Sunday, July 15, 2018

New York Discovers Buffalo


A friend sent me a link to an article in the New York Times by a writer extolling the virtues of newly hip Buffalo. Buffalo has long been a national joke since the big snow storm that rendered the city immobile, but now it has recovered and its HIP. Hip, that is, in the sense that it has bars that approximate the hipness of Brooklyn and neighborhood business districts that revolve around the college scene. There are new arrivals from foreign lands seeking to claim their stake in the American dream. Ziplining at abandoned grain elevators. And of course there's the Buffalo contribution to the pantheon of regional foods, Buffalo wings. Its Buffalo as a Disney amusement park.

The writer also visits a few of the tourist attractions, an overpriced hotel, a market full of said new arrivals and then proclaims the city to now be a great place to visit. The map of the writer's trip shows a rather limited geographical range that belies the fact that they missed much of the city. No BBQ joints, no Polish restaurants, no Broadway Market, no Albright Knox Gallery, no Kleinhans Music Hall. I am sure that many Buffalonians are thrilled to have been discovered by New York, and eagerly await the arrival of the invasion of hipsters seeking to find the "new" Buffalo.

Buffalo is, and has always been, a great American city. The first city lit by alternating current (thanks Tesla), a transhipment point of the fruits of the land, gritty hardworking steel and auto producer. I tend to find New Yorkers to be a tad bit condescending when they suddenly discover something that appeals to their refined tastes. Buffalo, like many industrial cities, certainly has had its share of ups and downs. The fact that it boasts an incredible wealth of architectural gems has more to do with it being bypassed by progress than by design. The city foolishly tore down some of its greatest structures to provide parking spaces, and continues to piss away its architectural heritage in the name of progress. Preservationists are confronted with municipal malfeasance on a daily basis.

There is of course the developers who rescue abandoned industrial buildings and warehouses to create loft spaces only the well healed can afford. Meanwhile whole portions of the city succumb to rot and disinvestment. You can still buy an affordable house in the city in a neighborhood that bears no resemblance to the happy places the article's author visited. Like many American cities, Buffalo is attracting people seeking the urban experience and willing to pay for it. How much the long suffering residents of established neighborhoods are benefiting from this influx is questionable.

I would have liked to see the author visit the Central Station, and ask why the fuck it hasn't been rescued and developed. I would have liked to see them visit the Fruit Belt and see how the non-collegiate full time residents live and struggle. Maybe sample some food at the Broadway Market or have a beer in a Kaisertown gin mill. Have a pierogi or a beef on weck, maybe a grilled hot dog at Ted's. Buffalo cannot be honestly judged by somebody from New York seeking hipness, and missing those things that make the city unique.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Robbie


I don't have a lot of close friends. A few from high school and college, and some from different jobs. Most of those involve communication on the internet and are rarely face-to-face. Moving to the South side of the city was a form of unintended isolation from a lot of the people I knew when I lived north. The railroad was another form of social isolation due to the fact I spent the bulk of my life at work. Since retirement I've managed to meet people through a local arts group, but still feel like an outsider. I'm starting to feel like a bit of an old fuddy duddy. My best social interactions are with people who, like me, worked for the railroad. Imagine that.

Robbie is one of those long time friends who has drifted in and out of my life. We met in college and roomed together for a short time. I had been wandering from various shared off campus living arrangements on the northside when my wife (then girlfriend) and I landed in an apartment with Robby and Chuck. Their apartment on Brompton faced the Salvation Army headquarters which provided us with morning entertainment via the band that played outdoors almost every day. Robby knew about my food allergies and would constantly tease me by threatening to cook things with the offending foods and watch me turn colors. Chuck would walk around with only a bathrobe and randomly expose himself at breakfast. Never a dull moment.

Mary and I moved into an apartment that didn't include any other entertaining clowns, but not too far from Robby. One memorable evening I asked Robby to help me move a cable spool up the back steps to our third floor apartment. Now this should have been a relatively simple task for two able bodied young men, but Robby just flopped around and constantly fell down. He essentially became a back stop to keep the spool from rolling back down the stairs. When we had agonizingly accomplished the mission I asked him what the fuck his problem was. It seems he had taken muscle relaxers before he came over. I sent him home and the next day he called me to say he was sore and covered in bruises and wanted to know what had happened.

