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TABLE OF CONTENTS

Issue 39 AWAY

CONNECT

14

Issue Contributors

ADVERTISING & DISTRIBUTION hello@blockclub.co

17

Letter from the Editor

BRANDING & MARKETING blockclub.co

18

The Conversationalists Interview by Ben Siegel BaBa Eng spent 36 years in maximum security prison. He emerged an evolved man, who now advocates prisoners’ rights.

DESIGN & OFFICE BLOG clubhaus.tumblr.com

22 Documenting Justice Case study by Margaret Finan The Babel Project gives New York City youth the tools to help tell their own story with nonfiction film. 24 Rock, Paper, Scissors Essay by Shasti O’Leary Soudant The universal truths are right in our hands. 28 You Can Never Go Home Again By Dana McKnight Photo by Steve Soroka Revisiting the treasures of youth, and accepting the blemishes of adulthood. 36 Away Photo essay by Block Club Now departing.

EDITORIAL & CONTENT ben@blockclubonline.com

FACEBOOK, TWITTER, VIMEO and INSTAGRAM @blockclub #blockclub #BCM39 PRINTED SUSTAINABLY. This magazine is printed on FSC®-certified post-consumer and post-industrial recycled paper. Production of this brand of paper consumes five times less water than the industry average, reduces air emissions, frees up landfill space, and saves the world’s mature trees. 731 Main St. Buffalo, NY 14203 716.507.4474 blockclub.co ©2015 BLOCK CLUB INC. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercialNoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 Unported License. This work may be reproduced and shared for personal or educational use only, and must be credited to Block Club magazine. Such use for commerical purposes is strictly prohibited.

44 The Daily Miracle By Eric DuVall Photos by Candace Camuglia The last editor of The Tonawanda News reflects on 134 years of chicken dinners, industry and groundbreaking news. 56 KarmaSeed Short fiction by Margaret Finan In which Guru Carl tells us to relax. 61

FPO

Please recycle this issue and pass it along to a friend.

Simple Stuff Comic by Emily Churco

In loving memory of Cortney Morrison-Taylor.

ABOUT BLOCK CLUB Block Club is a branding and strategy agency founded in 2007 in Buffalo, NY. We work to build and strengthen brands for forward-thinking businesses and organizations. In Block Club magazine, we tell stories about a better Rust Belt. BCM 39 13


ISSUE CONTRIBUTORS

Candace Camuglia pg. 44 Candace Camuglia is bad jokes, boyish charm and a multidisciplinary artist. She recently exhibited photographs in two solo shows: “Under the White Sky,” and “Cemeteries and Windmills in Western New York”; and was published by Linoleum Press. Emily Churco

pg. 61 Emily Churco is an illustrator/photographer originally from the Adirondack region. She’s lived in Buffalo for seven years and totally loves it. Her autobiographical comic “Present Tense” is available through One Percent Press.

Eric DuVall

pp. 44 Eric DuVall was the managing editor of the Tonawanda News from 2008 until it closed on Jan. 31, 2015. He is now a reformed night owl, serving as news director at WLVL 1340 AM. He gets to work at 5 a.m., about the time he used to go to bed.

Margaret Finan

pg. 22, 56 Margaret Finan recently moved back to Buffalo from Savannah, Georgia. She occasionally trains other people’s dogs, the happy vestige of one increasingly dusty psychology degree. Her writing has previously appeared in Block Club and The Buffalo News.

BLOCK CLUB MAGAZINE EDITORIAL STAFF

PUBLISHER PATRICK FINAN patrick@blockclubonline.com

EDITOR BEN SIEGEL ben@blockclubonline.com

CREATIVE DIRECTOR BRANDON DAVIS brandon@blockclubonline.com

PHOTOGRAPHER STEVE SOROKA steve@blockclubonline.com

DESIGNER RYAN McMULLEN ryan@blockclubonline.com

DESIGNER JULIE MOLLOY julie@blockclubonline.com

Dana McKnight

pg. 28 Dana Mcknight is a multimedia artist, poet and former nomad. When she’s not slinging coffee or wrangling cats, she co-runs Dreamland, a nonprofit queer alternate art space. Her work has appeared in publications and galleries in Europe and the U.S.

Shasti O’Leary Soudant

pg. 24 Shasti O’Leary Soudant is a multimedia artist, designer, writer and teacher. She has one child, one spouse, one business and no pets. She has travelled extensively, published sporadically, exhibited internationally, and speaks fluent second-grade French. 14 BCM 39

DESIGNER TIM STASZAK tim@blockclubonline.com

EDITORIAL ASSISTANT MARGARET FINAN maggie@blockclubonline.com

CONTRIBUTING PHOTOGRAPHER MAX COLLINS PROOFREADER TAYLOR SCHUPP DESIGN INTERNS BUNK BAIRD ALLISON FRANK


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LETTER FROM THE EDITOR

Away There’s just no easy way to say this, though we do so with immense pride, hope and love: The next issue of Block Club magazine, our fortieth, will be our last. What started eight years ago as a standalone business model—before our award-winning branding, strategy and marketing agency would take flight; before a sister company in City Dining Cards would be born; before a team of 10 full-time designers, writers, strategists and entrepreneurs would be employed; before regional and national accolades; before five separate office spaces, dozens of parties and hundreds of late nights, take-out orders and celebratory drinks—before all that, we were just a little magazine with bright images, bold stories and big ideas. Much about these pages has changed over the years, from design to layout to paper and voice. In its heart, it has remained the same publication, telling stories about an evolving Buffalo and Rust Belt. These are hopeful, exciting times, as well as challenging. There is much to look forward to, but before that, much more to absorb and embrace. And so, with these truths in front of us, luxurious as it may sound, we’ve decided to try something else. Publishing eight years of magazines, in any era, is something to feel accomplished about. By the time the next issue prints, we will have produced nearly 750,000 individual copies of this free magazine. The number of advertising dollars, sold directly to locally owned, locally run businesses, many of them family-operated, is just as staggering. This is the result of our long-standing commitment to local economies and community investment. This is but one way our vision has been fulfilled. The timing of this announcement—in the penultimate issue, an issue titled “Away”—is ironic. The fact that we

chose this theme more than a year before we came to this decision is only secondary to the fact that Block Club remains strong, vital and active. We aren’t going anywhere. Quite the contrary, in fact. The Block Club brand has simply grown beyond the magazine. We are today one of the fastest-growing companies in Western New York. We serve the region’s forward-thinking businesses and organizations with award-winning branding and strategy. Business is good at Block Club, and in Buffalo. This decision, though, will let us pursue new creative ventures that will expand the Block Club brand to a whole new audience, and with an enticing combination of creativity and innovation. We are enthusiastic about the opportunity to do something new and different. Though our lips remain sealed, we will announce details when the time is right. But rest assured, there is something great on the horizon! And so, before our magazine’s last pages are even written, and before a hot summer that had better melt our socks off, and before the release of our best issue ever in early July, and before our loving sentiments get the best of us, we first spend a few pages to embrace the beauty in transition and transformation. To appreciate the luxury of saying goodbye. To honor the bitter and the sweet. To remember that nothing is permament, and everything is eternal. To trust that in the relationships that most closely hold our hearts, the greatest expression of love is to let go, let be and sail away.

BCM 39 17


THE CONVERSATIONALISTS

RETURNING TO

FREEDOM CIVIL RIGHTS ADVOCATE GEORGE “BABA” ENG WORKS ON BEHALF OF MILLIONS OF AMERICAN PRISONERS. BECAUSE HE USED TO BE ONE.

L

Interview by BEN SIEGEL

eaving, escape, retreat—these are a few ways we describe our typical departures. The ones that we control, that we decide we’re going to make. George “BaBa” Eng, like 2.5 million other Americans, lost his right to make that decision when he committed the crime that justly sent him away for 36 years. Eng was released just two years ago, and while he now freely spends his time working on behalf of prisoner’s rights and criminal justice with the Buffalobased nonprofit Prisoners are People Too, his restorative work began farther back than that. While in maximum security prison, Eng earned three degrees, studying theology and pastoral counseling, sociology, and paralegal studies. Eng speaks of his crime, his punishment and his secluded reality with seeming peace, grace and selfawareness. These are the first steps, he would imply, to finding a way out. BS Let’s begin at the beginning. BE My going away had to do with me making some bad choices in my young adulthood. I went away when I was 29 years old. I came up in the 1960s with the Black Power Movement. [We were not] satisfied that anything was changing. We gave up on the real hope of social transformation as a result of civic engagement. [We believed] that giving up was the wrong choice, was a bad choice.

BE Murder. BS And what was your sentence? BE My sentence was 25 years to life. I ended up doing 36 years, because in my transformation I became active in working for other prisoners’ rights. The conditions were deplorable, the opportunities were just nonexistent, it was a dehumanizing experience for everybody there. And in my transformation I worked very hard to educate myself in spite of the condition and became fairly adept at legal writing.

I fought for other prisoners’ rights because of my ability to write, and what I saw as an effective way to change the condition and help somebody. BS Were you a spiritual person before you went? BE No, not overly spiritual. But in prison I was forced to reach deeper in myself. In prison I was forced to come in contact with myself, probably for the first time in my life, at 29 years old. BS You helped initiate mental health services reform in the New York State prison system. Why was that important to you? BE I was in Attica prison at the time and I was placed in solitary confinement. The guards [there] killed a guy, about five cells away from me. They forced a watch down his throat and he suffocated.

