My “new” old Bills sweater is the exact same one Gramps used to wear as a ticket taker at the stadium. Gramps would let us into Bills games— I remember going to a Baltimore Colts game during the 1982 strike.
We weren’t allowed to acknowledge or say hi to Grandpa, and we had to give him a matchbook to rip and hand back to us in case the bosses were watching.
Paid attendance at Rich Stadium: 80,080. Non-paying Cichons: 3,347. Hahaha
“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.
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.
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
It’s not a Polish dish, but it is a sacred and beloved meal of Buffalo Polonia: the Barbequed Hamburger.
This is my version of Grandma Cichon’s version, which was her version of the BBQ hamburgers my great aunts used to serve at the family gin mill, The Sport Den, on Walden Avenue near the city line.
Grandma Cichon’s BBQ Hamburgers
2lbs ground beef Envelope of onion soup mix (which Grandma Cichon put in EVERYTHING) Bottle of BBQ sauce (Kraft would have been more Grandma Cichon authentic, but a generic version of Sweet Baby Rays was all I had.)
Thoroughly mix meat and soup mix with hands, shape into burgers on the small side.
Heat up a big pan, let the burgers brown on one side, then flip to brown the other. Add bottle of BBQ sauce, and then half a bottle of water.
Cover and simmer until they look done. Cut one in half if you’re not sure.
These were really good… Grandma Cichon was right— onion soup mix makes any crap delicious!
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.
The truth is, Jackie Jocko didn’t know me from anyone. We’d met a bunch through the years, and I even drove him home from EB Greens a few times toward the end of his career, but with Jocko, it didn’t matter who you were anyway– if you were in his company, he was there to entertain you with his musical ability but also to touch and warm your soul as one of the finest human beings I’ve ever met.
He didn’t know me from the guys from Iowa at the next table, but when he sang, “My friend Steve is a good guy,” he meant it. He meant I was a friend, and he meant that he saw the good in me… Because he was literally everyone’s friend and he saw the good in everyone.
If it was just the size of his talent behind a piano keyboard, it would have been an honor to have spent some time with him through the years… But he was a genuine and thoroughly good man to a degree where it seemed like he turned over his entire existence to the well-being of the people around him.
What else can you do but hold up a paddle that says SMILE, and sing… “My… friend… Jock… ko… is… a… good… guuuuy….. ”
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.
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.
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 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.