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Jeff Simon: No matter what outsiders may say, Buffalo is a town of secret sophistication

Jeff Simon: No matter what outsiders may say, Buffalo is a town of secret sophistication

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Lake Erie night

The Buffalo skyline glows in August as a sailboat motors by on a quiet night on Lake Erie.

I love sports commentary. Since I've discovered ESPN's singularly clangorous version of it in the mornings, I'm becoming something of an addict.

I've had the singular luck of knowing over the past 57 years a lot of the sports colleagues whose work I've so gladly followed, starting with Larry Felser, with whom I collaborated twice on features pieces.

And I've kept up with their competition as much as possible. Which means I've had a lot of time to see some patterns in what people say about sporting life in Buffalo.

Last Sunday's football debacle in Jacksonville brought forth an old cliché that's always troubled me. A musician friend who lives in California tweeted this about the Buffalo Bills resoundingly invidious loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, which managed to occur without a single pesky touchdown.

"Now we know how to beat the Buffalo Bills. Punch 'em in the mouth." (He was being metaphorical.)

For good or for ill, we in Buffalo have always been sensitive to others' views of us, especially the more captious ones. One of the more frequent commentaries I've noticed among recent residents is on the order of "they ain't so tough."

It's a definite strain among those who don't know us.

Hockey commentators could often be counted on to say that Lord Stanley's cup never made a home here because our greatest Sabres (say, the legendary French Connection) were known for their sophistication and finesse rather than goon pugilism.

When four of our Bills teams – in a row, for pity's sake – went to the Super Bowl, they confused everybody because their coach was a somewhat intellectual fellow from Harvard by way of Chicago and Canadian football and TV commentary. Yes, our quarterback was a big, tough, guy from Pennsylvania coal country and our running back was constantly teased by his coach who supplied the definitions of words he might know. But Marv Levy was a radically different kind of football coach.

He was a great story, obviously. But it's also true that the very idea of him in Buffalo, of all places, confused the daylights out of some people. Professional commentators forced to think about the nature of Buffalo when they would rather think about almost anything else, could often be found remarking on the paradoxical and apparent lack of an upstate appetite for sports thuggery in "the city of no illusions."

Imagine the nerve of Buffalo teams being known for brains and finesse and sophistication and conceptual daring, including a no-huddle offense to get defenses tripping over themselves in a way Bill Walsh in San Francisco – by way of Stanford – might have approved.

I've known more than a few recent Buffalo immigrants in the journalistic community to wonder why so many residents complain loudly about the snow and are delighted to stay indoors when lake-effect events get truly nasty. Where's that fabled toughness, they sneer. (It's in the stoic response to decades of experience teaching us to have sophisticated plans about things to do when calamity hits.)

Bless all those Western New York skiers and skaters for their eagerness to wade through white stuff but please don't get in the way of those of us packing in provisions for the occasional siege.

So I've spent almost six decades watching journalists from elsewhere try to define Buffalo, especially in jokes and dumb catchphrases. Shouldn't an industrial town on Lake Erie act like it more often than it does?

This is indeed a roughneck "city of no illusions" that watched the collapse of its more massive manufacturing plants. And yes a lot of its population came from Eastern Europe to a new culture and a new language.

I once interviewed a marvelously generous Milton Berle at considerable length before an anniversary appearance at Shea's Buffalo where, early in his career, he had climbed up vaudeville's ladder to the big time.

He explained Buffalo's reputation among vaudevillians as a tough town to play in this way: For so many Buffalo citizens, English wasn't their first language which made verbal gymnastics and his kind of gaggery hard to follow.

It was certainly a plausible theory about why he felt it necessary to invent primitive visual jokes. What I didn't have the heart to say to such a venerable and generous man was that there was another explanation: that Berle's humor was held in very low esteem by many vaudevillians and radio and TV performers.

What I also didn't have the heart to say to Berle is that some frost might have entered into Buffalo receptions from the audience's hopes for something better, much better. What if Buffalo audiences' appetites for sophistication exceeded some performers' capacities?

After decades of thinking about that, I'd like to offer an alternative idea of this elusive city.

I first thought about it when, in the early aughts, a friend in the record business in L.A. called me almost breathlessly when the Goo Goo Dolls' hit "Better Days" was so obviously a great song – and whose singer/composer was so obviously a good-looking kid – with Cary Grant's dimpled chin, no less.

Are there any more groups like that in Buffalo?, he wanted to know. He had sudden visions of Buffalo harboring a secret scene like Seattle's grunge bunch, with talented, good-looking singer/songwriters under every speaker.

I had to admit my inability to help him and gave him some names to consult to turn Buffalo into Nirvana's Seattle or Prince's Minneapolis.

But it suddenly hit me as typical of Buffalo's secret sophistication.

It seems that while we were supposed to honor a former mayor's instructions on properly dealing with six packs during blizzards, we had been giving America secretly sophisticated things.

CBS' shamelessly snobbish (Canadian) newsman Morley Safer had to admit that the chicken wing is pretty good junk food i.e. rather sophisticated as pop cuisine goes. The Rolling Stones' tune "Rip This Joint" (from "Exile on Main Street") limns a frequent musicians' experience coming across the bridge in Buffalo from concerts in Canada. Suddenly, the 50,000-watt giant WKBW would hit the car radio with a presence, they said, which in Boston loomed larger than Boston's own stations. Once upon a time its jock George "Hound Dog" Lorenz was a rock jock grandfather.

The Buffalo Braves gave the world basketball player Bob McAdoo, who could block shots by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Until suburbanization made it financially untenable, the Studio Arena Theatre offered extraordinary upwardly mobile actors.

TV writers from Buffalo – Diane English, Anthony Yerkovich, David Milch – began to show themselves in their hometown. The secret was out that they had become staples of TV.

I love that it's hard these days to imagine an era of the late '40s and '50s when Canadians were eager to cross the Peace Bridge into Buffalo because that's where sophisticated entertainment and products were, while Canadian blue laws reigned.

How ironic it was in a pandemic to have Toronto's major league baseball team take refuge in Buffalo games to keep its season going.

Let me offer, then, this alternative view of this elusive city which resists pigeonholing.

We are, I think, a great border town. When our laws permit, we're porous to people from elsewhere. With the incredible rise of Toronto, that went both ways. Even in Fort Erie, Robert Duvall, during the Buffalo filming of "The Natural," pronounced Ming Teh one of the world's great Chinese restaurants and had his wife's birthday party there.

When briefly, the University at Buffalo had visions of becoming the "Berkeley of the East," we became an incredible cultural border town with a mammoth influx of writers and musicians and media figures from high culture precincts everywhere.

People have increasingly looked for new things here. And sometimes found them. Even now with the international might of Toronto, it can be found.

It's no accident that Buffalo, of all cities, had a viable socialist candidate for mayor. Nor, in an entirely different way, is it an accident that in Buffalo we have a football quarterback who is often photographed running the ball and leaping over defenders.

Border towns are the essence of civilization, are they not?

To come here and expect Milton Berle's language-deprived audience that didn't get his jokes is, I think, a misreading.

Maybe what happened was that a demanding and sophisticated audience was hungering for something great. Or at least better.

We know good sports teams when we see them. Whether it's a pop cuisine or a new pop group, we have no trouble keeping the traffic of true civilization busy.

My advice for any visitor who wants a kiss-off way to understand Buffalo in just a few words is to heed a paraphrase of Norman Mailer's favorite quote from Voltaire: Please do not understand us too quickly.

The Buffalo News: Good Morning, Buffalo

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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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