For four months, the residents of leafy Zimmerman Boulevard in the Town of Tonawanda haven't seen a certain visitor who became well-known for his weekly visits.
Wednesday, for the first time since a fluke floor hockey injury knocked him off his lunchtime routine, John Pawlowski returned to his favorite spot under his favorite shade tree to eat his lunch.
That's right, the Tonawanda sub eater was back – and Barbara Tucker, the owner of that tree, made sure he received a hero's welcome.
"This is unbelievable," Pawlowski said, standing in the cool shade on a hot September day, surrounded by neighbors and family, as he looked over a welcome back sign, some balloons and a plate of homemade cookies.
There are other articles in The Buffalo News today about hurricanes, earthquakes, felony crimes and the Graham-Cassidy legislation. This is not one of those stories.
It's just a story about a guy who wanted to find a place to eat a sub in peace, ran into some neighbors who objected to his presence, saw his tale go viral and found a friend on the street who encouraged him to stay.
"You hear such horrible things, this is such a human interest story that makes you feel good – that people care about each other," said Sherran Lockwood, a friend of Tucker's from North Tonawanda.
It's an understatement to call Pawlowski, a 36-year-old Lancaster resident, a creature of habit.
Once a week, he orders the same sub – ham, turkey, lettuce and Swiss cheese – from the same restaurant, the Tailgate Deli, and drives a few blocks to park on Zimmerman under the same, shady tree to eat it on his lunch break. He'd been doing it for about a year when, this past April, a couple confronted him in the parking lot of his City of Tonawanda office about his suspicious behavior on their street.
Pawlowski's Facebook post about the incident led to a Buffalo News item, which generated modest local notice. The town police showed up one week later, responding to a complaint about someone suspicious on the street. Tucker's embrace of Pawlowski's lunch visits helped drive national media coverage.
Pawlowski, who is typically reserved, didn't seek out the attention, but he seemed to enjoy becoming the country's most famous sub eater.
But in May, the spot under Tucker's tree went empty, after Pawlowski tore his quadriceps tendons in both legs. Surgery, rehab and a slow recovery followed. He finally returned full time to work last week. Wednesday was his first official return on a lunch break since May.
His return started at the deli, where he picked up his usual order from owner Todd Neupert.
"Good to see you're still in business without me," Pawlowski quipped.
"You going to eat here?" Neupert asked.
"No, I gotta go to my spot," Pawlowski said.
Pawlowski drove over to Zimmerman with his sub, one for Tucker, and chips and drinks. Tucker and two friends, Lockwood and Ann Parelli, were sitting in chairs by the curb.
They had set up a sign, made by Lockwood that morning, that read, "Welcome back, John!" Tucker had tied up some brightly colored balloons, too, and she later brought out homemade chocolate chip cookies and lemonade.
"I'm so glad to see you," Tucker said.
"I'm glad to be back," Pawlowski said.
Pawlowski's mother, LuAnn Stevens Londos, and brother, Sam, also joined the curbside party.
"I had to see this, too," Londos said. "Mrs. Tucker became special to John's heart."
As Pawlowski ate his sub, a reporter asked him if he'll continue to return to Zimmerman.
"I might as well," he said. "Yeah, why not? I'm still going to go to the deli."
The friends, and family members ate cookies and sipped lemonade. After a while, Tucker saw a neighbor across the street, Jim Rojek, come outside. It was Rojek and his wife, Carol, who had followed Pawlowski back to his office months ago and confronted him.
Tucker invited Rojek over to the party and introduced him to everyone. Pawlowski said hello again.
Asked if he still objects to Pawlowski's presence on the street, Rojek said no.
Posing for a photo with Pawlowski and Tucker, Rojek said, "You can even park on my side of the street."
"No," Tucker said, "Jim doesn't have the nice shade."