Monday, November 30, 2009

The more things change ...

... the more they change. In the Stephen King book It, a character says that and then strongly rips people who revert to the cliched version that they "stay the same." After my experiences going out on the town in WNY Saturday night post-Sabres game, King's character is dead on.

The night starts downtown at the Buffalo Sabres game against the Carolina Hurricanes. A somnambulant Sabres team wakes up in the third period to vanquish the team that kept us from winning the Cup in 2006. Until the third period the only thing worth noting is that Ryan Miller turned into Dominik Hasek.

After the game, my high school friend Kerri and I decide to do something we've never really done ... actually go out in the city of Buffalo. We grew up in the burbs and under the same parental protectiveness umbrella that pre-emptively squelched any curiosity of the city and instead rendered urban Buffalo an undesirable place to our suburban teen selves. WTF? So we meet near the Sabres gift shop and send Kerri's dad off with my parents and sister for the drive back to the burbs.

Kerri and her dad ate in the city before the game at the Pearl Street Grill and Brewery and she asked their server how to get to Chippewa Street (Buffalo's main drag in downtown) from the HSBC Arena; luckily it's only a few blocks, which is good because Kerri and I have gone California and find the low-30s temps more than cold enough. She's reached a state in which she happily layers with hat and gloves out in public knowing we're bar-crawling and I am thankful to have to hit the ATM and that someone really slow is in front of me, just for the warmup. (I am almost ready to turn in my 716 lineage at this point.) Along the way we direct one group of people toward the Buffalo Convention Center, home of the annual World's Largest Disco. (Yikes?)

We arrive on Chippewa and don't really know where to go. Pretty much any place that I remembered from the one time I broke night on Chippewa (grad school June 1998) is loooooong gone (probably multiple times over). There's an Irish pub, a Mexican place (which sadly really scares us because Mexican and Buffalo wasn't a good mix for us growing up), plenty of random bars and then a place called Pure. There's a line outside to get into what looks like an interior waiting area and then stairs that take you up to the club. We decide that any place that reminds of a Buffaloized version of Vegas is OUT. [From the Clubplanet site: "Pure - Here’s the problem with most bars: the vibe sometimes dies around 1am. Luckily for you, when most bars are sweeping up the floors and closing shop, Pure kicks it into another gear. The place usually keeps it going ‘til way late—guaranteeing a late and out-of-control night." IRONY ALERT: last call in Buffalo is 4 a.m. so nowhere is winding down at 1 a.m.]

We keep walking down the street (it's only a few blocks), and nothing really catches our eyes. An I'm-stumbling-now-but-I'm-a-sure-bet-to-be-puking guy is being supported out of Bada Bing's by two friends. This place also has really loud music thumping and looks pretty crowded. After a pre-Thanksgiving night of jockeying for drink ordering positions one of our few criteria for this night is ease of ordering our drinks. Welcome to our mid-30s!

By now we're at the end of the bar/club strip and notice Papaya across the street. With the dim lighting inside, lack of any dancing and chill-ly sitting (no standing) bar patrons, this place is giving off a classy vibe that seems more our speed. We enter Papaya and head to the bar. It's very dimly lit, with a dark wood bar (very polished) and the bottles of liquor arranged on glass shelves behind the bar. Modern and classy without being like Euro-trash modern. Best thing, despite the decor it's still got Buffalo bar prices of $3.75 bottles of Labatt's. MMMMMM Labatt's.

Kerri and I note that despite being named after a tropical fruit nothing about Papaya seems tropical or fruity. Hmmmmm. At this point, the cliche of things remaining the same is winning. We've seen public drunkenness, a place named after something inappropriate (betraying Buffalo's at-times rubeishness. I say because I love), and cheap beer!

