An overly-toasted thought

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

It seemed like the ancient toaster we had growing up took less a minute to take bread from soft and white to charred and black.

Probably because of that, I came to like my peanut butter toast well-done, and I became quite expert at knowing the exact moment to pop the lever on that harvest gold decorated four-slice machine.

Toasters don’t run nearly as hot anymore. The perfect toast of 40 years ago could be almost black on the surface, but still soft in the middle.

With all their “safety” and “energy efficiency,” the toasters of today leave us dark toast aficionados with the choice of a proper char, but completely dried out bread from five minutes between the barely glowing heat coils… Or toast that’s still about seven shades too light on the surface, but at least the center of the bread is not yet brittle.

I went for number one today, and half-enjoyed a half-perfect piece of well-done peanut butter toast.

With shipping, the toaster in the photo– very close to the machine of my childhood– is just over $50 on eBay.

These soft kids nowadays have no idea what it was like facing second-degree burns to have breakfast every day.

Could it be worth it to enjoy toast the way it should be again… or will it just be an utter disappointment because grandma’s not making us Cup-O-Soup to eat with our toast, while watching the Flintstones on Channel 2 at lunchtime?

You can’t go home again– but it is nice, every once in a while, to smoke up the house a little bit, trying to let your senses take you back a little closer than you’ve been in a while to a well-toasted slice of the way it used to be.

Presidents Day reflection: The Ol’Man & LBJ

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

My ol’man used to (somewhat proudly) tell the story about how he got suspended from South Park High School for ditching class to go see Lyndon Johnson speak in Niagara Square.

LBJ and Lady Bird with Buffalo Mayor Frank Sedita and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller in Buffalo in 1966.In the 40 years or so I’ve had to let that story sink in, I think I have two takeaways.

The first is… When common sense dictates breaking a rule, do it. (There was nothing being taught at SPHS that day that could compete with seeing a President.)

The second is… common sense also dictates that you do your best to find an amiable solution to the breaking the rule. I’ve done plenty of things like skipping class to go see the President… but not while giving the finger to the guy who will paddle my ass and suspend me for doing it.

So thanks Dad and LBJ for the life lessons on this President’s Day.

Personal takeaways from community tragedy: 3407 ten years later

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

The worst kind of Buffalo winter weather was working its way through the clouds at the same time Continental Flight 3407 was, ten years ago today.

Then in a moment, fifty people who were just living out a day in their lives, instantly no longer were.

There was the fact that it happened right here, the horror of the numbers of lives lost all in a single instant, and the terror of the flames, and the reminder of the fears that so many of us hold in our own hearts.

As a community, we are remembering these fifty and holding up those who loved them in prayer and admiration.

Over the last decade, our community has seen marvelous strength woven from the brokenness of this tragedy.

Robin Tolsma and Karen Wielinski have both written books since their husbands lost their lives that night. Their willingness to publicly grieve has helped so many of us in dealing with our shared grief, but also serves as a role model in how to grieve.

Led by the work of Robin, Karen, and many great journalists, as a community Buffalo remembers and has help in better understanding that singular moment and its aftermath in a broader context.

While generally I consider it my honor to help provide context to the happenings of Western New York’s past and present– I’m also glad that I am not spending the week engrossed in helping craft this narrative. I’m satisfied to sit this one out. It’s still too real and even physically painful.

My eyes are wet and stinging, and panic’s familiar tingle and edginess fills my body as I force myself back to that day and the days and weeks that followed.

In many ways, the post traumatic stress I live with from covering this story and dozens of other stories you might or might not remember, is primarily attributable to my terrible basic reporting skills.

Intuitively, my style as a journalist moved away from facts and figures– and toward trying to make a listener or reader feel some part of what was happening.

I wouldn’t have put it this way during the decade that I was a daily general assignment reporter, but I’d rather have spent my minute in a radio news report helping listeners feel the emotion of the mom yelling at the school board and the measured fidgety discomfort of the board member who voted against a budget than to spend that minute explaining the vagaries and dollar amounts attached to budget lines that were slated for elimination.

Very early in my career, some part of me realized that to report on emotion, I had to understand it. To understand it, I had to feel it.

Allowing myself to feel the angst of a mom whose children might be robbed of art education in middle school makes for a much more enticing story than a comparison of numbers.

