Front Row Seat for Buffalo Sailor During Actual “Captain Phillips” Saga

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

BUFFALO, NY – “A friend asked it best. ‘How does it feel to have the most intense moment of your life turned into a movie?’ ”

That sums it up for John Siller, the former Navy Mass Communications Specialist who was off Africa’s coast, camera in hand, as the real “Captain Phillips” was rescued in 2009.

“It’s not like I was just standing there, I was involved in it. I didn’t shoot anybody, but I did a lot of work with the FBI, NCIS, taking evidence photos. I took the mug shots of the pirate we captured.”

captain-phillips-poster-intl
In the movie “Captain Phillips” to be released Friday, a bearded Tom Hanks plays Captain Richard Phillips, a merchant mariner whose ship, Maersk Alabama, was hijacked by Somali pirates.

“We were in the area doing counter-piracy operations, which up until that point, had involved us driving around in circles hoping to stumble upon pirates,” Siller says with a laugh. “We had helicopters that would fly around the area… It was more of a deterrent than us actually doing anything.”

Just like the rest of the world, the men and women with Siller on the USS Boxer were captivated by the story by watching it on the news. They had been in the general area of the hijacking, but were heading to the Persian Gulf for a scheduled port call and time off in Bahrain.

That was quickly cancelled, and the ship and crew were quickly moving toward the African Coast.

Soon, the Boxer was swarming with Navy SEALs.”We ended up being the ship that actually staged the efforts. We were the largest ship, so they brought most of their gear on our ship, so we became their operating base.”

On a normal day, Siller would be taking photos of daily operations on the ship, writing news stories and press releases. Those skills put him in the center of the operation.

“We were involved in documentation of everything,” says Siller. “They wanted photos and video of just about everything. Not only as evidence, but also to make sure that we were doing things the right way.”

Since word of the film came out, Siller and his old Navy buddies have been trading Facebook posts and jokes about what to expect from the movie. “I tell people that they got Denzel Washington to play me in the movie, which is obviously not true.”

He’s certainly going to see the movie, but he thinks alone might be the best way for him to watch. “It’s going to be hard for me to just sit there and watch when I was there, and I know what really happened.”

Siller is certainly expecting some Hollywood artistic license with the film, which could wind up getting dicey for him because some of what he saw, he’s still not allowed to talk about. “Some things I can tell, some things I can’t.”

Still, the resounding feeling is one of this not quite being real. “A lot of people join the military and just have a ‘whatever’ experience,” says Siller from his Buffalo home. “It’s almost surreal to think here’s this movie, and I was actually there.

This page originally appeared at TrendingBuffalo.com

We are all Joe Hollywood

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

One of the allures of wrestling is that while the characters are huge over-the-top exaggerations, there is (almost) always a solid kernel of truth in their grossly surreal mannerisms and affectations.

joehollywood
If Vince McMahon called you and asked you to invent a wrestling persona based on a Buffalo guy, and he was going to be a bad guy wrestler, you’d probably come up with something close to Joe Hollywood.

A drunken Bills fan with stupid nickname and a haircut that was really cool 30 years ago.

The perfect wrestler, right? But if you are a Buffalonian and you are reading this, there is an embarrassingly high chance that sentence can also describe you. (Yes, you too, ladies.)

While I don’t think most people would think that sentence applies to them, the chance is almost 100% that  a Buffalonian reading this is closely related to, or counts among his circle of friends “a drunken Bills fan with a stupid nickname and a haircut that was really cool 30 years ago.”

Most guys who fit this description are great guys. Really. Our neighbors, our friends, our uncles, our cousins, and look a little closer in the mirror—Us.

Just like a WWF (or whatever it’s called now) heel, Joe Hollywood took our idiosyncrasies to the extreme.

Not satisfied with drinking canned beer on the couch, or even getting kicked out of the Ralph the old fashioned way, this guy was arrested running around at field level in a Santa suit.

Most of us have nicknames that make us cringe when they are used in front of our wives. He went before a judge to change his perfectly Buffalo polysyllabic Polish last name to that stupid nickname that someone probably gave him drunk in a bar one night.

And, well, the hair.

Many of us had some fun booting this guy around the other day, and I get it. Add a couple of dozen run-ins with police to his persona, and you have the mass-media personification of that guy in your neighborhood or family that always seems to shatter the peace.

God rest his soul, he was the worst-case-scenario Buffalonian, the least desirable outcome of someone raised in our Western New York environment. But that reflects on us.

