Growing up in the snowblower society of Buffalo, New York, Laura Pedersen's first words were most likely "turn the wheel into a skid." Like many families subsisting in the frigid North during the energy crisis, the Pedersens feared rising prices at the gas pump, argued about the thermostat, fought over the dog to stay warm at night, and often slept in their clothes. While her parents were preoccupied with surviving separation and stagflation, daughter Laura became the neighborhood wild child, skipping school, playing poker, betting on the horses, and trading stocks. Learning how to beat the odds, by high school graduation Pedersen was well prepared to seek her fortune on Wall Street, becoming the youngest person to have a seat on the American Stock Exchange and a millionaire by age 21. Combining laugh-out-loud humor with a slice of social history-her hometown was a flash point for race riots, antiwar protests, and abortion rallies, not to mention bingo, bowling, and Friday night fish fries-Pedersen paints a vivid portrait of an era.
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About the Author
Laura Pedersen has written for the New York Times and is the author of Play Money, Going Away Party, Beginner's Luck (chosen as a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection), Buffalo Gal, and Buffalo Unbound. In 1994, President Clinton honored her as one of Ten Outstanding Young Americans. She has appeared on Oprah, Good Morning America, Primetime Live, and The Late Show with David Letterman, and she writes for several well-known comedians. Pedersen lives in New York City.
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By Laura Pedersen
Fulcrum PublishingCopyright © 2008 Laura Pedersen
All rights reserved.
God's Frozen People
Buffalo, New York, probably turns out more priests and nuns than any other city, except perhaps Rome. Not just because there's a large Catholic population to begin with, but because big blizzards can make you a believer. They can also make you a serious doubter — of weathermen.
I can't recall the weatherpersons predicting many of the really spectacular storms that swept in off Lake Erie, the kind that fill a person with an odd combination of terror and exhilaration that's better described as a spiritual awakening, or perhaps psychosis. Growing up in the Frost Belt, you learn to regard meteorologists as frustrated novel-ists — folks who wanted to study creative writing, but whose parents wouldn't pay for something so frivolous, and so they had to study meteorology. Weather forecasters were consulted for fashion more than anything else: Will the toupee blow off without a hat today? Are platform shoes really a sensible choice in an ice storm?
Our climatic soothsayers usually played it safe by predicting a "wintry mix," which covered everything from rain to hail to sleet to a full-fledged blizzard. Over the years I noticed there wasn't any springy mix, or autumny mix, or even a summery mix of sunshine, birdsong, and gentle zephyrs.
However, it was difficult to determine whether or not it was snowing simply by looking out the window. That's because nine months of the year our windows were shrouded in plastic to keep the wind from blowing the plates off the table and snowdrifts from accumulating behind the couch. Seen through these heavy-gauge tarps, the neighborhood appeared to be a gigantic blur that may as well have been McMurdo Station in Antarctica. You were on the other side of the looking glass and summer was just a rumor from there.
Buffalo usually receives the second largest annual snowfall of any city in the state, with flakes beginning in October and finally tapering off sometime around April, like a bad chest cold. The city itself gets around 85 inches, the suburbs 120 inches, and the towns slightly to the south about 160 inches per year. And that's the last you'll hear about inches, because a true Buffalonian measures snow in feet. Syracuse, 150 miles to the east, is considered slightly snowier, depending on the winter and whom you choose to believe. However, Buffalo retains the distinction of being on the receiving end of the truly dramatic storms that make national news. Said snow is accompanied by a face-numbing wind howling off Lake Erie, shivering thermometers with mercury registering three clapboards below the bulb, and icicles that, if they were to break off the eaves and hurtle to earth, could easily harpoon a child or split a grown man's head in two.
Lake-effect snow occurs when cold air passes over the relatively warm water of a large lake, picks up moisture and heat, and upon reaching the downwind shore is forced to drop the moisture in the form of snowflakes that can chip your teeth. The accompanying winds will not just turn your umbrella inside out, but carry it directly to Neptune, right along with anyone dumb enough to hang on.
And this is how Buffalo can have worse weather than neighboring Toronto, Canada. On the bright side, in summertime the lake acts as a massive air conditioner.
