Buffalo’s Italian Population through the years

       By Steve Cichon

As late as the 1940s, newspaper stories written about Buffalo’s Italian population were painted with wild strokes of exotic color.

“Off in a section of the city where the rays of the sun, on a bright day, glisten down upon dilapidated housetops and seek their way into narrow streets and by-ways with which the place abounds, are colonized a people in whose native land the skies are the fairest and bluest, and where the very breezes are filled with invigorating fragrance.”
– The opening paragraph of “The Italian Colony in Buffalo,” The Buffalo Courier, 1898

Sprinkled throughout 50 years’ worth of these newspaper accountings of how and why Italians came to and flourished in Buffalo, are the facts – and the colorful descriptions – which make up this story.

Italians in the Hooks neighborhood near Canal Street, 1908.

A handful of Genoese were the first Italians to make Buffalo their home.

When Luigi Chiesa set up his home and birdcage store at Elm and Broadway in the mid-1840s, he didn’t know any English, and there wasn’t anyone in town who knew any Italian. But he quickly became a Buffalo backer.

“Chiesa became a self-appointed immigration agent for Uncle Sam,” reported the Buffalo Express in 1901, “and in his letters to friends in Italy were importunings to this great country, ‘God’s Country.’ ”

His name means “church” in Italian, so not long after arriving in Buffalo, he became well-known among longtime city residents as Louis Church. But to the slowly trickling in numbers of Italians, he was still Luigi and his home was the first hub of Buffalo’s Italian community.

John Roffo was among the first Italians to settle in the neighborhood that would come to be known as Little Italy near today’s Canalside. After arriving in 1847, he was a wine merchant and grocer on Canal Street, then opened a tavern on Erie Street.

Louis Onetto, who owned a macaroni manufacturing works on Broadway near Michigan for more than 50 years, came to Buffalo in 1866.

Those early sons of Italy were northern Genoese, but in the decades to come, the massive numbers came from southern Italian places like Sicily and Naples.

“The Sicilians far outnumber the other Italians in Buffalo,” reported The Express. “They are the dark-skinned, raven-haired, black-eyed Italians who are most numerous on Buffalo’s streets. They are the manufacturers of macaroni, the fruit hucksters, and the bootblacks.”

“The Italian Moses who led the Sicilians to the promised land of Buffalo was Frank Baroni,” reported The Express. He came to Buffalo from Valledolmo, Sicily, in 1882 and immediately wrote home encouraging people to find their way to Buffalo.

“The great majority of the Italian colony,” reported The Express in 1908, “are of the peasant and laboring class.” But not all.

Among the first 42 to heed Baroni’s call from Sicily was a destitute boy, Charles Borzilleri. Eventually, he was the first Italian to graduate from UB Medical School and became prominent not only in the Italian community but in Buffalo at large. He founded Columbus Hospital on Niagara Street and also spent several terms as the president of the Erie County Medical Society.

Those Italians moving to Buffalo settled in one of the oldest parts of Buffalo, displacing the Irish enclave near the Erie Canal and Buffalo Harbor around Canal Street and the Terrace. What was the center of this neighborhood is today covered by the Marine Drive Apartments near Canalside.

“Hemming in on one side by the water’s edge, and intersected on the other by the ponderous traffic of a steam railway, the locality offers few inducements to those who would establish homes within the boundary lines of Buffalo,” reported The Courier in 1898.

That’s why through the 1890s, more Italians began moving onto the other side of the canal as well, into what we would now describe as the West Side.

Long before City Hall was built, St. Anthony’s Church – now in the shadow of City Hall, was the primary place of worship for Buffalo’s Italian population. Italians began to move in from what is now City Hall north to what is now the Peace Bridge.

Right at the center of that newly Italian area was Front Avenue, which would be renamed Busti Avenue in honor of Buffalo’s first celebrated Italian in 1930.

It was the third attempt to name a street after Paulo Busti, an agent for the Holland Land Company. Like many of Holland’s executives, his name appeared as a street name on maps of early Buffalo. The original Busti Avenue was re-christened Genesee Street. The streets now known as Upper and Lower Terrace streets were once known as Busti Terrace, before Busti’s name was dropped off the map for a second time.

A 1930 breakdown said that there were about 20,000 Buffalonians who had been born in Italy, and another 45,000 who had at least one Italian-born parent, making Italians Buffalo’s third most numerous foreign-born residents, behind Germans and Poles.