I went to prison for shooting a man who had pulled his gun on my wife. I put her in that circumstance. I took my wife to an illegal gambling casino, and at that casino she got into an argument with one of the owners of the casino over her debt at the crap table. “The man whose life I took could have been somebody BS What were you charged with? 18 BCM 39

who worked to save our community. But I stopped that possibility. So, I carry that.” -George “BaBa” Eng


photo by MA X COLLINS

BCM 39 19


BS You overheard this? BE I heard the beating, I heard the screams, the yelling. Naturally they tried to cover it up and say that the guy hung himself. Myself and four other prisoners filed a civil rights lawsuit as a result of that incident. And we found out, in the discovery in that lawsuit, that the person that was killed was a mental health patient. He had not been diagnosed; he had been placed in solitary confinement, and his behavior in solitary confinement was not a result of him just being a bad person, but was a result of his psychological condition that had not been diagnosed, that had not been treated.

As a result of that lawsuit, the doctor at the prison was fired, two guards were terminated, and one guard was fired. Nobody ever went to prison for the actual death, but the conditions were such that the judge saw the opportunity to issue what was called consent decree over a period of years, which changed the way that people were dealt with, in terms of placement in solitary confinement and diagnostics to discover whether or not that person had mental health issues. BS Would you say that your contributions in prison were akin to the contributions you made outside of prison, with your work in the movement? BE Absolutely, absolutely. It was God’s way of bringing me back, and I continued in that kind of work during and after imprisonment. I developed what we identified and described as the Restorative Justice Program. It says that the way that we respond to wrongdoing as a society, as a people, is wrong. [That it’s] not effective in dealing with victims; it’s not effective in dealing with people who commit offenses, because we never arrive at a point where we decide what it is that caused the behaviors. We never decide to come in and resolve the issues that caused the behaviors in the first place. So victims are left unhealed.

The man [whose life] I was responsible for [taking] could have been somebody who really worked to save our community, to save our people. He could have been somebody of great contribution, but I stopped that possibility. So, I carry that as well. My work in restorative justice is about repairing relationships, rebuilding relationships, creating relationships that maybe didn’t begin in the first place between people and each other, and between people and systems, people in educational systems, people in the court system, people in communities. We have disputes, intentions and conflicts that can be resolved through restorative justice practices. 20 BCM 39

Because suspension is what feeds this whole idea of the school to prison pipeline, right? So, a peace circle in a school, every day, as part of a routine, allows students to actually embrace their education. This allows teachers to develop the kinds of curriculums that students can actually identify with, that they actually see themselves in, right? Because if a student does not embrace education, education doesn’t happen. BS And for them to understand what it’s like to be with themselves, and to have some language about themselves that they can use, in positive and constructive ways. BE It empowers them in a way that they feel valued, that they feel that they have a voice [about] what’s going on in their lives, and if they can claim it, and change something that is not right and make it to their benefit. BS How do you think you survived being away so long? BE Had it not been for somebody—well, a lot of somebodies, actually—seeing something of value in me, the prison system would have just destroyed me; either killed me, or just spit me out, the same way I came in. And this is what we see happening over and over again in our society. This office is part of the reentry service that we provide. We provide the most effective reentry program in the City of Buffalo, because we provide a total wraparound service for men and women coming out of prison.

They’re coming back into situations where they have created tensions and conflict in their family, in their community. So now they have to repair relationships with those people. Those people have to be given a voice, and have to be seen as valuable, in terms of what it is that they felt as a result of that person’s behaviors. Being able to express that to somebody who has hurt them, in a circle, in a conference, is a big thing in terms of healing. This whole movement is about healing our people in community where they are. BS What is it like to be away and to be so removed? BE One of the first things that people who don’t have any connection, or haven’t been touched by crime or the criminal justice system, what they need to hold at the forefront of any consideration of that dynamic is that the people involved are, at their basic level, human beings first.

Human beings can do bad things, but you have to be able to separate the deed from the doer, and that’s what restorative justice allows: to separate the deed from the doer. We reject what has been done; we reject the crime.


They made it hard in prison to get educated. Because it works. It changes people. BS How long have you been free? BE I came home in 2013. BS I am curious about—you were in maximum security, is

that what you said? BE I was in maximum security the whole 36 years. Because of my activities and my—at one point, one of the judges in the federal district court said that I was perhaps the most litigious inmate in the state of New York. BS Did the world feel very different when you re-entered? BE Totally different, but it was like being born again, you

know? I mean, really being born again, and having to learn basic stuff all over. I was blessed to come into a family—my wife, my significant other, my partner for life is Karima Amin. She’s been a community activist for over 30 years in the City of Buffalo. So you know, familiarizing me with the landscape of Buffalo, of both the advantages and the disadvantages, you know the pros and the cons of what is represented and the opportunities for transformation. BS Did you find that society had evolved in your time away? BE It seems that those at the top are just so removed from the reality of the average person, the average American, where they have created this fantasy and justification of maintaining a status quo that really does not serve the average citizen of this country. You know, the wars that we’ve been involved in, wars that we should not have been involved in. The lives that have been spent in sacrifice should never have been spent in sacrifice in furtherance of profit rather than human value.

But the good thing is that it has created an enormous mass of people who are determined to change society for the good of all of us, who are willing to work together and even sacrifice, you know, material gain and wealth for the improvement and betterment of conditions for the average person. BS And you see that happening? BE Yes, I do. I do. I see it happening in the faith community.

I see the faith community trying to—and myself included— trying to spread that message to every level of society that the privileged come in contact with; from the person who is dependent on food stamps and social services to the person who is living a middle class existence. I’ve spoken at churches in Clarence and Williamsville, and I’ve also spoken at churches on Bailey Avenue. BS What access to the outside world did you have in maximum security? BE When those who maintain the old mentality about what prison life should be, when they found out that education actually worked to change people, they took education out of the prison dynamic. They made it harder for men and women in prison to get educated. Because it works, because it changes people, because it stops people from only thinking about crime as a means of life. So, social services began to be eliminated from the prison dynamic.

Access to things, and organizations, and news, newspapers—I mean the libraries in prisons are being closed down—so, you know, prisoners have very little access to what is going on in society. The federal guidelines for sentencing say that prison is supposed to serve specific purposes: isolation, deterrence, and punishment, of course, but then also rehabilitation. If we go from 1980 onward, rehabilitation has been removed from that dynamic. There has been very little effort to rehabilitate, or to provide our programs and services that will allow men and women in prison to transform their minds, their thinking, their behaviors, and come out better people than when they went in. So, that’s our responsibility as a society to change that. BS Ironically, prison served as a sort of spiritual home, which then gave you the space to come back. You could say that you went away before you were put away. BE Well, it would not have happened, and that would not be the reality, were it not for the people who have been involved in my life during my imprisonment.

America currently imprisons more people than any other country in the world. Two and half million people today are imprisoned; seven million connected by the criminal justice system in some way. And each of those 7 million have family, and community. Our focus has to be criminal justice. BCM 39 21


CASE STUDY

Documenting justice ENGAGING YOUNG FILMMAKERS IN NONFICTION STORYTELLING.

I

by MARGARET FINAN

t wasn’t until 2012, conducting research in South Africa on the role of documentary filmmaking in bottom-up development, that Palika Makam fully recognized the potential impact of youth-led social activism. A master’s candidate in The New School’s international relations program, Makam and two fellow students piloted a workshop on the outskirts of Cape Town. The workshop, Amazwi Wethu—“Our Voices” in Xhosa— taught five local students the documentary making process, from story generation to post-production methods of media engagement. Not long after the workshop’s completion, a nearby town brought its school district to court in a human rights case, citing a gross lack of educational materials and professional protocols. When Makam saw an Amazwi Wethu studentproduced film posed as a basis for the case—which went on to successfully establish minimum norms and standards in the community’s educational infrastructure—she knew she wanted to continue the work upon her return to New York. With a B.A. in journalism, 25-year-old Makam expected to pursue a career in international reporting, but an introduction to Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed turned her passion for storytelling on its head. Makam soon opted to pass the camera to a story’s stakeholders, rather than filter it through an outsider’s lens. The Babel Project, the non-profit Makam co-founded with Carlos Cagin and Jordan Clark in 2013, is moored in documentary filmmaking, a reporting platform that maintains space for the nuance of personal narrative. At its heart, the Babel Project is an organization deeply concerned with social justice, employing filmmaking and digital media literacy as a vehicle to socially engaged, critically thinking youth, whose passions echo far beyond the nearby city limits. From the GO Project, which provides support to lowincome New York City public school elementary students, to Telluride Mountain School in Colorado, for which the Babel Project facilitated an eighth-grade documentary project on regional energy production and consumption, the Babel Project works with a range of educational partners in 22 BCM 39

the U.S., while Amazwi Wethu continues in South Africa. Students learn computer literacy, interview skills, editing and production processes. Ultimately, Makam facilitates an extensive dialogue on the impact of production and the role of film in grassroots organizing. “Social activism used to have the old physical barriers to participation, being in a very radical space or on the ground marching,” says Makam. “That’s changed.” She often references a statement made by Chris Anderson, the current curator of TED conferences: “What Gutenberg did for writing, online video can now do for face-to-face communication.” Certainly, in the wake of a hyper-viral online video campaign like Kony 2012—however divisive its narrative— Anderson’s implication of a revolutionary shift in reach is difficult to dispute. Still, Makam argues, nothing beats face time. Whether tackling something as extensive as educational infrastructure or simply sharing what they enjoy about their neighborhoods, students are encouraged not to view their films as a stand-alone statement, but rather an entry point from which conversation with their community begins. “Too often, due to barriers of language or literacy or geography, or access to technology or education, there are certain voices left out of the conversation of global issues,” says Makam. For the Babel Project, whose name references the biblical story of miscommunication, visuals stand as a universal language, capable of eliciting empathy and connection even where words fail. Whether in South Africa or New York, the goal is the same: to foster socially conscious storytellers, global citizens who are confident in the power of their own voices to enact change. “It’s a personal shift you can see over the process of production, where even someone who’s shy or feels misunderstood assumes the ability to showcase a part of their lives that they might not otherwise have the space to. At the end of the day,” says Makam, “that’s the real value in this work.”


