“Sh*thole country” is 2018 speak for No Irish, No Colored, No Polish, No Italian…

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Recently, the President of the United States referred to a handful of poor countries as “shithole countries,” which frankly is bad enough on its own– but the fact that it was in reference to not allowing the good people of those poor, desperate places access to the American dream makes me sick and makes me sad.

If you are reading this, chances are you have some connection to Buffalo. If you have some connection to Buffalo, chances are pretty good that you some part of your family migrated here from a nation that was considered poor and unsavory by most “real Americans,” ie, the people who’d already been here.

If you are one of those folks, can you read through this list of want ads I’ve compiled from Buffalo newspapers and feel the treatment your Irish, Italian, Polish, Jewish, Catholic, and African-American ancestors felt. (and in some cases you still feel.)

No Polish or Colored. Buffalo Courier, 1918. (Buffalo Stories archives)
No colored. Buffalo Evening News, 1925. (Buffalo Stories archives)
No Colored woman need apply. Buffalo Evening News, 1916. (Buffalo Stories archives)
No Catholics. Buffalo Evening News, 1883 (Buffalo Stories archives)

 

No Polish. Buffalo Courier, 1907. (Buffalo Stories archives)
No Polish. Buffalo Evening News, 1913. (Buffalo Stories archives)
No Irish wanted. Buffalo Evening News 1895. (Buffalo Stories archives)
No Polish girl need apply. Buffalo Evening News, 1898. (Buffalo Stories archives)
“Work and Opportunity for all,” but No Italian. Buffalo Courier, 1907. (Buffalo Stories archives)
No Jewish people. Buffalo Evening News, 1925 (Buffalo Stories archives)
No Polish Need Apply. Buffalo Evening News, 1913. (Buffalo Stories archives)
First class man needed– no Italian. Buffalo Courier, 1908 (Buffalo Stories archives)
No Irish need apply. Buffalo Evening News, 1892. (Buffalo Stories archives)
No Italians need apply. Buffalo evening News, 1892. (Buffalo Stories archives)
No Jews or foreigners need apply. Buffalo Evening News, 1926 (Buffalo Stories archives)

The rhetoric has quickly evolved from “we don’t want ‘those people’ here because they broke the law to get here,” to “even if ‘they’ came legally, we’re sending them back…” to “we must stop people from ‘shithole countries’ from emigrating to the US, period.”

When my ancestors came from Ireland, Poland, Hungary, and Bas-Rhin/Germany… those places were all considered shithole countries by the landed classes of this country. Since 1620, this country has been the shining city on the hill people have clawed their way toward for a new start… allowing more people access to our opportunity doesn’t diminish it– it enhances it.

America’s greatness lies in our heart and our ambition. Stopping people from coming here to make a new life for themselves and their families shows a lack of heart and cut down on our overall total ambition, too.

 

The Gramps Files: Babcia the Rum Runner

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

During The Prohibition, my great-grandmother made moonshine in the family basement and sold it from my grandpa’s baby buggy. Here’s Gramps telling the story….

During a visit on June 18, 2012, Gramps tells the story of his mother using a copper kettle to make whiskey in the basement of their Fulton Street home during The Depression and Prohibition days as a way to keep food on the table for their family with ten children Babcia would put the bottles in with Gramps in his baby buggy for distribution around The Valley.

John & Mary Cichon outside their Fulton Street, Buffalo home, 1941.

The Cichons lived on Fulton Street in The Valley, between Van Rensselaer Street and Smith Street. My great-grandparents owned the home where the booze was made from 1922-1978. Jan Cichon and Maryanna Pochec both came to Buffalo from Poland in 1913. They met here and were married at Holy Apostles Ss. Peter and Paul Church at Smith and Clinton in 1914.

John Cichon died in 1967. Mary Cichon died in 1980. Gramps died in 2014 just after his 88th birthday.

Gramps always told a lot of great stories, but this was one I’d never heard before. I was bursting with questions to ask, but I always considered my visits with Gramps to be his time. Nearly all of his friends, nine brothers and sisters, my grandmother, and four of his ten children died before he did. He needed a friend to talk and listen and bring Tim Bits—not someone to ask uncomfortable questions.

