A Look Back At The Yale Cup: Section VI’s Basketball Diamond In the Rough

“The Yale Cup teams developed the reputation for not playing defense or with structure of any kind. It was considered a renegade league!”

“It’s an altogether different picture from when you played at Tech to when I played, and it’s even more of a different look for the kids who are playing in the Yale Cup now. Back then the Yale Cup was not represented in Section VI. There was no state title representation or anything. This was in the late 1960s. I think they went to Section VI in 1971. Our group of athletes and the kids the year after me, we were really upset that in 1971 or 1972, they allowed the Buffalo Public Schools to play in Section VI and compete for the state championship. It was around 1971 and 72 or something like that.”

“That was one of the downfalls or pitfalls which kept our schools from being recognized because there were quite a few kids who could’ve played Division I football or basketball that were not seen at the time. You either had to be a Bob Lanier or a Gil Harmon, who were the biggest and the most athletic – Bob Lanier was 6’9” in high school; or like Marty Cott who went to Tech the same year that I did. He ended up playing baseball for the Houston Astros.”

The Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team: My Introduction To The Yale Cup

This story is another promotional piece for my two-part book project entitled, “The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story”. The previous piece paid tribute to the late Kevin Roberson. I’ve created a page here on my writer’s blog for the book, if you’re curious to learn some more about it. In the numerous pieces I’ve already created surrounding the book, I’ve shared that I’ve conducted 20-30 interviews for the project. These discussions with former players and coaches from Section VI have revealed several interesting facts.

One of the focal points for my story is the 1990-91 Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team. Our school nickname was the “Engineers”, for which the books are named. During my freshman year at the school, they went on a magical run. They first won the city league championship, the “Yale Cup”, with a 13-0 record. They then won the Section VI Class B championship, coming within one game of a berth in the Class B State Final Four in Glens Falls. From my vantage point at the time, it was a big deal, and I dreamt of doing what they did.

The Yale Cup And Section VI

While my story focuses on the Hutch-Tech Engineers, it also involves other teams from Western New York. Many of the teams are from our league the Yale Cup. It also tells the stories to a lesser extent of some of the other teams in Section VI. Even today, Section VI is the western most section of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association (NYSPHSAA). There are 12 total sections spanning from the Great Lakes to the Adirondack Mountains and finally down to Long Island.

Section VI of the late 1980s and early 1990s was comprised of many city and suburban public high schools and leagues. They were located in the numerous Western New York State counties including Chautauqua, Cattaraugus, Erie, Niagara, and Orleans. Our league was called the Yale Cup. It was a 14-team league comprised of schools within the Buffalo Public School System. At one point the Yale Cup was considered the best high school basketball league in Section VI. However, like the City of Buffalo and our region in general, it went through hard times which were arguably rooted in the loss of steel industry. This essay is a tribute to the Yale Cup as I and others knew it, and to a lesser degree Section VI.

Oh, by the way, the private school teams played in the “Monsignor Martin League”. I must mention them because they had some of the best players and teams in Western New York every year. Some of the schools included Cardinal O’Hara, Canisius, Turner/Carroll and St. Joseph’s.

A League Named After An Ivy League School But Wasn’t Ivy League

One of the more interesting things about the Yale Cup, was its name. I don’t know who named the league, but it seemed to have been named after the prestigious Ivy League institution of higher learning in Connecticut, Yale University. Coincidentally, our city football league was named the “Harvard Cup”, I guess after Harvard University. The girls’ basketball league was called the “Canisius Cup”, most likely after Canisius College. I don’t know who named the leagues and why, but “The Yale”, now affectionately referred to by some of its former players, was anything but Ivy League in quality as I’ll describe.

