Friday, December 21, 2012

Last Moments of the Mohawk

When I think about Mohawk Place, my first thought is of holiday reunions spent amid their annual Joe Strummer Tribute Night, scheduled for the 11th and final time this Saturday night.

My second thought? The hilariously abhorrent condition of their men’s bathroom.

I don’t immediately think about how The White Stripes, My Morning Jacket or Dr. Dog once mounted the Mohawk stage to echo vocals and chords off steel coolers and street signs. I don’t think about the Elvis in Buffalo poster, the hawk-emblazoned mirror or walls covered with local guitar heroes. And, I don’t think about how they may have been the last bar in Buffalo to offer (and actually move) bottles of Old Vienna. I think about their bathroom, with walls and urinals covered in band stickers, floor swimming in spilled or recycled Genny Cream Ale—and a toilet seat covered in duct tape.
But, the state of those facilities has always been oddly complementary to the gritty, leather-clad aura of the Mohawk. It’s always stood as an unkempt rock hole, one focused less on presentation of pristine interiors and more on presentation of Fenders and feedback. If you were there to use the can, you were definitely in the wrong place. If you were there to see Buffalo’s finest musicians, some touring up-and-comers, or a group of your childhood friends cover The Clash’s “Clampdown” as a tribute to Strummer, then you were in the right place.

Sticker-covered wall of Buffalo's Mohawk Place 

If you grew up in or around Buffalo in the nineties, you found your music at Record Theatre or Home of the Hits. You may have followed up that shopping with shows inside Showplace Theater or Nietzsche's before, eventually, a friend’s band—or some band you absolutely needed to see—booked Mohawk. And, once you weaved through its dingy interiors, continued past the odd pile of crumbled, roped-off debris near the bathrooms and found a place atop the raised landing in the front right corner, you fell in love with the joint. Like every great Buffalo dive, it attached itself to you. It felt like yours.
If you’ve stayed local since 1990, you’ve been able to treat it like yours for decades. If you moved away, maybe you visited while home and carried it with you when you left.
After I left Buffalo for Boston in 2000, I spent time in Cambridge venues like T.T The Bear’s Place and the Middle East, watching acts like Ted Leo and the Pharmacists or The Moondoggies. From 2008 to 2011, I tended bar at the Paradise Rock Club, a Boston venue famous for hosting upstarts in the seventies like Tom Petty and AC/DC, and some Irish band in 1980 named U2. Five nights-a-week, I watched bands like the Bouncing Souls, Deer Tick or Dinosaur Jr. tear up the Paradise, churning out ear-bleeding riffs while patrons would move together, belt out lyrics or fist-pump drum beats. At least once per night, I’d smile, take it all in and realize I was employed to sling cans of Pabst and watch electric sets. And, at least once every few nights, I’d look over the same scene, see joy or recognition cascade over shadowed faces and think to myself, “This reminds me of the Mohawk.”
Environments within the Paradise and Mohawk Place are special; these types of venues don’t just open up. They develop like a relationship, with years of memories forming a connection between two entities. Place and patron unite to elicit a sense of genuine contentment, albeit over cans of beer and jangling cacophony. With more shows grows a deeper connection, and with a deeper connection grows a loyalty that’s essential to longevity and reputation. Most major cities have a few places like this, but every city needs at least one. Mohawk’s been one of Buffalo’s best, and now it’s down to its last days.

A farewell message for legions of loyal patrons

When it finally closes its doors in January, it’ll leave behind thousands of moments for thousands of people. It’ll disconnect from the relationship it formed with patrons over cover bands, punk quartets and Canadian frontmen. Many will remember those early, blues-soaked Friday nights with South Buffalo standard Willie Schoellkopf. Others will recall a bourbon-fueled evening with the Felice Brothers or a sweat-drenched show with Snapcase. If you were there for the Hollerado show two weeks ago, maybe you’ll cherish the memory of Kids in the Hall’s Dave Foley, nonchalantly roaming around the joint amid the flashes of iPhone cameras. If these moments are yours, take them with you as another Buffalo backdrop fades into history.
As for me, I’ll stash the vision of the venue’s glorified outhouse. Instead, I’ll lean on other Strummer Tribute Night-related memories, like the scene that flanked me a couple of years ago. As I stood talking to a friend at the bar, a drunken couple next to us began bar-necking so hard they lost their balance and crashed to the floor under the wail of The Clash’s “Safe European Home.” Tattered romance to a few; reckless action to some. Genuine Mohawk to others.
Thanks for the memories.

(Author’s note: This entry was finished while listening to “I’m Not Down” by The Clash.)    

Friday, June 29, 2012

Sam City

Sam Roberts is not from Buffalo.

He’s from Montreal, Quebec. He’s been churning out songs with his current Sam Roberts Band since 2000, setting Canadian sales records while rocking a steady number of onstage Levi’s tuxedos in the process. He’s ruled the Rock Album category of Juno Awards for most of the past decade, has his music blasted over Montreal Canadiens home games, and probably can’t walk into a Pizza Pizza without having faded denim torn from his diminutive frame by crazed Degrassi fans.

Yes, Sam Roberts is Canadian. But, if you come down to Canalside for his band’s “Buffalo Place Rocks the Harbor” performance tonight (with Grace Potter and the Nocturnals; lawn opens at 6 p.m.), you’ll see a guitarist and band whose style and substance may be the sonic embodiment of modern day Buffalo.