Robbie got a job at the railroad, and I would drive him on occasion when he had car problems. When I lost my film animation job Robby was the one who suggested I apply to the railroad. I was hired, so I can thank and curse Robby for altering the course of my life. We would eventually live within a block of each other and I hung out a lot with him and his girlfriend Sarah. She introduced me to a short lived romantic flame, Holly from Hegewisch, a tough chick southsider who looked at romance like it was leprosy. Sarah would later inexplicably marry Chuck and eventually moved to California. Robby went on to get married as well and our relationship sort of dissipated.

So, many years later I find out that Robby and the charming Sarah live a few blocks from our southside home. Sarah divorced Chuck, I think she married someone else and divorced him, then moved back to Chicago to work at a southside hospital. Robby was in the middle of an acrimonious divorce and had moved in with Sarah in her tiny one bedroom apartment. We had come full circle. Instead of driving Robby to work I drove him to medical appointments. The railroad had pretty much left him crippled and neither of them owned a car. I'd stop by on occasion to chat about old times and old friends. They were amazingly still in contact with a lot of people we knew in college. I helped Robby pack up the belongings at his old house as the marathon divorce approached the finish line. I picked up their mail when they went out of town, and answered emergency calls when Robby would fall and get injured.

When the divorce came through they decided to fulfill a dream and move to Arizona. I am not sure how they ever managed to pull it off because they were still packing when the movers showed up. Of course the movers forgot a box and I had to drive out to some remote suburb near the edge of the known universe to drop it off. We still keep in touch by phone when Robby doesn't lose it or forget to turn it on. I still consider him one of my best friends, because through thick and thin, he's the best damn cable spool back stop I've ever known.


The Terror of Father Baker


By all accounts Father Baker was a decent and compassionate human being. In 1882, Baker grew his "City of Charity" to address the ever-changing social concerns of the time.  The Our Lady of Victory Infant Home served as a safe haven for unwed mothers from across the country, as well as for thousands of abandoned babies who were cared for and placed for adoption. OLV Hospital, which started as a maternity hospital, evolved to serve the comprehensive medical needs of the general community. The Working Boys' Home taught countless young men valuable trades and laid the foundation for their independence and success as adults.


But to countless children living in the Buffalo metropolitan area Father Baker's name was synonymous with dread and fear. Childhood misbehavior was met with the threat of being sent to Father Baker's. Talk to anyone of a certain age who grew up in the area and the chances are their parents had the Father Baker threat in their arsenal. I know my parents did. It was the nuclear option when threats of "wait until you get home" failed to extinguish intemperate behavior.

While I think it was better than having the crap wailed out of you, it was a nasty bit of psychological warfare to inflict on kids who were just being kids. My brother and I usually got the full Baker when we were acting up in the back of the car. "We're taking you to Father Baker's" was usually enough to scare us straight. Now you think after being threatened with it enough times even the peanut brain of a child would eventually figure out it was an idle threat. Therefore it was in the parents best interest to use it judiciously lest it lose its potency.

On one memorable car trip I guess my brother and I were pushing the boundaries of unreasonable behavior. My father, having reached the limit of his tolerance and succumbing to the famous Daruszka temper, pulled the car over and ordered us out. I'm not sure if our Mother was game to this extreme action but out of the car we went and told to wait there for the people from Father Baker's to come pick us up. Then my Father started to drive away. At this point our peanut child brains figured out that this was serious shit and our immediate reaction was to cry and wail. The car stopped, we were let back in, and the journey continued with two contrite and quiet children in the back seat.