In that process to feel the emotion of an event, I become greedy, absorbing every detail– not even necessarily to report on– but to give me the proper context to report from.

I don’t even have to choose the words when the environment can choose them for me; they just flow. So– I lap up detail. And digest it into news stories. And the best stories are well-received, and I get hungrier for the details which don’t make necessarily make it into a the produced product—but ultimately help shade the story and give me a sense of depth and perception that allow listeners and readers to connect more fully with what I am reporting.

This is the subconscious process which accompanied me to Clarence Center a decade ago.

You couldn’t talk about the tragedy unfolding at the scene without understanding the searing odor which left me feeling slightly nauseous and with a chemical sear in my nose and throat with each breath.

There was so much to take in, but story I saw which needed telling was the raw humanity of the usually super-human.

Over and over again, the strong ones– in a private moment– showing signs of crumbling.

Without thinking too deeply about it, the weeping undertaker comes to mind. The minister who just before facing the congregation, looked like he was about to vomit. The police officer who talked a tough game but had only darkness and sadness in his eyes. The rattled fireman who shared a story—and then immediately had the look of someone who felt like he said too much. We agreed that there was no need to share that misery with the rest of the world, and the story has never left my lips.

That firefighter’s story will stay with me, in graphic horror, until the moment I die. Trust me when I tell you that your life is better without knowing what that man went through. I know my life would be, but it was my job to make sure that people in Buffalo and around the world knew the horror without necessarily knowing the details.

In the 20 years I was working in newsrooms every day, I never heard anyone mention PTSD. I never once heard anyone mention needing a break because what we were dealing with was too much to handle.

I am a journalist who suffers greatly from post-traumatic stress, and I write this not just for me—but for the thousands of others who don’t realize they are suffering or who realize it but feel foolish asking for help or “making themselves the story.”

I didn’t realize it at the time. Not even when I had my first panic attack in the newsroom and didn’t know what it was—and as my brain felt like it was unraveling, I thought I was going to die on the spot.

It didn’t occur to me when I could barely function, alone in the newsroom on Christmas Eve 2012 when a Rochester-area man set his house on fire, and then killed two firefighters who came to put out the fire.

In the past year, driving in the car, listening to the news and hearing firefighters speak from the scene of the devastating wildfires in California—I pulled the car over, afraid I was going to vomit.

The talk of this anniversary stirred these feelings, and I share them with the hope that it might help someone. The pain and trauma caused by the death of fifty amazing individuals lives on in my heart, bleeding over into areas of my soul where I never intended it to live.

And that’s what PTSD is, I guess, and once again, that’s why I write and share this– but the reason I carry this suffering is for the sake of the story, and this story is one that I will never lose sight of.

I’ve spent time over the last couple of days recalling many of the memories of those who perished that day. I feel like I know a few of those who died—and that their memories live on is a testament to their loved ones.

I’m struck by the strength and courage of many family members who have fought to make sure that similar instances don’t lead to anymore deaths.

I also remain moved by the undertakers, ministers, police officers, firefighters, reporters and so many more– who leave parts of themselves behind for the well-being and healing of others every day.

None of us really knows how we might respond in the face of great tragedy, no matter our role in it.

Most of us, I think, find out something new about ourselves, and wind up spending the rest of our lives trying to understand how to make that new knowledge work as a piece of who we are.

God bless those 50 and those still trying to put the pieces back together.

“Cut open the Whale’s belly for hundreds of cameras” and other delights

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

About ten years ago on a cruise, we had this guy in the next cabin who seemed to spend just about the entire vacation on his balcony smoking and pontificating non-stop gibberish.

The only break in his yammering came to take a puff or to allow his wife to say, “mmmmmmHMMM,” which is all I ever heard her say.

Something would make a subject come into his mind, and just as quickly, his mind would manufacture facts and stories about that subject as if he’d been studying the situation at Harvard for decades (when clearly he, um, hadn’t.)

Monica and I still laugh about one of the most ridiculous minute’s worth of utter nonsense since humans began speaking 100,000 years ago.

“It’s amazing the stuff that people drop over the sides of these cruise ships,” he said, taking a drag, his wife distractedly vocalizing her agreement.

“At the bottom of the ocean– it’s just covered with cameras and stuff that people dropped over the railing.

“Whales and sharks can’t help but eat them.

“If you had one of these whales, and you cut open his belly, you’d see hundreds of cameras in there.”

