Piles of Existential Crises (or as you see it, books and junk)

By Steve Cichon | steve@buffalostories.com | @stevebuffalo

It’s never been a conscious effort to replicate the junk piles of my ancestors, but even when I was young, I was fascinated by the grandparents who surrounded themselves with interesting stuff.

Grandpa Wargo’s house was a packed menagerie of wonderment, made even more special by the fact that everything was at least 30 years old and in like new condition. It was very neatly kept, but there was a lot of it, and much of it very exotic to my eyes. It was also the smell, which was something akin to, but not quite, anise-like. When we’d visit, he’d make me sit on the newspapers that he would pile up on the springy couch so that I could “flatten them out.” My dad and I painted his front railing once, and the can of black paint he procured from the basement looked like something he smuggled out of his job at Pratt & Letchworth in the 1930s.

For as tidy, new, and organized as Grandpa Wargo’s stuff felt, Grandpa Coyle’s was just as messy, piled, and chaotic. The 1880’s basement on Hayden Street was filled with old dishwashers, a ringer wash machine, my uncles’ old sporting equipment, and hundreds of scraps of wood, door knobs, bits of glass plate, and rusty tools. It really would have been a childhood paradise were it not for the healthy dose of fear created by the medieval looking rat traps hiding around most corners.

The moment you walked into Grandma Cichon’s front door, there was an overloaded, wall-to-ceiling bookshelf. It was in the little foyer between the screen door and the heavy door in the Seneca Street Victorian– in the place where most people might put coat hooks. It was an eclectic haphazard collection– one of many eclectic haphazard collections spewn throughout the old South Buffalo house. Our coats would go on the carved oak newel post.

Even though I admired the gargantuan clutter clatches of my grandparents, I fostered no plan to replicate them. Yet here I am.

Having lived in our own big old house for 15 years, I’ve collected enough rubble and detritus to make the junk-accumulating pioneers in my life proud. I don’t think the pride would come from the stuff, though– it’s the type of thinking the stuff represents.

How am I supposed to fix something when it breaks, if I don’t have a basement crushed to the gills with useless bric-a-brac which could one day be the missing piece in making sure the door knob stops falling off the front door? I’m sure people do it– fix without junk– but I learned how to fix stuff by watching Grandpa Wargo and Grandpa Coyle. Step one was always go stare at your junk for a while, and hope a solution jumps out at you.

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A small portion of my basement work bench.

I would love a clean, sanitized basement without frankly embarrassing piles of mad-scientist/Rube-Goldberg-looking junk everywhere… But I’m afraid– and it’s a real fear– that I’ll lose some part of who I am without the stuff. How do I move onto step two in the repair process without step one?

 

I’ve been thinking about how to fix the door knob for weeks, and the answer is not in the basement junk. Both grandpas would be happy with my solution, I think… It’s going to start with the same long stare– not in the cellar, but on the “nut and bolt” aisle at Home Depot.

It seems to work more and more like that these days, with my rusty old stuff in the basement acting as more of a security blanket than as useful things. If I can continue to think this way, the upcoming basement clean out should be easier. (LOL.)

What started me writing today, though, is my books. I’ve always had books and always had a bookshelf. For as long as I can remember. When we bought our house, I built and stained immense wooden bookshelves on both sides of the exposed brick of the chimney in our office. I loved idea of being surrounded by books, and that one day I’d have those shelves filled.

Of course, now it looks like a ladies guild buck-a-bag sale in there. Books are piled on the floor and on the desk and, in a trick I learned in Grandma Cichon’s front hall, sideways on top of books properly upright on the shelves.

Most of the books I buy these days are Buffalo and Western New York histories and reference volumes. These are all keepers– Both old and new– all filled with information you can’t find online. Online. There’s the rub.

The first quarter-century of my book collecting came before the Internet and the e-Book. I have half a shelf of really great dictionaries, thesauruses (thesauri?), and wonderful language resource and reference books which have gone untouched for at least a decade. Wonderful history texts, too. Spine literally not exercised in ten years.

There are also the paperbacks which for decades I so vigorously foraged. Classics, interesting old biographies, best sellers of decades’ past– anything that might make for a good vacation or rainy weekend read down the line. Most are now dust-covered and more forlorn-looking than when I plucked them from a yard sale or library fundraising pile.

grandmatodad
A gift from Grandma to Dad… the inside cover of a hardcover bound collection of Superman comic books.

The most complicated group of books are the ones that mean something to me. Not the stories; the actual books. Some are transplanted from that mythical shelf at Grandma’s… Some even have her writing in them. Plenty were Dad’s, annotated in his very heavy handed, unintelligible scrawl. With still others, holding the book takes me to the place where I read it. Physically, mentally, emotionally.

The problem with all these books are they are as much bricks as books. They are of little tangible use to me, and they actually take space away from my Buffalo book collection which I use quite vigorously and enthusiastically.

