Episode 2: The Fish Fry

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo

My ol’man and Gramps— my ol’man’s ol’man— were certified, bonafide American originals.

They were the kind of men that could only be forged in a place like Buffalo and in a tough neighborhood like the Valley.

Late in life, Gramps lost his sight and his mobility— around the same time that my dad lost his leg to diabetes and heart disease after a couple of years in and out of the hospital.

Those two became best friends— talking to each other on the phone four or five times a day, helping one another defeat loneliness while enriching the father-and-son bond between these two guys who were made from the same good stuff.

Gramps was in his 80s, reflective, and accepting-but-sad. Dad was in his 50s, still a Marine at heart, and despite not having a leg or enough stamina to learn to walk on a prosthetic— he sometimes forgot about his physical condition. Especially when it came to trying to lighten the burden of his dad’s loneliness and isolation.

It wasn’t easy to get Dad out of the house or Gramps out of the nursing home.

Getting them both out at the same time was a real adventure, but my ol’man would beg for me to help him take his dad out the same way a five-year-old begs to go out for ice cream. That means relentlessly, with big sad eyes, not really understanding or caring why its a bad idea, and with a complete and utter disregard for whatever bullshit being spewed to explain why it’s not the best idea.

One day in particular, the planets aligned and I made secret plans to get my ol’man and gramps out for an early dinner.

When the day came and I asked Dad if he wanted to head over to pick up Gramps for a fish fry— it was less like telling a kid we were going for ice cream— but more like telling him we were going to Disney World.
My ol’man was wide-eyed and breathless.

He was excited to get out of the house. He was excited to get a fish fry.
“I hope they got that good potato salad,” said Dad excitedly.

But more than anything, he was excited to be sharing all these things with his dad.

With my wife’s help, I got Dad in the car. Kinda spilled him into the backseat. Then to the nursing home and Gramps in the front seat.

We went to the good Greek place only a mile or so away. My wife and I were completely spent from getting these two into the car when we had to unpack them.

Both times, Gramps was pretty compliant but as heavy as the smell of fried fish in the air.

He sat with the wheels locked on his wheelchair in a far-away parking spot because it was the only place where we could get the door open and enough room to get these guys out.

If Gramps was easy— getting one-legged Dad out of the back seat was like trying to pull a rabid cat out of a carrier crate.

My ol’man was excited and crazed and even forgot himself in the mayhem, trying to lift himself out of that backseat using the long-gone leg he’d had amputated years earlier.

Sweaty and wild-haired by the time he was out of the car, he was pissed because we weren’t moving fast enough.

There was goddamn fish fry waiting to be eaten, and nothing was slowing down my ol’man.

“Here Dad, let me help you,” said my father to his father, despite his inability to muster enough power to move his own wheelchair.

Grabbing the push handles at the back of Gramps’ wheelchair, my ol’man started jiggling and shaking himself trying to break the internia of two guys sitting reluctantly immobile in their medically-necessary chariots.

None of the gyrations worked even a little.

“Relax Dad, we’re going as fast as we can,” I said, stressed and worn-out myself, now trying to push both wheelchairs at once and adding to the ridiculousness of the scene. It was a live-action Three Stooges show.

Eventually we got in and had some great fish fry and great conversation and lots of laughs.

This was the last time we’d go through this deeply beautiful and satisfying comedy routine— it was actually Dad’s last good day.

All that jiggling— and his trouble getting up and down the stairs and in and out of the car— almost certainly contributed to the major heart attack he had that night.

Dad’s many heart attacks were quiet. He never knew as they happened. He’d just feel lousy— which he did all the time anyway. After a couple of days in the ICU, my ol’man died at the age of 58.

My ol’man’s last good meal and last good time was a fish fry with his ol’man. And it killed him to make it happen. And if he was sitting here, he’d tell you it was worth it.

Every dad deserves a son like my ol’man, and every son deserves a dad like my grandpa. My ol’man and Gramps. Two of the best. How blessed I have been.

