The Exchange Street Tunnel And Growing Up Traveling On Amtrak’s Empire Corridor Trains

“Just then the tunnel lit up slowly as did the tracks at the bottom of it. And then the train appeared; a massive, large, gray, squared machine barreling towards us.”

Some of My Fondest Childhood Memories

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of Dad coming to get us on the Amtrak trains. Like many kids in Generation X, my parents divorced when I was young. Afterwards Dad settled down in the Capital Region of New York State, while we grew up in Buffalo. That’s where Mom was from and that’s where most of my childhood took place. But this story isn’t about that per se. It’s about a yearly ritual that came about due to this circumstance.

Waiting for Dad’s Letter and Traveling New York State by Train

Dad had visitation once or twice a year and as time went on, it ended up being in the middle or end of the summertime. As a preteen during those months, I’d watch the mailbox for a letter from Schenectady, NY, the Electric City. It was given that nickname because the General Electric corporate offices were based there. Before my parents split, we lived 20 minutes east in Albany, the state capital. I don’t know exactly why Dad settled in Schenectady, but he did.

Dad initially called Mom to announce his intention to come get us. A formal man, he used that word a lot, and eventually he just sent letters. They’d agree on the dates and the length of our visit, and then he’d show up. The early visits were by car. He’d drive five hours to Buffalo on Interstate 90 (I-90) in his red Volkswagen bug. He would take us to Schenectady, and then bring us back usually in two weeks. Then, at some point, he decided to come get us on the train.

I don’t know what made Dad decide to start using the train for our visits. It could’ve been the grueling four-to-five-hour drive to Buffalo. It may also have been because of my love for trains. It developed when playing with the toy train sets Dad had. He had a miniature N scale train set, a medium sized HO train set and finally a Lionel train set with the third middle rail. His father, my grandfather whom I never met, constructed that HO train set we played with. Dad said his father had been a cook on the railroads.

Making the Exchange at the Exchange Street Train Station

Mom agreed to drop us at the Amtrak Exchange Street station in downtown Buffalo. In hindsight, the street and station names were coincidental, but accurate. The station was underneath the Interstate 190 expressway (I-190), across from the Buffalo Bison’s Baseball Stadium. Dad typically arrived in town the day before and stayed at the Travel Lodge Motel on Main Street. He’d go out to the famous Anchor Bar to listen to jazz and get food. I’d be at home in bed, anxious to see him the next day and for the trip.

My most vivid memory of him meeting us at the station was a day when Mom, and her then boyfriend, got us there early. Dad wasn’t there yet, and I eagerly looked around for him. In the tiny station I looked out of the window and up the hill. I saw him turn the corner and got excited. He descended towards the station with his luggage dressed in his signature short sleeve button down shirt, slacks and shoes. I darted out of the station up the hill and jumped on him, while my older brother patiently waited in his seat. My parents were cordial during those exchanges.

“Now you know you have to come back to Buffalo in two weeks, right?” Now just the three of us, Dad sternly made sure that we understood the terms of the agreement he and Mom made for the visit. He especially made sure I understood.

Waiting for Our Train

We waited for the train to arrive. Our tiny station consisted only of a lobby, an enclosed office for the ticketing agent, restrooms, and vending machines. There was one exit to the station’s single track which was for the most part covered by shade from the I-190 skyway above.

Dad usually bought tickets for east/southbound Train No. 64, the Maple Leaf, which originated in Toronto, Ontario. When I studied the free paper schedules available in the station, I saw that it stopped at places like Grimsby, St. Catherine and Niagara Falls, Ontario before crossing over the border to Niagara Falls, NY, the stop before Buffalo. This passage through customs made the train late every time by an hour or more.

Most of the trains in the Empire Corridor had names and numbers. In addition to the Maple Leaf, there were train Nos. 283/284 the Niagara Rainbow, and train Nos. 48/49 the Lake Shore Limited. Both trains made journeys to Western New York and beyond from Grand Central Station, and back again. The even numbered trains were eastbound, and the odd numbered counterparts were westbound trains (Nos. 64 and 63, for example). Trains like the Bear Mountain and the Electric City Express only seemed to journey to the Albany area from New York City. Some operated daily while others operated on specific days. It was all fascinating to me.

Seeing the Train Emerge from the Tunnel

The station attendant alerted us when the train was near, and we’d all file out onto the platform. Because the station sat below the skyway, you could hear the cars and trucks passing over head which created an ambient sound. I eagerly focused on the tunnel though, anticipating the arrival of the train No. 64. I still get butterflies thinking about it.

