Episode 10: Best car, worst car

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo

It’s only by good luck that I survived driving my first car— an original Volkswagen Beetle. It was a beaten-up, road hazard death trap.

But man I loved it.

Sahara Beige was the color when it left the factory— but it was more primer and bondo by the time I bought it off a front lawn in Niagara Falls for something like 400 or 500 bucks.

It really wasn’t even street legal— back then, a couple of extra bucks could usually get you an inspection sticker whether your car was roadworthy or not.

I loved this car, it was far and away the coolest ride in my high school parking lot.

There was even a scene like from a movie when a cute girl said, “This is a really cool car,” and I felt like looking into the camera like Ferris Bueller and giving the double eyebrow raise.

I learned to drive stick in this car in the Seneca Mall parking lot with my ol’man. In that parking lot, outside the old Penney’s, is where I got pulled over for the first time.

The West Seneca cop saw me driving back and forth and thought I was trying to run over seagulls. Man, my dad was pissed.

Hahaha.

Of course, if we’re being honest, the memory of this broken down Beetle is great— but I’m also glad I don’t have to drive it everyday.

If I think about this car long enough, my stomach turns and my nostrils with the once familiar essence of gas fumes, degrading Naugahyde, and some since- discontinued floral Lysol trying to mask the other two.

There were no working gauges (including speedometer and gas), no working heat, and plenty of character.

I daydream about this first car I ever owned often— but I rarely think about my second car.

Man I hated it— but it was the most underrated vehicle I’ve ever owned.
The 1987 Dodge Colt (manufactured in Japan by Mitsubishi) was an ugly, generic-looking 80s Japanese hatchback hand-me-down from my parents.

My ol’man had been in two accidents with it and didn’t get it fixed— so it was ugly and busted up.

And it was also embarrassing to drive because the fan belt made a loud, high-pitch squeal the first 15 minutes or so it was driven.

That dented and crunched-up little crap box would actually scream LOOK AT ME, when that’s the last thing I’d have wanted anyone do.

Driving it was a continuation of the disappointing feeling I’d always had for the gold Colt from the very beginning, since it replaced our brown 1980 AMC Spirit as a family car.

The poor Colt never really had a chance. It was a sad final drive with my ol’man, smoke belching from the Spirit form the still solid, American-built tank as we dropped it off to trade in for the light, plastic-y, insect-like Colt.
Even the key was a disappointment.

I thought we’d get a cool Dodge/Chrysler key with the iconic 5-point star/pentagon logo on them— but instead this car had giant, odd shaped keys with MITSUBISHI stamped across the top.

So gross.

Ugly, disappointing, and some serious bad mojo, too.

Dad was rear-ended so hard in the Colt that the bucket seats were permanently bent— and he had to have surgery from the resulting whiplash.

The car would almost certainly be totaled today— and who knows, maybe it was then, but we drove it for years.

I also remember from the passenger seat the time when a kid on a bike cut out in front of my dad on Seneca Street.

The bike wound up mangled, and while the kid bounced off and permanently dented the hood— the teenager was fine.

My dad drove him and his crumpled bike home to Duerstein Street.

Once he dropped the kid off at home, my ol’man, a Parliament with too much ash dangling from his lip, told me if he ever saw me riding my bike like that I “wouldn’t have to worry about a car because he’d grab me and rip my goddamn head off.”

(It was his way of saying he cares 🙂 )

The Colt had been passed around the family for a couple of years— a couple of different uncles drove it— before the short time I used it to get to work and school.

I did my best to upgrade the car which, by this point looked like it had been abandoned in the streets of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War.

I went to Kmart— and bought and installed a radio with a cassette deck, making the music coming out of the single speaker in the middle of the dashboard a bit more tolerable.

I also went to a head shop and bought a bunch of stickers, most of which were for bands I had no interest in— but I had to put SOMETHING on this car to make it less ugly.

One of the stickers was a giant Jerry Garcia Desert Face decal— and while I wasn’t a deadhead, I at least knew who he was and I had Touch of Grey on a few of the mix cassettes that were the vehicle’s sound track… so there was that.