Father Baker was the holy terror weapon that warped countless children, laying the foundation for further mental issues of abandonment and fear when we became adults. He's there in our subconscious waiting to snap us up to throw us in his orphan prison.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

I'm Never Going Back To My Old School


The 50 year reunion of the Depew High School class of 1968 is rapidly approaching. I will not be in attendance. While I do visit my Mom once a year, that is about the sum total of my interest in returning to the place I grew up. I have few fond memories of high school, but a lot of latent trauma from being harassed by the jock and moron contingent. I moved away to get away, and the thought of somehow putting on a happy face with people I hardly knew or were never friends with does not enthuse me in the least bit. I no longer have the energy or interest in that sort of subterfuge.

I don't think so.
Someone recently posted a picture on the reunion Facebook page of a hallway of lockers with the words, "You're gonna miss this. You're gonna want this back. You're gonna wish these days hadn't gone by so fast." Right. I really miss getting choked every morning by the cement headed jock sitting behind me in homeroom. I certainly miss the terror of the hallway outside of the drafting classroom where cretins meted out corporal punishment at random. I have a soft spot in my heart for the social order where football players and cheerleaders were our demigods to be worshipped and adored. No, high school sucked for a lot of us. It was an uncomfortable time at an awkward age where many of us struggled to find our role in the bad movie known as high school. The plight of the high school nerd is the recurring theme in many movies and TV shows. There is usually a revenge component where the nerds get the last laugh. My revenge was moving on and never looking back.

Depew High yearbook photography staff. One of the few things I really enjoyed during my senior year. Me on the far left.
Everytime I do return home I imagine what it would be like if I hadn't left or had I returned to live there. It creeps me out. I've had a rich life that I don't think I could ever have experienced had I not broken the surly bonds of small town life in the suburbs. I don't begrudge or wish to denigrate those who find these sorts of gatherings as milestones in their lives. They obviously experienced high school from a much different perspective than I did, or perhaps they have amnesia. I know there's a morbid curiosity factor in reunions, but I have no interest in seeing aged versions of people I probably don't remember and won't recognize.

I'm skipping class on this one.
Being the class clown had its advantages. Humor got me through a lot of miserable times.

Friday, June 29, 2018

You Can't Fight City Hall


A quixotic person is defined as one having or showing ideas that are different and unusual but not practical or likely to succeed. The word is derived from Cervantes character Don Quixote, starry eyed dreamer and tilter of windmills. I've always been an idealist and have never shied away from a challenge, especially one that has an air of impossibility attached to it.

I mentioned in a previous post that aside from an abiding love of all things railroad, I am equally enthusiastic about architecture. While I chose not to pursue it as a career (a choice I never regretted) I became an independent scholar on the subject, particularly the engineering aspects of buildings and structures such as bridges. The same forces of tension and compression apply to both. A major railroad terminal is the perfect melding of art, architecture and engineering. The planning for these structures requires thought be given to the movement of people in an efficient manner as well as the safe and efficient movement of trains in and out of the station. The process of creating what is essentially a heart that pumps people and trains in and out every day required the skills of not only engineers who understood the intricacies of railroad operations, but of architects who could render these buildings into massive monuments proclaiming the power of the railroads that built them.



The Chicago & North Western Railroad built such a building. Known as the Madison Street Station, or the Chicago Passenger Terminal, it was located on Madison Street just west of the Chicago River. Other grand stations had preceded it, including the North Western's own Wells Street Station, but THIS was a building for the ages. It was the first station to use electrically operated track switches controlled from two interlocking towers, amongst other technical innovations. Preparations for the building required extensive land clearance and a complete reconfiguration of the railroad's track system. The architects chosen were Messrs. Frost and Granger, chosen for not only their skills as designers but also for the fact that they were the sons-in-law of railroad President Marvin Hughitt. The building was actually overbuilt in anticipation of a growth in railroad passenger traffic that never materialized. When it was completed hosannas were sung. It served the railroad from its opening in 1911 until the early 1980's.



This is where I come into the picture. I was working at the North Western as a fireman in commuter service and the station was my home away from home. By the time I began my employment in 1974 the station was a bit timeworn. The interior of the grand waiting room had been carved up with elements like a grand staircase to street level being covered over with a restaurant/coffee shop. The lower levels where passengers once entered the station were blocked off and filled with offices of the commuter division. But these defacements could not overwhelm the remaining beauty of the arched vaulted ceiling of the waiting room. The upper level offices and rooms that held passenger amenities had long since been abandoned. They became my haunts, especially my secret hiding place on the station's roof. My own little retreat above the bustle.


