a culinary knucklehead. I am over zealous with portions, especially pepper. I scald pans and my tongue. I char the onions, evaporate the soup, burn my cookies, or lose patience with what I’m cooking and eat it raw.

And according to both of my grandfathers—Grandpa and Papa—I don’t shop right either. Even though Papa is in Buffalo and Grandpa is dead, I hear them scold me as I shop: Grandpa says I should wait for chicken to go on sale, buy a few, and freeze the extra; and Papa complains I pay top dollar for everything. Even with my depression-raised grandfathers babbling in my brain, I go to one store and pay extra for the convenience. Just do something in your life against your family’s counsel and they’ll be shouting at you from miles away and from beyond the grave. If you miss them enough, you’ll rebel just to hear them shout.

I return from shopping with a puny fryer chicken. After cutting up the chicken and vegetables, I throw the torn chicken parts and the skinned onion and broken carrots and celery into the stockpot and let them float. The water foams and begins to boil. Papa calls the layer of burbling brown chicken grease scooma. “Never skim the scooma.” He says the flavors rise to the top.

Separating the boiled meat from the bone is high mess. I never wait for the chicken to cool. I do my own chicken dance as I flail my burning greasy fingers in the air. My hands scorched, I drop the shreds of boiled chicken back into the broth. Next morning, the soup has cooled and I hope congealed although it is never condensed enough to congeal. I skim the fat off the top and there is my soup—nothing more than colored water.

Then I start making phone calls and along comes the advice: My father says I turn the heat too high when I simmer, and I must learn to master the fine art of reduction; Nana says it isn’t my fault that chickens aren’t as flavorful as they once were, and so I should add bullion; my brother Scott wonders why I keep calling over such an elementary dish; and Gram says I should just come back home to Buffalo and eat her chicken soup.

Scott suggests roasting the chicken for flavor before boiling. When I quit smoking, I arrived at his apartment in Portland, Oregon in a frenzy of withdrawal, carrying a pouch of Chinese herbs. The herbs tasted like dirt. Scott made chicken soup and brewed the herbs in the stock. I camped on his couch and sipped on soup and nursed away an addiction.

My cousin Brette understands that my soup is more voodoo than nourishment. By my own standards, my chicken soup is “not so good.” Brette says that I get witchy when making soup and my tons of broth is more like brew.

Practitioners of Voodoo, Vodouisants, perform a ceremony one year and one day after the death of a family member or loved one. The ceremony is named retire mo nan dlo—take the dead out of the water. The spirit of the loved one is rescued and held in an earthen pot called a Govi. Vodouisants believe that through celebration, music, dance, sacrifice, and ritual the spirit world can cross into ours and help us. Through the Govi, the dead are given voice.

I am no Vodouisant and for the most part death eludes me. I’ve been to funerals, but they seemed too much like theater, almost comical in their ghoulishness—the corpse face painted with heavy make-up and everyone else dressed in black and emoting. I’ve lived in many different places and often don’t see people again. I have never attached not seeing someone to death. When my grandfather died, I finally got it. I ran up the stairs into my grandparents’ kitchen in anticipation of telling my grandfather about his own funeral—how his children read poems and psalms, how my uncles slipped me shots of Irish whiskey in the limousine, how we wrote his eulogy as a family, how my mother insisted they play Ava Maria as we left the church. He wasn’t there to tell—not watching The Price is Right on the kitchen table TV, not in his chair playing solitaire on the ottoman, not sipping his soup at the dining room table. I wandered through each vacant room.

Now, I make my soup and remember. The apartment steams and the windows become opaque. The vapors of chicken soup waft like the musty scent of old age and the very air acts as a hypnotic. I begin to hear his voice, “Lesa, funny Lesa” and I see him dressed in his golf pants and his white ribbed tank underwear, his yellow cardigan, his athletic socks and brown leather wing tips. I grate Asiago cheese over the broth and the smell of his kitchen envelopes my senses. And for that time, my soup pot is my Govi.

My diluted soup lasts. If it were condensed, I would have less of it. When it is done and I’ve sated myself, the empty and washed stockpot goes back into the cupboard. I return to my local eateries and the pickings at the restaurant where I work. I leave my family all over again. I don’t think I will ever get over that missing place, that place that is as desolate as my grandparents’ house on the day of my grandfather’s funeral, that place where I sometimes dwell in my apartment.

My brother calls me to ask how my soup fared after all the advice I was given. He doesn’t understand that the phone calls have little to do with how the soup tasted. If I made a flavorful pot of soup, there would be no phone calls, no voices in the super market, no reason to chronicle my family’s chicken soup stories. Sometimes my family seems so far away, they need to shout and scold for me to hear them. And if I didn’t hear them, all I would have is soup. Scott interrupts my culinary misadventures to tell of his latest endeavor—baking. He has been making biscuits and breads and pies. My hunger blooms.

I picture us--Nana and Papa, Gram, Scott, Brette, my uncles, Dad, Mom, and me, in our separate kitchens, split-screen like in a movie. The edge of the frame keeps us all in, but I know that soon someone will be sliced out. None of us knows what will happen or how long the movie lasts, but then I remember what Papa once said, “Finish making your soup, there’s nothing else you can do.”