Despite the occasional numb-the-pain-over-indulgence during football games, most of us are far closer to the “good guy Buffalo wrestler persona” than Joe Hollywood ever was… but think of how many wrestlers have quickly turned from good guy to bad guy to stretch out a career.

Any of us are two or three… or two or three dozen… bad breaks away from Joe Hollywood. If anything good comes of this, let it be a reminder that all of us here in Buffalo probably need a good haircut.

This page originally appeared at TrendingBuffalo.com

Time to alienate all my friends

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

The other day, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek treatment on my feelings on this shut down of federal government.  Today, I’m going to make everyone mad with a more serious analysis of what I see as the problem.

1856 caning of Senator Charles Sumner on the Senate floor.
1856 caning of Senator Charles Sumner on the Senate floor.

Most people, I think, would agree with the notion that both sides should lock themselves in a room and not leave until there is a solution.

Most people say that, but that isn’t what most people mean.

What most people really mean is, “They should lock themselves in a room and not come out until the effing morons who don’t agree with my viewpoint see the light and defer to what is obviously the enlightened position, ie, my position.”

Our leaders reflect us. Even if you voted for the other guy, you are part of the environment into which these guys came to power.

We as a people say we want compromise, but are swayed by the stupid ads with the dark shaded photos and nasty voiced guys telling us that “this candidate voted against good stuff.”

Compromise generally appears in someone else’s campaign ads shaded as weakness.

We want compromise, but we want people to stick to their convictions at all costs.

Really, we don’t know what want, so our politicians don’t know what to give us.

Or maybe we do know what we want.

We listen to Jon Stewart or Rush Limbaugh, and we repeat the funny interesting ironic things they point out because they are smart and they are on our side. And then we feel informed. Mostly, those two and others like them, are mostly interested in telling jokes and being interesting. Not informing people.

And don’t think that Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner don’t care about what those two might think about any move they make. They have to care, because they in many ways, set the agenda with their partisan political humor.

So we have placed the future of our republic in the hands of an old disc jockey and a former stand up comedian, from whom over 30 million Americans become informed every week.

We say we want compromise, but do we really?

Reading Facebook over the last few days, I seriously wonder how many of my friends might enjoy a return to 1856, when a congressman walked into the senate chambers and beat Senator Charles Sumner unconscious with a cane.

Both sides have mostly good points. Both have a fewer stinkers, too. Both also sound like first graders talking about how the other guys have cooties.

If can’t agree that at this point, both sides are acting like children, and neither is on a moral high ground, then you are  part of the problem.

These are smart and savvy men and women in Washington.  They could come up with a great solution that most of us would be very happy with. But we don’t want that. We want it our way, and we don’t even really know what that means.

We’re just as bratty as our leaders.

This page originally appeared at TrendingBuffalo.com

Congress: Who has the more impressive package?

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

When people are fighting over whose package is bigger or smaller, whether it’s taxes or budgets or cuts or any other sort of “package,” I usually assume that neither one is accurately portraying their actual package size in the argument, and furthermore, that promises made about either package will ultimately lead to disappointment.

US_Capitol_Building_at_night_Jan_2006

When two sides are so convinced that their own package– and only their own package– is the only way to satisfy the country, and that they are justified in running around waving their package while bashing the other guy’s package… well, that’s just stupid.

It’s especially stupid because no matter which package we wind up taking, it’s going to leave us entirely unsatisfied… Which only sets up next year’s “who has the better package” fight.

Seriously– both of your packages are pretty weak. Neither one is really worth boasting about. So please stop acting like children bragging that your package is so much better than the other guys’. It’s not.

And of course, whenever people start arguing about packages, it’s the people who have to listen to the argument, or get beer spilled on them, or end up without a paycheck or services for a while because of an asinine package fight.

Please, keep your package size out of your discussion of packages, and act like grown men and women.

This page originally appeared at TrendingBuffalo.com

The coolest guy I know…

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

What is “cool?” It’s a word and a concept that are virtually cliché, mostly because for the last 30 years, popular culture’s most popular people and things  are usually anti-cool.

C'mon, this is Al. Isn't he just the coolest?
C’mon, this is Al. Isn’t he just the coolest?

“Uncool” still isn’t cool, but anti-cool is the coolest. Many cool people use the word “cool” ironically, not as it may have been intended at some point long ago.