Gramps and Steve

Then and now, I wish I could have done more. I tried to be equal parts buddy and grandson, and I listened to whatever he had to share and never judged…. And I paid back those secret candy bars and ice cream cones from my youth with a box of Tim Bits or a “real burnt-up hot dog with sweet relish and slivered onions” with each visit.

 

The beauty of light and serendipity on a cold winter day

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

If there’s anything I love about this time of year, it’s the days when I happen I to walk down the stairs and look out the window just as the sun starts to disappear towards the other side of the park.

view out of the window on the landing. Steve Cichon photo

And on the days when the air is crisp and the clouds are high, the last gasp of sun splashes honey and orange hued final breaths of light against the houses just outside that window.

My soul is warmed in a way that the sun can’t just by itself on a brutish frigid day– the way nature projects light and life on this pedestrian everyday scene literally just out my window.

I’m moved to wonder, if these were some of the observations that moved a favorite artist to create a favorite painting.

Even before I knew who Charles Burchfield was and that this painting is a composite of a couple of different places around Buffalo, I’ve always loved “Six O’Clock,” and something about it speaks to me– the same something I hear calling from outside my stairway window on late winter afternoons.

I usually resist the urge to take a photo of my special scene. Creating a digital image with the same swipe and click I make dozens of times a day can’t possibly capture the serendipity of it. Taking the photo even actually defeats the fleeting nature of the glowing lights bringing at least visual warmth to the cold.

But today seemed like the right day.

Remembering Michael LoCurto, 1971-2017

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

My heart aches with the loss of one of the good ones, Michael LoCurto.

Delaware District Council Member Michael LoCurto. (from his Facebook page)

Mike was a great public servant– a man of few words, but much integrity, intellect, and common sense. I learned a lot from his friendship and his quiet yet firm stewardship of the Delaware District. A good guy. A honest guy. A funny guy. We need more like him in the world (and especially in politics), and his passing leaves a sad void.

Steve Cichon and Mike LoCurto, cutting the ribbon on Parkside’s Little Libraries, 2013.

This is Mike and me cutting the ribbon on Parkside’s Little Library project a few years ago… It’s a rare photo because he was more about taking action than taking credit. He ALWAYS had what was best for the people of his district and our city at heart… never himself or some outside influence. Thank you to a true public servant and a great friend.

May perpetual light shine upon him, and may God descend upon the hearts of his family and all all those who loved him, bringing peace, love, and warmth.

The Ol’man & Fruitcake

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

As I continue to evolve into my father, with great anticipation, I bought a fruitcake today.

My ol’man would excitedly exclaim, “Man, cut that up! I LOVE fruitcake!” to no one in particular, because no one else would eat what I assumed was rotten dreck.

He probably did share the fruitcake with the dog– especially if it was Casey.

Well just now, I ate a quarter of this thing between taking the photo and writing this. Dad would be proud of my broadened holiday palette… but if I ever get a taste for that shrinkwrapped Hickory Farms sausage he also loved— please just put me out of my misery.

Fruitcake is plenty tasty. I think my distrust for it stemmed from its resemblance to another of one of my dad’s favorite processed meat products– olive loaf.

 

A soup can is a ticket to a journey back in time

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

The best part of opening up an old newspaper to look for something specific… is taking your time to get there. Yesterday, in a 1979 edition of The Buffalo Evening News, I had a memory flashback as I quickly scanned a Tops ad.
Hy-Top Chicken Noodle Soup, 1979.
 
When I was at Holy Family grammar school, we went home for lunch… But a couple of days a week, when mom was working, I walked the extra block to my Great-Grandpa Wargo’s house with a can of Hy-Top chicken noodle soup in tow for Grandpa W to heat up for both of us.
 
In the side door and up a few steps to the kitchen, where everything was ancient– but pristine. The giant gleaming white stove with chrome accents was in newer shape than our stove at home, even though it was 30 years older. The same could be said of the also gleaming white counter tops, laminate with gold flecks, in full-1950s style.