Grandpa’s wall of 8-packs… and other warmly remembered childhood oddities

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo

Doing ’80s research is dangerous for me. Any time frame earlier is “history,” and I love it… but it’s hard to be clinical when every turned page of a 70s or 80s Courier-Express or Buffalo Evening News is dripping with images and ideas that leave me drowning in nostalgia.

I could write a short book about when the bottom shelf of the pop aisle at every Buffalo grocery store was filled with Coke, Pepsi, and RC Cola in tall, thin glass bottles.

Pop tasted so much better in those 16oz glass bottles. Those eight packs were always on sale, and even when they weren’t, it was the cheapest way to buy the name brand.

That’s why Gramps loved ’em.

Grandma Cichon lived a few doors from Seneca Street in a worn out, but grand old house. When you walked in the front door and looked straight ahead, you looked through the front hall, then a more narrow hallway, and then right into the kitchen.

If Grandma wasn’t at the stove cooking, she was the first thing you’d see when that door swung open, sitting at the head of the table, with a cup of coffee in a gold butterfly mug and Kool 100 burning in the over-full ashtray.

When you creaked open that big door and looked slightly to the right, if Gramps wasn’t working (which was a lot– he still had three jobs when I was little), he was sitting in that comfy chair right just on the other side of the beautiful leaded glass doors which lead into the parlor.

Grandma generally would see us first, and start to say hello, before Gramps– who was much closer– would take his eyes off of Lawrence Welk or Bugs Bunny to intercept us for a minute.

“Ha’oh dere, son,” Gramps would say in a pretty thick standard Buffalo Polish accent. I had no idea there was anything to notice about that. Isn’t that how everyone’s Grandpa talked?

“Can I get you a glass of pop or a sandwich?” Gramps would ask, and immediately piss off my ol’man.

Royal Crown: the definitive “big name” cola of Polonia.

“Jesus Christ, Dad, it’s ten o’clock in the mornin’,” Dad would say, walking toward Grandma in the kitchen.

Ignoring my ol’man completely, Gramps would give an inventory.

“Well help yourself. In the ice box we got two kinds of baloney… Polish loaf… olive loaf… pimento loaf… ham…”

The sound of his voice would trail off as we walked through the narrow hallway on the way to the kitchen.

Now I wouldn’t think anything of this hallway until twenty years later, when the girlfriend-who-became-my-wife asked me about it after visiting Gramps.

In the same way I never thought anything about my grandpa’s Polish accent, I never thought anything about his hallway filled with pop.

When I say filled, I mean the entire length of the ten-foot long walkway had pop pushed up against the wall, stacked two or three deep and two, three, or four high in some places.

It was mystical and mystifying. Gramps’ pop display was far more impressive than what you’d have seen at Quality Food Mart, half a block away at Seneca and Duerstein.

There were 2-liter and 3-liter bottles; flat, mixed-flavored cases of grocery-store brand cans; some times a wooden case or two from Visniak, but more than anything else, 8-pack after 8-pack of glass bottles.

Now Gramps had ten kids, but there weren’t ten kids living there at the time. And even for ten kids– hundreds of servings of soda pop lined up waist high, the first thing you see when you walk into the house… well, it was one of many things that made Gramps a true Buffalo original.

I’m sure there was something about taking advantage of a good sale… or getting one over on a cashier with an expired coupon… or (put a star next to this one) getting under my grandmother’s skin by buying things she’d say they didn’t need…

But Gramps really didn’t drink. He wouldn’t want a beer, but would relax with a coffee or a pop.

He also really wanted to share his pop, and make sure you knew it was OK to take it. He wasn’t just being polite in offering it. That wall was there to prove, “I got plenty! Go ahead and take one!”

You could expect to refuse a pop at least three or four times while visiting with Gramps, and then one more on the way out.

“Sure you don’t want a pop, son? Why don’t you take some home? I’ll get you a bag.”

Ticket taker Gramps let us into Rich Stadium with a matchbook ticket

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

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

More than coffee, done right it’s a cup of togetherness

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

I’ve been thinking a lot about coffee lately, and the sum of coffee is more than the beans.
Someone was dissing good ol’powdered coffee creamer the other day. Not me. I started working in radio at 15 years old, and through high school and college put in a lot of 16 hour days.