Roll through the tracks on 2001’s We Were Born In A Flame and you’ll hear a Cobblestone barroom. Cue up follow-ups Chemical City, Love at the End of the World or Collider and you’ll absorb the level of eclectic rock and roll variances found on a pub crawl down Allen Street. You’ll find mandatory Queen City rock riffs and optimistic melodies amid contemplative lyrics, all with a bit of rust on its edges. You’ll hear about hard roads, about how your friends will save you in the end; you’ll hear about a brother, graveyard shifts and love as deep as a coal mine. You’ll sing along with songs because you’re rhythmically lured in, even if you don’t like girls named Eileen or Maria (or necessarily agree with metaphorical stretches concerning the Taj Mahal). And, when you’re done with each album, you’ll play it again. And again. And again.

And another Canadian musician finds American fandom in Buffalo. In a city that’s showered QEW acts like Rush and the Tragically Hip with mania reserved for 70's-era Zeppelin or Springsteen, we’re attracted to the type of rough-hued northern musicianship not always appreciated by the rest of America. We’ve bought Matthew Good Band imports from Record Theatre, crossed the Peace Bridge for Sloan shows—and considered the memorization of Ron Hawkins lyrics required for over two decades. Simply put, we’ve always gravitated toward the honesty of blue-collar Canadian artistry.

But, with Roberts and today’s Buffalo, the cross-border connection seems different.

Sure, he was the pea-coated guitarist at 2008’s Winter Classic, charging through “Fixed to Ruin” on an outdoor riser between periods. And yes, the guy’s sold out Town Ballroom and other local venues over the past few years. But, he’s also a scruffy underdog who’s striving toward better times, albeit with an appreciation of the past. He’s an unassuming frontman who’s grinding forward not with huge singles, but with endless road work and a succession of solid albums. And, just like Buffalo, he’s adding new elements to his composition while not losing the essence of his act.

(Hell, on newer numbers like “The Last Crusade” and “Let It In,” Roberts joins bandmates Dave Nugent, Eric Fares, James Hall and Josh Trager to rip through their traditional guitar-and-percussion approach—and accommodate an intermingling of saxophone notes. This addition to their historical foundation could be considered the Sam Roberts Band’s Larkinville.)

With this connection understood, it’s appropriate that Roberts is opening up this summer’s “Rocks the Harbor” series. These are optimistic, adventurous times in Buffalo, with downtown renewal blooming amid a seemingly endless stream of outdoor music and 80-degree temperatures. Tonight, you’ll have a chance to see the best of the present, surrounded by glipses of the future. All the while, you’ll be serenaded by the guitar chords of the city’s possible soundtrack, with songs to make you gently sway, hoist a beer or head nod.

And once again, no: Sam Roberts is not from Buffalo. But tonight, you can assuredly count on him delivering a show that’s emblematic of the current rhythm of this city. 

(Author's note: This entry was finished while listening to "Up Sister" by the Sam Roberts Band.)

Monday, June 11, 2012


(Author's note #1: I wrote the below essay for my graduate school's nationally distributed newsletter. Since it's started to make its way around via cut-paste-and-forward, I decided to post it on the blog. If you've ever read my Idea of Buffalo piece from last fall, then I apologize for a few of the regugitated points below.)

I saw the streets all ripe with jewels
Balconies and the laundry lines
They tried to make me welcome there
But their streets did not feel like mine
So long, I’m goin’, goin’ home
-Dan Auerbach, “Goin’ Home”

One’s connection to home can be like one’s connection to family. At its best, home is a wonderful thing. It is the one place that feels like yours, the place you’re truly attached to. At its worst, home is a suffocating beast, full of frustration and timeless annoyances. I somehow overlooked the enduring duality of this relationship while living elsewhere. Now back on my hometown streets of Buffalo, New York as a returned resident, I’m surrounded by the daily complications of this association.

Buffalo has been both haven and harrowing for most of my life. It’s the city that hosted my birth, my Christmas mornings and high school basketball games. It gave me friends I’ve kept since preschool, girls I kissed in elementary school. It instilled the competitive grit I’ve used to tough through professional obstacles and rejection. And, it infected me with the underdog mentality that western New Yorkers are born with. Every Buffalo kid grows up with a chip on the shoulder, earned from condescending New York City scowls and southern state insults—the ones about snow and rust, urban blight and Super Bowl losses. I’m from a city that no one understands, compliments or respects. This has bred intense loyalty, one that’s ignited arguments with ignorant strangers and Florida waiters. It’s been an inconvenient loyalty, but it’s always been considered necessary. This is my hometown, to defend and support. In good times and bad.

Unfortunately, the whole defend-and-support thing isn’t always reciprocal. Home can agitate, frustrate and torment. It can be like a Springsteen song, but not in a good way. No matter how your beliefs, attitudes and aptitudes have progressed, home drags behind. No matter how many positive memories you’ve generated away from it, home can rekindle the painful moments you’ve forever tried to shake. No matter how many out-of-town successes you’ve experienced, home can preserve your failures for family dinners, Friday night socials and supermarket reunions. Buffalo is where my mother wants me to become a teacher, where my father thinks I should become a salesman. And, it will forever be where my high school English teacher said, if he had one piece of advice for me, it was to never pursue a career in English.

But, it will also remain the chief source of my artistic inspiration, just as it has for my entire writing life.

