Nine years after his death, the world needs Jim Kelley more now than ever

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Nine years ago today, I wrote:

My good friend and Hockey Hall of Famer Jim Kelley died today. When we last spoke a few weeks ago, he knew it wouldn’t be long. I told him I love him, and he said it back. I’m glad we had that conversation. I wish more friends could/would. God bless you Jimmy, and your family.

Jim Kelley, October 26, 1949 – November 30, 2010

I started out in the “real world,” with an adult job in an adult environment at the age of 15, surrounded by an amazing cast of people who made me think the world was made of great men like them.

There were many, but none was better than Jim Kelley.

He was a hockey writer, but more than that he firmly believed and professed that there was truth and falsehood. Further, he believed that anyone who tried to make gray out of black-and-white was probably up to something and as a citizen and a journalist, it was his job to figure out what.

I miss him personally as a friend, and more broadly as the kind of guy this world needs more of… now more than ever.

Grateful is not always joyful

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

This print used to hang in Grandma Cichon’s kitchen. I was mesmerized by it as a toddler, and am still enchanted to this day.

A print of Bradford Boobis’ “Silent Prayer” hang on the wall of Grandma Cichon’s kitchen.

Part of what it shows is… Grateful is not always joyful.

Gratitude is a beginning, not an end. It‘s about having a profound understanding of a path that was laid out for you, about the things other people have done to lighten your load or create space for you to flourish.

Reflecting on and feeling true gratitude inspires appreciation— but not necessarily joy.

Sometimes acknowledging gratitude for things of long ago conjures up pain for the way things are now, as much as thanks for what once was.

Allowing yourself to be truly grateful for all that you’ve been given and by all who have given of themselves for you isn’t all sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows, but I think understanding and owning the complicated and uncomfortable feelings of thanks are just as important as the warm, good feeling ones we acknowledge with relish and smiles.

The first step in gratitude is allowing light into your life, even if darkness feels more comfortable.

My prayer for you today is that you can bring the light of gratitude in some dark place in your life, while still celebrating with smiles and warm hearts all the unbridled joy that makes your life worth living.

Today, I am truly grateful in every way imaginable. Happy Thanksgiving. Go Bills.

Sabres Goalie Andrei Trefilov offers Russian greeting

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

When he was the Sabres primary back-up goalie, Andrei Trefilov was a funny guy.

One day, I was covering the morning skate and a bunch of us reporters and media types were waiting for all the guys to leave the ice.

Not too long after Dominik Hasek roughed up Buffalo News reporter Jim Kelley, Trefilov came pounding off the ice with an angry look on his face, scowling at the assembled media.

He stopped, narrowed his eyes as he looked at us reporters and growled, “F**K YOU ALL!”

He then waited a moment, smiled, and said, “That means ‘Good Morning’ in Russian!” and walked away laughing. Hahaha.

Thirty years goes by in a flash…

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

“Wanna feel old? My bar-mitzvah was 30 years ago today.”

My oldest friend JJ sent me this text tonight.

We’ve been brothers, more or less, since third grade.

Two idiots, a few years before the bar mitzvah.

As brothers, he shared his special night with me. This Catholic kid even helped him practice the prayer he had to read in Hebrew at the big event.

Prayers aside, I was excited because since this was the ceremony where a Jewish boy becomes a man— that night, in this spectacular ballroom with a giant crystal chandelier, we were going to be able to drink rum and Cokes.

With bartenders holding back giggles, we hammered down “drinks” one after another,  as the mixologist made splashing as little rum as possible look as dramatic as possible to a pair of 13 year old eyes.

Our friendship has endured mostly because we were a couple of old souls, a fourth-grade Statler and Waldorf. Our mutual weirdness and sense of humor was forged together.

In our case, very specifically, even early in grammar school, it meant we both loved the boom of 40s, 50s, and 60s nostalgia which seemed to be everywhere in the 80s.

We just about wore out a VHS tape of A Christmas Story, which we watched some part of almost every day, while eating peanut butter Kudos bars and drinking Coca-Cola Classic (none of that New Coke crap for us) out of ceramic mugs with radio station call letters on them.

The Wonder Years was another seminal element for us in understanding our friendship, but by the time the show had debuted, our families lived a couple hundred miles apart. Still, together we watched and loved the show— talking about it briefly over long distance phone calls.

