17 Stories

This site contains 17 mostly very short stories. I published them here as I wrote them and they form a serial – so I recommend you start at the beginning. Follow the menu beginning with The Bottle & Can, Star Beauty, Boom Boom & Ndidi and so on.

I hope you enjoy my little stories. I’m grateful for any comments you may have. Please also visit my blog 27th Street.

Aftermath

Staash picked me up in his beater and we drove downtown to Jerzy Nojinski’s trial, if that’s what you want to call it. Staashu spotted Sabina right away and headed over to the seat beside her. I thought oh Jesus they’re going to make a big scene here in the courtroom but she gave him a hug and held his hand as Jerzy pleaded guilty to defrauding the union. White collar crime in a blue collar organization. 5 years. Guilty Your Honour, and that was all she wrote.

The New Polka Kings were done. Our manager Bananas Foster abandoned ship, disappeared as if he had never been around. Nobody would book the band – we were poison on the music scene. It seemed that everybody was afraid of the record company. Advice to up-and-coming musicians: punching out your record producer is a bad career move. Still I didn’t blame Staash and neither did the others. It was time to move on, whatever that meant.

Maggie took a bartending job at Ruby’s to make ends meet for a while. I was spending plenty of time there so I saw her around most every day. Ndidi and Boom Boom took over our practice space in the old Polish Hall and started rehearsing an Afro-beat band. Much to my surprise, Staashu and Sabina got back together and took off on road-trip somewhere down in the southern States. I didn’t see him again for months.

After a couple weeks drinking too much and feeling sorry for myself, I realized I didn’t want to stop playing music. Nobody was rushing to hire me, so I picked up the big accordion and hauled it down to Kensington Market to do some busking. I set up in front of a suit discounter and played every day until my fingers swelled and my bones ached. When the market was busy I did pretty good in tips. I liked the routine too, and started referring to my little piece of sidewalk as my office.

That’s where Dakota tracked me down. She came walking up Baldwin and around the corner, big smile on her face. I thought she was beautiful. Still do.

Lazy Goddam Allen.

That’s me.

The bartender at Ruby’s told me where to find you.

Oh you mean Maggie? So what brings you to Kensington Market looking for a washed up bellows-shaker?

Can I buy you lunch?

Sure, I can use a break.

You sound damn fine by the way.

I dropped my tips into the little rucksack I carried around and stuffed the accordion back in its case. I couldn’t help but notice Dakota was carrying an accordion case with her as well, hers considerably smaller than mine. Bet it’s a triple-row diatonic, I thought to myself. We found a café and ordered up burgers and beers.

I learned Dakota was fronting a band doing some kind of blend of Swamp Pop, Zydeco and Tex-Mex, and her squeezebox of choice was indeed a triple-row. Vintage Hohner Corona II.

We’re just starting out, playing around town. You guys paved the way for us, you know. Before NPK nobody wanted nothing to do with squeezeboxes.

I had no idea.

100% true. I got a bit of a problem though. Bad reed on my Corona.

The guy up on Eglinton is the best in town. He’ll fix you up.

He’s all backed up Lazy. It’s going to be a week and a half before he looks at it. I got a gig Saturday and I can’t afford another box. I started asking around and your name kept coming up. Any way you help me out?

Back when I was playing the polka circuit, I did all my own repairs. I still had all my tools and a bunch of reeds packed up in the basement somewhere. It was going to be a pain in the ass to pull everything out, though, and anyway I hadn’t worked on a diatonic box in years. I took a deep breath.

I’ll try. Bring it by my house tomorrow noon.

Really? That’s awesome. Thanks so much Lazy.

Don’t thank me yet. It’s been a long time since I worked on one of these.

Dakota showed up at noon on the dot with a six pack and sandwiches. I’d spent the morning digging things out and setting up a little workbench in the basement. Taking apart her instrument was the easy part. Besides the broken reed, some of the waxes holding the reeds in place had gone brittle and were starting to break off. The wax job was easy. The reed was another story. I had plenty of piano accordion reeds but nothing that was going fit this little diatonic box and there was no place to get one on short notice. There was nothing to be done but cannibalize another reed and make what we needed. For me, that was some tricky work.