I know I won’t be using them as books– well, only insofar as anyone uses books as window dressing to look learned when their bookshelves are examined.

I’m not exactly happy with myself over this, but I’ve completely forsaken the smelly paperbacks with degrading paper for the tablet. A piece of me has died just writing that sentence, but it’s true. And there isn’t likely any going back.

And while I have warm memories of dictionaries and thesauruses (thesauri?) in every room of my house, for better or worse, the World Wide Web is really a remarkable resource in these areas. I’m not sure what Grandma Cichon would have thought of this, but it’s the cold truth.

I sat down to write this tonight as I was having an existential crisis while trying to cull out the jetsam and flotsam of book collection. I don’t want to be someone without great books, but I don’t want to be a phony, either.

There will certainly be room for the Buffalo books and most of the meaningful ones, too– although I may have to find a less reflective day to decide where that meaningful line is drawn.

bookjunk
Each of these silly paperbacks are a tangible reminder of many things– including that I probably need some sort of therapy.

Maybe a box or two might make it to the attic for further reflection, but those smelly paperbacks (which believe me, I still love!) will likely be boxed up and shipped out for their next rescue. I’ll drop them off with the same hope that people have when they drop off dogs and cats at a shelter, but the reality will probably be the same.

I hope my paperbacks– some of which have made 4 or 5 moves with me– will find a good home on a good bookshelf somewhere. Maybe they’ll even be read on the MetroRail on the way home from work… or maybe they’ll be read as the big raindrops hit the window and the smell of percolated coffee wafts through the air inside the slightly muggy-but-now-cooling-off state park cabin.

But we know the truth. Anyone who wants to read Huckleberry Finn can either download it– or at least find a copy where the pages don’t disintegrate and break from the binding with each advance in the book.

I always loved that struggle, and felt somehow more high-brow in the low-brow of it all. Now I feel high-brow when I read great novels on my phone instead of cruising on Facebook.

It’s not better or worse. It’s the same and it’s different. It’s a soul crushing crisis.

Lately not so much– but the Top Ten reasons I’ll love Dave forever….

By Steve Cichon | steve@buffalostories.com | @stevebuffalo

My intense love affair with David Letterman started in our basement family room in front of the huge RCA console TV my dad bought at FWS in the Como Park Mall.

The volume was on the lowest possible setting with sound still coming out. This was the 80’s, and the set had fancy new stereo sound. I turned the balance to the right, and pressed my ear up to the single speaker that still had sound coming out so I could hear Letterman’s monologue and first bit before going back to bed to get up for school at 6:30.

I don’t think little 11 or 12 year old Stevie was ever caught watching Letterman at 12:45 as the rest of the house slept, but the exhilarating mix of fear and excitement are with me even now thinking about it. So that’s number ten. Dave was my rebellious stage.

I think all that points to how Dave and I might have drifted apart. In the mid-80s, he was a goofy overnight bad-boy TV host with bad hair, and I was a little kid who loved people who loved to make me laugh– but lived in fear that my mom would kill me if the sound from the TV woke her up. Also, my haircut came from Tony “The Barber” Scaccia on Seneca Street in South Buffalo.

Thirty years later, and we’ve both changed. Dave is richer than Rockefeller and late night royalty, but still with bad hair. I’m now a lumpy middle aged guy who loves people who love to make me laugh– but I live in fear that my wife will kill me if the glow of my iPhone wakes her up. Also, my haircut still comes from Tony “The Barber” Scaccia on Seneca Street in South Buffalo.

On to number nine–Grandma Cichon. It was my crazy-in-mostly-good-ways Grandma Cichon who put me onto Letterman when I was about ten years old. I think we were sleeping over at her house one night, when I first saw Johnny Carson’s monologue. It changed my life. It was like the news (which I loved and watched with my dad everyday), but it was funny. Jokes about the people in the news. Incredible.

I’d stay up (or more likely sneak up) and watch Carson whenever I could– the monologue and first bit, anyway. The only person I could to talk about the great, hilarious things I heard from Johnny was Grandma. My parents didn’t watch Carson– Dad turned off the news after the news part (he didn’t need weather and sports.) There weren’t many of my 6th grade friends watching Carson either.

So, when I’d regularly ride my bike from Orchard Park to Seneca Street in South Buffalo to visit with Grandma Cichon, Grandma Coyle, Gerry at the Paperback Trading Post, and Tony the Barber– I knew I’d be able to talk Johnny with Grandma Cichon. One day, she told me I should watch Letterman, and I was never one to disobey my grandmother. And so it began.

The number eight reason I’ll always love Letterman: I always enjoy a lovely beverage.

Number seven… for better or for worse, his TV persona has always been a reflection of who he really is. He’s an old crank now, and we see that on TV. Was Carson (who Dave is always seemingly compared to) better because he faked being a nice guy really well, and viewers might not have known that he was an abusive drunken womanizing bastard?