I lived in Boston for eleven years; I worked inside Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center for a summer. I once fell asleep in Spain and woke up in France. I’ve been to Ireland twice, Italy once, and to nearly every major American city for more than a weekend. I’ve never felt compelled to write about those places the way I do about Buffalo. It’s forever been an underutilized backdrop, full of faded glory amid glimmers of progress and waterfront panoramas; it’s loaded with complex characters striving for genuine salvation in the shadows of economic stall. Its story has surrounded my own story, and continues to affect me with its successes and failures. Some days, I smile at nineteenth-century buildings being refurbished by flanneled laborers; other days, I seethe down sidewalks as another Hunt Realty sign finds an empty storefront. Both experiences sear through me in different ways, both eliciting intense feelings usually reserved for personal hardships. But, that tightening cringe in my stomach—whether from excitement or resentment—proves I care. It’s undeniable evidence of an intense and, at times, exhausting personal connection. And, it’s a multi-faceted emotional connection that’s injected a voice, passion and literary purpose into every Buffalo-set item I’ve ever scribbled.

And maybe that’s why I moved back here last year. Maybe I grew tired of disrespecting this connection, of treating it with distance when it’s actually truly special. Maybe I got sick of not contributing to the place whose avenues, buildings and barflies have given me chapters of narrative inspiration. Or, maybe I’ve simply grown weary of writing essays, columns and novels about the only home I’d ever claim, all while keeping it four hundred miles away.

Whatever the reason, one thing is certain: I’m back, living and writing in the Queen City of the Lakes. Our winters are cold, but our summers are gorgeous. Our local economy’s inconsistent, but our neighborhoods are varied and vibrant. All our streets aren’t ripe with jewels, but many of them feel like mine. If you need me, I’ll be here.

This is my home.

(Author's note #2: This entry was posted while listening to "Atlantic City" by The Band.)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Barstool Prophet: Embrace Buf-ronto

According to the latest Buffalo football scheduling news, the Bills are signing on with Toronto for five more years of Canadian visits—and the hometown faithful are not exactly giddy with the arrangement.

For the next five seasons, stubborn western New Yorkers will sit on their couches, shout expletives over beers and wonder why they have to sacrifice a game per season to thousands of drunken Maple Leaf fans. Confused locals can look forward to seeing the Bills play in front of Southern Ontarians (?) wearing a odd smattering of Peyton Manning, Michael Vick and Doug Flutie jerseys inside the Rogers Center as they care less about who's actually playing on the field in front of them. We'll see televised Fred Jackson touchdowns inside Canada's answer to Minnesota's Metrodome, and we'll all yearn for those freewheeling days of the nineties when Orchard Park was enough. When it was a sprawling weekly Woodstock, full of wild, committed, ticket-gobbling fans waiting for another impending AFC championship.

Only two problems with this: 1. the NFL economy has changed drastically since my January 12th, 1992 AFC Championship ticket cost $32 (including tax and county charge); and 2. this Toronto arrangement is extremely smart—and not without precedent.

Is it wrong to wonder whether the extension of this agreement is further proof that the Bills might move to Toronto? I guess not. Since many fatalistic Bills fans already fear the team is California-bound, I guess you're free to pick your pessimism. But, why would the NFL move the Bills up the QEW when a regionalized, lucrative partnership between an international metropolis and an established, passionate, historical football locale makes far more sense? The Bills extending their reach into Southern Ontario doesn't hurt Buffalo's viability for any future ownership group; it helps it. 

About 15% of Bills season ticket holders are from Canada, so why not play one annual game there in December? Sure, prideful Bills fans are reluctant to admit it, but Buffalo (by itself) lacks the economic and/or corporate swingers to both regularly compete and keep the Bills here long-term. Regionalization of the franchise isn't a choice; it's a necessity. Fans bitch about giving Canada a regular season game, but would those same fans be willing to pay double to see that Canadian-located game? Nope. You can't have it both ways. If Rogers wants to fork over another $78 million to rent the Bills for five more Sundays (and a meaningless preseason game every now and then), no problem; a small price to pay for solidifying the franchise's place in the region. In order for the Bills to remain in Buffalo—and, in a much larger sense, for this region's business sector to advance and thrive forward—a partnership with Southern Ontario and Toronto makes a tremendous amount of sense. (It's amazing that this cross-border relationship is considered such a controversial idea. And, maybe that border's the problem. Would there be such a stink about playing games in Syracuse? It's just an underwhelming bridge between collaborative countries, so why the hostility? Who are we, the Fenians?)  

Embrace it or endure through it, but know that this kind of travel arrangement has happened before—and for a much more prestigious organization.

There is a precedent set by another small market franchise who enhanced their viability by playing games in a regional location where a larger fan base existed. The team? The Green Bay Packers. From 1933 to 1994, the Packers played two to three games per year in Milwaukee due to the regional lure of the team. The Packers are 13-time NFL champions and arguably the league's most historic franchise, steeped in narrative lore and profanity-laden Lombardi speeches. They are the small market model and, yes, even they had to travel out of their hamlet to enhance their reach. Also, the distance between Green Bay and Milwaukee? 118.96 miles.

The distance between Buffalo and Toronto? 98.61. 

Not a bad drive. And, it's a lot closer than Los Angeles.

(Author's note: This entry was completed while listening to Donovan's "Sunshine Superman.")

