The last four falls, I've been a Bills fan in exile on the peninsula of Portland, Maine. That's deep in Patriots country, enemy territory.
Surrounded by Patsies, I'd take refuge in sports bars to watch Buffalo play via satellite. I had to arrive well before kickoff to stake out a stool near the one TV in 10 showing the game.
I wasn't competing for seats against Patriots fans. They were all at home, sitting on couches, watching the Patriots-partial local stations and practicing witchcraft, or whatever they do.
I was angling for position among what would become, as the season progressed, a familiar crew of football refugees --- Steelers fans, Raiders fans, a confused kid who liked Carolina, and a few of those ubiquitous assholes who love the Cowboys. There was one other Bills fan there, but he didn't talk much. He had the air of a man defeated.
Spot secured, I'd start pounding PBRs (as close to my beloved Genny Light as I could get) and eviscerating second-rate chicken wings in frustration. I can't tell you how many times I watched the tiny football leave Rob Johnson's hand, bounce off a panel in outer space, and fall to the ground, incomplete.
The experience often brought thoughts of Frederick Exley, author of the autobiographical novel, A Fan's Notes: a schoolteacher on a bender in a Watertown bar, raving for Gifford and his Giants. I was a journalist with a beer buzz, muttering curses against our foes, like Bledsoe.
(By the way, am I the only one around here who suspects this guy is a secret agent the Patriots pawned off on us to sabotage our season? If a few conspicuous Bledsoe interceptions keep us a game behind New England this year, don't say I didn't warn you.)
Like Exley, I squandered a lot of emotional capital on the outcome of the games. If the Bills won, I felt hopeful, even heroic, strolling home up Munjoy Hill in the golden autumn afternoon. But if they lost, I was a loser, a bum trudging up the sidewalk stinking of cigarettes and cheap beer. I'd reproach myself for having wasted a fine Sunday staring at a bunch of rich jocks who'd have kicked my ass in high school, given the chance.
Why did I waste my time in places like Asylum, a particularly soulless sports bar that raffled off Bud Light T-shirts during the games?
I'd like to think I had better things to do, like the stuff listed in this fall guide. I could have been picking apples, or picking out a pumpkin, or riding around country roads, lounging on a bed of hay in the back of a pickup truck, looking at leaves.
But it wasn't so much what I could have done as what I used to do that drew me back week after anxious week.
It was memories of slouching in the bean bag by the fireplace of my folks' old house in Fairport. The wood would crackle, the popcorn would pop, and Joe Ferguson took the snaps. It was an era of low expectations, embodied by a grammatically challenged slogan: "We're talking proud!" ("We play pretty one day!")
But it was also the memory of the time my buddy Giz and I watched the big wild card comeback against the Oilers at MacGregor's in Perinton. The whole bar became one, as Frank "The Second" Reich pulled it off. We were rowdy with joy. There were countless high fives. I hugged a neighbor whose grass I used to mow.
And it was the memory of Rochester itself, which the Bills' season brought to mind as strongly as the smell of chimney smoke in thin air.
It's great to be back in Bills Country, looking forward to a fall surrounded by my fellow fans. I don't suppose I'll spend many Sundays in sports bars, unless the home-game blackout inspires a road trip to Toronto. I'll leave that scene to the football refugee community here, and practice my witchcraft in the privacy of my own home.