In different ways we were each equal parts Kevin and Paul. While living in the lousy 80s didn’t seem to capture our imaginations like the 60s might have, I think we both knew we were living out The Wonder Years in so many ways— even if we couldn’t fully understand what that meant.

All that seemed to be cemented when only weeks before JJ’s Bar Mitzvah, Paul had a Bar Mitzvah on The Wonder Years.

I don’t think there are any photos of JJ and I together at his Bar Mitzvah that night, but the screen-grab of Paul and Kevin is just as much us as an actual photo would be.

A few years later, JJ and I took a teenaged road trip tour of the Adirondacks, Quebec, and New England.

Of the dozens of great memories of that trip, one stands out tonight— visiting and spending the night at JJ’s grandparents near Lake Winnipesaukee, NH.

A night of free lodging was great for a couple of 16 year-olds on the road for a week, but it came with some weirdness.

Such characters were JJ’s grandparents, they could have walked out of a sitcom.  Well, except that his grandmother was wound half-a-turn too tight to get laughs.

Every word she spoke was saturated with anxiety and disappointment, whether it was the excessive use of ranch salad dressing or the accommodations in the guest bedroom.

“Oh Irv,” she said in her breathy and unmistakable voice, “it’s too bad we still don’t have those long beds that we had for (JJ’s dad) for these tall boys. They were beautiful beds.”

Sitting in his barcalounger, barely looking up from the TV stocks crawl on Financial News Network, JJ’s grandfather said with a smile and a solid New England accent, “Maaahgo, that was FAAHTY YEAAAHS AGO!”

“Forty years ago” seemed like an impossible concept that night almost 30 years ago, when we piled into Irv and Margo’s white Lincoln Town Car for an early bird dinner at Hart’s Turkey Farm.

But it all happened in a blink.

At the time, I thought that Grandpa Irv was smiling because his batty wife was almost making a scene over pining and longing for furniture that had been thrown away four decades earlier.

But now I know, some part of that smile had to be just how fast those “faahty yeaahs” had gone.

From Shame to Super Power

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Light is the only cure for darkness. It’s Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and in a piece I wrote for The Erie County Anti-Stigma Coalition, I shared the wide range of experiences I’ve had with my own mental health issues. Please take a look and share for the next guy… who might really need it.

I’ve started and erased this story at least a half-dozen times. It’s not that the words don’t flow, it’s just that I get anxious talking about my anxiety because I get anxious about nearly everything.

Far too much of my life has been wasted leaving terrible thoughts and emotions to fester inside my head unchecked. More than 30 years went by between the time I tried to take my own life as a kid in grammar school and my first session with a mental health counselor.

I was filled with shame, inadequacy, and a general feeling that I’d be letting people down if I did anything other than try to tamp down and ignore the brush fire that was burning uncontrolled in my mind.

I had little self-worth, but have always been filled with love and empathy for others. My first stepping out of the shadows came only to help someone else. That being an ear for a friend became more of a pal-to-pal therapy session, and showed me, finally, that help was within reach.

Since those chats started five or six years ago, the weight of depression holding me down has become lighter in a way I didn’t think possible. Understanding it a lot better through introspection and professional help has also made living with mental illness much more manageable.

Before, crippling anxiety would leave my mind and emotions spinning out of control, often to the point of physical exhaustion and pain. I’d feel it pulsing deep inside my head and at the tips of my toes. I’d feel burning in my lungs and other organs I couldn’t necessarily identify.

Spending time talking about and understanding what is at the root of my anxiety—both the utter soul-crushing kind and the smaller not-wanting-to-answer-a-phone-call kind—helps me contain it.

It’s more manageable, but it’s still a struggle. St. Francis de Sales tells the story of a man who receives the gift of some precious liquor in a porcelain bowl, and how carefully the man walks home cradling the bowl and careful with each step, making sure not to spill any.

That’s the same careful journey I’m taking day to day, or hour to hour, or minute to minute– but as time wears on, I’m spending less time focused on the full bowl and more time focused on enjoying the walk through life.

I will never “be healed,” but I have experienced tremendous healing through therapy and putting my story to work to help others.

What was once my shame is now my super power.


