In Buffalo, a security guard, his dog and a little bit of Christmas cheer
BUFFALO — For the last 13 years, Mark Fermo has kept an eye on the Ellicott Square Building, a 10-story Buffalo landmark whose Italian Renaissance splendor sets it apart from the other downtown office buildings.
Fermo is a security guard who works for the building’s owner, Ellicott Development. Never in his recollection have things been so quiet. The pandemic is to blame.
The hustle and bustle of the historic Buffalo landmark has slowed to a crawl, he said. People no longer flow in and out all day long.
Some tenants have closed up shop, unable to sustain business within a crushing economic halt. Others have sent their employees home to work remotely, leaving behind empty offices.
The chairs and tables that used to be scattered throughout the atrium — the massive lobby with the vaulted glass ceiling where people might meet for lunch or take a break from their workday — are now hidden, stacked up and roped off beneath the staircase.
“I try not to let too much bother me,” Fermo said. “I’m just thankful that I have a job.”
2020 has been a hard year for everyone, and the Ellicott Square Building is no exception, said Marie Mauro, Ellicott Development’s vice president of administration.
COVID-19 prompted the shuttering of many businesses, which led to the building’s loss of some of its tenants, Mauro said.
And on top of all that, the building’s owner — Carl Paladino, the developer-turned-controversial-politician — lost his beloved dog, Duke, in April.
The dog belonged to his son, Patrick, who died in a 2009 car crash. Duke fell into Paladino’s care after his son’s death.
All that loss added up over the course of the last nine months, becoming a heavy accumulation of gloom for the building and the people who spend so much time within it.
“You just hope for that little glimmer when they’re all going to start to come back,” Mauro said. “Just like every other business, it’s one day at a time just getting through this.”
So when an opportunity arose to bring a little bit of happiness through the revolving doors, Mauro had a feeling she knew how to help.
How a dog and a tree are spreading a little Christmas cheer
There has been one distinct positive to come from all the changes and the quiet, Mauro said.
Her name is Mercedes — an 8-year-old boxer mix originally from Florida that Fermo rescued from the Buffalo Animal Shelter. Mauro volunteers at the shelter and knew the two would be a perfect match, so she insisted Fermo just consider adopting her.
It worked, of course.
Since mid-May, Mercedes has come with her dad to work every day. She’s got a little bed behind his desk in the atrium, with bones and a stuffed elephant strewn around it.
She’s almost always silent, apart from the subtle click, click, click of her nails on the floor as she walks over to greet anyone who walks through the door or the low whine she lets out when her dad pays attention to someone other than her.
Sometimes, if she’s ignored or not immediately noticed by a visitor, she’ll turn around and lean her backside against them, hoping to score a few pets.
She matches her owner, dressed in a blue vest and occasionally donning a harness that says “SECURITY” on it. And it’s fitting, because she’s become just as much a part of the scene at the Ellicott Square Building as Fermo himself.
He now shares frequent updates on his Facebook page, posting photos of her and visitors in the building with captions like “Guarding the floor in case food attacks it” and “Girls club meeting. Mercedes thinks she’s the president.”
She practically runs the place, he said. And people love her for it.
“I knew she would be good. It was just a matter of were there enough dog lovers here?” Fermo said. “And now I see the smiles on people’s faces when they come down to pet her. It brightens everyone’s day.”
Mercedes has become a lifeline for both visitors and for her owner himself. Around Thanksgiving, Fermo worked a shift bartending. A few days after, he couldn’t taste or smell anything and later tested positive for COVID-19.
Because Fermo lives alone, Mercedes was his salvation during those few weeks of isolation. He learned how valuable a friendly, furry face could be, and now he knows why she makes so many strangers that walk through the building smile.
“We’re all still suffering,” Fermo said. “She keeps my head on straight.”
As Christmas approached, there was some debate about whether to put up a Christmas tree. There’s never not been one, Mauro said, but they wondered if it was worth it with few people around.
They quickly brushed away the idea of forgoing one this year, and put up a massive two-story tree, decorating it with huge bulbs and thousands of lights.
“People need this,” Mauro said, adding that calls she received from people wondering if they’d have a tree this year prompted the decision too.
“There’s no place for them to go,” she said. “Stores that did the photos aren’t doing them … and they just want to come and stand in front of the tree with their kids, take a picture and then they go.”
And people do visit. They stop by the building, pushing through the revolving doors bundled in jackets and hats and scarves. They whip out cellphones, snapping photos of the tree and having their families pose next to it.
And yes — this year, things are different. Smiling faces are hidden behind masks; there are fewer hugs and more distance in the photos.
But maybe, if they’re lucky, there’s also a furry photobomber, sneaking into the frame with a wiggling behind and a toothy smile.
“It’s something that we normally do, except the dog — she’s a new addition,” Mauro said.
“I think it’s great — here’s a dog that came from Florida, ended up at our shelter, got adopted and now she’s the little superstar of our building. She makes people happy. … And I think, right now, people need this.”
Georgie Silvarole is the backpack reporter for the USA TODAY Network’s New York State Team. You can reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @gsilvarole.