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.”

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