14 Schools Of Varying Sizes

There were 14 schools in the Yale Cup of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The lineup of schools in general changed over the decades. Like the private schools, some of the Yale Cup schools were closed or consolidated for economic and logistical reasons. I think the core line up of schools remained the same though. During my youth, I heard numerous stories of an East High School. During my teen years, it was converted into the Buffalo Vocational and Technical Center (BVTC). City Honors (described below) played its home games there. The schools comprising the Yale Cup of the late 1980s and early 1990s, their nicknames and school colors were as follows:

Bennett: The Tigers, orange and blue
Burgard Vocational: The Bulldogs, blue and white
Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts (aka Buffalo Arts or Performing Arts): The Cavaliers, black and gold
Buffalo Traditional: The Bulls, navy blue and gold
City Honors: The Centaurs, burgundy and gray
Emerson: The Eagles, red and white
Grover Cleveland: The Presidents, green and white
Hutch-Tech: The Engineers, maroon and gold
Lafayette: The Violets, violet and white
Kensington: The Knights, lime green and gold
McKinley Vocational: The Macks, orange and black
Riverside: The Frontiersman, purple and gold
Seneca: The Indians, dark green and white
South Park: The Sparks, red, black and white

If you watch the documentary “Hoop Dreams” or its sequel “Hoop Reality”, both take place in Chicago. Watching them, you’ll see that most metropolitan areas have city leagues where most of the student athletes are black. The bigger cities actually had multiple conferences within their boundaries. With Buffalo being a smaller city, there was only one conference.

Three Phases Of The Season

“What’s about to start after the New Year is the meat and potatoes of the season! Our non-league schedule was just the gravy!” In my first year on the Hutch-Tech Boys’ Basketball Team, our coach, Dr. Kenneth Leon Jones told our team this after a lackluster start in the ‘non-league’ portion of our schedule. He further told us that our Yale Cup league play was the most important phase of the season. It brought with it the potential for a league championship. Our league record would also dictate our qualification for post season sectional play. There the final destination were potential state and federation championships for the truly elite teams.

During the next three years, as I learned about high school basketball on the fly, I realized something interesting. We only played our opponents once in league play. That is the location of the games would alternate yearly. In my first year on the team for example, Hutch-Tech hosted Riverside in our gym and that was it. This was the game that clinched the Yale Cup title for the Frontiersman that 1991-92 season, coincidentally. The next season we played in their gym.

Playing Each Other Once A Year In Conference Play

In the private and suburban school leagues, the teams played home and home series meaning that each team played in the other’s gym during league play. Likewise teams would play each other twice in one season. In some leagues, there was also a potential championship game where the top two teams in the league would battle it out for the league title. With the Yale Cup, you only got that one shot at your opponent in league play and that was it. In those days the final records determined the champions as well. This was probably because of the size of our 14-team league.

If you were in the same preseason tournament, scheduled a nonleague game or were in the same sectional class, there was the possibility of seeing certain teams again. If you were a Class A or B team in Section VI though (described below), you only got one shot at teams like Buffalo Traditional. The Bulls were the perennial power in our league who played in Class C sectional. It wasn’t ideal, but it’s what we had at the time.

The Gyms We Played In

Another aspect that made our league unique were the gyms in which we played. Most of the gyms were less than stellar compared to our counterparts in private and suburban schools. City school gyms were old and antiquated. While many of us look back on it with nostalgia; the gym at Hutch-Tech was essentially a box with a shortened court. It amazingly transformed into an electric venue during games and when fans filled it. It was a less than ideal facility though. The backboards were solid white with non-breakaway rims and the seating was minimal.

At Hutch-Tech, we also had a “small gym”. It was a smaller box with one basket which you could barely cram 15-25 student athletes into. Our boys’ basketball team practiced there for the first hour or so of practice after school. The girls’ basketball team used our “big gym” (described above) for the first hour of practice and then we swapped.

It was nothing like the modern facilities at my alma mater right now. Today there is a regulation-size court, window backboards and breakaway rims. Nor was it anything like the three gyms at my best friend’s high school, Cleveland Hill in Cheektowaga. Cleveland Hill High School was in one of the suburban conferences, the “Erie County Interscholastic Conference VI” (there were four of these conferences). Still, there was something special about our little old gym, and the Hutch-Tech gym was not alone, or the worst.

Playing In Older And Antiquated Gyms

“You play in some of the gyms in some of these schools and it was like you were playing in a bowling alley (laughing)!” In my interview with Buffalo Traditional legend Damien Foster, we discussed the gyms we played in for Yale Cup play. I think the gym he was referring to was at Performing Arts. It was the most unusual of all the gyms in the league. It didn’t have a regulation width, so it didn’t have a complete three-point arc. The floor was concrete-like, and it was in a room very similar to a theater. Other high school gyms, like those at Lafayette and South Park, had those cumbersome tracks overhead. They were similar to the East Ferry YMCA, so you couldn’t shoot the corner three-point shots.

