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In Florida, warm feeling for Buffalo

The headline was so preposterous, I clipped it and put it on the fridge.

Jan. 6, 2006: "Sunshine snaps record of 13 days without it."

Thirteen days with nothing but steely gray skies. It was just so Buffalo.

A part of me -- at least for a fleeting moment during that nearly two-week stretch without sunshine -- wondered about the wisdom of moving back to a region where the sun refused to peek out for days on end.

Kind of like last week.

Cold. Wet. Dreary.

The Bisons were snowed out. Thousands of people who gathered outside HSBC Arena for the playoffs had to dress like it was winter. And we moaned about the reluctance of spring to arrive.

Meanwhile, down in St. Petersburg, Fla., Frank Sukiennik had the opposite problem. He had to blast the air conditioner as Sabres fans gathered to watch the game in Buffalo City Bar and Grille. The high reached 89 degrees.

Sounds pretty nice right about now.

Sukiennik knows all about spring in Western New York. Born in Clarence and raised in North Tonawanda, he spent more than three decades running a restaurant here before he moved south.

When I asked if he ever returns in winter or early spring, all I heard on the other line was laughter.

"I'm 70 years old," Sukiennik told me when he finally stopped laughing. "My bones just can't take it no more."

I looked out the window and couldn't blame him.

Spring is a gamble no matter where you live north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Last year, we basked in near-80s on April Fool's Day, and the Niagara River was free of ice by late March.

This year, well, you know what it's been like. The rubber has been peeling off my windshield wiper for a month, but each time I think to fix it, there's a cold drizzle, and I don't want to stand in the rain.

Sukiennik has made a pretty good business catering to Buffalonians who have given up on waiting for spring. They're drawn to the Gulf Coast by the warmth and sun. The thought of never bearing another dull April. The image of beaches and coolers full of icy beers.

But, inevitably, they end up in Sukiennik's Buffalo City Bar and Grille, looking for a beef on weck or a Bills game. They might come for the wings, but mostly, they're looking for people who share a common ground.

Sukiennik's bar is telling. We complain about the dreary days. We threaten to pack up and leave if the sun doesn't come out. But really, at heart, there's something about Buffalo we don't want to leave behind, no matter how long the sleet and cold last.

That's why there are bars filled with Flutie Flakes and No. 12 jerseys in plenty of places where you can break a sweat sipping beer in winter.

The exportation of Buffalo culture to warmer climates doesn't end with chicken wings and beer. Casa di Pizza serves up thick crust in Bradenton and Sarasota, Fla. Ted's is available in Tempe, Ariz. Spot Coffee opened in Delray Beach, Fla., in January.

And if you go to to Nickel City Bar and Grille in Pinellas Park, Fla., today, you might just think you're in Buffalo with all the pussy willows and squirt guns you'll see. Except for the heat.

As it turns out, Sukiennik started this bar, too, before selling it and opening his new place just a few miles away.

Nickel City Manager Carrie Pannitti has never been to Buffalo and had never heard of Dyngus Day before working for Sukiennik. She's from New Jersey, but now she knows all sorts of people from Western New York.

Some day, Pannitti told me, she really would like to see Buffalo.

I'm guessing just not in April.


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