"I wish I could have had this anthology when I was considering moving to Buffalo in 2007," writes Jody K. Biehl. There was nothing quite like it, she discovered.
So she put one together herself. And "Right Here, Right Now" is absolutely one of the best books about Buffalo ever created -- a genuinely essential book to be put on the same shelf as Lauren Belfer's "City of Light" and Verklyn Klinkenborg's "The Last Fine Time" and very few others. No literate Buffalo home should be without one.
"I scoured the internet and found guidebooks and history books and cookbooks and plenty about architecture, grain elevators, and snowstorms," writes Biehl, director of the journalism program in the University at Buffalo English Department. "But none of it helped me to get a sense of what living here is like or how longtime residents perceived their hometown. It didn't explain that everyone in Buffalo is connected by no more than four degrees of separation."
The virtues of a small town and a big city flow back and forth with uncommon grace in Buffalo. So too with Biehl's anthology.
It offers its readers the soul of a secretly and exquisitely soulful city and it offers them generously and often brilliantly.
Its title comes from one of the more shamelessly mock-Churchillian exhortations (with help from Shakespeare) ever invented by an athletic coach to light a victory fire under his team: Marv Levy's rhetorical question to his amazing '90's Bills: "Where would you rather be than right here, right now?" If there was ever a Churchill of the Locker Room, Marv might have been it.
Nor was he exploited just for his ringing pep talk phrase to be used in Biehl's title. A large swatch of Levy's memoir "Where Would You Rather Be?" is, in the book, entitled "Tampa Stadium, Jan. 27, 1991" and is about the experience of his losing his first Super Bowl. ("It starts with a throbbing pain in your temple; then you feel it creeping tightly up the back of your neck ... ." By the time his excerpt is finished, Bills fans may find their cheeks very moist indeed, as Scott Norwood's teammates practically line up to console their unlucky kicker with their own mea culpas for failures during the most dramatic game most will ever play.)
Biehl's 55 contributing writers and six photographers aren't just people passing through; they're people who have been immersed in Buffalo life and have not gotten it out of their system. Most never intend to. Some uncommon eloquence on the book's paper cover comes from Mike Healy, former Courier Express Columnist and Arts Editor and now retired Disney Channel executive and Buffalo expatriate: "My wife says I spend five days a year in Buffalo and 360 nights there in my dreams.")
Some of the contributors were born and raised here and still live here. Some came from elsewhere. Some found fame and fortune elsewhere. All clearly find Buffalo residing in their heart somewhere.
It's a stunning list including Levy; CNN's Wolf Blitzer; the Washington Post's Margaret Sullivan (a former Buffalo News editor and still a News contributor); Goo Goo Doll Robby Takac; comedian Mark Russell; Belfer; journalism and attorney Lee Coppola; Buffalo Philharmonic Music Director JoAnn Falletta; playwright Tom Dudzick; editorial cartoonist Tom Toles; and writer Erik Brady. (Photographers include Brendan Bannon and the late Buffalo master Milton Rogovin.)
Much of it is a kind of unprepossessing prose poetry about Buffalo -- sometimes consciously, sometimes not. More importantly, there is also more than a little furious but contained anger about the texture of Buffalo life.
Henry Louis Taylor Jr.'s "Latte City or Just City: Will Blacks Rise or Be Forgotten in a New Buffalo" declares bluntly: "In black neighborhoods scattered across Buffalo's East Side, residents must be wondering what all this Buffalo Happy Talk is about. Buffalo is not a happy city for most of them. It never has been. When black folks look around them, they see a city being re-created for whites: college educated millennials, the creative classes, refined middle-aged urbanites and retired suburbanites." Latte drinks are symbolic and everywhere in Taylor's vision. "I believe that black Buffalo will be marginalized in the rising city, just as it was in the shrinking city and in the prosperous industrial city."
Taylor's is one of several must-read essays in this books.
Jeff Z. Klein writes, with no small shock, a piece called "North Park, With and Without Hate." When he was a boy in the 1970s, negotiating the side streets off Hertel crammed with two-family houses with driveways originally built to accommodate Model-T's, Klein remembers hearing the epithet "Jew" hurled with something less than love. "Buffalo" back then as well as "the United States, the world, was different. Pinched. Small. Mean. North Park was made up entirely of white people. Catholics, Protestants, and a significant minority of Jews; no one else -- and that made it one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city."