The largest gyms at that time were at Grover Cleveland, McKinley, and Seneca High Schools, and maybe Emerson. This is probably why Coach Jones always had to host our Hutch-Tech “Tip Off Tournaments” at other schools. Safety and security were reasons why we couldn’t host sectional games. This would have involved teams and families from the suburbs coming into Buffalo at nighttime. All these factors are why it was amazing to go into the college, private school, and suburban gyms as a player and see how well equipped they were. They had bleachers on both sides of the gym, window glass back boards, breakaway rims and complete three-point arcs.

Playing In Uniforms With No Name

Now admittedly you must typically go to the Division I level to get players’ names put on the back of their jerseys like in the pros. Typically, in the lower levels, you would at least get the school’s name and/or nickname on the front of the uniforms. Except for City Honors, Grover Cleveland and South Park, most of our uniforms in the Yale Cup, it wasn’t that way.

“It takes a little bit more to be a Champion!” The uniforms in the late 1980s and early 1990s were made by the sports apparel company “Champion”. The only thing that differentiated them between the schools were the school colors. Because the pictures in the Buffalo News were black and white, you couldn’t tell the teams apart without reading the caption when the teams were featured. If you were familiar with the teams and players, you knew who was who. The uniforms all had the same block numbers and were all made with the same thick polyester or nylon, non-mesh fabric. I have fond memories of our old maroon and gold Hutch-Tech uniforms though.

A Lack Of Feeder Systems For The Varsity Teams

In my research for The Engineers, the above-mentioned Coach Ken Jones and I talked about was the lack of a feeder system for the Yale Cup varsity basketball teams. The Buffalo News coincidentally wrote about this a season or two after I graduated from Hutch-Tech. Simply put, there were no official modified or junior varsity (JV) programs to feed the varsity programs. Thus, most of the players had to make the varsity team and learn on the fly if they weren’t receiving any training outside of school. See my interviews with Jason Rowe, Damien Foster and Tim Winn. That said, the best team in any given year could have been the most athletic team, the most talented or the healthiest team (or some combination of the three).

Some of the coaches at the time, including Coach Jones, attempted to create ad hoc JV teams and the games. They did this for the most part with no extra pay, and there was thus no official JV league. Most of the games were likewise played on Saturday mornings. All our classmates were still at home sleeping or doing something else, and thus few people saw them. For suburban schools the JV games were often scheduled and played at night before the varsity games. This was significant becasue classmates, relatives and the entire community could come out and support them which was a big deal as a player.

One Of Many Legendary Yale Cup Coaches

“You don’t know who Romeo McKinney is?” One of my interviewees for this project was Carlos James Gant from City Honors. City Honors was the other ‘academic’ school in the Yale Cup. They experienced their own basketball resurgence during my four years with players like Gant himself, Shaun Nelms, and their highly talented big man Larry Gilbert. During our discussion, Gant shared with me that the legendary Romeo McKinney helped coach their team during the 1992-93 season. He taught them a trapping style of defense which contributed to their increased level of competitiveness that season. By their senior year, they had an exceptional team, but they ascended at the same time as the above-mentioned Jason Rowe– and Damien Foster-led Buffalo Traditional Bulls.

I believe Coach McKinney was the coach of the South Park team that was involved in the infamous fight with Christian Laettner’s Nichols team at the Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium. I think he finished out his coaching career at Kensington. Carlos Gant was surprised that I didn’t know who he was. A recurring theme of my story is that I only started learning about Section VI basketball in the early 1990s, and even then, my coach never talked about him. There were several legendary Yale Cup coaches over the years just like Coach McKinney.

Varying Qualities Of Coaching

My coach at Hutch-Tech, Dr. Kenneth Leon Jones, called himself a ‘true student of the game’ and was in fact a basketball junkie. His program was an extension of himself and was very organized and textbook. The suburban and private school coaches were likewise amazed by the disciplined style of basketball Coach Jones’ majority black rosters played. The Yale Cup teams had developed the reputation for not playing defense or with structure of any kind. It was considered a ‘renegade’ league as stated by Adrian Baugh, another key contributor on the above-mentioned Buffalo Traditional teams.