At that time there was one single track. To the west, it extended straight and then curved into the tunnel. Looking in the opposite direction from the platform, it extended eastward and then curved and disappeared in the distance behind a random building. At some point you could hear an increasingly intense hum which competed with the noise from the skyway. The hum was accompanied by the sound of an air horn, a very distinct high-pitched sound. The engineers typically blew it twice to let you know the train was approaching the station and to stand back.

The EMD-F40PH Engine Leads the Charge

Just then the tunnel lit up slowly as did the tracks at the bottom of it. And then the train appeared; a massive, large, gray, squared machine barreling towards us. There were two windows at the top of the engine car where the engineers sat, the engine’s cabin or “cab”. There were two singular vertical running lights at the front of the chassis, the ‘nose’ if you will. There were two more blinking lights below them on the right and the left, both flashing in an alternating manner. Red, white, and blue stripes wrapped around the body of the locomotive. In the front right half of the lower chassis, in those stripes, was the name Amtrak. The chassis was square shaped, unlike the General Motors (GM) Electro-Motive Division’s (EMD) classic FL9 passenger locomotives from earlier in the century. They were featured in movies like ‘Superman: The Motion Picture’.

After researching this, I later learned that this was a modern “EMD-F40PH” locomotive, also made by GM. Its distinct hum was accompanied by a loud bell which rung at a slow cadence as the locomotive rumbled past us like a goliath. The large beast of a machine literally shook the ground and kicked up dust and rubble as it slowed to an eventual stop. There was the distinct smell of the diesel exhaust fumes combined with the smell of the rails and the ties upon which the trains travelled. The side of the locomotive also read Amtrak, but in larger letters. As directed, we all stood behind the yellow line of the weathered platform, but you still felt the might of the engine.

The Regal Silver Amfleet

As the mighty locomotive emerged from the tunnel, you could see a sleek fleet of stainless steel, curved cars or coaches behind it. They also wore the same red, white, and blue stripes. These were Amfleet coaches built by the manufacturer Budd. They contrasted the locomotive because their sides were curved, not straight. Also, the body of the locomotive was a dull industrial gray. The top was painted black.

With the train stopped, you could still hear the hum from the engine down at the front end, but the cars made noises themselves. It sounded like a fan or something running similar to an air conditioner which made sense as there was machinery underneath each coach.

At each end there were four bare wheels with springs in the middle. Technically, these were the coaches’ trucks. In between these coaches were connectors through which people could pass. There were also the actual couplers connecting each coach, the air hoses and then electric cables running between each coach. Lining each car within the red, white, and blue stripes were rectangular tinted windows with round corners that were cut in half by separators.

Boarding the Great Silver Coaches

The complement of cars was typically five or six with one ‘café’ car. In the summer months, Amtrak extended the Maple Leaf Train to seven or eight cars, with two engines operating back-to-back when necessary. As the train slowed to a stop you heard another high-pitched sound, almost a whine, as the air brakes kicked in. As the train slowed, the doors at the ends of selected coaches slid open with conductors standing in their vestibules. They lifted hatches revealing stairways which unfolded down to the platform creating stairwells for the passengers. The conductors descended to direct and greet us.

“Schenectady is two cars down. If you’re going to Grand Central Station, get into the forward coaches. The food service car is at the center of the train,” the conductors would say. Most of them were men. You saw some female conductors on the Empire Corridor later, but most were men, both black and white. They wore military style hats, with Amtrak printed on them, short sleeve button down shirts, dress pants and shoes in the summertime. In the wintertime they wore overcoats.

Because the platform at the Buffalo Exchange Street Station sat at track level, passengers literally had to climb up into the coaches with their luggage, which was part of the fun. Looking down at the locomotive as I often did, I could see exhaust clouds emanating from its top side, like a whale and its blow hole. The interior of the coaches smelled like air freshener. The seats were a red color as were the coaches’ upholstery, and there were overhead racks for luggage. Sets of four facing seats were usually at the ends of each car near the restrooms. Because there were three of us, we usually sat there.

The conductors eventually came by and collected our tickets. They used some sort of hole punch and tore them in half. They then gave us each green, orange, or yellow generic Amtrak stubs with scribbles from a black magic marker which were placed above our seats signifying our destinations. Since we were going to Schenectady, our tickets read, SDY. On the return trips to Buffalo, they scribbled, BFX for Exchange Street, or simply BUF for the Depew station. Rochester was ROC and Syracuse was SYR. You get the idea. If you were going all the way to Grand Central Station, your stub read, GCT or NYC.

