Sign of the times

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

When I was a kid at Holy Family grammar school in South Buffalo, I loved election season. Watching the news with my dad every night, I got to know all the players on the local scene, and through my ol’man’s instant, savage analysis, I always knew who was a good guy and who was a chump.

That was fun, but just as exciting for me was driving around and looking at all the big colorful lawn signs.

We never had a sign on our lawn, but like a lot of South Buffalonians in the 80s, my grandparents usually had one for Mayor Griffin or one of the Keane brothers (Assemblyman Dick or Councilman Jim) stapled to the front of the porch.

Some kids liked to drive around looking at Christmas lights or spooky Halloween graveyards— but during political season, Dad would take us the long way to grandma’s house, maybe down McKinley Parkway, to look at all the political signs on the big lawns.

In some kind of simplified kindergartner way, I loved and appreciated the artistry in the varied designs and executions.

“Fahey At Large” might as well have been by Rembrandt or “LoVallo” by Monet.

Well done paint on wood was always eye-catching, but far more rare than it’s sloppy-stenciled cousins which seemed to be everywhere. But the printed signs were like works of art to me. The color choices. The fonts. Was it plain or well designed? How did they look after rain? Did the staple job detract from the sign?

Something, too, about three houses in a row with the same sign in the same spot. Or the uniqueness of a single sign among dozens of signs for “the other guy.”

Then and now, no where does all this drama play out better than Potters Road between Mount Mercy and the city line.

Unlike the manicured and rolling expanses of green on wide and open McKinley, houses seem almost on the street along some parts of Potters.

And it seems like just about everyone on Potters is in the game, maybe even why they moved there in the first place. The manic jumble of lawn signs make the tight ride even more claustrophobic if not thrilling, with the dozens, even hundreds of signs over those few long blocks next to the creek, including many that you wouldn’t see anywhere else in South Buffalo.

Potters during Election time has always felt like the lights of Times Square or the Vegas Strip to me… and this time, it’s my name out there… on a great sign designed by my friend Jake Wagner.

Wow, ya know? Kneeling next to a sign with my own name on it on Potters Road, 14210.

It’s really a lot of work and easy to get caught up in the grind of running for office– it’s nice to be reminded of how amazing all this is every once in a while.

I can’t wait to serve as your next Erie County Clerk. More on my plans at steveforclerk.com.

Scary brass lizards and memories of Father’s Days past

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Seeing this guy on the window sill in our dining room fired up a Father’s Day memory.

This is one of a couple of brass lizards that were in hidden in the dining room plants at the house of my great-grandpa and namesake, Stephen Julius Wargo.

Especially when they were dirty, these things looked real– and one time, when Gramps sent me in to water his plants, one of these really scared the life out of me — which was probably the whole idea. It made good ol’ Grandpa W. laugh and laugh. “AND DID HE LAUGH,” as Grandma Coyle would say, laughing herself.

My mom always made her Grandpa Wargo oatmeal cookies for all holidays, including Fathers Day, and his big grin showed it was just about his favorite present ever, every time.

When Great-Grandpa Wargo died, his daughter, my Grandma Coyle, gave me a few of his things–including this brass lizard.

Seeing it makes me remember Grandpa Wargo and Grandma Coyle, and think about my mom and the gallon sized bag of oatmeal cookies, closed with a twist tie, which we gladly delivered on our Father’s Day travels of long ago.

Of course, I think of my own ol’man on Father’s Day, too… I made a video about it for my campaign for Erie County Clerk.

Lessons from Dad

Happy Father's Day weekend! Although my dad isn't here physically to take part in my campaign, with your help, I'll be bringing his sense of common sense to the clerk's office.

Posted by Steve Cichon for Erie County Clerk on Friday, June 16, 2017

My dad would always refer to himself as “your ol’man” when talking to us kids.

He died seven years ago, but so long as I’m around, he lives every moment  in my heart and in my actions.  So although my dad isn’t here physically to take part in my campaign, with your help, I’ll be bringing his sense of common sense to the clerk’s office.

Happy Fathers Day, everyone.

My ol’man, pizza, and the Dukes of Hazzard

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

It’s my favorite Dukes of Hazzard moment.

I was in First Grade, and “The Dukes” were just about the most popular thing in the world. Maybe tied with Michael Jackson’s Thriller album. The early ’80s were a tough time in South Buffalo– and my dad had a tough time finding work.

Billboard outside of City Hall in the late ’70s, placed there by Bethlehem Steel’s union workforce.

Plants closed and he sold the bar at Elk & Smith. He tried teaching middle school history but couldn’t get in full-time, so he lived and worked in Massachusetts for almost a year while we lived on Allegany Street off Tifft near South Park.

