Having old tools around helps connect you to the people who taught you to use them.
Grandpa Cichon would get you all the hammers, work gloves, flashlights, and blanket-lined denim work coats you could ever want from National Aniline. I wish I had saved more of that stuff. I remember donating the work coat he gave me to the Salvation Army when I was in high school. I hope someone is still using it!
There were always flashlights and work gloves– and we had a bunch of Grandpa Cichon’s hammers at our house– but the only tool I every remember seeing at Grandpa Cichon’s house was an old pair of pliers that grandma kept in the drawer and used for just about everything.
Grandpa Coyle was a union glazier and glassworker who didn’t believe in measuring tapes.
He had at least a dozen rules. I snagged one off the final pile heading to the Salvation Army.
I love the little poch marks made by molten something... I like to imagine it was from plumbing with lead. When I told Gramps that I replaced an old lead drain in the basement with PVC, there was real sadness in his eyes.
Gramps loved rusty tools– his basement was a tool and mismatched piles of junk wonderland. He’d be happy to know that I am happy with one of his rusty, obsolete tools.
To try to define Buffalo and what it’s like to be a Buffalonian isn’t quite a one sentence or one draft beer notion.
Even exquisite paragraphs and emptied pitchers can leave so much unsaid.
Today, November 18, my wife and I cruised through our city with our convertible top down. It wasn’t just a tolerable drive, it was warm– on the skin of our cheeks and the depths of our souls.
Driving our city streets and watching the outdoor smiles and nice weather rolled up sleeves of our Western New York neighbors only helped radiate more warmth.
Down Hertel to Delaware, under the 190 and through the Marina. It wasn’t just about enjoying the day, it was about enjoying Buffalo enjoy the day.
Backup through Canalside and heading for the Outer Harbor, we turned onto Michigan Avenue, back into the low hanging dark orange sun.
It’s a different warmth that comes from the November sun, and as its gentle-yet-thorough toasting rays began their magic dancing on the skin of my face again, the most glorious surprise struck.
With deep breaths, my lungs filled with intoxicating sweet cocoa smells of General Mills baking cereal.
For a few fleeting moments, there aren’t words. Just Perfection. Right here in Buffalo, the kind of which you can’t find on the most beautiful Caribbean beach or the most tranquil Himalayan mountain top.
It’s the kind of perfection it takes a lifetime to acquire the taste for— but I can’t imagine there’s anything sweeter.
On a day that somehow feels stolen yet still very much right, Buffalo brings it all perfectly.
Already buoyed by friendly smiles and the waning-yet-perfect comfort of the sun drenching all that it touches in just enough warmth, the addition of lungs-full of baked goodness was about enough to leave me momentarily delirious.
And in the midst of all this on a glorious warm sunny day, I stopped to buy gas for the snow blower. The weather man says within 48 hours, we’ll certainly be 40 degrees colder– and maybe under a six-inch blanket of the white stuff for which Buffalo is so well known.
And I’m not only ok with that, I’m giddy about it— because this is Buffalo, and I’m a Buffalonian. And I couldn’t have had today without what might come tomorrow.
Buy another pitcher and I’d be happy to explain further.
Buffalo, NY – This is my ol’man celebrating his birthday at the VA Hospital in 2007.
Buffalo, NY – I miss visits with Gramps… I’d call him ahead of time to make sure he didn’t have an appointment at the VA, and to ask if he wanted a hot dog (with sweet relish and slivered onions) or a couple of TimBits.
“A lil’bit of both would be good,” he’d say, cracking himself up with that laugh that makes me cry to think about.
Like so many people of his generation, he grew up during The Depression without much to eat. He loved eating food and talking about food and sharing food.
In his years at the nursing home, our conversations usually involved what he had for lunch, breakfast, and maybe dinner the night before. He was always offering you the bag of chips that were on his nightstand or a piece of candy.
Visiting his house, you could barely get in the door before he’d read you the whole menu.
“Hallo dere son!” he’d yell out as you walked in, without pause adding, “Can I get you a sandwich? How bout a cold pop? You could make us a cup of coffee?”
I’d usually put on the kettle for a two cups of instant coffee for us, which he always seemed to enjoy– if not the drink, then the drinking it together.
There was always coffee, and there was always pop. Lots of pop. Too much pop. The first time she went to Grandpa Cichon’s house, Monica asked why there was so much pop. It’s funny the things you grow up with and don’t notice until someone points them out. The hall leading to the kitchen always had dozens of cans or bottles of pop stacked high. Like a store display. As one of ten with ten kids, Gramps always bought everything in bulk when it was on sale—whether it was needed or not.
While there was no greater connoisseur of junk food than Gramps, his junk food muscles were wearing out at the end of his life. He couldn’t eat more than 2 or 3 Timbits after lunch, and while he’d finish a hot dog, you could tell he was struggling to finish.
“My eyes are bigger that my stomach,” he said one time, “even though I’m blind.” Again with the laugh. All the junk food lead to diabetes which robbed Gramps of his sight for his last few years.