photo illustration by RYAN McMULLEN

BCM 39 23


VIEWS

Rock, paper, scissors THE REAL UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE. by SHASTI O’LEARY SOUDANT

R

We are meaning-making machines. Roland Barthes actually coined a term for it in 1972: “Homo Significans.” And there is probably no greater evidence of this indomitable urge to seek and create meaning than in art and design. In teaching basic graphic design principles to new students, I usually begin with this, a child’s game relevant to almost everyone, a basis for commonality and exchange. Identifying the few universals in a world made increasingly particular by media and narrowcast messaging has become a crucial aspect of maintaining a channel through which to communicate with the larger world. Our ability to create abstraction is probably even more extraordinary than some of our abilities to produce perfect indexical representation, because abstraction becomes a catch basin for commonality: a territory in which mutual meaning can be created and deployed.

emember the game, Rock, Paper, Scissors? Being a childhood game, it should not be confused with a childish one. It’s actually pretty complex in its ramifications and dates back to the second century A.D. For example, the rock-paper-scissors principle is the subject of continued research in bacterial ecology and viral evolution, and has been used for everything from programming algorithms in game theory to settling multi-milliondollar legal disputes in Florida. (Yes, Florida.) But for our purposes, I’d just like you to humor me and play along. Throw your choice when I say so. Okay: For example, on the left, we have an oak, a specific tree, Rock, paper, scissors: SHOOT! details and characteristics separating it completely from Now look at your hand and ask yourself this question: our mental idea of, say, a fir tree. The more detail I use in Why did I play what I did? Do I play the same thing every this form of representation, the narrower the scope of my time? Do I default to one symbol over the others? Is there communication becomes; when I move towards abstraction, something innate about what it signifies that I respond to? the distillation of the idea of “tree” becomes more iconic, To address that form which your hand has taken­—that more inclusive, more embracing of all trees, everywhere. fist, that fin or that split-fingered jab—look at the position More “universal.” In abstraction, the universality of the of your fingers, and your hand’s rough iconic approxima- middle tree speaks of the idea of ‘tree’ to more people, everytion of your chosen strategy object. You have to marvel at where, than the detailed representation on the left, whose how this abstract representation is made manifest, your particular magnificence eclipses the larger idea. But there’s limb made a glyph in a reductive example of an elegant a line. At what point does tree turn into lollipop? mathematical equation for which John Nash won the This is one of the most important underlying tenets of Nobel Prize. design and communication. That form represents something in the world, a simple During a seminar one day, one of my favorite professors primal object, something all of us have seen, held and used. made the assertion that the definition of “ideology” was Near universals in our civilization: rock, paper and scissors. “the particular, masquerading as the universal.” The top of Further, looking at the position of your hand in front of my head promptly blew off. you: your hand’s relationship and bearing to the rest of your For more than 20 years, I had made a career of transbody is an important contextual component of the gesture, lating particulars into ersatz universals in order to sell because if you lift your hand up, the signal changes: books to members of specific demographics. By packaging Rock: Black Power! emotionally inexpensive vicarious experience, I had devel Paper: Heil Hitler! oped an understanding of how particular idioms in visual Scissors: Peace! language communicate the same thing to different groups These subtle differences in relationship yield huge shifts with different tastes, backgrounds and predispositions. in visual language. Our addiction to significance ensures it. I find myself now wondering what few true universals 24 BCM 39


illustration by TIM STASZAK

Time is our most basic currency. We spend our time by paying attention. exist and how they are used. What are the experiences that every single one of us has in common? From my perspective as a designer, my most immediate answer is the color red. It is the ultimate commonality, the blood that runs in all of our veins; danger, passion, power, anger. One discovers universals spanning cultures in much the same way one discovers new lands. A storm, a stumble, a mistake, a misplaced foot in the mouth, leading to a fortuitous change in direction and a glimpse of lush and unfamiliar territory. When confronted with an opportunity for translation, the first instinct is to map the commonalities while delineating the boundaries of difference. Presumption is a treacherous vessel for ideas and exchange, and spills its contents all too easily. One can never assume a commonality given the astonishing array of possible significances a single object or gesture can contain. The difference, for example, between a finger placed sideways—shhhh—on the lips, and a finger on the lips turned inward—hmmm—speaks volumes about the substantive subtleties that define the parameters of our visual expression. The difference between “Paper” and “Heil Hitler” is startling. And we don’t use the latter anymore, do we? It’s like a visual epithet. But the Nazis really knew what they were doing when it came to visual language. They borrowed their strategic vocabulary from other empires, and their

color palette from all of history and humanity: Red, Black, White :: Blood, Night, Light. Universals rendered trade routes, which historically became “paths to war,” then, hopefully, “roadmaps to peace.” Time, our most basic currency, for which all else is but a medium of exchange, rises in value as it dwindles. We spend our time by paying attention. And now, more than at any other time in history, what we are paying attention to is an ever more specific and particular representation of things and people. Imagery. Pictures. What Jean Baudrillard called “the simulacra.” But not the things and people themselves. The reality of the “new media” is that we have begun to engage in a sort of tribal dowsing, plumbing the depths of an ever-expanding matrix in a frantic search for Our People. With the advent of freely available platforms through which to expose ourselves and observe others, we have become one another’s entertainment, allowing each of us, no matter how eccentric, unusual or alone, the opportunity to find an audience and connect directly with them. One has to wonder if the particularities we are producing will protect us from the universals that have been historically deployed against us, or if we will begin to think of the world outside of our ideologies as aberrations. Settling that dispute will take more than rock, paper or scissors. BCM 39 25


ALL YOU NEED

70 + Local holiday celebrations

What’s in your fridge? PAGE 123

—TOM LOMBARDO

—SEAN DONAHER

“The scene is bustling, but I don’t think most

INTERVIEW ISSUE 20 PROMINENT WNYERS ANSWER QUESTIONS ON:

“We have to break that

“WE’RE-NOT-GOOD-ENOUGH” mindset.”

—DONNA COLLINS

“There’s been a dearth of PUBLIC ART in Buffalo for a very long time.” —AARON OTT

“The challenge is to provide equitable EDUCATION for all children.” —TANYA STAPLES

Development, Arts and Culture, Education, Neighborhoods, Politics and more

PAGE 45

MUSICIANS

are reaping financial benefits.”

HIS T T NO

W.

—DIANE PICARD

“Helping artists realize their goals is an appropriate avenue for my CREATIVITY.”

THE

EA

“It’s not about you, it’s about your CUSTOMERS.”

“The next generation needs to be aware of where their FOOD comes from, where it’s grown, and why it’s important.”

PAGE 63

—JEFF MIERS

“These NEW POPULATIONS are a great asset to our city.” —TAMARA ALSACE

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You Can Never Go Home Again Story by DANA McKNIGHT

Photo by STEVE SOROKA

I left the East Side like an old girlfriend. The brash, wide-eyed girl who accompanied me to a new downtown club with all the wrong accouterment: off-season dress and clashing makeup; her raggedy box-braids pulled back into a fabric scrunchie, the ends sealed with tacky black glue and rubber-bands, a quick fix from a series of bad head decisions. When I step to the bar, she trails behind me. She’s just come off of work, and her bright beige shoes are similar in form to the three-inch heels the other girls sport as they purposefully mill about the vaguely lit room. But Easy’s—that’s what we’ll call her—shoes shine in the way that plastic does. Her budget is Payless in a room mostly full of Target. Easy is the girl who goes to the bar looking for a menu, because she’s used to places with easy suggestions, like dollar-menus or churches. Easy is the girl who gets ashamed easily when the fancy bartender’s eyes focus on the other girls in the bar (girls like Westy and Northy; Southy is already a bit too messy). Easy is the only girl whose dress gathers in loose bunches in all the wrong places. Easy looks like she smells. She’s had a bad life. The abandonment shows on her face in swathes of dead skin trailing in crusted blocks over her cheeks and chin. But clubs don’t care about history or the things that make you. They care about the present—about the future. Clubs care about your money.