The table where we ate the soup was even older, enamel but sturdy. My mother and grandmother likely ate soup for lunch in the same spot at the same table where I sat on those early 80s afternoons.

 
We had to be on our best behavior around Grandpa W, and there was certainly a “get-off-my-lawn” air about him, with his wiry gray hair, glasses like Dennis the Menace’s dad, and clothes that were a bit worn and a bit too big on the man after whom I was named.
 
He was a notorious curmudgeon, but I can’t conjure up an image of him without a smile on his lips and happiness in his eyes. I have another 40 years to work on it, but that’s the kind of curmudgeon I’m aiming to become.
 
I wish I knew how to describe the smell at Grandpa W’s house… I’ve asked and nobody knows what I’m talking about. It was slightly sweet, and maybe a bit like licorice, but not quite so pungent.
 
The thought of that smell makes me feel tucked in with a kiss on the forehead without a worry in the world.
 
Olfactory memories ignited by the grainy image of this can– the exact red-and-gold labeled can I remember from those special meals.
 
As a first grader, the soup produced from that can was enough for Gramps and me to have lunch– but then there was also enough left for him to have some soup for dinner, too.
 
I think ol’gramps would be happy with the nearly-threadbare shirt I’m wearing at the moment, but I’m afraid he might be disappointed if he thinks his namesake would eat a third of a can of soup for dinner.
 
Anyway, all of this swelled up in my eyes and my smile in a brief moment as I pushed forward flipping through the pages of that 40 year old newspaper. I eventually got the article I set out to find, but that’s not nearly as thrilling as finding what I didn’t know I was looking for.

Shining a light saves the next victim

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

It’s not the overtly disgusting cartoon-character dirtbags I’m most worried about.
 
It’s the upstanding All-American types for whom power and status is an intoxicant, who allow themselves to use their clout and that little bit of power buzz to mercilessly prey upon those around them.
 
Those preyed upon might not even realize they’ve punched a ticket to unveil some dark perverse corner in an All-American gutter until it’s too late.
 
When it stays in the shadows, this authoritative debaucher can simply go on pretending this behavior doesn’t exist– until that inebriation of power strikes again, and a blurry, out-of-focus green light means another victim.
 
We’re seeing flood lights blasted into corners we’ve either didn’t know existed or tried to ignore. It’s really, really uncomfortable either way– and there are plenty who’d prefer to say, “just please stop already.”
 
For as uncomfortable that light pouring out of dark gutters is for most of us– for many upstanding powerful All-American types, there’s a mirror in that bright light, and every time a corner gets lit up, that intoxicating buzz starts to feel a bit more like a hang over.
 
And maybe someone doesn’t get harassed or assaulted today.

Remembering my first Bills game… and it hasn’t gotten much better

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

My ol’man took me to my first Bills game at Rich Stadium against the Baltimore Colts in 1982– the players’ strike shortened season.

Gramps was a ticket taker at the stadium, so we didn’t pay– we handed him a matchbook which he ripped and gave back to us in case the boss was watching. Aside from the free admission, Gramps letting us in also meant we could get in with the big bag of home-popped popcorn, which was our only snack for the game.

The fact that we didn’t pay to get in probably means we weren’t part of the 33,900 announced attendance that day, but it doesn’t matter anyway– we left early because I was five years old and cold.

That all sounds better than what happened today, when I turned the car radio on just in time to hear Murph say that first time rookie starter Nate Peterson threw two interceptions in the first four minutes of the game against the LA Chargers.

Tearing down not just buildings, but our soul

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

This isn’t anti- or pro- or anything specific … just what I thought about as I drove down Elmwood Avenue today.

They were shooting a movie in front of Voelker’s, because that is what attracts people to Buffalo. WNY is real, authentic, and lived in.

A few blocks away, a battle’s being lost to retain some of that authenticity to make way for a building that we might see in Tampa or Phoenix or anywhere else in the world.

Progress is good and we need it– but we also need to keep in mind what draws people here.

In a word, it’s our soul. The soul that lives in us and the soul that lives as part of our streetscape and buildings.

