Notes from the Expatriate Underground

2016-10-31T21:57:39+00:00 October 20th, 2016|


Excerpted from Right Here, Right Now: The Buffalo Anthology from Belt Publishing.

By Margaret Sullivan

We were so tired of those people—the ones who had moved away from Buffalo, but still wanted to lay claim to it. The ones who gathered at Buffalo taverns in various cities to cheer (or grieve) the Bills, but didn’t have to think about the rusting steel mills along Route 5, or the problems of the second poorest city in the United States, or the constant infighting on the School Board.

Although we true Buffalo people—the ones who actually lived in the Queen City—welcomed them back, with wan smiles, on the Wednesday nights before Thanksgiving, on Elmwood or Chippewa, we didn’t think for a minute that they were really Buffalo People.

No, they were poseurs, in their “City of No Illusions” t-shirts, swigging Genny Cream Ale and debating the virtues of wings at Duff’s vs. Anchor Bar. Because after the holiday, or the wedding, or whatever had brought them back for a few days, they were gone, and we were here.

Still here.

I tolerated them for years, for decades. Now, I’m one of them: a Buffalo expatriate. And now, finally, I get it: the constant craving for the hometown, the need to talk about it all the time, the nostalgia for what was left behind.

I left for New York City in 2012, after most of a lifetime in Buffalo, including thirteen years as chief editor of the Buffalo News, a place I had come as a summer intern after college in Washington and graduate school in Chicago. Three decades, somehow, went by. Parents died, children were born and raised. Then a job at the New York Times beckoned.

Now, after four years in Manhattan, I live in Washington, D.C. These cities have their wonders, no doubt—glamour, spectacle, a sense of importance and being at the center of the world.

[blocktext align=”right”]So far, I haven’t found anything as real as the First Friday fish fry at St. Mark’s parish in North Buffalo. Or the Turkey Trot as a crucial calorie-burner before the big meal of the year.[/blocktext] But so far, I haven’t found anything as real as the First Friday fish fry at St. Mark’s parish in North Buffalo. Or the Turkey Trot as a crucial calorie-burner before the big meal of the year. Or the first warm day of the spring when Delaware Park is alive with runners, tennis players, would-be hoop stars, and toddlers in strollers.

And that sense of place—that authenticity—is why we expatriates hold on so tight.

It’s why we gather together in other places—for example, in a Buffalo bar in Sarasota, Florida, to watch the Bills get crushed on their overseas road game in London. Or why we gravitate to other Buffalo people who have made the same move. When I moved to New York City, I found a group of literary women with Western New York ties; we called ourselves the Buffalo Gals, and met monthly for dinners to speculate on such matters as whether the Peace Bridge had been lit purple for Prince’s death or for Queen Elizabeth’s birthday, and to talk about the accumulated snowfall in the Southern Tier.

Bflo-Anth-chapterCoversIt’s also why Tim Russert, who grew up in South Buffalo, never stopped mentioning Buffalo sports teams when he was the host of NBC’s Meet the Press. It’s why Lauren Belfer, the novelist who wrote the Buffalo-based City of Light, comes to her hometown so often to speak to groups as varied as the working-class patrons of the Tonawanda Public Library and the white-gloved ladies of the Twentieth Century Club and the hipsters of Larkin Square. And it’s why I’ve been so happy to write book reviews for the Buffalo News, and to come around every summer to delight, from a kayak, as the late-afternoon sunlight sparkles upon beautiful Lake Erie.

In short, we want the connection. We need the connection.

And while we know that this yearning may seem, to you who shovel the snow and pay the real estate taxes, like the passing interest of a mere dilettante—you may even feel it has a whiff of condescension—we must beg your indulgence.

[blocktext align=”left”]Allow us to lay claim to the Buffalo that forged us and that sustains us. Because we frankly aren’t sure who we would be without it.[/blocktext] Allow us expatriates to lay claim to the Buffalo that forged us and that sustains us. Because we frankly aren’t sure who we would be without it. Without those roots grounding us and feeding us, we might wither away altogether.

So when we come around for the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, or for the Fourth of July family reunion, or for our best friend’s wedding reception at the Historical Society, we’ll be listening for the words we want to hear.

Even if you deliver the phrase with an invisible roll of your eyes, please say it: “Welcome home.”

