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Tailgate to the Max

Filed under: Local Politics, Sports

It’s September 11, 2011, but I almost forget today is the 10th anniversary of the day that has made September 11 meaningful, because it coincides gracefully with opening day of the NFL season, a sport that is slowly becoming more cultural ritual than mere entertainment. This is evident in my station wagon: My associate and I are decked in Bills jerseys and pondering how bad the team might be this year. Being a Bills fan is like being an intrepid explorer of your own emotional pain. Every year you wait for things to get better and every year you’re rewarded with mind-boggling losses and a sense of lost time. Most chapters in the Buffalo football story read like biblical afflictions—like Job scraping his sores with shards of pottery.

Today’s destination is the annual “tailgate: fundraiser at Macaroon’s Nite Club on the eastern edge of Cheektowaga just before it gives way to Depew. Macaroon’s is nestled inconspicuously in an aging strip mall, the largest tenant of which appears to the Buffalo City Mission Thrift Store. Bars in strip malls have never made sense to me, but this bar operates as a hybrid neighborhood sports bar during the week and a thrasher rock bar on “Fridaze” and “Saturdaze.” They have Blue and Michelob Light on tap and the event calendar Xerox advertises a band called “That 80’s Hair Rock Band” and that you can get a drink for less than $3 pretty much any day of the week. Today our drinks are free, courtesy of the Progressive Democrats of Cheektowaga. At the entrance we are handed a cup and told that “it is good for vodka, rum, and beer, but not all at once.”

The bar is deep, dark, and large. It’s a “Nite Club,” after all. When we walk in around 12:30pm the cavernous room is sparsely populated by around 50 people, half that number being seniors seated at long tables toward the darkened stage area in back. Strong screwdrivers in hand, my associate goes off to mingle, and I go meet the man of the hour, Frank Max.

Perhaps everyone in Erie County has an uncle who looks and talks like Frank Max, chair of Cheektowaga’s Democratic Party. He cuts a classic, Western New York middle-aged man figure, and he’s brimming with blue-collar vitality. Frank tells me he has run for office in the past, but sees himself now as more of a behind-the-scenes organizer, someone who can rally the troops and send them door-to-door in favor of Democratic candidates in the Town of Cheektowaga, and he hopes to do something similar in Erie County if Len Lenihan’s long-anticipated descent from the chairmanship ever occurs. But today’s fundraiser is “about hanging out, watching football, and nothing too political,” he says.

Frank, however, doesn’t mince words when it comes to his prospective bid for Lenihan’s seat, saying he’s the dark horse, outside the inner circle of the party who seem bent on handing the job to Tonawanda’s John Crangle. Max maintains he is the Ryan Fitzpatrick to Crangle’s Trent Edwards of last year’s Bills: If you let the committee members vote, he says, “he can’t beat me.

Frank’s troops slowly filter in to the bar and fill the place. The majority of folks are friends, family, and co-workers, who is currently the crew chief of Cheektowaga’s sanitation department. One younger sanitation worker at the bar declares he’s not too interested in politics; he’s just here for Frank. This is a Frank Max home crowd, a Cheektowaga Democratic lovefest. There’s a smattering of elected officials: Mark Poloncarz, dressed better than anyone in the room, is present at the beginning, working his base; Legislator Tom Mazur makes an appearance; and several judges are no doubt lurking in the offing. My associate strikes up a lengthy conversation with Dick Wipperman, the Buffalo-bred heavyweight who fought some big names like Joe Frazier and still loves talking fighting. On the matter of his attendance at today’s festivities, he’s rather unclear. He doesn’t seem interested in football and he doesn’t admit to any political passion. He’s just glad to be there.

I ask Frank Max his opinion of the team. He says that he thinks they’re on the right path, they’re turning the corner, the light at the end of the tunnel, plenty of room for optimism, etc. Of course, he adds, the team is ineptly run and dysfunctional, but the players have a lot of heart. As I look around the room at the neon guitar-shaped lights and ponder the political situation in Western New York, the refrain rings familiar.

Before kickoff, CBS airs a pregame memorial to 9/11, and the bar crowd, led by the seniors in back, stand in silence and look in different directions at whichever one of the 17 screens is closest. After the awkward 30 seconds of television patriotism are over, during which I can’t decide whether to place my hand over my heart, take my cap off, or both (I do neither), we head over to one of the back tables to join the heart of the party. There we are informed that this large group, comprising mostly senior citizens, belongs to the Cheektowaga Patriotic Commission, an official town organization without political affiliation. Bills fans, though.

The Bills force a fumble on the opening kickoff, and with smoke still lingering over the field from the pregame ceremony, the Bills launch a short touchdown drive. The place starts rocking and the Bills never really look back.

aaron lowinger