My employer was not doing well financially, which was de rigueur for many railroads of that time period. Bankruptcies were rampant and the C&NW was looking for a quick cash infusion. Their solution was to sell the station to developers who would demolish the building and replace it with an office building with a train station. I was aghast to say the least. Actually I was pissed beyond belief. I found a few kindred souls and we formed the Friends of the North Western Station and embarked on a campaign to have the building declared a landmark. Our intrepid band of misfits stood outside the station with petitions and contacted the city's Landmark Commission to begin the hearing process to save our beloved station. We had support from the media, the architectural preservation community, historians and so forth. We thought it would be a slam dunk at the hearings. This is where the reality of Chicago politics steps in.



The first rule of historic preservation is to never wait to try to save something until someone wants to tear it down. These folks have already spend a considerable amount of money and gathered political clout to achieve their ends. As a preservationist you are merely a gnat buzzing around their big plans. I gave a passionate presentation before the commissioners complete with slides. Then the developers rolled out the big guns. First the lawyer for the developers who also sat on the city zoning board. Then the noted and respected preservation architect who called the building a "second rate building by second rate architects". I truly hope his departed soul is suffering someplace warm. Lies were proffered and it became apparent that the deal had been struck some time before and we were just going through the required niceties prior to the hammer falling. Needless to say the vote went against preservation, the station was demolished and Chicago got a nice shiny new skyscraper. The North Western was eventually merged out of existence which gave me some small solace. By then I had departed the railroad.



The whole experience left me bitter. I felt the city I had adopted as my home had betrayed me, but I eventually came to realize this tragic tale is just part of the continuum of historic preservation in Chicago. Don't love anything too much because chances are it will be gone tomorrow. We do not honor those things that made this city great, we just want to replace them with "second rate buildings" that disrespect the ideals of urbanity and civic pride. When we're done remaking the city into just another Houston we can stand back and wonder where exactly we are and how we got there.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

I Was Working On the Railroad


I spent 30 years, on and off, as a locomotive engineer. Oddly enough it was not the career I envisioned for myself, but the seed for it was planted in my childhood. I wanted to be a lot of things when I grew up: a pilot, an architect, a cartoonist, or a TV producer. I tried a couple of them with moderate success, and ending up at the railroad was sort of an accident of both desperation and that little seed.


I was fascinated by trains as a kid. I had the ubiquitous Lionel train that went up around the bottom of the tree every Christmas. I was a free range child and often wandered to places where I could watch trains. Bailey Avenue was a short walk from my grandparent's house on Kelburn Street. There was a bridge over some train tracks where I could stand and watch the comings and goings of Pennsylvania Railroad freight trains. My grandparents took us to a park in Buffalo where an old steam locomotive was on display. In that innocent age you could climb on it to your heart's content.


When we moved to the suburb of Depew there were more railroads and more trains. Depew was once the home of the one of the New York Central's largest shops. The village was started by one Chauncy Depew, President of the New York Central Railroad. It was also the focal point of 4 railroad lines that bisected the town. I wandered and explored those tracks, and took out every book in the village library about trains that I could find. My favorite was "Trains, Tracks and Travel by T.W. Van Metre. and I don't think I ever let anyone else have a chance to read it I renewed it so many times.


In my senior year in High School I was a staff photographer on the yearbook. I used a camera and the photo lab for an project on the railroad landscape around town. It won first prize at the senior art show. Look Ma, I'm an artiste! I wanted to study architecture in college, my other great passion after seeing Louis Sullivan's Prudential Building in downtown Buffalo. My college choice ended up being determined by how far away I could get from my family, which was the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. Not for architecture but for industrial design. Now I was in railroad heaven, and my Freshman photo project was documenting abandoned rail yards and train stations. Unfortunately that was NOT the assignment and my instructor was not pleased and my final grade reflected that. I continue to read books and magazines about trains, but it never occurs to me that I should work for the railroad.


