Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Buffalo Winters

After hearing for weeks about severe winter weather throughout much of the east coast, Buffalo has finally been struck with the first snowfall that my high standards will accept as extraordinary for the region. It was about seven-thirty when my friend left my apartment tonight. A few minutes later, she called me to apologetically ask that I come help her get her car out from where it had been plowed in a street away from me.

After I put on my coat and traction-less work boots, and ran to the scene with my laughably small snow shovel, she would not stop either thanking me or apologizing. But she’s my friend. The idea that such a simple, obvious, and necessary favor would in any sense a burden or inconvenience is just absurd. I had to remind her that it is truly my pleasure to help a friend in need. In fact, if she had been a complete stranger, and I’d just happened to be passing by while carrying a spatula, I would have been undeniably eager to leap to her aid. That’s the way we all are in this town, isn’t it? I spent every winter of my childhood hearing the reinforced narrative that the winter weather in Buffalo does wonders to bring to the fore the friendliness and compassion of the local population. When the going gets tough, we all pitch in and help one another.

Bullshit. When I finished digging out my friend, she put the car back into park for a moment and climbed out, saying, “I have to give you a kiss now.” As she came close, I looked over her shoulder and then turned to her to whisper before she drew back, “You know, they say Buffalo is the City of Good Neighbors?” She laughed and pointed out that she had been thinking exactly the same thing. While she had kept shifting gears and easing on the accelerator, I had scraped at the snow in a way reminiscent of scooping ice cream with a thimble, occasionally stopping to try to dig my piss-poor footwear into ice to singlehandedly push the car by its fender. All the while, she and I had both repeatedly taken note of the five or six people standing within twenty-five feet of us, evidently all together, some of them working with two colossal snow shovels, others just standing nearby or seated in a car across the street.

Another set of hands or a better tool, and we could have had my friend’s car out of its trap in thirty seconds flat. I didn’t mind undertaking the task alone, but it just seemed to me that there was something almost aggressive about the neglect of someone so near at hand with such an easily fixable problem. No one else even needed the least bit of assistance, my friend being the only one on the street who had not taken advantage of the local church to park in its lot. Is this the famous Buffalo neighborliness? Do I just happen to repeatedly run into the rare exceptions to the rule, or is that self-image that the city repeats like a mantra just not hold up to scrutiny.

I springboard from here into pages upon pages about the empty-headed optimism that locals have about this area, and perhaps I will in fact go on about it in the near future. But for now, suffice it to say that on point of economics, cultural progress, and certainly the moral character of the population, proud Buffalonians often follow the same trend of convincing themselves that it is a terrific place by focusing exclusively on the positive. Frequently, it seems, people with such a doting perspective think the town’s virtues stack up nicely against those of other American cities for an equally ridiculous reason: they’ve never lived anywhere else.

I have. I’m not a well-traveled man, but I’ve lived in New York City and in Boise, Idaho, and I’ve spent sufficient time in Washington D.C., Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Seattle to have gotten a fair sense of the character of those places and their locals, and in many years since leaving Buffalo and slinking back, I have never for a moment come under the impression that the residents of this city are somehow kinder, more generous, more outgoing, or otherwise better neighbors than in even one of the other places I’ve experienced. Not even of Manhattan would I say that it is less neighborly than Buffalo, and Manhattan has a reputation for being full to the brim with rude bastards.

The stereotypes reported for both sides of the state are equally unreliably, and probably for interestingly contrasting reasons: Buffalo’s designation as City of Good Neighbors was evidently a creation of local residents striving to build up the place in their own minds and in those of potential visitors. New York City’s reputation for being brusque and unfriendly is no doubt traceable to the reports of tourists who do not know how to integrate into the pace and local culture of metropolis. I would hazard to guess that stereotypes describing virtually any city are deeply flawed, and for the same simple reasons. People have a habit of making the best of the situations that are familiar to them, and in some cases inescapable. We structure our sense of value around the place and the circumstances in which we were raised, and if we are not sufficiently socially adaptable, being confronted with the unfamiliar is functionally no different from being confronted with the immoral. Speed and directness can seem aggressive is you’ve always been familiar with a slower pace. And where we have our own sense of value, but also find ourselves tied to a particular place, we might be inclined to find examples of those values in our local circumstances, and conclude thereby that it is representative of the place where we live.

That tendency is a great coping mechanism, but it is not a great representative of reality. It is, instead, an endemic problem of self-delusion, which is present everywhere, but for which I see particularly poignant examples in the way people who love Buffalo talk about Buffalo. In that specific case, I eagerly wish for that breaking point wherein some lifelong Buffalonian sees one of his good neighbors look over at him as he struggles with something and say “Nah, fuck that guy, he can take care of himself.” But in broader terms, this topic speaks to the social breaking point that I will spend my life looking toward and trying to provoke at every turn. We must, all of us, stop accentuating the positive, stop looking on the bright side and convincing ourselves that, heck, things are really pretty great around here. I want to write a cynic’s manifesto to convince people to look into the shadows, acknowledge every flaw in the social fabric around you, and then begin agitating for change. There must come a breaking point at which we decide that we can no longer swallow any more saccharine, that we’re too dizzy from constantly turning away. For the simple fact is that there is no solving any of our problems when coping with them means forgetting they exist.

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