“MMMMhhm.”

“All from people dropping them off of cruise ships.”

Now this today in The freaking New York Times. Maybe the guy was right.

We’re all to blame for the horrific tragedy of Larry’s death

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

If you knew Larry at all, then just like me, this is probably how you knew him– the guy with the long dreadlocks sitting just inside the door at the Tim Horton’s on Main Street in Williamsville.

I took this photo last January, after asking him if he needed anything on a cold night. In his quiet and gentle way, he politely declined. His face told parts of the story that he wouldn’t say with his voice.

Poor Larry died overnight in the bus shelter at Main & Union, and my heart breaks.

I don’t know why he chose to live on the streets, but I know we have to do better helping people like him— people like me.

Mental illness is terrifying and taboo, for both people who suffer and people who can’t understand the suffering. I don’t know what the answers are, but I know he died in large part because his brain was sick, and we have no good way to help.

We can’t write off his death as “the life he chose for himself” any more than we can write off the death of someone who dies when a sick heart gives them a heart attack or when sick cells mutate and cause cancer.

I tried to buy Larry a cup of coffee a few times over the years. That’s not even close to enough. Others have done a lot more for Larry and others like him, but how the hell can we sleep at night having people freezing to death in one of the wealthiest goddamn zip codes in the country?

A warm bed would have treated a symptom, but still, the sickness would remain. Larry’s sickness took him to a bus shelter to die in a blizzard. That’s the extreme version. There are less dramatic (but just as real) versions of the same story playing out all around all of us everyday. It’s needless suffering that we as a society have to decide all together must end.

Rest in peace, Larry. On behalf of humanity, I’m sorry we failed you.

Mixed feelings on Millard Fillmore’s birthday

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Millard Fillmore’s grave at Forest Lawn Cemetery, Buffalo, NY

Buffalo’s own Millard Fillmore is buried in Forest Lawn cemetery, his grave very simply marked.

Those who loved him, appreciated his contributions to Buffalo’s formation as a city, and his involvement in the creation of dozens of institutions from UB to the SPCA to the History Museum… in death, they called him M.F.

There are also those who look upon his signing of the Fugitive Slave Act and his later lack of enthusiasm for the northern cause toward the end of the Civil War and call him M. F.

It’s nice that we can all agree about what to call Millard Fillmore on this, the 219th anniversary of his birthday.

I tend to agree with both interpretations. HB, MF.

Sears & Kmart, once the gold standard, now nearly dead

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

I was a longtime Kmart man.

Throughout my childhood, even as Hills, Twin Fair, Gold Circle, Ames, and Brand Names all had their advantages, Kmart was my gold standard in shopping.

It was always clean, well stocked, and carried quality merchandise.

When we first bought our house, Sears was still the embodiment of dependability. To buy something from Sears was an investment.

It’s been sad to see these great brands ravaged, and to know the service and dependability they stood for is completely and utterly dead on any large scale.

I was thinking about all this after writing about the demise of Kmart and Sears for The News.

The days when Sears and Kmart first arrived in WNY

 

Krispy Kreme is the “The Blizzard of ’77” line waiting

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Even removing any social justice or political overtones, as a community, Buffalo has a tortured relationship with national chains, especially chain restaurants.

Police blockades set up outside Chick-Fil-A’s Walden Avenue location in Cheektowaga during its first week of operation, November, 2018. (Steve Cichon photo)

On one hand, we are proud of our superlative and eclectic local dining scene, and we are very encouraging and protective of our Western New York neighbors trying to make it in the slim-margin restaurant world.

One the other hand, though, we bear a chip on our collective shoulder when Western New York “doesn’t fit into the business model” of some trendy shop we saw on vacation or a Shangri-La Superbowl advertiser.

“It’s fine,” we say, like any other jilted lover, if a national company ignores us– but then we drop everything and fawn when they pay us any attention. For a little while anyway, depending on the brand.

We say “thanks, but no thanks” to plenty of big names. Dominos and Dunkin Donuts have both tried more than once to make splashy entrances into the Buffalo market, but stores have eventually closed. Folks in the Elmwood Village were downright hostile when a Jimmy John’s Subs opened in 2016 (and closed the following year.)

The fact is Buffalo has a pretty good handle on quick pizza, coffee, and subs, and those places did little to ignite our imaginations here.

