Nothing changed. The lines clunked and banged and clinked and rattled their way along with occasional human interventions, no beginning, no end, save the buzzer setting us free to truck on over to the bar. Each day was one unending stream of factory life, not good, not bad, not anything.
The Bottle & Can was a union shop and those old-school union characters they took themselves very seriously. Everybody on the line was Brother this or Sister that and anyone upstairs was The Boss. Some of those guys knew them goddamned Pete Seeger songs by heart, you know, Joe Hill and Solidarity Forever. I didn’t put much stock in that union business myself. Hell, I’d never held a straight job in my life until I signed on at the plant – but I wasn’t complaining neither. I needed the steady work and the sick benefits and the dental plan and all the trimmings. I had the little bungalow – inherited that from my ma, so at least I had a roof over my head. I never saved much money playing in bands, though, and without gigging, what I did have was disappearing fast.
To be honest, that job saved my bacon. The union made it its business to protect the workers from any kind of unfair treatment and you really had to go out of your way to get yourself fired. Of course they also looked after the misfits and fuck-ups and no-accounts and junkers and even washed up accordion players like me. Equal treatment and all that jazz. When I signed on I needed a heavy dose of equal treatment, believe-you-me.
You can call me Lazy; everyone else does. It don’t mean I’m lazy with a small L, you know. It’s short for Lazarus. Lazarus Allen Czerwinski, that’s my name. Back in the day, when I was playing in the polka bands, I was just Lazy Allen. I even had my own band for a while, Lazy Allen and the Rockets. Yes sir. We played down in the States, up and down the Rust Belt and we toured Canada too, across the north, playing dive bars in all those mining towns and pulp-and-paper towns.
I had a hot band too, all good players. There was Sammy Bosco on concertina. He had this really flowing style, top notch man on the polka box. He’d do these insanely long, ornate high melody runs. I loved the way he played that thing. I was the bellows shaker, which is what we called the accordion player on account of the accordion emphasized the rhythm for the dancers. We had two brothers, Johnny and Jerry Malinowski – we called them the Raspberry Brothers – on drums and bull fiddle. They’re both gone now, God bless them both. Then finally, we had two kick-ass trumpet players, Bobby Friday, and Polly Pasternak. They were jazz players who moved back to polka because back then we were getting the work. Those were some times. Even today I can hear that band playing in my head.
I suppose thought I’d just go on playing music for the rest of my life. I never did anything else, and I wasn’t any good at anything else for that matter, but in the end it didn’t happen that way. Even now, a dozen years later, I’m not sure just what did happen. I was burned out, that much is for sure. Being on the road all that time is hard on your soul. And I was drinking more than my share, I’ll admit that too. The way I remember it now, I just felt tired, tired of everything.
Times changed. Used to be we could get all kinds of gigs playing dances and bars and so on, but it all started drying up at the end of the 60s. There came a point we couldn’t get enough bookings to cobble together a tour. Everyone wanted rock bands and the accordion was going the way of the do-do in the popular imagination, if you know what I mean. Sure, polka still thrived in small pockets, in the Polish and Czech areas in the big industrial towns in the States especially, in Buffalo and Cleveland and over in Chicago. It was a different story up here in Canada. The whole scene was pretty much winding down.
I got the interview at the Bottle & Can thanks to Staashu Dudas putting in a good word for me. He’d already been working the line 2 maybe 3 years. It ain’t all that bad is what he told me. Steady. Fair pay, benefits. Staash was a musician too, and that’s a whole other story. I admit the thought crossed my mind the Bottle & Can was maybe where washed up musicians go to die. I didn’t dwell on it too long though. I was running out of money and I was mostly sitting around the house drinking every day, and I knew that was just going to kill me if I didn’t get it under control. Staash came around and said he’d put in a good word for me at the Bottle & Can so I thought what the hell and I went down there and got an application form and filled it out.
A week later I got called in for the first and only honest to God job interview I ever had. I didn’t know what to expect. Staash just told me to go in and tell them I’ll do a good job. Don’t worry, you’ll be fine is what he said.
So I went in, and the receptionist sat me down and told me to wait, which I did, and twenty minutes later she leads me into this boardroom. I was like a fish out of water and I’ll tell you I was some nervous.
They had me sit on one side of a long rectangular table and on the other there was this guy wearing a suit, but he looked really uncomfortable in it, if you know what I mean, Iike he only wore it when he had to do job interviews. It turned out he was the plant manager, the head honcho for the Toronto division, name of Walter Martin.
Sitting beside him was a woman from the staffing department. She was all proper and businesslike and no-nonsense. I can’t recall her name now after all these years. I don’t think I ever saw her more than a few times after that interview.
The woman started the interview. Mr Czerwinski, I don’t see your resume here. Did you bring along a copy? Now I had no idea what the hell she was talking about. I’d never seen a resume in my life. Staashu just said to fill in the application, that’s it. No I’m sorry, I didn’t bring an extra copy, I said, implying that I actually had one.
The plant manager cut in. Lazarus, ok if I call you Lazarus? I wanted to say just call me Lazy but I thought maybe it wasn’t so good to call yourself Lazy at a job interview. What kind of experience do you have? Well to be honest I’ve never worked in a bottling plant before. I see, what other kinds of work have you done? I’m a musician. You’re a musician. Yes, I play accordion mostly and some polka box, you know, concertina, and piano and organ, and I can fill in on drums in a pinch. I’ve played in a bunch of polka bands here and down in the States too. I can also do arrangements pretty good, for horns and such.
You’ve played music in the States, but you’re Canadian? Yes sir, I got my Canadian citizenship in 58. I was born in Poland and came over with my folks when I was a boy. I didn’t like the way this was going. I never had no work visa for the States or nothing like that. It was all about cash money. There was no need for me to worry on that account though. I think they were just trying to figure me out, figure out what the hell I was doing there. At that moment I was trying to figure it out too.
They kept asking me about my work experience, like they never seen a guy who’d never worked for the man. I must have seemed like some kind of freak to them. Well, I’ve mostly just been a musician. You’ve never done factory work before? No sir. It sounds like music is what you should really be doing. How come you want a job here? What could I tell him? I’m looking to settle down, I said. I’ve been on the road playing in bands for a long time. I thought it would be good to stay in one place for a while.
I wanted to tell him, look man the job can’t be so hard and I need the coin, but I knew that was a bad idea. My knees were starting to shake and I jammed them together to steady myself. Mr. Martin, I’ll do a great job for you, I really will. My friend Staashu Dudas can vouch for me. Staashu Dudas? Yes, he works afternoons on the line. Staash says this is a great place to work. I see. By the look on his face, though, he didn’t see. I think he had no idea who Staashu was.
Well thank you for coming in Mr. Czerwinski. We’ll call you once we’ve made our decision.
I shook hands with both of them and figured that was the end of that. Why would they hire a guy with zero experience to work on a production line in a bottling plant? Two days later I got the call. When can you start? Well when do you want me? Immediately? Yes, yes I can work afternoons. Ok, tomorrow at 3:30. Thank you, I’ll be there. I never did find out why they decided to hire me.