While I was busy trying to fashion a new reed, Dakota was like a kid in a candy store, messing about with my accordions and other instruments. Turns out she could play anything and play it well. A real natural. I was already crazy about her.

It took me hours to replace that damned reed. While I was at it, I replaced some worn bellows tape and fixed the action on the button board. Those old Hohner Corona IIs are great little instruments but there’s a bit of a design flaw. When you play, the buttons sink too deep into the framework, making them noisy and too slow. I used some thick felt to restrict the action so that each button sat flush with the button-board when depressed.

Dakota watched me reassemble the instrument.

Well?

I handed her the accordion. Dakota strapped it on, tested the new reed (it sounded true and good) and started right into Shake, Rattle and Roll. I pulled on my big accordion and started playing along, tentatively at first, finally finding the groove.

The Producer

Back in my day – I mean my first time around as a musician – making a record meant gathering the band around a microphone and playing your heart out. We’d work out all the arrangements and rehearse the hell out of any tune we wanted to record, you know feel it in our bones before we ever walked into the studio. The idea was to get it down as quickly as possible. We always figured every time we had to do another take, the tune would lose a little something. Somewhere along the way things changed.

The New Polka Kings – everybody was calling us NPK by this point – walked into T-West Sounds on September 14, 1982. I remember the date because it was my birthday. Our crazy-assed manager Bananas Foster really came through for us and set up a recording deal. We were over the moon. NPK was headed for the big time or so we thought.

Timing was perfect, too. Me and Staashu had been working at the Bottle & Can to make ends meet and I guess you know the story, the strike and all that. We had just found out the wigs who ran the joint decided to shut down Canadian operations completely and move to Mexico. That meant no more straight job to fall back on for me and Staash. It also meant hundreds of good men and women without work, but that’s another story.

T-West Sounds was located in an old coach house behind a kitchen contractor on Ossington Avenue, south of Dundas. The place was discreet, I guess you could say. The entrance was from the alley. There was no sign, just a number spray-painted on the door. Lots of big acts recorded there over the years and no one was the wiser.

The record company sent up a producer from LA, a guy who called himself Ricky Diamond. He had his name on all kinds of big records. The guy was a piece of work though, let me tell you. He showed up with his poofed-up hair, his black Armani suit, his cocaine, and his bad attitude. We shook hands all around, and Diamond handed me and Staash binders.

What are these?

Your songs. Learn them.

We already got songs.

Yeah, I heard the demo that Bananas guy sent down. Is that really his name? It doesn’t matter. We’ll be recording these instead.

Um, the idea is, we’re the band and we do our songs, eh.

Yeah well, I’m the producer, and we’ll be recording these, ok?

No it’s not ok.

Look Dudas, my job is to make a record that will sell and that’s what I’m fucking going to do. If you think this is about you, you’re just wrong.

We got off to a bad start and it went downhill from there. Next thing we found out we couldn’t record together as a band. Ricky planned to lay down individual tracks and build up his “sound” behind the mixing board. To him, we were just raw material. Then he tells us he was bringing in session musicians from LA.

Fuck that.

Take a breath Staashu.

This is bullshit.

Listen, we’re here, we should give this guy a chance.

Jesus Lazy, he’s sucking the soul from this band and we haven’t played a note yet.

Bananas Foster wandered in, all smiles. We dragged him outside for a conference.

Do you want a list of the hit records this guy produced? He knows what he’s doing.

You think we don’t? It’s our goddamned band.

Of course its your band, but these guys are in the business of taking a sound and adapting it for a larger audience. That’s what we all want, right? You want to eek out a living playing bars for the next 10 years?

I just want to make a record.

You’re in the big leagues now. You got to make compromises.

Screw compromises.

And you did sign a contract. They have final say on everything.

Come on man.

Look, you got to give the guy a chance.

We tried. You need to know that. We showed up and did what this guy wanted for 3 days, but we hated every minute of it. You also got to know this Diamond guy may have been a famous pop music producer but he was also a grade A asshole. It wasn’t just me and Staash, either. Maggie was pissed off. Ndidi and Boom-Boom were totally frustrated too because they were being pushed to the sidelines in favour of session players.

