If you love, adore the moon. If you rob, steal a camel.

Stories for the Long Silk Road

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Steve Prusky: Out of Polonia

Stan and Celina were reared fenced inside the Polonian hamlet of Hamtramck on Andrus Street. Pole Town, as Hamtramck residents call it, is a two square mile Lilliputian burg darkened by the Gulliver sized shadow of Detroit. 

The pair emerged from their immigrant mothers’ wombs to the New World in 1949 and 1950. They were both born at Detroit Osteopathic Hospital in Highland Park. They were inaugural Baby Boomers. From birth, they were groomed and dubbed first generation Polonian Americans. They grew up in as clannish an atmosphere as any other immigrant ethnic groups in Detroit: Albanians, Lithuanians, Catholic Poles and Polish Jews, a few block long pockets of unassuming Czechs. Stan and Celina were as fluent and literate in Gdansk Polish as they were in English. They grew up fed a dual diet of old country culture and the novelty of the Free World. Their émigré parents nourished them on Chopin, Kielbasa, Warszawa dills, Kud nad Wisłą, Three Kings Day, Easter Monday in competition with the iconic Americana of Gun Smoke, Aretha Franklin, “That Was the Week That Was,” and full color news clips of the made for TV Vietnam War performed almost live each dinner hour. Their Palonian heritage exiled them to Hamtramck: a transplanted European enclave surrounded by prosperous, liberal, tempting, but off-limits America.  

Their cliquish second-generation peersPomazaniec‘the anointed’ Stan spitefully called them, ostracized them, denied them social privilege outside Ham Town. The anointed lived in the nicer parts of Detroit. They flourished on the fringe of their ethnic Hamtramck roots as if the town was an Indian reservation and they the vigilant cavalry hemming the hostiles in. They were aloof, nearly immune to old land cultural mores by bloodline longevity. They languished in second-generation hierarchal privilege by luck of birth. Most shucked the old country ways and adopted the liberal freedoms of the US as if Palonian tradition had become a cultural infection no antidote can cure. They considered themselves Americans first, distant Polonians last, a quantum no return leap past their roots. Stan and Celina walked a tight rope equidistant to Polonia and the world outside Hamtramck. 

Socially excluded by the anointed, it was natural Stan and Celina turn to each other. They remained heads together mates, intimate as lovers, mutually protective of each other to a degree well beyond even the basic tenets of marriage. 

Early Saturday morning they stepped out from Kaminski’s corner market on Caniff and Joseph Campau, each of Stan’s arms slaved to two weighty grocery bags for Celina’s mother while Celina kept pace beside him.

“Mamma’s cleaning the house up all nice and neat right now for tonight,” Celina said. “Probably needs my help. Let’s take our time going home.”

Stan suggested, “Let’s stop at Simanski’s used book store up on Conant, and see what he’s got new. There’s nothing in these bags that’ll spoil.”  Celina nodded, grateful for Stan’s ability to productively waste time. She slipped her arm in Sam’s, surprising him with her gesture of affection. They slowly strolled down bustling Conant Street like new lovers oblivious to all that is wrong in the world, but Stan could easily find fault with every corner of Hamtramck.

Since he could recollect, Stan remained focused on a path out of Polonia. If he stayed, a low paying factory job would be the extent of his future. He felt no obligation to tithe the social dues of subservience his generation and their immigrant parents believed they owed. He was anxious to meld with the fast moving current of upwardly mobile 1960’s America. Stan had no wish to be a Polonian in denial, he simply wanted to jump a few rungs on the ladder of upward mobility, surpass the status of ‘the anointed’ on the first round. Stan was determined to be first generation American, not first generation, or second, or third generation American born Palonian. On the other hand, Celina timidly accepted her ethnic fate. She struggled to balance her staid old country upbringing with the startling self-confident aura of impetuous America swimming laps in an Olympic pool of prosperity. 

