By Marshall Rhinehart
It was two years after the blizzard. The real one. Dan had an idea to get a tattoo. As he flipped through the Yellow Pages, I realized it was becoming more than an idea. He found a shop on Elmwood Avenue, in a place called Allentown.
Too young to drive, we boarded a Metro Bus in front of Daemen College, a yellow and brown stripe on the side. (This was long before the subway). We hopped off at Allen Street, and as we made our way toward Elmwood, I wondered if we’d make it back home.
A few years later, an older gentleman approached me during a high school baseball game, and asked if I’d like to play American Legion ball for a team called Troop I. I didn’t know Troop I from Troop A or Z, but the team didn’t matter – an extended baseball season was a gift not to be turned down.
Most of the kids on the team were from Sweet Home, our rival. After a few practices, I determined that they had a lot more fun, and on game day, were equally more intense. We won the district and began an abbreviated march across the state.
We had a celebratory dinner after the season on Franklin Street, Troop I’s home. I recognized that I was back in Allentown. Mayor Jimmy Griffin was there, smiling, laughing and seemingly knowing everyone’s name.
The men at the dinner didn’t need an excuse for a beer, but on this night, we gave yesterday’s heroes a reason to hang around the bar a little longer.
Years later, during my annual trip to the Allentown Art Festival, I came upon an auction sign on an old brick building. The neighborhood wasn’t great, but I thought it might go at a price I could afford (or could at least scrounge together by closing).
I came back a few weeks later for the sale, and bought a building that looked like its best days were well behind it. The guys I programmed with at National Fuel were sure I’d lost my mind. The shuttered storefronts on Allen Street seemed to confirm their diagnosis.
My Dad and I worked on it as we could. It was a struggle. Then one spring Sunday morning, Dad and I paused as we saw a jogger run past. A few months later, a different face passed, walking a dog. Progress was slow, but the slumbering neighborhood was waking from its decades-long sleep.
Last month, my wife had a birthday ending in a zero. We went to a number of places in Allentown to celebrate, from Buffalo Proper to Billy Club. Old Pink pulled at me for another game of pool.
Today people from China, Slovakia, Australia and England contact us months in advance just to stay a few days, to find out firsthand what’s happening in Buffalo. Some of the guests I’ll give a walking tour of the neighborhood.
They ask about Frank Lloyd Wright, and want to know why we don’t have Uber, where to get the best wings and how to get to Canalside.
On a recent tour, I got a few steps in front of my guests as we headed down Allen, away from the new medical buildings. In the silence, the years and the progress faded away. As we approached Elmwood, I sensed Dan next to me again. I wondered if that tattoo shop would accept his fake ID, and if the artist would really put that dolphin on his arm.
I had wondered all those years ago if we’d ever make it home, not knowing then, that’s just where I was headed.