By Pete Simon
I was at the Buffalo cultural institution where I volunteer when a woman approached the front desk and introduced herself as Linda Critelli.
“Madame Critelli?” I asked.
“Oui,” she replied.
About 20 years ago, she taught French to both of my daughters at Williamsville South High School. During our chance encounter, she immediately remembered their names and personalities, and seemed keenly interested to learn what they’re doing.
This column is dedicated to everyone born and raised in Buffalo. It will probably sound familiar because your lives are also deeply enriched by your own Linda Critellis.
Native Buffalonians can run, but they can’t hide. A current or former friend, foe, schoolmate, co-worker or neighbor is bound to pop up at any moment.
That’s why the first thing we do when we enter a restaurant, theater or concert is to scan the crowd to see who we know. That sometimes provides the valuable few moments needed to remember their names and their connections to us, and to greet them with the semblance of instant recognition.
Sometimes, especially as we get older, names and circumstances evade both us and the person we recognize. That leads to the uncomfortable “where do I know you from?” dance, and the humbling recognition that not everyone is unforgettable all the time.
Buffalo is badly misunderstood – and unappreciated – by the rest of the world.
Yes, the Bills and Sabres are our teams, and chicken wings and beef on weck are our contributions to the world of fine dining. And despite our lovely summers, Buffalo – barring runaway global warming – will forever be known as a city to avoid in the winter.
But what we share cuts much deeper than that. This is a place to settle in, to raise a family and to make lifelong friends. People here don’t come and go. They plant roots.
During 67 years as a Buffalonian, including 39 years as a (now-retired) Buffalo News reporter, I’ve been able to do all that. Barbara, my late wife and also a Buffalo native, doubled our connections as a graduate of Kensington High School, an avid tennis player and a longtime State Supreme Court stenographer.
Buffalo stories like ours used to be more common, but many of our kids have instead chosen to live in New York, Washington, Boston, Denver, San Francisco and all points between and beyond.
Mobility, new experiences and thriving cities are great things, but there’s also a lot to be said for staying home.
I walked to and from kindergarten with Bob, my best buddy then and now. Recently retired after a highly successful legal career, Bob somehow passed the attorneys’ ethics review even though he got caught nailing a car on Starin Avenue with an icy snowball. A childhood photo shows us at a Buffalo Bisons game, proudly wearing our Little League jerseys and accompanied by our manager, Sam, a barber who knew little about baseball but loved kids.
Like so many others, Sam is now gone. The biggest cliché is the most profound truth: Time flies.
I occasionally run into Helene, and we laugh about our first date in eighth grade, more than 50 years ago.
Harry and I loved to run the fast break in basketball leagues, and our respective games – ended years ago by cranky knees and hips – get better with every telling.
Elaine, my dear partner, is also pure Buffalo. Sometimes we have contests to see who knows more people at a given event. She always wins, even though her kids never took French from Madame Critelli.