When I was a teen, Buffalo’s greatest tourist attractions were robust home cooked meals with a galley-full of aunts, uncles, cousins, greats and grands; tradeable Sheriff’s cards (without photos) for easy underage drinking; a park for kissing boys from which the police never kicked us out after dark; a color TV that came with a slightly older aunt who shared my soap opera addiction; and, a somewhat senile great-grandmother who would come into the living room to repeat that there was nothing new on the TV, only “repeats, repeats, repeats.”
In Oregon, where I lived for the other three seasons, I had family (my mom and bro), a black & white TV with no remote or cable; and harder-to-come-by underage drinking opportunities. As a transplant, I came to Buffalo to get my roots tickled. Once a year, I enjoyed the fullness of home and hearth; the rest of the year was an adventure with new people, picturesque places, once in a lifetime opportunities.
School and work always filled in around this set-up, even as I became an adult.
But, my grandmother believed Buffalo was right up there, tourist-wise, with every other place where I had lived. She was a booster. Once every summer, she dragged my brother, aunt, and me into her cigarette smoked-filled sedan to show us just how Buffalo measured up. She showed us the sights, or rather one sight: the Buffalo Marina. Even though I was already nauseous from the car ride, she demanded that I board one of the “Tall Ships” and the submarine anchored there, or worse yet, the Miss Buffalo which circled around the harbor until I turned green. Afterward, she treated us to greasy fries and burgers at The Hatch, only to get back into the sedan with another lit cigarette. I begged her to let me stay home to water my grandfather’s tomato garden and watch Luke and Laura run away together, again. But, she insisted on playing tour guide for at least one day during every visit.
Every year for 30 years for at least two weeks, I visited Buffalo. As an adult, I worked in restaurants as a waitress in touristy locales. So, when I arrived in Buffalo for my slice of home, I became ever more truculent about her stand that everything in Buffalo was the same as places on the west coast where I lived — no, the seafood at Crawdaddy’s wasn’t better than where I worked in Seattle; no, the Alleghany mountains weren’t as “majestic” as the Cascades; no, the shores of Lake Erie were not “just as dramatic” as the Oregon Coast. She knew this; she had visited. I tried to reassure her by saying how much I enjoyed the meal, the hills, the beach. While I hoped to spend many an hour on the Oregon Coast, I was only ever going to spend my meager savings on return trips to Buffalo to be with her and the rest of the family.
But then, I moved here. And now my friends, bless them, visit me. And just like my grandmother, I have a mainstay: Niagara Falls. I trek them northward to see the Horseshoe Falls, the Maid of the Mist, and the Cave of the Winds. Then what?
One winter, during my friend Shannon’s visit, I planned to ice skate at Canalside, attend the Winter Festival of Lights at the Falls, and to tobaggan at Chestnut Ridge. Our trickster weather took a chilly turn and we went from frosty to Polar Vortex. She put one arm out the door, costumed herself in blankets, and opted for a couple of bottles of wine, home cooked dinners, and game nights.
She had no more come to Buffalo for ice skating than I had come to board the submarine. She wanted to teach my eldest son how to play the same card games as she had taught her kids, and to feel my youngest in the crook of her arm. She wanted to gossip with me over a Scrabble game as if it were any other day in the years we had been friends and lived near one another. I may not have settled down and called where we had lived home, but she had. And now, she had only four days to share the life friends who live near each other do.
Even though her visit made me happy, I finally understood how my grandmother had felt, not with the fruitless comparisons between places, but in her desire to reach up to the sky and play on the branches of where we had been planted.
I may have chosen to live in Buffalo to be near, and ultimately create more, family, but those deep familial roots aren’t the only reason I’ve chosen to stay.
Last week my friend Phyllis visited. For this visit, our trickster weather refrained from producing an ordinarily muddy, cloudy April day and instead offered sun and warmth. I donned my best docent cap and prepared to squire her around a revitalized Buffalo.
“Leave your passport at home,” I said. “We won’t be going to the Falls.”
I skipped our world class tourist attraction to instead revel in the remarkable changes Buffalo has experienced over the 16 years that I’ve lived here: the new walkway along the breakwall at the “foot of Tifft”, the light display on the silo, Canalside, the cherry blossoms at the Buffalo History Museum, open art classes at Locust Street, and an evening out at Buffalo Proper which sports a unique view of the city.
So yeah, some of the touristy things were a bit off: the app for Reddy Bikes is a hassle – we ended up with one bike for two of us; and many of our nicer restaurants are not open on the third busiest restaurant day of the week (Sunday) and few menus offer solid vegetarian selections (thankfully she isn’t a strict vegetarian and enjoyed the trout).
But for four days, I didn’t live in my here-or-there world, at play with my friends or building a family, at home or on an adventure, always somewhere between staying and visiting. I have so missed climbing trees with my friends, however unstable I felt at times without my entrenched Buffalo roots. My friend arrived and the sun was out and there was a profusion of blossoms and, for this one moment, I had it all.