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Barstool Prophet: Gratitude

There wasn’t many weekends of my teens or early twenties that didn’t include an intervention or two from the Beastie Boys’ now deceased Adam Yauch, aka MCA.

His voice came out of Ford speakers and bar jukeboxes, from radio headphones or the tape deck from an old basement stereo system. The instances are so numerous that, as I type this, I can still see friends dancing and mimicking lyrics from songs off Paul’s Boutique or Ill Communication. It’s not that Yauch himself was inspiring or emotionally invigorating, instilling everyone at our parties with some expanded world view or political conscience; that wasn’t it. He—along with his bandmates Mike D and Ad Rock—were simply responsible for the rhythms and beats that carried so many of our reckless or carefree nights and weekends. Their music elicited laughter and air-scratching; it stopped parties and started ridiculous dance contests; and it inspired the opportunity to shout hilariously crude statements about parties and mashed potatoes.

Now, as we grow older and transition deep into adulthood, those remembered moments will forever be soundtracked by MCA’s sonic imprint.

Until I pull something together of greater length on this subject, I wanted to offer the below playlist (with audio or video links) to the honor Yauch’s memory. Enjoy it alone or gather with friends, ones who know all the words to “Root Down”—or can recognize the greatest use of an Abbey Road sample ever. Turn it up, raise a beer and count it down for the late, great MCA:

“Four and three and two and one.”

  1. Skills To Pay The Bills
  2. Do It
  3. Shake Your Rump
  4. Jimmy James
  5. Sure Shot
  6. Root Down
  7. Hold It Now, Hit It
  8. Unite
  9. Make Some Noise
  10. Sabotage
  11. The Sounds of Science
  12. The Negotiation Limerick File
  13. So What’cha Want
  14. Heart Attack Man
  15. Ch-Check It Out
  16. Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win
  17. Get It Together
  18. The New Style
  19. Flute Loop
  20. Egg Man
  21. Intergalactic
  22. Pass The Mic
  23. Professor Booty
  24. B-Boys Makin’ With The Freak Freak
  25. Super Disco Breakin’
(Author's Note: This entry was finished while listening to "Unite" by the Beastie Boys.)

Friday, April 20, 2012

From the Bleachers

(Author's note: In honor of Fenway Park's 100th anniversary today, I'm re-releasing this short baseball piece I wrote back in the early aughts while living in Boston. In my 11 years as a Massachusetts residents, I saw nearly 70 baseball games inside Fenway, both as a spectator and as a reporter for the Boston Herald. As a spectator, I watched Manny's Ramirez's last Sox homer in Fenway; Pokey Reese's improbable two-homer game (including an inside-the-park) against the Royals; and Jon Lester's improbable no-hitter. As a reporter, I interviewed the White Sox's Ozzie Guillen inside Fenway's visitor's dugout; was blown off by Carl Crawford while writing a column--about him; and watched Tim Wakefield's knuckler get smashed into every corner of the park. It's the greatest sports venue I've ever been inside, and it's been responsible for supplying some of the best personal and professional moments of my life. Happy birthday, Fenway, and thanks for hosting my twenties and early thirties.)

A new season provides new hope for every man, woman and child who holds a stub for the bleacher section of venerable Fenway Park. With every hot dog purchased, thoughts of a pennant chase infect our expectations. For every draft beer poured, a chance to evaporate last season’s frustrations passes through our consciousness. This is the hope that flows through the veins of Red Sox fans every spring. A new season is upon us, and it’s a chance for new beginnings.

These beginnings lead you down to Yawkey Way. Walking by the fleet of t-shirt peddlers and program pushers, you pass the ongoing flow of anxious fans with whom you’ll soon be united. You continue down to Landsdowne, looking for Gate C with a twenty dollar investment firmly clenched in your fist. You're led through the gates, head tilted upwards looking for where you should enter.

43. 42. 41.

There you are. At Section 41, you begin up the stairs, wanting to find your seat before a departure for concessions. Sure it would make sense to grab the food first, but you’d like to get settled in. As you emerge from the stairwell, your eyes are blurred by the sunlight. The beams are shining down bright, but it’s something more. You’ve just entered history and are taken back to a time when the sport was simpler. A time when it wasn’t about money or labor disputes. It was just a game, and it was a game you love. It’s a beautiful sight, and as the sun blurs your vision, the aura intoxicates your perceptions.

As you take a right, the centerfield wall approaches on your left. Just because you can, you reach down and graze the green facade with your palm. You stop again, take a deep breath. As you overlook the field, you look at the bullpen to your left. Regular catchers are warming up tonight’s starters. What will these pitchers bring to the mound tonight? Will they be sluggish from an offseason of procrastination, or will they be fresh, awarded for their winter diligence? You’ll find out soon enough.

You turn from the bullpen and gaze toward left field. There, the large majesty stands before you. An obstacle that has turned long balls into two-baggers for years. Just a simple green wall has provided years of memories for some, days of misery for others. You’ve touched it with the tips of your fingers before just to say you did it, but not today. Finding today’s seat is the top priority.

8. 9. 10.

You stop at Row 11 and look at you ticket. Seat three. No one has arrived in seats one or two yet, so your route is uncontested. As you hover over your destination, you take another look around at the people you’ll be sharing the next nine innings with.

A woman holding her sleeping child.
A young couple on their first date.
Seven young men with their chests painted red.