Of course we missed dad– and money was tight. There were more 20-cent letters flying than $5 long-distance phone calls being made. I can’t imagine what it was like for my ol’man to be away, and for my mom to be home with us three, a full-time job, and no car.

It was a Friday night and we took our baths early to be ready to watch those Duke boys. We were sitting at our little plastic table in the living room—all ready for “Tic-Tac-Dough” and “Jokers Wild” to end and Waylon Jennings to sing about “two good ol’boys, never meaning no harm…” when the front door burst open.

Dad with us kids just inside the front door of our house on Allegany Street…. probably taken just as he was leaving for Massachusetts one time or another.

Not only had my ol’man pushed our AMC Spirit to the limit speeding home from Massachusetts, but he had the sense to stop at Mineo’s South (when it was on the corner of Tifft & South Park) on his way home to pick up a large pie. Pizza, like long distance calls, wasn’t often in the budget and extra special.

I’m not sure a six-year-old heart could be any more full.

This glorious Friday night was probably about the best night of my life up until then… Dad was home, we were eating pizza, and we were watching the Dukes. All was right with the world.

That’s me (left) with my Dukes of Hazzard big wheel, c.1982

Celebrating my ol’man’s birthday

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Happy birthday to my ol’man– who if on this mortal coil to celebrate, might very well have mixed up some terribly weak iced tea in the blue container you can see on the counter in this late 80’s pic.
dad-at-the-sink
He then would have mixed that barely-iced-tea with some turpentine-like cheap blended whisky in that plastic McDonald’s Super Size cup to celebrate this, his 65th birthday.
Dad was always an original, and usually did whatever sounded right to him, no matter what anyone had to say about it. By the way, the look he gave me for taking this picture is also the one he’d give me for writing this nonsense and sharing this photo.
It’s become a bit of a tradition to do a fat shot of Dad’s favorite whiskey on special days of remembrance– like his birthday, Father’s Day, the day he died.
When you go into the liquor store and buy a plastic fifth of Kessler, the assumptions people make about you aren’t great— but anything for my ol’man!
I used to buy my dad a good (or at least better) bottle of whiskey for his birthday so I wouldn't have to do a shot of this crap with him... He'd probably be upset now that he's gone, I'm drinking "the good stuff" without him. "Steveo, that Kesslers is smooth as silk," he'd say. Hahaha. Happy birthday, dad.
I used to buy my dad a good (or at least better) bottle of whiskey for his birthday so I wouldn’t have to do a shot of this crap with him… He’d probably be upset now that he’s gone, I’m drinking “the good stuff” without him. “Steveo, that Kesslers is smooth as silk,” he’d say. Hahaha. Happy birthday, dad.

 

The shot glass is one of the few remaining artifacts from the gin mill he owned at Elk & Smith Streets in The Valley, and if he never drank a shot of Kessler out of it, he’s certain to have lined up the explosive half of hundreds of boilermakers in this indestructible vessel.   You need something indestructible to serve a drink that could also be used to strip varnish off a footlocker and clean rust off a chrome bumper.
dad-jim-beam
Because my dad’s hands didn’t work that great in his last few years, the brand of whiskey I’d buy him was less important than the plastic bottle. He really wasn’t supposed to have it at all with all his medical issues and medication– but how can you not visit the easiest way to bring joy to his broken body and soul. I had to do it.
Of course, dad liked a drink… but I think there was more joy in getting the bottle and “hiding it” from my mother than there was in actually drinking it.
Happy birthday, dad!

An appreciation of the sacrifice of veterans

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Buffalo, NY – This is my ol’man celebrating his birthday at the VA Hospital in 2007.

The Ol'man.
The Ol’man.
It’s very rare to have served our country and not have left some piece of your mind, spirit, sanity, or body behind to ensure the freedom and tranquility of Americans and good people all over the world.
 
The sacrifice of those who have served is the cornerstone of America’s greatness. Having never worn a uniform, I can’t fully understand all the complexities of that sacrifice, but I do spend everyday– and today, especially– in awe of what men and women in uniform have done and continue to do for me personally and for every other American, personally.
 
Thank You.

The Ol’man’s still pulling one over on the VA

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

BUFFALO, NY –Been thinking about the ol’man today, so I’m wearing a pair of his pajamas… PROPERTY OF THE VA.

SteveVApajamas

He made dozens of emergency trips to the VA Hospital over the last decade of his life, and was admitted for many of those times, and when he was admitted, there was often a conversation that went like this.

“Hey dad, so I’m going to bring you a Diet Spin (he loved the Tops generic diet cola) and an Autotrader… Do you want me to bring  you some clothes to go home in?”

“Nah,” he’d say, “They’ll gimme a new pair of pajamas.”