Let’s think back to when cool was cool, though. I’m 36. When I was kid, Michael Jackson and The Dukes of Hazzard were pop-culture cool. I liked those things, but if you ran into little Stevie Cichon on the streets of South Buffalo in 1982, and asked him to name one “cooool” guy, I would have said, without thinking, The Fonz.

Arthur Fonzarelli might be our national lasting impression of “cooool,” so to that measure, Little Stevie would have been correct.

“Adult” Steve (note quotes- ed.) finds Fonzie to be more indifferent than cool. Whether we’re talking about him or James Dean, these “cool dudes” were guys who tried hard to exude an image. A slick haircut, a leather jacket, a motorcycle, defiant smoking, dungarees, and of course, that defiant attitude.

That alone was enough to “own” Arnold’s in 1950-whenever-Happy-Days-was-supposed-to-have-happened.  That just can’t be “cool” now though, because even the squarest kids have some measure of the Fonz’s bad-ass defiant attitude and have their own ways of doing whatever they want.

I’d offer that the fact the Fonz’s act wouldn’t be cool today, means he was never really “cool.”

Before you tell me, “sit on it, Cunningham,” let’s think about this.

He tried hard to be cool, right? For me, that’s big. Any effort you put into being cool lobs off massive amounts of cool points.

To me, cool means, in part, someone who personifies not giving a shit about being cool to the n-th degree.  Someone who does what they do, and they go home and have a sandwich. Someone who– if is accused of being cool– immediately thinks the accuser is an asshole.

That’s cool.

According to some website (which supports my point of view so I’ll accept it), “cool” came into English as slang in 1825, meaning “calmly audacious.” It’s with that connotation that “cool” came to mean “fashionable” in Black America in the 1930s. The word was propagated by some of the really coolest men who ever lived, jazz musicians of the 1940s and 50s.

Speaking generally, jazz musicians qualify as cool. They mostly don’t care what you think about their music. I don’t know much about jazz, but I appreciate watching jazz live. You can just about see instruments connected to the souls and guts of the guys who play them. It’s pure, raw music art.

So some guy, who has played with legends and travelled around the world, and made and lost a lot of money, sits in a hole-in-the-wall bar, bares his soul by means of a horn, people are blown away, and he gets in his car and goes home and has a piece of toast and mows the lawn.

That guy is cool. Right?

Al Wallack isn’t a jazz musician, but he is a jazz man. It’s the soul, not the ability with a musical instrument in hand.

For 40 years, Al has used his ability to convey the spoken word and ability to record and edit and manipulate sound on the radio in the same artful, beautiful and soulful way that the guy blowing sax does.

Al’s opus work was “Jazz in the Nighttime” on WEBR AM-970 in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. It wasn’t a job for him, it was a passion.  He did it because something inside of him made him do it.  In many ways, it was his life.

To say Al is the best is wrong, because just like the jazz artists he put in the spotlight for so many years, it’s better to just call him a great artist, and like all great artists he’s different, unique, and in a category all his own.

Ask him, and Al will tell you he’s just and old disc jockey who likes to sit home and drink cheap beer, and that he’s not deserving of going into the Buffalo Broadcasting Hall of Fame, as he is set to do tonight.

He can’t be more right and more wrong. While I can’t think of a more deserving member of the Broadcasting Hall of Fame, based on what’s truly a legacy of artistry and commitment like none other in the history of Buffalo radio… He’s also just an old disc jockey who likes to sit at home and drink THE CHEAPEST light beer he can find.

He’d also look at me with a perturbed look on his face, and think I’m an asshole for saying it, but on this day I’ll take the hit: Al Wallack is the coolest guy I know.

WGR’s Biggest Loss Since Shane

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

When you turn on your radio Monday afternoon, you’ll barely—if at all—notice the difference. That’s how they get away with it. An era, however, will have ended in Buffalo radio.

Greg Bauch behind the WGR controls.
Greg Bauch behind the WGR controls.
Greg Bauch’s last day at WGR is Friday.  Listeners to Schopp and The Bulldog might recognize Greg as the guy who plays funny sound effects or through his radio alter ego, Greg Buck.

While Greg is among the best at finding (and playing at the right moment) silly or interesting sound bites, and Greg Buck is the funniest bit ever on Buffalo radio, others will come along and play sound effects and be funny. That’s just what one does on the radio.

The real story is, after 15 years there, Bauch is, without question, the heart and soul of WGR.