Originally appeared in the Erie County Anti-Stigma Coalition Newsletter, September 2019

Shooting “Be A Man” public service announcement

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Spent the morning today as an -ahem- actor in a public service announcement calling men to action in dealing mental health issues. Its a privilege to be able to help.

I know this sentence sounds a bit silly– but no one ever needs help– until the moment they need help. That moment could come anytime for any of us, and for a lot of us- that moment might have come and gone, and for whatever reason, we didn’t reach out.

The number at Crisis Services is 834-3131. You don’t have to feel like “you’re in crisis” to call. Its a great place to call if you don’t know where to start… and the easiest way to turn on the light down at the end of the tunnel.

Another mass shooting, deeper lines in the sand, louder name calling. (Oh, and thoughts and prayers)

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

The root of the evil in America is the loss of civility, common sense, and the ability to compromise.

I can’t think of a single thing in my life that is black or white. Everything is gray— which is a combination of black and white, which means compromise.

As Americans, we have to stop treating the issues that effect our very existence as if we’re rooting for our favorite sports team, and that rooting for our team means the same thing as rooting against the other team. In real life, when one side loses we all lose.

The only way this will get fixed is with everyone in the room agreeing to ideologically impure but **common freaking sense** ideas, and accept that it’ll cost votes on the fringes… but in the end is the truly American thing and the only way we all find a safer way forward.

We need politicians with a long view that can think about their grandkids and how they’ll be treated in history books rather than the next polling result or viral tweet.

I wish I was more optimistic about whether those folks will step up… and whether they’d even make it a step before We The People stomped them out of existence.

A little plastic transistor radio and Larry King on WBEN

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

In the late 80s, Buffalo night owls had John Otto on WGR, Larry King on WBEN, and Bruce Williams nationally syndicated TalkNet show on KB. I really loved all three, and would spend nights tuning back and forth on my little plastic Realistic AM radio under my pillow.

Afraid of repercussions from my mother’s quite amazing sense of hearing, the volume was so low I missed at least half of what was said. But being 9 or 10, listening to these bigger than life talents, I knew this was something I had inside of me to do.

I’m in awe that I had the chance to live the dreams that grew bigger and brighter from that little pink 9-volt radio whispering away in the wood-paneled 1980s bedroom I shared with my little brother.

Larry King

Larry King, smoking a cigar at a Mutual Broadcasting microphone, c.1981

Long before he became little more than a pair-of-suspenders caricature of himself on his CNN interview show, Larry King hosted one of my all-time favorite radio shows, late nights on the Mutual Broadcasting System.

More than ever came across on TV, on the radio, he was kind of a punk, kind of a blowhard. He’d take on heckling and prank phone callers– and really lose half the time. Would audibly smoke cigarettes on the air, and brag endlessly about hanging out at Washington’s trendy institution restaurant Duke Zeibert’s. Occasionally, he’d fall asleep on the air.

It was always an adventure to listen, mostly because when he’d put in the effort, man, was he talented. A great storyteller. Sometimes with Jean Shepherd (of A Christmas Story) level brilliance.

While completely fabricated, this story about Larry and his friend heading out for “Carvels” brings you to the street corner he’s talking about, and leaves you with such vivid images of the places and people, it’s just masterful.

Being honest, most of the time, that high level of talent was nowhere to be found– but even then, the show was highly entertaining.

Like the time a college student was asking Larry for advice on a career in journalism, and the clearly half-asleep Larry goes off in legendary fashion.

I called Larry’s radio show a handful of times. Once, I was 14 years old and called to challenge an author who was denigrating American youth and their lack of passion for geography. Larry interrupted me and started telling me I was wrong, but then the author interrupted Larry to agree with me. It was a proud moment.

Two other times I remember were more on the heckling/prank side.

Once, I used a stupid voice and a made up town in New Hampshire as my name (Mt. Coakerknock, NH, Hello!) to ask Larry what his favorite doughnut was. “Fascinating question, sir,” he said with mock appreciation. I forget what his answer was, but his did say he didn’t like powder doughnuts, because “I don’t like anything messy on my face.”

Larry King, 1986.

Larry famously had a heart attack in 1987, and the commercial breaks on his shows were filled with his endorsements of various products like herbal supplements which he would claim were helping to keep him healthy after having a heart attack. “Friends, it’s Larry King. Since my heart attack, I’ve been using Garlique brand garlic supplement, and  let me tell you, I’ve never felt better.”