It wasn’t long before I passed this car along to some other desperate-for-transportation family member, and I bought myself a well-used 1986 Volkswagen Golf from a driveway on Kenmore Avenue near the Boulevard.

Anyway, something made me think of the ol’ Dodge Colt, which deserves a second look from someone for something other than that screaming fan belt.

Episode 9: Never forget– Our trauma is their normal

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo

Never forget.

Never forget what?

Is there anyone who was alive and aware of what was going on that day who can’t remember every painful second of the day?

Is there anyone who can sit through a TV news story with somber music and those too real stories and the archival video from that day and the days after– can anyone who remembers that day sit through that without choking back tears and choking back vomit and reliving the bottomless horror and not being sure whether we’d have a world to wake up to the next day?

I spent the whole day at the controls of a radio station… mostly running the live airfeed of CNN, and occasionally giving a local station break or offering important local information. As people went home to pick up their kids or take care of family or just be swept up in horrific tragedy, I sat mostly alone in a windowless radio control room… Keeping it together to do my job. Being completely immersed in it, but processing only what I needed to process to keep the station on the air.  

No photo description available.

When I got home after 10 or so hours of that—I collapsed on the couch as the whole day hit me all at once. Just like every other American that day, pieces of my soul were shattered and melted and forever changed.

For everyone, for this country—there was before and there was after.  

That’s where “never forget” hits me these days. None of us will ever forget that—but part of understanding and remembering and explaining the history lesson of it all, is to try to remember and describe and feel what the before times were like—and how the completely unimaginable murder of 3,000 people shattered every American and shattered the American way of life like throwing a beer bottle against a brick wall.

We say never forget because we want to make sure the next generation knows. But what America lost that day is so much more horrifying than even the stories we can tell about brave firefighters and police, of civilian heroes who punctuated one of the most selfless acts in out nation’s history with “Let’s roll,” more than the stories of those who made the choice to end suffering that day on their own terms and seared the image of their final moments leaping and crashing toward the earth.

Two decades later, those frightful stories are still with us—but also with us is the memory of those before times. To fully understand the misery of that day, we have to remember a time before our hearts hardened, our eyes steeled, and before we carved off portions of the idea what American freedom means—in order to preserve the rest of it.  

We say never forget—but there really aren’t words to help someone who doesn’t remember the before times understand. They’ve grown up with the tougher heart and more aware eyes. They will never understand the idea of American freedom and the American way of life as we knew it when our alarm clocks rang on the morning of September 11, 2001.  

Our trauma has become their way of life. It’s almost too much to bear. God bless those people whose lives were lost this day twenty years ago, God bless their families, God bless us and God Bless America—the way it was, the way it is, and the way it will be.

Episode 8: My Ol’man loved booze and his birthday

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo

Just after my birthday, at the end of August… my ol’man would start talking about his birthday coming up.

He was born December 10, 1951,coming a couple of months premature.

In 1951, a couple months premature was usually a death sentence.

The scene would have made that death sentence even more likely.

It was in a long gone, old tenement-looking building behind City Hall, Steven Patrick Cichon was delivered in a 4th floor apartment kitchen during a raging snow storm.

This was the fifth of eleven babies for Grandma Cichon. She put her newborn preemie in the oven to keep him warm until an ambulance could take him the few blocks up Niagara Street to Columbus Hospital.

Nurses quickly christened him right on the spot— not expecting the little oven-warmed human to make it, but the fight was the first of many low-percentage fights he’d win.

Starting with those first few moments, the path laid out for my ol’man was never smooth. He was angry and cranky a lot— but if you could work a conversation into something about his birthday— his favorite day of the year— it was almost always an instant transport back to happier and carefree times.

Once the Fair was over, and my birthday passed, and we were heading back to school, Dad would start reminding us that his birthday was coming up— and that he’d want a BIG PRESENT… those words said with his arms outstretched and his eyes opened wide.

By November, he’d be getting into specifics. Occasionally, he actually needed something, which was great. Otherwise, fraught with danger and anxiety, we’d have to come up with something on our own.

Despite what you might think about someone in your life, rest assured, that my mean, crazy, loving, tender, anti-bullshit, anti-things ol’man was indeed, the most difficult person ever for whom to buy a present.