Early on I became used to hearing my mother describe me as a "blond-haired, blue-eared child." My first full sentence was most likely, "Turn the wheel into a skid." Ask anyone raised in Buffalo during the 1970s' energy crisis to complete the following sentences: If you're cold ... (put on a sweater). Close the front door ... (are we heating the entire neighborhood?). Shut the refrigerator door ... (is there a movie playing in there?). Ninety percent of your body heat is lost if ... (you don't wear a hat). Don't complain about the rain because ... (it could be snow). There's no such thing as bad weather ... (just the wrong clothing).
What Dylan Thomas called "useful presents" in his classic short story "A Child's Christmas in Wales" seemed to be the overriding theme when it came to gift giving. Christmas and Hanukkah weren't complete without the ritual exchanges of jumper cables, flashlights, sweaters, flannel bathrobes, hats, scarves, gloves, electric socks, and quilted slippers. Nothing says "Happy Holidays" quite like a woolen face mask!
Nowadays people dress lightly in winter on the theory that they only have to make it to the car and then into an office building or the mall. But those clunky automobile heaters of the seventies were slow to get rolling, and the inside of the vehicle was just beginning to thaw out by the time you arrived at your destination. Whereas people down South worry about their milk spoiling if left in the car, we were trying to prevent our fresh vegetables from becoming flash frozen.
A white car, like a long white coat, was NOT a good idea. If you were parallel parked in the street, the plow would heave the vehicle over the curb right along with the snow. A black car wasn't such a great idea either because of treacherous driving conditions on a dark night. The "be alert, don't get hurt" families opted for fire-engine red. Even then, it was best to put some identifying mark such as a Wonder Woman bobblehead on the dashboard so you didn't accidentally spend a lot of time scraping off someone else's red car. After a big snowstorm and a few plow runs, the street doesn't look anything like it did when you parked. You may as well be in The Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling's hometown of Binghamton, New York.
By the end of October, the Norse gods pulled the trigger on the starter pistol and winter was officially on. Some years it had already snowed and the temperature dipped below freezing by then. As a kid, you knew that your Halloween costume had better somehow incorporate a down parka, wool hat, mittens, and possibly boots. A ghost was a good idea; simply throw a sheet over your coat. A hobo worked well too: a little burnt cork on the face and a stick with a satchel made from a red bandanna over the shoulder. And you could never go wrong as the Abominable Snowman.
Growing up in a cold climate you don't realize how it is such a big part of your life until you leave. Upon moving to New York City shortly after my eighteenth birthday, I threw off my hat the way Mary Tyler Moore did in the opening of her show. Then I tossed out the heavy scarf, gloves, and boots like an ailing pilgrim reaching the promised land. Though only 450 miles away, Manhattan is usually ten to thirty degrees warmer than Buffalo and has about one-fiftieth the snowfall.
While working on the floor of the stock exchange in Manhattan that first winter, I was shocked when all the traders, clerks, and brokers dashed off the trading floor one day in early January. With so much money at stake, people often won't even leave during bomb scares or to use the bathroom, never mind to see a doctor or have lunch. There was so much paper scattered around that I thought a fire had broken out. Then a multimillionaire partner in a trading firm came skipping past and giddily announced, "It's snowing!" New York City may be only seven hours away from Buffalo by car, but it truly feels like one has crossed into a more temperate zone.
Another strange thing that New Yorkers do is open their windows in the middle of winter as a way of adjusting the temperature indoors. When Buffalonians raised during the energy crisis see an open window in winter, we practically faint, while hearing the distant voice of an irate father shouting, "Who is going to pay for that?!" It's the Western New Yorker's version of recovered-memory therapy.
Manhattan gets a good snowstorm every few years, the kind that Buffalo kindergartners would think nothing of walking to school in. And it's hit by the occasional nor'easter, a gale-force rainstorm that leaves in its wake a mass graveyard of take-out menus and commuter-sized umbrellas. When a storm is predicted, even one with only a few inches of snow that will last a day at most, New Yorkers stampede their neighborhood delis and grocery stores, purchasing enough batteries and food to be trapped inside their apartments for a month. And not just your storm staples like milk, bread, and eggs, but pimentos, papayas, and taco shells, as if terrified by the thought of not being able to have an omelet with Gruyère cheese, capers, pearl onions, and shiitake mushrooms for eight hours.
