Harvey brings memories of Katrina’s devastation and hope

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

On this date 12 years ago I grabbed my WBEN microphone to hop a plane for Memphis– and then a day long drive to Louisiana to cover the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

When I think about the week and a half that my colleague Barbara Burns and I spent traveling around Louisiana, it comes back in flashes and bursts. It’s some kind of PTSD.

As a journalist, I’m supposed to be able to tell you the narrative story of what it was like in New Orleans after Katrina, just like I can tell you about any of the other hundreds of stories I’ve covered.

Flooding still surrounding The New Orleans Superdome, more than a week later.

But unlike anything else in my 40 years, my memories from Katrina are in brilliant colors just outside my field of vision. They come in pungent odors and incomplete fragments. I recall very little on-going narrative, but plenty of still-photo-like impressions are etched into my mind along with the singular, unified feeling that seemed to be everywhere.

Wind damage along the bayou.

Whether we were encountering dead bodies in the street, nattily clad elderly men with cardboard suitcases waiting for helicopter rides that would never come, families that walked through shoulder deep water and then days for a safe place to stay, soldiers pointing anti-aircraft guns at our car as we drove by, or people raking through the muck at the edge of the bayou looking for any trace of the completely swept-away home which stood in that spot for generations…

The resounding feeling was the constant then, and it seems to be the constant with Harvey.

People dealing with hollowing depths of sorrow and unimaginable loss also experiencing– at the same exact moment– a wonderful new-found sense of family and community and the greatest sense of hope for the future ever experienced.

All at once, the most plunging depths and the most elated highs. It’s the worst nature can throw at us, bringing out our greatest human love, compassion, and hope.

It’s crushing to see this happen again. Let’s make sure we can make the burden of rebuilding a city– and millions of lives– as easy as possible for the people of Houston.

My trembling buddy makes me think….

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

It’s a relentless rain here today, with bone rattling, long instances of thunder. The kind of rain that becomes flooding, and the kind of thunder which makes you think you’ve never felt thunder in your chest like that before.

Outside my office window this morning.

If it was just me here, I might grab a beer or cup of coffee and sit on the porch. These spectacular displays of nature are few and far between, and should be appreciated when the opportunity is there to take it in. Too often, we’re instead irritated by nature’s gift as we run from car to building or we’re forlorn because nature’s onslaught has ruined plans for one of summer’s precious few days.

As a guy with a dog, though, I’m not going out on the porch. I’m not going on the porch because Willow has burrowed her way into the small space underneath my desk and she’s sitting on my feet, trembling and panting inconsolably.

I was thinking that I wish I could some how make her understand that the thunder isn’t going to hurt her, that there’s no reason to be afraid.

I was thinking about how her crippling, devastating, and irrational-yet-entirely-understandable fear was a lot like all the fear we all carry around. Willow hears those big noises and it stirs something beyond ration, something deeply coded into her DNA.

Of course, not only does she miss out on nature’s great show, she forces me to miss out, too.

Most of our fears are the same way, and most of our reactions to our fears leave us missing out on great things in our world– and maybe even forces the people we love to miss out, too.

I was thinking all that, when a tornado warning popped up for just as few miles away. Hmm, I said, as rationally as I could.

So maybe a little fear is healthy… but the next time fear of some low-percentage possibility stops me from living life to the fullest, I hope I think of the useless anxiety in my little furry buddy’s trembling and decide to do my best and enjoy the storm. Even if some ancient code on my DNA leaves my heart rate a little elevated.

Steve Cichon is a candidate for Erie County Clerk. Read more at steveforclerk.com

Hearing (and feeling) Grandma’s laugh in mine

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Grandma Cichon died 21 years ago today… I don’t know that I’ve ever had such difficulty wrapping my mind around a length of time.

I can hear her laugh and her telling us, “tootle-oo,” but never goodbye… it can’t have been that long.

But more and more, I hear her laugh in mine, and feel the same unbridled joy she did when expressing it.

And this post proves that I’ve caught on to what Grandma knew with her salutations- there are no goodbyes when you live in someone’s heart.

Like each of my grandparents, she’s so much of who I am. It isn’t possible to be any more grateful. Each of them so full of love, and each so different and different in the way their love was shown.

The only right thing to do is to continue to turn out and offer up that same love to the world in their honor… especially today, for this beautiful, tough, artsy, survivor mother of 10.

Scary brass lizards and memories of Father’s Days past

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Seeing this guy on the window sill in our dining room fired up a Father’s Day memory.