That is… Until I turned 21.

The ol’man spent the last decade or so of his life barely ambulatory. He was a diabetic, and went through several unsuccessful surgeries to save his foot; the there were several surgeries to remove his leg right below the knee.

His body and his spirits were greatly weakened by all the surgeries, and laying in hospital beds, and never really getting the hang of the prosthetic leg that he only rarely even tried on.

He would have disagreed violently with the idea— but for the last ten years or so of his life, Dad was wheelchair-bound.

He wasn’t a heavy drinker, but c’mon— the guy owned a tavern at point. He liked the occasional, or slightly-more than occasional whiskey.

Never straight, though, that whiskey— he’d mix it with just about anything. Iced tea, Diet 7-up, Diet Ginger Ale. His tastes changed often, but I think Ginger Ale was his favorite.

Even though he’d eat three doughnuts with impunity, he always made sure he had diet pop because of his diabetes.

At his last birthday dinner at his favorite restaurant— a sports bar, really— he tried to order a whiskey and diet ginger ale, but alas, like any other bar/restaurant in America, they didn’t have diet ginger ale.

He ordered something else, and when the waitress went away, he whispered to us, talking out of the side of his mouth, “No diet ginger ale? In a fancy place like this?!?”

“In a fancy place like this” is one of the few PG-rated lines from my dad I repeat often and with growing appreciation.

At home, it was whiskey and diet ginger ale— so long as he had the whiskey.
Buying dad a bottle was great. He’d take a quick peek in the gift bag and then put it right back before quietly rolling right down to his office, and once again quietly opening that drawer to slip the booze in the drawer so my mom wouldn’t know. (Yeah, right.)

Anyway, he couldn’t drive anymore and couldn’t make it to the liquor store himself anymore to get himself a little booze.

He was reliant on other people to bring him a taste every once in a while.
And in what I now look at as my last great gift to my father, I was his hook up.”Give me a big bottle of the cheap stuff, instead of that little bottle (of the good stuff),” he’d start whispering to me when the leaves started to change.
From everyone else, I’d get grief for bringing him a little ‘Old Grandad,’ ‘Kesslers,’ ‘Philadelphia,’ or ‘Old Crow,’ because even a little too much would send his blood sugar out of whack. But it was his last joy in life, and I couldn’t deny him.

He be mildly disappointed when I’d get him the little bottle… but my hope was with that he’d only have one drink at a time to try to stretch it out a little more. That usually worked.

Father’s Day, birthday, Christmas. Dad knew what was coming from me, and part of the gift was giving him reason to devise some sort of ruse to make sure my mother “didn’t know” he’d just gotten some booze.

As he was executing said ruse, he’d quietly, but with the tone implying yelling, ask me why the hell I didn’t get him the big bottle.

Just like with most dads, my ol’man took more than his share of good-natured jibes from the family all year.

But none on his birthday. He loved that— it might have been his favorite part of the day.

He loved even more when someone would let one slip, and he was able to remind, “Not on my birthday!”

Though the polka classic reminds that in heaven there is no beer— on December 10, I know there’s cheap, crappy, blended whiskey in heaven.

And Dad’s drinking it by the gallon with plenty of diet ginger ale. They must have it in a fancy place like heaven.

Episode 7: When Anxious turns Panic

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo

To describe the sensation can be elusive, but it often starts just a smidge beyond physical— kinda like the feeling someone is watching you.

Sometimes, that grows into general uneasiness. It’s dull pain in a hard-to-define area like pressing your thumb into an almost-healed bruise.

It’s the insatiable feeling of trying to breathe deeply on a hot, humid day, but not finding enough air to suck in.

It’s not dying of thirst, but it’s thirsty enough to quickly drink a whole glass of water and still be thirsty— but afraid to drink anymore because it’ll hurt your stomach.

Sometimes you can catch it and slow it down, but sometimes it takes you by surprise or there’s too much of something else going on, and it just keeps running in the background.

It’s a cramp you can’t quite stretch out enough and you know once you relax that extension your muscle’s cramping right back up again.

It starts getting harder to ignore with a strong pulsating heartbeat at the back of your throat and the feeling your brain might start swirling out of your ears.