From Our Single Track onto the Mainline, and from the Inner City into the Frontier

The ride itself was magical. The train took us from downtown Buffalo literally into the countryside. From the Buffalo Exchange Street Station to the Buffalo-Depew Station, we passed the old Buffalo-New York Central Terminal, then the Conrail train yard along Broadway, the Thruway Mall area and then out to the suburb of Depew. I was unaware of Depew until taking those rides. The single Exchange Street track literally merged with Contrail’s mainline right around the old Buffalo Terminal. From there we rode a two to four track network from Western New York to the Capital Region.

After leaving the Depew Station, we immediately passed the Attica State Prison and then passed through an endless series of small towns and villages which included farmland, forests, and marshes enroute to our sister city, Rochester. Between Rochester and Syracuse, the largest stretch of the trip, there was yet more farmland, forests and marshes. You could also interestingly see that we were traveling parallel to I-90.

After leaving Syracuse and heading to Rome and Utica, like magic, the Adirondack Mountains and the Mohawk Valley emerged. New York State was very geographically diverse and beautiful, and this was the ideal way to see it. From Utica to Amsterdam there were more small towns, villages and train yards with old, retired freight and passenger cars. There were even older broken-down structures on land and built into the sides of the some of the mountains. The Mohawk River also appeared, and we rode along its banks until the final stretch between Amsterdam and Schenectady.

“We don’t own the tracks between Buffalo and Albany. We just rent them from Conrail, and their trains get priority.” I once overheard a conductor telling another passenger why we had to stop occasionally to let the Conrail trains pass by. When we were in motion Conrail trains regularly came thundering past us. When we were headed in opposite directions I could feel our train shake. Occasionally we’d also pass westbound Amtrak trains. Along the entire route to Schenectady, there were freight train yards in each of the other cities which were once owned by Conrail and are now owned by CSX, confirming the conductor’s words.

Disembarking in Schenectady

“THE NEXT STOP IS SCHENECTADY IN 25 MINUTES,” the conductors announced walking through our coach snatching the appropriate stubs as we departed Amsterdam. “THE EXIT WILL BE THE REAR OF THIS COACH!” In some instances, announcements were made in person and in others they were made using the train’s public announcement system.

At Schenectady we disembarked from the train onto the station’s elevated platform and entered the fantasy world that was our summer visit with our father. I also liked watching the train depart so we stayed and watched it. Once the conductors took on new passengers they climbed back into their coaches, and the doors slowly slid shut; the opposite of their routine in Buffalo.

With two blows from the engine’s airhorn, the train slowly started back up and disappeared around a curve behind a building heading south to New York City. The two red lights on the last coach were the final parts of the train I would see along with the sound of the wheels on the rails. I often wondered what it was like to ride all the way down to the famous Grand Central Station.

When it was time to go back to Buffalo, we’d do the exact same thing, but in reverse. Early on I’d cry my eyes out. It was hard going back, not because I didn’t want to go back to be with my mother, but because I wouldn’t see my father again for another six months to a year. But that’s a different story. As I got older, I stopped crying. Just like the trip to Schenectady the train would disappear, but this time into the Exchange Street tunnel. The two red lights on the last coach were the final parts of the train you would see as it disappeared into the darkness.

Thinking about the The Empire Corridor in Buffalo

Those trains departed from and arrived at the Exchange Street Station daily. In the mornings they arrived in Buffalo on that single track and journeyed east to New York City. In the afternoons and evenings, they arrived and then departed for either nearby Niagara Falls or further north to Toronto.

Though I only got to ride on them a handful of times per year, I thought about trains regularly. I daydreamed about riding on those silver curved coaches. With my grade school being on the westside of Buffalo and my high school being downtown, I’d hear the trains announce their arrival in Buffalo. It was during the warm weather months when the windows were open when I’d hear that distinct sound of the airhorns the most. As a teen I thought about them along with basketball, girls, and peer acceptance.

Even as an undergraduate and a graduate student in states far away from the Empire Corridor, I still dreamt about travelling back and forth on it. Nothing was ever like watching those trains emerge from the Exchange Street tunnel. While more convenient timewise, air travel never compared to train travel for me personally, nor did bus rides or car rides.

Always thinking about new technologies, my brother once speculated on magnetic trains, which would hover over rails with little or no contact with the ground. In contrast, I always loved the bumpiness, the roughness, and the sounds of those rides on the Empire corridor – the subtle sway of the cars from side to side, hearing the hydraulics of the coaches, the roughness of switching tracks; all of it.