Buffalo’s Italian community celebrated when, in 1958, the first one of their own was elected mayor. Frank A. Sedita – who grew up in the neighborhood behind City Hall, doing the jobs typical of grammar school-age Italian boys like shoeshine boy and newspaper hawker – was elected to three terms as Buffalo’s mayor.

Same as it ever was: Jerry Sullivan vs Bruce Smith, 1997

       By Steve Cichon

Bills Safety Jordan Poyer and sportswriter Jerry Sullivan have been going back and forth for a couple of weeks now… But there’s nothing new under the sun.

I recorded this 1997 postgame exchange between Jerry and Bruce Smith at the WBEN studios on Elmwood Avenue from a live feed coming from Rich Stadium.

With the static from our wireless microphones, it’s hard to hear exactly what Jerry is asking Bruce, but most of Bruce’s response is pretty clear.
“You a punk ass motherfucker once you get (interference),” said Bruce, to the laughter of the assembled reporters, photographers and players.

“I know you’re going to say it,” said Bruce. “I know you ain’t gonna stop.”
The first clear words we hear from Sullivan on the tape are, “(something) stop being an asshole…”

To which Smith replied, “Oh, I’m the asshole! I’m the asshole! Oh yeah,” before turning to another reporter and calmly telling him, “Go ahead, man.”

That year, I produced Bills games on the radio. For years, we’d run the postgame show without a delay. My timing or the exact order of events might be off, but I think we started running a delay on the player press conferences after Thurman Thomas stormed away from the podium microphone one time yelling something close to, “half of you ain’t ever put on a jockstrap,” but with the word “fuck” worked in there somehow.

I think I have that audio somewhere, but I couldn’t find it today.

Anyway, that running live on the radio earned me a strongly-worded note from my boss about trying to make sure to avoid those sorts of words going out on the air if possible.

When this Bruce Smith interview aired live, I was able to “dump” out of delay—so the WBEN audience never heard Bruce Smith call Jerry Sullivan a “punk-ass motherfucker” on the radio. The problem was, with the 1970s technology we were using at the time, there was no way for me to hit dump a second time so quickly and avoid allowing Jerry and Bruce calling each other assholes on the radio.

Back in those days, while there were relatively few ways to hear or see full press conferences, it just so happened one of the local tv stations—I don’t remember whether it was 2, 4, or 7—aired this press conference live on its post-game show.

The complete exchange between Bruce and Jerry was aired live on TV and talked about for weeks on sports radio talk shows on WBEN and WGR—as well as in letters to the sports editor as published every week in the Sunday News.

Jerry Sullivan & Bruce Smith

Episode 14: Estrangement Pains

       By Steve Cichon

When I look at old photos of three-year-old me crying or listen to whiny old cassette tapes I made as a five-year-old, it’s pretty clear that I was a sensitive little boy.

Because of that, some things that most people roll with— left me traumatized.

Now I was surrounded by a huge, loving family— but it was also a family which was (and continues to be) filled with every sort of mental illness imaginable.

This was true in close relationships, very close relationships, and very, very close relationships.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talked about the difference between building a house on a foundation of rock versus building on a foundation of sand.

There was sand in every crevice of my young life.

Things like moving seven times and being in seven different schools by the time I was in sixth grade, just for starters.

As a kid, rolling with it was just fine. I didn’t know any better, even as I stumbled around trying to find my own way.

What seemed everyday normal to me maybe should have had a giant warning sign on it, but it didn’t. And from my perspective at the time, why would it? Isn’t this the way it should be?

The most important skill I learned during that time was to make sure I outwardly looked like all was swell— even as the stormy, weak, and teetering emotional foundation upon which I’d built my life was crumbling and constantly being patched in real time.

I’m happy to say that the space in my head and my heart has been reimagined and refortified, and, while I’ll spend the rest of my life finishing the rebuild and getting used to the new space, I’m feeling more more grounded these days with far less anxiety and far more direction.

Sadly, finding firmer ground for a less chaotic life hasn’t come without cost.
Looking back I realize that never having developed a good sense of self, I was always willing to play any role in a relationship I valued— right down to doormat if necessary.

Most of my friends and loved ones are happy to see me strong, healthy, and happy— but a few of the most cherished people in my life couldn’t stand the idea of me standing my ground for my own health and well-being.

Its not easy to stay away from these people, some of whom are dealing with (or not dealing with) their own dilemmas in their own lives. That they can’t make room for me working to make my own life better hurts.

