The Black, Ulcerated Bowel of America
Buffalo, New York, an “All-America” city, was once the beating heart of American industry. A century ago, it sustained the Northeast’s entire economy, it gave birth to Ford Automobiles, it nurtured Mark Twain. Buffalo had cultural significance in its contributions to commerce, architecture, politics and art.
I, however, grew up in Hamburg, a town fifteen miles south of Buffalo. Hamburg, which was settled by dour Germans in the 19th century after they drove out the Erie Indians, has heretofore nurtured only the delusion that it invented the hamburger, a delusion still causing misplaced pride in the Hamburg citizenry today. While there is much contention over where the American hamburger as we know it actually originated (Connecticut? Texas? Wisconsin?), no source, trustworthy or otherwise, cites Hamburg, New York, as a possible birthplace. Nonetheless, the annual Burger Fest is a long and venerated tradition in my hometown, an opportunity to worship burgers like false idols and pat ourselves on the back for having delivered to the world such a culinary institution.
As I grew older and more restless, too brown to be content bumping up against the culturally homogenous borders of Western New York, I saw Buffalo fall into ruin, its once-great buildings one by one razed “for progress.” But progress never came, only dilapidation and suddenly empty lots.
The sentiment of perpetual underdoggery is inherent in the Buffalonian; we are a tribe accustomed to losing Stanley Cups and Super Bowls, to getting buried under seven feet of snow overnight and still having to go to work in the morning, to watching our city sink ever further into dereliction, neglect and economic despair. So we clutch at our regional dialect. We foam at the mouth when questioned about the propriety of “pop” over “soda,” “wings” over the ever-reviled “buffalo wings,” just to salvage a little dignity in the face of our crippled way of life.
I left for an even worse city when I went to college in Binghamton, chose an exponentially better one for study abroad in Edinburgh, and when I graduated I left Buffalo for years by joining Peace Corps in the Philippines. It seemed like the limitations of my entire life narrowed into sharp focus on my first day as a TEFL education volunteer at Hilongos National Vocational School when I led my first year high school students in a pronunciation drill: “The lady passenger’s anger toward the proud stranger decreased her hunger for a hamburger.”
Holy Father Baker, it was a nasal nightmare. A wing sauce and Chiavetta’s horrorshow. A smokestack belching forth all my worst linguistic foibles. Every godforsaken vowel was emphasized and elongated, every syllable a mortifying reminder that I come from possibly the most mockable and unfortunate city in the fifty United States. In the States I can feel oppressed by soft vowels not pronounced through the sinus cavity, but in the Philippines, every time I introduced myself I heard only the grating “A” in my first name like the quacking of the Aflac duck.
When two hundred and forty unsuspecting students said “hamburger” as if they were at the Burger Fest gorging themselves, I felt a strange mixture of pride and shame. I felt bruised and apologetic in the face of that parroted vowel, like I should beg forgiveness for the displeasing sounds coming out of my face and mirrored in theirs. I’ve long defended the hard hit vowels of my pirate accent from the scorn of downstaters, Long Islanders, and other such aurally offensive vermin, but when given the rather staggering task of teaching students to speak like me, I found myself introspective on the subject of accents and “proper” pronunciation.
That old inferiority complex was manifesting itself suddenly in actual feelings of inferiority rather than the usual Napoleonic posturing of the threatened 716er. I began to doubt the “correctness” of my speech patterns. Despite our tendency toward defensive bravado, the way we speak in Western New York is no more valid than any other regional accent in the US, Canada, the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, the Caribbean, India. I questioned my very purpose as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and the doubt refused to budge. In fact, it only grew: why should I take the soft Filipino vowels and batter them into bitter, acrid shadows of themselves just because I could say with fair confidence that I was a native speaker of English and my students were not?
“We want your accent,” my Filipino colleagues would say. “We want the students to speak just like you.” So that was their wish: not just that I help my students however I could in the task of achieving fluency, but that by osmosis I pass along these vowels, this vernacular, this dogged sense of industrial and spiritual decay.
Now I imagine those clear-faced children down in a bar with some Irish name on the south side of Buffalo, tipping back Labatts with the old boys, who haven’t been to work since the steel plant closed a few decades back. They complain about the ball and chain and the Bills, but the Bills still manage to keep their loyalty. They eat whatever’s come out of the deep fryer in the back, they barely avoid a DWI on the way home, and when they wake up in the morning there’s frost on the ground and they don’t notice the very deep blue of Lake Erie and the sunbeams shining along that unending horizon.
As creatures, people are restricted things, defined by the places we’ve been, the sins we’ve committed, the others we’ve known, loved, crossed. I can get as far from home as it is possible to get, but Buffalo’s hard steel cityscape still looms gray as the backdrop of my life. It’s best, of course, in the summer and fall, when colors haven’t yet withered under the influence of lake-effect weather, but it’s never summer for very long, and I don’t last there much longer myself. It’s home because somehow we landed there a hundred years ago and made it familiar, it’s home because I was born there, and so was my father and his father, it’s home because when I speak, Buffalo still asserts itself like a patient but persistent suitor. The legacy of Western New York is something I will never be able to eradicate from my speech.
Maybe it’s a dying city and the rest of Western New York will soon blow away with it, but there are too many of us whose tongues remember the sharp seams of words, living there on the border. There we’ll be at the end of it all, squabbling through our noses as our arteries clog ever further, long after every art-deco building has crumbled to dust. In the end it’s not the worst fate to be from Buffalo, and it’s not the worst fate to be taught to speak by one of Buffalo’s far-flung daughters. The worst fate is to be trapped and narrow, unable to achieve the balance between home and roaming, teaching and learning, conviction and flexibility.