I love getting texts from Buffalo expats who still have fond memories of their hometown, especially during the holidays. The other day, Alex Ramsey sent me an email introducing himself as a devout Buffalonian who has been living in Texas since 1977.
My first thought was “Oh man, here’s a guy who fled the city in the wake of the Blizzard of ’77.”
But instead of going down that “cold and blizzardy” conversational road, I preferred to be led down a more festive trail filled with a treasure trove of indelible memories that Ramsey had retained after all of these years. Times when his circle of friends that he grew up with, mainly between Memorial Drive and Bailey Avenue (off Broadway), was intensely populated with kids his own age, (a true Baby Boomer neighborhood – as he described it). “The cohesiveness of the neighborhood itself made it a truly special time and place to grow up in.”
Have you visited Buffalo over the years?
Although I’ve lived in Texas since 1977, throughout the years for varied reasons, (mainly just to be there again), I’ve visited Buffalo in excess of 25 times.
That’s quite a lot. What has brought you back?
I’ve maintained contact with buddies – several of whom still reside there, from childhood, and others I’ve met during the visits.
You say that your memories of growing up in Buffalo are still strong?
My friends always stress how incredibly I’ve retained memories – many specific recollections of incidents, experiences, etc. If there’s a need or curiosity, I relate matters from then when tapped, either by category (sledding, sleepovers, bumming the streets, playgrounds, movie theaters). Lawn fetes of St. Joachim’s and St. John Cantius. As for theaters, in my case memories would relate to the Rivoli or Lincoln, both on Broadway. At the time, there were a lot of bars – more than 3 dozen between Sattlers and Bailey alone.
Where did you grow up?
I grew above a bar from 1965-1977… Club Romway at 1334 Broadway; we rented a flat – my parents didn’t own the business. Being a kid, and later a teenager, on Broadway, promised a treasure chest full of tales, experiences, and recollections that [I believe] will stir the memories of readers, particularly those familiar with the East Side.
So let’s begin…
As it pertains to “The neighborhood,” I’ll single out some memories that I cherish about Christmastime.
I was born in 1956. My first 7 seven years I resided @ 294 Johnson Street. I attending P.S. #39. In 1963 we moved to 384 Wilson Street, where I attended P.S. #90. In the summer of 1965, we moved to 1334 Broadway (above Club Romway), and from the owners – Pete and Steffi Niechecheiwski – we leased a quaint 3 bedroom flat upstairs in the back, overlooking Rommel Street. I attended P.S.#44 till graduation. It was those next 12 years that were my fondest memories of being a kid in Buffalo. The tales of that neighborhood, in reference to Christmas, I associate the memories of the holidays with the Mickey Rooney movie “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.”
Day to day life in Buffalo then was normal in all aspects – school, studying, playing, sports, family activities-hustle and bustle. But as in the movie – for several days, every single year, there was a true transformation, in mood and atmosphere in late December. Christmas lights on most of the houses on all the side streets, Rommel, Person, Schmarback, Miller, Krupp, Ashley, Grimes… snow, by then, during Christmas break from school, could be relied on – fallen, usually in abundance, which allowed for sledding on the hills, and pond hockey in “The fields” – NY Central RR property at the dead-ends of Schmarback, Rommel, and Person Streets.
Almost all the neighborhood bars on Broadway, including Club Romway, would be adorned with lights, ornaments, and glitter that would illuminate the fallen snow… everywhere!
A specific fond memory is that of people’s picture windows, with the curtains drawn back at night, and seeing the tinsel and lit-up silver Xmas trees (fashionable for many in the 60’s), and traditional green trees, totally lit up, being proudly displayed for all to see from the street.
And the streetlight decorations! Giant candy canes, wreaths, reindeer, Santas… strung up high on virtually all the street lights that could be seen for blocks.
The term “Broadway” back then in Buffalo, had its own meaning – much different than NYC. In Buffalo, especially at Xmas… it meant, Sattlers, Kobackers, Neisners, and the Broadway Market… all lit up! The pedestrian traffic crowded the sidewalks outside, the aisles inside, the stands at the market… but it was different than the usual business of Friday evenings or Saturday afternoons, when I’d go shopping with my Ma.