It’s being very palpably scared and angry and sick— but at shadows rather than anything in particular.

It’s years of practice of trying to make your face look normal while your brain and your soul are screaming like they are being murdered.
Sometimes it’s a minute or two.

Sometimes it comes in waves for hours or days, and you feel like your in the surf being flung against the rocks over and over and over and over.

It’s horror and terror, and all you can do to fit it is to breathe, nervously move your hands, and pray the spinning stops.

Anxiety and panic feed into themselves and while you hope it ends soon, part of you is certain it never will.

Until it does. And the beat goes on.

Episode 6: My laugh is Grandma Cichon’s laugh

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo

Sometimes when I see something whimsical or beautiful or absurd some deep part of me which I don’t control laughs.

Technically some kind of chuckle with squinted eyes and a wide grin, the laugh is a release of joy.

It’s also weird.

Laughter, where it doesn’t belong is a red flag and catches me plenty of strange looks and people slowly taking a step or two away.

Believe me, I see the looks— I’m not that far gone. But I know in reality, they are the ones far gone.

More people would laugh in more situations like the ones I do, I think, but society has tortured us into constraining our emotions. Or to be to busy to feel them. Or to feel shame for feeling them.

Admittedly, I wasn’t always on the right side of this story.

As a little little boy, I remember wondering what the hell Grandma Cichon was laughing at.

It was usually dogs or kids or nature, and I didn’t get it. And sometimes, if something I did that was the cause of the laughter— and I wasn’t feeling funny— I might get quietly mad or upset.

But for her own sake, Grandma— the mother of 11– who had lived a life filled with more than her fair share of poverty and relentless hard work and tragedy— she had to take the joy where she could find it. And she did.
So when I laugh when I see a toddler cry or a puppy hurting herself trying to carry a stick three times her own size— it’s not that I find humor in it— it’s that I’m filled with joy.

Joyful that the confidence-filled puppy just took a step in learning about sticks and life.

Joyful that the three-year-old, whose life is as perfect as it’s ever going to be— cries for whatever silly reason makes the poor inconsolable little person cry.

There’s kindness and love in my eyes when I laugh— I promise— even if you can’t see it. I can only hope for your sake the world’s sake— that some day you might laugh, too.

That has to be the thought that Grandma Cichon had, too— when she sensed that little Stevie didn’t understand the laughter.

Sometimes, when I think about it, I wish I could hear Grandma’s breathy, dry little cackle again.

But then I realize I do hear it every time in my own laugh– which makes me laugh.

Episode 5: The never-ending smile of Grandma Coyle

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo

Grandma Coyle, the saint, died on All Saints Day.

I mean, she wasn’t some perfect saintly woman, but that makes what she gave so much more special.

She swore, drank beer, smoked Parliaments, and she’d crack ya if you needed it. But she also loved all of us fully, completely, and deeply every moment.

Just as important as the love, she constantly let us know how much she loved us.

Her love for all of us was unconditional and ever flowing… And that love just made her so happy.

I loved watching her on holidays– that love filled smile would fill her face every time one of her kids or grandkids or their spouses walked through the door.

The radiance of her heart made the world a better place for the time she was here, and it continues now.

Her heart lives on in all of us who she loved. The love that radiated from her smile every time any of us walked in the room left no question that there was a beautiful woman who loved you with every fiber of her being.

I’m blessed in that just the thought of that smile fills my heart with love enough to share in the way she taught me.

She’s been gone a long time, but the love she built in my heart lasts and grows as her example shows me how to love the people in my life without compromise.

Even if someone doesn’t deserve it. Or if someone needs a crack. Or if someone isn’t wearing an undershirt (the crime of which I was most often guilty in Grandma’s court)… no matter what, love never wavers.

PS… I’m wearing an undershirt.

Episode 4: Crazy Cichons

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo

A few years ago, I was a docent at the Erie County Fair Heritage and History Center, and one of the more popular questions was about when the fair was in South Buffalo near Indian Church Road for a few years back in the 1800s.

That inevitably lead me to mention that my grandma lived a block south of Indian Church off Seneca on Fairview, which usually lead to some small talk about who lived where or the bikes in the Babe Boyce store windows and PM Berst Furniture– both of which were at Seneca and Indian Church.