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Easy exasperates me. I’ve known her for years; I know all of the qualities she doesn’t have the social wherewithal to show at the New Club. Easy’s mere presence is restricting me from all the social accolades I feel that I deserve. Easy has a fucking scrunchie. Easy doesn’t know how to stop me when I go talk to Westy’s cooler, more put-together junkie cousin, Allen. Easy is in the corner of the room, crouched in the shadows, her stubby fingers clutching a half-empty bag of David’s salted sunflower seeds while I make a home with someone else. The kind of home I feel that I can brag about, and show off to people without them spending the majority of their visit eyeing their car out the window. In a moment of weakness and strength I turn my back on the East Side and leave for Allentown. This is the love letter I never thought to send. To the promising, damaged, wild girl-place that shaped me.

I was raised in Cold Springs, a small chunk of Buffalo’s East Side lodged between the gutted Olmsted park (now Rt. 33) and the bright intricate mausoleums of Forest Lawn Cemetery. It’s said that the area was named for the artery of underground streams that lay beneath the surface of the neighborhood. Streams that rumble beneath the streets, carrying the rain-washed blood of young black boys and girls murdered in the open—burbling out of concrete-lined passages through swan-laden ponds in the picturesque cemetery that serves as a border between the good and the bad sides of Buffalo. There is a tone inherent in any mention of the East Side. A wincing grimace accompanied by a knowing sneer, an eyebrow that lifts just below the line of shock or openended terror. If Buffalo’s lower West Side is the amalgamation of the American Globalist Dream™, then the East Side is its Palestine. Wrecked and savaged by constant shelling and demolition by warring tribal factions that ethnically bear striking, if not identical, resemblance to one another. Like Palestine, the social and economic sanctions are rarely mentioned—and if so, they are an abstraction, a remark rarely made in genteel company for fear of upending the apathetic liberalism that reminds us of our open complacency with the blight. I am remiss as well. The massive overhaul of Buffalo’s image has left—abandoned, the East Side in its overflowing cornucopia. We forget. I have forgotten. It is hard to find the bits of effervescent shell in the bleak Polaroid of 30 BCM 39

the beach. It is easy to backslide into the mob mentality of denigration. The slut-shaming of the stranger in spite of the turtleneck covering her full breasts. Buffalo’s New Club has brought out the dashing basic jock in all of us. There’s a palpable excitement in the air as Buffalo opens itself to new ventures not seen since its heyday as the City of Lights. The once dreary Rust Belt border town currently shimmers with New Age fusionbased eateries, boutique hotels, and artisanal cocktail bars hammered out of gilded copper. All of these things have become destinations in themselves, a glamorous re-imagining of a Buffalo that stayed static in the midst of the big booms that unilaterally declared Brooklyn the Middle Passage to Hipsterdom. As Bed-Stuy turns pale, our Fruit Belt mysteriously transforms into the Mighty Morphin’ Medical Corridor, slowly pushing out residents who don’t fit the vision of the New Buffalo. But Buffalo is not a Tabula Rasa. The East Side is not dead. There is culture here. And there is life.

Every house in the East Side has a yard and all the yards have trees; thick luscious evergreens, birches and countless other arboreal fantasies, equal parts overgrown thicket and the faint echo of landscaping that saw peace and merit in the grand deciduous forests that dotted the Great Lakes. For me, spring began at the whim of the giant lilac tree in my backyard, a mature 20-foot sight that exploded at the first real hint of warm air, bathing the neighborhood in a rich perfume that heralded the coming of Easter, butter lambs and Sunday dress shoes. I remember morning rituals of my mother hand-cranking our glass window shutters to let in fresh air from outside and her smile when I gathered sprigs of fluffy white lilacs to place in small paper cups around the kitchen. My mother loved and disliked nature all at once. She grew angry at the sight of unkempt lawns (which were rare), making sure to drag the lawnmower over to the old or errant neighbors whose grass grew above ankle. Flowers made her happy; a dog’s bark would set her on edge. A constant bout of consternation that aggravated my animal-obsessed self to no end. Our home was petfree, and it didn’t help that most of the dogs on our block

Previous: Dana McKnight, in front of her childhood home on the East Side.


“I had fully severed my emotional ties with the East Side. The longing for somewhere else became the driving obsession in my life.” were hulking caricatures of Rottweilers and Dobermans. Like all poverty-stricken areas, pets are practical accompaniments, vigilant guards of the home or status symbols (most animals are painfully expensive when you’re poor) or a mix of both. Dog-fighting rings were rare in my neighborhood, but I understood them as well as anyone who had ever worked at the bottom rung of a service job. Like people, dogs could be exploited; horrible bosses will let anything happen to their workers for the touch of coin. But most bosses are good and all the dogs on my street were healthy companions full of lolling tongues and wagging tails. There was little blight on my East Side when it came to nature. My family hung a bird feeder in the backyard, enticing a permanent variety of chickadees, cardinals and blue jays. Throughout the year, birds roosted in the eaves of my neighbor’s roof; dozens of sparrow nests, clutched along the sides of the paint-chipped eaves. I spent my early summer mornings scouring the driveway for broken bits of nest, occasionally coming upon the pink gumballsized frames of tiny sparrows that had slipped away from the hearth, which my mother would gently sweep into the grass for the ants and flies to devour. When I came across a live one, my neighbors would smile at my raucous excitement, deigning not to mention the broken frames or shriveled breaths of my new charges. And when the tiny birdlings passed—which they all inevitably did within a few hours—my neighbors would never scoff at my distress. It was well known that I planned to be a veterinarian. They smiled at that too, the same way they smiled when I cradled dying birds. When summer hit, re-browning us and driving us outside away from the air-conditionless houses, the streets were filled. On days seemingly chosen at random, our block club—a motley assortment of old homeowners and lower-middle-class aspirees—closed off the street at each intersection with folding tables draped in colorful plastic sheeting anchored down by bricks. They called it a block party, though there was rarely any communication with the city for shutting down traffic. On these days, the dudes with questionable income would come outside, their muscular arms laden with bags of Sahlen’s hot dogs and boomboxes. Talented men who could fix your aunt’s car in under an hour and repair a staircase with artisanal grace and

couldn’t get a job on the books because of their criminal record. Men who slipped guns in the back of their belts like warding talismans. They manned the grill, feeding dozens of families with comfortable pride; Michelin star chefs until the streetlights flickered on at dusk. I grew up with these men. They were uncles and cousins and fathers, dangerous and loyal until the wall of matriarchs began to crumble and the siren call of the streets began to drift through. They were all ex-military. It was they who taught me how to fight; dirty if the situation called for survival rather than honor. And survive we did. Whole chunks of neighborhoods made do without a local supermarket, utilizing carpools or buses to get to grocery stores. Complex bartering systems were created to ferry people to the massive open-air farmers market on Clinton that serviced an astonishingly diverse crowd of people. These were the days before Tops declared it would plop its tiniest store on Jefferson Avenue. Before then, trips for groceries were a chore reserved days in advance; it became an epic test of will to make food stamps stretch. Taco nights in my house were a treat, utilizing a simple combo of small burrito shells, cheap beef, cheese, shredded iceberg and ketchup. To my young, easily entranced mind they were the stuff of legend, every bit as fantastic as the Taco Bell commercials I would see on television. When I had my first real taco at age 12, I was thoroughly ashamed. It was on the East Side where I learned to love books. The Jefferson library was a short walk away, tucked into a stately columned building that could barely fit a small bank branch. When she could make the time—which she tried very hard to do—my mother would gather my brother and me for the walk, usually early in the afternoon, before the street hustle shift went sinister. The books were hand-me-downs from the other branches, floppy and thin from overuse. I drank them like Kool-Aid. I found them in no different state than the books I plowed through at my school. Then one day, the librarian, warm and thick-limbed, kindly told my mother to take me downtown. I believe that was when Easy and I first began to separate. It was physical at first; a school transfer at the tender age of 10 that sent a tall whelp from an underfunded public school in the middle of the East Side to a top magnet BCM 39 31


school on a hill on the edge of the Fruit Belt. And suddenly, I was in an upper middle class world. My new peers were children who had never seen food stamps, or made the unfortunate discovery of a hole in a winter boot. These were the gilded children of doctors, lawyers and professors, those who had never seen blood on the sidewalk after a wild day or clambered frantically to the edge of the streetlight when the dark came too quick on summer nights. With their friendship came an explosion of diverse culture that had previously been denied to me. I am often struck by the similarities between hood rats and countrybumpkins; our poverties keep us cocooned. In what seemed like a fortnight, I outgrew the wonderland of my backyard. The corner store’s small pittance of Fritos, Little Debbie Cakes and bright red “sausage” sticks could no longer compete on the same playing field as the diverse spread of oversized cookies and sparkling Italian sodas that lay in the bright sparkling cases at the downtown SPoT Coffee. Hunger is a neverending obstacle for the perpetually starved. I began to stray, conveniently missing the train to leisurely stroll up and down Allen Street and Elmwood Avenue, sometimes repeatedly. My mother, trapped and anxious, soon began to suspect that I was a tramp, though the hustle was one of wonder rather than lascivious activity. It is said that the basis for every long-lasting relationship is evolution, a mutual willingness for both parties to evolve together through the cold hard times and the fresh. But continuing with a partner who does not stimulate you is a slow, cruel death. And when I had fully severed my emotional ties with the East Side, I began a nearly identical process with Buffalo as a whole. The longing for somewhere else became the driving obsession in my life. I graduated from high school and went directly into a university that would send me abroad for several years on the basis of never returning to the place that raised me. The disconnection was severe, forced; a breakup where text messages are discarded before being read and every memory is autoskewed towards the negative. The dominants in relationships control the narrative. And this is exceedingly true for the East Side, whose actual truth clashes with a reputation that has all the markings of a shorn lover. And the blanket quelling of these truths were not only effective for every suburbanite screaming in horror at the prospect of setting foot into Buffalo, but for the natives as well. I was raised on the East Side and yet I was just as susceptible to the smear campaigns 32 BCM 37

