BUFFALO, N.Y. – Barreling down Humboldt Parkway, the city first comes into view from above. On every other street corner, it seems, there's a church spire striving to puncture the clouds or stab the sky. It takes uncommon faith, apparently, to live in a place like this.
Aside from its signature chicken recipe, Buffalo gets very little positive press. In some respects, it's easy to understand why.
Brian Lowe and I have a mission. We've been strategizing all week our coordinated descent on the Anchor Bar, recognized as the birthplace of Buffalo wings. I've never been. I want to sample the original product, and I promised John Rooke, the Patriots' public address announcer and host of 'Patriots Playbook,' that I'd get him a bottle of their hottest sauce.
My road-trip roommate has visited Anchor twice before and suggests, "The earlier the better." Luckily, the Patriots' charter flight itinerary has us arriving in town between 5:30 and 6.
It's a beautiful, quiet night in Buffalo.
The cloud cover that has blanketed the northeast throughout the week has retreated upon our touchdown at the airport. Fred Kirsch, PFW's progenitor and publisher, quips while we're still on the bus how refreshing it must be for denizens of this depressed area of Western New York to see the sun.
I understand how they might feel. The forecast back home remains downcast for as far into the future as meteorologists can predict: clouds, intermittent showers, humid … Bleh!
The calendar may say autumn has arrived, but it doesn't feel that way in New England just yet.
But Buffalo makes us feel at home. The skies, now mostly clear, treat us to a variety of colors – blues, oranges, purples, pinks, golds – all blending in an artistic gradient as the sun slowly sets. So clear is the horizon that I can spot, for the first time in several trips here, Lake Erie from our hotel room window. It's just beyond the fortress-like building with twin pointed towers, each topped with what appear to be replicas of the Statue of Liberty, antiphonally illuminating, then dousing their torches.
Anchor Bar is about a mile away. It's a pleasantly cool evening, so we decide to walk. Fred tags along, as do a few other colleagues. We leave our hotel, turn right, then right again. A block down, we hang a left onto Main Street. A 15-minute walk lies ahead of us. I'm a firm believer that, to get to know a place, you must trod its streets. We've done that before here, but this is my first experience in this part of town, so I'm getting a new perspective on this much-maligned municipality.
It's called Main Street, but it doesn't seem like one. Saturday night, and we're virtually the only souls in sight. A young couple in Sabres sweaters, presumably headed to the NHL preseason game down the road, intersect our path. Another man, on the other side of the street, hollers to them in a thick foreign accent, seemingly altered by alcohol, to ask if the Sabres are in first, second, or third place.
"The season hasn't started yet!" the young guy yells back politely.
We get a laugh out of it and continue walking. Their voices vanish, and the only sound we're left with is the crinkling of dead, fallen leaves under our feet. Fall is off to an early start here, evidently.
Storefronts abound on either side of Main, though most seem closed, abandoned, or otherwise poorly under-attended. Transit system tracks slice through the middle of the thoroughfare like a zipper. But there's no train to be seen or heard, though a few hopeful passengers wait patiently for one. A few cars roll past, but they appear in no rush to get wherever they're going.
Eventually, we come upon St. Louis Roman Catholic Church, an immense, neo-Gothic structure that looks like it was plucked from ancient Europe and carefully replanted here to brighten up the place. Its neatly-manicured, property, ringed by a wrought-iron fence, stands out in the bleakness of its neighborhood. Soft light and music flood from the open front doors. A wedding ceremony must have recently concluded, as nattily dressed guests linger, chatting, on the sidewalk as we pass.
There is still a pulse, however faint, emanating reassuringly from this listless city's heart.
"I think I see it," BLowe finally reports. The large sign, painted white on the side of the building, is visible from a few blocks away as we approach Anchor Bar.
There's no line out the door, so that appears promising. Once we open the door, though, a din of conversation fills our ears. Every table is overflowing with patrons. Those not seated are elbow-to-elbow, crowding the narrow lanes between the central bar and the check-in desk on the far side.
We make ourselves as thin as possible to squeeze between beer-clutching customers. One in an authentic Steve Grogan jersey talks with another wearing a white, Patriots-themed t-shirt. A large man in a vintage Jim Kelly jersey occupies an entire bistro table by himself.
"It's gonna be a while," the owner tells us when we finally reach the desk. Two hours, he specifies. As the group decides what to do, I grab a bottle of Suicidal sauce for Rooke. Mission sort of accomplished.
They may be original, but they're not worth waiting two hours for, so we step back outside. A cab conveniently pulls up to the corner and we hop in. We tell the driver our story, he suggests a couple of other joints that he claims have the best wings in town, including one called Mother's. Or maybe it's Mothers. I'm not sure if the name is meant to commemorate someone's mom or if it pays subtle homage to the film character Shaft (he's a bad mother – shut your mouth!). I prefer to think it's the latter.
We consider an old favorite, the Pearl Street Grill and Brewery, but it's game night in Buffalo, which means that place will be overcrowded, too.
"Take us to the Century," Fred finally commands our cabbie.
It's across from our hotel, its wings are tasty, and it's never difficult to get a table. In fact, just one other party is there when we arrive. We order several plates and a round of Flying Bison varieties (the local brew). We spend the evening mostly telling stories and doing impersonations of people we know and work with. As we settle our tab a couple of hours later, the Century has filled up and is buzzing, in nearly every sense.
At breakfast, I see signs of hope for Buffalo. It's game day, and the city starts to stir. Several hotel guests mill about the breakfast buffet in their Bills jerseys. A few NFTA-Metro train cars speed past our ground-level restaurant window. The front page of the Buffalo News' Business section offers an above-the-fold feature on the surge of luxury homes in Western New York. Million-dollar-plus properties with waterfront views and/or access.
But we're reminded, as our police-escorted bus convoy crawls toward Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, some 20 minutes away, that most people here live in average, middle-class houses. Our route to the game takes us through such a suburban scene. The last seven times the Patriots have made this trip, they've come away with a victory.
Such results can be demoralizing, and certainly test the faith of locals, a faith so strongly represented in their city's skyline. Football is taken as seriously as religion here, and fans will soon be filling up this place of worship.
For the first time in a long while, Buffalo has reason to be optimistic. Will fate continue to smile on the Patriots, or will it finally turn its fickle finger back toward the Bills, the way Buffalo's fans point their middle ones at us en masse as we make our latest entrance?
One hundred minutes till kickoff, and it's a glorious day in Orchard Park. Balmy. Bright sunshine. Somewhat hazy blue skies. Tom Brady has just finished a rare pre-game warm-up jog. He's almost never out this early, but today, he chose to spend some private time with Chad Ochocinco. Linebacker Jerod Mayo comes out next, and he's normally hibernating in the locker room this long before kickoff.
There's something different about this game, this day, this whole region. It suddenly seems more alive, and everyone – Brady, Mayo, and the rest of the Patriots included – are waking up to that realization.