They’ve all come for the experience. The chance at a new beginning on yet another spring day. You each smell the same scents and see the same scenes, but it’s different for everyone. Every experience is its own, and as you get comfortable in Seat Three, Row 11, Section 41, you prepare for this experience. It’s the start of another season of Red Sox baseball.

Now go down the stairs to grab that dog and a beer.

(Author's Note: This entry was posted while listening to The Band's "The Weight." Rest in peace, Levon.)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Barstool Prophet: Michael on the NFTA

(Author's Note: This is the first in an upcoming number of shorter pieces for the Farrell Street Blog, all to be under the title "Barstool Prophet." They'll be different from my usual rambling posts because each will be quick bursts of either anger, sympathy or both--much like you'd hear from some random barfly. Anyway, the following is a somewhat controlled rant I pounded out this morning for the Buffalo News comment section in response to Bob McCarthy's jarring NFTA report. Enjoy.) 

Question: When these NFTA wags are sitting around a conference table, making formative decisions for this region, do they spend even a minute thinking about the consequences of their short-sighted actions?

Do they think about the anger simmering in people after they read ridiculous quotes like, "we feel like we can make substantially more money" from an agency that has barely mowed the lawn of this region's most underutilized resource for over 50 years? Do they even consider how their hilarious incompetence has stunted this city's vibrancy? How it's inspired frustrated businesses to relocate and fed-up adults to find more progressive, creative cities? And, is there even a moment in any day when they drive by that waste of an outer harbor, look at the tumbleweeds and vacant space and think to themselves, "This is my fault."

They should. Buffalo and Erie County residents have cruised past that embarrassing swath of land for decades, feeling sick at the sight of it. Thankfully, some of these nauseous citizens (see Peg Overdorf and Riverfest Park) have taken their own formative action elsewhere while a new fleet of suits spin the same record of egregious inaction. Do they not see how the simple addition of grass and fluorescent chairs has transformed a former Aud parking lot? Apparently not. New ideas come forth, they're needlessly rejected, and the cycle continues.

This isn't about a series of concerts; this isn't about the Black Keys playing "10 a.m. Automatic" on Lake Erie. It's about how stagnant, greedy agencies like the NFTA show no remorse or accountability for their decades of disservice to residents hungry for even the slightest activity.

With this noted, what's another vetoed opportunity amid an endless history of empty leadership?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Bona Fide Opportunity

What does ‘Bona’ mean?

It’s a question a lot of now out-of-state St. Bonaventure graduates have had to answer. The letters adorn baseball caps and hooded sweatshirts, bumper stickers and coffee mugs. Back in the summer of 2009, my North Carolina-born graduate professor stopped his lecture mid-sentence when he was distracted by these confusing brown letters across my mustard yellow t-shirt.

“What does ‘Bona’ mean?”

“It stands for St. Bonaventure,” I said, “a university about an hour south of Buffalo. It’s where I went for undergrad.”

He paused, folded his arms across his chest and said, “I’ve never heard of it.”

Many people haven’t. Those without Western New York birth certificates, Northeast residences or recollection of the Stith brothers may not be familiar with St. Bonaventure University. They’ve never encountered Merton’s Heart, the Jandoli School of Journalism or Devereux Hall’s third floor runner. They’ve never eaten a Burton burger or heard of Patsy Collins. They’ve never rounded third on Spring Weekend or stood misty-eyed at the sight of a shuttered Mad Dogs.

But, most people have heard of March Madness.

With St. Bonaventure’s inclusion in both the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournament this week, office drones, casual gamblers and maniacal hoop fans are eager to find out about this St. Bonaventure. They’ll want to know about the school’s background, location and history. They’ll want to know about their past tourney appearances. And, finally, they’ll want to know why they should pick some brown-uniformed team named the “Bonnies” as their tourney dark horse.         

Both teams’ appearance on the national stage is a tremendous advertising opportunity for a university and athletic program that have persevered through adversity. But ultimately, basketball is merely a vehicle for what may be a more important opportunity for the school. With their Franciscan name found in ESPN brackets, St. Bonaventure alums now have the forum to effusively tout their clandestine college experience to associates. Simply put, it gives alumni a chance to reminisce and relay what exactly Bonas means to them.

My family has been doing this at an exhausting clip for nearly two deacdes. Of our four children, three of us graduated from St. Bonaventure—and the fourth married a Bona graduate. Between 1991 and 2000, we pursued different career paths while led by influential professors. We toiled at The Bona Venture newspaper, suited up for rugby or spun Bouncing Souls discs at WSBU. We occupied different bars, developed enduring friendships and lived in shabby, nicknamed off-campus housing (or atop multiple Allegany taverns in the same semester). But, on this past Sunday night and Monday morning, you can bet we were each united, ready to ramble out our own dazzling versions of SBU to anyone who would listen.

And basketball is a part of my version. It’s not because I wore a Bona-fanatic t-shirt and threw cookies at Temple’s John Chaney. (I didn’t.) It’s not because of my memories of heckling USC’s Brian Scalabrine when he rolled into the RC (though I did). Maybe it’s because I can still remember the musty smell of the Reilly Center on a Sunday morning. Maybe it’s because I liked how the old version of Butler Gym struck a vague resemblance to Hickory’s gym from Hoosiers. Or, maybe it’s because I was in a Cleveland bar called Flannery’s on March 16th, 2000—the last time the Bonnies were dancing.