If people don’t seem immediately certain where grandma’s street is, I’ll mention it’s where Heidie’s Tuxedo used to be on the corner.

That sparked something for one guy.

“Heidie’s, right. Yeah, who was that fuckin’ crazy family that lived on Fairview?”

I tried to think of the name of one family a couple of houses down that my ol’man wanted nothing to do with… but then the obvious answer struck me.

“The Cichons?” I asked.

“Holy shit! Yeah, that’s them! They were all fuckin’ crazy! What was your family down there?”

“That’s my family,” I said, expressionless.

The guy’s wife blanched. He started apologizing, mostly, I think, because he was worried he offended a “fuckin’ crazy Cichon.”  But I laughed, and said, “naw, it’s ok– we are crazy.”

He rattled off a list of uncles and a few cousins that he drank with and fought with and fought against.

Then I said, “Yeah, one or two of those guys might get mad when I tell ‘em you think they’re crazy.”

As the color drained from his face again, I said, “Just kidding,” with a smirk.

We chatted a while longer, but I think I tweaked him around enough to maybe watch his back for crazy Cichons for a while. 

Hahaha. He was right. We are a fuckin’ crazy family. Hahahaha.

Episode 3: Trafficopter

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo

An old photo brought up the memory.

I once was a teenaged radio traffic reporter… flying high above drive-time city traffic with live reports from from “Skyview 930” almost 30 years ago now.

Even then, the days of each station having their own helicopter were over, and it was a little-shared secret that there were three traffic reporters from different competing radio stations all in the same fixed-wing airplane, seeing the same backups at the same time, flying in a figure-eight pattern over the area highways.

In the days before DOT cameras and Google maps, watching traffic from that vantage point was invaluable in learning about how cars move– Especially when you’d fly over a trouble spot, and then you wouldn’t see it again for 20 minutes or so.

That’s probably why, off the top of my head, I can still give you a completely made-up morning or afternoon traffic report on the spot that’s going to be completely accurate— even if not specific and filled with lots of confident-sounding bet-hedging.

I learned a lot about talking off the top of my head and the way area traffic patterns work, but looking back, the best thing about that experience was the guidance, kindness, and encouragement from nearly every single person at the two sister AM news and FM music stations during what was my first on-air gig.

I was treated like everyone’s kid brother and the station mascot. Everyone was bursting at the seams to help me succeed and that feeling– and the confidence it built– certainly helped launch the rest of my career.
Sadly, the only true specific memory from those days involves the one person who wasn’t on the “Aww shucks, let’s help the kid” plan.

She thought she was on her way to becoming the female Howard Stern, I think– this woman who was personally a mess during the short time she was in town. To me, and other station underlings, she wasn’t very friendly, a bit of a diva, and wouldn’t even look at me (let alone talk to me) in the hallway.

So now I was doing traffic on her fancy FM show– no big deal. I’m 16, but a pro.

“An accident has the Kensington backed up…. and that has the main line slow back to William… The 190 might be your better bet heading downtown— no wait at either the Black Rock or Ogden tolls. this report brought to you by Builders Square… in Skyview 930, I’m Steve Cichon…”

That should have been the end of the report, but with her whiskey-soaked cigarette voice she tried to lay on the sultry at the end of one of my first reports– in what might have been the first words she ever directed at me.
“HeeeEEEEyy SteeeEEEeeeve, you know, you sound sexy,” said the nasty hag to the teenaged boy live on the radio.

I was 16 or 17 years old, and a little embarrassed– but more pissed. I knew my future was at the news station, was making a big effort to sound professional and journalistically trustworthy… and not just some kid.

By any measure, I know didn’t sound sexy. And she knew it. She was being mean to be funny— trying to throw off a kid on his first day for a laugh.

I can tell you for sure my terse and dismissive response, horrified, pissed, and embarrassed, jammed in the back seat of a tiny airplane with 50 pounds of equipment on my lap, wasn’t sexy.

“SteeeeEEEeeeeve, you sound seeeEEEEeeeexy.”