He’s the type of guy who becomes the heart and soul wherever he goes, but in a business where heart and soul don’t often last much longer than the time the “ON AIR” light is lit, Greg has managed to strap that station to his back, allowing an institutional continuity and his goodness to permeate the product for a decade and a half.

I first heard Greg Bauch when he started the way everyone started at WGR a generation ago: as the man at the controls of the late night John Otto show.  The astute listener could hear that the brilliant Otto was often frustrated with the fact that his show was a training ground for “the new guy,” especially when that new guy “cared not a FIG!” about Otto or his show.

Broadcasting Hall of Famer Otto loved Greg. You could hear the smile through the radio as John,  John, your operator on referred to him as my humble man servant Gregor.

John Otto was the first in a very long line of wonderfully talented hosts who was able to find something special in Greg, which is someone who was happy with being, and supremely talented at being, a radio producer.

A good producer is someone who lives for the good of the show (not someone who lives for the opportunity to inject himself on the air.)

A good producer does whatever it takes to forge a relationship with the talent on the show he’s producing, and builds an unbreakable trust with that person, allowing the talent to freely host the show with the knowledge that whatever is happening “on the other side of the glass” is being dealt with the proper amount of care.

With all this, a good producer is an equal part of the success of the show which he produces, although any recognition of that fact is almost always an afterthought. He is also accepting of the fact that he might command a quarter of the pay of the talent, while often working at least twice as hard.

Speak to Chris Parker or Mike Schopp or Chuck Dickerson or Tom Bauerle or the late Clip Smith or the late John Otto.  They will tell you, invariably, that their shows were better because they had Bauch at the controls.

A thankless, lunch bucket kind of job in the midst of the glitz, glamour and fame of radio. Greg excels at it because that’s who he is.

But, as Van Miller used to say, that’s only the half of it.

To use a hokey hockey analogy, Greg has worn the “C” in the WGR dressing room for at least a decade as the quiet, stay at home defenseman, who not only moves easily among the superstar goal scorers, but always takes the new guys under his wing and shows them what they need to know.

Name anyone you’ve heard do a sports update on WGR in the last decade, and they were trained by Greg Bauch.  Or trained by someone who went to the Greg Bauch College of WGR Knowledge.

To use another stupid sports analogy, Greg is the quarterback who stands back and sees everything at the station, from all perspectives- the talk show hosts, the update guys, the producers, even promotions and engineering, and successfully has them all working together.

It’s ironic and rare in this day and age, that he has been able to force all that’s good out of that radio station, and the people working there, by his gentle touch, and the fact that you aren’t likely to meet a better human being.  Unless you know Howard Simon.  But Greg has hair, so Greg > Howard.

This isn’t just the end of an era because Greg won’t be there anymore. It’s the end of an era, because it’s almost certain there’ll never be another like Greg Bauch in radio in Buffalo ever again.

Like in many fields, the corporatization of radio has eliminated the middle ground where good producers once stood. Radio is ever increasingly becoming a place where there are a few reasonably well-paid on-air talents, and everyone else makes minimum wage without benefits.

Even if someone had the drive, personality, voice, comedic timing, leadership skills and hot wife that Greg Bauch has, it’s nearly impossible that the person could remain in a job that is no longer valued in the corporate structure of radio the way Greg has been able.

So, talk show callers… Your time to harass a legend is running out. Post game coming up.

This page originally appeared at TrendingBuffalo.com

A man ahead of his time

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

13427954_10209523827394107_7932250703412461951_nJack Tapson passed away last weekend.

He was a photographer, who like me shared a love of Buffalo Broadcasting, worked in the field for a few decades, and knew– as it was unfolding– that he was watching something important unfolding in front of him daily.

He started at Channel 4  as a lover of photography and teen technician in the 1940s and moved onto Channel 2 where he started the news film department in the mid-1950s.

For decades, these jobs put him on the front lines of some of the really amazing things that were happening in what was then America’s 15th largest city. Behind the scenes at Buffalo’s big TV stations as well.

Through the years, he sent me dozens of photographs along with some sort of brief description of the shot. As is usually the case, many of the photos are amazing not only for the intended subject, but the background and surrounding scenery, too.

His access to free or low-cost film and developing at work, and the consistency with which he carried his still camera through various jobs he was working, give us a bit of a glimpse of what it might have been like to follow a television reporter or videojournalist on Facebook or Twitter 60 years ago. Just like someone whipping out their cellphone for a quick pic while doing their actual job, many of Jack’s photos were taken while shooting moving pictures for WGR-TV.