In those days, the only coffee at WBEN was from a vending machine in the basement. 

Those 25¢ 5oz cups of instant coffee with powdered creamer kept me alive.

My wife and I are part owners of a coffee shop now— with some of the most delicious, finest roasted coffee in Western New York… but I still keep a jar of instant coffee and powdered creamer on hand because every once in a while, I get nostalgic about that terrible brackish fluid which kept my motor running so many years ago.

I saved one of those cups with the intention, I think, of getting Ed Little’s autograph on the cup. The coffee really was bad, but it was the best coffee I ever had when Ed would grab two shiny new quarters and ask if I had time to head down to the basement.

In his mid-70s, Ed was far and away the oldest guy working at the station and gave weekend news the bigger-than-life sound of a much earlier era with bold writing and bombastic announcing. I was the youngest by a big margin, a wide-eyed 15 year-old twerp with boundless enthusiasm for all things radio and for old guys who liked to tell stories.

“You can buy when we have steak,” Ed would say, never allowing me to pay for our coffee ritual, even when he bought me lousy coffee at one of a dozen or so different little lunch counters with booth service, all the kind of place that served meatloaf and gravy. But no matter what the special was, the coffee was always there to wash it down.

Toward the end of Ed’s life, I called him up for a coffee but he was too sick to go out. His voice sparkled when I offered to bring over a couple of cups of Tim Horton’s. He was visibly sick, but pulled on a turtleneck and a pair of perfectly pressed slacks for my visit to his kitchen table and the coffee I was finally able to buy.

My earliest memories of drinking coffee come from the necessity of warmth. I was about 7 when my parents would load us kids into the backseat of our chocolate brown AMC to drive my ol’man to work early in the morning before we went to school. It was the only way that mom would have the car to go to work herself after we’d get home and get on the bus.

The heat didn’t work in the car, but holding and sipping plastic tumblers of coffee kept us warm. The coffee was always on at our house growing up. I always enjoyed bringing Mom a cup just the way she liked it. Dad never seemingly finished a cup and was constantly walking over to the microwave—later wheeling over to the microwave—to blast that cold cup for 45 seconds or so.

“A minute’s way too long, Steveo,” dad would say yanking the mug out of the microwave, taking a long sip with quick a self-satisfied mmm.

When you walked into Grandma Coyle’s kitchen, right there in the middle of the table, almost like a centerpiece, was the Mr. Coffee– right next to the black rotary dial wall phone and a pack of Parliament 100s.

Grandma Cichon had been a waitress at Colonial Kitchen, which ingrained the sanctity of coffee when hosting people at her giant white Formica kitchen table. The kettle on the stove was always lukewarm and ready to make a Taster’s Choice instant coffee in a Corelle Gold Butterfly mug. You got milk and sugar without asking. If she was out of milk, Grandma would put a buck in my hand and send me to Fay’s, because that was Seneca Street’s cheapest half-gallon of milk.

After Grandma Cichon died, I’d walk in the front door and say hi to Gramps, as I walked into the kitchen to put on the kettle for us both.

Any cup of coffee I made for Gramps was judged “perfect, son” with the first sip, and he meant it from the bottom of his heart every time—not just because the coffee was good, but because we were drinking it together.

I personally pour all of this into each cup of coffee I make at JAM. Our rich blend is delicious, and I know you will love it—but that’s fleeting. What lasts forever is our coffee story, and JAM was built with that in mind.

This is what we mean when we say Coffee and Community. You’ve become a part of my coffee story. I hope you’ll make JAM part of your coffee story, too.

“It was a different time, then, son”

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

I stumbled on this patch on eBay… I had a knit winter hat with this patch on it, which Grandpa Cichon got working at Buffalo Raceway.

It seemed for a few years every Cichon was keeping his or her head warm with one of these orange and blue hats.

Gramps was good at finding stuff hanging around at work. I’m not exaggerating to say there must have been 20 of these hats around the family.

That was in addition to the stuff he used to bring home from National Aniline.

There was an endless supply of work gloves, flashlights, wooden-handled ball peen hammers, and blanket-lined denim work coats.