From the interviews I conducted I learned that the quality of coaching in the league also varied from school to school. While researching The Engineers, I found that not every coach in the Yale Cup was in fact a trained coach, who approached the game as a craft. Some of them were simply faculty at their schools or gym teachers. Likewise, not every coach taught the game and treated it like a craft. Not every coach genuinely cared about his players, or what happened to them once they left the doors of their schools. The coach you got was arguably a matter of fortune and luck.

Playing Different Numbers Of Games

“We were one of the only city schools to play a full 20 games. Remember, at that time there were 14 high school teams in the city, and you only played those 13 teams if your coach didn’t give you another 6-7 games to fill out your full 20 games. Russ did that,” said Ed Harris, a star guard from Riverside’s above-mentioned Yale Cup and Class C Section Team in our interview. Ed attributed his Coach Bill Russell’s dedication to his playing development. “He had us playing the Frontiers, the Oleans, the Fredonias – going out there and playing John F. Kennedy (JFK), Williamsville East, South and North.”

Harris’ words described the fact that not every Yale Cup coach scheduled games outside of their 13 Yale Cup league games. This meant that their players didn’t get exposure to other styles of basketball and may not have started playing games until the new year. After interviewing Coach Russell, he turned out to be a lot like my coach at Hutch-Tech in that he put together a complete non-league schedule. He also cared about his players and did extra things for them like getting them into summer leagues and taking them with him to scout opponents.

Our League Games Were Immediately After School

Another interesting thing about the Yale Cup is that our games were immediately after school. If students were allowed into the games, this was advantageous for the home teams. Students weren’t allowed into games at every school though, due to safety considerations.

But what about the players on the teams; the visiting teams in particular? If you were the visiting team, you had to leave your last class early, which I’m sure none of the students took issue with. Unfortunately, none of the city schools had their own buses so players had to catch public transportation to the opposing school. This meant that team members could trickle in at varying times, sometimes after the games had started unless the coaches had a way of transporting the entire group.

Another consequence of this was the difficulty for many of the parents and relatives to come to our games. Many were still working at 3:30 pm in the afternoon. If they worked a 9-5 job, many parents could not get out of work early. As a player, having relatives in the stands can be very, very important psychologically.

Visits From The Trainer Once A Week And Wasted Talent

As described, none of our schools had their own individualized transportation. Nor did we have our own athletic trainer. We had a student trainer who came in from Canisius College to check on injuries once a week. It was better than nothing, but if a student athlete didn’t have the proper specialized medical care at home, injuries could linger and destroy whole seasons altogether. I experienced something like this during my journey.

Some of the players I interviewed suggested that there was a lot of wasted talent in the Yale Cup of the late 1980s and 1990s. The lack of a feeder system was mentioned earlier in this piece, but there was also academics. Some of the more talented players also didn’t receive the proper academic guidance to prepare to play at the next level. Specifically, some players weren’t prepared to take and achieve competitive scores on the standardized tests (SATs and ACTs). As a result, they never went on to play college basketball, and if they did, they had to play in junior college first. Some of them didn’t get to play at the Division I level at all, which they may have had the talent to do.

The Players That Emerged

The opening excerpt for this piece was from my interview with my cousin, Coach Phillip Richardson. When we spoke, it was amazing to hear that he and his peers didn’t compete in Section VI postseason play. Thus, they didn’t have the opportunity to compete for the state or federation championships. They simply put their basketball uniforms away and prepared for baseball or track after a league champion was determined. A few years after Coach Richardson graduated from Bennett High School the rules changed. Competing in Section VI’s postseason play was commonplace for the Buffalo Public Schools 20 years later when it was time for me to go to high school.

In this snippet, Coach Richardson stated that there were several talented players who didn’t get the opportunity to play Division I basketball because of the lack of exposure. Some players did make it though over the years. Among them were Bob Lanier (Bennett), Ray Hall (McKinley), Curtis Aiken (Bennett), Lester Rowe (Lafayette), Cliff Robinson (Riverside), and Keith Robinson (Grover Cleveland). There was also Trevor Ruffin (Bennett), and Jason Rowe and Damien Foster (both from Buffalo Traditional). After I graduated, there was Damone Brown (Seneca) and Mark Price (Riverside). There were also numerous Yale Cup players who played at the Division II and III levels.