Riding the Maple Leaf and the Niagara Rainbow

Dad took us to Schenectady on the Maple Leaf probably for scheduling purposes. Because it originated in Canada, when you boarded there were already lots of passengers on the train and they could’ve been from Africa, India or any of the countries in the Middle East in terms of diversity. Since the Niagara Rainbow started in nearby Niagara Falls, NY, it usually ran on time. And because Buffalo was its second stop, I always got my seat of choice, though the train usually filled up the further east we traveled.

As I grew older, I rode the Niagara Rainbow more often, which departed Buffalo early in the morning. Both trains had food service cars where you could choose from an assortment of items on Amtrak’s menu including cold and hot beverages, breakfast sandwiches, burgers, kosher hot dogs, potato chips and mini pizzas. When getting us, Dad often brought cold Kentucky Fried Chicken (no sides) and we’d snack on that for the five-hour journey to Schenectady. That’s right, cold Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The Empire Corridor

Oh, I got so into my story that I didn’t describe the significance of the Empire Corridor. Years ago trains were the primary mode of travel in the United States. There were numerous individual private railroads in multiple states like the multiple airlines today. Examples are the Pennsylvania, the Baltimore and Ohio, the New York and New Haven, the Reading (pronounced Redding) and the Southern. These were just the eastern lines. Out west there was the Central Pacific, and the Union Pacific, among others.

There was also the New York Central Railroad. The Empire Corridor is basically the remains of the New York Central Railroad. It is now the New York State portion of Amtrak’s national system, spanning from Niagara Falls to New York City. You might be able to throw in the Adirondack route up to Montreal as well, but the main trunk is the route spanning from Western New York to New York City. The New York Central also extended to Chicago, Illinois and the above-mentioned Lake Shore Limited which, in a way, keeps that part of the old railroad alive to this day.

In Buffalo, the old terminal located on Paderewski Drive, off of Fillmore Avenue, is a relic of that system. Grand Central Station in New York City was once the heart of the system, but Amtrak’s Empire Corridor trains now start and terminate at Penn Station where passengers can easily connect with the electrified Northeast Corridor. Amtrak’s modern system consists of the remains of the feasible routes of the old railroads. The other parts have been sold off or dismantled altogether.

Have I ever completed the journey to New York City along the banks of the Hudson River? Yes, I have. In fact, I’ve done it several times, but I’ll cover that in another piece.

The Author’s Post Thoughts/Reflections

During those times, Amtrak also used a couple of turboliners on the Empire Corridor before retiring them due to technical issues. They were of European design and had engines on both ends of the train like the modern-day Acela Express. My brother preferred them, but I always preferred the single engine with the fleet of coaches.

In case it wasn’t evident from this piece, I know a lot about trains (laughing). They’ve always fascinated me. While in graduate school at the University of Michigan I started collecting issues of Trains Magazine and loaded my brain with more and more trivial railroad facts. Most of the articles were long just like this one. That said, there is a whole demographic of railroad enthusiasts, as is the case with everything else.

If I’ve written this piece correctly, I will have conveyed a sense of innocence to you the reader. My childhood was an innocent one, and in general, that was a much more innocent time for our country and our world compared to what we have now. Though my parents split early in my life, my father wanted to remain a visible part of my life, to which I’ll always be grateful. He did a lot of things for me including helping me develop a love for trains which has lasted a lifetime. It was something we did together, and it helped me to start to see other parts of New York State, and indeed the country, outside of the eastside of Buffalo.

Just as when I was a kid, I don’t get to ride the trains every time I take a trip, but I’m always thinking about them. Whenever I see train tracks, I wonder where they’re going and where they’ve originated from. Furthermore, before I leave this world, I’d like to ride in a locomotive just to know what it feels like. In the Washington, DC area, where I now live, commuter, passenger and freight trains are everywhere, coming and going. Nothing, however, is like the Empire Corridor.

Most of the images used in this piece are from the first decade of this century. Interestingly, I didn’t know how I would use the photographs when I first took them. Like all of the upstate New York stations, the Exchange Street station has been renovated. It’s now larger with a train-level platform and two tracks. Again, there’s nothing like that old station of bygone days.

If you’ve read this article to the end, thank you. I like to tell stories of all kinds on this platform, and before it’s all said and done, I think there will be a collection of stories specifically about trains. I’m also working on a book. If you have a moment, please check out the page for my book project “The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story”. Finally, I’m also a YouTube content creator. There’s a page on my original blog with links to each of my four channels. Regards.