The only weather system truly indigenous to Manhattan is the trash twister. This microtornado of pedestrian refuse — discarded wrappers, unwanted subpoenas, parking tickets, takeout menus, newspapers, and plastic bags — hovers between skyscrapers for an hour or so prior to settling back down on the pavement or blowing out to sea.
While New York City kids are taught how to ride the subways, in Buffalo I learned the correct way to pull on double mittens and wrap a scarf around my head, face, and neck mummy-style, so only my eyes showed through. My first driving lesson was how to rock the car back and forth in order to get unstuck in the snow. Next, I learned how to pump the brakes when skidding on ice (this was before antilock brakes). After a certain amount of practice we developed the fine art of banging frozen windshield wipers against the glass hard enough to chip off the ice, but not so hard that they snap in two.
Outdoor parades between October and April could be a problem, with only the hale and hearty participating in the high school marching band. Picture the mouthpiece of a metal instrument as the equivalent of a flagpole or pump handle, or anything else you really don't want to lick in the cold. The paramedics were called upon to deal with tongues frozen to flutes almost as often as they were for hypothermia.
It's only logical that a snowblower society like Buffalo is going to produce more gender confusion than the Bikini Belt, and perhaps for this reason it's a hub of lesbian folk-rock music and the potential staging ground for a bisexual revolution. Snowshoeing around town semiclad was a handwritten invitation to frostbite. Buffalo is no place to show a little leg, or even a little nose, for that matter. When it came to outerwear, we didn't care if it was from the men's or the women's department, as long as it was warm and waterproof. And menswear often claimed superiority in this area, antediluvian manufacturers assuming that only the menfolk were outside starting cars, while women in spike heels and pillbox hats warmed hot cocoa in the kitchen. Result: The Sasquatch Sisters. Darn, that would have been a good name for a band.
We wore fluffy down parkas that made a size-four woman resemble the Pillsbury doughboy. Snorkel jackets lined with neon orange and a gray ring of fur around the face suggested deranged bounty hunters and offered no peripheral vision. Add moon boots, ski gloves with the circumference of oven mitts, caps with earflaps that made you look like Piglet, electric socks, wool sweaters, bank-robber-style face masks with cutout eye and mouth holes, a Buffalo Sabres scarf to top it all off, and you had a winter carnival at the psych center. Astronauts appeared to be dressing pretty lightly from where we were standing.
Mitten strings and mitten clips were forced upon children. (The mittens hang from opposite ends of a piece of yarn that goes through the coat sleeves, making mittens theoretically impossible to lose. Or clips attach to the wrist of each sleeve for the same purpose.) Then there's my dad, who is legally without memory the way some people are legally blind and became so tired of losing his gloves that he wore mitten clips until he was fifty-seven. He only retired them because he moved to New Mexico, where he now regularly misplaces his cap.
The good news is that in subzero temperatures, fashion mutations are understandably forgiven. Winter maxim: The warmer you feel, the dumber you look. It's a place where down jackets, quilted flannel shirts, and turtlenecks will never go out of style. An entire city clomping around like mushers in search of the Iditarod, we sported the layered look long before stores like Gap and Banana Republic mass-marketed it as a fashion statement. When onetime Buffalo resident Mark Twain said that naked people have little influence on society, he didn't have to worry about us. In fact, with almost nine months of chilly weather, Buffalonians needn't worry about storing bulky winter clothes and coats. We didn't even bother to move them to the back of the closet.
It's safe to say there aren't a lot of naturalists raised in Buffalo. However, we do know our types of snow, road salt, and tires. If it's true that Eskimos have fifty words for snow, then Buffalonians have fifty-one. We've added Sisters snow, a storm that leaves a sheet of ice on which your grandma slips and breaks a hip, and winds up in Sisters Hospital.