enacted against my neighborhood. I failed to remember the amazing, independently owned soul food dives tucked into skeletons of old gas stations, dilapidated storefronts and the backs of churches, with food so good they openly surpassed their shinier counterparts in other parts of the city. I had forgotten Locust Street Gallery, a community arts space that had survived decades of blights and still managed to translate aesthetics to youth who were often denied beauty in their everyday lives. I didn’t realize that outside of the walls of my fundamentalist household, a massive LGBTQ population flourished, where genteel queens and sturdy butches bucked against the privilege of the gay scene downtown, building speakeasies and vibrant ballroom culture in houses and dead meeting halls. I ignored the fact that in all of my travels, I had never seen so many flowers on porches. For all definitions of home, we tend to omit the simplicity of youth.

I was 18 when I left the East Side, excited at the bevy of resources I had been given, congratulating myself on my escape from a world rife with violence and corruption. And others congratulated me as well. As if I were a special case of bright-eyed, hardworking Negro that espoused the libertarian ideals of the bootstrap pull-up. But I am like any other kid from the East Side who was raised in poverty. The only difference lay in the smorgasbord of arbitrary and oftentimes random resources I happened upon: veritable keycards stamped with all the correct networking alerts; schools with students whose family names lay in social black books; and access to good libraries where the pages of books were intact and unstained. I had a family who could afford (in many non-monetary ways) to encourage me in academics and who was moderately open to my pursuit of them. I never went hungry; I was a skinny kid with knobby knees that was obsessively overfed for fear that Child Protective Services would be summoned. I was lucky. Pitted against the shine of “progress,” Easy never had a chance. There is a moment in a relationship where you make a choice—the irreparable selection of options. The grand Anais Nin, poet and love laureate, once declared: “Anxiety is love’s greatest killer. It makes others feel as you might when a drowning man holds onto you. You want to save him but you know he will strangle you with his panic.”


And beneath the slow decay of the East Side lies a grand trauma, an undercurrent of anxiety as the city rushes forward—plowing through the 21st century in a belated and desperate attempt to catch up to the sense of self that it has been repeatedly informed to have lost. Upon returning to Buffalo, it is rare that I wander along the old paths that marked the neighborhood where I was raised. Romanticism is neither practical nor comfortable, and despite the gems that lend character to the area, there are serious problems. Years of corruption, systemic and institutionalized racism leave every aspect of the public infrastructure crippled and hurting. In the past year, less than a quarter of all homicides on the East Side have been prosecuted, and that’s only the tip of a massive iceberg. Our schools are sold to the highest bidder, whose interests are ignoble and saturated with private money. Our parks and green space lay crumbled and ignored. The few businesses that survived the economic apartheid are withering as a generation of elderly proprietors dies off. The businesses that come in their stead are short-lived, popping up like shantytowns and fated to disappear in months. The companies that do survive barely create a workforce, while the jobs that are available for East Side residents are outsourced and scattered across the whole of Erie County. This is a startling contrast to the rest of Buffalo proper. Even ignoring the massive new developments happening downtown and along the waterfront, the North is an explosion of new shops, eateries and projects, including an announced second location of the Lexington Co-operative Market. South Buffalo is slated to receive the blessing of modern techonology’s leading innovator Elon Musk, who is opening a massive solar plant in the middle of dead sprawl. The West Side, from Allen Street all the way through Elmwood, seems to be receiving the best of the City’s deal. The area is a buffet of new economic growth, both independent and corporate. The economic boon that we are expected to acclaim effecitvely stops right at the Main Street line. One thing we must realize in the bringing about of the New Buffalo is that gentrification is not a benign blessing; it is active eradication, a cultural genocide. Gentrification is how we lose the “special” things by overlooking them and demeaning their intrinsic value. Gentrification looks like the dismantling of a hookah bar that brought in the wrong kind of diversity; or the forced closing of a small arts space that made little capital but brought light to the genius and foibles of poverty-stricken creators; or the citi-

zens of a crumbling city block that have become refugees amidst the skyrocketing hike of property taxes as land values rise and slumlords evict with impunity. It is a scene that echoes not only throughout Buffalo, but much of the Rust Belt, and various post-industrial cities throughout the United States. And yes, it does affect the most economically broken of these neighborhoods that suffer the bludgeon of respectability politics, but it also denies a city its chance at wholeness, both culturally and figuratively.

Easy still has a chance. She doesn’t need the plasticsmiled dream team of disconnected relationship gurus to get her groove back. Easy has friends; people who have walked with her for years (decades even), who know that bright colors bring out the sparkle in her eyes and plentiful gardens fill the empty lots of her soul. The damage inflicted upon her roots requires a mere trim rather than the glaring edge of the razor. She doesn’t need the jocks plowing her with tepid quick erections of ambiguous concrete; her character lies etched in the intricate plaster façades of crumbled Broadway and the woodwork and stained glass of Hamlin Park. Her growth lies with the multitude of grassroots organizations utilizing local volunteers to create arts and economically sustainable programming to both residents and the environment. Her rise is coupled with the increase of renegade activists fitting her abandoned lots with fruiting gardens and arts collectives hammering out safe spaces for those who have been voiceless. What is happening right now on the East Side is a sure indication that it can flourish, especially when those who have abandoned her return from the worldly trenches with real ideas on how to make things better. The role of the ex-girlfriend emerges in stages. A weaning process that remains similar for the scorned and the ravager. (Hint: I am the ravishing rolling stone of township hearts.) Sadness and longing were things boxed and deposited on nighttime stoops years ago. The touch of East Side concrete no longer guts the belly, but in the way of old punishing loves, lingers with the faintest ache. The East Side is no longer my home, but I can feel her breathing slow and steady on the line. And like any good ex, I’ll pick up when she calls—to aid in the slow retrieval of her dignity, so she’ll be ready when others began to love her anew. BCM 37 33


Away Photos by BLOCK CLUB

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The Daily Miracle Story by ERIC DuVALL

Photos by CANDACE CAMUGLIA

I learned of Ben Bradlee’s death the same way I learned of nearly every news story these past seven years, slouched in an office chair behind a petite desk in my dog cage of an office in the corner of a dingy newsroom that was, until Jan. 31, 2015, the still-beating heart of a fish wrapper called the Tonawanda News. I’m a journalist. At the time Bradlee died I was equal parts proud and embarrassed to say I shared a job title with the outsized former editor of the Washington Post. Having the misfortune of being born in post-Watergate America, I’ve never known a journalist who got famous for what they wrote in the paper rather than what they said on cable television. As I read the colorful tributes to the most consequential newspaper editor in 70 years, I strained to find some shred of commonality—something I could relate to. Surely, I thought, there must be some fundamental element of newspapering that holds true whether your circulation is 3 million or 3,000. The truth is, the truth aside, there isn’t.


Tonawanda is a funny little place. For starters, it isn’t just one place. It’s really several places bound together by geography and a funny sounding old Native-American word that translates to “swift-moving water.” It’s a reference to the Niagara River, which borders all three municipalities bearing the name Tonawanda—Town of; City of; and North. I always thought it fitting the area was named after the Niagara River, which is in itself a misnomer. It’s actually an estuary, or a narrow body of moving water connecting two larger bodies of standing water. You know, if you want to get technical. I also always thought it was ironic that Tonawanda refers to something swift and moving, which, if I’m being blunt, aren’t the two first words that spring to mind when describing the stereotypical resident. The community is predominantly and unapologetically working class. The clichés about “blue collar” workers are largely unfair, though a reading of an average police blotter on any given day would lead you to believe otherwise. Tonawanda is home to some remarkably dumb criminals, I must say. People who are from there will tell you they’re from there and most do so knowing full well what an outsider’s assumption will be. To do this requires a certain amount of introspection—not to mention self-assurance. Tonawandans more than compensate with substance for what they lack in style. They are plugged into their community in a way few places still are. The streets bear the surnames of the families that helped found the region and it is hardly uncommon, even today, to find someone whose last name and street name are one in the same. People from the Tonawandas are proud to be from the Tonawandas. However, it shouldn’t be overlooked that pride is also one of the seven sins. From my perch as the editor of their newspaper I saw both sides daily. Time and again I saw people rear up in ferocious response to anyone who dare suggest that, maybe, something about Tonawanda wasn’t wonderful or was in need of changing. As defensive as it could be, such pride in a place also begets a spirit of community and togetherness you just can’t fake. For better and worse, people from the Tonawandas really like Tonawanda. They really like talking about Tonawanda. And, I would come to learn, they really like reading about Tonawanda, too. 46 BCM 39

Despite all the head-desks in response to the parochial griping, it was absolutely a blessing to work in a place like Tonawanda. Readers had a genuine affection for our paper because it said Tonawanda on the front page. They loved it because, unlike anything else in the world, it was made especially for them. How that newspaper was made, of course, remained a matter of great conjecture. The truth is I didn’t like telling people what I did because, thanks to the Ben Bradlees of the world, the words newspaper editor invoke days so much more interesting than most of mine that just by saying it I would create a version of myself the real me could never live up to. Now that it’s over I can look back with a bit more honesty. For seven years I was the editor of a small community newspaper that came out, more or less, every day for 134 years until one day it didn’t. We chronicled the often boring, oddly fascinating details of life in the Rust Belt—at the corner store and on the stoop. And while our little paper never helped nudge nations to war or take down a president, what we did— and with relentless consistency—still mattered to the people it was supposed to matter to. I was, and forever will be, the paper’s last editor. I’m here to say one thing: It mattered. The Tonawanda News mattered.