Two months away from graduation, I carpooled to Ohio with eight people, little money and no tickets to our first round match-up with Kentucky. If we could score some cheap tickets once we got there, great. If not, we’d find this Irish pub across from Cleveland State's Convocation Center, some barstools by the television—and pray for a massive upset. When we woke up Thursday morning with no ticket prospects, we headed to downtown Cleveland with intentions of settling in at the day's established Bonaventure bar, Flannery’s.

If you walked up Prospect Avenue that Thursday morning, guided through the city's quiet hum by a distant, thumping tavern chant of, “Let’s go, Bonas,” you’ll never forget it. You’ll always remember the pregame bar scene, complete with Bob Lanier-era grads hoisting breakfast pints with robed Franciscans and graduating seniors; the overwhelmed Flannery's bar staff, who were not prepared for over 150 patrons at 11 a.m.; the laughing conversations between strangers in brown, yellow and white. And, whether you watched the game on the edge of an arena seat or on the edge of a barstool, you’ll never forget the unfortunate ending.

But the game itself didn’t instill the meaning of Bonas; the two halves and two overtimes didn’t define the St. Bonaventure experience. It was what happened at Flannery’s after the game that’s always stayed with me. Slowly but surely, students and alums found their way back to the bar not to complain, but to celebrate how little St. Bonaventure University nearly shocked the Kentucky Wildcats on national television. We charged rounds of pre-St. Patrick’s Day Guinness and started up the Bona clap-chants. Those at the game relayed stories of how the center's crowd—regardless of their collegiate affiliation—joined in the rising Rudy-like chants for the overlooked Bonnies as the game stayed tight. Before we finally embarked on the drive back to Olean, we stood amid a sense of unexplainable communion that most SBU alumni associate with their time as college students.

And this is the essence of the Bonaventure connection. This is the embrace of the underdog, the intrinsic bond that breeds such overt loyalty from the school's graduates. It was evident through my four undergraduate years, and it's been fact through the 12 years after. That’s what Bonas means to me.

Over the next few days, SBU alumni everywhere will get ample opportunities to answer questions about the reach of Andrew Nicholson, the range of Jessica Jenkins, and why “St. Bonaventure’s” have a fluffy wolf as their mascot. You'll be asked about the 1970 Final Four, the 1977 NIT finals or the aforementioned Kentucky thriller. In the midst of this questioning, please enjoy the moments of genuine, national interest. Reminisce about your October days outside Plassman Hall or your April nights on the OP patio. Recall the mayhem of West Main Street or the brief, Def Leppard-fueled heyday of Allegany Sub Shop. Remember your undergrad days, the freewheeling hours amid the mountains of New York's southern tier. And throughout the upcoming tournament days, complete with confused CBS analysts and interns who cite Chuck Daly as a full-fledged alum, celebrate the following:

You'll always know what 'Bona' means.

Author's note: This entry was finished while listening to Otis Redding's "She's All Right."         

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Kicking Television

(Author's note: Over the past month, I've been buried in edits and rewrites on my second novel, When the Lights Go Out. If you've ever tried to juggle or slash through over 80,000 words, you realize that such work can make a man go borderline insane. Since I'm currently trying to fight off this dementia while working other jobs, enjoying Linsanity, listening to Nebraska on vinyl, and living a somewhat normal Buffalo existence, I haven't had time to post anything new over the past month. To the four or five of you who regularly check this blog, I apologize. In the meantime, I'd like to offer the following quasi-flash fiction I reconfigured in my spare time, entitled Kicking Television. I originally wrote this a few years ago, but cleaned it up a bit for the sake of posting.

I'll be back in the coming week with some original Farrell Street rambling. Until then, I hope you enjoy the following, and thanks for stopping by.)   

Denny Dobson awoke and rolled to his left, smiling.

It was the same dream he'd had on Tuesday, the same dream he'd had on Monday. She had the same dark hair and dark eyes, the same white woolen sweater as the nights before. He took a walk with her down a darkened neighborhood street, under the same dimmed street lamps that previously lit their path.

Still, it was only a dream.

As he lay in bed, he could still feel her hand in his. It was an odd excitement to have, but the elation still dizzied his head as he mashed his face into his plaid body pillow. It was a dream, but the girl was real, a girl from his third period history class on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Her name was Maggie Tynan, the name she answered to during morning attendance. That was the only reason Denny even knew her name.

The two had never talked, never walked together under the sun or moon. Their eyes had only met once, when she noticed Denny gazing in her direction from the back of their weekday class. When he was caught, he looked away. But it was too late. He already had a crush. At 13 years old, that's all it took.

In his dreams, Denny was in love. If the images from television and sentences from books were right, he was in deep. He'd watched every episode of The O.C. and movies starring Zach Braff. He'd even read the romantic exploits of Romeo & Juliet. Each fashioned love as a “first sight” experience; this was what he was feeling. He wondered if Maggie Tynan had any clue what she was in for.

He enjoyed the chill of possibilities swimming through his head and chest as he sank deep into his mattress. The blankets were comfortable, but as he rolled into them, the flickering light of the living room television seeped through his opened door. It was only opened a crack, but the beams still snuck in.

Down the hallway in a brown leather recliner sat Denny's uncle, Paul. It was a little late to have the television on, but Paul had the time. Though most people treated sleeping as a necessity, Paul Dobson considered it a choice. As the tube shone in front of him, he chose to watch the images instead of staring into the dark. The dark was empty and cold; the color picture was warm.