My ol’man loved getting one over on the VA, and loved leaving that place with another pair of pajamas hanging on his back.

He’d make a half-hearted promise to bring the pajamas back to an orderly who couldn’t have cared any less. “These babies are the best around,” he’d say climbing into my car, tugging on his new NOT FOR SALE emblazoned loungewear.

He had a pretty decent collection when he died– unbeknownst to one another, my brother and I both kept a pair.

“The VA is the best hospital around,” he’d usually say on the trip from Bailey Avenue to Orchard Park.

“Man, this car rides great,” he’d mention, inevitably followed by, “but I do hate riding on this 33. I don’t know how people do it every day.”

Dad had another saying that I think meant something different depending on his mood.

“I wish him well,” started the ol’man’s classic phrase, “but wish him well away from me.”

When he was ambivalent, it sounded like he was saying he has no ill will towards this person, he just doesn’t want to see them.

If it was said with a touch of the caustic rage my ol’man always seemed to have bubbling just below the surface in case he needed it– well then, it sounded like an empty felicitation and a hope that you get the eff away and stay as far away as possible.

I had one of each of those well wishes today, and I avoided driving on the 33 (although I did have to take that damn 290 during rush hour.) Somewhere,  Dad is smiling.

My ol’man lives on in the little things every day

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

BUFFALO, NY — I could almost smell the Vitalis at Easter Mass this past weekend. The generations old tradition of tiny little boys with their hair slicked down to their heads for church makes me smile and melts away decades.

I have thick, wily hair, and the only time my ol’man ever cared about it not looking that way was on the way to church.

“Get over here,” he’d say, with clipped speech and some vague notion of annoyance… A Parliament 100 dangling from a corner of his lip.

vita;is

One old hair tonic’s commercial told you “a little dab’ll do ya.” Dad must have never saw this commercial. After grabbing my forehead and shaking the life out of that bottle, the bathroom filling with the smell of slightly perfumed rubbing alcohol, he’d pull an ancient brush through my hair until it felt like my head was bleeding.

Potential scalp contusions aside, it’s really a great memory. The very way I was watching the slicked up little dudes and their proud young dads, was under the ol’man’s influence. Even phrases like “slicked up little dudes” and the quiet dry Cichon cackle that I couldn’t hold back as I watched were all Dad.

When I feel him living on, laughing when he’d laugh, smiling when giving a kid a buck, being a special brand of obstinate and crazy, it’s a great feeling. Especially when it’s been six years today since his heart stopped, he breathed his last, and he went on to his eternal reward.

We can’t help but remember our loved ones, and that can be sad. But when we bear witness to the little ways they live on, it’s beautiful. Love ya and miss ya, dad.

Buffalo in the ’90s: ‘Race for the White House ’92’ hits Buffalo

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Buffalo was the epicenter of presidential politics for one weekend in 1992.

Each of the men remaining in the race for the Democratic nod to challenge President George H.W. Bush in the November election had agreed to come to Buffalo for a question-and-answer forum at Shea’s Buffalo.

During the weeks leading up to the March 1992 event, former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas, former California Gov. (and now again the governor) Jerry Brown, and the front-runner, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, all agreed to attend the event.

Only days before the panel was set to convene, Tsongas dropped out of the race, leaving Clinton and Brown as the big names coming to Western New York and planning stops other than just the Shea’s event.

With story lines that might strike a chord with followers of the 2016 campaign, Clinton landed in Buffalo and was swept away to a $300-per-plate fundraiser hosted by Erie County Executive Dennis Gorski.

Erie County Democratic Chairman Vince Sorrentino (far left), and Erie County Executive Dennis Gorski (far right), welcome Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton to Buffalo. (Buffalo News archives)

Meanwhile, Brown, the populist candidate who wouldn’t accept donations of more than $100, held his largest campaign event at the Broadway Market.

Presidential hopeful Jerry Brown speaks with Buffalo radio reporters Susan Rose of WBEN and George Richert of WWKB outside of the Broadway Market in 1992. (Buffalo News archives)

Clinton was also scheduled to make a stop at the Broadway Market that never materialized. But in the days long before instant access to information, my father decided it was a once-in-lifetime opportunity for him and me — as a high school freshman with a love of politics– to go see two men running for president on one day at one of Buffalo’s great venues.

Having been at the Brown event as a 14-year-old, it was exciting to see that I not only brushed arms with the man who is now governor of California, but also with people like Susan Rose and George Richert, both of whom I met the following year at WBEN.

While doing the research for this piece, I was surprised and excited to see a photo of those two — but words can’t explain my delight in finding a photo of my late father standing next to Brown inside the vestibule at the market. I’m sure I was standing next to my dad — it’s probably best for everyone that the photographer’s lens didn’t manage to capture my teenage awkwardness there.