Excerpted from Right Here, Right Now: The Buffalo Anthology from Belt Publishing. Go here for more information and order your copy here


Margaret Sullivan was born and raised in Lackawanna, graduated from Our Lady of Victory grade school and Nardin Academy, and was a longtime resident of the Parkside neighborhood and Elmwood Village. A journalist, she spent most of her career at the Buffalo News, including thirteen years as chief editor, before becoming the public editor of the New York Times and, now, a columnist for the Washington Post.

30 Comments

  1. Nora A Bouvier October 20, 2016 at 11:18 am - Reply

    Welcome home ALWAYS! So love our Queen city! So proud of how she is rising now.

  2. UrbanZen October 20, 2016 at 2:26 pm - Reply

    This whole “us (those who stayed) vs them (expats)” conversation is so unnecessary and provincial. Staying in Buffalo was not for everyone (in fact, it was not for a majority of the population)–the experience is not for naught–and it can be used for Buffalo’s benefit; I know many who are now returning after years and careers away, which now can be woven in to Buffalo’s tapestry (which it greatly needs (ideas from the outside)).
    And, it is important that we pay homage to/recognize the many people who stayed, hunkered down when Buffalo was a LOT less sexy.

    • K October 20, 2016 at 10:59 pm - Reply

      Thank you! I’m glad I’ve never had to deal with snarky “if you loved it you would have stayed” mentality. I am mystified by the concept.

  3. John October 20, 2016 at 5:04 pm - Reply

    You’ll always be welcomed, valued and appreciated Margaret. Thanks for so artfully making our case – and proudly waving our flag. And be assured that those of us who have remained are working that much harder to make all of you ex-pats both proud and envious!

  4. Margaret October 20, 2016 at 5:32 pm - Reply

    Thanks — it was fun to write this piece. And great to meet the book’s editor, Jody Beihl, while I was in town yesterday. The city looked especially beautiful: blue skies, blue lake, autumn leaves.

    Margaret

  5. John Harney October 20, 2016 at 10:55 pm - Reply

    Margaret,
    This was lovely. I sat across from you at The Times for a while. I didn’t realize that you were from upstate, too. (I’m from Plattsburgh.)

    John Harney

    • Margaret October 22, 2016 at 12:06 pm - Reply

      Hi, John. We should have discussed snow accumulation when we had the chance. Hope all is well at NYT, if you are still there. M.

  6. James Gielow October 21, 2016 at 12:23 am - Reply

    I can’t even begin to express how perfect this sentiment is for me. Deeply and profoundly, I agree.

    I grew up on the East Side off of Bailey, then was moved to Kenmore in the third grade. City proper after high school. Hodge near Elmwood, and then closer to the psych center. Moved to San Diego in 1999 after college.

    In 17 years, the nostalgia has changed from white-hot intensity to stoic spiritual longing. With many other stages in between.

    Going back and forth in 2009/2010 almost bi-weekly to observe my father dying created to one of the stages in my evolving nostalgia. That also kick-started a huge and robust genealogical study of my father’s side of the family.

    Which in turn made my whimsical nostalgia change to a deep need for historical connection to Buffalo. I visited old refurbished police stations where my great great uncle worked. Did drive-bys to houses that relatives lived in in the 1850s. Then some architecture tours downtown like a god-damn tourist.

    Now I feel like I owe Buffalo. It’s honed me into a forever beast. I must pay her back somehow. Return in some glorious Earth-shattering fashion to help rebuild the giant!

    Then I’m like, “ugh, maybe not so close to winter!”

    What a coward. But SoCal makes you soft and squishy. At least to a forever beast.

    At least you have New York, which still keeps you sharp and still is peopled with shit-talkers and smart loudness. Crap. I’m all nostalgic again.

    • Margaret October 22, 2016 at 12:09 pm - Reply

      You should move back, James. Or get a summer cottage on the lake. The rebuilding is underway!

  7. Rosemary Duran October 21, 2016 at 7:18 pm - Reply

    We in Buffalo will always be your home. Beautiful writing as always. You are my hero!

    • Margaret October 22, 2016 at 12:11 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Rosemary. (Ladies Guild!)

  8. Patrick October 22, 2016 at 9:11 am - Reply

    Wonderful essay, Margaret.