After Larry quit the late night radio show, WBEN carried a midday show he hosted for a few months, but it didn’t last long. I called that show and asked him if he had another heart attack when he found out he was no longer on WBEN in Buffalo.

ut that was my way, I guess, to be a part of a medium and a show I loved.

Maybe one of these days, I’ll dust off those old cassette tapes and post them here.

Watching men land on the moon at Jenss Twin-Ton, 1969

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

When I was a general assignment reporter, I always loved the angle that when something big happens, anything that anyone is doing becomes a story. “How did you ride out the storm?” “How did you celebrate the big win?” “Where were you when the tornado hit?”

No matter what your answer is…it’s part of the larger story and worth celebrating. As a researcher and historian who combs through other writers’ and journalists’ archived works to re-tell their stories in the light of present day life, I love finding those little bits of everyday life set against the backdrop of big stories.

That’s why these ladies watching TV at a City of Tonawanda department store is my favorite image from the lunar landing. A million people are telling Neil Armstrong’s story– But we here care just as much about what was going on in the Twin-Ton Department store as he was making that giant leap.

The crew at Jenss Twin-Ton in the City of Tonawanda gathered around the TV set to watch live broadcasts from the moon fifty years ago this month.

Watching TV rarely gets you on the front page of the paper, but it seems appropriate that it did for the staff at Jenss Twin-Ton Department store 50 years ago next week.

That man would step foot on the moon is an unimaginable, superlative, epoch-defining feat in human history. But that more than half a billion would watch it happen live on their television sets made it a definitive moment in a broadcast television industry that was barely 20 years old at the time.

Gathered around the TV “to catch a few glimpses of the Apollo 11 events” were Mrs. James Tait, Margaret Robinson, Marian Feldt, Jack Dautch, Grace Hughes, Dorothy Wiegand, Rose Sugden and Rose Ann Fiala.

By the time of the 1969 moon landing, Jenss Twin-Ton’s future was already in doubt as city fathers in the Tonawandas were looking to expand already present Urban Renewal efforts to include the store at Main and Niagara.

Founded in 1877 as Zuckmaier Bros., the department store was sold in 1946 and became Twin-Ton in 1946. Jenss Twin-Ton closed in 1976 when the building was bulldozed as urban renewal caught up. Plans for the department store to rebuild on the site never materialized and the Tonawandas’ only downtown department store was gone for good.

The Twin-Ton Department store is seen on the left of this 1950s postcard. That side of the block was demolished in 1976.

When children are murdered, the answer is already in your heart

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

I don’t even want to talk about today. I took this photo of a smiling, happy, really good kid a few months ago.

Today, I saw him, murdered, lifeless, forever 17 years old, wearing this same jersey laying in a casket. I’m sad, I’m angry, I’m heartbroken. For the senselessness of it all. For the life lost. For the pain. For his family. For all our Timon boys, with broken hearts and broken innocence.

Like anyone who has ever set eyes upon a teenager they’ve known murdered in a casket, I feel helpless, I feel the ground shifting. What am I supposed to do? What the hell can any of us do?

There’s one simple way make all of this bullshit stop, all of it– from immediate death from violence with guns on the street to slow death from violence with words on social media– stop looking for reasons to hate and look for reasons to love.

Be loving. Be kind. Be courteous. Be understanding. Find a way to build a bridge, not burn it. Bring a smile to someone’s face. Put a smile on your own face.

It’s gotta start somewhere, man… let it start here.

But really, I still don’t know what the hell to do.

There’s no sweeping big thing, no grand gesture, even though every bone in my body wants to find one. Still again, the thing I can do and WE can all do is make the world around us more loving and peaceful and happy.

Today at 7-Eleven, two little dudes were trying to figure out what they could buy with a couple of dollar bills and some change. It was a losing battle. I bought the two little dudes ice cream, watched them smile, and tried not to weep thinking about Paul and his smile.

Saturday’s gunfire robbed the world of a lot of smiles, a lot of friendliness, a lot of good. I’m so helpless in so many ways… but I know one thing I can do, is to try to bring those numbers of smiles back up, even if it’s only one or two ice creams at a time.