The author’s father, Steve Cichon (dark glasses & mustache), about to shake hands with Jerry Brown at the Broadway Market in 1992. (Buffalo News archives)

“See, your ol’ man does all right,” I can imagine my dad saying, had he the chance to see this photo — a part of the history of Buffalo, the Broadway Market, presidential politics and my family.

Then-Syracuse Post-Standard reporter Patrick Lakamp (trench coat) on assignment covering presidential hopeful Jerry Brown crossing New York State. Lakamp has worked for The News since 1997 and is now the paper’s enterprise editor.

Cichon evolution: How CHEE-hoyn became SEE-shon

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

BUFFALO, NY – Spelled Cichoń in its original form, my last name is Polish.

John & Mary Cichon with daughter-in-law Mary

My great-grandfather, Jan Cichon, came to Buffalo from what is now Milczany, Świętokrzyskie, Poland in 1913. He soon changed his first name to John, but never changed the way he pronounced his last name.

He said “CHEE-hoyn” as a little boy in the tiny villages he grew up in near Sandomierz in southeast Poland, and said “CHEE-hoyn” as a railyard laborer for National Aniline in South Buffalo’s Valley neighborhood.

Before John’s son– my grandfather– died in 2015, one of the many hours of conversation I had with him was how CHEE-hoyn became SY-chon (which is how Gramps said it) became SEE-shon (which is how my dad and most of my family says it.)

So, here is Eddie (SYchon) explaining how CHEEhoyn became SEEshon.

Gramps says that his mother and father– both from Poland– always said CHEEhoyn. He says when he and his nine brothers and sisters starting going to school, SYchon– the generally accepted German pronunciation– was introduced to them, and it stuck.

“You say SEEshon, right?” Gramps asked me. I told him that’s how my dad says it.

steve and gramps

“Well, your dad’s partly French,” Gramps said, cracking himself up so hard he started coughing.

I can’t find the audio– I recorded dozens of conversations with Gramps– but he also once explained that it was one of his sisters-in-law who started saying SEEshon. My grandma also said SEEshon, as did my dad, and now most if not all of the Cichons who are left in my family say SEEshon.

So that’s how my family has come to say SEEshon, although I answer to any other pronunciation from telemarketers who are just plain confused or from little old ladies wearing babushkas (or my Fair friend Jim!) telling me I say my name wrong.

A big hunk of baloney

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

My dad was a great storyteller, and most of the stories revolved around some kind of villain cramping his style.

They were fun, but you could see that 30 or 40 or 50 years later, he was still POed at Hawkeye Hayden.

But the best, warmest, aggression-free memories for the ol’man usually revolved around food– especially free food.

His Grandma Scurr would give him a quarter for the show and he’d be able to get 5 or 6 candy bars and watch cartoons all day at the Shea’s Seneca.

The meat packing plant near his house on Fulton Street once had a neighborhood cookout with all the hot dogs and hamburgers you could eat.

His dad was a night watchman at Paul’s Pies for a while… and he would bring home enough day old pies that everyone would get full.

He was always so happy telling and remembering these vivid all-you-can-eat tales, and the stories of great face-stuffings into adulthood were always part of his repertoire as well. He wasn’t a connoisseur of good food, he was a connoisseur of food.

“Man, I love soup.” “Man, I love eggs.” “At Manny’s, they give ya a hamburger this big!” “That was a really good fish fry, REALLY good.”

Before moving to The Valley and Fulton Street near my Grandpa’s family (Down the street from the Swift Meat Plant) when he was five, the Cichons lived at 28 S. Elmwood Avenue, Apartment 3, almost directly behind City Hall.

Dad’s favorite food story from that era involved “Good ol’Joe the Butcher.” His shop was right around the corner from where dad lived, and he’d “always give ya a big hunk of baloney.” The memory would fade to black with a smile, and a final, “Yep. Good ol’Joe the Butcher.”

Joe the butcher 1957 Buffalo Stories versionJoe the Butcher was Joe Battaglia. He came to Buffalo from Italy at the age of 5 in the 1890s. He ran his shop at the corner of Elmwood and Genesee (nearest landmark now would be the post office near Channel 7) from 1901 until he died in 1957. In finally tracking down his location and name, and then this death notice, I found his only son died a few years later and had no heirs. My ol’man may have been the last living person talking about this kindhearted man.

I’m happy to have finally dug up the full story of good ol’Joe the Butcher. He reminds me that doing something as simple and almost meaningless as ripping off a hunk of baloney can brighten someone’s day and possibly even brighten the rest of a person’s life.

Here’s to good ol’Joe the Butcher and to us all finding ways to rip off hunks of baloney.