I also must acknowledge a couple of guards. There was the great tandem of Ritchie Campbell and Marcus “Ice Cream” Whitfield (Burgard). There was also Antoine Sims (Grover Cleveland and Turner/Carroll) and Jeremiah Wilkes (Burgard and Cheektowaga Central). I don’t know where their paths led after high school. They all played at a high level though. There were so many players and I may have missed some names. If so, please mention them in the comment section below.

Competing In Section VI

In my era, Yale Cup schools competed in Section VI Classes A, B, C in postseason play. Again, the letters designated the size of the school. Classes A and B designated the larger schools and C the smaller schools. The Buffalo News made a similar distinction in its weekly “Cage Polls”. None of the schools competed in Class D.

Postseason sectional play was arguably the most magical part of the season because we were now competing with the suburban teams and potentially teams from places like Grand Island and Niagara Falls in a one-game elimination format. This post season play could ultimately lead to a game with the Rochester area champions in the “Far West Regionals”. There a trip to Glens Falls was at stake. Only a few teams ever made it that far.

A Look Back At The Yale Cup Of Years Past From A Former Burgard Bulldog

“But going back to the junior year, when Gene exploded onto the scene and made All-High and Honorable Mention All-Western New York, the scouts came out and whatever. As a matter of fact, when Gene was a junior, we were playing Tech. The scouts came to scout a guy named Roger Brown because he was Mr. Everything that year. Gene played a good game, but we lost to Tech.” One of the most powerful interviews for The Engineers was with my Uncle Anthony (Tony) Harris. Uncle Tony played at Burgard in the 1960s with the legendary Eugene Roberson and corroborated much of the same information shared by the above-mentioned Coach Richardson.

“Tech had the Cott brothers, Orv and Marty Cott, back then and they had a couple of other stars. Gene had a spectacular game, but we lost.” My Uncle got excited talking about those days and I became equally excited listening to him reflect. As a part of my story, I learned that our family patriarch had a basketball history himself – he was All-High Honorable Mention! This is an important part of my story. I found out about it after my playing days.

“I mean there were some bad people (in a good way) back then. There were a couple who were really good like Bob Lanier. Bennett just ran over everybody, and East had some really good players too. Bennet’s team was so strong that all five guys should have made All-High, but they couldn’t.” Uncle Tony continually emphasized the number of strong players in the Yale Cup season he played in, and you could just feel it when he spoke. We spent a lot of time discussing Bob Lanier and the Bennett High School teams, and so many others.

“My main claim to fame was that Lanier was averaging 26 points per game, and I held him to 24 (laughing),” my uncle joked. “Of course, they took him out, so he sat on the bench in the last quarter. He almost sat out a whole quarter.”

Section VI’s Basketball Diamond In The Rough

“I always wanted to play against each of the city schools. When I was a ‘youngin’ just learning how to play the game – if you go back to when I was a freshman, I can tell you every school had a guy or two guys that could ball. At South Park, you had Damone Solomon along with those Hutchinson boys,” Riverside’s Ed Harris enthusiastically said about the Yale Cup during our era. It was like what my Uncle Tony said about his era 20 years earlier.

“You go to Emerson, and you’ve got Shawn Cunningham. You go to Burgard and you’ve got Ritchie (Campbell) and you got the Pat Jones kid. Each of those teams had guys on them that could play,” Ed Harris continued. “That’s when city ball was city ball. You had a chance to do something, and I looked forward to playing those guys, you know?”

Celebrating The Yale Cup

I’m hoping that this piece came off more as a tribute to our beloved league and not a pity party. I personally still get butterflies thinking about those games in the old gyms, our uniforms, and the school colors. We played in lesser conditions than our counterparts at the private and suburban schools. Still, there was nothing like that feeling of competition no matter where it was and who it was against. Those were fun times.

Again, the Buffalo News covered much of this in writings by Jerry Sullivan, Mike Harrington, the late Allen Wilson and others. While working on this ambitious project it was necessary to revisit the Yale Cup and all its aspects. As a writer, promotion is a major consideration. You also must set the story world for your readers, and the story world for my project is the Yale Cup and Section VI.