But the opposite is also true.

Just like with this week’s bated-breath arrival of Chick-Fil-A, a handful of big chains have made headlines with their much-anticipated grand openings in Western New York. In 2013, Popeye’s came to Elmwood Avenue in North Buffalo and in 2015, Sonic opened on Union Road in Cheektowaga, each with much fanfare, long lines, and news coverage. Both were nationally advertised brands that Buffalonians might have only sampled on vacation.

Lining up at Sonic during its first week of operation on Union Road. (Steve Cichon photo)

That notion of seeing something great elsewhere and wanting it here extended to grocery stores as well. Wegmans remains a beloved local giant, but when Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods came to town, many waited in line to give them a try.

Jammed aisles in the days after Trader Joe’s opening on Niagara Falls Blvd. (Steve Cichon photo)

By now, whether you’re a Buffalonian who waits in line or Western New Yorker who scoffs at the queues, just about everyone expects a line when something new comes to town. Even if you don’t “get it,” you know it’s going to happen—ever since the grand-daddy of all mass-hysteria snaking lineups happened in October, 2000.

Directing traffic outside Krispy Kreme, 2000.

Just like all Buffalo snow storms are measured against the Blizzard of ’77, all Buffalo grand-opening crowds are measured against Krispy Kreme.

Because of the blizzard, we recognize that any snow can quickly become an emergency. Because of Krispy Kreme, we know our fellow Western New Yorkers can’t wait to get into a newly opened chain.

Both the ’77 and ’00 watermark events started slowly. Krispy Kreme hired an off-duty police officer to handle traffic and two Town of Tonawanda cars were sent to the scene on that first morning on Oct. 3, 2000.

Making the donuts at Krispy Kreme’s now-closed Niagara Falls Blvd. store.

“Traffic was backed up two blocks to Brighton (Road), and there were women with babies in strollers, all sorts of people just milling around watching the action,” said Town of Tonawanda Assistant Chief Robert Rowland on that first day. Traffic stayed heavy all day.

More than a week later, on Oct. 11, store manager Dave Benfanti told The News, “We never expected the opening to be this big.” Several nearby businesses like Goodyear Tire, EMS, and M&T Bank reported their parking lots were still being filled with more Krispy Kreme customers than their own.

A month later, only a few days before Election Day, the lines were still long as First Lady Hillary Clinton and her daughter Chelsea came to Buffalo in the closing moments of what would prove to be Mrs. Clinton’s successful run for the US Senate. A good part of the Western New York trip was spent at—yes, Krispy Kreme on Niagara Falls Blvd., with both Clintons shaking hands to those in line and signing boxes of doughnuts of those leaving. It all added to the surreal feel of Buffalo’s weird obsession of late 2000.

The lines lasted longer than anyone would have expected, but they died out just as quickly.

Krispy Kreme’s Western New York footprint rapidly expanded first with another stand-alone store across Walden Avenue from the Walden Galleria, and then by making the doughnuts available in each of the several dozen Wilson Farms stores in the area.

Niagara Falls Blvd store, now just a memory.

Five years later though, in August, 2006, it was announced the stores would close and the red glow of the “Hot Doughnuts Now” sign was forever darkened, but the memory is forever imprinted on our psyche.

The lasting result of the Krispy Kreme story is a lot like the result of the Blizzard. Until the last person who remembers the epic snow of 1977 is gone, whenever it snows a little more than we expect, there will be someone telling the story of where they were, and how the snow drifts reached the traffic lights.

And whenever we Buffalonians get overly excited about a fast food joint, national grocery store, or heaven forbid—someday an Ikea store, we remember with smiles, frowns, and a sense of bewilderment the great Krispy Kreme rush of 2000.

Great-Great Grandpa Slattery: “A jovial man and a good mixer”

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Found a couple of new articles about my great-great-grandfather, Grandpa Coyle’s grandpa, Captain Thomas Slattery.

He was a Great Lakes ship captain. After many years commanding package freighters, he was given the helm of the SS Juniata, one of the great passenger ships of the Great Lakes.

Thomas J. Slattery was born to recent Irish immigrants in Prescott, Ontario. He moved to Buffalo as a young sailor in his 20s, living first on Orlando Street and then on Indian Church Rd.

I’ve never seen the photo of him as a young man in the one article. The only photos I’ve ever seen of of him as a much older man.