“Well, OK,” I said, “if you think an accident on the 33 is sexy. Thanks…” as I quickly clicked off the mic.

Hahaha. I’d have handled that differently today, but the way teenaged me handled it makes me smile to think about.

When I got back to the station, I complained to my boss about the woman– who at this point was already on her way to being fired. But with my heart in my throat, I told him what I said, too… concerned about being in trouble for “going off the script.”

Trying to keep his usual military bearing, my mentor and boss barely held back a big grin, telling me I handled things perfectly. I couldn’t have been sure then, but there’s no doubt there was delight in the fact that “the kid gave it to the witch” live on the radio.

This was exactly the kind of loving support I found over and over again from the radio family that is still so much a part of my heart.

Still, I carried shame about this incident for a long time— not happy with the way I handled myself. Even at this moment, nearly three decades later I’m second-guessing— but of course… there’s no good way for a kid to handle a small-hearted jerk.

More than anything, I guess I should thank her, because somewhere deep in the echoes of my mind, the incident reverberated every time I went off the script to tell some kid “great job” on the air.. even when listeners might have wondered if we’d been listening to the same report.

And there’s little doubt I felt some part of that sting as I’ve called out and bawled out dozens of people who’ve mistreated “lower-statused” co-workers through the years…

Things like “The guy’s doing the best he can— why don’t you worry about your own work.”

Now that’s sexy.

Episode 2: The Fish Fry

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo

My ol’man and Gramps— my ol’man’s ol’man— were certified, bonafide American originals.

They were the kind of men that could only be forged in a place like Buffalo and in a tough neighborhood like the Valley.

Late in life, Gramps lost his sight and his mobility— around the same time that my dad lost his leg to diabetes and heart disease after a couple of years in and out of the hospital.

Those two became best friends— talking to each other on the phone four or five times a day, helping one another defeat loneliness while enriching the father-and-son bond between these two guys who were made from the same good stuff.

Gramps was in his 80s, reflective, and accepting-but-sad. Dad was in his 50s, still a Marine at heart, and despite not having a leg or enough stamina to learn to walk on a prosthetic— he sometimes forgot about his physical condition. Especially when it came to trying to lighten the burden of his dad’s loneliness and isolation.

It wasn’t easy to get Dad out of the house or Gramps out of the nursing home.

Getting them both out at the same time was a real adventure, but my ol’man would beg for me to help him take his dad out the same way a five-year-old begs to go out for ice cream. That means relentlessly, with big sad eyes, not really understanding or caring why its a bad idea, and with a complete and utter disregard for whatever bullshit being spewed to explain why it’s not the best idea.

One day in particular, the planets aligned and I made secret plans to get my ol’man and gramps out for an early dinner.

When the day came and I asked Dad if he wanted to head over to pick up Gramps for a fish fry— it was less like telling a kid we were going for ice cream— but more like telling him we were going to Disney World.
My ol’man was wide-eyed and breathless.

He was excited to get out of the house. He was excited to get a fish fry.
“I hope they got that good potato salad,” said Dad excitedly.

But more than anything, he was excited to be sharing all these things with his dad.

With my wife’s help, I got Dad in the car. Kinda spilled him into the backseat. Then to the nursing home and Gramps in the front seat.

We went to the good Greek place only a mile or so away. My wife and I were completely spent from getting these two into the car when we had to unpack them.

Both times, Gramps was pretty compliant but as heavy as the smell of fried fish in the air.

He sat with the wheels locked on his wheelchair in a far-away parking spot because it was the only place where we could get the door open and enough room to get these guys out.

If Gramps was easy— getting one-legged Dad out of the back seat was like trying to pull a rabid cat out of a carrier crate.

My ol’man was excited and crazed and even forgot himself in the mayhem, trying to lift himself out of that backseat using the long-gone leg he’d had amputated years earlier.

Sweaty and wild-haired by the time he was out of the car, he was pissed because we weren’t moving fast enough.

There was goddamn fish fry waiting to be eaten, and nothing was slowing down my ol’man.

“Here Dad, let me help you,” said my father to his father, despite his inability to muster enough power to move his own wheelchair.