While I don’t really like this cranky old Dave, I think I’d like it better than having a cranky old man pretend like he was having fun running around catapulting meat products against the sides of buildings every day for a month.

The number six reason I’ll love David Letterman forever: Cigars. Big fat ones. For those who don’t remember, back in the old days, Dave used to come back from commercial breaks taking a last puff or two on a big cigar. Not so much long, but thick– a big ring gauge.

Two of the funniest people in my world were Dave and Groucho Marx, so I guess I thought smoking cigars would make me funnier. The great part is, in 1988, literally no one under the age of 80 smoked cigars. At 12 or 13 years old, I could walk into a drug store and buy cigars without a second thought– unless the thought was, “How nice that this young man is buying cigars for his Grandpa.”

The first one I smoked, I found in a drawer at Grandma Cichon’s house. The first pack I bought was at Rite Aid at the McKinley Mall (sorry Mom, I wasn’t going to a movie. I was going to the mall to smoke cigars.) I always wanted to find a fat one like the ones Dave smoked, and that took me on my bike up to Smoker’s Haven– which is still on Union Road in West Seneca. Again, as a 15 year old, I’d buy the big fat (cheap) Te-Amo cigars there without question.

I still smoke one or two cigars a year, maybe one on vacation. I was in the cigar store the other day, and still– thirty years later– found myself drawn to those fat 60-ring gauge monster stogies.

So I had Dave’s cigars as a young man, and at number five you’ll find another fashion trend I borrowed from Dave– double breasted suits. The first four suits I bought by myself were double breasted. They are still sharp, but it’s hard to look casual in a double breasted suit. And once you add a bow tie to your double breasted ensemble, it’s really hard to look avoid looking like you stepped out of 1947.

SteveSeniorPhoto
Senior photo, double breasted suit, trying to look serious.

Number four– my senior yearbook quote. Twenty years ago right now, I, along with the rest of the Orchard Park Class of 1995, was getting my senior yearbook. I think most of what goes on in high school is completely asinine, but believe it or not, that stance has softened greatly since the time I was actually in high school.

One thing I really thought was stupid was this general notion among many that “this was this best time of our lives,” and “we’ll never have more fun or be more happy,” blah, blah, blah.

Again, I have softened a bit on that through the years, but I can also say confidently that I was right: for me the best was yet to come. I still feel that way today.

Anyway, that notion of “greatest time ever” is reflected at it’s peak in senior statements/thank yous/quotes. I knew I really wouldn’t remember 5th period science or intramural basketball “4-ever,” so I decided to thank a list of funny people, politicians, news personalities, and radio stations– including of course Letterman.

SteveSeniorYBquote
I was mad that they misprinted the middle initial of NBC’s bow tie wearing newsman Irving R. Levine. I mentioned him even though he wasn’t in my senior study hall.

I acknowledge that my list is just as stupid as any other of the few hundred in that yearbook, but it was resoundingly substantive for me then, and it was also something different.

And the intention was to make you smile, if not at the joke, than the stupidity of it. That’s a Letterman trademark, and leads into the next on the Top Ten Reasons I’ll Always Love Dave…

Number three: he showed me the path to a great mix of intelligence and stupidity. I try to be really good at both of those things. I may have figured it out on my own, but having a little help at 12:35 every night didn’t hurt.

Number two is more of a technical appreciation that I’ve come to as a long time journalist and broadcaster. Being a good interviewer isn’t easy, but Dave generally makes it look so because he adapts in many, tiny nuanced ways to put his guests in the best light possible. Sometimes this means taking charge, sometimes taking a backseat.

Especially with the greats, Dave not only played his role, but relished it. No one can keep up with Don Rickles. Too many try. Many others laugh, which doesn’t really help Rickles. Dave knows how to let Rickles be the best Rickles.

Even now, while he might seem like grandpa interviewing some flavor of the week starlet, I think he does the best, most prohibitive-while-still-friendly interviews around.

And the number one reason I’ll love David Letterman forever… Three words: Larry Bud Melman.

Dontcha just miss a good ol’fashioned milk machine?

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

milkmachine

This is a scene that played itself out over and over on streets all over Buffalo for much of the 20th century.

It was tough to walk a block or two without hitting a neighborhood tavern or a milk machine.

Though far fewer in number, of course there are still neighborhood gin mills, but the milk machines have gone away.

The machines began popping up in the city in the mid-1950’s. By the mid-1990s, the milk machines were all but extinct, with the last ones gone just after 2000.

The one I remember more than any other was next to B-kwik on Seneca Street, across from St. Teresa’s.  The milk machine stood outside against what was the back wall of B-kwik– That spot was built out and is now Tim Hortons.

Although Grandma Coyle, who lived a block away on Hayden Street, had milk delivered from the milk man, occasionally she’d still have me go buy more from the milk machine. Grandma Cichon, who lived further down Seneca, would send me to Fay’s in the old Twin Fair Plaza to buy milk. It was cheaper there, but i can also remember having to take back a carton or two because it was expired.