I should probably start by telling you all the things we did that didn’t seem to matter to people very much. A huge part of the job—the part no one ever notices or cares about until someone messes it up or it changes in even the most inconsequential way—was mindless busywork. There were days when I would spend two hours retyping the movie listings off Fandango. The reformatting necessary for a simple copy-and-paste job was far more tedious than actually sitting there, retyping line-by-line something almost everyone now looks at on their phone. The truth is we could have just copied Fandango, changed the font size and called it a day. But newspaper journalists—the good ones anyway—could never let that happen. We’re far too detail-oriented (some would say obsessive-compulsive) to allow it. In the world of a newspaper editor, staring at a page that says a movie starts at “7:00” when it’s supposed to say


“Of course it wasn’t all chicken dinners. We took our role as a watchdog seriously. Even the most parochial of Tonawandans, try as they might, can’t shut out the rest of the world entirely.” “7 p.m.” is a fate worse than death. Consider how few of the 7 billion people on Earth would notice, much less care about, such a distinction. Surely anyone who looked at a “7:00” would infer by context we meant “7 p.m.,” because movies theaters aren’t open at 7 a.m. And the three extra characters wasted on “:00” are extraneous, sure, but hardly harmful. We are a select and prideful bunch of nerds—selfappointed martyrs whose job it is to atone for the sins committed against our language by the ever-growing force of texting and yakking cads. We live in a culture where “you and I,” “me and you” and “you and u” are each used interchangeably. I’ll be damned if I was ever going to let the world slip over the cliff of linguistic oblivion without doing my part. And if it meant spending two hours retyping a website to generate content that maybe five people would ever look at, well, I was happy to do it. There were dozens of menial tasks at my newspaper like this. The temptation is to call it mindless work and while we were doing it, it was. Mindless, yes, but hardly thoughtless. In fact, the only reason we did it at all is because of newspaper people’s predilection to overthink even the simplest things. We were self-styled catchers in the grammatical rye. The writers and designers I worked with were some of the most neurotic people I’ve ever met. The only way we could ever coexist was to revel in this narcissistic love of order. The AP Style Guide was our Bible. Changes to it or our local style guide, which I proudly authored, were the subject of exhaustive, sometimes heated debate. All to settle questions like whether we should use the official Gratwick Riverside Park or the more colloquial Gratwick Park in print. (For those counting, as a general rule we used proper names on first reference and settled into colloquialisms on the second.) I’m not kidding when I say one of the saddest personal parts of the paper closing is that I was robbed of the chance to pass my house style guide, and with it all the nit-picky rules I made up to satisfy my OCD, onto the next editor. It was absolutely supposed to be part of my legacy at the Tonawanda News. Alas, it went down with the ship.

No longer will anyone think about whether they should say Gratwick Riverside Park or Gratwick Park—because I’m quite sure no one will ever care. That’s a shame. If naming something is the first act of knowing it, who is to keep track of all those names in our absence? Newspapers guide public discourse in ways other mediums cannot. Words spoken are often sloppy but the precision of ink on paper is a cultural preservative. In ways large and small, the Tonawandas will change without its paper of record to set the record straight.

Somewhere there is a boy named Noah Hutter, age 13, I think. I know this because his grandparents live in North Tonawanda and they were one of the last families to keep up the tradition of sending in pictures of their grandkids for publication on their birthday. Noah’s grandmother (at least I assume it’s a grandmother, not a grandfather) sent in her grandson’s picture every year. At some point, I started remembering, or at least recognizing, the name. That kid’s picture was in the paper starting back when he probably thought it was cool and continued until he probably thought it was the most uncool thing you could ever imagine. I can’t help but wonder how many more years his picture would have appeared before he finally mustered the will to say he thought it was lame, or his erstwhile grandmother realized it for herself and stopped sending it in. That dichotomy more or less defined our society page. It’s where every community newspaper puts the stuff people want to see in the paper but can’t credibly be treated like an actual news story. News people like to think it’s our hard-hitting investigative articles that make a paper worth the ink. Readers couldn’t disagree more. Of far greater interest to your average newspaper reader, not to mention the super class of readers who actually submit content for publication, is the stuff like Noah Hutter’s birthday or the chicken dinner at the Elk’s Lodge that’s a BCM 39 47


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fundraiser for the Little Loop football league’s new jerseys. We used to joke there were enough Chiavetta’s chicken dinner fundraisers on our community page that if you ever kept track you could eat one every day from May to October. And after that, if spaghetti is your thing, you could mange your way through all-you-can-eat pasta from October to May. Toss in your Saturday pancake breakfasts and a person could have subsisted solely on society page fare for a lifetime, and for something like $7 a day. When we announced we were closing, the people who organize these kinds of things were by far the most distraught. We were and always will be the most effective conveyors of this kind of information. Our core audience lives for this stuff. To say the chicken dinner circuit is going to take a hit is an understatement. So, too, are all the community groups that rely on the $1-per-plate profit margin to fund every social program the government doesn’t pay for already. And don’t even get me started on community theater groups. Every troupe north of Kenmore Avenue—and there are more than you’d think—is screwed. Western New York has a vibrant theater community, for sure, but who out there is going to spill front page ink—photos and all—on the Town Players’ rendition of “South Pacific”? No, we weren’t covering theater like the Times covers Broadway. But the passion and dedication these artistic souls displayed more than made up for the repetitive nature of a local theater story. Sure, change the names of the actors and their characters and the quotes could read the same in every single story about them we ever wrote. Every community theater actor has “really enjoyed getting to know this character” and definitely “sees a little of myself in her”—and that, right there, is the point. We didn’t write about this kind of stuff because we found it new or particularly revolutionary. We wrote about it because it’s relatable. People like supporting community groups when they have a fundraiser. And pictures of your neighbor in a funny costume are fun to look at. And because when your immediate universe consists of three towns named Tonawanda, a neighbor in a silly wig and a rubber chicken sale at the fire hall really is news.

Of course it wasn’t all chicken dinners. We took our role as a watchdog seriously. Even the most parochial of Tonawandans, try as they might, can’t shut out the rest of the world entirely. 50 BCM 39

Easily the biggest story to come along in my seven years at the Tonawanda News was the crash of Continental Flight 3407 in Clarence. The irony is the biggest breaking news we ever covered in my time in Tonawanda didn’t even happen in Tonawanda. But people there, like everyone in Western New York, took it like a gut punch. You know how people really like telling stories about how they weathered a monumental snowstorm? Well, that’s kind of how I feel about 3407. I don’t remember it fondly but I really want to talk about it anyway. There’s no handbook for days like that. I was working a double covering the copy desk for a guy whose father died that afternoon. Everything was going swimmingly. We had the entire paper, save the late sports scores and the lottery numbers, in the can by 9:30 p.m. It was just me and a page designer left in the newsroom when all hell broke loose. I don’t even remember how, but we ripped apart the front page at 10:30, I pounded out a respectable 20 inches, we got a not-so-great picture from a freelancer who made it to the scene before the Feds swooped in and set up their perimeter. We hit deadline by a couple of minutes and I piled into my beat-up Chrysler at 1 a.m. and trucked out to Clarence. I waited out what was supposed to be a 2 a.m. presser that didn’t happen until 4 a.m., and pounded out a fresh 40 inches for the web by 5 a.m., in time for the morning site traffic. By then I’d woken up the entire staff and called a meeting for 7 a.m. I drove home, showered and put on a clean shirt, then drove straight back to the office. When 3407 crashed I remember thinking we had one goal in crafting our coverage, and it was not to lose sight of the obvious: A plane just fell out of the sky. After shouting myself hoarse into a cellphone glued to one ear and my desk phone to the other for 18 hours we had made another newspaper. In that time we tracked down an aviation expert who explained the basics of why planes crash sometimes. We tracked down a passenger who was supposed to have been on the plane but decided at the last minute to take a later flight. We talked to grieving families and shocked witnesses. And at some point I found time to write an editorial I completely forgot I’d written until a year later, when we were preparing our anniversary coverage. It’s a strange place to find yourself when it’s your job to put something so massive into some valid perspective for other people when you’re struggling with the same emotions as everyone else. My old Sunday school teacher was


