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Sean Kirst: Years after his violent death, Taste of Life owner's memory lives on

The doors are locked at the old Taste of Life restaurant in Buffalo, where an unshoveled sidewalk near the Sycamore Street doorway forces people to trudge through the snow as they walk by. Letters fall like plastic leaves from a sign that once reminded passersby of the chance to try steak, roasted fish or the restaurant's famous wings.

A spontaneous memorial, assembled after owner Upendra Bawa was attacked and killed, has all but disappeared. What's left is a tattered scarf and a few stray ribbons, beneath a threadbare teddy bear that dangles from a metal gate that shields the property.

It's easy to wonder if Bawa, the longtime proprietor, is all but forgotten.

Ku'Wonna Ingram makes a promise: Even as the lettering fades out, Bawa's memory will not.

"He gave me sound advice," said Ingram, now principal of the Chanticleer Learning Center in Opelika, Ala., a school that serves children who struggle in traditional classrooms. "I think he admired my work ethic. He told me to keep my nose clean, to always be positive."

At a point in her life when it mattered, she found comfort in his strength.

To Ingram, that only underlines her grief at the way Bawa died, almost two years ago.

Last week, Jamell Chapman, 26, pleaded guilty in State Supreme Court to first-degree manslaughter. Prosecutors accused Chapman of beating Bawa to death, after Chapman's girlfriend, Dalene McIlwain, helped him find a way into Bawa's apartment. McIlwain and Shanita Chapman, Jamell Chapman's sister, have already pleaded guilty to charges involving robbery for their roles in the crime.

"Sickening," said Ingram, of Bawa's death. By 2016, at 78, Bawa had become what Sgt. Carl Lundin — a homicide detective with the Buffalo Police Department — describes as "the kind of guy who took care of everybody in the neighborhood."

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Jimmy Darby, a mechanic and a longtime customer, said Bawa understood the struggles of working people who live paycheck to paycheck. Stop in once, Darby said, and Bawa remembered your name. If a loyal regular was short of cash on a Wednesday, Darby said Bawa would provide a meal without a second thought, confident that he would see the money, sooner or later.

"He would give you free food, would give you anything," said Murray Holman, a neighborhood activist and executive director of the Stop the Violence Coalition. "He had a beautiful life, a beautiful family. For him to be murdered like that? An old man like that?"

A tattered memorial outside the Taste of Life on Sycamore Street. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Debra Blanding, now living in Atlanta, was working as a directory assistance telephone operator in the early 1990s when she started going to Taste of Life. She quickly fell in love with the atmosphere. Sometimes strangers to Western New York would call directory assistance, out of the blue, with a question of deep meaning in this town:

Can you give me a number for the place with the best wings in Buffalo?

With total confidence, Blanding would refer them to A Taste of Life.

"I promise you, that was true," Ku'Wonna Ingram said, speaking of the quality of the wings. "I don't know how he did it, but they were the best."

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In a quiet way, Bawa provided the most essential quality for any strong neighborhood: He offered a warm and dependable presence, into the late evening. Jane Jacobs, the legendary urban theorist and author, often spoke of the importance of "eyes on the street" on any city block, of the safety and vitality offered by a sense of life around the clock.

Bawa's friends recall how he always cooked in the front window, visible to anyone traveling on the East Side.

Much of his work intertwined with the community. On New Year's Eve, Blanding said, he would prepare curried goat in Indian fashion, then throw a party for the neighborhood. When Blanding's father died 21 years ago, Bawa offered to do the cooking. He supplied enough chicken to feed all the mourners.

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"He was the nicest person you'd ever want to meet," Blanding said, echoing the point about his death made by everyone who knew him.

"They didn't need to take his money," she said. "If they'd asked, he would have given them his money."

As for Ingram, she considers herself lucky for Bawa's kindness. She was the oldest of 10 children, and her father – a disabled veteran who returned from Vietnam with a Purple Heart – moved to Georgia when she was young.

In a sense, Ingram said, she didn't have a childhood. Much of her time was spent helping to raise her younger siblings, and in the hours she had left, she was serious about her commitment to school and to athletics. She focused on a dream of building a life beyond the place where she was raised.

She met Bawa one night, while she was shooting darts with some friends inside the bar. By that time, she was running track at SUNY Buffalo State, managing a Rite Aid and hoping she could earn enough to pay for her tuition.

Bawa did what he did so well: He listened. He gave her a second job as a weekend bartender. He quickly became a mentor and a friend. Ingram said he was interested in her progress in the classroom. In a part of the city where it can be easy to lose hope, Bawa reinforced the idea that she was smart enough and brave enough to succeed in the world.

Before long, he was trusting her with his money and his keys.

"I valued his work ethic," Ingram said. "If he said to start at 6, I'd be there at 5:50, the same way he would do it. He expected you to do a good job, to respect his business, to keep your area clean. He knew most of the customers who came to him, and he always showed respect for the community."

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After graduating from Buffalo State, Ingram – weary of long winters – moved south to join her father and his relatives in Georgia. Before long, she had earned a master's degree and started her career in education.

Every time she returned to Buffalo, she tried to visit Bawa. He was older, but little else had changed. He remained proud of her success and of the way she embraced his most fundamental truth, the one she now emphasizes to every child in her school.

"Education is the answer," she said, "the road to all success."

Bawa was generous with that wisdom, Ingram said, the one thing she won't allow to end with a Taste of Life.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his columns in this archive.

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