Importantly, he not only took these shots, he saved them all these years. Even more importantly, he then shared them, mostly with fellow historian Marty Biniasz and me.

Here are a couple of shots, with Jack’s notes and then some further explanation.

Ernie_Warlick_Jim_Castigleone__Bob_Lanier

“Here’s a classic!!! Ernie wore a size 19 shoe, Jimmie a size 6 1/2 and Bob Lanier a size 24.”

Shown: Channel 2 Sportsman & Former Buffalo Bill Ernie Warlick; Channel 2 floorman Jim Castiglione; Bennett High School & St. Bonaventure basketball star (and future NBA Hall of Famer) Bob Lanier. Late 60s.

pulaskie_day_parade_redo-Bobby-Kennedy
Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Pulaski Day, Broadway, 1964

“I received a thank you note from Kennedy after fulfilling his request to send this photo and others….similar.”

Shown: Robert Kennedy’s campaign car takes him through Buffalo’s East Side and up Broadway, 1964

Kowal__Harry_Truman_color“I shot silent footage at his arrival and departure at the Bflo. airport and S.O.F. at Canisus College.”

Shown: Buffalo Mayor Chet Kowal shaking hands with Former President Harry Truman on his way to a Canisius College speaking engagement, 1962. (S.O.F. is “sound on film,” silent film was far less expensive, so sound was only shot for news purposes when necessary.)

Details of Buffalo history aren’t all that I learned from Jack.

Jack and I had a falling out. He was insistent on something that didn’t fully make sense to me. I reasonably refuted a tad, he got passionately angry. I passive-aggressively pushed back again.

If you read through the emails, I think anyone would agree he was acting like a jerk. What I didn’t know though, was that he was really sick. Had I known, I probably would have cut the passive aggressive sort of crap. I did my best to try to make amends with him. I said all the right things, and really meant all that I said. It was too late though, as illness had taken a good grip on poor ol’Jack.

Now we weren’t close friends, I’m not even sure that we actually met in person, but knowing that I didn’t do all that I could have to aid a brother in trouble, leaves me greatly troubled. Just because he was outwardly acting like a jerk, didn’t give me permission to be jerky–less jerky, but still jerky– back.  He was sick, that was his excuse. I don’t have an excuse. Without the details, I posted about it on Facebook.

JackTapsonUpdate

As my friend Libby commented on Facebook, “That is real wisdom. (Wisdom is sometimes accompanied by an uneasy feeling.) (It never seemed that way for Andy Taylor or Cliff Huxtable, but I have found it so in real life.)”

So thanks, Jack for capturing so many fleeting Buffalo memories on film. And thanks for bearing with me while I learned a tough lesson in humility and compassion which will serve me, and the people around me, well into the future.

This page originally appeared at TrendingBuffalo.com

The Art of Garbage Picking

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

BUFFALO, NY – This weekend, walking the dog, I found the best piece of “trash” I’d seen in a while.

This landfill bound wooden box, filled with woodworking scraps, was once used by Rudolph Frey Meats to deliver sausages and other meat products to small grocery corner stores, butchers, and places like the Broadway and Washington/Chippewa Markets all over the city.

Treasure in the trunk of my car.
Treasure in the trunk of my car.

At one point in my life, for fear that someone else find my treasure, I probably would have grabbed this 50 pound box, and tried to carry it while managing my erratic and mentally unstable dog for the rest of the way around the block.

Instead, at peace with the fact that someone else might snatch up and enjoy this vestige of long ago East Buffalo, I took the dog home and got the car. It was still there, and I loaded up the box (which I wanted) along with the wood scraps inside (which I didn’t want but will explain in a moment.)

It had been quite some time since I grabbed something out of someone’s pile of trash at the curb. These days, people bring me their junk. I don’t even have to ask, let alone pick. Occasionally, I’ll see something destined for a landfill and I’ll ask to give it a home, but straight up garbage picking I haven’t done for a while.

It’s not because I’m above it, it’s just that my tastes have refined. I have eleventy-twenty-two tables that just need a little… or chairs which will be great with a new… I don’t need more of those sorts of things, and that’s generally what’s in the garbage. Broken stuff.