By the third day, Staash was beside himself. I’d known him most of his life and I never seen him angry like that. Diamond had him recording a concertina break over and over and over, and well, Staash was right, he had it nailed.

Alright Dudas, one more time. Let’s get it right this time please.

Diamond insisted on calling Staashu by his last name. I think he did it on purpose to rattle Staash’s chains.

Finally, Staashu took off his concertina and his headset and called together the band.

You know I love you guys, right?

No doubt Staash. Take a break, man. Have a beer.

Laze, look after my concertina, will you?

What are you going to do Staashu? Just don’t…

Hey Dudas, what are waiting for. Time is money, man.

Staash gave me a big hug and walked over to the door separating the booth from the players. He stepped into the room as Ricky Diamond was snorting back a long line of cocaine.

What are you doing Dudas? Get back out there.

Ricky Diamond didn’t see the haymaker until Staashu’s fist smashed into his nose. One was plenty enough, but Staash took two more shots, knocking Diamond into the mixing board.

Staashu stood over the producer, staring him down, blood in his eyes.

That’s Mister Dudas to you.

Staashu dusted himself off, saluted us through the glass, and left the building.

The rest of us quietly put away our instruments in silence. Diamond pulled himself up, stared at us for a minute, then stormed off. We never saw him again.

That, my friend, was the beginning and the end of our recording career.

 

 

 

True North

Gravenhurst. Huntsville. North Bay. Sudbury. Gogama. Chapleau. Wawa. White River. Marathon. Thunder Bay. Our crazy-assed manager Bananas Foster booked The New Polka Kings into joints across Northern Ontario. And it was a kick too, let me tell you. Those were some of the best days I had with the band.

We had this beat up old school bus, plenty big enough to hold the band and all our crap. It was a real old shitter if you know what I mean, with one of those engines that just ran forever. What it didn’t do was go fast, and it seemed like we spent a sonofabitchin lot of time rattling around in that thing.

In the city we had some good crowds, especially since the punkers kind of adopted us, but up in those northern mining towns and pulp and paper towns, it was always a fantastic party. I don’t know, Maybe The Kings just connected with northern audiences in some special way or maybe it’s like that for rock bands playing up there too. I just know I loved every minute of it.

One night we were playing in, oh Jesus I can’t remember which town now. It was at some joint with a name like the Empire Hotel, and if it wasn’t the only bar in town it was one of maybe two. The band was cooking, and the dance floor was crowded and everyone was just having a great time.

Between sets, we were standing around, chatting with the locals, and I see this big guy lumbering towards me. He’s got an armful of beers, Labatts 50s if it matters, and when I say an armful, I mean he’s got to have more than a dozen bottles and he’s locked his arms around them and he’s somehow holding them up by pressure or maybe divine intervention. I could see he was aiming for a table just past where we were standing. His buddies were over there, laughing and having a good time. I’m seeing all this while I’m talking to somebody about his Uncle Clem who used to play accordion. Anyway, this guy is just a couple feet in front of me and he stubs his toe on something and he’s lost his balance and I can see he’s going to go ass over tea kettle, beers akimbo.

I abandoned Clem’s nephew and pivoted around and grabbed this guy and his beers, but the beers were popping out and we were spinning around and and the both of us were grabbing bottles. Staashu saw what was going on and he joined our crazy little dance. The three of us somehow or another spun to a stop over at the guy’s table without spilling a drop.

I guess a bunch of people noticed what was going on because they started to cheer and once a few people started to cheer, everybody started to cheer. Beer guy, who was very drunk, held up a bottle and shouted at the top of his lungs “POLKA IS GOD” then drained his beer in one fabulous gulp. The crowd cheered so he did it again and at this point everybody is clapping together and I look at beer guy and I can see the glint in his eye and I know he’s not done yet.

Beer guy grabbed another bottle of 50 and danced his way onto the stage, with the crowd urging him on. He started into a drunken parody of a burlesque dancer, and began stripping off his clothes, first shoes, then socks, then shirt and  trousers. He was whirling the clothing around his head, hurling each item from the stage into the cheering crowd. Buddy was down to his jockeys by the time his friends led him down from the stage toward the front door of the bar.

