When I was 18 years old, I was hanging out in a dive bar in Buffalo, N.Y.
I’d recently graduated from a private Catholic all-girls academy and it sure as heck wasn’t a place the nuns would have approved of. My fellow classmates, on the other hand, were congregating in bars filled with boys in khaki pants, loafers and light blue button-down shirts. Predictable, safe and to me, very boring. I was an outlier, drawn to artists, musicians and counter-culture. A seedy downtown bar pulled me in like moth to flame.
It was a place where I once wore a slinky, little black dress and didn’t get a second look. The next night I came in with torn jeans and a sweatshirt and received the same treatment. No one paid attention. Blasé to the point of cool. A police car was always parked out front. I ran into a male model from my figure drawing class one night and didn’t recognise him with his clothes on. He was insulted. It was a badge of honor — at least to 18-year-old me — to be one of the people who hung out there. I’d mention it to my friends and their immediate recoil cemented that I’d made the right choice.
Laughlin’s provided a place to be when I was desperate to leave the pedestrian culture of Buffalo and head to New York City. It took me thirty years to get there. I stayed for close to twenty, working in the TV industry with talented Grammy award-winning musicians and profoundly talented graphic artists whose designs were on every major TV network. My work was very Laughlin’s-like: a little off-the wall, a little unexpected. It defined my brand and led to awards and fabulous gigs. One took me to New Zealand to shoot the open and commercials for two shows that replaced Xena and Hercules. That’s about as far away from Buffalo as one can get.
After making my mark, I left New York and returned to Buffalo to a time capsule. Men were still wearing khaki pants and blue button-downs. Advertising was predictable and the local TV channels were still churning out the same promos. Most of my high school friends’ expectations and ambitions had stalled decades before.
I settled in and wrote a political satire, The President Factor, following my brand of irreverent perspective on life, and started on The LoveBeep, a chick-lit novel centered on New York City.
I hadn’t realized how much I missed the now-closed Laughlin’s until a call for work from Belt Publishing, a publisher that put out anthologies about rust-belt cities, landed in my inbox. Tell us about your Buffalo. I immediately knew what I had to write about.
I started looking for images of Laughlin’s and was disappointed to find only shots of the exterior. But, to be honest, I don’t think anyone would have wanted to take a picture of the rather deplorable conditions on the inside. In hindsight, I probably should have taken prophylactic doses of penicillin before I entered. The bathrooms were gag inducing. What I did find were some short, waxing nostalgic, one-liners on a few posts which coincided with my memories.
Once I started writing, I could hear the song that constantly played on the jukebox and could picture the graffiti on the bathroom stalls. Besides giving me fodder for my essay, it felt good to revisit the time before I headed into the years of raising a family — back to the time that ignited the desire to live a life of no expectations or limits — the time that I kept tucked away and inspired me to make that life-changing move to NYC so many years later. A move I wouldn’t give up for anything and is shaping me even today.
I put me on that page.
I say: Look for opportunities to relive your past and make it come alive in your writing. It’s worth it. And raise a glass with me to places like Laughlin’s.