    I am not from Buffalo (though I’ve always been charmed by the city) but I suspect many of us from Pittsburgh and Cleveland can identify with that yearning feeling, the need for connection and reconnection.

    (And thank you for all the wonderful work you’ve done at the Times, and now at the Post.)

    • Margaret October 22, 2016 at 12:09 pm - Reply

      Yes, we Rust Belters understand each other. Thanks, Patrick.

  9. Betty Bird October 22, 2016 at 9:30 am - Reply

    Wow, I did not realize you were from Buffalo. You were the best public news editor ever at the NY
    Times – that’s what I knew. As a Tennessee ex-pat who has spent 48 years living in Rochester, I’ve been to Buffalo many times and met many great people hailing from Buffalo. There is indeed a renaissance going on at the waterfront in Buffalo. While its taken me 48 years to appreciate the charms of upstate New York and to call it home, I still have a place in my heart for Tennessee. I have come to understand that there are places that have retained what made them special, like the unspoiled village of Stonnington, Maine or the remote landscapes of Canyonlands Park. These places nourish us.

  10. phfyrebyrd October 22, 2016 at 10:54 am - Reply

    A relatively recent repat myself, this piece speaks my mind. It’s wonderful to be home after 13 years away. I had to leave to fully appreciate WNY, Buffalo especially, and while it’s not been a perfect year, the decision to come home for real and for good is one of the best I’ve ever made.

  11. BillyTom October 22, 2016 at 4:04 pm - Reply

    I was dispatched kicking and screaming to Buffalo in 1964 with the promise that I would be rescued as soon as I solved some issues at a broadcast property my employer had purchased in the Queen City,”two years tops.” Within months I had fallen in love with WNY and moved under the wing of the legendary Alfred Kirchhofer (AHK) to manage his broadcast properties. Having sampled life in almost every region of our great nation nothing compares with WNY. I remember Margaret as an intern and as she rose at the News. No matter where her obvious talents take her, she will always be a Buffalonian and I will always be a fan.

  12. Dave October 22, 2016 at 8:42 pm - Reply

    Margaret, I was the Lackawanna fireman with your mom at the post office. She and your dad would be really proud of your outstanding career. Maybe I’ll se you at OLV one Sunday.

    • Margaret October 24, 2016 at 3:36 pm - Reply

      Thank you for this, Dave, and for being there. What a day that was.
      Margaret

  13. Bill Collins October 23, 2016 at 10:23 am - Reply

    Really nice piece, Margaret. Even though you moved, it’s clear you never left. Best wishes.

  14. bflodoris October 25, 2016 at 9:13 pm - Reply

    Margaret I attended the recent dinner in your honor at the Hyatt ONLY because I wanted to hear you speak. I did not know anyone there but your stories about your career and your warm, caring personality were a highlight. Nice reading this piece. So happy you ‘get’ our city both the former and what we are becoming. I sure never thought I would see the waterfront come back in my lifetime. Keep visiting Margaret. We all love you.

  15. Tom Miller October 25, 2016 at 11:39 pm - Reply

    We left “home” in 1967 in a job related move to Illinois, then a job transfer to our present home in Portland Oregon. I grew up in the near east side, back in the day of the beautiful Humboldt Parkway. PS53 and East HS. I am a life long Bills fan and was disconnected from my team for more than 20 years. But satellite dish technology of the early 90’s opened new seats to view the Bills. My Oregon license plate is “Go Bils” which served as the cornerstone for the creation of our Portland United Bills Supporters (PUBS) Bills Backers club. Now in our 26th year we are home to more than 200 expats. Our tiny dark bar called the Cheerful Bullpen feels like Buffalo. With more and more young people moving to Portland we have provided a meeting place that feels like home. You have to be from Buffalo to know what that feeling is. Few outsiders can. Buffalo NY is where I was born and raised. Still home to many life long friends. A place that provided all I needed to face the outside world. It will always be “home”.

    • Barb October 26, 2016 at 5:23 am - Reply

      Hi Tom, a recent move to Portland after years in SoCal has me yearning for note like me- Buffalonians at heart. When and where do you meet? Barb

      • Tom Miller October 26, 2016 at 5:37 pm - Reply

        We meet at the Cheerful bullpen 1730 SW Taylor close to Providence Park (Timbers & Thrones games). Check out http://www.pdxbb.com

        • Tom Miller October 26, 2016 at 5:39 pm - Reply

          The Cheerful Bullpen opens at 8:00am on game days. It’s the dreaded Pats this Sunday. I will be away this Sunday but say hello to Andy if you are able to go.