A little further east on Conant, after the bookstore and two twenty-five cent paperback novels Celina liked, they came upon the smell of fresh butchered animal blood in Kieslowski’s Meat Market. They gazed in awe at the macabre display of Kieslowski’s amply stocked storefront window lined with tripe, lamb chops, ham hocks, blood dripping beef ribs stacked chest high. Stan stepped in Eliezer’s Kosher Deli next door and bought a small round of soft Camembert and two Pierogies to share with Celina. “Sorry for these paltry lookin’ things,” Stan said, “the Jews should to stick with making latkes, let us Poles make a proper Pierogy.” They threaded through the maze of sidewalk kiosks stocked with every trinket imaginable and staffed with aggressive Polish speaking attendants prepared to swindle any one that took the hook. The couple sat on the slat bench in front of Koszniak‘s Bakery to eat. Stan observed the activity on Conant Street like a practiced Baudelerian flâneur. He listened to the din of kobieta bickering with the butcher and sidewalk vendors hawking cheap black plastic bead rosaries and nickel plated St. Christopher medalschains were extra. “We have to get out of here someday, don’t you think?” Stan said. A focused bapʨa scurried past, late for weekday morning Mass. The tail of her Babuška flapped in rhythm with her escalated pace. The long city block possessed every accoutrement an imported version of old Polonia requires. Each soul contently ambling past the duo appeared certain life in Hamtramck is simply . . . life. “Pole town I mean. Look around us; you’d think this street is no different than a Warsaw open air bazaar catering to peasant farmers in town for the day.”

“I’ve never been to Warsaw.” Neither had Stan. “From intimate to belligerent so quick: Where did that come from? Why such a hurry Stan? I can’t leave. My family’s here. I’m happy near my family. Go where?” Celina asked.

“Any place that doesn’t resemble this signed in stone copy of the old Poland.”


Saturday’s were cultural re-affirmation day for Celina and Stan’s families. The two clans were members of the Polish Century Club. At dusk each Saturday both families crammed in their rusting second hand station wagons and went to the Century Club Hall in Mardi Gras moods, as if the day before Sabbath was Fat Tuesday and Sunday Mass Ash Wednesday.  It was July 3, 1967; a few weeks until the Detroit race riots and mad dog insanity reigned unchecked for three days, five complacent months prior to the ‘68 Tet Offensive, seven months before the first Super Bowl; a year until the first man stood on the Moon. Celina had matured into a curvy, graceful olive skinned Polish Venus at eighteen. Stan, gangly and uncoordinated during puberty, turned into a vigorous, sinuous hormone afflicted nineteen-year-old alpha male three months earlier.

Celina’s mother had the house in order by the time Celina got home with the groceries and two twenty-five cent worn thin second hand paperback novels.

“What timing.” her mother scowled.

“Sorry matka, books--you know I read.” Her mother snorted disapproval at so frivolous a purchase. “Books! Books! Why buy books? Go to the library, but no late fees. Save for the Mass tithe basket, clothes, college,” her mother scolded. Stan’s family gathered at Celina’s for drinks before their weekly exodus to the Hall.


At the Century Club later, the women freely clucked the latest community gossip in Polish. They fretted over the parish priests that drank too heavily from the sacrificial wine casks before they incoherently flubbed through weekday Mass in Latin to the few believers present. Whether the silk robed men were drunk or sober, none of the faithful understood the ancient language anyway.
“Billie Jackobilski is in the Hamtramck jail again for fist fighting, drunk on Stoli vodka at Raymond Dregovich’s bar on Joseph Campau,” Stan’s mother railed.
“The old Reichold Chemical plant in Ferndale had another explosion, killing Tadeusz Szymanski and five others,” Celina’s solemn mother mourned. “Thad left three kids and a wife behind. Those who can not afford to help long term must contribute to a one-time collection for the family.”

“Yes, of course,” Stan’s mother agreed without thinking which of her husband’s skimpy paychecks the donation might come from.