Grabbing the push handles at the back of Gramps’ wheelchair, my ol’man started jiggling and shaking himself trying to break the internia of two guys sitting reluctantly immobile in their medically-necessary chariots.

None of the gyrations worked even a little.

“Relax Dad, we’re going as fast as we can,” I said, stressed and worn-out myself, now trying to push both wheelchairs at once and adding to the ridiculousness of the scene. It was a live-action Three Stooges show.

Eventually we got in and had some great fish fry and great conversation and lots of laughs.

This was the last time we’d go through this deeply beautiful and satisfying comedy routine— it was actually Dad’s last good day.

All that jiggling— and his trouble getting up and down the stairs and in and out of the car— almost certainly contributed to the major heart attack he had that night.

Dad’s many heart attacks were quiet. He never knew as they happened. He’d just feel lousy— which he did all the time anyway. After a couple of days in the ICU, my ol’man died at the age of 58.

My ol’man’s last good meal and last good time was a fish fry with his ol’man. And it killed him to make it happen. And if he was sitting here, he’d tell you it was worth it.

Every dad deserves a son like my ol’man, and every son deserves a dad like my grandpa. My ol’man and Gramps. Two of the best. How blessed I have been.

Episode 1: Smokin’ in the Park

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo

Mulroy Playground was around the corner from my house. During the summer of 1983, there were always dozens and dozens of kids— and zero adults.

Everyone was there mid-morning, when the city would drop free lunches off the back of big yellow Pep Dairy trucks everyday.

Wrapped on a small styrofoam tray about the size for a pound of hamburger, came rock hard peaches, sour half-frozen orange juice in a sealed plastic cup, and a sandwich— either thick-sliced low-grade bologna or a “choke sandwich,” which was wrapped to look like an ice cream sandwich, but instead was peanut butter and jelly between graham crackers.

It was low-grade peanut butter and stuck to your esophagus for hours— that’s why we called ’em choke sandwiches. There was milk, too, but unless it was chocolate milk, I don’t remember anyone drinking it.

There was a 1950s concrete wading pool, which normally was filled with broken glass, but no water. After a heavy rain, we’d carefully wade in the rainwater, brown glass bits, and floating gold foil Genesee Beer labels.

Next to that, there was a monkey bar castle to climb on, but the older boys commandeered what was another worn-out 1950s structure. That was actually fine with us, because who ever had been throwing the beer bottles in the wading pool had been using the castle turrets as urinals. On hot sunny days the smell was unbearable.

Over on the swings, where everyone was doing their best to try to swing over the bar, Jimmy was usually on the last swing, barely swinging, his feet making noise with the gravel and dirt with every pass.

He was obese in a way that most of us had never seen in another kid. He was big. He was also my age—around 7— but I didn’t know him. He went to a public school a couple of blocks away, I went to Holy Family school right behind the playground.

I’m not even entirely sure that his name was Jimmy, but it’s hard to forget this kid.

As the early summer morning sun turned up the swampy heat and the smell of piss coming from the castle turrets, seven-year-old Jimmy laconically sat swinging all day, chain smoking.

Even among the group of vagabond, hobo, street-urchin children we were, something felt terribly wrong about Jimmy puffing away non-stop; inhaling even.

It wasn’t even the fear that he’d get in trouble— it just didn’t seem right. And sometimes, often even, other kids would say something.
Like a 12 or 13 year old would take a drag off a Marlboro and ask Jimmy, “Aren’t you too young to smoke?”

With the same amount of detached interest he showed in swinging, he’d answer, “Nah, I’ve been smoking since I was 6.”

He told a lot of stories that seemed unbelievable, but there he was– a seven-year-old chainsmoker. It really made anything seem possible.

I don’t remember talking about Jimmy with my parents, but since it bothers me this very moment almost 40 years later in the same way it did back then, I imagine I might have said something.

Probably to my ol’man, who probably half-listened, and then responded with a Parliament dangling out of the corner of his lip as he growled.

“Don’t let me find out that you’ve been smoking over in that goddamn park,” he would have said. “I’ll put my boot so far up your goddamn ass you won’t sit for a week.”

We moved and I never saw Jimmy again. I hope someone put a boot up his ass and he’s doing ok today.