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VICES, ANYONE? BUFFALONIANS TELL THEIR SECRETS

The first question goes something like this: If he can do that, then what's so bad about my (fill in favorite vice/vices here) ?

The second question, which tends to follow pretty quickly, is: And if he's not sorry about it, then should I be?

Ever since President Clinton's televised 543-word non-apology for having a need for on-the-job delights, many Americans have been pondering their own private vices and wondering where on the moral scale those vices place them.

Exactly what is a vice, anyway?

Legally, vice has long meant "prostitution, gambling, liquor offenses, all the pleasure crimes," explains Mark Morgan, captain of the Buffalo Police Department's Vice Squad. "Some call them 'victimless crimes,' although I've never been convinced these things don't hurt people."

Psychologically, vice has always been defined as "a weakness that could harm someone," be it yourself or someone else who wound up affected by your indulgence, says Lana Michaels, a certified social worker in practice on Delaware Avenue.

But in our hearts, vice has always been known as a far simpler thing: that which has brought on genuine, God-I-hope-no-one-sees-this shame:

Contenting oneself with six cigarettes in a row while on the phone. Irish coffee with breakfast, hold the coffee. And a few obvious ones we'll skip over.

However, that was then. And this is now. And vice has undergone a change more extreme than Paula Jones' nose. Glance around. Then ask around.

What seems to be happening is that vice, at century's end, is less about lewd, and more about, well, lame.

"I might have a beer too many," says Morgan, after musing for several minutes on the very worst things he does. But even at that, he notes, it is always at home -- of course -- and at the very most, it is literally one too many. Not five.

"That's it. No loud music. No cigarettes. And I'm tested twice a year for drugs, so none of that, obviously." And if he sounds happy with his relative lack of indulgence, he says, he is.

Lynne Sutton Rumbold has seen this coming -- this shift from sleaze to ease -- and she thinks she understands it.

"Vice is what I call relative truth," says Ms. Rumbold, who runs Kids Korner day care in Williamsville. "As a generation, we've become so desensitized to sex and stuff that it's all become 'OK' to do. Vice has become incrementally worse as we've become desensitized."

Lana Michaels, the therapist, agrees.

"The media has glamorized so many of what we have traditionally called vice behaviors -- smoking, for example -- that it's really broadened the scope. There are more vice options, certainly, and some seek it for thrill, while others seek it for comfort."

Indeed. With few places left to go, vice, for many, is now about . . . nice.

To be sure, there remain plenty of old-school indulgers, grown-ups who unapologetically derive toe-tingling entertainment and satisfaction from doing precisely what humans have been urged not to do.

"I hunt, and I'm certainly unrepentant about it," offers WBEN anchor/reporter George Richert, who bags a deer a year for eating and freezing.

"I swear. A lot. I mean, we're talking sailor mouth," offers Gloria Boron, media director at Travers/Collins/Partners, who then adds to the list a taste for smoking, screwdrivers (the Stoly kind, not Sears Craftsman), and Margherita pepperoni -- in chunks with Italian bread, please, none of this piously-sliced-on-pizza nonsense.

David Young, president of Creditors Interchange Inc., one of the area's biggest collection agencies, cops happily to enjoying "a fat cigar in the Jacuzzi" with his best friend as they discuss the jungle of business.

But these are the Wild Ones. (Or so they seem.) And a vanishing breed they are.

For the more you ask, the more it becomes clear: when it comes to vice, nasty and naughty and has been replaced by comfy and cozy.

Not Percodan, but Pop-Tarts. Not Demerol, but Disney. But puh-leeze, don't tell anyone.

Lynn Marie Finn, president of Superior Staffing Services, the area's largest temp agency, talks for a good while on the phone before she sounds ready to list what she consideres to be secret vices these days. They are:

Watching "Brady Bunch" reruns with her kids.

Unapologetically grabbing a chick flick like "My Best Friend's Wedding" even if she's the only one who wants to watch it.

Ben & Jerry's -- and we're not talking sorbet here, OK?

Cranking up old, nasty Rolling Stones songs.

Reading the paper -- alone -- while watching late-night "La Femme Nikita" episodes on the USA Network.

"Personal time, workouts, being silly with my kids, those are my indulgences," she says. "Time is my vice."

Similarly, Ms. Rumbold (affectionately called "Doris Day" by her business partner, who laughs in the background as he hears her musing over her secret vices) feels -- well, not wicked, no -- but certainly quite indulgent when she enjoys:

"Senseless" comedies like "Paternity Test" with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Disney's earliest efforts: "Swiss Family Robinson," "Pollyanna," and the original "The Parent Trap."

Nancy Drew mysteries plucked from her daughter's shelf and read one per night.

"It's all predictable, mindless stuff," she agrees, "but it puts me into a perfect time where everything is controlled. That's an indulgence, for me."

Some can't even name a mild indulgence -- and judging from their tone, one trends to believe them.

Michael Kibler's most wicked habit? Oh, maybe a glass of wine now and then, perhaps a few wings, says the 44-year-old CEO of Buffalo Newspress.

"But I don't know that a person in my position of responsibility is engaging in vice. I think we get overly enthusiastic about accomplishment, personal relationships, things like that."

Young, too, finds it hard to relax into any sort of indulgent vice at all. Alcohol, cigarettes and red meat hold no allure, he notes. Neither does window-rattling music playing in the car -- he's either on the phone or listening to sports talk.

Wait! He has one. About once a year, Young has been known to rent some seriously bad entertainment. A lot of seriously bad entertainment. And then he will sit, inert in his chair, while visions of "The Fugitive," "U.S. Marshals" and various other totally implausible action thrillers parade across his face, helping him momentarily forget "my joyless existence."

Joyless indeed. Does no one indulge in a night on the town, such as Rod Stewart envisioned in his landmark album?

Once in a while, sure, concedes Louise Crawley, direct of patient services for Planned Parenthood. Every so often, she'll feel the urge to go "see Willie and the Reinhardts play, drink beer and dance."

But if given the choice -- which is largely what she is about -- here is Ms. Crawley's true vice: getting couch-bound with warmed, frosted strawberry Pop Tarts on a plate, and "The Sound of Music" on the VCR.

Yes, really.

"With my husband. And -- we sing it," she adds, upping the vice-is-nice quotient considerably.

"That's our secret thing. Last time our son walked in with his girlfriend and we were in mid-'Do Re Mi,' with big grins on our faces."

Shocking, what grown-ups do for kicks these days.

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