This is one of a couple of brass lizards that were in hidden in the dining room plants at the house of my great-grandpa and namesake, Stephen Julius Wargo.

Especially when they were dirty, these things looked real– and one time, when Gramps sent me in to water his plants, one of these really scared the life out of me — which was probably the whole idea. It made good ol’ Grandpa W. laugh and laugh. “AND DID HE LAUGH,” as Grandma Coyle would say, laughing herself.

My mom always made her Grandpa Wargo oatmeal cookies for all holidays, including Fathers Day, and his big grin showed it was just about his favorite present ever, every time.

When Great-Grandpa Wargo died, his daughter, my Grandma Coyle, gave me a few of his things–including this brass lizard.

Seeing it makes me remember Grandpa Wargo and Grandma Coyle, and think about my mom and the gallon sized bag of oatmeal cookies, closed with a twist tie, which we gladly delivered on our Father’s Day travels of long ago.

Of course, I think of my own ol’man on Father’s Day, too… I made a video about it for my campaign for Erie County Clerk.

Lessons from Dad

Happy Father's Day weekend! Although my dad isn't here physically to take part in my campaign, with your help, I'll be bringing his sense of common sense to the clerk's office.

Posted by Steve Cichon for Erie County Clerk on Friday, June 16, 2017

My dad would always refer to himself as “your ol’man” when talking to us kids.

He died seven years ago, but so long as I’m around, he lives every moment  in my heart and in my actions.  So although my dad isn’t here physically to take part in my campaign, with your help, I’ll be bringing his sense of common sense to the clerk’s office.

Happy Fathers Day, everyone.

Aunt Tricia the real life angel– and the angel on the wall at St. Mark’s

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

I just realized today the newly restored cherubs on the walls at St. Mark’s are the spitting image of my dad’s big sister Tricia– who died of kidney disease while my ol’man was overseas in the Marine Corps (years before I was born.)

My dad’s stories about her were always filled with special happiness in thinking about the sister who doted on him and kept him in line– but then sadness because she was taken too soon.

And for me, it’s a source of great joy to think of my ol’man and his sister– who I think was probably his favorite person ever– together again, delighting in the light of God’s face, for all eternity. It’s a blessing to have a reminder on the walls of the church where I love to serve.

The day after I wrote about this. I happened to meet someone who knew my family well around Seneca Street in the 40s and 50s, and as we talked, she brought up Tricia. This neighbor of decades ago spoke about her beautiful, kind, quiet soul. She remembered Tricia speaking gently in whispers as a little girl.

Polish Buffalo in the 1930s: Gramps on Easter & Dyngus Day

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Long before Dyngus Day was the celebration of Buffalo culture it has become over the last decade, it was, as most know, a day of celebration and fast breaking in the Polish community.

My grandfather, Edward Cichon, was the seventh of ten kids born to Polish immigrants who lived in Buffalo’s Valley neighborhood (nestled between South Buffalo, The First Ward, and The Hydraulics.)

Grandma & Grandpa Cichon. Edward V. Cichon and Marie T. Scurr-Cichon.

His memories of Easter and Dyngus Day went back more than 70 years when I interviewed him for a news story back in 2006. He’s giving us a first-hand account of Dyngus Day in Buffalo in the ’20s & ’30s.

Born in 1926, Gramps grew up on Fulton Street near Smith on a street that was, at that time, half Irish and half Polish. Most of the men on the street, including my great-grandfather and eventually Gramps himself, worked at the National Aniline chemical plant down the street.

On Dyngus Day, he’d go behind his house along the tracks of the Erie Railroad—the 190 runs there now—and grab some pussy willows to take part in the Dyngus Day tradition of swatting at girls on their heels, who’d in turn throw water at the boys.

For Easter, Babcia would cook all the Polish delicacies like golabki, pierogi, and kielbasi.

The sausage, Gramps explained, was all homemade. “Pa” (as gramps always called his father) would get two pigs, and they’d smoke them right in the backyard on Fulton Street. The whole family would work on making sausage at the big kitchen table, and then hang the kielbasa out back—but they’d also butcher hams and other cuts of meat as well.

While he was in the frame of mind, I asked him about the Broadway Market, too. In the late ‘20s, His mother would wheel him the two miles over to the market in a wagon, and park him next to the horses while she shopped for food and across the street at Sattler’s.

Reading these stories is great, but listening to Gramps tell them is the best.

My ol’man, pizza, and the Dukes of Hazzard

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

It’s my favorite Dukes of Hazzard moment.

