Today is the day Christians celebrate the miracle that is the foundation of their faith.
In Buffalo, Easter is also a day to celebrate a more secular – and ongoing – miracle: the Broadway Market.
The concrete behemoth at Broadway and Fillmore, which most of the year you could roll a bowling ball through without hitting anyone, is overflowing. The vendors have multiplied. Kids gaze covetously on Polish Easter eggs. Crowds jockey for huge slabs of fudge, jars of jam, Polish aprons, herbs and spices and chocolate bark of every description.
Even on a weekday morning last week there was a din of buying, selling, vying and yelling. A mother guiding her toddler down the escalator admonished the child: “Walk. Walk walk walk walk walk walk walk.” A noisy argument emanated from the upstairs parking lot. “Shut up!” someone shouted. Another voice gave the age-old response: “You shut up!”
On the entertainment stage, a Native American flute player played sweet, calming melodies.
That calm was welcome. Looking around, I felt almost disoriented.
I have a funny relationship with the Broadway Market. I’m not Polish. I’m not an East Sider. I’m not a community activist. What I am is a regular.
I go to the market to shop. Not being Polish, I can’t claim a lifelong acquaintance with paczki and pierogi – heck, I can hardly spell them. But I like other things you don’t find other places, which over the years have included rabbit, cheap bags of lentils at Save-A-Lot, use-’em-or-lose-’em beets at the Famous Horse-radish stand, soup chickens bagged up with parsley, and duck, which the late legendary Dorothy Malczewski coached me on how to roast properly so I could impress my boyfriend (now my husband, so the strategy worked).
The market offers a rare Old World shopping experience you don’t find elsewhere. You point to what you want, and the seller packs it up and tallies your bill.
“I’ll take a celery, please. And a cabbage. And can I please have a baggie for some green beans?”
“What else, honey?”
“Oh, how about those beets? And a jar of buckwheat honey.”
Then you loiter, gossiping with other customers, some of whom still have authentic Polish accents. It’s a different way to shop, and it’s easy and fun.
Most importantly, the Broadway Market is cheap. You find hilarious deals. One January, I spent a weekend with a group of friends at a cottage in Ellicottville. We went to Camellia’s Meats and shelled out for a massive breakfast package: a gallon of milk, two quarts of orange juice, two dozen eggs, two pounds of bacon, two pounds of sausage, and one pound of, ahem, Solid Margarine, for $24.95. I almost faint remembering it.
Holy Week, to me, is amateur week. I tend to stay away. Once when a friend made me go with her, I was dismayed to see how difficult it was even to take a number at the meat counter. I leaned over to the butcher. “Don’t forget,” I hissed. “I’m a regular.”
But really, the Broadway Market is a unique institution and it is lucky that people celebrate it, if only at Easter time. Sometimes, in the off season, a regular can get blue. There have been recent losses. The tavern at the corner of Gibson and Sienkiewicz is shuttered. So is the Three Deuces, a few doors down.
The Easter crowds can puzzle me. If I felt the deep ethnic attachment to the Broadway Market that so many people clearly feel, I would not be a stranger to the place the rest of the year. A few visionaries are making efforts to boost attendance. There are Christmas festivities, Forgotten Buffalo tours of Polonia. But it’s an uphill battle. If things don’t improve, one of these years this old friend will be gone.
If that matters to people, hope might lie in stretching that Easter feeling over the rest of the year. That kielbasa that tastes so yummy now is just as good in July. More customers would mean more vendors.
It would be great to see the junk stands gone and replaced by purveyors of olive oils, local wines, Middle Eastern legumes, teas, spices and other foodie treats you see at Easter time. A sign last week advertised vegan cooking classes. Now there is an effort to reach out to a new crowd.
The battle isn’t lost. A theory that has also been applied to old East Side churches holds that if we can just keep things from folding, the turnaround will come.
Meanwhile, the Broadway Market can make our lives (and our wallets) richer – not just at Easter, but always.
There is a special feeling you get when, for the first time, you step up to the plate at Petru Lupas Meats. And when you negotiate a purchase at the neighboring Broadway Seafood, where the Asian proprietors communicate mostly in sign language, and where – all year round – the fish is laid out on ice right under your nose.
That fish market! Its most impressive offering, which I have yet to work up the nerve to try, is a gigantic creature called a buffalo fish. Glorious and glistening, it dominates the display.
They had one there this week, and I found myself marveling at it as I always do. “Look at that fish,” I said, pointing.
The fishmonger smiled.
“Buffalo,” he said.