SoCal Wants to Be WNY (And Crushes Me)


I need you to listen to this song. It is called “Southern California Wants to Be Western New York” by Dar Williams. It’s about L.A.’s secret wish to be more down to earth (like Buffalo). I was born there and grew up in a neighboring suburb. I love my hometown. This city made me who I am.

It wants to have a family business in sheet metal or power tools
It wants to have a diner where the coffee tastes like diesel fuel
And it wants to find the glory of a town that say has hit the skids
And it wants to have a snow day that will turn its parents into kids

Pretty great stuff. The towns that have hit the skids aren't so fantastic but snow days are magic. The lyrics capture the special aspects of our home in the Rust Belt. It may be strange to some but I love its humble decay and it's hard not to dig the renewal that is coming out of it. I proud of my little city but I do find it a chore to discuss it with people when I am out of the area.

I do a lot of traveling. “Where are you from?” is one of the first things people ask each other. When abroad, I don’t usually expect people to know of Buffalo but I don’t mention my state like I would if I were from Kansas or Michigan. That's because saying I’m from New York gets people very excited and they ascribe me with a coolness which I cannot lay claim to. I start with Buffalo anyway. Sometimes I meet Europeans who like hockey or someone who has been to the states but “Oh. Texas?” is a common response. I don’t know much about the geography of anywhere I haven't been so I don’t take offense.

“No, it’s very close to Niagara Falls. It’s on the border with Canada. Below Toronto. You can actually see Canada on the other side of the river.” This usually does it but the border with Canada is pretty long so I'm not surprised if that still doesn't help.

Sometimes it can’t be avoided: “Which state?”

“New York…”

“WOW!” or "Amazing!" or "Cool!"

“No, no, no… it’s eight hours from New York City.”

“Eight hours?”

“Yeah – New York City is like a totally different planet.”

“Eight hours?!”

“America is really really big.”

Nodding head and rubbing chin, “Eight hours...”

I’ve had this conversation a million times and I will have it a billion more. It’s OK.

The conversations that I had with people from New York City and the tri-state area while in college, in New York State, were not OK. I went through a bit of culture shock – first by the existence of cartoonish people with garish accents and then from having these same people tell me about where I lived and that I must be pretty good at cow tipping.

People I met would also insist that I was from “Upstate” but we only called it Western New York. Binghamton? It calls itself the Southern Tier. I do acknowledge that Buffalo has a latitude of 42.8864° N, while Manhattan is at 40.7697° N , so it is “up” but Lake Placid is at 44.2794° N. New York is also really big. [Conversely at 78.8786° W, Buffalo is more west of New York, which sits at 73.9735° W, than it is north of it.]

It hardly ever comes up anymore but it was obnoxious beyond belief when I first experienced it. It’s one of the trials one must go through when integrating into the system of public universities and colleges in New York. This adds to the magic that is Dar Williams. She’s from Westchester, the county that borders the Bronx, and its residents usually don’t get it either - even though they also hate it that Manhattanites include Westchester in “Upstate”.

Not only does Dar Williams understand that Western New York exists as a place separate from Upstate New York, she seems to have a perfect understanding of the area. She recognizes and appreciates some of the most subtle nuances of the area. It’s amazing. It should be required listening for all Western New Yorkers and people from Southern California for that matter. Listen and pass it on. ["As Cool As I Am" by Williams should also be required listening for all teenage girls or just all women everywhere who aren't sisters. Men can be brothers too. Everyone should listen to "As Cool As I Am".]

But I don’t just love this song because Williams perfectly captures WNY (which she obviously does). I need to you know that I am in the song. It's like Dar knows me! It’s so uncanny that you’re probably going to crap your pants. Please bear with me for one moment before I go on to blow your mind.

The list of things that I have envied other people for is endless. They’re usually pretty harmless. Like math skills. I find mathematical principles interesting and seem to generally understand them but my numbers never work. I love my brain but if you’re good at math, I sort of want to have yours.

One of the most ridiculous things I have envied another person for is the way song lyrics fit their life perfectly – as though it were written about them.

Remember the group City High? They sang that super popular song encouraging empathy for sex workers (among others) in 2001? Their second single, “Caramel”, had these lines in the chorus:

Everywhere I go I’m spotted
And everything I want I got it
5’5” with brown eyes
Smile like the sunrise

I was in high when this single was on the radio and I found it to be more than amazing that it so perfectly described a friend of mine. Her height and eye color matched. Forget that 5’5” is an average height and brown eyes are pretty common. To date, she is still one of the most physically attractive people I have ever known so she really was spotted everywhere she went. She probably still is. It was almost annoying.

This silliness even applied when the song wasn’t particularly happy. There was the couple from my class who had been dating forever. U2’s “The Sweetest Thing” isn’t exactly a happy song. It’s about the misery of love but when the girl quoted it in her AIM profile, “Blue-eyed boy meets and a brown-eyed girl”, I was again a little bit envious of that lyrical coincidence.

But that all changed when I heard “Southern California Wants To Be Western New York” by Dar Williams. The zenith of my delight with the song is not about my home but the part that is about me.

And [Southern California]'s embarassed,
But it's lusting after a SUNY student with mousy-brown hair who is
Taking out the compost, making coffee in long underwear

Fact #1: I was a SUNY student! (Woot woot! All of the education without the debt!) I graduated from Binghamton in 2006. I first heard this while I was a freshman at SUNY Albany.

Coincidence #2: I have mousy brown hair! To some people my hair color is debatable. I don’t typically discuss it because who cares? But it comes up in conversation semi-frequently and it is usually other people who bring it up. It depends on who you ask, the time of year, where I am. For example: in Poland, where I lived for two years – it was brown. In Portugal, where I spent a summer – I was considered blonde. But if you ask me - it's mousy brown. (Especially during the time of year when I'd be wearing long underwear.)

I reluctantly accepted its lack of vibrancy before the end of high school. If you asked me the day before the first time I heard “Southern California Wants to Be Western New York” I would have told you that it’s mousy brown. Now I refuse to call it anything else.

Listen: I also own and wear long johns – tops and bottoms. I can’t live without them during winter. Even when living in warmer climates, I am conditioned not to trust warm weather in the winter months.

Finally: I compost. I admit that I have lapsed when living somewhere without the facilities but the compost bin in the backyard of the house where I grew up dates back to the 90s. Whenever I'm there, composting is a must.

It may seem unflattering but it’s me that Southern California has a crush on! 100%! Dar Williams knows me. It’s ridiculous, right? Most amazingly - the song was released in January 1996. I was already composting by that time but not drinking coffee regularly. I bleached my hair with Sun-In the summer before and I was six years away from matriculating into the SUNY system. But Dar Williams knew me and my future. It’s like sweet proof that I fit into the fantastic place where I am from more than I could have realized on my own... even if I don't live there anymore.

Maybe it would have just been a one time thing instead of a full-fledged fling but I have a feeling SoCal would have enjoyed a nice breakfast the next morning. Maybe at a diner for some of the aforementioned coffee or maybe, due to the weather, we would have stayed in and I could have made it breakfast (and coffee, of course) while in my sexy yet warm pjs?



For the sake of full disclosure: I am also 5’2” and I wanna dance with you and I’m sophisticated fun and I like filet mignon and I’m nice and young and you best believe I’m #1 but I’m not a great MC like Missy Elliot and I don’t feel comfortable asserting such strong qualitative pronouncements about myself.


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