But a family that kept kosher seemed to make neighbors think they considered themselves "too good" for everyone else. Klein bluntly declares "we've gotten into the habit of extolling the tight-knit enclaves of long ago, conveniently omitting one of their most distinguishing characteristics -- they could be snake pits of hatred." That's the way Klein remembers it. Easy to understand in the world we're now living in.
I grew up a couple decades before and a few blocks away from Klein. What I remember about diverse Starin Avenue was far more placid and harmonious. But then our house was smack in the middle of seven houses in a row filled with seven Jewish families. Across the street, a block away lived John Montana, proprietor of the Van Dyke Taxicab Company and much-reputed Mafia underboss. (He attended the fabled 1957 "Appalachia" conference of Mafiosi.)
What Wolf Blitzer writes about growing up not far away from Klein is "Growing up in Buffalo never goes away. My early years there have always played a critical role in shaping my life. And for that I will always love Buffalo." Blitzer's parents were Holocaust survivors.
Admitting Biehl's wisdom about the paucity of "degrees of separation" in Buffalo lives, I still found myself surprised by reading pieces by people I've worked with and known well. My colleague, News Pop Music Critic Jeff Miers takes the classic phrase of Greil Marcus and writes a wonderful "Requiem for the Wild, The Innocent, and the Old, Weird Buffalo." (The first band he heard in Buffalo was Squid, which he describes as "deafening, horrible and awesome.") News Food Editor Andrew Z. Galarneau describes his job as both the best and the worst of jobs. My former colleague Maria Scrivani shocked me by writing about being "the last white family" on her block in her youth near the corner of Jefferson and East Delavan while rioters a few blocks away "flipped cars and looted empty stores."
Lee Coppola, the most well-traveled man in Buffalo journalism (he has also been a U.S. Attorney) writes "I was raised on Buffalo's West Side and listened to stories as I grew up about 'speakeasies,' 'bathtub gin,' bookmaking and numbers racketeering." As he drolly puts it "some of my childhood friends took a different direction in life than I did so I was familiar with the names as I did my reporting. And others proved valuable sources."
Jonathan Welch tells us how his bookstore Talking Leaves came about. Robby Takac writes about Music is Art, Dick Hirsch about "The Rise and Fall of Lackawanna." The former Marcus Joseph Ruslander Jr. writes how he came to be Mark Russell. And, in one of the book's surprisingly sparse tributes to the rich tavern culture of Buffalo, Emmy-winning writer Pat Green Obermeier remembers the Allentown Bar "Laughlin's" decades ago as having a Ladies Room that was "gag-inducing, disgusting. You needed a buzz on to gather the courage to enter." Graffiti, though, included the memorable "God is Dead -- Nietzsche. Nietzsche is dead. --God. "It was, she said, "a mix of weird and wonderful."
It will be impossible to read this book without coming up with subjects and contributors one might have liked to read.
Mine, just to mention a few, include, among the subjects, the amazing jazz clubs in Buffalo in the '60's through the '80's (The Royal Arms, the Revilot, The Bon Ton, The Statler Hilton Downtown Room etc.) and among the contributors, expatriate TV Writer ("Hill Street Blues," "Miami Vice") Tony Yerkovich, expat film writer (The Narnia Movies, Marvel's Captain America movies) Chris Markus, poet Carl Dennis, novelist Mick Cochrane (he does contribute a nice blurb), Burchfield-Penney director Anthony Bannon.
But this is a book about a Buffalo that can not only be recognized on every page but that maintains an eternally paradoxical hold on people who, so often, claim it does anything but.
"That sense of place -- that authenticity," writes Margaret Sullivan "is why we expatriates hold on so tight."
It's a small miracle how much of it can be savored in fewer than 250 pages.
Right Here, Right Now: The Buffalo Anthology
Edited by Jody K. Biehl
237 pages, $19.99
The launch party for "Right Here, Right Now: The Buffalo Anthology" is 4-6 p.m. Dec. 10 in the Market Arcade, 617 Main St. Copies will be available there, at Talking Leaves Books, and other retailers.