“Small town politics can reveal the best, worst and weirdest in people. It takes a small town paper to understand those dynamics.” among the dead. Somehow, I managed. The closing line from that editorial: “It seems impossible now, but we will get through this. We will endure and, yes, we will grow. We have what is needed most in times like this. We have heart.” I still tear up reading those words today. If 3407 was the biggest single news day of my career, our biggest story—the kind of thing that plays out over years, not hours—was Tonawanda Coke. It started with one of our reporters taking the time to hear out a woman who called the newsroom on a lark. Bigger papers might have written her off as a crank, but she was insistent something be done about the smell in the air in her neighborhood. She said it was making people sick. So we did what little papers do. We wrote a story about her petition drive. And another, and another. And before long, local politicians jumped on board, petitioning the state to conduct an air quality study in the Tonawandas. Then Chuck Schumer got wind of the breeze and all of a sudden we were literally making a federal case out of it. The EPA and DEC seized on the culprit, Tonawanda Coke, a foundry on River Road in the town that burns coal at very high temperatures to create coke, one of the ingredients necessary to forge steel. It started as a handful of residents in a living room in 2005, initially amplified only by our paper. Eight years later it became the second-ever criminal conviction in American history for violating the Clean Air Act. The plant manager who covered it all up was sentenced to a year in prison. The company was fined $12 million and ordered to pay another $12 million to fund, among other things, a community health study to figure out what the thousands of tons of carcinogenic chemicals they illegally pumped into the air did to all the people who breathed it day after day, year after year. The temptation might be to assume a little paper like the Tonawanda News doesn’t have journalistic chops— that because we spent most of our time on mundane small town news we were just some hack Pennysaver. I hold up our work on those stories and plenty more as evidence to the contrary. We were very good at what we did.

There exists a sub-genre of satire devoted to poking fun at people who are so single-minded they can’t envision existing without their One Big Thing, whatever it is. Think about any film by Christopher Guest—“Best In Show” and “Waiting for Guffman” come to mind. The best recent example is the NBC show “Parks and Recreation.” Dealing with small town local government on a daily basis, I can’t begin to tell you how spot on that show is. The petty rivalries. The turf wars over the tiniest patches of grass—sometimes literally over tiny patches of grass. The crazy people who run small-town institutions with a zeal bordering on insanity. I got to know and see all of that from our perch at the paper. And while it can absolutely drive you insane if you allow yourself to be drawn into the fray, the ability to catalog it for publication can be personally gratifying and very useful. Perhaps the single most well received thing I ever wrote for the Tonawanda News was actually just an email. There was a woman who ran a cultural organization in town who everyone regarded as something of a lunatic. The trouble was, in the politically correct world of local government, no one was able to call her out for it because little old ladies who run cultural institutions aren’t the kind of people you can say mean things about. Naturally, being the editor of the paper, I had far fewer reservations. And while this woman was a constant irritant, I mostly just let it slide. That is, until one day she wrote me an email—she would regularly write scathing emails so voluminous I wondered how she had any time to actually run her organization—that sent me over the edge. I wrote her back and told her she was a crazy person who was no longer allowed to contact the paper in any way. In fact, I told her, she wasn’t allowed to read our paper ever again. After all, I reasoned, if all you ever do is complain about us and tell anyone in town who will listen what a terrible job we’re always doing, why bother? She took my hasty screed and forwarded it to her group’s entire mailing list, which consisted of just about everybody in town, urging them to boycott the Tonawanda News. BCM 39 51


Five minutes later my phone started ringing off the hook. I’m not kidding, if I talked to one person about that email I talked to 50, the consensus being that she was wrong and I was to be commended. The mayor even called to thank me. And the mayor at the time hated me. Even behind the scenes—sometimes, more important because it’s behind the scenes—newspaper people can foster a frank dialogue that the official community simply cannot. Small town politics can reveal the best, worst and weirdest in people. It takes a small town paper to understand those dynamics. When you’re able to feel the contours of the personalities involved it informs reporting in a way that a major metro daily will never be able to replicate. The politicians at that level are too polished, the truth a moving target. When you show up at City Hall every day and get to walk into the mayor’s office without an appointment and have a casual off-the-record conversation you gain an insight that allows for the kind of reporting people come to value. The good reporters I worked with were masters at this kind of thing. The best scoop we ever got came from a relationship forged through hours of chit-chat. A City Hall source called my former city editor and offered a suggestion: Go pull the City Court records from the previous day. We did and, lo and behold, without anyone noticing, a city councilwoman’s daughter had been let off by the judge with a slap on the wrist after drunkenly plowing into a couple of parked cars two weeks prior. The shit storm we rained down on the councilwoman, the judge and the Niagara County District Attorney was unholy and, I don’t mind saying now, a ton of fun for us. Two days after the story hit, TV cameras were camped out in front of City Hall and the DA was almost forced to resign. It was exactly the kind of story only a small town paper can write that gets everyone talking. Someone even made up bumper stickers: “I got busted for DWI in NT and all I got was this lousy parking ticket.”

Some professions allow their practitioners the benefit of building a reputation based on a body of work. In newspapers you’re only as good as that day’s edition. Nobody cares about how many scoops you’ve had, how many awards you’ve won. Any decent editor—and maybe 52 BCM 39

this is something Ben Bradlee and I do have in common— would tell you that you’re useless when you stop delivering quality content. So what does that mean when the actual paper stops delivering? The reality is cold. The Tonawanda News as an institution is useless now. Or better, it is useless for today and useless to the people who used to find a use for it, even when the people who created it could not. I used to measure the good days by my ability to identify something in that day’s paper that, for someone, might survive the next recycling pickup. There were plenty of days I left thinking the entire effort was in vain. I realize now this was a shortsighted way of looking at things. There was something in every edition that would survive. Simply by virtue of its having been created, the Tonawanda News helped its readers to define their own lives by whatever terms mattered most to them that day. There were the stories about local political shenanigans the ruling class would read and set aside as fodder for an attack in the next election. There were the high school sports roundups that reminded readers in tiny agate type that someone scored the winning touchdown, sank the winning shot, set a school record. There was the cookie recipe someone tried, transforming it from a Lifestyle page afterthought to a family tradition. There were the comic strips that made someone smile, now yellowing on a cubicle wall or the side of the fridge. There were the day’s obituaries, a gross abbreviation of a life lived; the last keepsake of a person loved. When ink meets paper these things take on a life of their own. That my desk served as a waypoint on their journey to relevance was humbling and a privilege. Now that the presses have stopped for the last time, I can say for sure what we did mattered because inside the thing we made every day there was always something that mattered to someone else. Given all the obstacles we faced making a paper every day—the lousy pay, too few people working too many hours, the crush of a deadline—I used to joke our motto should be “The Tonawanda News: Where a miracle happens daily.” Looking back, that sums it up pretty well.


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SHORT FICTION

KarmaSeed I race to the top of the nearest hill, super effortlessly, and stand upon its peak, the peak from whence all evil deeds may be surveyed. I shall, and do, survey! by MARGARET FINAN

A

ttention, everyone! Toby has reached Buddha status! Let’s hear it for Toby, please!” We cheer. Guru Carl puts his hands in the air, reminding us with his body that we are not to become overexcited, lest we overextend our necks, lest we mindlessly squander the physical power of our infinite internal potential. Guru Carl asks us if we are simply a fitness company, given that we make sexy fitness clothes that make yoginis feel great about their bods. We boo. We are not, we shout. Guru Carl nods. He asks if we are simply a wellness company, given that we craft neurological aides in the form of what we have henceforth been granted permission by the FDA to refer to as vitamins, one example being our recent crowning glory, InstaZen? We boo. We are not, we shout. Guru Carl nods. He asks if we are simply a lifestyle improvement brand, given that we deliver personal barrier shattering award-winning seminars like, “Time to Win: Finding Infinity in You” and more? We boo. We are not, we shout. Guru Carl nods. “We are so much more than the sum of our parts,” he says. “Authenticity! Authenticity in an inauthentic world.” He lets it sink in. We nod. “Routes to awareness. Vehicles to self-discovery. We all wish, sometimes, that things weren’t so complicated and confusing. But that’s why we’re here. 56 BCM 39

Humbly. Allowing authenticity in this messed up modern world.” We clap. We smile broadly and gently. We encourage each other via our broad gentle smiles to feel loved and beautiful. But when my eyes meet Karen’s, Karen of the Beautiful Bod Education branch, I am suddenly the complete opposite of calm mindfulness, because, oh wow, she’s just one sweet chick. When most of the Beautiful Bods team?—not so nice. Especially to a guy in Product Development, which I know they see as super lowly. But Karen, she does not see me as super lowly, which is something I am relatively confident about given her very kind smiles. And look, am I proud of being a divorced 37-year-old guy working in Product Development at a corporation like KarmaSeed? Not totally proud. Definitely a lot easier to feel proud as a Beautiful Bod brancher, something I most certainly am not. But what’s more important in the grand scheme of things? Dignity? Or deep sense of value in finally providing for your children? Because this job also sends my two daughters to a very expensive (read: very good!) private grade school on scholarship, a school with a very strong program for children with physical disabilities, which is incredibly important for my little Lillie—huge perk to a job that is otherwise maybe a little ethically questionable. Something that, as a father, I will not fuzz up, regardless of what my ex-wife says.