If any out-of-work war correspondent wants to do a book on Buffalo blizzards called What They Carried, let me get you started. First are the fifty-pound sacks of kitty litter that serve double duty. They sit in the trunk and provide ballast while navigating slippery turns, but if you get stuck on ice, simply break open a bag and scatter it under the wheels for traction. Somewhere in every car there's a blanket tucked away so you don't freeze to death if caught in a storm. There's also a first-aid kit. This is slightly mysterious because getting stranded in a blizzard doesn't usually pose a health threat aside from the aforementioned freezing to death. But women knew that the plastic container housing Band-Aids and surgical tape also made a good place to pee if you were stuck in the car for hours on end. Finally, the roll of paper towels and bottle of Windex. Cars are made better now, but back then road salt corroded the windshield washer–fluid dispenser, and the slushy salt spraying up from the street turned the glass a milky gray every two or three blocks, making it impossible to see. So at every stoplight, people hopped out to swab the windshield.
After a single winter, a car showed more rust than paint, especially if you didn't have a garage. When the salt corroded the bottom of an automobile so much that it was possible to see the pavement, cardboard was pasted over the holes and it was referred to as a Fred Flintstone car. Our shoes and boots had wavy white salt stains along the sides and over the tops, making them look as if the ocean had washed up to our laces before receding.
When we were stuck in our cars on the highway, we'd leave the heat on for a while and then, to conserve gas, turn the engine off until our faces began to go numb. If the blizzard was still raging when the motor finally conked out, we tried to get into the cars in front of or behind us. Eventually everyone would be packed into the few automobiles that could still run their heaters, like circus clowns crammed into a Volkswagen.
Every Buffalonian has a story about being stranded with strangers and the human chain stretching from a barn in search of firewood, or else being saved by the warmth of an animal, or the milk of a cow, or a clothesline leading back to the house. Women in Buffalo take Lock De-Icer wherever they go, the way folks in New York City carry around emergency Valium and Mace. Men can always unfreeze a lock by peeing into it.
For some reason known only to thermodynamic engineers, in the seventies the way-back window of a station wagon was always the last to freeze shut. Therefore, in the grocery-store parking lot you could usually spot some poor housewife rolling down the back window, squeezing through, and then climbing over the seats to open a front door using the inside handle.
The first naked people I saw were Canadians. And we weren't on a date together. The Canadian loonie was flying high, and so the Frostbacks would slip over the border to take advantage of cheaper prices and avoid higher taxes back home. After shopping, they'd change in the mall parking lot, ripping off old clothes along with the price tags on their new ones. I'm convinced that the majority of Buffalo's homeless population was outfitted in these Canadian castoffs, all conveniently located in and around mall parking lots. The other way to pick out Canadians, when they weren't undressing in the mall parking lot, was to catch them in the act of pouring vinegar on their fish and french fries.
When a storm blew in, all sorts of public service announcements came over the radio — what roads and bridges were dangerous or closed; what schools, churches, and community centers were canceling classes and events. Kids would call radio stations and impersonate their principals and superintendents in an attempt to close their own schools. Unfortunately, a special code was needed. In an effort to get the superintendent to make the call, high school students with cars would drive over to his house early in the morning, purposely slam on the brakes, and do doughnuts out front in order to make the roads appear treacherous. They were hoping he'd glance out the window and make up his mind at that very moment.
Excerpted from Buffalo Gal by Laura Pedersen. Copyright © 2008 Laura Pedersen. Excerpted by permission of Fulcrum Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsPraise for Laura Pedersen,
1. God's Frozen People,
2. The First Event Leading Up to My Death,
3. American Buffalo ... The King of Cool and Demon Rum,
4. He'd Always Have Paris ... Trading Up ... Danish for Beginners,
5. Getting Up Your Irish ... Family Diversity ... Three's a Mob,
6. When Johnny Comes Typing Home ... Wedding-Bell Blues,
7. Onward Catholic Soldiers ... Everything's Good in the Hood ... The Sinusitis Capital,
8. Buffalo Runs Riot,
9. A Full House,
10. Egg Salad Days ... Beads of Paradise,
11. The Tundra Years,
12. Mary Tyler Moore for President ... Hit Parade ... The Americans with No Abilities Act,
13. Born in the UUA ... Keeping Kosher,
14. Water Hazard ... Is That Your Child?,
15. Will Joke for Food ... It's a Mad, Mad House ... How I Learned to Cook,
