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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Buffalo, NY – This is my ol’man celebrating his birthday at the VA Hospital in 2007.
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.
BUFFALO, NY –Been thinking about the ol’man today, so I’m wearing a pair of his pajamas… PROPERTY OF THE VA.
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.
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.
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 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.
BUFFALO, NY – Spelled Cichoń in its original form, my last name is Polish.
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.
“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.
Gramps tells the ol’man and me his full Polish name: Edward Valentego Wojtek Stasiu Cichoń!
When I was a tiny boy in South Buffalo, my dad owned a tavern in the Valley. Depending on which stops we’d make first, we’d drive by Republic Steel, Hanna Coke, and a few grain mills on the way to the gin mill via South Park Avenue, or we’d drive by the refinery and chemical plants on Elk Street to get to the bar.
Photos can show people what these smoke- and steam-belching plants looked like at full tilt, and that tells some of the story. I always looked in wonder at the old bricks, miles of pipes and the smoke and often fire shooting out of tall chimneys.
For me, the most stark difference on those rides along South Park and Elk now is the smell – or more accurately, the smells.
The smells coming from Republic Steel changed as you drove along the mammoth set of buildings, until it started to mix with the smell of the Hanna sulfur piles sitting exposed on the other side of the Buffalo River. That quickly blended with a chemical whiff from National Aniline, until we’d turn down Smith Street. When the wind was right, you’d catch the smells coming from the grain elevators and grain mills in the Valley, including the Purina Mill. Hint – the dog food grain mill didn’t smell like Cheerios.
Each smell was different and distinctly pungent in its own way, but the granddaddy of all nose-searing odors came from the same place with the pyrotechnics display which left me face-planted against the passenger side window of my dad’s AMC Spirit as we drove by.
The piercing smell from the Mobil Refinery on Elk Street was every bit as epic as the flames seemingly lapping out of control from the refinery chimney. Maybe it’s because someone told me when I was very young that they made gasoline there, but I always pictured the smell as looking like the vibrant colors of a little bit of gasoline in a dirty puddle of water.
While the emissions from the chimney may not have been illegal, I’m sure the smells I remember coming from Mobil weren’t exactly a net positive for the surrounding environment and nearby residents.
Forty-five years ago, Mobil said it wasn’t polluting the water. Maybe it wasn’t. But I’ll never forget that smell.
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, one of his grammar school teachers who apparently had been sent to PS 33 by Satan himself.
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 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.
By Steve Cichon | email@example.com | @stevebuffalo
Intellectually, I know there is no time or space in heaven, so today is just a glorious, random day in an eternity of glorious random days.
I further know in heaven, we have no need for our earthly contrivances, because in spirit we are perfection.
Intellectually, I know these things. It doesn’t mean I can truly comprehend what they really mean.
My dad went to his eternal reward five years ago today. It’s a wonderful blessing to firmly believe that our loved ones die from this life into a more beautiful forever.
In our perfectly human struggle to understand and explore what we can’t grasp, we often try to define the undefinable with comparisons to other undefinable things we’ve thought about a little bit more.
In 2006, Americans sent nearly 38 billion plastic water bottles to landfills. If laid end to end, that’s enough bottles to travel from the Earth to the Moon and back 10 times.
For some reason, an inconceivable number like 38 billion is easier to comprehend when we say it could make 10 round trips to the moon. This is silly, since most of us don’t really have a firm concept of how far away the moon is, besides really, really far away (which is where I would imagine 38,000,000,000 stacked water bottles would take me anyway.)
Sometimes it’s helpful for me– and any of us, I imagine– to picture our loved ones in perfection in heaven. Since we can’t understand perfection, we put it in earthly terms that we know aren’t even close to how things really are up there.
So my ol’man is in heaven. Five years today. He was recently joined by my mom-in-law there. I smile that they are there, and that they are there together.
These two were a lot alike in their earthly lives, but one way sort of flashed at me this morning. They both loved cigarettes. In fact, they both smoked Parliament, until after years of being badgered by medical professionals and family, they both gave up the habit. But neither ever stopped thinking about– or talking about– smoking and the pleasure it brought them. It’s an eerily similar story for both.
I know if either one had been able to create their own version of heaven, it would have included a cigarette vending machine in the corner and an endless supply of quarters. It also would have a kitchen table with ashtrays, mugs of coffee, and swirling smoke.
I know heaven brings them the joy of smoking without even thinking of a puff, but some how for me, picturing them happy is easier with a butt in hand– like stacking bottles to the moon.
So today, I imagine Dad and Mom-in-law sitting at that heavenly kitchen table. They are talking and smiling, sharing a pack of Parliaments, and enjoying their heavenly life to the fullest, looking down upon all of us who love and miss them, their hearts full with the knowledge that we will all be together someday.
For us here, talking about how much you miss someone who is a piece of you is trying to put into words the indefinable. Dad’s been gone for five years, Pam for 16 days.
The yearning and sadness feels like the like the moon and back in both cases, but at the same time, the everlasting love from each is always as close as my heart.
My Ol’man and Me: My dad died at age 58. I’ve really become accustomed to dealing with grief by writing about the people and things I love, and what it is and why it is that I love them. Written in the weeks following my dad’s death on Palm Sunday, 2010. The story of his last week alive, and a reflection of our relationship and time together. Read it here, and download it as a free e-book.