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.”

Friday, September 21, 2007

The South Buffalo Password

“Tell them to fix your truck right or I’ll shut off their water.” Mr. Z told me to tell the mechanic who was about to fix my truck. I may have spent my life coming and going from S. Bflo but I had never before needed to conduct business either because I was in school or merely visiting. Mr. Z was about to give me my first lesson in the South Buffalo Password—a code that I would become adept (for the good and the bad) in using.

This time was the first time I used the Password aka the S Bflo Handshake and I’ll exemplify with this first encounter but it can be used to get street lights (that work), snowplows on your street, construction sites shut down, a look the other way when you need a permit, to get out of a parking ticket, or for better service at a dry cleaner, post office, or mechanics.

Now, I know how to use the Password but when I first moved here all I knew was that I had bad brakes and a rough opening line for my new prospective mechanic. No matter how I delivered it, “turning off your water” would never be the social equivalent of a glad hand. I envisioned careening through intersections slamming on my $600 invisible brakes.

At the garage, the mechanic gave me no energy. Distracted, he shuffled through smudged receipts barely giving me eye contact as I told him my plight. I finished with a threat to his plumbing. He stopped. He smirked. He stood up and took me outside to inspect my truck. I could tell by his continued attentiveness I had jumped categories from flaky girl with a dented pick-up and out-of-state license plates to someone from the neighborhood with enough pull to enlist the backing of the Don of the S. Bflo Water Works.

The S. Bflo password doesn’t generally include a threat (that was Mr. Z’s spin on it). What I had unknowingly told the mechanic was who I knew and from where (in this case Mr. Z lived the next block over so it was implied). And that’s the crux of it—who you know and from what street. Back in the day, the password included parish rather than street but that was before the Catholic Dioceses shut down and consolidated churches.

This sort of social networking goes on everywhere. What makes the S. Bflo. Password unique is not who you know from the upper echelon of society—knowing the mayor or the Muckity-Mucks of Delaware isn’t going to get your brakes “fixed right” or your street plowed first. You will get the best service if you use the name of the eldest member of your clan—especially if the police officer has had a beer with him/her (again S. Bflo love and drink with their aged) or if his people and your people were in a social club together.

But who you know is only one half of the Password, the other piece is “from where”. Again, no housing inspector wants to hear that your 6 degrees of separation is from an affluent suburb—E. Aurora or Orchard Park. As far as they are concerned if your people live in one of those places, you can afford whatever it is they’re handing out. S/he wants to hear you’re invested in a S Bflo neighborhood.

My theory on how and why the password works is two-fold. First, S Bflo is a community that proudly continues forth from its immigrant background and this is the way of immigrants: one person/family goes forth to the new world—once that person/group is established, then the clan follows utilizing the connections for housing, jobs, etc. These are people who are geared toward insular networking and supporting their people.

Second, once the steel plant shut down and there were no more private sector jobs, most of the population went into civil service—police, fire, teaching, city, social work, sanitation. Those were the only jobs available which means that the people in the neighborhood are workers and they like to wprk for the good of their neighborhood.
One of the gripes about S Bflo is that once established in a civil service job strings are pulled to get their friends and family jobs in civil service. But, most of the civil services jobs are test based. There are no strings to pull (altho, I have heard something called the Squeeze--but that's way more pull than a sanitation worker has). Once in the job, well…that’s a whole other issue. I don’t work in civil service so I can’t speak about it.

What I can speak to is that I’ve never lived in a place that made me feel like I counted. I’ve lived in a city where every business was corporate, only the very wealthy were given breaks and most everyone was from somewhere else and so didn’t have generational ties. I often felt alienated, powerless and disconnected to the community at large.

Maybe I’ve used the line, “My uncle is _____ from _____; I would appreciate any courtesy you could extend” too much since I’ve lived here. But, I appreciated how lax my landlord was when I painted the apartment walls purple and I know it was because he worked with my cousin everyday.

Of course this system sucks for new comers and a community that wants to thrive needs new comers. But here’s a trick, the password can be used for all initial social encounters. Just meet one person in the neighborhood and whoever it is will be connected by way less than 6 degrees to anyone else in this community; eventually you will trip on a name.

“Oh you know soandso. Isn’t his son in housing?”

"Yeah, they live down the street from _____’s garage. He does great work, although I did hear he had his water shut off.”

Sunday, September 2, 2007


If nothing is going well, call your grandmother~Italian Proverb

South Buffalo is an enclave of Catholic clans in which aged matriarchs reign. It makes sense since the older the matriarch the wider her family tree and the wider a net she can cast over the branches (add to that a Catholic prolictivity for reproduction). Plus she has longer, stronger associations with those in other clans.