I turned to Staash and said I think it’s time to play some music, and we headed for the stage. Ndidi, Boom-Boom and Maggie were right behind us. Well the crowd was amped right up and everyone was dancing and having a fantastic time. Man what a set.

At the end of the night, I was exhausted, dragging my ass down the three steps from the stage, when this woman approached me, and she’s got one of beer guy’s socks and one of those heavy duty black markers and she wants me to autograph the sock, which of course I did. In fact I got the whole band to sign it. Why the hell not.

Now I never thought another thing about that sock until one day a guy I know calls me up and says there’s a New Polka Kings bootleg out. I didn’t know anything about it and Staashu didn’t know nothing either, so I go down to where he tells me and it’s a head shop on Yonge Street. Seriously, a head shop, where they sell bongs and shit. I go in there and I say, um do u sell records? And the guy he looks at me like I’m from Mars and points to a corner at the back of the place.

There it was, right at the front of the rack. The back cover had a picture of our old bus, and on the front there were 3 letters across the top – NPK – and below that, a photo of the sock, with all our signatures on it.

The Fall

Once the New Polka Kings started gigging, the project became all-consuming for Staashu. It was no surprise to anyone when Sabina finally packed him in. From what I could see, Staashu had been ignoring her for months. If I’m going to be drop-dead honest with you, I don’t think Staash was ever the kind of guy who put a lot of effort into relationships. He seemed surprised Sabina left, but if he was upset about it he didn’t show it.

Sabina and Staashu, they were an unusual couple. Any old fool could see the spark, the magnetism between them, but their relationship was volatile. At their happiest, they were arguing all the time. I never seen anything like it. When The Kings started to take off, though, all Staash wanted to do was rehearse, write, arrange and play. Everything was about the band. I’ll admit I was swept up in it too. I mean we were really starting to cook, and we were fast becoming known as the best party band around.  I suppose when the arguments stopped, it was the first sign of trouble.

The break-up hardly phased Staashu, but when Sabina took up with Jerzy Nojinsky, that stopped him in his tracks. Staashu had a hate-on for Jerzy. Me and Staash, we still worked for the Bottle & Can, although you wouldn’t know it with the strike going on so long. Jerzy headed up the local union, see. He was like some kind of workers’ evangelist, by all appearances a real zealot – but appearances can be deceiving.

At the Bottle & Can, everyone swore Jerzy was the real deal. He was super-active in the union, the kind of guy who returned your phone call, and took on your fight, and eventually he was elected president of the local. Employees who found themselves in a heap of trouble had nothing but good things to say about Jerzy Nojinsky.  I knew him from the old neighbourhood, though, from back in the day, and I didn’t believe it for a minute. All his life, anything Jerzy touched somehow or other turned to shit.

When the strike started, Jerzy was all over the papers and TV, fighting the good fight, speaking up for the little guy and all that jazz. Both sides dug in their heels though, and by the third week of the strike the story lost its currency. Those workers who still showed up to picket were getting strike pay, but word had it there wasn’t much left in the coffers. We were also hearing rumblings the Bottle & Can were going to pack up Canadian operations completely and retreat to someplace where there weren’t any unions. The whole thing was a mess. By that time though, we were gigging all the time so at least me and Staash, we were putting bread on the table.

Sabina was by Jerzy’s side that morning the cops came for him. They hand-cuffed him in the hallway outside his apartment and led him away to a waiting police car.

Jerzy stood accused of an elaborate scheme. He was creating fake contractors and billing the union local for imaginary jobs, all this over a two year period. The union had a sign-off protocol to prevent any shenanigans. Any expense over $500 had to be signed off by a member of the executive. Once Jerzy got himself elected, he simply signed off the invoices he created. He was draining the union dry.

Jerzy almost didn’t get caught.  It turned out an honest math error triggered a tax audit. The auditor smelled something fishy and he was one of those bulldogs who dug and dug and dug. The day after the arrest, the Bottle & Can announced the immediate closure of Canadian operations.