A Tribute To Kevin Roberson: The Hutch-Tech Engineer Who Started It All

“K was a good dude. Yes, trust me. It was one of the hardest days of my life when he passed. That was tough for me. That was tough.”

The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story

Up to this point I’ve left subtle hints that I’m working on a book project chronicling my high school basketball experience, what it taught me about life, and what sports teaches its participants in general, both in and outside the lines. Well, let me tell you some more. The title of the book is “The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story”. It’s a two-part project.

Writing-wise, it is a creative non-fiction piece based upon real life events and many of the names will be changed. If you were there and are not averse to being a character in the story, feel free to reach out as it is not finalized yet. As recommended by author John U. Bacon, I’ve changed the names of most of the people who weren’t interviewed. People mentioned in the newspaper were fair game and all the 20-30 players and coaches I interviewed, all agreed to be characters, major or minor.

A Project Of Discovery

The project has admittedly taken a while for a myriad of reasons. I am convinced though that the finished product will be quality and will have been worth it. A major component of this project has been the research, particularly the above-mentioned interviews of players and coaches who were there in Western New York in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

From my vantage point, my story initially started with seeing Michael Jordan hit “the shot” against Cleveland in the 1989 NBA playoffs. I then saw Coach Ken Jones turn the Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team into city and sectional champions during the 1990-91 season, which was my freshman year at Hutch-Tech High School. Both were important events for me. The truth though, which I didn’t know when starting this project, is that the story started before Coach Ken Jones and the players on the 1990-91 team all arrived at Hutch-Tech High School.

It started with one young basketball player from one of the neighborhoods in the “Central Park” area of Buffalo. He influenced his peers from multiple schools, some of whom I knew before I got into high school myself. He mentored them in the great game of basketball and in life. That player was the late Kevin Roberson.

The Kevin Roberson Award

As I describe in my story, I didn’t learn about Western New York high school basketball and its rich history until I was in high school and looking to earn a spot on our varsity team. That was admittedly on the late side for a prospective basketball player. Thus, I didn’t hear of the likes of Ritchie Campbell, Marcus Whitfield, and Trevor Ruffin until I was part way through high school and beyond. You can also throw Christian Laettner in there whom I didn’t become familiar with until his legendary four years on the basketball court at Duke University.

Likewise, I didn’t hear of the name Kevin Roberson until my senior year at Hutch-Tech when my basketball dreams crashed and burned and were in tatters. I, personally, was unable to get anything significant done on the hardwood and I had no city or sectional titles to show for my time in the maroon and gold, which is what I aspired to in my freshman year. I did, however, win an award late in my senior year, interestingly the “Kevin Roberson Award”.

It was great that I won another award. I won the “Best Practice Player Award” as a sophomore and “Most Improved Player Award” at the Ken Jones Basketball Camp just before my junior year, so I had won a couple of basketball-related awards. But who was Kevin Roberson? And why was I winning this award in his name?

Pictures Of Kevin

There was a picture of Kevin on a plaque on the first floor of Hutch Tech High School with other trophies, awards and pictures. I recall it being posted during the 1993-94 school year, my senior year. The picture of him was on the basketball court at the University of Vermont standing under the basket looking up for a rebound (see the initial image for this essay). The range of years beneath the picture indicated that he had died recently. Unfortunately, there was no announcement at school that I recall and none of my coaches had talked about him. Being a senior myself in 1994, any basketball alumni from the late 1980s were long gone and hadn’t really come back to the school to mentor the younger players.

I also found a picture of Kevin on the fourth floor of the school with the other senior portraits near the cafeteria. In my final days at Hutch Tech, I actively sought out his picture with the graduating Class of 1988, and often stopped and looked at it. Sure enough, there he was, smiling in his black jacket and bow tie like the rest of the boys in his class. The girls wore pearls and black dresses.

A Great Guy

“He was a great guy and played basketball just like you,” said Ms. Unger, my sophomore year math teacher. A great guy just like me? I don’t think Ms. Unger, or her family, will mind me mentioning her in this story. Ms. Unger, by the way, taught me a critical lesson or two about how to approach my academics, but that’s a different story. In any case, Kevin had made a lasting impression on her, and other faculty at the school it seemed.

So, he was a great guy like me, or the other way around. But what did that mean? What was great about me during my senior year? What seemed to make this Kevin Roberson great was that he had the skills to go on and play Division I Basketball at the University of Vermont. I didn’t have that. It turns out, there was more to him than his basketball skills.

