Thursday, November 18, 2010

Growing Up With God's Frozen People

Hello all please welcome Laura Pedersen author of Buffalo Unbound. Today she is guest blogging about the wonders of living in Buffalo. Enjoy!

(Photo courtesy of Denise Winters)

Living in Buffalo, NY, that blizzard-prone polestar of the Rust Belt, during the stagflation seventies, made for some decorating choices that you don't read about in glossy magazines or see featured on the HGTV network. For instance, fabric "snakes" -- bean-filled socks that blocked drafts from coming underneath doors -- were popular handicraft projects right up there alongside rag rugs and mittens with strings.

Buffalo Unbound: A CelebrationForm didn't follow function so much as form followed warm. In addition to experiencing the worst recession since the Great Depression, we were in the midst of a terrible energy crisis. When the power company's bills hit mailboxes in the winter months you could've heard the hollering from down the street if our windows hadn't been covered with heavy gauge plastic and the snowplow wasn't roaring past. Thermostats were cranked down, down, down, and fathers either took out the toolbox to permanently affix the dial on "morgue," or else set their Archie Bunker armchairs nearby to guard against heat bandits. The mercury standard was: If you can't see your breath hanging in the air then he isn't doing his job.

If you complained about being cold you were told to put on a sweater. If Jimmy "Cardigan" Carter could sport a sweater in the Oval Office then obviously you weren't too good for some good old fashioned knitwear. This was two decades before lightweight fleece and so we rumbled around looking like Michelin Men, carting twice our body weight in wool. If you were still cold you were told to jump up and down. If you complained again you were asked, "Do you think you're the only one who is cold?" which translated into "How could such saintly parents have given birth to such a selfish child?" If you held open the front door you were asked if we were heating the entire neighborhood. If you opened the refrigerator without a clear plan of action you were asked if there was a movie playing inside. However, no one ever asked, "Is it cold enough for you?" This was considered to be just plain stupid, like saying "Eh?" to Canadians.

I was a latchkey kid who came home on weekday afternoons to crank open a can of Alphabet soup or Spaghettios, warm it on the stove, and eat it out of the pot while watching reruns of The Brady Bunch. The twenty minute preparation time allowed for deep contemplation on the subject of what had happened to Mike and Carol's original spouses -- cancer, fiery auto crash, suicide? Living in Buffalo, my money was on industrial accidents or a chemical spill. Microwave ovens were just arriving in stores, but no one would be so silly as to waste money on another oven, even if it worked fifty times faster. Besides, you couldn't toast Wonder bread in a microwave and so really, what good was it?

The front hall was a jumble of moon boots, purple and green snorkel jackets with neon orange linings, Buffalo Bills sweatshirts, home-knitted scarves from all the aunts and grandmas in Sisters Hospital with broken hips, and some of those black Piglet caps with earflaps that would guarantee a citation for vagrancy in almost any other city. A few woolen dickies (half moon turtleneck tops) were lying about in case you weren't getting beat up enough on the school bus. The weak tea sister to the wedgie was to have it yanked over your head and tossed atop the rows of lockers, a veritable dickie graveyard. Nothing sent people into therapy twenty years later so much as being awakened in the night by those long ago demented shouts of "Give me back my dickie!"

The living room fireplace was not helpful in foiling Jack Frost since once the flue was open, frigid air rushed inside along with several birds (apparently they didn't like the cold either) and the heat from a fire, along with any other heat that happened to be lying aimlessly about, went right up in smoke. So the oven was turned on with the door left open and this made the kitchen a cozy place to gather throughout the protracted winter, which, as Samuel Johnson said about Paradise Lost, none ever wished it longer.

Buffalo was a city operating on factory time and so dinner was served at five o'clock and consisted of something hearty, like hunter's stew made in an all the rage red glazed Crock-Pot, lasagna, or meatloaf with mashed potatoes and gravy, followed by an apple brown Betty. No one dared eat some diet delight such as salad or a few scoops of pineapple cottage cheese because Buffalonians know what ranchers know -- when a storm hits, it's the undernourished that fall away from the herd. Extra hot chicken wings with blue cheese sauce were a popular entree, but we ordered those from a neighborhood restaurant called Duff's, and put the toilet paper in the fridge before eating.