If something new is going to take away from that soul, it had better bring something tangibly more to the community.

Protecting soul can’t be written into a zoning plan. We have to be stewards of the essence that makes us who we are, and as a community, we need to continue to talk about all the Buffalo intangibles that money can’t buy– but sure as hell can ruin.

As my ol’man taught us, it’s not enough, but “thanks”

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

My ol’man taught us respect for everyone, and as a veteran, he made sure that we understood that veterans deserved extra respect.

We always gave a buck to the dusty, shriveled World War I vets who were selling poppies outside the grocery store and the bank.  In this increasingly cashless world, when I don’t have a dollar and wish I did, Dad’s lesson from these hundreds of times echoes in my mind. “You always you make sure you have a buck for something like this,” he’d tell us, giving one of us a crepe paper poppy with a green wire stem.

For as long as I can remember, we regularly spent time at the VA Hospital, whether to visit Dad, go to an appointment with him, or to visit one of our many relatives who received care there.

Now my ol’man really didn’t care much for rules, especially if they didn’t make sense to him. “No visitors under 14” was an edict he ignored with relish. “People who are sick need to be cheered up,” I know he thought, “and what have I got that will cheer people up? These little lemons!”

I’m not talking trying to slip in a 12 year old, either. I remember visiting the bedside of my dad’s Grandpa Scurr at South Buffalo Mercy Hospital. I had just turned three when he died, so dad looked at the age limit as plus or minus 11 years.

A couple years later, dad snuck us into the VA hospital to visit my mom’s grandfather. Grandpa Stephen J. Wargo spent the second half of World War II as a Navy mechanic fixing planes on Guam, and he and my dad got along great—which wasn’t always true for either one of these irascible men named Steve.

Getting over on Mercy Hospital to visit a sick grandpa was one thing—my ol’man had been gleefully giving nuns the business since the days when he was kicked out of St. Stephen’s Grammar school in the Valley on Elk Street.

He was a little more careful at the VA, though. While not quite the military, the Veterans Administration Hospital was really just about the only place I’d ever seen my father “behave” for a prolonged period of time. At any other hospital, the rule was stupid. Period. Same rule at the VA, but he’d employ the kind of protocol he learned in the Marine Corps—if we’re going to bend a rule, we’d better do it carefully and for good reason.

So when the elevator dinged for the right floor on our way to visit Grandpa Wargo, Dad stuck his head out of the elevator looking both ways to make sure the coast was clear, before grabbing and jerking my hand and my brother’s hand with a very direct, “c’mon.”

In the early 80s, every floor at the VA still had a smoking lounge, usually right next to the elevators. With purpose, Dad threw open the door to the smoking room and threw us in. “Don’t move,” he told us as he left to go get Gramps.

There was a friendly elderly black man in a bathrobe in the lounge, probably just trying to enjoy a smoke. I can’t be sure of the exact words, but dad asked something along the lines of, “Can you keep an eye on these animals while I get their grandfather?”

Almost four decades later, I can’t forget that guy’s smile and his standing in front of us… Holding his bathrobe open to hide us in case someone looked in the room. It’s powerful when just your presence can make people smile, and we made quite a few people smile with a few bent rules and only a small dose of secondhand smoke.

Later, when dad was spending more time in the VA himself, we’d often get to know his bunkmates. Especially when it was clear they didn’t have visitors or family, dad would adopt them—meaning we’d adopt them. I’d call dad to see if he wanted anything before going to see him. I’d usually bring a paper and a good cup of coffee, but he usually wouldn’t ask for anything– unless his buddy needed something.

All this is to say I hope that I carry with me and share my ol’man’s respect and honor for those who have served. I don’t always have an extra buck in my pocket, but there aren’t a lot of folks selling poppies, anyway.

But on Veteran’s Day (and everyday), when I meet someone who has served or see someone who is outwardly representing their service with a hat or bumper sticker, I offer a firm handshake, a look in the eye, and a thank you.

It’s not enough, but nothing’s really enough. It’s my honoring my dad, my dad’s service, and the sacrifice of every man and woman to ever wear the uniform.

Thank you.