The women nipped from a purse size bottle of Madeira Celina’s mother sneaked in as if the sweet liqueur were eighteen-carat liquid gold: the Club didn’t stock Madeira at the bar. The tired, labor worn fathers, ojciecs, many partisans during the Nazi occupation of Poland, later outlaws when Soviet tanks thundered in, lazed about drinking beer, joking, poking fun at their wives plumping bottoms and thickened waists.

The club gorged on Smalec Hors d’Oeuvres and a full course snowball dinner served from the festive trough of New World prosperity. Stan pecked at the old fashion polish dishes, silently pining for pizza, hot dogs, hamburgers and fries instead.  Celina, soft spoken, mostly silent, dutifully traditional, spoke only Polish at the table. She slowly relished each mouthful of the old homeland dishes. However, no staunch Polonian influences could stop Celina’s overwhelming chemistry from radiating post pubescent female youth. Nothing man made could prohibit her hormones from multiplying, spilling over, gravitating toward Stan. 

Celina sat on Stan’s side of the long fold out table during the communal feast. She helped clear the table, sat back down, angled her chair to face Stan and confronted him with her fresh new woman-hood. Her long, straight black hair shined. Its tips kissed her waist. Her smooth shaved legs emitted a corona like the howling moon. Stan smelled her pheromones a room away. Her autumn brown eyes narrowed to a visual swoon, oozing rich hormones in his direction. Her mini skirt rode up her muscle-toned legs when she sat facing him. She provocatively crossed her right leg over the left; her skirt crept higher, revealing a quick peak at her fluid inner thighs. She angelically stared at him as if she had just reconfigured the four virtues of the Australian Southern Cross. Both families spotted her inviting body language. The mothers excitedly cackled and cooed. The men shared glances of approval. Stan looked up from Celina’s naked legs to the reflective pools of heat in her eyes. She proffered him a Mona Lisa smile, amused by the hypnotic testosterone swelling his eyes.

The adults sipped drinks after dinner; Armada Cream Sherry for the women, the best Polish vodka found Stateside for the men. 

Sam and Celina stayed at the table and continued facing each other. Sam, distracted by Celina’s less than subtle innuendos, paid no attention to the blathering adult’s gathering at the bar. He was so taken by Celina he would have ignored the second flood, or a gun to his head. “I’ll get beer,” he volunteered. 

“None for me,” Celina said. She crossed her left leg over her right, slower than before, as if her limbs spoke paragraphs of her intent. Sam, her lone audience, watched the choreography of her molten thighs, smiled, placed one hand on her knee, caressed her cheek with the other and kissed hershe kissed back. Stan hurried to the bar to fetch a Pabst for himself and cream soda for Celina. Those left at the table sat silent in Stan’s absence. 

Celina absorbed all the implications of his soft touch, his kiss, the pleasant mingling of their tongues. She leaned back on her chair as comfortably limp as surrender gets.
The band started up. Excessive drinking and shameless laughter took place. The crowd danced to traditional Polish Polkas, mazurkas, Chopin etudes with an occasional brew of pop music stirred in for the teens. After guzzling the first beer, Stan wandered to the bar for a second and took a seat while he waited.

Celina got up and slowly flowed across the dance floor like a female Moses in command. She sauntered toward Stan as if her desire had parted the Red Sea for her to reach the other shore. Her black three-inch heels chiseled her taught calf muscles and sculpted her slightly exposed inner thighs, as if she had resurrected Michelangelo to polish them marble smooth. Her skin tone looked recently poured like glistening fluid amber.  Her short tight black skirt revealed every shapely bit of her as if there was no need to undress her ever and expect more.  Her black Chiffon top accented her raven flowing hair like a brook of jet black endlessly spilling from her crown.  Her eyes were two ponds of brown mist, her lips a pout.  She sanctioned he take her hand to dance. “C’mon Stan, playtime is over.  We’re both grown up.  Hold me,” her low throaty voice was as lust laden as a sultry invitation could be. There was no doubt any one in Pole Town would deny this night belonged to them. Her arms surrounded his neck, possessively clutching him. She looked up to him, kissed his cheek. He wrapped both arms around her waist, resting his hands on her hips, kissed her forehead in reply. His testosterone level leapt over tall buildings, the Alps, the Statue of Liberty, yet he knew tonight that there would be nowhere to land. They held each other close, slow dancing through each waltz, love ballad, slow paced étude. They drank together at the bar between dances. They kissed, slid their barstools close as if their mutual lust had permanently welded the chrome steel legs permanently together. Celina whispered Stan an invitation between drinks, “It‘s time they put you and I to bed,” she said. Stan hesitated. He wistfully breathed in her ear, kissed the nape of her neck. They held each other, drank arm in arm.  He smoked his first cigarette with her. Celina asked Stan dance a polka with her.