Best of all was after dinner when everyone gathered around the oven and we made S'mores out of graham cracker squares, marshmallows and Hershey's chocolate bars. All that was missing were a copse of Scotch pines, log cabins and ghost stories. Instead, we were surrounded by cheerful harvest gold and burnt orange appliances with parents talking about the high price of gas and sugar while kids did homework or played board games such as Clue and Risk. Sometimes The Irish Rovers or The Mary Tyler Moore Show (on the sci-fi sounding UHF channel) played in the background on the 17-inch Sony black-and-white TV. If a neighbor or relative popped by another chair was pulled up around the oven and you didn't have to reach far to make a cup of Lipton tea or the popular Sanka instant coffee, which more than a few adults credited for their regularity. Mom was happiest in the kitchen because if anything spilled it was much easier to clean the beige linoleum floor rather than the lime green living room shag carpet.

All was well until bedtime, which meant a trip down a dark hallway to the Yukon and slipping between bed sheets cold enough to eliminate a high fever. However, you didn't dare wet the bed for fear that you might freeze to death.

Electric blankets were considered a luxury item to be found in the homes of the rich, although it was possible that parents had received one as a gift. What Dylan Thomas called "useful presents" in his classic short story, A Child's Christmas in Wales, were the overriding theme when it came to gift giving and the holidays weren't complete without a ritual exchange of jumper cables, flashlights, flannel bathrobes, and quilted slippers. Nothing said Happy Hanukah quite like a Buffalo Sabres facemask. However, electric blankets were feared because plenty of mothers and grandmothers were terrified of fire, as they'd seen too many kerosene stoves set houses ablaze. Before leaving home there were always frantic cries of, "Is everything turned OFF? Are you SURE?"

The working man's electric blanket was the canine, the bigger the better. In large Catholic families there might be a race and sometimes even a fight to get the dog into bed. My poodle was a miniature, more like a space heater, but with the addition of a medium-sized Burmese cat as a muffler I was quite comfy. In fact, I laugh when people look askance at me for still sleeping with several dogs in my bed. Don't they know where the band "Three Dog Night" (one of the founding members, Cory Wells, is from Buffalo) took its name -- the Alaskan term is a calculation of how many dogs it will take to keep warm with three being the max.

Homemade afghans were draped over the backs of couches and easy chairs and piled up on ottomans. (And now we're all kicking ourselves for not having invented the Slanket.) These weren't intended for decor so much as protective gear to prevent hypothermia if you suddenly stopped moving. However, by February our bodies had finally adjusted to the cold and a trip to someplace warm, basically a nursing home, hospital or mall, resulted in heavy Thanksgiving dinner-like fatigue. Around the mall fountain were heaps of discarded outerwear and people slumped on benches sound asleep.

When arriving home Mom shouted for the umpteenth time, "Take off your shoes!" As teenagers we were too cool for boots. Countless tap dancers found their true calling as they shuffle ball changed their way through knee high snowdrifts in open-backed clogs. These would leave a trail of greasy road grit across the shag carpeting and permanently stain it with a white river of salt that couldn't be eliminated no matter how hard you worked it over with the plastic shag carpet rake.

Since leaving Buffalo and the house in which I grew up I've been invited on many a camping trip. No thanks. I camped for the first seventeen years. And I have no complaints since it taught me that things don't have to be perfect in order to enjoy life and good company. We made the best of our situation by participating in lots of winter sports, joking about the inconveniences, and all pulling together during a blizzard. In the musical A Chorus Line by native Buffalonian Michael Bennett one character says, "It wasn't paradise but it was home."

Still, enjoy your camping trip. And may I suggest that you bring along a couple of dogs.

For more information on Laura Pedersen and her books visit:

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