I was in First Grade, and “The Dukes” were just about the most popular thing in the world. Maybe tied with Michael Jackson’s Thriller album. The early ’80s were a tough time in South Buffalo– and my dad had a tough time finding work.

Billboard outside of City Hall in the late ’70s, placed there by Bethlehem Steel’s union workforce.

Plants closed and he sold the bar at Elk & Smith. He tried teaching middle school history but couldn’t get in full-time, so he lived and worked in Massachusetts for almost a year while we lived on Allegany Street off Tifft near South Park.

Of course we missed dad– and money was tight. There were more 20-cent letters flying than $5 long-distance phone calls being made. I can’t imagine what it was like for my ol’man to be away, and for my mom to be home with us three, a full-time job, and no car.

It was a Friday night and we took our baths early to be ready to watch those Duke boys. We were sitting at our little plastic table in the living room—all ready for “Tic-Tac-Dough” and “Jokers Wild” to end and Waylon Jennings to sing about “two good ol’boys, never meaning no harm…” when the front door burst open.

Dad with us kids just inside the front door of our house on Allegany Street…. probably taken just as he was leaving for Massachusetts one time or another.

Not only had my ol’man pushed our AMC Spirit to the limit speeding home from Massachusetts, but he had the sense to stop at Mineo’s South (when it was on the corner of Tifft & South Park) on his way home to pick up a large pie. Pizza, like long distance calls, wasn’t often in the budget and extra special.

I’m not sure a six-year-old heart could be any more full.

This glorious Friday night was probably about the best night of my life up until then… Dad was home, we were eating pizza, and we were watching the Dukes. All was right with the world.

That’s me (left) with my Dukes of Hazzard big wheel, c.1982

How I celebrate paczki day 

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo


At this moment, I am supposed to be writing two magazine articles which are due tomorrow.

Instead, I am daydreaming about a possible road trip that I might have to take to Youngstown, Ohio.

It’s not that I’m looking forward to eight hours in the car– it’s just that the last and only time I was in Youngstown– 22 years ago to drop a friend off at school– I had a culinary experience I’m bound to never forget.

Not long after bidding my friend adieu, as darkness began to fall on the way home, I was called by otherworldly force to a roadside donut shop.

I am obsessed with road trips, roadside attractions, and donuts. Sometimes I drag my wife into it. At Randy’s Donuts in LA, 2016.

It was just my kind of place. When the joint was new, it had to have been a palace. But 30 or 40 years later, the huge illuminated sign out front probably wasn’t as bright as it once was.

The counters were showing all the signs of the tens of thousands of dozens which had slid across to families and office workers bringing not only a cardboard box with a piece of scotch tape on the front lip— but also anticipatory smiles with each lifting of that soon-to-be untaped lid.

Places like this were why I stay off the interstates when I can. A Thruway McDonald’s only barely serves its purpose. The little spots like these can lead you to sublime distraction for the rest of your life.

I’m sure I was there primarily for the coffee– bracing for a four-hour drive in the dark. The coffee was all that could expected for evening coffee– obnoxious torrents of steam escaping with the pouring of the dense liquid which looked, smelled, and tasted a bit like used motor oil.

But on that classic wall rack behind the counter, glistening in thick sugar glaze there they were– two cherry-chip fry cakes, the taste and texture of which echo in the canyons of my mind.

Moist, dense, sweet, chemically cherry. Another few hours and these would have been “day old,” but at the moment they met my lips, they were aged to perfection.

These donuts come to mind more often than I’d like to admit, and with the possibility of visiting that part of the world almost a reality, almost with the same intensity I felt the need to pull into that shop more than two decades ago, alas, some piece of me wants to ditch all other work to dig through my travel files to find any sign of where this place was. Or spend some quality time with a search engine and terms like donut and Youngstown.

The more pragmatic side of my brain, however, knows there is work to be done. And this all happened 22 years ago. And this place could really be anywhere in Mahoning County, Ohio.

There may yet be a chance to relive that artery-clogging perfection, but it will have to wait. Unless I can convince my editor to run an ode to Ohio donuts instead of a couple business profiles.

A brief history of how I came to be an American

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

After the fall of Napoleon, the people of the Rhineland area along what’s become the traditional French and German border suffered severe economic depression, lack of religious freedom, and governments trying to stop young people in lower classes from marrying and having families.

Four families left that oppression for the tiny outpost of Buffalo in the 1820’s—these are my Grandma Coyle’s mother’s ancestors.

The landed classes didn’t want the Germans in Buffalo.