  16. PapaDan October 26, 2016 at 11:10 am - Reply

    Never had a problem in Buffalo. I didn’t have a hometown as I was a military brat. I came to Buffalo in 1978 over a lie about jobs and I stayed. I had kids here, raised them here and now after so many years will never leave without dying first. Sound funny doesn’t it but here’s the kicker about Buffalo. We have water. It’s fresh water, clearer than anything that came before it. We have no Hydro-fracking in New York and by the help of everyone living here, we can keep it out and save our water table. Never had a problem shoving snow, raking leaves, not enjoying over a 100 degree temps, or had a problem with weather changes. Hey, that’s our legacy. Besides, we from Buffalo can adapt to anything as it is proven by the many who live outside of Buffalo and still make it back, or hold on to their roots.

  17. Pauline Dyson October 27, 2016 at 8:05 pm - Reply

    Such a charming article by Margaret Sullivan….actually thought about her a few days ago as I was
    taking my Ct. born and raised son, now a resident of Madison, Wis. through Sullivan’sr old neighborhood to visit the Darwin Martin house, and to peer at the fantastic frescoes at The Good Shephard Church.
    While I am a “newbe” here in Buffalo, having made a move to accompany my husband to UB after a lifetime of 62 years spent in New England, I understand thoroughly the nostalgia about Buffalo suggested by the “ex-pats” such as Margaret Sullivan. The attachments to this city, with all its warts, is so humanely heartfelt even to a new resident such as myself. That community spirit is missing in most of the US, I can assure you, so let’s hear it for Buffalo, my adopted city which I loved from the first moment when a stranger offered to take me to the then Adelphia headquarters to set up my phone/TV/internet connection. Never had such a stranger-friendly connection in New England in the first 61 years of my life as I have had for the past 16 years in the City of Good Neighbors – Buffalo !

  18. Tony October 29, 2016 at 7:11 am - Reply

    Lovely article.I grew up in Orchard Park and moved into the city at age 23 and am now 52.I love my 100+ year old home and experience joy on a daily basis from the beauty of the city I chose to live in.

  19. Tim November 27, 2016 at 4:48 pm - Reply

    Margaret Sullivan you are not only a gift from Buffalo, you are a gift to New York and now Washington. You are seemingly leaving a trail of tears everywhere you choose to leave. You were an exemplary “voice of the reader” at The Times and served such a critical role as a bridge between the Paper and Reader/Consumer and now you are taking that to The Washington Post and Amazon (which will, no doubt be as critical and perhaps a more interesting challenge in Technology, Journalism and News/content distribution). As a subscriber to all three of your papers, I am very much looking forward to reading your thoughts on Media/Distribution/Consumption in your fairly new post at The Post. I am interested now, especially, on News Literacy issues and solutions to the “Fake News” epidemic that has become out of control.

    But it is very nice to read your thoughts on “Connection” and the inherent need for that… Your perspective resonates loudly with me and I want you to know how much I, personally, appreciate it.

    Tim Schreier, New York, NY

  20. GeoRob December 6, 2016 at 12:48 pm - Reply

    I have the same crisis – in reverse. Although I was not born in Buffalo, I have been a resident of central and western NY my whole life. My extended family are all from the Tonawandas and my Great-grandfather lived in the Polonia neighborhood (had to have been the only Scotsman 😉 ). I have lived other places for short periods of time and I often wonder if I should have left many years ago. I wondered what Buffalo and WNY would look and feel like from a distance. Many of my friends do live in other parts of the country (and world) and shuffle off to Buffalo when they can. They eat wings and curse the Bills when they can’t. Now some are coming back and I wonder if I have missed out. Western New York and Buffalo are special places. I wonder if they are the more valuable when held at a distance.

  21. Taylor December 7, 2016 at 10:59 am - Reply

    So happy to have stumbled upon such an inspiring article. I have been living in Washington, D.C. for an internship this semester (in Congressman Brian Higgins’ office), but will return to Buffalo to finish out college shortly. The Queen city offers a sense of community that I’m not sure I will find anywhere else.

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