Playing Yale Cup Basketball

I’m closing this piece out with one more Yale Cup coach some of you may be familiar with. Bob Mitchell (pictured) was the Head Coach of the Kensington Boys’ Basketball Teams in the early 1990s. Just as in the picture, the times we played Kensington, I remember him wearing suits and being a fiery coach. Names I think of when I think of those Knights teams are Taka Molson, Radaun Hill and Kilroy Jackson who were all stars on their squads. The Knights were generally athletic, long, physical and tall. They played zone defenses and liked to get out in the open court and run like racehorses. Furthermore they liked to score the ball in transition via dunks and layups. They played Yale Cup basketball.

One of my many interviewees likewise played on the Kensington Boys’ Basketball Team, Coach Samuel “Quinn” Coffey. I thus got a feel for what it was like to wear the green and gold. In another promotional piece for The Engineers, I plan to discuss the difference between coaches who set out to build basketball programs versus simply assembling teams. As described earlier in this piece, it was different for all of us, depending upon which schools we attended, and which coaches we played for.

Closing Thoughts

Thank you for reading this piece. As you’ve seen, I’ve used numerous pictures from the Yale Cup and players from the 1980s and 90s. These images came from an archive of Section VI basketball, carefully assembled over the years from issues of the Buffalo News. Dr. Kenneth Leon Jones, my first Coach at Hutch-Tech created this archive. Coach Jones was a mentor, a father figure, and is a central in my story. None of this would’ve been possible without him.

While this piece focused on the Yale Cup and Western New York high school basketball in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the themes are universal. They thus may apply to the basketball league you played in as a youth wherever you grew up. Thus, feel free to share your high school basketball experiences and memories in the comments section below. And especially if you played in the Yale Cup, please share any of your experiences below.

More Promotional Pieces On The Way

I’m creating more promotional/teaser pieces for The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story. These will be 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 and grouping all the promotional narratives such as this in one place for interested readers. On my first blogging platform, the Big Words Blog Site, there are interviews with some the most accomplished Section VI players from my era including: Jason Rowe, Tim Winn, Carlos Bradberry and Damien Foster. I also interviewed legendary LaSalle Head Basketball Coach, Pat Monti. Finally, there are more essays related to my book project. If you liked this piece, please share it on your social media and feel free to leave a comment.

The Big Words LLC Newsletter

For the next phase of my writing journey, I’m starting a monthly newsletter. It will promote written and video content from the Big Words LLC. In it, I plan to share inspirational words, pieces from this blog and my first blog, and select videos from my four YouTube channels. Finally, I will share updates for my book project The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story. If you sign up, I promise that I will protect your personal information and privacy. Click this link and register using the sign-up button at the bottom of the announcement. Regards.

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.

The Happy Couple Who Commuted On The Metro

“Once they made eye contact, he jumped on the metro car and they happily sat next to one another for the ride back to Huntington.”

My first short story on Big Words Authors reflects on the pre-Covid-19 world. It involves the importance of human-to-human interaction. It focuses on people and a specific couple I used to see on the metro, among others.

In the Washington, DC metropolitan region, thousands of federal employees, military service people, contractors and other workers commute daily. They use the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority (WMATA) trains and buses to travel to their places of business. Likewise the metro system is arguably the lifeblood of the region upon which everything runs. Depending on what time you start your commute, you can see familiar faces. Adjust your time just a little bit, and you’ll see a whole new set of faces. You’ll in fact see the same commuters at the same time daily unless there’s a change of some kind. It could be a doctor’s appointment, a meeting, an emergency – anything in that person’s life that day.

The Twice A Day Eight Car Mixing Bowl

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a couple I saw regularly on the Yellow Line train. I normally commuted to and from Crystal City, VA when I saw them. I actually saw a lot of people on the trains in the mornings and evenings. Many got on the train at specific hours. Whenever I went into the office earlier or later than my usual time, I saw different commuters on my route.

As a single man, obviously the women stood out to me the most. I saw many that I wanted to talk to of varying races and ethnicities. The metro however wasn’t always the optimal place to ‘cold approach’ them. In terms of learning ‘game’ for which there are courses now, cold approaching is simply striking up a conversation with a woman you don’t know who has sparked your interest.