And the hardest part of that is— whatever anger, bitterness, and even hatred some of these folks have for me— I still love each of them with the same intensity and commitment as I always have.

Only now, that estranged love comes with intense and haunting sadness.
I love them and wish them well— but if you can’t be part of my new adventures… or at least be happy that I’m happy— well, necessity makes our relationship a memory.

And that aches, but it’s growing pain that’s better for all of us in the long run.

Episode 13: Gramps and his Wall of Pop

       By Steve Cichon

Pop tasted so much better in those 16oz glass bottles.

Coke Pepsi RC Cola… Cardboard eight packs filled with loose glass bottles lined the bottom shelf of the pop aisle at every supermarket in Buffalo and they were always on sale.

But even when they weren’t on sale, buying those 8 packs of glass bottles was the cheapest way to buy the name brand pop.

That’s why Gramps loved ’em and literally filled the hall with them.
Grandma Cichon lived a few doors from Seneca Street in a worn out, but grand old house.

When you walked in the front door and looked straight ahead, you looked through the front hall, then a more narrow hallway, and then right into the kitchen.

It was in that narrow hallway where there was always enough pop stacked up to quench the thirst of a small army. With 10 kids, that’s pretty much what Gramps had— and he’d buy all the pop he could when it was on sale whether he needed it or not.

When you look straight past the pop, if Grandma wasn’t at the stove cooking, you’d see her first thing when you’d swing open that heavy front door.

She was always sitting at the head of the worn out white Formica kitchen table— complete with a cup of instant coffee in a gold butterfly mug and Kool 100 burning in the over-full ashtray.

If you creaked open that big door and looked slightly to the right— and he wasn’t working one of the three jobs he still had when I was a kid— Gramps would be sitting in that well-used comfy chair just on the other side of the beautiful leaded glass doors which lead into the parlor.

Grandma generally would see us first, and start to say hello, before Gramps– who was much closer– would take his eyes off of Lawrence Welk or Bugs Bunny to intercept us for a minute.

“Ha’oh dere, son,” Gramps would say in a pretty thick standard Buffalo Polish accent.

I had no idea there was anything to notice about that. Isn’t that how everyone’s Grandpa talked?

“Can I get you a glass of pop or a sandwich?” Gramps would ask reflexively, and immediately piss off my ol’man.

“Jesus Christ, Dad, it’s ten o’clock in the mornin’,” Dad would say, walking toward Grandma in the kitchen.

As we kids run in to give him a hug, Gramps would ignore my ol’man completely and give an inventory in case we were hungry.

“Well help yourself. In the ice box we got two kinds of baloney… Polish loaf… olive loaf… pimento loaf… ham…”

The sound of his voice would trail off as we walked through the narrow hallway filled with pop on the way to the kitchen.

I wouldn’t think anything of this hallway until twenty years later, when the girlfriend-who-became- my-wife asked me about it after visiting Gramps.

In the same way I never thought anything about my grandpa’s Polish accent, I never thought anything about the supermarket end cap worthy pop display.

That’s barely an exaggeration.

The entire length of the ten-foot long walkway had pop cans and bottle pushed up against the wall, stacked two or three deep and two, three, or four high in some places.

It was mystical and mystifying. Gramps’ pop display was far more impressive than what you’d have seen at Quality Food Mart, half a block away at Seneca and Duerstein. Better selection, too.

There were 2-liter and 3-liter bottles; flat, mixed-flavored cases of grocery-store brand cans; some times a wooden case or two from Visniak, but more than anything else, 8-pack after 8-pack of glass bottles.

As I mentioned, Gramps had ten kids— but there weren’t ten kids living there at the time.

Huns, it’s for the kids, Gramps would say as Grandma would yell at him coming home from grocery shopping with more pop when there were already hundreds of servings of soda pop lined up waist high, the first thing you see when you walk into the house.

I’m sure there was something about taking advantage of a good sale… or getting one over on a cashier with an expired coupon… or (put a star next to this one) getting under my grandmother’s skin by buying things she’d say they didn’t need…

But Gramps wasn’t a drinker. Never a beer or a highball, but would relax with a coffee or a pop.

He also really wanted to share his pop, and make sure you knew it was OK to take it. He wasn’t just being polite in offering it. That wall was there to prove, “I got plenty! Go ahead and take one!”

You could expect to refuse a pop at least three or four times while visiting with Gramps, and then one more on the way out.

And of course, this stuff was pop. I don’t think I even heard the word soda until was 8 years old.