illustrations by JULIE MOLLOY But Karen! She would probably not expect failure of me. relationships and so forth. You’ve been pretty low lately, not Probably the type of lady who would appreciate an under- feeling so great about yourself, can’t get the eggs together to dog like me; a man who, yes, life-wise, has certainly failed ask out the cute chick you’ve wanted to for a long time, and in some monumental ways the past decade or so, but who’s it’s messing up your self worth. Now, obviously, I’m saying taking definite steps—baby-sized or not!—to success. Prob- ‘you,’ but you know—‘you’ the consumer, not necessarily you ably the type of lady who, on a nice beach vacation I will ‘you,’ and all that. We have a new pill for you to try today. someday have money for us to take, would smile whilst And obviously, strictly confidential, so we’ll be taking care applying sunscreen to my somewhat large nose, gently of that at the session’s conclusion, as usual.” reminding me there is no need to be self-conscious via her I nod. Stefan hands me a pill. I swallow. He hooks up my head to the projection screen, and I twiddle my thumbs. I very beautiful and understanding laugh. “It’s a sad truth that most ancient mountain top retreats really try to focus my thoughts on just twiddling my thumbs, have been destroyed, what with hostile climactic events but an image of Karen in downward dog flashes up on the pretty much trying to wipe us all out all of the time, ha ha,” screen. Oh jeez. Stefan clears his throat. “Confidential, of Guru Carl says. “But we persevere! As part of our new all- course,” he says. I look away. We sit for a while, waiting for inclusive Tibetan Traveler packages, we have not only repro- the pill to take effect. Stefan taps away at his computer. I duced a steel-reinforced structure of a non-denominational pick at my thumbnail, nervously humming. Karen flashes Eastern monastery, but we have brought in leading Eastern on the screen again, except now she’s bent over a bunch of scholars to train Toby in ancient authentic texts. I’d like dropped papers, sexily asking for a hand in picking them up. everyone to give Toby a round of gentle applause, as this I hum the alphabet with excessive pizzazz. was no easy task, given the yearlong commitment to night Next thing I know, I’m in a sort of dream world. classes and meditation sessions which no doubt cut into “John,” Stefan says from far away. “Can you tell me where Toby’s personal fitness time, but which he has somehow still you are?” completed with as tight a bod as when he began. Toby, our I look around. I shout up at the bright sky that I’m in makeup artists have their work cut out for them with your some fairytale-looking land. It’s all hilly and green. Some transformation into our first Aged Mountain Buddha!” My fat cartoon pigs trundle by in tiny hats. Aw. I flex my arm muscles. I run a hand through my magco-workers cheer. At 8:30 a.m., I am wheezing through a series of yoga pos- nificently thick hair. I clench and unclench my very square es with members of the young and impressively spandexed jaw. A breeze tickles my chest and sends my loose linen shirt local Beautiful Bods Education branch, as per the slightly billowing around my tight bod. Almost makes me pop a humiliating weight loss terms of my Personal Vision of bone, but no—I reject all slavery, even in the form of my Employment Contract. At the end of the hour, I stop for own mind-blowing sexuality. a quick drink at the cooler. Natalie and Kate walk by and I race to the top of the nearest hill, super effortlessly, and giggle and say, “Lookin’ good, John.” For a minute I think stand upon its peak, the peak from whence all evil deeds they’re serious, and I blush a little and pretend like I’m deep may be surveyed. I shall, and do, survey! John Stubbens, in important thoughts and puff out my chest. When they’ve defender of all that is righteous and good and chiseled! The gone around the corner, I look down and see I am very, feather in my cap plays in the wind. Nice. But what, yonvery sweaty. Oh, Baby Buddha on a stick. There are rings der? A towered castle looms below dark and ominous grey of darkness around my chest area, kind of like a guide to clouds! Beautiful maidens in need of saving, perchance? everywhere I need to lose weight, kind of like my paunchy A dragon swoops by out of nowhere, taunting me with chest is wearing a thick dark pair of glasses or a badly drawn weak-ass flames. The fat little pigs in tiny hats quiver at the brassiere, and I panic and rush off to the locker room. Toby, bottom of the hill. Not cool! I reach up with one strong who will soon be installed upon a distant mountain to dis- hand and slap the dragon. “’Tis safe, sweet pigs!” I cry. They pense ancient wisdom to the smoking hot wives of invest- trundle away. Aw. “Dragon! To the castle!” I shout. My powerful slap has ment bankers, gives me a real smug grin. At 10:00, I report to the Product Development wing. I sit instilled a deep sense of mutual respect betwixt us, and the once frightful beast lowers its head in reverence. I climb at a single desk facing Stefan, as usual. “John,” Stefan says. “As you know, we’re trying to get at upon its scaly back and am soon deposited at the base of a ways of bolstering self-confidence, in terms of facilitating gloomy, crumbling castle. BCM 39 57


And oh, fairest maiden Karen, what ails you, my lady? Why dost thou leanest out of thy high window? In thy pointy pink princess cap, pleading for rescue at the hands of a handsome knight? “I’m trapped!” Lady Karen cries. “Please, John Stubbens, brave knight, save me, so that I might return to my humble duties of providing the public with their most beautiful bods!” Wah-pish! I whip my long dragon-taming rope upon Lady Karen’s windowsill. Hi-yah! I scale the looming tower in no more than 20 bounds. I smile winningly at Lady Karen as I leap into her chambers, but am not distracted from my foe: Brad from Beautiful Bod Education, who has locked Lady Karen in her tower for smooching and some possible under the shirt action. Not on my watch, Brad. Hi-yah! I slap him right out the window. Fair Lady Karen cries out at my bravery and falls into my arms, made faint by my noble deeds. We French for about eight minutes, and it’s extraordinary, but we quietly concede that such shared steadfast commitment to our very meaningful and important work would forever overshadow even this profound love, and we resolve to henceforth remain friends with the deepest mutual respect for one another (and an occasional knowing grin for what was once shared). I feel a shock, and I leap from my desk in the white Product Development room. Stefan stands over me with the zapping rod. “Wow,” Stefan says. “That was a good one. So, how do you feel, moving forward? Emboldened to pursue?” “Uhhhh,” I say. “Let’s bring her in here. Not that you need to say anything. We’re just going to get some physiological readings. Gauge your confidence level and likelihood of acting via some measurements. Sweating and brain activity and all that, yes?” I nod. Stefan unplugs my line to the projector. Karen enters the room. “Hi John,” she says. She smiles, and off I go. Nervous sweats, negative emotions and selfdoubt, here I come! Oh God, she’s so pretty. Ridiculous, thinking I could ever have a chance with her— “Anything you’d like to tell Karen, John?” Stefan asks. “John,” Stefan says. “We feel you’re in a rut. And we’d like to help you out of that rut,” Stefan says. Right then, some nut in a werewolf mask bursts into our room. Waving something that looks like—a gun? “Screw KarmaSeed!” he cries. “Screw this place! Zen 58 BCM 39 34

can’t be bought! Gonna have to pay!” The werewolf bobs his head, lowering the gun to Stefan. Bang! Stefan drops. Holy shit! Karen and I scramble to the other side of the room, but the werewolf man moves towards us. The werewolf man looks at me and nods repeatedly, super deliberately, like I know something. “What do you want?” I cry. I don’t know anything! Am I still dreaming? Is this real? Oh God! He raises the gun to the ceiling and fires a second shot. Please! I’m screaming. Oh Christ, oh God! Oh, my poor children. My poor orphan babies! Freakin’ Buddha, help me! I don’t want to die! I haven’t lived! He points the gun at Karen. “You’re next,” he says. “No!” I cry. “Not her!” I throw myself in front of her, closing my eyes. The gun explodes. I wail. I crumple into myself. I wail again. I—still alive? I open my eyes. Confetti has spilled across the room. It hangs from the barrel of the gun, which lays on the floor nearby. The werewolf man stands over me, clapping. Stefan is standing, cheering. Alive? He’s alive. Karen is pulling me up, smiling, clapping me on the back. What is going on? I’m shaking, blubbering. The gunman pulls off his mask. It’s Guru Carl. “Bravo, John. Bravo. We’ve tried this with vitamins and other neuro-manipulations. No dice. But this one? Progress. How do you feel, John?” I’m weeping. I look down. I’ve wet myself. “John, do you think, in the real world, this could be the impetus to finally ask Karen out? Could this have changed things?” I sob. “Yes to revealing your true feelings to Karen? Yes to taking charge of your life?” “Yes,” I cry. “Ahhh,” he says. He tosses back a shot of green juice, smacking his lips. I stumble into the bathroom. I vomit. I think of my two daughters. I think of little Lillie, pulling herself around some expensive physical wellness room. Smiling, because she is just an incredible champ despite the pain. I think of her last doctor’s appointment and how she’s making progress for the first time in years. I look at myself in the mirror. Christ, this face! I wipe my eyes, fumbling with a packet of InstaZen, and down four pills. At 5:30 p.m., I’m sitting in my car with sticky pants that smell an awful lot like urine and no memory of what I’ve been doing the past two hours. Thirty-seven years old and freakin’ losing it. On the way home, I stop for some McDonald’s, which is nice.


39 59 BCM 34


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ISSUE 39: AWAY  

The latest issue looks at departures, exits, distance and transition.

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