At Christmas, like the movie I referred to earlier, when Mickey Rooney addresses a large crowd in the park… back then, people were friendly all the time, saying Merry Christmas even in passing, or after transactions. For that short time, it seemed as if all the people around you were just smiling and polite all the time, during those few short days.
Christmas carols and chimes coming from speakers, somewhere, but it was all around. The Salvation Army volunteers, either ringing their bells, or playing carols on their trumpet, guitar, and sometimes just singing. Passersby would often stop and sing along – even those that had scarves covering their faces in blustery weather (a different tone from the masks we wear in 2020) – one could see a smile through the scarf.
Sattlers and Neisners, always put on a show, inside and out. As I walked through the aisles of those stores, using the monies I’d saved from shoveling snow, and delivering the Courier Express newspaper of that time, to buy my Ma, her bottle of Chanel #5, maybe stockings, and a carton of Pall Malls for my Dad, an Old Spice Men’s set of cologne, after shave, etc., Gillette blue blades for his razor, and the annual tie.
The roasted chestnut vendor in front of the Broadway Market… the aroma of roasted chestnuts in his little cauldron permeated the air, and for 20 cents? A little brown bag full of warm chestnuts, split open, allowing to peel back the softened shell; an incomparable flavor, and good for warming the hands! That same guy would sell his chestnuts in front of War Memorial Stadium (The Old Rockpile), during Bills games, and in front of War Memorial Auditorium, (The Aud) during Bison Hockey games; later Sabres and Braves games.
I recall feeling elated – just different, because it was Christmas. I felt happy and proud that I was doing it for my parents, but just the atmosphere on “Broadway” provided a true spirit of Christmas that has remained with me to this day.
On my way home with shopping bags in hand, I’d stop at Carol’s Hamburgers and treat myself to a Club Burger – Carol’s equivalent to McDonald’s’ Big Mac, fries, and a glass of pop – usually Pepsi.
After Neisners on occasion, I’d go to McDonald’s on Fillmore for the original Big Mac, or Louie’ Texas Red Hots – both were across the street from one another.
I’d then trudge home the 10 or 12 blocks back to Romway, and even considered (once in a while) taking the NFT, but don’t recall ever doing so. Thinking I can hear the snow crunch under my feet while walking home… and the 15 cents saved, represented a bottle of RC or Pepsi and 2 Bazooka Joe’s, or a DC comic book and a Fudgesicle at Giza’s Delicatessen.
In later years, when I worked at Bells IGA on Broadway, I recalled how beautifully the store was decorated inside – the array of carols piped in throughout the store, and my bosses Al Fabiniak (the owner) and his son Fred (the manager) – good bosses, fair, never generous, ever! Often grouchy-grumpy, but they too, without exception, even for a few days, bore sincere smiles… Christmas was truly in the air.
The presents on Christmas Day, the memorable meals my Ma always made… often enhanced by her holiday Russian foods she prepared, watching the Christmas specials – The Grinch, Charlie Brown, and Frosty, will always be with me, but not nearly as much as just BEING “on Broadway” at Christmas time.
These days, Ramsey tells these tales of Buffalo and Broadway to his grandsons. He still comes to visit his friends, in particular his buddy Theo who still lives on Person Street – the only house that’s still standing at the far end of the street. He rounds up the guys during his visits. “The last visit there were 10 of us – we met for Friday night fish fry at Wiechec’s on Clinton Street – friends for over 50 years!”
The photos used for this interview were miraculously salvaged from a flip-phone all the way across the country. This is the case of old memories (and technology) being preserved for all of us to appreciate.
When asked if Ramsey would like to partake in a Zoom conversation, to discuss his memories and photos, his reply was “I’d be glad to – I still have an abundance of cassette tapes and a VHS collection, and a flip phone – my definition of ‘zoom’ is substantially different than the technical Zoom I’m sure you’re referring to.”
I am of the belief that a flip phone and 50-year old jotted-down memories of Broadway trump anything that a Zoom conversation could bring to life.
Lead image: Ramsey and his daughter, Broadway, Christmas 1985