A Leader And Inspiration

Years later when working on my book project, my interviews and research interestingly revealed a common figure who inspired quite a few basketball players at Hutch-Tech, and other schools, such as Turner/Carroll High School. This figure was none other than Kevin Roberson. That’s right. The guy whose name sake award I won in my senior year, was the inspiration and mentor for many of the guys I played with and or looked up to at that time. The following are words about Kevin Roberson that came up in my interviews. They give you feel for his character, leadership, and selflessness.

Curtis Brooks, Player, Hutch-Tech High School, Class of 1991

“Kevin Roberson, I’ve got so much love for that man. He had that horrendous car accident and was taken from us short. He was the best athlete and could’ve possibly been in the league!”

Ronald Jennings, Player, Turner/Carroll High School, Class of 1994

“And then across the street from me on Manhattan Avenue, there was a guy named Kevin Roberson. I’m sure you’re familiar with Kevin Roberson. He lived across the street from me. As I got older and Kevin came home for the summertime getting ready for college, I was his workout buddy. He would get me up and make me go ride the bike with him to shoot free throws. He saw something in me that I didn’t quite see in myself and just brought that out of me in terms of basketball. It just increased my love of sports in general, but in terms of both basketball and football. He was the one that really got me playing ball.”

Quincy Lee, Player, Hutch-Tech High School, Class of 1991

“The guys getting most of the minutes in my first year were Kevin Roberson, who died in a car accident, Kevin Lee, “Rabbit” Jackson whose name I think was Anthony – I think he was the point guard. Those three, but I can’t think of who the other starters were.”

Jerrold “Pep” Skillon, Player, Hutch-Tech High School, Class of 1991

“I knew I was going out for the team. Actually, I had a friend on the team, a guy I grew up with from my neighborhood. It’s not like I had an ‘in’ or anything like that. He just told me what to expect. It was Kevin Roberson. Me and Chuck grew up in the same neighborhood with ‘K-Robe’ and we used to go to the park together. K was a good dude. Yes, trust me. It was one of the hardest days of my life when he passed. That was tough for me. That was tough.”

Charles “Chuck” Thompson, Player, Hutch-Tech High School, Class of 1991

“The only thing I did was play for Campus West and I played for them my sixth, seventh and eighth grade years. But really where I learned all my skills was in Central Park at the basketball court. I used to play ball with – you ever heard of Kevin Roberson? If you want to say he was my mentor, he was my mentor, because we were in Boy Scouts together. We grew up together and I played a lot with him. He and his sister passed away in a car accident right here on Kensington. You know what, we played a little bit as freshman, but it was mostly watching because we already had a good team with Kevin Roberson.”

Leaving His Mark At The University Of Vermont

During his senior season at the University of Vermont in the 1991-92 season, the Buffalo News wrote a feature on him entitled, “Roberson Matures from a Scrawny Kid into a Top Shot Blocker” (see the image above). It was written by Robert J. Summers and discussed his senior season at the university and his potential NBA career. He averaged 17 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks per game that season. In 2020, the Burlington Free Press published an article on what would’ve been Roberson’s 50th birthday. The paper shared that he and his sister died in a head on car crash with a drunk driver on the east side of Buffalo on May 18, 1993. It was two weeks before he was going to receive his diploma from the University of Vermont. That coincided with the ending of my tumultuous junior year at Hutch-Tech High School.

Concluding Words

This will conclude my piece about Kevin Roberson. Just as I was surprised to win the award in 1994, I had no idea that this project would lead back to him. I want to thank the 20-30 players and coaches I interviewed, but especially the five gentleman who shared their stories about Kevin Roberson. No. 21, Ronald Jennings was my first ever point guard and our leader at the Campus West/College Learning Laboratory on the middle school team, the “Bengals”. He assisted my first ever basket in an organized game which I still remember to this day. He went on to play basketball and football at Turner/Carroll High School.

The other four gentleman, No. 13 Curtis Brooks, No. 11 Quincy Lee, No. 32 Pep Skillon and No. 55 Chuck Thompson were key cogs on the 1990-91 Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team. They won the Yale Cup Championship with a record of 13-0, and the Class B sectional title in my freshman year, also a major inspiration for my story. Again, the stage for all of this was set by the late Kevin Roberson. Salute to you sir and rest in power.