I wanted to go over to Ruby’s Place and get drunk with the guys I used to work with, but instead I was helping the band load up an old school bus with our instruments and amps and clothes and whatnot. Our manager Bananas Foster had booked The New Polka Kings on a whirlwind tour of Northern Ontario. By the time Sabina showed up at the practice space looking for Staashu, we were halfway to Gogama.

 

 

 

Bananas Foster

Gomer Kendrick Foster. Nobody ever called him Gomer, though. He was known in the music business as Bananas, like the dessert. Foster was an impresario, promoter, manager and general mover and shaker in the Toronto music scene. Legend had it he set up countless record deals and made more than a few careers. Even back when I was on the polka circuit I’d heard Bananas Foster stories, but you have to understand the polka scene was its own universe, and it was strictly meat and potatoes – no dessert.

Bananas Foster was the furthest thing from my mind that night at The Shoe. By this time, we were playing 4, sometimes 5 nights a week. We were the New Polka Kings but we were becoming known around Toronto as simply NPK. We’d been traveling around, playing anywhere Staash could book a gig within 3 and 4 hours drive of Toronto. It was all word of mouth, no marketing, no nothing, and it came at just the right time, because the strike at the Bottle & Can where me and Staashu worked, showed no sign of settling. Any cash we could get our hands on was welcome, believe you me.

People called us polka-punk and I guess that’s as good a way to describe the music as any – if nothing will do but you need to attach a label to it – nobody in the band ever used that term though, as far as I know. I mean, in a way, sure I guess we were a hopped up polka outfit, but we weren’t trying to put a box around what we did. You could hear elements of all kinds of music in our repertoire – punk and polka sure, but also Zydeco, Tex-Mex, R&B, Irish folk tunes, 60s pop music – we were all over the map, and we were having a blast developing our own sound. Besides, I was way too old to be a punk.

Playing The Shoe was like a graduation for us. We were moving up to bigger clubs. I guess you know you’re having some degree of success when the kids from the suburbs start coming out to your shows. We just wanted to fill the club, do our thing and get everyone dancing, and we were getting gigs so I guess we were doing something right.

It was after the second set. We were sitting backstage, chilling. I was sore and tired, I can tell you, and at that time it seemed I was pretty much always sore and tired. Back in my first go-round as a musician, I had the energy to play all night every night without paying for it later. These days I was OK while I was playing, but when I stopped and slipped the big accordion off my shoulders, man, I really felt its weight.

Like I said, it was after the second set. It was hot and really close in the club. I was covered in sweat, happy to have thought about bringing along a change of clothes. We were having a great night. I mean we were on fire out there, and the dance floor was packed, punkers in the centre by the stage, and off to the sides, the kids from the burbs trying to approximate the polka.

There were a couple people I didn’t know in the dressing room, friends of Ndidi and Boom-Boom, our rhythm section. We were draining bottles of Labatt’s 50, re-hydrating you might say. Our guitar player Maggie rolled up some reefer and sparked it up. I was going over a couple arrangements for the third set with Staashu.

The door to the dressing room burst open, and there stood a big man, scanning the room. He must have been six-seven or maybe even taller, stocky, dark-skinned. He had the biggest hands of anyone I’d ever seen. And he was wearing this get-up – I don’t know what else to call it but a get-up.

He had a white 10-gallon cowboy hat perched on his massive round noggin and snake-skin cowboy boots with brass tips on his equally huge feet. In between, he was wearing one of those Nudie Suits like Hank Snow and Buck Owens wore, except this one was more like Hank Snow on acid if you asked me. It had everything you could imagine going on, flowers and stars and musical notes and God knows what else, all arranged in an insane stew of gaudy rhinestones, glitter and tapestry.

Everyone in the room stopped talking and stared at the big man in the doorway. He worked the silence for several seconds and when he finally spoke, his voice was a deep, loud baritone, revealing just a hint of an accent from somewhere down in the Caribbean.

My name is Foster, Bananas Foster, and I’m going to make you famous.

Superheros

You get that notice from the union?

You mean the “you better picket or else” notice? Yeah, I got it.

You going?

I don’t know. You?

Jesus I don’t know. It’s not like I got a personal strike fund.

Me either. We got the gig Saturday night though and I got us two more lined up. That’s something.

Something, but not nearly enough to live on yet. That article sure helped though.

