The buzzer cut the air, loud and long, followed by the rhythm of the punch clock as the third shift at the Bottle & Can left the plant and spilled out onto the street. Some of the guys jumped into cars and sped off home to their families. Others rushed down the road to catch the streetcar on Lakeshore. The rest of us made the short migration over to Ruby’s Place, the unofficial company bar.
I liked that walk. We’d go the back way, through the parking lots behind a few of the old industrial buildings, shooting the shit, smoking, laughing. Most nights I could pick up the different smells spewing from the factories. On winter nights like this one, when the air was crisp, the odours were fugitive, hard to pin down. Later in the year, in the dense heat of July and August, those smells hung heavy in the air. Long Branch, New Toronto, Mimico, there was a lot of work going on in those days.
Before Ruby, it was an old man’s bar, if you know what I mean, the land of broken dreams. We started going over there after work soon after Ruby bought the joint and fixed it up some. She had dart boards and a couple billiard tables put in, and she hired a cook. I didn’t play no darts or billiards, but I did have dinner there every night after work – the special of the day. I’d been on my own longer than I cared to think about, and I wasn’t up for cooking for myself.
I saw Staashu standing at the bar when I walked in. I hadn’t seen him all week, thought he was sick or something.
Hey Lazy, how you doin’?
Me I’m doing OK. How bout you? Where the hell you been hiding?
He took a deep drag on his smoke.
Not you too, man. Sabina already gave me shit.
Oh yeah? You deserve it?
I rode the dog down to Buffalo for a couple days, and I kind of neglected to tell Sabina I was going.
Well it’s long story.
You’re going to pay, brother. She’s not going to buy no long stories.
No doubt. It was important though. I bought a concertina.
Staashu slid off the barstool and bent down to pick up a black box, shaped like a big cube, bigger than a typewriter, smaller than a suitcase. He hoisted it up on the bar and opened it up. Nestled in the padded case, glistening, was a chemnitzer concertina – what we used to call a polka box – and it was beautiful.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph, it’s gorgeous.
Damn right. This one was made in 1974. It’s got a built-in mic and everything. The bellows have been totally redone. The waxes too. Totally overhauled. Damned near perfect condition.
It’s a lot like my old one, isn’t it? Mine’s got STAR BEAUTY in rhinestones across the front just like this, but you remember mine is that funky white pearloid.
I remember Lazy. When I was a kid I thought your concertina was about the most beautiful thing I ever saw. It must have been from the early 60s, eh?
Yeah, 62. Made in Chicago of course. But my question to you, Staashu, is this: what gives? I remember like it was yesterday you told me no more of that polka shit, you were done with it.
I know it.
Remember when you bought that old Hammond C3 when they took down St. Basil’s Church and you made me help you haul that son of a bitch out of there.
You know I still have it, don’t you? Stripped it right down. Got rid of the goddamned modesty panels, cleaned it up, and plugged it into a Leslie cabinet. I played a lot of R&B on that baby.
You thought you were pretty hot shit in those days, Staashu.
I really was pretty hot shit, Lazy.
You haven’t been told today, have you?
Ha, not by you.
So what the hell’s going on? I never thought I’d hear you play the old music again.
Staashu pulled the instrument out of the case and worked the straps up onto his shoulders. A few of the guys saw this and drifted on over. Staash played a chord, then started stomping his foot and singing.
She likes kielbasa – that’s her dish.
She likes kielbasa – better than fish.
Then he started playing, swirling around the melody the way he used to do. It took me right back in time. I taught Staashu concertina, and accordion too, back when I was a working musician. He was my best student if you want the God’s honest truth, and it was obvious he still had his chops. By the time Staashu finished the tune, just about everyone in the bar had gathered around. People were cheering and laughing and clapping. Ruby brought Staashu a shot and a beer, on the house.
By this time Sabina had showed up. Sabina was Staashu’s girl, and they were crazy for each other but you wouldn’t know it the way they argued all the time.
I see he’s brought out his new toy.
It’s beautiful, Sabina.
Yeah well, you’d think he would have called me. Christ I was worried sick and he was down there getting drunk in fucking Polonia.
Dammit Sabina, I saw the ad, and I just couldn’t let it get away.
Why the hell not? Nobody even plays these things anymore.
The thing is I got this idea for a band. A polka band.
Give me a break, Sabina.
You serious Staashu? About a polka band?
Yeah I am, Laze. The thing is it’s not going to be like Honky or Cleveland or nothing like that. Maybe a little like Chicago Push but I want to push the envelope some if you know what I mean. I want to bring polka back from the dead.
You’re crazy man.
That’s what I told him.
Yeah well maybe I am. But I’m gonna need an accordion man, Lazy – a bellows shaker.
Don’t look at me. I haven’t been on a stage in a decade. I’m too old for that shit.
Right, right, you’re an old man now, I forgot. You probably lost your chops years ago. You used to be the best.
I still got my chops.
Bullshit you do.
No, I do. I play all the time. Late at night, when I get home from the bar. I just – I don’t know, I just keep it to myself.
So, what’s your problem?
I don’t have no problem.
So, you’re in?
Christ, Staashu, I don’t know.
C’mon. You in or not?
I downed my shot and chased it with a long swig of ale. I looked at Staashu for a long time.