Sometimes, you can wait because you’ll probably see the woman again, but in a city like Washington, DC where people are constantly coming and going, you might have to make your move when the opportunity is there because the woman may be visiting from out of town, or she may only be on your side of town for a meeting that particular day. In short, you may never see her again if you don’t make a move. Whatever move you make, you must be confident and classy to get the best results, especially with other commuters around, sometimes in earshot of your conversation.

Many people are into their morning rituals, getting ready for the daily battle ahead at their respective government agencies. In the evening people are looking to just go home and relax after a day of battle. Like at the gym, seeing a woman with earbuds on is a bit of a deterrent from going over and saying hello. Some openly converse on their phones and disturbing them would be awkward or rude. The fear of looking foolish in those moving enclosed spaces was also a bit of a deterrent. As a single man this is the reality and you have to decide as the clock ticks, like a quarterback looking for his target as the pass rush closes in.

The Happy Couple on the Metro

In any case, there was one couple I randomly thought about late one Pandemic night when driving to Herndon, VA to watch a Buffalo Bills game. On the 37-minute drive, I decided to not listen to any YouTube podcasts, livestreams, or playbacks, but instead to the rainy-day piano jazz station. As my phone’s GPS guided me to my destination, I listened to the music and my mind drifted off into my creative space and the couple popped into my mind. They were two of hundreds and maybe thousands of people I hadn’t seen since COVID-19 swept around the globe and inflicted lockdowns on our country. It made those of us who were fortunate to do so, work remotely from home 100% of the time.

Some mornings, or evenings, or both, I would see the couple. I lived near the Huntington Metro stop, the southern terminal of the Yellow Line. The couple would arrive at the station together in the morning, sit next to one another and make their morning commute. They were a middle-aged black couple. I can tell you that he wore glasses and I think she did too. Both were always dressed professionally. He might have worn a mustache and he had a studious look about him. She was an attractive woman.

As I waited for the train to take me home one evening at Crystal City, I saw her seated on the Yellow line as it pulled into the station. She caught my observant single man’s eye. I noticed she was looking for someone on the platform. It was him. He too was looking for her from the platform.

Once they made eye contact, he jumped on the metro car and they happily sat next to one another for the ride back to Huntington. They coordinated their evening commutes so that they could ride home together, a sign that these two people were genuinely in love with one another. One of my ex-girlfriends and I had something similar before our relationship turned for the worse, but that’s a story for a different day.

Appearance vs. Reality

This is what made me think about this couple. They looked so happy as they made those commutes together. I don’t know if they had children. I don’t know if this was their first, second or third marriage. Perhaps they figured it out on the first try, unlike so many other people in these modern technological times where families are different, both genders are educated and the gender roles have been blurred. I don’t know. What I can tell you is that they genuinely looked both happy and peaceful as they rode from stop to stop.

They could have gone home and fought like cats and dogs. When they got into their car, she might have started giving him the business and talking his ear off about her day. They may have gone home and partitioned themselves into different rooms for the remainder of the night. They may not have been the couple portrayed as dutifully riding together in the morning and the evening. After all, from experience, I’ve learned that you never know what’s happening with a couple behind closed doors, no matter the outward appearance.

I did sense, however, that they were genuinely happy based upon the energy they gave off and what my spirit discerned. They had figured out something that had been forgotten for a significant number of the rest of the population in the generation before and after mine. They were happy, or at least looked so on the outside for all of us to see.

The Author’s Post Story Reflections/Thoughts

There are several significances to this story. First. While our morning and evening commutes were burdensome and tiring on some days, they were a way of life. Furthermore there was value to seeing faces you both did and did not recognize. In the Washington, DC area, I especially disliked the commutes in the mid-summer humidity which lurked even at nighttime. Again though, there was value to those commutes.

Second. During our work days, there’s a lot going on. Whether its commuting, going to lunch or going for coffee at Starbucks, you never know who is watching you. I’m certain the couple in this story on the metro, had no idea I noticed them. I did however notice the harmony and love for each other they displayed outwardly. They were rare in today’s world. They probably never would have thought that I would remember them on that random Saturday night. If I see them again, perhaps I will share this with them.