On the right arm of his recliner rested the VCR remote. On the left, Paul cupped a chilled high ball of bourbon, watered down but still potent. His eyes were mildly glazed and a smile crept across his face as he gazed at the rolling video. One of the scenes encouraged Paul’s smile just as Denny appeared in the room's doorway.

“Did I wake you?” asked Paul.

“No,” said Denny, “but the television's not helping me sleep. What are you doing up so late, Uncle Paul?”

He sat up a little straighter while delicately balancing his drink.

“Couldn't sleep,” said Paul. “Sometimes, it's hard to sleep when you have things on your mind.”

Denny understood. When he saw an afghan bunched at the corner of the couch, it looked inviting.

“You mind if I join you?” Denny began making his way over to the afghan before Paul could even respond.

“It looks like you've already decided to,” Paul said, then slipped down into his recliner’s leather. Once situated, he took a little sip of his bourbon.

Denny wrapped the afghan over his shoulders and started to focus on the video. Squinting as to confirm what he was watching, he double-checked with Paul.

“Is that you?'

“Yep. Me and your aunt, Sues.”

Denny smiled and watched a much younger, thinner and hirsute Paul stand on a beach, with the tide coming in behind him. The beach was littered with both young and old people basking in the sun, frolicking in the water. On the video, Paul stood on the beach with one foot planted in the sand, another perched on a football. He jokingly flexed his arms and smiled wide as Denny heard Sues laughing from behind the camera.

“Paulie, Paulie, you're scaring all the boys on the beach,” she laughed. “Put those muscles away.”

Denny laughed and looked over to see Paul, smiling and sipping. It was odd to see his uncle like this on screen, younger and full of more life than he'd ever seen him. He had to be in his early 20s, but Denny wasn't sure.

“When is this video from?”

“Our honeymoon, in Cancun, Mexico,” he said. “We were both twenty-five years old. Hard to believe, huh? It goes by fast, kid. It goes by fast.”

Denny nodded before he continued to watch.

The camera focused on Paul and reached toward Sues. When he got a hold of her left hand, she stopped filming and the camera's focus shifted to the sand beneath their feet. As it rolled, you could hear the lip-smack shared between the two of them. Over and over again, the sounds continued as the scene featured their bare feet facing each other. When their lips broke, Denny heard his Uncle Paul's soft and sincere words.

“Oh Sues, baby. I love you so much.”

When he heard these words, Denny smiled at the television. This is how you sound when you're in love, Denny thought. You sound relieved and overwhelmed, almost simultaneously. She didn't know it yet, but this is how Denny Dobson wanted to sound around Maggie Tynan. It was just like in the movies, just like on television. Actually, it was on television, but it starred two familiar leads. Denny continued to beam a wide grin with his thoughts while he turned to Paul.

In his recliner, Paul was silent. Tears streamed down his face as he cupped his drink. In attempt to hide these emotions, he clenched his teeth, but it was too late. Denny had never seen his uncle like this.

“Are you all right, Uncle Paul?”

“No,” he said. No, I'm not.”

“Well, what can I do?” asked Denny.

Paul slowly turned to face his nephew.

“What can you do? You really want to know?”


“Okay,” he said, then set down his drink down on the coffee table. “If you really want to do something for me, just don't make the same mistake I did.”

Denny sat for a moment, confused.

“What mistake?”

While Denny stared at Paul for further explanation, a pair of headlights flashed into the living room window before turning toward the driveway. When the car was parked, Paul picked his drink and finished it before leaning toward the window. It was only opened a crack, but it was all Paul needed to hear the conversation.

She was late again. He gave her a ride home. Again.

Paul had seen enough. He took a deep breath, turned back to Denny and answered his question.

“Falling in love, kid,” he said. “It’s never the way it appears on screen.”

Friday, January 13, 2012

A Plea for Genesee

When was the last time you strolled into a Buffalo bar, surveyed the bottle display and said, “Boy, could I go for a Genny now"?

Judging by the lack of local advertising and brand-hoisting, it wasn’t recently. Many younger Western New Yorkers’ tales featuring the Genesee's white cans or infamous Cream Ale “green screamers” vary from hilariously cataclysmic to gastronomically regretful, void of the Beer Advocate-like technical prose that accompanies nights of Great Lakes or Southern Tier pints. Settings for nights of blue-canned Genny Light have been known to include a Hamburg playground picnic table or South Buffalo golf course, places adequately suited to host a chill of empty cans surrounding one’s Chuck Taylors or Timberlands. It’s a regrettable local image attached to our most affordable and maligned canned beer, and it’s an image that we need to move past. One reason for this need?

Because Genesee is primed to pass Pabst Blue Ribbon as the coolest beer in America.

If you’ve walked into a dive bar or rock club across the country over the last 10 years, you've probably noticed that beers once considered avoidable have gone from a poor man’s necessity to a hipster’s accessory. With the help of The Strokes, beards in Williamsburg, and a renewed interest in our country’s once frightening dive bars, PBR went from a beer you stole from your grandfather to swill cherished by Grizzly Bear fans. The Boston, Massachusetts-based Paradise Rock Club—which boasts the first American club appearance by U2 in 1980—usually goes through over 100 cases of 16-ounce Pabst per week. And, when they run out, their clientele usually switch over to regional canned favorite, Narragansett.