I've come to learn that Papaya is an Asian restaurant. Whatever. It's got a good-enough beer selection, cheap prices and quick, friendly-enough service. And oh yeah, some damned good people watching. There were two silver foxey guys. One had a just age-appropriate younger woman with him and they weren't too shy about sharing lusty looks at one another. The other guy though is apparenlty working the room more. And of course since he's older looking than silver fox 1, he goes after younger women. After a few rounds, we decide to head out. I haven't eaten in about 10 hours at this point, so even Canadian light lagers are feeling good.

As we walk back up Chippewa, we've noticed that the street has been overrun with revellers from the World's Largest Disco. It's an explosion of polyester, afro wigs and bad shoes. And the line for Pure is getting longer and longer. I want to open a one-adjective place in Buffalo, put a velvet rope and two tight-t-shirted fat guys in front and make money.

Kerri and I resolve to get one round at one more Chippewa bar and then get some food at Pano's, a legendary local place known for it's all-night greasy goodness. Kerri has even seen and I've heard from my parents about the restaurants recent mega upgrade to a gorgeous new building. My veins cannot wait for a huge late-night omelette with onions, cheese and other things that are bad for me. I'm seriously thinking of abandoning my no-pork diet to eat some bacon.

But first we need that last round. We decide on The Third Room. As we get our IDs out, things start to C-hange.

"That's five dollars," door guy says.

I pause. I can't believe that a place with no band playing or DJ spinning or without a velvet rope is charging a cover. Seriously, WTF? Kerri gives the guy a $10 and we're in. We get up to the bar and the bartender tells us that if we came from the Sabres game and show our tickets we can get free Labatt's. DONE. So we take our free beers and perch on the wall (better people watching, which is about to get good since Disco-ers are flooding Chippewa).

A few minutes later a girl drunk-zags past us followed by a few friends. Judging by how much she's concentrating on maintaining even a general walking direction, she didn't do a little dance and won't be making a little love or certainly didn't get down that night. A few minutes after that we see her again walking again toward the back of the bar.

"That's smart," Kerri says.

"Yeah," I say agreeing with Kerri's smartcasm. She didn't look puke sick and bathroom bound, just like she needed another dose of drama. "The only thing her friends should be doing is taking her outside."

While our attention is focused on this, the bar has added another dozen or so patrons, all of whom seem to have been discoing. Facing the bar with his back to us is big leisure suit guy. He's got a white-ish (it was dark) leisure suit and he cannot stop dancing. Kerri and I immediately love this guy. He got the perfect amount of drink on: wear stupid clothes, dance like you wanna be the center of attention, be superfriendly to fellow bar patrons and oooooze cheeseycheer. We seriously spend an extra five minutes hardly touching our beers just watching him.

Kerri though has to use the bathroom and when she returns thinks she might have spotted Christopher Knight (aka Peter Brady), who has been a regular at the WLD for years. In fact, he's frequently interviewed during the Sabres home game prior to the WLD about his appearance there. I love that an appearance by a has been's has been generates such attention in my hometown. I immediately do a slowspeed walkby, but no dice. He's probably a few years too young and like many things in Buffalo, not as good-looking. :( Now it's time to leave, because I am beyond hungry.

Thanks to my phone's GPS, Kerri's memory and a parking garage attendant, we find our way from Pearl to Elmwood and are on our way to Pano's. It's time to change alert. We can't help but notice how not dangerous the city is and laugh at our formerly afraid-of-the-non-suburbs selves as we pass by coffee shops, book stores, galleries, boutiques, restaurants all independently owned. I guess not seeing a TGI McFunsterbee's and FoeverContempoGap would have scared our high school selves.

Pano's is in a gorgeous new two-story brick building on Elmwood. It looks great. Still with some charm, but definitely seems much cleaner than the old greasy spoon. This is a good change. Unfortunately, we were about to learn that some change sucks. Once we walk in we see a guy vacuuming even though there are at least half a dozen tables with customers. I guess when a restaurant is 24 hours they gotta fit this in when they can.

"We're closed," says a guy wearing the typical restaurant outfit of black and and black.