I’ll say. I had no idea The Sun even sent someone.

New Polka Kings Invade Punk Scene. The Sun gave us a quarter page including a picture of Maggie diving into a sea of dancers. Now that was a sight to behold.  Everyone was on the dance floor by that point, not exactly dancing the polka, but getting as close as this crowd was ever going to get.

By that time I was running on pure adrenaline. This was the first time I’d played a show in a decade and my body was protesting big time. I was hot and sweaty, and my fingers were swelling too. Now we were playing away and we had this fantastic groove happening when suddenly the guitar cut out of the mix. I glanced over to see what happened and there was Maggie taking off her guitar. I figured what she had in mind, but there was no stopping her. Two strides and she launched herself off the stage, her arms outstretched like some kind of polka superhero. If she had planned it, she didn’t tell anyone. The rest of us just kept on playing.

The gig at the Boneyard had come up fast and we didn’t even have a proper name yet, so we were billed as The Staash Dudas Band. That changed right after the article. Now we were The New Polka Kings, NPK for short, and people were talking about us. That was exciting and all, but the truth was we were still starting out. With the strike at the Bottle & Can, me and Staash – who both worked there to make ends meet – had to think about how we were going to put bread on the table. I didn’t much want to walk a picket line but I didn’t see a lot of options.

That afternoon I met Staashu for lunch and a few beers over at Ruby’s, and we walked down to the picket line together, both of us complaining about how we’d rather be anywhere else. Some of the guys were doing it out of a sense of solidarity. Others were scared the union reps would target them later if they didn’t picket. Me and Staash, we were doing it for the strike pay.

It was chaos down there if you know what I mean. The afternoon shift managers and soops were starting to cross the line and the picketers were giving them a hard time, trying to stop them from crossing. There were maybe a dozen hardcore strikers on the line stirring up trouble and there were a lot of workers down there who were seriously liquored up. It was so strange seeing how people, really mild-mannered people, people you know, can get so aggressive on a picket line. The whole scene smelled ugly. Staashu’s gal Sabina saw us and waived us over.

What’s happening?

We got word they’re bringing in scabs.

Really? When?

I don’t know. Anytime. I’m glad you’re here.

There’s a lot of drinking going on here.

What do you expect?

I don’t know. People do stupid things when they’re drunk.

And you haven’t been drinking?

Well yeah, but we only had 3 or 4 beers over at Ruby’s.

She laughed.

Don’t worry. It’s under control.

Shit, what’s that?

We heard the telltale clip-clop of horses and sure enough, 4 cops on horseback were slowly riding up the road.

Christ they’re bringing in the fucking cavalry.

The crowd of picketers pushed forward as the riders approached. Sabina rushed into the mix. There was chanting and shouting and the usual union sing-songs erupted from the crowd. The cops sat silently up on their horses, flanking the roadway. More cops poured out of a van and lined the street. It was happening. A bus filled with scabs turned the corner and that’s when it all went to Hell.

The whole thing happened in a blink of an eye. First there was a frantic ebb and flow as picketers tried to block the road and police pushed them back. The bus crept forward inches at a time. Somebody behind the line hurled a brick, smashing the front window. Glass rained down on picketers and the police. The cops on horses pulled out billy clubs. More shouting, then a horrible scream and a horse collapsed, stabbed with a shard of glass.

The cops went crazy when the horse fell, and started beating on picketers, throwing them to the ground, cuffing them, whacking them with their nasty little clubs. Paddy wagons pulled up. More cops. I never seen so many cops.

Lazy, I don’t see Sabina.

Me either Staash. Last I saw she was in the crowd by the road.

Aw Christ, man.

Staash started pushing his way into the crowd with me at his heels, but we ran into a wall of cops who shoved us back.

Sabina…. Sabina…. Has anyone seen Sabina?

There! She’s over there. The cops got her.

Sabina’s hands were cuffed behind her back. A burly uniformed officer dragged her toward the open doors of a paddy wagon and Sabina she was fighting and kicking all the way. A second cop joined the first, picked Sabina up and tossed her into the back of the van.

I saw Sabina spit in the cop’s face as he slammed shut the paddy wagon door.