The most miserable, humiliating, unbearable poverty and famine was felt by the uneducated peasant Catholic population of Ireland during the middle of the 19th Century. To escape poverty and persecution, John Coyle sailed from Ireland to Pennsylvania. His children moved to Buffalo. Thomas Slattery sailed to Prescott, Ontario, and his children moved to Buffalo.  Miles Norton came to Buffalo from Ireland, where he worked in grain mills for 15 years until his death at the age of 48. These are my Grandpa Coyle’s ancestors.

The landed classes didn’t want the Irish in Buffalo.

Mary Ann Vallely was born as a Catholic in Protestant Northern Ireland. Looking for opportunity and freedom from repression, she and her husband moved near Glasgow, Scotland in the 1880s. When her husband died in 1920, she moved to South Buffalo to live among her four children who’d already moved there. Mary Ann Vallely was Grandma Cichon’s grandma.

Grandma Cichon’s father was English—he crossed the Ambassador Bridge from British Canada one day and never went back. He overstayed his visa by more than 50 years, and died a British subject at South Buffalo’s Mercy Hospital.

Jan Cichon was born a subject of the Russian Empire. Ethnically Polish, he was facing compulsory service in the Russian army when he left what is now southern Poland in 1913. It was difficult for a Russian to emigrate to the US—but Jan got around it by setting sail from Hamburg, Germany for Canada. After living in Welland, Ontario for a few weeks, he came to America through the Port of Buffalo under false pretenses.

With $20 in his pocket, my great-grandfather said he was visiting a made-up brother-in-law at a made-up address on Exchange Street. He could read and write, but spelled and signed his name Czychon.

The landed classes didn’t want the Polish—particularly the illegal Polish– in Buffalo.

All of these people went on to contribute to America. To trace the fruits of their loins, you’d be looking at thousands of Americans who’ve done spectacular things to make this country great. Hardworking blue collar men, beautiful women who cared for their families and communities, men and women religious, medical doctors, lawyers, university professors, sea captains, and even a congressman.

But that’s not the whole story—there are quite a few who’ve screwed up as well. Some of whom screwed up terribly.

In my family tree, I have a deported Communist. I have a guy who terrorized his community as serial hatchet-wielding thief, stealing purses off the arms of old ladies. There’s the cousin who spent time in federal prison on racketeering and drug trafficking convictions. There are petty thieves, wife beaters, and drunks. Lots and lots of drunks.

Take a realistic look at any group you belong to, and you’ll find the same. Good and bad.

This is America. This is how America has always been. I can’t imagine America any other way.

 

We all win when we treat each other with dignity

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Either side saying, “But you did it to US for eight years!” =
“BUT MOM, he did it FIRST!” =
Your mom sending you both to your room until you can both stop acting like five-year-olds throwing temper tantrums.

“I’m mad because you did a shitty thing to me… so, because I’m mad, I am going to do the same admittedly shitty thing back to you” is divisive thinking and does nothing to make our country that better place. Being smart and decent means finding some way other than a shitty way. It’s exactly what your mom taught you as a child.

If you want to be angry and shitty it’s your right– but from my vantage point, you  have to wallow to get there. You lose the moral high ground and you lose an opportunity to use your intelligence, decency, tact, and resilience to make your part of the world a better place.

My wish is that more people from both sides would turn the passion they waste in hatred into passion for something that benefits us all– like together finding someway out of the morass we are embroiled in– because together is the only way. 

I’m not saying “stop disagreeing,” I’m saying just do something to help effect the change you want to see in the world.

Fighting with people on Facebook really doesn’t count.

Understand– I’m not talking about dismissing anyone’s worries and fears.

What I’m talking about is using words and ideas which allow us all to be better able to embrace everyone’s worries and fears.

It’s about how a large number of people are allowing those fears and worries to manifest themselves.

My point is hearing about Donald Trump’s penis size and skin color is no better than talking about Barack Obama’s birth certificate and skin color, or vice versa.

Telling me you hate Donald Trump or you hate Barack Obama (or hate what they stand for) is a call to derision and a conversation ender.

Telling me you’re afraid that you might not have insurance or that your right to marry who you want might be taken away… or telling me you’re concerned with our porous borders or reductions in defense capabilities– those are places where conversations can begin and as Americans we might be able to find common ground among ourselves, whether our leaders suck or not.

Fighting crass and rude with crass and rude is still crass and rude. Protesting doesn’t have to be crass and rude. Disagreeing with people doesn’t have to be crass and rude.

The world needs love, not hate. Find it and spread it.

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

He said to him, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment.

“The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

“The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”