DEJECTED doesn't begin to describe how I feel. One of the most important things I try to do when I am anywhere, and in Buffalo in particular, is to support local business. I bring back all my watches when they need service or batteries to Watch World on Niagara Falls Boulevard because I want to support those guys in their struggle against the ever-growing Boulevard Mall. I buy xmas cards at Hero and this year picked up a poster promoting Buffalo there. But getting the bitchslap from Pano's hurts.

It's 1:20 a.m.ish in WNY and there aren't tons of late night options at this point. As we head east on Sheridan Drive hoping something similar will catch our fancy, nada. Clearly Pano's had long ago stomped out any competing 24-hour greasy spoons. And yet now they throw that market away? I am moving back and opening up a one-adjective place with a velvet rope and fat guys next to my new 24-hour grease joint.

Eventually, we end up at Denny's on Maple Road. This used to be a Perkins (see, things frakkin change) back when we were in high school. And after midnight it became practically like the high school lunchroom so many of us ended up there post movies and the mall. When we get there a bit before 2 a.m. it's pretty busy; all but one or two booths are occupied.

Upon opening our menus, I point Kerri toward the Rockstar favorites. Basically, current rock/pop/country stars "designed/developed/created" menu items. I saw these a couple weeks ago post-Swell Season concert with Dave.

"Jewel has a chicken quesadilla," I remark to Kerri. "I remember watching her on Alternative Nation every night practically in high school." I wonder what that Jewel would say to this Jewel. Probably, the same thing she would have said to Intuition Jewel. But since this was my second late-night Denny's run in a matter of weeks, I couldn't repeat the Moons Over My Hammy. This leads me to the biggest change I could imagine ... I order the HooBurrito. Allow the Denny's All-nighter page:

"If a slice of BBQ chicken pizza married the perfect burrito…this would be their favorite child.”

Back in 2008, Hoobastank combined two of their favorite foods for their ideal post-concert meal - BBQ chicken pizza and burritos! Starting with crispy chicken strips, they added in pepper jack cheese and onion crispers, all wrapped in a warm tortilla to create their own, custom (and now infamous) "Hooburrito." They went the full mile to throw in a side of tortilla chips, cheese sauce and ranch to complete the plate.

Shamefully, all I can say it that this is one of the best late night grease binges I've ever had. (Of course I washed it down with a few mozarella sticks.) How can fried chicken, fried onions and cheese be bad? It cannot. Denny's nor Hoobastank could ruin this. I found a reason to live and maybe forgive Pano's for shutting it's fucking doors at an ungodly early hour considering it was WLD night. Btw, polyester followed us from Buffalo to Denny's in Amherst.

While finishing our Denny's timewarp into an alternate high school reality indulgence, we overhear the conversation from the booth behind me.

"California is sooooo liberal," says a young man's voice. Kerri points out that he looks pretty young, like probably too young to have ever actually been to California. "They just like give college education away for free. If you want to go to a Cal State University you don't have to pay anything."

Kerri and I laugh at the distorted view non-Californians have of the Golden State and also at how smugly he peddles his opinions. First off, this college-aged rube's assertion is FALSE. Back when the University of California and Cal-State systems were chartered it was written that state residents would not pay tuition. And they don't. They pay "fees," which are exactly the same as tuition would be called in other states. And California just raised student fees at the UCs by 33 percent beginning next fall. I think they've doubled since I moved to Cali in 02.

Secondly, though, why would a free education at a good college be a bad thing? I realize once again that I'm a socialist. Kerri and I quickly debate whether it's worth correcting our know-it-all friend, but we decide against it. Starting something with someone at Denny's/Perkin's afterhours wasn't a good idea then and doesn't seem like one now. Perhaps some things don't change.

POSTSCRIPT: I learn a few days later that one of my former students, whom I'd texted that I was at Denny's eating the Hooburrito, confessesd to having eaten the Jewel Acoustic Quesadilla a few days before. Obviously, she is like my bffffffffff.

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