“Sure you don’t want a pop, son? Why don’t you take some home? I’ll get you a bag.”

Episode 12: John Rigas – More than one thing is usually true

       By Steve Cichon

Almost 20 years after the corporate balloon he helped inflate burst— I still don’t know what to think about Adelphia Communications founder John Rigas, who died this week at the age of 96.

I worked for him for a couple of years just before he was sent to federal prison and the company was bankrupted.

It’s was a bizarre moment… sitting in my Adelphia middle manager’s office watching video of him being lead off in handcuffs on the NBC Nightly News, with the reporter making reference to “Adelphia’s management team” being arrested– somewhat chilling, since that could have described me at that point.

I had to lay off a handful of friends and co-workers because they were hired using the convoluted process that was a part of Adelphia’s shell game style of bookkeeping.

In the end, my job, and the jobs of all of my friends at the Empire Sports Network and WNSA Radio were lost. I was mostly unemployed for a year.

I personally lost thousands of dollars in talent fees and retirement earnings— many lost much, much more.

But as far as Mr. Rigas himself— the honorific still feels appropriate— in each of the many personal interactions I had with him, I always found him to be warm, kind, and humble.

After his arrest, though, little things began making sense.

The story I most often tell about Mr. Rigas is about the time I went to his office to interview him. He was gracious and welcoming to me. Also in the room were two executive managers whose salaries were both well into six figures.

As Mr. Rigas and I made small talk before the interview started, he excused himself and called a quarter-million dollars’ worth of Vice Presidents over by their first names and asked, “Can one of you get me a cup of coffee?”

The two men, with very important high-ranking jobs and tremendous responsibility within the company, nearly killed each other racing for the door to be able to get “the boss” his coffee first.

The whole ordeal felt sinister and abusive in the moment, and it was proven that this incident was reflective of the way the company was run all the time.

I learned a lot from Mr. Rigas and from working within the corporate structure he lorded over, and nearly all of it was “the way not to do things.”

There was what I can only imagine to have been genuine personal kindness to my face— but that doesn’t mesh with the ruthlessness with which he and his family played with and damaged the lives of their employees, including many of my friends and many reading this right now.

May perpetual light shine upon him.

May we also learn from the selfishness, greed, and power thirst that knocked him from his great heights.

Episode 11: Understanding Christ in 3 minutes or less

       By Steve Cichon

Religion, Christianity, can be utterly complicated.

But to understand Jesus, one simply has to go find a good translation of the Bible where Christ’s words are written in red.

Just read the red words. Christ’s words are straightforward.

If that sounds like too much work, read even just the Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew 5-7.)

If you take this straight forward speech in, ruminate upon it as new material and apply basic sixth grade level reading comprehension skills, you’ll come to understand Christ made it unbelievably simple.

Sixth grade reading level is all you need because he’s direct.

No interpretation is needed– unless you’re trying to squeeze in your own BS.

No gray areas or yeah-buts.

The themes are super easy and laid right out. Points from the Sermon on the Mount in order.

Know that if you’re blessed somehow– that blessing was given to the world through you.

Let your light shine.

All of this is equally important—you can’t pick or chose which to follow.

Before you come before God to pray—be sure your conscience is clear and you are reconciled with your brothers.

Be merciful in making peace—or you will find yourself in need of mercy.

The desire to sin is as bad as the sin itself—stay away from both.

Let your yes be yes and your no be no.

Love your enemies. (Bless them, in fact.)

Do good for the sake of doing good, not a pat on the back.

You can’t serve two masters. You can’t serve God and wealth. You can’t serve good and evil.

Consume simply. Don’t worry about tomorrow.

Don’t judge because you will be judged by the standards by which you judge.

Value the things that are valuable in your life.

Treat others the way you want to be treated.

It’s easy to go astray, but following the more difficult righteous path offers the life you seek.

Good people show goodness. Evil people show evil. Know the difference.

Build your life on these teachings and you will weather the storm of life.

Add in a couple more of Christ’s teachings–

Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself.

Give away all your possessions and follow me.

People will know you are my followers when they see the way you love one another.

That’s just about all Christ gave us. That’s it.

Be defiantly good. Defiantly love people. Defiantly don’t be a jerk.

These ideas are all that the first Christians (the ones taught by Christ himself) knew– and it’s all I need.

Episode 10: Best car, worst car

       By Steve Cichon

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.


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

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.  

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

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

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.