When we first bought our house 13 years ago, the first big trash day doubled the volume of furniture in our big city house. It was the only way we could do it. Some of those items, carefully spruced up, remain a part of our home today. Most, however, were eventually put back to the curb. A few times, I even helped someone load the thing I was throwing out into their car as they plucked it from the spot next to my big blue tote. The circle of life.

As a garbage picker who lives on a busy street, I am careful to properly display (and even put a “TAKE ME” sign on) stuff I consider to be “good garbage.” Not in good enough shape to head to AmVets or St. Vincent dePaul, but still good enough for someone to get some use out of it. As I said, if I see the actual picking, I’ll even help load it in the car, and give the provenance of the piece to the new owner.

One time a guy was so happy to find this bike that he could fix up for his daughter, I went to the garage and got all the bike parts I could find to help him make his daughter’s day. Garbage picking builds communities.

But there’s a right way and a wrong way to garbage pick.

My Frey’s box was being chucked, in some part, because it was the vessel holding those wood scraps at the curb, part of this man’s effort to neatly pile a bunch of junk from the basement on the curb. To just dump the wood in a pile on this guy’s lawn would have obviously (I hope) been rude, and there was no other clean way to leave ’em, so the whole thing went in my trunk. Since it was big garbage day anyway, I bundled up the wood and put it neatly at my own curb.

For as happy as I am when a guy who needs a grill thinks he can get a year or two out of the one I’m throwing out, I’m just as angry at the junk dealers and metal scrappers, who’ll turn a neat pile of refuse into an ugly mountain of detritus and debris, hop in their Fred Sanford-looking pick up and leave without conscience.

After about 8 years of renovations on my home, my basement was filled with scraps and bits of all sorts of home improvement ephemera, small pieces of wood molding, PVC drain, electrical wiring, copper pipe, window glass, fiberglass insulation, etc, etc. I put 8 years of this stuff into about 2 dozen contractor bags, very lightly filled for ease of carrying. By the time I saw him, some low-life had taken an razor blade and slit about 15 of the bags, pulling out no more than 8 cents worth of metal, but leaving saw dust and little bits of broken glass all over my lawn and side walk.

CICHON PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: Tom Bosley with Glad trash bag, Ginsu knife cutting beer can, Mr. C’s fez
CICHON PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: Tom Bosley with Glad trash bag, Ginsu knife cutting beer can, Mr. C’s fez

While Mr. Cunningham’s 80’s commercial advice echoed in my mind, it was rather difficult to “not get mad,” because I had, indeed, “gotten Glad.” It was like some sort of epic battle between Tom Bosley and the Ginsu guy in my front yard, and Howard’s fez wound up looking like that beer can.

I hate the shame attached to garbage picking, but jackwagons like this razorblade loser give people pause when they see someone trolling their trash. So by all means, reduce, reuse, recycle. But be respectful. Pick politely. Don’t make a mess.

This page originally appeared at TrendingBuffalo.com

The quest for the perfect cup of coffee

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

BUFFALO, NY – America has been breathlessly anticipating every move I make in my quest for the perfect cup of coffee.

I’ve been drinking coffee regularly since second grade. That’s when, for maybe six months, my brother, sister and I would get up really early to drive my dad to work, so that my mom would have the car so she could drive to work. The early wake-up wasn’t the problem. It was winter, and the heat was broken on the ol’fudge brown 1980 AMC Spirit. The coffee kept us warm for the drive.

shufflebowling-wax-300x300

This is not coffee creamer. Or maybe it is.

Since then, coffee has kept me warm and sane. I used to drink it with cream, but the two pots a day I’d drink at the radio station to keep me going when I was working full-time and going to school full-time eventually started to become black cups. That powered creamer always reminds me of the can of wax stuff we’d sprinkle on the shuffle bowling game at my dad’s bar when I was little. (He sold the bar to get that job we were driving him to…)

So I like black coffee. Coffee, not a bunch of syrupy flavors and whipped cream. I like coffee flavored coffee. Not Starbucks. Their “Pike’s Peak” blend makes me less homicidal than most, but usually if circumstance lands me at Starbucks, I’ll get tea.

Good Tim Hortons coffee is really good, but through the years, as the franchise has exploded, you get more and more skunkers. I think the skunkers come most from the practice of topping off a cup from a different pot. It’s worth the roll of the dice for a good one, though, on most days, and Tim Hortons is where I buy most coffee on the road.

I think I might like the robust, consistent taste of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee even better than Hortons, but those styrofoam cups taste pretty assy. Especially if the coffee is really hot, I mostly taste the mouthful of chemicals that just leached from the cup.

