From 1977 to 1979 I rented a small apartment on the 2100 block of North Kimball Avenue in Chicago, Illinois. This neighborhood, Logan Square, was a mile or so south of Albany Park, an easy city walk from one of the greatest concentrations of ethnic Poles in the world. Only Warsaw has more Poles than the city of Chicago. Their language, manner and food are everywhere.Poles move around, and are tough, smart, extremely adaptable and, behind their guards, friendly, though not especially so. They excel in other ways. They focus their affections. Being raised by a mother steeped in a sense of her separation and distance from the South, I’d tasted an exiled world. I found this new neighborhood familiar. However, Poles are at home with few people (outside of the actual home), including fellow Poles. Everyone is to some extent an outsider, due to the continuous partitioning of the last few centuries and the conquests, occupations, and annexations of nearly a millennium. Perhaps no other nation of Europe has been so awash over so long a time with social dislocations, migrations and exiles. States come and go. We Americans know nothing of this experience. This history accounts for the unusual combination of great resourcefulness, fatalism, and solitude in the Polish character. In turn, this seems to explain both their fluid mobility (they can get jobs in Chicago in twenty minutes) and great success.
In my adopted Chicago neighborhood, all of the Polish were from towns and cities. Since the Stalinists moved many people around, they were often deliberately vague about their hometowns. Family members would escape or defect to America, get a job and then immediately begin organizing the extraction of others. I came to know only a few, all through business, which was selling and buying books and records of mostly traditional ethnic music and literature, for which they have a great enthusiasm. But “familiarity”, as we know it, was nil. If you weren’t family, you were simply not trustworthy, a quality more rare and precious to them than the purest gold. The only common, non-family social activity, besides church, that I saw them share was dancing. At all ages, they are prodigious and phenomenal dancers. They learn, practice and then do it every chance they get. In the late 70s—the disco craze— there was a separate polka universe of dance halls on the west side of Chicago, about a half dozen in a thirty block radius. Everyone was Polish and most spoke little English— or chose not to under the circumstances— so it was impossible to enjoy yourself. You could never traverse the ethnic gap. They didn’t want you around their sisters and daughters.
So I let my proximity to them suffice: I shopped at their butcher shops—true sausage emporiums with dozens of varieties of just kielbasa alone. I read their excellent literature, perhaps postwar Europe’s best, and certainly my favorite. I listened to their classical music and especially their jazz, which was on a par with ours. What a surprise to a young music lover! It was hard to get books and records out of Poland in those days, but I “knew someone who knew someone”, a secretary at their consulate or trade mission— it was never clear— and she smuggled them in and out. It was an adventurous and exciting business, but it didn’t last. The new pope was a Polish national hero as well as a renowned poet. The labor unions were becoming aggressive, bold and successful in their actions, especially in the shipyards of Gdansk. The Soviets were losing whatever grip they’d had, and revolution was in the air. By late 1979, the neighborhood was a beehive of gossip, with new faces everyday. Music and poetry, traditionally something of an obsession to the community, faded into the background.
What did I learn from my Polish American neighbors?
They have, like the Russians, a taste for intense colors. Whether from the Orthodox Church or their historic trade with India, their love of warm colors in swirly patterns is passionate. As if compensating for their reserved composure, they sew, weave, paint and garden in sensational colors. Their great preference for Cosmos (C. sulphureus and C. bipinnatus) is unique in the world. They grow Cosmos in mixed colors, with an emphasis on its dreamy orange, to a degree I’ve never seen anywhere except India. However, Indians grow many other flowers as well. Not so the housewives of the Polish neighborhoods in Chicago. Every small yard billows with hundreds of Cosmos, the happiest of annuals.
My friends, neighbors, and colleagues in the Polish American community were unique also for being, oddly, not as nationalistic as other Europeans. I say “oddly” because, in my experience, every other nationality in Europe is extremely chauvinistic by my standard. Except the Poles. They reclaimed their culture from the Soviets, but they have never seemed especially enthusiastic about taking credit for it. One can argue that they should lay claim to having opened the floodgates for the rest of the new democracies in Eastern Europe. The world profoundly underestimated the popular unrest in Poland. Theirs was the battering ram that knocked down the Berlin Wall. However, Poles don’t engage in laying a nationalistic trip on you. Once you get to know them, they love to have conversations— but about the world, about Europe, about other places besides Poland. They are, perhaps by default or due to so many occupations and partitions, naturally gifted internationalists. From the rich to the poor, they’ve long been Europeans, cosmopolitans, citizens of the world. Or, in our lucky case, Americans. This quality may account for their iconoclastic and pioneering artists, scholars, scientists and intellectuals, from Copernicus to Conrad, Chopin to Curie, Walensa to Pope John Paul II— all uncommonly capable of both thinking and acting “outside the box”.
Last but not least, I shall possess, well into my dotage, fond memories of the most delectable food item on earth, The Polish Sausage, found nowhere else but at the ramshackle hot dog stands lining West Roosevelt and West Taylor. This is a large hot dog made of a spiced sausage, scarred down one side, deep fried, placed in a fresh bun, brushed with a piquant mustard and topped with grilled onions.
I see myself 30 years from now, ancient, quickly hobbling down the avenue, and folks will gaze in wonder. “What’s he doing? Where’s he think he’s going?”
“To the dogs, ladies!”
To the onions… to the nameless stands, now abandoned and torn down. Limping my way to lost worlds of taste.
One can find imitations from time to time in the chains, such as Portillo’s. Around here (Bucks County, PA) folks tell me they sell a decent “Polish” up in Reading and Allentown. Eastern Pennsylvania saw a huge influx of miners, metal workers and engineers from Poland in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Just thinking about them makes me hungry.