Future And Related Works

I intend to create more promotional/teaser pieces for “The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story”, both via print and video as I journey through the final steps of the book’s completion. I created a page here on Big Words Authors for the purpose of giving a background of the book. On my first blogging platform, the Big Words Blog Site, there are interviews of some the most accomplished Section VI players from my era. They include: Jason Rowe, Tim Winn, Carlos Bradberry and Damien Foster. I also interviewed legendary LaSalle Head Basketball Coach Pat Monti. Finally, there are several other basketball-related essays related to my book project. If you liked this piece, please share it on your social media and leave a comment beneath this piece.

The Last Time I Walked The Eastside Of Buffalo After Dark

“It was my first time learning that trouble can come find you, even when you haven’t done anything to stir it.”

This short story on Big Words Authors comes from my hometown of Buffalo, NY. It involves something that most everyone who has grown up in the inner city has experienced. Sometimes situations in life come find you, even when you are not looking for them.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley in the shadows of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” Psalms 23:4

The last time I walked on the eastside of Buffalo after dark was in the late 1990s. It was definitely after high school and it was before I started graduate school. I was an undergraduate in my late teens and early twenties. Like Detroit, my hometown of Buffalo, NY had started developing its own reputation for violence and deviant behavior, a hallmark of many of the deindustrialized cities in the United States. If you’re curious about such things, a good book to read would be “The Code of The Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City” by Dr. Elijah Anderson who describes this phenomenon in Philadelphia.

Hanging Out On Chuck’s Street

It was a summer night like so many I’d experienced growing up in my beloved hometown. I was on my friend Chuck’s street, Martha, which was near the Suffolk Street intersection and the 33 (Kensington) Expressway. It was the summertime, the sun had set and the streetlights came on after 8 pm. I was no longer a child so I could technically hang out as long as I wanted to with no recourse from my mother. We’d started doing that in high school anyway. I was home on summer break, and was living unsupervised most of the year now already because I was attending school down south.

Chuck was one of many ‘class clowns’ at Hutchinson Central Technical High School (Hutch-Tech) while I was there. He just happened to be one from my graduating class. We befriended one another in our freshman year and were tight ever since, along with another friend by the name of Hestin. Our friendships lasted long after we received our diplomas in the mid-1990s. Starting in high school, it was nothing for me to wander over to Chuck’s house from my own and come back after dark as it was only a 10–15-minute walk.

While at Chuck’s house we’d hang out on his porch, shooting the breeze with the other kids on his street. We would indulge in ‘ribbing’ on each other and talk about all kinds of things in the sports and hip-hop worlds, people we knew around town, girls we wanted to get with – everything. There were always lots and lots of laughs and jokes, some of which Chuck authored and some at his expense. It was always a good time.

A Buffalo Summer Night Unlike Any Other

One night after dark I left Chuck’s porch, I headed for home but this time with a different outcome than previous nights. It was a night I would never forget. That particular night I turned up Millicent Avenue and planned to walk down Orleans Street back to my mother’s street. As I strolled carefree up the street, not far from the corner a car pulled up alongside me, starting events that would forever change my life.

“WERE YOU TRYING TO BREAK INTO MY CAR, MAN?” The driver of the car was a menacing-looking black man who could have been in his twenties. If my memory serves me correctly, he wore a short afro and was brown skinned. He might have been wearing all black and maybe not. At nighttime, most dark colors look the same. It was one of those instances which triggers your “Fight or Flight Response” because you know there is imminent danger. It all happened so fast that I didn’t ponder trying to run. Had I tried, he had a clear advantage. By default, I chose trying to reason with him.

“WERE YOU TRYING TO BREAK INTO MY CAR MAN?” He stopped his car and got out, crossed the street, and approached me. I felt my chest pounding and my breath shortening in anticipation of whatever was going to happen next.

“NO, I WASN’T. IT WASN’T ME,” I said holding my hands up in surrender hoping that he would recognize that I was the last person who would try to do such a thing to his car.

“WERE YOU TRYING TO BREAK INTO MY CAR MAN?” I felt something hard collide with the side of my head, knocking me back. Is this really happening to me? My mind raced is the situation continued unfolding.

“WERE YOU TRYING TO BREAK INTO MY CAR MAN?” Something else collided with the side of my head further disorienting me. I looked around for help on the street, but this was the one night no one seemed to be out on their porches. Even if they were out, would someone have helped? To the casual onlooker, me and my assailant could have been a drug dealer and junkie, a bookie and someone who owed him money, or a man seeking revenge on someone who sought to break into his car. We could have been any one of the now ubiquitous statistics involving violence and young black men in the United States’ inner cities.