Since I began my own business and working from home a few months ago and lost access to endless free coffee in the work kitchen, I’ve been working on the easiest, cheapest, tastiest way to capture what’s good about a cup of coffee at home.

We have a Keurig, and I have to say, perhaps my all-time favorite cup of coffee comes from the Coffee Shop K-cup. The problem is the cost, which is 60¢-68¢ per cup. Fine for one, but if I have 4 or 5 cups, and it starts becoming a silly cost. There are cheaper K-cups, but I don’t like most of them, and I hate the rest.

I’ve tried the reusable Keurig baskets, but they taste plasticky pretty quick, and make an OK at best cup of coffee. I even tried cutting open a K-cup and putting the grounds in the reusable basket. Not even close. Next.

The standard Mr. Coffee type drip maker has been a part of my life since second grade. Bleech. That’s the taste I’m trying to avoid. Next.

I tried the French press, which makes a rich cup of coffee, but it lacks any bite. Great flavor, but no punch. Next.

Here I am perking at 5:50am.
Here I am perking at 5:50am.

But what’s next? We’ve had this old percolator which we last used during the October storm, and the coffee we made was terrible. Apparently, though, boiling the living hell out of the coffee for 10 or 15 minutes isn’t the way to do it.

Medium heat until it starts to perc, then low for 5 minutes. I found a cheap grinder that does the coarse grind needed for a percolator, and it turns out the cup that came with our rice cooker is just the right about of beans to be ground for 4 cups in the percolator. I’ve settled on Eight O’Clock 100% Colombian whole bean. 6¢ or so a cup.

So Van Miller was right when he used to read those Perkins spots with zeal, and he’d say, “Perk it up!” So that’s what I’m doing, Uncle Van.

It’s delicious, but there are drawbacks. It takes a while to brew, and with a stovetop percolator you have to watch it. You can’t heat the water too quickly, or it burns the coffee. And other people in the house all the sudden find your coffee delicious, which means you’re brewing more of it, more often.

But the percolator is it for now. Am I missing anything?  What say you?

This page originally appeared at TrendingBuffalo.com

Hills is where the toys (and memories) are

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

People love to remember Hills, and I get it. I love to remember Hills, too.

Hills is where your grandma bought you an Icee and a popcorn. You may have got your first bike, Cabbage Patch Kid, or Michael Jackson record there. And it goes without saying (singing), Hills is where the toys are. And of course, most importantly, Hills is not WalMart.

This Hills bag was recently on eBay for $9.34. It did not sell.
This Hills bag was recently on eBay for $9.34. It did not sell.

Hills was in Buffalo for about 20 years. In 1979, there were two Hills stores in Western New York. Store number 77 was in Garden Village Plaza (French and Union Rds) in Cheektowaga, and store number 79 was on George Urban Blvd (at Dick) in Depew (today a Hobby Lobby location).

In 1999, 10 out of the 11 Western New York Hills stores became Ames, when Ames bought out Hills to become the nation’s 4th largest discount retailer. (Ames closed for good in 2002.)

Two decades of great memories. But here’s the thing. Hills wasn’t that great. It was terrible, in fact. It was dirty. All the toys were always open and all over the place.

I got my red GE fake Walkman at Brand Names, but I shopped for cassettes at Hills. For $5.97, you basically had to sort through every cassette in the record department, because they were always out of order and jammed back into the wrong spots. Good luck trying to find a Young MC tape (Y) when it’s hidden behind Belinda Carlisle (C) in the slot marked (J).

And up until the very end, they didn’t take credit cards. No cash or no check and a drivers license, meant you had to put back the VHS copy of “The Bodyguard” you were buying to impress your girlfriend.

“C’mon, I loved Hills,” you might be screaming at your computer. You may love it now, but you didn’t then. A survey taken right before Hills closed showed WNYers preferred K-Mart (#1) and WalMart (#2) by a wide margin over Hills.

Hills wasn’t that great, but neither was your mom’s 1983 Chevette with naugahyde seats and AM radio which carted you and your brother to Hills.

I live to jog people’s memories, and reminiscing every now and again is a good thing. It’s also good, though, to put it in context with how good we really have it right now.

Anyway, ‘member Hills?

Now I can’t wait to read the comments for people to talk about Twin Fair, Two Guys, Gold Circle and Brand Names.

This post originally appeared at TrendingBuffalo.com