“It’ll be the last dance for a while, I got drafted. I leave for the Army next week.” Stan said. 

The Red Sea closed. Stan began to drown as if he was Pharaoh’s first charioteer in the chase to corner Moses.  “So that’s what’s wrong with you! It explains this afternoon on the bakery bench. When did you get the news?”

“Yesterday’s mail. You had to know this was coming. I’m nineteen. Everyone my age is going. Celina, I have no antidote for this. Can you take a chance and wait?”

“Oh, of course I’ll wait. Is there another choice?” Stan had no options. The war was an affair practically every American male his age was bound to inherit. “Kocham cię,” Celina said. Stan could not reply. 

Celina left Stan sitting cold at the bar. Her high heals quickly clicked across the polished wood dance floor like raindrops tapping tin. The sea parted again as she crossed to the other shore. The waters imploded head on closing close behind. Stan felt as if she abandoned him in a dingy back alley with no light to guide him to the street. Although Stan’s affection for her glowed bright, the shiny chrome gleam dulled with his admission. Stan sat at the bar the rest of the evening staring at the top shelf liquor. Celina sat on an uncomfortable seat in a row of like seats single girls used while waiting for invitations to dance. No one asked Celina; it was obvious she only danced with Stan. She whimpered, wept, well beyond the last dance, the last drink, her last glance at Stan as he left the Hall with his family.


Stan left for basic training the following Tuesday. In league with five other bay windows on Andrus Street, Stan’s mother immediately hung a two-foot long vertical silk red, white and blue banner decorated with one blue star in her front window.

The Army did not discriminate; all ethnic groups were welcome.  Even first generation U.S. Palonians got invitations to this war. No second generation ‘Hybrids’ ostracized Stan in the Army. The possibility of violent death in combat tends to promote equality among all those facing it. Stan arrived in Hue just in time for Tet. It was the year of the monkey in Vietnam.

Both families kept on living.  They habitually observed the traditional Polish holidays. The Saturday evening family gatherings at the Hall remained a sacred re-assertion of Polonian heritage. The matkas partook of their obligatory nips from hidden bottles of Madeira, gossiped, exchanged old country recipes. The men cajoled their wives for their bulging waistlines and swelling bottoms, swilled Pabst Blue Ribbon and Stolichnaya Vodka, gratefully feasting on their Polish homeland meals. The anointed prospered, moved to the suburbs while Conant Street continued to be Polonian. Celina clung closer to the old country ways. Stan got out of Polonia and never returned. His mother sewed black ribbon diagonally across the blue star banner in her bay window, walked to St. Florian’s church on Poland Street and lit a candle before she prayed.

A native Detroiter, Steve Prusky has lived in Las Vegas  since 1987. His fiction, photography and poetic work have appeared in Camel Saloon, Bactrian Room, Foundling Review, Eunoia Review, Orion headless, Assisi Online Journal, The Legendary, Whistling fire and other publications. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Silk Road Mantra

by Suchoon Mo

bury me not

in the lone Silk Road

I go and go

from west to east

I go and go

from east to west

bury me not

in the lone Silk Road


As of June 25, 2015, The Bactrian Room is closed to submissions.


Search This Blog

Notice of Copyrights

Original material on this site is copyrighted by the authors and artists. No material may be copied or reused without the permission of the respective author or artist.