i appreciate all the input!
one time i put a coffee can filled with holes in the middle of my basket thinking it would prevent smoldering unlit pockets in the center. what i found was that the lit coals worked their way around the can beginning at the wide open intake port. had thin blue smoke all the way.
i think i'm getting close to the answer here. correct me if i'm wrong, i'm a greenhorn, but having unlit fuel underneath and next to the coals is ok, BUT having unlit fuel ON TOP of the coals is no good.
do i need to start with more more lit coals? a large coffee can is maybe 1/2-3/4 the size of a store bought charcoal chimney.