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Jeff Simon: In Buffalo, we will always be defined by our soul, not by the racist who tried to divide us

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Tops shooting aftermath (copy)

Two women comfort each other during a vigil outside Tops Market on Jefferson Avenue in Buffalo the day after a gunman killed 10 people and injured three others in the only full-service supermarket in that neighborhood. 

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It's some Buffalo history you ought to know at this moment: Jan. 23, 1940.

That's when Buffalo Mayor Thomas Holling declared to his Common Council that a slogan identifying Buffalo as "the city of good neighbors be imprinted, if practicable, on all city stationery to be printed."

His proposal didn't exactly sweep everyone's imagination. It passed but only by a vote of 9 to 6.

I understand. I've always been lukewarm to it, at best.

"City of good neighbors" is so clearly a slogan and slogans are not the optimal way humans communicate. They smack of boosterism – salesmanship, not real feelings or cogent ideas.

My major problem with it is that it always seems much too bland to describe something as extraordinarily real as Buffalo, N.Y. There IS something altogether remarkable about this city. What has always seemed to characterize it to me is a soulfulness that is well beyond what is familiar elsewhere.

The weekend horrors at the Tops Market on Jefferson Avenue have brought out those community qualities in tragic abundance in a way that they have seldom been brought out before.

I wouldn't dream of trying to speak for an entire city but I know very well I have feelings both more outraged and more sorrowful than I am comfortable expressing. I know others do, too.

Everywhere you look it seems that people can't seem to either do or say enough to express their feelings about the murder of 10 people and injury of three more on Saturday afternoon.

It's a bit like 9/11 in this sense: It imposes sudden, unexpected horror on everyday normalcy. On 9/11, on a huge, literally unthinkable scale, it was a workaday Tuesday at the World Trade Center. At the Tops Market, it was Saturday afternoon grocery shopping, a weekly ritual for families all over town.

The kind of magnificent soulfulness I'm talking about is something we, as a community, seem to have the least trouble exposing with our sports teams, particularly the Buffalo Bills.

It was no accident that when their Super Bowl days were over Thurman Thomas and Jim Kelly felt comfortable making their lives here. Nor was it an accident that at the moment of greatest community disappointment in our local sports history – after Scott Norwood's "wide right" field goal attempt didn't win us that first Super Bowl in its final seconds – it was Norwood's name that was chanted for crowd recognition at the subsequent "Thank you, Bills" celebration in Niagara Square.

As a spontaneous expression of community soulfulness, it was the most amazing – and unexpected – I've ever encountered. You could hear a little bit of that – and see a little bit of it moistening his eyes – when Thomas was introduced by Mayor Byron Brown to present, with his wife, their monetary contribution to the welfare of those suffering families so cruelly robbed of family members.

Thomas, after his playing days, was a Hall of Fame natural. He's one of us now, a lifelong Buffalonian. His feelings seem to have overwhelmed him at a certain point of his presentation and his wife finished it off.

It only surprised us briefly when his quarterback, Kelly – initially so reluctant to come here – made a post-football life here, too. He has a home where he survived his own struggles with cancer and his young son's terrible ordeal with the rare disease whose mortality doctors predicted years before it actually happened.

Buffalonians who might have once cast a cold eye on Kelly's tough arrogance felt profound sympathy for the brave father and cancer survivor he became.

If you want to X-ray the city's soul, look there and not the easy slogan.

Contrast all that with the apparent monstrous soullessness of the accused murderer who brought so much sudden misery to grocery shoppers on a Saturday afternoon.

In his 180-page Q&A screed explaining why he aimed his weapon at people of a different skin color, he casually informed the world that his credo was born during pandemic boredom when he was mentored by out-of-the-way places on the internet and the "replacement theory" poisoning so much contemporary thought.

The first major iteration of replacement theory seems to have come from a book titled "The Great Replacement" by French writer Renaud Camus (no relation to Albert whom one can envision being sickened by the ideas of his namesake).

Renaud writes, "Individuals, yes, can join a people, and integrate with it, assimilate to it. But peoples, civilizations, religious – and especially when those religions are themselves civilizations ... cannot and cannot want to blend with other peoples, other civilizations."

Which, as transmogrified and propounded by crackpot American right-wingers has turned into the idea that Jewish elites in America want immigrants to replace white Americans in all those places where their powers have congealed and their numbers threaten to dwindle.

A murderous, bored man teeming with racism then had words that he could translate into the tragic wholesale spillage of blood.

What so many of us feel these days is the difficulty of finding the right words for our sorrow and our outrage and the best action we can take as a result.

This much, I know: When it becomes possible to shop at that Jefferson Avenue Tops again, I'll be augmenting my regular trips to the Elmwood Avenue Tops and the Amherst Street Wegmans with regular trips there, too.

I live in the Elmwood Village.

But, as so many of us do these days, I know who my neighbors are and who I want them to be. And I want to make my feelings known as conspicuously as I can.

No racist with modified military ordinance and caricatured racist theories is going to define the city where I've spent my whole life.

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Semi-Retired Columnist and Critic

Jeff Simon began working at The News as a copyboy 57 years ago. Since that time, he has been closely involved in all aspects of The News' cultural coverage – as critic, columnist and Arts and Books editor for 25 years.

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