The loneliness he felt at the end of his life was painful to all of us. He was the last of ten kids still alive, nearly all his friends had died. Even a couple of his kids, my dad included, had passed away. But Gramps kept plugging. His goal was to live longer than anyone else in his family. His mom lived to 87, his sister Mary to 89. He wanted to be 90.
Gramps finished in second place. He died peacefully a couple weeks after his 88th birthday. While he might have been disappointed to learn he didn’t make 90, I know he would have been satisfied with his final moments.
Because he was blind, an aide would help him eat lunch. Halfway through, she noticed he hadn’t moved in a while—and he was gone. Gramps died eating lunch, which makes me smile every time I think of it.
What also makes me smile is that first conversation in heaven with my dad.
“I just had a delicious lunch, son. I wish I could have finished it.”
BUFFALO, NY – Ten years ago today. My wife shovels, I watch and take pictures. Hahaha.
The night before… we listened to what sounded like explosions– the limbs popping off trees in the park.
The storm was bad, the aftermath was far worse.
For the next two weeks, I was reporting during the day, and then was on the air doing live talk overnights on WBEN, keeping people company and being a voice in the dark to the cold and lonely.
People still mention to me that they listened on those nights. I remember the anguish and fear in some of the voices on the other end of the phone. I consider it my finest hour as a broadcaster and a Buffalonian to have helped a few people through a rather prolonged scary time.
Buffalo, NY- I was three years old when Great-Grandpa Scurr died– But I have two distinct memories of him.
One, I was afraid walking up a dark staircase to his apartment at the corner of Seneca & Fairview, and however that fear manifest itself… (screaming or crying or whatever) made Grandpa Scurr laugh, as he was backlit and spooky, standing in the doorway at the top of the staircase. It was the same laugh that his daughter, my Grandma Cichon, had. It’s probably because of him that I laugh when little babies cry. Their liveliness brings me joy, just like it did him.
My only other memory of him, is visiting him in the hospital. I can even remember the shirt I was wearing… It was purplish-blue with a giant grasshopper on it. He had a tube in his nose, which kind of scared me, but his smile made me feel safe. He reached over and patted my hand. My dad was great about sneaking us kids into the hospital… Knowing that seeing little twerps is usually as good as any medicine they can feed you.
I was 11 or 12 when Grandma Scurr died… But I have no memories of her. She suffered from dementia for many years, and I know my dad had a hard time dealing with that– this woman who he loved so deeply was gone in mind as her body feebly lived on. I don’t think I ever went to visit her. I wish dad had taken us, and I wish I had the memory of making her smile.
BUFFALO, NY – Just driving where the roads took me, I wound up in the First Ward today, driving down the stunning new Ohio Street and looking across the dirt and weeds to the Chicago Street lot which was home to long gone ancestors.
My 3rd great grandfather, Miles Norton, was an Irish immigrant grain worker who died in the family flat over 64 Chicago Street when he was 45 years old in 1883.
The address is a shaggy looking vacant lot right now, but over looks all that is new and exciting in Buffalo.
As Miles and his big Irish family lived a pretty impoverished Old First Ward existence, it’s easy to imagine them looking out their back window at the stinking and dirty Buffalo River… And thinking of it as their lifeline and livelihood, as the means for a life better than the one left behind on the old sod of Eire.
In 1883, living above 64 Chicago Street was pretty much the end of the line. It was likely better than what was left in the old country, but the worst of Buffalo. Filth and poverty and hunger.
For the last half century, the view from that spot has showcased rotting industry and wasted waterfront… And was a view many could point to as ground zero for hopelessness and the slow death of Buffalo.
I wish ol’Miles could see that view now… And understand the newness and feeling of hearts-overflowing in the rebirth of the grounds which are forever stained with the sweat and blood of him and so many hundreds of thousands like him through the decades.
As I stood in those weeds today at the corner of Chicago and Mackinaw, my soul glowed with happiness for my ancestors– that their toil won’t be forgotten and my descendants– that they will be able to live in and enjoy a rejuvenated and wonderful Buffalo.
Our future is built on our past. Our future honors our past.
BUFFALO, NY – The sounds of percussive fireworks on an Independence Day weekend inevitably leads me to wonder how exactly we survived childhood.
With the errant booms I’m reminded of being 12 or 13, when we’d duct tape 3 or 4 Matchbox cars to an M-80 and blow them to smithereens. Fun-wow! We basically built Al-Quieda style shrapnel bombs and lit them right in front of us. How did we survive?
And we weren’t even “the bad kids…”
We did most of our pyrotechnics “under the bridge,” in Smokes Creek, just a few hundred feet away from our back yard.
My ol’man used to drink Gallo wine in the big green gallon glass jugs, and we’d get excited when he’d finish one. Kids just don’t know what they are missing with cheap wine coming in boxes nowadays.
Heading down to our pyrotechnics lab underneath North Buffalo Street, we’d first take a beer bottle and make a Molotov cocktail. We’d light that sucker and toss it against the abutment underneath the bridge creating a wall of fire.
