"Are you out of your cotton pickin' minds?" This was the general reaction when my wife and I announced we were moving from Miami to Buffalo.
We were bucking a trend, swimming upstream while the popular migration was downstream. Buffalo has a bad rep, based solely on its much-documented winters. Many of the people who hate Buffalo have never set foot here. Miami Dolphin fans are alternately amused and horrified by TV images coming out of Rich Stadium of Buffalo Bills fans bundled up like Inuit, blue-faced and screaming -- against their bitter rivals, or the wind chill, or whatever. South Floridians laugh at that.
But Floridians have lost their perspective. When co-workers heard we were shuffling off to Buffalo, they were dumbfounded. They couldn't understand it, even though the answer is simple. It has nothing to do with snow and ice and everything to do with the quality of life.
Floridians may laugh at people who must live in a frigid wasteland, but in the "Sunshine State" many people's brains are fried. It is possible to get too much sun. Every day, all year around, temperatures are in the high 80s and low 90s. No seasons. No spring or fall. Maybe a week of mock winter in January or February when the mercury plummets to 50 degrees.
Then there is language. South Florida has become a foreign land to people who speak only English. It is quite common for an important conduit of everyday commerce, a pharmacy assistant, for example, to speak no Ingles.
If this alienation and the killing heat weren't enough, there's always the killing. Student on spring break murdered for pocket change. Irate motorist shoots driver who cut in. Loud music ends in massacre. Mindless homicides. Kids killing kids because they see it all the time and think it's OK.
Every evening, the first half-hour of the local news is devoted to this grotesque madness. One evening an anchor woman appeared with her face bruised and swollen. She had become a victim of the violence she reported. She moved to Chicago.
When my own wife was mugged in daylight two blocks from our apartment in relatively safe North Bay Village, I said that was enough.
I arrived in Buffalo Aug. 14 as an advance scout to look for a suitable dwelling, leaving my wife in Miami to finish out her job and contract with a moving company. I soon found a cozy pad among the trees and was able to spend some time at the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library.
While going through collections of the Buffalo Historical Society, I read that Mark Twain lived here briefly. I never knew this. He arrived on or about Aug. 10, 1869, to begin working for the Buffalo Express. He lived at 472 Delaware Ave., where his wife, Olivia, was constantly ill, and where her friend, Emma Nye, died of typhoid fever. During this time, his father-in-law, Jervis Langdon, who had given them the house on Delaware as a wedding present, died. Olivia became gravely ill after the premature birth of their first child.
They left Buffalo in March of 1871. Twain would later write that it was "the blackest, the gloomiest, the most wretched" period of his life.
Hmmmm. Interesting -- and depressing. As I walked out of the library to await the arrival of my wife and the beginning of a new life, I had to tell myself, You are not Mark Twain. Don't worry about it.
The first few weeks here have not been without their difficulties, but whatever happens, I feel I made the right decision. Buffalo is cool. It's tough. It's friendly.
That's the first thing you notice: the friendliness of the people -- from the brothers downtown to the yuppies in the suburbs. In Buffalo there is a surprising innocence and decency for such an old city, a real sense of community and camaraderie. And English is still spoken here.
I am a welder who came here to get out of an abominably misnamed "paradise" and back into the industrial core of this great country. Buffalo has a rich and fascinating history, from Charlevoix to the Iroquois to the War of 1812 to the Underground Railroad to William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt to the Peace Bridge to Bethlehem Steel.
To me, Buffalo will always be made of steel, whereas Miami is a pastiche of pale, art deco decadence.
Miami is a lounge lizard. Buffalo is an honest, hard-working citizen.
I realize the city has its share of crime and general urban problems (the "pothole complaint hotline" is cool), but there are many other things here, things for the soul.
In Miami, there's nothing for the soul. Just the burning sun and the constant, nauseating smell of suntan lotion. A thong-sandaled nightmare.
In Buffalo, I have returned to history, civility and the sweet smell of the earth.
"He talks big now," you might say, "but wait until winter sets in and see what he has to say. He'll be on the first plane back to Miami."
No way, Jose.
BILL MICHELMORE is experiencing autumn in Amherst.
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