I turned and ran at first out into the street hoping that someone would see us. A car speeding down the street slammed on its breaks and honked, and then kept going. Again, this could have been an altercation taking place for any number of reasons and why would someone else look to get involved?

My assailant caught me, and I waited for him to present a weapon in that early Buffalo twilight. Something else slammed into the side of my head, this time dropping me to the ground. I waited for what I thought was certain death. I laid still on the ground as the world went silent, waiting for my fate which I just knew was going to involve a gun. After moments of silence, I looked up slowly, and my assailant was gone. I got myself together and then hurried back home.

As I scurried up Millicent to Orleans and then my mother’s street, I turned and looked around every corner. My hands burned slightly from some scrapes on my skin. I probably got them when I fell on the ground. My mind continued racing. Is he still out here? Is he going to come back for me? Why is this happening?

As I entered the house, Mom was in her bedroom praying, just getting up from her bedside if my memory is accurate. In those stages of our lives, she had progressed on her spiritual journey. She told me that she was praying around the time that I described my altercation. It was the second time, she experienced one of her sons coming home after a near life and death experience. The first was my brother’s second or third year of high school when he and some buddies went to a party on the westside of Buffalo where they didn’t know anyone. I remember that night vividly as well.

Getting Closure

In the aftermath of it all, I was a bit shaken up mentally. It was my first time learning that trouble can come find you, even when you haven’t done anything to stir it. All you have to do is look like someone else. This is what’s called a crime of mistaken identity, and I recall my Dad telling me a similar story from his youth in the New York City subway system. I suddenly didn’t feel safe in my neighborhood or my city. What if I ran into this guy again?

One of Mom’s approaches to help me get past the incident was to physically walk with me down Millicent Avenue so that I could mentally confront the incident and get closure on it. I recall feeling a sense of resentment and not wanting to go back there. She was right and it was for the best, to at least get past the fear that was dominating my soul.

“I’ve been walking these streets for years and nothing ever happened to me,” Chucky said afterwards when I told him what happened. I didn’t hear any compassion or sympathy in his voice. I didn’t know if he was just saying that to be a smartass or just making an observation. In hindsight it could have been either, but it sounded like because he’d never experienced it, what happened to me was somehow invalid.

“Well Bro, it’s no secret that some folks in the family question your toughness.” In what was one of many such declarations throughout our lives, my brother put his gift of delivery and counsel on display. It was my first ever visit to see him in “Sin City” (Las Vegas), a lively visit in which our best friend left within one night over some silly spat with my brother.

We ended up in a spat too, and in my case, I resented my brother for a while after he made his judgement on me and the remainder of that trip was ruined. I remember getting on my flight and making eye contact with him as I walked into the jetway with everyone else. I felt bad about being angry with him. He looked back at me wondering what he’d said wrong. My visit to the desert shouldn’t have finished that way. We were brothers and we were all we had as Mom often said then and years later. Over time I got passed it.

Walking The Eastside Of Buffalo After Dark

“I walk the streets of Buffalo at night and have been doing so for a while,” my then stepfather said. “I see some streets and when I look down them, they might look dangerous and I don’t go down them. If some trouble comes towards me, I feel confident that I can get out of it or handle it, but I’ve never been discouraged from walking the eastside at nighttime.” He was an older man and a Vietnam veteran, so I imagine he’d seen much worse than the eastside of Buffalo after dark.

In any case, that was the last time I walked the eastside of Buffalo after dark. Would I do it if I absolutely had to today? Sure. But like so many inner cities described in the above-mentioned book by Dr. Elijah Anderson, I won’t do it if unnecessary. If I do, I’ll follow my father’s sage wisdom. A child of upper Manhattan, at some point he started telling us to, “Keep your eyes moving at all times!”

If I had to walk the eastside of Buffalo after dark today, I most certainly would. I’d walk it knowing that trouble may come to find me, even I’m not looking for it. I would know that there’s the threat of violence, and potentially death for me or someone else.

Post Story Reflections/Thoughts

Some experiences permanently become a part of us. This experience is one that I will never forget. We may gain closure and heal from the negative experiences in our lives, but some things you never forget. Furthermore, in the United States’ inner cities, for everyone there is the threat of violence. Dr. Elijah Anderson covered this in his book “Code of The Street”. Finally, to this day when I visit Buffalo, my mother reminds me every time I go out to, “Be careful out there!” I likewise try to get in and out of the city without anything bad happening whenever I visit.