Four years of college, three credit hour to graduation and I drop out. I work for a short time for animation company that ends up going out of business and that's where the desperation part of my story comes in. An old college friend and former roommate does work at the railroad. He tells me to show up at such and such a place on such and such a day at such and such a time and the railroad will hire me. Its 1974 and the seed has sprouted. The journey has begun.


Saturday, April 21, 2018

Hot Dogs



I found this photo online of the original Ted's hot dog stand. I remember going there a few times with my Grandparents and the thing I remember the most was the sand flies who seemed to get on everything. You had to eat in the car lest you'd be ingesting this annoying little bugs.


The hot dogs I most remember from Buffalo were from the cafe that served Texas Red Hots in downtown. My grandmother would take my brother and I to a movie and the after show treat was hot dogs. I still remember the chili sauce (but not really a chili dog). It was a hole-in-the-wall greasy spoon, which probably led to my later love of greasy spoon dining. You can't beat authenticity. Then there was the desperate hot dog meal of my teens, grill a hot dog over the gas burner on the stove and eat it on a slice of white bread.


The classic Buffalo hot dog (as served by Ted's) is grilled over an open flame. The meat itself is a combination of pork and beef, pork being the first thing on the ingredients list. You can get the regular version or the foot long always served with fries. Condiments are up to you, and if you want you can douse the fries in vinegar instead of ketchup. That makes them pommes frites like the French Canadians eat. No poutine thank you.


Now imagine when I moved to Chicago I was confronted with a hot dog that my Mom termed a "boiled weiner". Chicago dogs are usually all beef and steamed or yes, boiled in a vat of water. The trick is to not overcook the dog so that the casing still has a bit of a snap when you bite into it. The proper Chicago dog is dressed with mustard, chopped onions, relish, tomato, a pickle slice and little "sport" peppers. The dog is served on a poppy seed bun and the finishing touch is celery salt sprinkled on the top of. The thing you will not find on a Chicago dog is ketchup because that is considered heresy. The tomato is the closest think you'll get to red stuff on the dog. Ketchup on the fries is A-OK and you won't find a bottle of vinegar anywhere.


My favorite Chicago hot dog joint was Tony's. Tony began selling hot dogs from a cart, and when he decided to go big time he moved his cart into a store front and sold food outside the front window. I survived on Tony's dogs and greasy fries through most of college. Two other things you find served in Chicago that you won't find in Buffalo are Polish sausages and Tom Tom tamales. Tom Tom tamales bear no semblance of actual Mexican tamales, but they're often the first tamale many Chicagoans were first familiar with before actual authentic Mexican tamales hit the scene.


The Polish is usually not steamed but cooked over a open flame grill, or just tossed into a deep fryer to get the crusty blackened casing so beloved by connoisseurs a cased meats. Served on a steamed poppy seed bun its usual dressing is grilled onions, mustard, sport peppers and a pickle.


The Chicago dog had its origins on Maxwell Street, an open air market of Jewish peddlers, often referred to as a "thieves market". The two purveyors of the dog that conquered Chicago are Jim's and the Express Grill who not only popularized the humble tube steak but also set the color palate for every hot dog stand in the city, red and yellow. One thing you won't find on a original Maxwell dog is relish or tomatoes. Onions (raw or grilled), mustard and sport peppers. Fries of course, nothing fancy. The additional elements have been added by other hot dog peddlers over the years to create what has become known as the classic dog. Some have added so many ingredients that the hot dog has been overwhelmed by the salad bar that's been tossed on top of it.


Almost every hot dog stand in the city advertises that they serve "Original Maxwell Street" food. There is also the grilled pork chop sandwich served with fried onions on a couple of slabs of white bread. Eat your heart out Buffalo we know how to live large.


The other sandwich Chicago claims as its own is the Italian beef, sweet or hot peppers, dipped or dry. I'll take a beef on weck any day with a dab of horseradish. I will be making my annual trek back to Buffalo (well, Depew actually) to visit Mom and family. We always go to Ted's.