I’m sure some of these things were issued to him, but there’s little doubt he lifted some of this stuff, too.

It was before I was around, but his stories about being the night watchman at Paul’s Pies are legendary, too… coming home with the car filled with baked goods–mostly day old, I’m sure.

If Gramps was telling this story, he’d probably have ended it with, “But it was a different time then, son.”

Hahaha.

I think this Seneca Mall Santa was ready to give me extra stuff because I had a connection at the track.

Cichoń grave clean up 2018, St. Stan’s Cemetery

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

I will never forget the satisfied, heart-filled smile Gramps gave me when I told him that I cleaned up his parents’ grave. I didn’t know it, but not being able to tend to his family’s graves was one of the things that weighed on him when he was in a nursing home, the last of ten siblings still alive.

“You’re a good guy for doing that, son,” Gramps said to me. It rang in my ears and filled my heart today when I stopped by the cemetery to look after my great-grandparents’ grave, and the graves of Gramps’ brothers who died in childhood.

Roman was hit by a truck and killed, Czesław (Chester) had Leukemia and died at three months old. Chester didn’t have a stone– they couldn’t afford one– Gramps’ older brothers cast a cross in concrete, which eventually wore down and was toppled. But he was right next to the fence, Gramps said. There are other makeshift headstones nearby which survive.

It’s deeply gratifying to honor my grandfather by honoring his parents and brothers.

May they all Rest In Peace. Spoczywaj W Pokoju.

Steve at the entrance to the old part of St. Stanislaus Cemetery, Cheektowaga, NY.

Happy Birthday, Grandma Coyle

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Grandpa Coyle took this picture of his girl while they were dating some time in the late 40s. Today, they’re celebrating her birthday together in heaven. She’s no longer here, but the love she gave to us continues to grow and flourish every day. She was about as good as they come. Happy Birthday, Grandma!

June Marie Wargo, late 1940s.

People have told me my grandpa was the toughest guy in Seneca-Babcock.

Jimmy Coyle, the toughest guy in Seneca-Babcock, in front of a gin mill with an Iroquois Beer neon light.

He was a bouncer at the Southside Athletic Club and ran the Seneca-Babcock Boys Club.

Gramps met his match with this little 5’2″ lady.

The Gramps Files: Babcia the Rum Runner

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

During The Prohibition, my great-grandmother made moonshine in the family basement and sold it from my grandpa’s baby buggy. Here’s Gramps telling the story….

During a visit on June 18, 2012, Gramps tells the story of his mother using a copper kettle to make whiskey in the basement of their Fulton Street home during The Depression and Prohibition days as a way to keep food on the table for their family with ten children Babcia would put the bottles in with Gramps in his baby buggy for distribution around The Valley.

John & Mary Cichon outside their Fulton Street, Buffalo home, 1941.

The Cichons lived on Fulton Street in The Valley, between Van Rensselaer Street and Smith Street. My great-grandparents owned the home where the booze was made from 1922-1978. Jan Cichon and Maryanna Pochec both came to Buffalo from Poland in 1913. They met here and were married at Holy Apostles Ss. Peter and Paul Church at Smith and Clinton in 1914.

John Cichon died in 1967. Mary Cichon died in 1980. Gramps died in 2014 just after his 88th birthday.

Gramps always told a lot of great stories, but this was one I’d never heard before. I was bursting with questions to ask, but I always considered my visits with Gramps to be his time. Nearly all of his friends, nine brothers and sisters, my grandmother, and four of his ten children died before he did. He needed a friend to talk and listen and bring Tim Bits—not someone to ask uncomfortable questions.

Gramps and Steve

Then and now, I wish I could have done more. I tried to be equal parts buddy and grandson, and I listened to whatever he had to share and never judged…. And I paid back those secret candy bars and ice cream cones from my youth with a box of Tim Bits or a “real burnt-up hot dog with sweet relish and slivered onions” with each visit.

 

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.

Old Tools from Old Guys

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

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!

hammer
As a tinsmith, Grandpa Cichon used a ball-peen hammer almost every day of his almost 40 years at National Aniline and Buffalo Color.

 

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.

rule

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.