A piece of Genesee's genius advertising

Why does The Paradise blow through beers once exclusively sipped by longshoremen, steel workers and the reclining elderly? Is it because they taste delicious? God, no. Is it because they’re four dollars-a-pop? Not really; there are plenty of beers inside the Paradise that retail for the same price. According to club general manager Bill Guerra, it’s a combination of two factors.           

“It may have coincided with the mass migration into once-blue collar (drinking) establishments,” said Guerra, whose joint usually hosts five to six shows-a-week. “These were places where, at one time, five bucks got you a shot and a beer. Ordering crappy beers just made good economic sense. But, sooner or later, the Lemming effect took hold. Now, it's just cool to drink things like Jack (Daniels) and PBR, regardless of cost.”

Tight t-shirts. American Spirits. Mustaches. Not eating. Many things have become standard fare for the up-and-coming hipster, and the drink in their hand is essential. Does it taste like foam simmering in an engineer boot? Doesn’t matter; the label on the can or bottles emits style and attitude. According to Paradise senior bartender Danielle Benson, that label is a flag every fledgling cool dude needs to fly.

“Beer is very important to a scenester’s image,” said the heavily tattooed Benson, who pledges allegiance to Miller High Life. “It's a way for them to relate and recognize each other. PBR screams, ‘Hi! I like sh***y beer and wearing thrift store clothes resold to Urban Outfitters, too!’ It's a way to show people how hip you are—even if you hate the beer.”

But how much longer can Pabst’s run of cool continue? Its new Hummer-driving ownership has vowed to capitalize on their image, with innovative marketing and flashier exposure—and hipsters hate flashy exposure. Before long, their culture could rise up against such mainstream advances and turn away from PBR the same way they disowned the Kings of Leon. In some of the same New York bars Pabst enjoyed its style resurgence, bespectacled youth have already started to react to these developments (and higher prices on PBR) by shifting their loyalties. Their new barstool standard?

The one and only Genesee.

And this is how restoration of a brand begins. For dudes in skinny jeans and floppy knit tuques at Brooklyn holes like the Pit Stop Bar and Mission Dolores, Genny Cream Ale is their new, working class throwback. But, for certain sects of Buffalonians and Rochesterians, it will always be the warm beer you pounded while shivering inside your friend’s Chevy Reliant. According to former South Buffalo resident and current filmmaker Kevin Meegan, no trend or scene is ever going to change this historical depiction.

“No way,” said Meegan, who now owns and operates Rust Belt Productions outside New York City. “I don’t think Buffalonians are into fad drinking or changing their brand to suit what’s cool. Cream Ale will always be what your dad drank before anyone knew any better.” 

Sure, some locals will always describe Genesee’s fleet of gas station-case beers as concoctions of river water, foot sweat and grass clippings. This is an unfair stigma attached to a brand that's won multiple Great American Beer Festival gold medals; an unflattering characterization attached by a populace who've progressed to fare from the Ellicottville Brewing Company, Saranac or even Genny’s North American Breweries brethren, Labatt. But, in the wake of Genesee’s ascent from the forgotten to dive bar favorite, maybe its time for a new generation of local minimalist drinkers to reevaluate and rediscover the majesty of the High Fall’s finest creation.

With a glance, you might just see an alignment between the gritty, overlooked brand and its Western New York surroundings. As of 2010, Genesee was quietly the eighth largest brewing company in America by sales volume. With parent company North American Breweries, they’re revamping their century-old Rochester facilities into a tourist-attracting brew house and pumping millions into regional marketing (to hopefully produce more ads like these). It’s attempting to resuscitate a swagger while paying homage to its history—just like its host community of Rochester and drinking neighbor Buffalo are trying to do.

You might appreciate its role as our region’s bare-bones, neighborhood beer and honor it the way Chicago claims Old Style and Baltimore boasts National Bohemian. Both of those areas have an abundance of microbrews and craft beers, just as Buffalo and Rochester do. But, if they want to showcase a beer inside Wrigley Field or Delores’s Bar on The Wire, they go with their canned classics. We have Genesee. North American Breweries has blanketed Buffalo with Labatt advertising, so why can’t its other local brand be brought into the exposure fold? Along with a revamped local ad campaign, 12-Horse and Cream ales could be made more accessible and encouraged in places like Coca Cola Field, Ralph Wilson Stadium, First Niagara Center, and at the window of Clinton’s Dish on Canalside. Considering Senator Chuck Schumer’s recently announced, “I Love NY Brew” campaign, this development might even be encouraged by state government.

Finally, maybe you just want to be associated with Genesee’s burgeoning sense of understated cool in places as close as Allentown and as far away as Portland, Oregon. Maybe you want to start a trend with flannelled masses and hold a beer that adds to your ever-evolving image. Maybe you want to hoist a Western New York-brewed tallboy inside Mohawk Place or Water Street Music Hall as some animal-named act or Mac-infused band creates squealing noise they consider music. Who cares? It’s your local swill, so do with it what you choose. 

And, with one smooth sip, you might realize its not nearly as bad as you’ve heard it is—or remember it to be. You’ll eventually find your way to the bottom, then shake the foam remnants at the base of the can. When the bartender finds you waiting and ready, he’ll give you a nod. For whatever reason, whether it be aesthetic aspirations or local loyalty, you'll know what to order. You can now look back at that bartender and simply say the following:

“Give me a Genesee.”

Author's note: This entry was finished while listening to Common's "The Food."