I don't mean that these matriarchs are queen bees, sitting on their stingers, enjoying the honey. S. Buffalo is in America. Most women especially of my grandmother’s generation endured the oppressive economics of men making the money and woman being dependant. Husbands’ bad habits, their withholding or generosity of paychecks determined much—the quality of their hive and the street where it was located. But it wasn’t the men that determined what was truly important to the continuation of the clan—it’s identity.

This is a community that boasts its nationalities (and I use the term nationality rather than race, ethnicity or descent as none of those can be claimed) even if we are so many generations into America that mutt is more the truth. One nationality remains alpha in South Buffalo: Irish. I’m a mutt but my grandmother makes me Irish: my grandmother makes her whole motley clan Irish even her German mother.

Required South Buffalo reading: Angela’s Ashes and Mists of Avalon. As both books outline, men are rogue and woman rule. There are inherent problems with this system as rogue males resent rulers and how possible is it for a ruler to rule a rogue?

Gram is the matriarch of my clan even when my grandfather was alive and he liked it that way. It left him free to bowl, golf, and gamble. No matter how often he knocked about or how long he was gone, he belonged to us. Gram was home making him dinner along with various uncles, aunts, mother, nieces/nephew, sister, brother, children, grandchildren. And there was always an extra pork chop on the kitchen counter in case one of those rogues happened by.

She threatened my grandfather that when she turned 50, he could sit on his rocker but she was going to go. She bought a white Cadillac convertible and a set of golf clubs. She went. But she still cooked pork chops.

Sunset Beach

I was 9 nine years old and he was working at the/Metuchen Ford plant assembly line/Now he just sits on a stool down at the Legion hall/but I can tell what's on his mind~Bruce Springsteen

The last weekend before Labor Day we spent at Sunset Beach. My son and I mooched cottage/beach space from my uncle. I say “mooch”; he says “always welcome”. This time my mom came with us.

As I situated my little family on the beach, my uncle remarked that I was using a bedspread as a blanket with the same disapproval as Martha Stewart might if she saw a table runner being used as a shawl. After a brief discussion with one of his friend (there are always beach buddies) on how Buffalo’s old money refuses to invest in the city, I went for some French fries. As I neared Cabana Sams, I heard Vacation by the GoGos being blasted from an open air bar. The GoGos summoned back to me the summer of ’81 when I high schooled in Oregon and vacationed in Buffalo.

That summer, my other uncle’s ex-girlfriend M took me everywhere with her. We cruised the South town beaches—smoked cigarettes, read trashy magazines, baked in the sun. With my fake ID tucked into a pocket (unused: the fake ID was merely a courtesy back then. Showing it just made everyone uncomfortable with the lie, but you had it just in case). She’d take me to the Pierce Arrow or the like. We drank vodka/teas and danced sometimes with a guy or just with each other. My uncle would show up later and they’d drop me off at Gram’s.

Those summer days on the beach I felt as if I was on the brink of something…it turned out to be just more life, but there was anticipation that I’ve never felt again.

With the flush of youthful memory ripping through me, I suddenly felt old, fat, tired and spent like an emphysema-riddled rabbit chasing a carrot on a stick. That’s the problem with nostalgia: the youth in it seems to mock present circumstances. The years I worked at the tavern (more on that another day), the patrons endlessly engaged in the “remember whens” and the reminiscent musings of Buffalo in its heyday— when Bethlehem Steel ascended. Sometimes I loved it—the time when a friend’s mother told me that my aunt shocked their prom by not wearing taffeta but a pink suit my Nana made (ala Jackie Kennedy), but mostly I wanted to scream at those old guys: “IT’S OVER. All you have is today and you’re wasting it.”

Today on the beach I wasn’t much better than those old guys. The GoGos had plunged me deep into my memory and just to make the whole day disorienting, I heard my name and saw her face—M. There she was again.

Nostalgia is such a trap and it’s pervasive here. The place, the people, and the circumstance— nothing seems to have changed since “remember when”. The remains of the steel plant triggers memory to keep the wheels of nostalgia rolling on. Sometimes it’s like living in a cemetery with a vast, empty, rusted mausoleum to the past. If I had a few drinks with M and avoided any mirrors, maybe the alcohol would have tricked my brain and I could relive.

Instead, I pointed out my son playing on the beach with his grandmother and great uncle and asked her to stop by and say hello. My son may grow up alongside the hull of an industrial past but I can't have him grow up with a mom ghosted by her youth. Forget the steel plant and the GoGos; there are better days to be had along the shores of Lake Erie.