Long Story Short: How cool was that?
illustration by J.P. Thimot
Total eclipse of the brain
Perhaps you heard that there was a solar eclipse last Monday. True story: a friend walked into his optometrist’s office that morning to get his glasses adjusted, and the receptionist snapped, "I don't have any damned eclipse glasses if that's what you're here for!" Apparently, it was a challenging day for eye care professionals.
What happens when many thousands of people converge on a city in the path of the total eclipse, and then leave all at once? Gridlock totality. It took my sons eleven hours to get to Nashville from Buffalo, and nineteen and a half to come back. Though, while they were there, they got to see the Johnny Cash Museum, so it was totally worth it.
Even in Buffalo, there were eclipse related traffic jams, as swarms of people headed to the Science Museum and Buffalo State College, which were designated eclipse-viewing sites because, I suppose, the sun was better there. It got so bad that city police closed highway exit ramps to those locations. Some people felt that a solar eclipse was Gods way of saying it’s okay to park on the 33. Police labeled this behavior “highly unadvised!”
What about my eyes?
If you were unable to procure a pair of eclipse-specks yourself, or you left them in the car, or you happen to be the President, you’re probably wondering how badly you harmed your eyesight. The truth is, a quick glimpse might not cause damage. But the exact number of seconds you can safely get away with is not certain—and the effect is cumulative. So if you are still seeing a blurry white spot in the center of your vision today, you did damage. It might get somewhat better over the next eighteen months, or it might not.
Good and bad news
If you missed what was certainly one of the most anticipated and unifying events this country has witnessed since the last US eclipse, which marked the end of World War I, there’s good news. The universe has scheduled another one in just seven years. April 8, 2024, also a Monday. Even better, the totality will pass directly over Buffalo at 3:18 p.m. This will mean, of course, that we will have to endure horrendous crowds of tourists clogging up the 33, all of whom will want to try Buffalo chicken wings.
What can you do to prepare for this event? Well for one thing, you could open a bed and breakfast, or become an Airbnb host. Last week, bedrooms in the totality path were renting for up to $700 dollars per night and more, with three-night minimums. People were renting their driveways as trailer campsites. Also, it’s a good idea to start prepping now for disappointment. Historical weather records in Buffalo for April 8 indicate a fifty-seven percent chance that it will be cloudy. It could even snow. So if you are extorting $700 dollars a night for the rental of the spare bedroom above your garage, get the money before the long range forecast comes out.
Buffalo’s oldest tree is sick. The American sycamore (also known as buttonwood) at 404 Franklin Street has a touch of anthracnose, a chronic fungal disease, which, if left untreated, can lead to unsightly foliage and even baldness (but rarely death, as has been reported). The highly common disease does, however, hollow out the trees, providing a potential home for Keebler elves. One of the nation’s top tree ailment specialists was medevaced in from Boston, because, well, it’s difficult to do it the other way around. Injection treatments will begin shortly, and the hope is that the sycamore will soon be sick-no-more. Then it will get annual injections for like the next 400 years.
Why should I care?
This tree is really old, 320 years, give or take a decade or so. But that’s only middle age for a sycamore, which can live up to 700 years. When you look at it, with its majestic seventy-five inch diameter trunk, you can’t help but reflect on how long it has been standing in this spot. When it was a sapling, it was surrounded by the forest habitat of the Iroquoian-speaking Wenro people. It would be forty to sixty years before Europeans settled around it. And it would be eighty years before there was a United States of America. The tree was a century old when it somehow survived the burning of Buffalo by the British during the War of 1812. And, one hopes, it will be here 400 years from now, when they finally figure out what to do with the Central Terminal Train Station.
Truth be told, sycamores are not beloved in arborist circles. They are messy, shedding leaves, seed balls, twigs, and bark. The seed balls have hairs that irritate skin, eyes, and homeowners. The roots damage sewers and sidewalks. And they almost all get anthracnose, leaving them bedraggled by season end. The species has been largely replaced today by the anthracnose-resistant London plane.
So why are we saving this tree?
To answer this, I refer to a scene from the 1974 TV movie, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Pittman is a black woman in the South who was born into slavery in the eighteen-fifties and lives to become a part of the civil rights movement in the nineteen-sixties. The tree in this scene is an oak, but imagine it’s a sycamore:
You think I’m crazy; I talk to this tree you know, old sister oak. Look at me; I’m older than 110 years old, and I thank the lord that’s keeping me going. See, I can sit in this sun, and I can walk. Not like I used to, but I do pretty well. Sometimes when I feel very good I walk all the way down to the road, and I looks at the river. Generally though, I just come up the quarters a piece, and I sit here with this old oak. Look, the people’s done fixed me a nice clean place to sit and talk with my God. Sometimes I just sit here for an hour just thanking him for his blessin’ and then I go back home. There’s only just a few of us left you know, and I done seen enough to last two life times. I don’t mind seeing a few more though. He’ll know when to call me, and when he call me, I’ll be ready.
..an old oak, like this one here, been here all these years; it knows more than you’ll ever know. It ain’t craziness son; it’s just nobility you respects.