With the concrete blazing, we’d take the gallon glass jug– by now with just a little bit of gasoline in it– close up the top, shake it up to create some fumes and throw it against the flaming concrete wall.
It made a wonderful concussive, reverberating boom– but also sent glass shrapnel everywhere. No need to read between the lines here, I’ll spell it out– we were total effing idiots.
While we never ruined or broke anything or wanted to do so– we just liked acting like morons, apparently. Though not destructive, our antics were often enough to wind up in the Orchard Park Bee police blotter a couple times a month. “Loud noise heard near seven corners.”
That, and Dad always wondered why our lawn mower used so much gas.
But the Fourth of July wasn’t for us kids lighting stuff on fire, it was for watching adults blow stuff up. Two of my grandparents– Mom’s dad and Dad’s mom– shared a birthday with our country. Independence Day celebrations were great for us.
Aunt Kathy and Uncle Kevin would have a pool party for Grandpa Coyle’s birthday, and the Cichon kids would swim non-stop all-day, save the frequent breaks for cans of grape or cherry pop.
Around dinner time, we’d head over to see Grandma Cichon– sometimes at the cottage at Sunset Bay, or sometimes at home near Caz Park in South Buffalo.
For a few years, my uncles and my dad would all throw in some money, and drive to Ohio to fill a big old van with fireworks for their mother’s birthday.
My uncle had painted this van blue using a roller, and there was shag carpet hanging on the walls and ceiling in the back. During these momentous days, it reeked of gun powder.
The family would set up in the park near the ball diamonds, and our attention called to each piece of artillery not by the colors or that it might spin or even by the interesting names printed on these things in China.
With a beer in one hand, shouts of “Hey! Watch this one! It was 25 bucks!” were followed by the touching of the cherry end of a lip-dangled cigarette to the wick and a quick backward stumble away.
One year a shout of “SHIT! It’s the cops!” sent a good number of Cichons spilling beer as they ran into the woods. The friendly officer joined us to watch the display, and even turned his car lights on for us kids.
Another year, some guy nobody knew pulled up in a car and asked us if we’d ever seen a real Civil War cannon. It was a two-foot-long replica cannon, which he filled with three shot glasses of gun powder.
“Only supposeda do one, but it’s the Fourth of July!”
At least all that was the wide open park. When we’d celebrate Grandma’s birthday at the lake… 47 people would stay in a 600 square foot cottage, jammed in the midst of other families of 47 staying in similar sized cottages.
The fireworks displays would be smaller, but the cramped quarters certainly made them more dangerous– so of course, somehow, more fun for everyone.
With no room inside the cottage, we’d eventually sleep in the back of our Dodge station wagon– with permanent and satisfied smiles on our faces.
The only things I light on fire these days are the grill and the (very) occasional big fat cigar. Yet I own about twelve Zippo lighters. I guess you never know when you’ll have to fall back on those skills you learned as a kid.
Grandma Cichon died twenty years ago today, but she’s still with me every day… She had a very different sensibility. Bullheaded but free-spirited. Artistic and cerebral but very well grounded in the realities of the day-to-day world of having ten kids.
She would have been the eccentric aunt on a 60’s sitcom— certainly not the mother in heels and pearls, although she played that role pretty well from her D&K sandals and housecoats.
She never said goodbye when someone would leave, it was always “Toodaloo,” with a smile and the knowledge we’d be seeing each other again soon.
Lately, I find myself laughing out loud in joy at the sight of animals and small children having fun. One of many mostly… um… flaky behaviors I cherish… and trace back to this lady.
I know I also trace back some of the things I like most about myself to her.
She exuded independence– not in a screaming 1960’s radical way, but just by being herself. Grandma instilled that quiet sense of independence in me. She encouraged and foster my interest in politics and funny people. It was probably sleeping over at her house that I watched Carson for the first time—and saw the nightly combination of those two worlds. I wasn’t older than 12 when she told me that I would really enjoy David Letterman. Now, she didn’t exactly tell me to watch a TV show at 12:30 in the morning, but she kinda did. And I’m glad I did.
Grandma also treated me as an equal in our discussions about the world. She never discounted my thoughts or opinions. It was sitting at her worn out white formica kitchen table, with the little 13-inch black-and-white TV always running in the corner, drinking Red Rose tea or instant coffee that she showed me that way.
It’s a fantastic vantage point to live from—to try to find the common ground to build a bond, as opposed to finding or reverting back to your self-perceived superiority over someone else. Grandma showed me, by example, that just because I’m older or more experienced or smarter or whatever-er… that my opinion doesn’t count any more than yours.
As this 2016 Presidential campaign plunges on, I can only imagine the political discussions she and my ol’man are having over heaven’s version of that kitchen table set with instant coffee and chain-smoked cigarettes (His Parliament, hers Kool.)
Hahaha, I’m chuckling out loud at the thought. Just like grandma would have.