16. The Birth of an Entrepreneur ... From Socks to Stocks ... The Wizard of Odds,
17. Everyone Was Groovy ... Stardate 1965,
18. Sleet Happens: The Blizzard of '77,
19. Taking a Turn for the Nurse,
20. Bus Stop,
21. Enter, Stage Left ... O.B. (Order Big) ... A Decent Docent Doesn't Doze,
22. Down on the Farm ... Doing Time ... Beat It,
23. Real World 101,
24. Earl and Me ... The Sewing Circle Turns Square,
25. Will Work for AC ... Mom Turns Pro ... The Mosquito Coast,
26. Home at Sweet Home ... Class Clown ... Dressing Down,
27. Can't We All Get a Lawn? ... Pedersen v. Pedersen ... Telling It to the Judge ... The Play within the Play,
28. Disappearing Act ... The Walkway Less Traveled,
29. Are Red and Green Making You Blue?,
30. In All Probability,
31. Home Alone,
32. It Could Be Worse,
33. The (Sweet) Home Stretch ... Faking It,
When the Chips Are Down, the Buffalo's Empty,
The People's Republic of Buffalo,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
What a great read! I too survived the Blizzard of '77 and grew up in an adjacent neighborhood to the author's. Her account is right on and not exaggerated - believe it or not. Similar to "The Glass Castle" in that a funny heartwarming story can be born from a teen's survival journey, Pedersen mixes humor and some Bethlehem-steel edge to create a brilliant book. It brought me back to a simpler time when one measured happiness by the number of consecutive hours skating on the backyard pond. For those who are weary of recession-induced environments, this will provide a breath of fresh air!
Buffalo Gal is a fun read. It¿s full of fascinating anecdotes about Ms. Pedersen¿s unusual upbringing, but it¿s also chock full of moments in time which were long buried in my memory. As such, reading the book was part waltz down Memory Lane and part appreciation for the relatively traditional upbringing that I had at the same time. This book is also a testament to Ms. Pedersen¿s ability to largely raise herself to be the socially conscious community participant that she currently is. However, truth be told, the best part of this book is the number of wonderful one-liners which pop up just when you least expect them. This book is small part ¿The Glass Castle,¿ and part late night monologue. It¿s interesting, challenging and delightful without being fluffy
Raised near Glasgow, Scotland, and a New Yorker for these past 25 years, I admit to never having been to Buffalo. But this is a great personal history of an industrial city (which has a lot in common with Glasgow from a work and weather standpoint) that was highly entertaining and also surprisingly informative. I loved hearing all the local expressions, meeting the resident eccentrics, and understanding how trade and innovation can lead to not only the rise but the fall of a region. Pedersen does a wonderful job at showing how weatherproof locals will not only not be undone, but consistently rise to the challenge of their sleet strewn situation and take pride in what they do have, which includes a lot of neighborliness, ingenuity, and good humor. And of course the Buffalo Bills football team which made it to the Super Bowl four times in a row but lost each time. You can't beat a crowd during the great Blizzard of '77 that's running out of food but takes time to sing 'Send in the Plows' to the head of transportation. Pedersen's laugh-out-loud true life stories have made me want to go have some Buffalo chicken wings, only not the extra hot ones where she advises that you'd better put the toilet paper in the fridge.
People always talk about Great Southern Writers but how about a category for Great Northern Writers? This is truly the funniest book I've ever read. Twenty years ago I left Georgia to attend college in Buffalo and was introduced to Pedersen's Snow Blower Society in one surreal but memorable trial-by-sleet weekend. Pedersen gets everything right from waking up with snowdrifts inside the window to accidentally digging out someone else's red car after a big blizzard. Better yet, she takes an area that seems to draw a lot of bad cards and press 'economy, weather, depopulation' and showcases not just the resilience and ingenuity of the native Buffalonian, but the humor filled good-naturedness and helpfulness that make a large city and its suburbs into a very small friendly town 'or just 'one big living room' as people like to say here', and makes people like me decide to stay and become a Buffalo Guy. With grace, longing, and a finely tuned comedic touch, Pedersen incorporates historical tidbits such as how Buffalo got its name and how locals dealt with prohibition 'sacramental wine consumption went WAY up - apparently it was a time of mass conversion', to the popularity of warm socks and flashlights as gift items, and a description of the decline of a once glorious city that had seemed marked for greatness. She also includes hilarious stories about attending school in the era of draft riots, hippies, and stagflation. You don't have to know anything about Buffalo to enjoy this book, but I'll be surprised if you don't want to visit when finished. Though maybe in summertime. But if after visiting you decide to stay we won't be surprised.