The tree is accepting visitors 24/7, so stop by and have a chat. Maybe leave a card, or some balloons.
To be cool, or not to be cool, that is the question
Wow, talk about a response.
Last week, a business article in the Buffalo News noted that “to grow jobs, Buffalo needs to be cool.” Buffalonians have mastered the art of hangdog lamentation over our loss of jobs, exodus of young people, declining tax base, crumbling infrastructure —a whole post-industrial rustbelt litany of woes. The article presented a chicken and egg scenario. For the region to attract business and good jobs, we need a young labor force. To get that, people have to want to live here. And that “means making the Buffalo Niagara region a cool place to live. A happening place, where there are places to eat, concerts to attend and other activities that can draw millennials.”
My immediate thought: Buffalo is already plenty cool, and on our own terms. So I posted the question on Facebook, “What's cool about Buffalo?” It was like I was asking Cersei Lannister what her kingdom thinks of brotherly love.
Cool is dead, I was promptly informed; we live in a post-coolness world.
Then it got worse, with some asserting that the question itself is uncool. “Concerning oneself over whether you are cool,” says Lawrence Gallick, “is just about the least cool thing imaginable.” John Massier writes, “Cool does not care that it is perceived as such.”
I was advised that asking what’s cool about Buffalo is a culturally loaded question, essentially classist, and thus having an inherently racist subtext. Some people exhibited a kind of coolphobia. Mike Mulley, for instance, focuses on stuff others might think are cool, but he doesn’t: valet parking, and restaurants that serve bone marrow. Tim Saracki lists, “big street festivals, gentrification, more music clubs or art galleries, or guys with massive unkempt beards shoving a fruit salad in a glass at the latest trendy restaurant.”
Some took the opportunity to attack the article from which my inquiry was spun. “I'd question the very premise that being perceived as "cool" is necessary to Buffalo's growth,” says Stephen Paskey.
Before I could even make a bone marrow sandwich, my Facebook page was abuzz with talk of racism, gentrification, and Yemeni immigrants.
I JUST WANT TO KNOW WHY BUFFALO IS COOL!
Fortunately, quite a few people sent private messages with thoughts on the subject. Several themes came up with predictable regularity: the range and quality of local restaurants, our cultural community, the waterfront, Silo City, Larkinville, the architecture. Esther Neisen says, “There is ALWAYS something going on: music, films, art shows, performances. You can just say, ‘Oh hey, I feel like going out tonight,’ then take a look and find something.” Susan Marie Sullivan offers a short list of cool music venues: Anchor Bar has always been a jazz club with amazing house bands. Sportsman’s Tavern and the Twang Gang is the definition of cool! Nietzsche’s is the traditional hip go-to place.” (To which I would add the Colored Musicians Club, which in any city would be a precious historical landmark.) Buffalo News film critic Jeff Simon cites the movies you can see in Buffalo, compared to so many other cities. And this, he says, “has been cool for forty years.”
The dearly departed
Some of the most heartfelt sentiments came from people who no longer live here, or left and returned, supporting the old adage that you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. “Buffalo is just cool being Buffalo,” says Joanne Della Penta, who currently lives in Seattle, “great history, architecture, and creativity. I miss it very much.”
Matt Meinzer is an accomplished chef who left Buffalo for South America, but he waxes poetic about the food here, which he considers to be some of the best in the world. He also mentions porches and gardens—and museums: “Instead of a bar crawl,” he says, “show me how to do a museum crawl.” It’s called First Friday, and we have it.
Molly Roy-Morey now lives in a city known for a certain kind of coolness—Portland. She echoes the thoughts of several other people, citing Buffalo’s authenticity; “people watching hockey and football in their sweat pants while eating chicken wings.” Augustina Droze, who currently lives in Beijing, calls this “lack of pretentiousness.”
Terri Parsell Hilmey echoes Droze and Roy-Morey, “We sit in our garages and drink beer. Being cool is too easy; uncool takes character.”
Michelle Perkins Kowalewski reports that certain things about Buffalo get a "cool!" response from out-of-towners when she posts them on Facebook: Sugar City, The Foundry, ReUse Action, West Side Bazaar, Silo City.
Paul Nicholson thinks our idiosyncrasies make us cool, “especially the bubble guy on Elmwood and Allen. He's kind of amazing, interjecting magic into the world.”
Elizabeth Cushman Brandjes points out that she came here from New York City fourteen years ago, and didn’t have to change her lifestyle much. “And, everything is so much cheaper here,” she adds.
Perhaps prompted by his eldest daughter’s return to Buffalo last weekend, Bill Altreuter offers what, at 320 words, is far and away the most detailed response to the question. In the first couple sentences, he manages to mention dog-walking, yoga, coffee, the waterfront, galleries, museums, music, and festivals. He goes on to list the affordability of professional sports games, our local restaurant options, and Buffalo’s legendary friendliness. Then he ends with this: “Did I mention the green space? Not only our justly famous Olmsted parks and parkways; we have all kinds of great parks. When my law partner's European husband came to Buffalo for the first time he told her, "You never told me you lived in a resort community."
Artist and educator Bruce Adams is a longtime contributor to Spree.
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