In a previous post, I reminisced about my Syracuse Summer of ’86. It turns out one of the biggest things to happen that summer took place back in my hometown. While I lived the high life (er, on a hill) of glamour and adventure at the home of the Orangemen in Central New York, a longtime friend was recording something long thought consigned to the dustbin of oblivion. On an old Fostex 4-track recorder, in the confines of his Heussy Avenue bedroom, my good friend Paul Hoeflich had single handedly recorded “Smelly Fish, Tasty Fish”, a silly ditty I had penned months earlier (never meant to be recorded, really)
Looking back, this song was MEANT to be recorded by Paul. It had his sense of humor over it. But to not elaborate a bit more on the man who was a tremendous influence on me, more importantly a blessed friend, would be doing his memory a disservice.
Paul and I first met in fourth grade at St. Agatha’s RC School in South Buffalo. My mother, wise sage that she was, had made a “just in time” transfer of yours truly from public school to the tutelage of the Sisters of Mercy. (I WAS going down the wrong path til then. Thanks, Mom.) We bonded immediately. I had left behind a great partner in comic mischief in public school (Todd Young, wherefore art thou?) and found an immediate kindred spirit in Paul. To this day, I have yet to meet anyone who could make me laugh more. (I’m pretty sure I made him laugh quite a bit too.) I couldn’t possibly count all the times we got into trouble in class together. If I could only bottle those magical, side-splitting times to share with others now…
The first time Paul came to our apartment (several blocks away), he had my mother in tears (of laughter, of course). Without a hint of worry that someone other than me might answer the door, he had his signature pig nose/stuck out tongue face ready for action when the it swung open. And he didn’t miss a beat: He held that face til I came to the door to do a proper introduction. A day I will never forget. From that day forth, he was like my mother’s second son (and like a brother to me).
Over the years, much like many young friendships, ours ebbed and flowed. We drifted in and out of each other’s lives, but never missed a beat at the inevitable reunion. As luck would have it, my parents and I had moved right onto Paul’s very street in my sophomore year of high school. (We also attended the same high school. But different friends and interests kept us otherwise separated until this point.) It was this intensely fun, funny, mischievous, musical, and creative period with Paul that I remember and cherish the most. Like his jolly, goofy sense of humor, his prodigious musical talent (possessed by his entire family) also infected me. We spent endless hours recording audio nonsense and musical musings, taking it as far as forming a band (called Justus, which we thought profoundly clever) with Paul’s fellow childhood friend, Joe Szewczyk. (Paul’s [now ex] brother-in-law was our bassist at that time too.) We were awful, my singing being the weakest link. It didn’t matter one bit: We were all in love with being on stage. We played a few gigs, stayed up later than we were allowed, and ate a lot of Mighty Taco. (Props out to my mother and stepfather who endured many hours of attic cacophony while they tried to watch TV below us!)
Some of my favorite Paul memories (in no particular order):
– In grammar school, buying Swedish Fish from Amigone’s (bka “Vinnie’s”) Deli (where we were always condescendingly referred to as girls by the proprietor) at lunchtime and administering them to each other as if they were Communion hosts:
“Body of Fish?”
– Paul’s fake sick routine, whereby he would pretend to be suddenly nauseous in a public place (e.g. restaurant). We would play along, trying to coax him to the restroom, all the while looking peripherally for terrified looks on the faces of nearby customers within earshot. Once in a great while, he would even fool us. (“No, seriously. I think I’m gonna be sick…”)
– Back then, we were all in the habit of exaggerating commercials/movies/TV skits etc into such oblivion, that the original cultural references were often completely unrecognizable. Paul used to do this one bit where he would raise his hand as if asking a question in a classroom, notice a (nonexistent) sweat stain in his armpit, then place his hand over his mouth and roll his eyes in mock embarrassment. The extremely elaborate version saw him sticking his finger in his mouth, holding his breath and flexing his neck muscles so much, he would turn red as a lobster. Through the rolling on the floor laughter, we were often afraid he would pass out. Still, it never got old.
– One night around Paul’s dining room table, Paul’s (late) mother Jean was telling us how she had a run-in with some irreverent punk on Summer Street where she worked. When she said her response was “Who do you think you are?!”, Paul immediately jumped in. I could never do Paul’s impression of his mother any justice, but the tossing of the head was riotous:
“Who do you think you are? Huh?! Who do you think you ARE?! I’LL CALL JIMMY MOLLOY!”
This was my favorite Hoeflich family memory. EVERYONE (all three of Paul’s siblings), including Jean and yours truly were out of breath from laughter. Of course, I am typing through tears now… (Jean had been a childhood friend of James T Malloy, the last Doorkeeper of the House of Representatives. Outside of OJ, he was arguably [SOUTH] Buffalo’s biggest celebrity, long before Tim Russert, Pat Kane, the Weinsteins and the Goo Goo Dolls put the Queen City on Maps to the Stars. This was a running joke in the family: You cross Jean, you deal with Jimmy Molloy!)
When I got the call that fateful morning in October 2004 that Paul was gone, I refused to believe it. I thought it was cruel prank. It was only when I got a second call an hour later that I knew it was real. Seven years later, I still shake my head in disbelief that such a beautiful and effortlessly funny human being is gone from our lives. He leaves a legacy of three beautiful sons and an indelible mark on my sense of humor. Courtesy of the funniest human being I have ever known, I give you Smelly Fish, Tasty Fish, a product of youthful exuberance, spartan recording conditions, and a painful ignorance of geography. (“East LA?” There’s no bay there. And for those who also might not know, Santa Fe is in New Mexico. I hadn’t made very good use of all those atlases around the house…) Rest in peace, my brother. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about you. (Click the arrow to play)
Smelly Fish, Tasty Fish
I had to add this other inspiration for this track:
An honorable mention also goes to the City Victims’ “Bamboo Stick” (likely inspired by the same Bugs Bunny clip).