A terrific snapshot of the Rust Belt in the 60s, 70s and 80s told in a clever, imaginative voice. Pedersen uses her phenomenol sense of humor to remind us of a lot of silliness that went on even if it was meant seriously at the time. She also gives a wonderful overview of many of the social movements that caught fire including women's rights, civil rights, the environment, and we can see where they've gone, for better or worse. A wonderful read for any age whether you lived through it all or not.
All we ever hear about is the 1960s so it's about time someone gave us a fun read about the 70s that includes just the right blend of humor, history, politics, culture, economy and personal reflection. I've read hundered of biographies and memoirs and this is my favorite.
I found this book to be an amazing read and I enjoyed this book from start to finish. This memoir is about the Pedersen family living in Buffalo, New York during the 1970s. There is a quote in the book about a man who is warm will not understand a man who is cold. To me that quote explains the book in its entirety. Buffalo is known for its snowfall and extremely cold weather during the late fall and winter seasons. This type of weather brings out the different personalities of almost everyone who lives in that city. The weather was not only cold but it was also windy enough to turn an umbrella inside out. However, the summertime brought an air conditioner feel to it cooling down the city. The weather in Buffalo is not for the faint of heart and requires an individual to be able to stick through the difficult colder months. Despite the cold the residents of Buffalo deal with it like troopers and continue with their own personal lives. The author discusses the fashion ware of many people who wear less warm clothes when they know they will be going to the car or inside the location within a short amount of time. The author talked about New York her experiences from living there and the comparisons between Buffalo and New York City. I thought this memoir was unique and one-of-a-kind special story to read. I look forward to reading more of Pedersen's books.
One of my best reads in years! A superbly written memoir. "Buffalo Gal" is a wonderful read about taking any and all life shovels at you and finding fun, friendship and adventure! An added bonus, for those raised in snow-belt towns, as I was... it brings warm memories of frigid winters, butane hand-warmers, and thinking the closest you will ever get to spring and summer again is watching the intro to the Jackie Gleason show... "..and now, live from Miami Beach!"
I loved reading "Buffalo Gal!" Laura paints such vivid pictures of growing up in Buffalo during the '60's,'70's and early '80's. Her personal details are such fun, yet she always adds that historical perspective for us. She is such an interesting person who has led an amazing life (be sure to read her other memoir about her years on Wall Street, "Play Money"), and has a gift for imparting her wisdom, while making the reader laugh out loud. I found her story to be touching, hilarious, and ultimately inspirational. I highly recommend this book to all.
I have read 2 other books by Laura Pedersen, and this one is not at all as good. Perhaps this is because this is a memoir.
Living in Buffalo your whole life tends to make you immune to the cold.
I grew up outside of Rochester, NY, in the 1970s and this book had me crying with laughter and memories _ waiting for the bus with frozen hair, parents yelling about the high cost of energy, being able to see your breath in the classroom because it was so cold. Pedersen gets off hilarious one-liners about it being too cold to wet the bed and how kids fought to sleep with the dog for extra heat (we did!), cleaning the car windshield at every stoplight, corrosive salt turning cars to rust buckets in just one winter, and religious Catholics crossing themselves while driving on ice, thereby making the roads even more treacherous. Pedersen also focuses on the true grit of good people and how they never let down their neighbors, or a stranger, even in a blizzard. She talks about a neighbor's walk being shoveled with no note, and that's so true. Pedersen does a great short history of the ups and the downs of the area that makes informative and very funny reading. I remember the family fights over the thermostat, money, and the Vietnam War, and unfortunately it feels like those bad times are on us again between another energy crisis, the banking collapse, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. BUFFALO GAL is a terrific escape into a similar time gone by that we somehow managed to get through. People say they long for the old days when there was a real sense of community and people pulled together in an emergency. Well it's still right here in Upstate New York.
I couldn't finish this book fast enough. The worst part is that I have a flaw that once I start a book I have to finish it no matter how bad. Would not recommend. Living near Buffalo I understood but found it incredibly boring.