The Boneyard

I was dreaming. We were on stage but it was some dive I’d never played before. Staashu was sitting down, playing concertina. I was behind his left shoulder with my big accordion. Maggie was there, wearing her Stratocaster and her Ramones t-shirt. Ndidi and Boom Boom were driving home the rhythm, loud and edgy. We were not your average polka band.

I was lost in the rhythm, shaking the bellows and man we were rocking. The dance floor was full and everyone was having a good time. Now this is where it gets strange. Everyone in the audience and everyone in the band, everyone except me – looked dead. Dead – like in some kind of cliché Hollywood way. It was like we were trapped in a bad zombie movie. Everyone was dancing and having a good time, but in my dream I was certain everyone was dead. I started laughing because it was such an absurd image, but nobody was laughing along with me. And then the music started changing. Boom Boom’s bass drum got louder and louder and all the other instruments got quieter and quieter until all I could hear was the loud thumping of the beat. Thumpa Thumpa Thumpa Thumpa.

I opened my eyes and the beat of the drum became a banging on my front door. My mouth was dry and my lips felt crusty. Every bang on the door echoed around my skull.

Go away!

Lazy, are you in there?

Go away! I don’t want any.

Lazy wake up, man. Wake up! It’s me, Staashu.

Aw man. My head hurts. What time is it?

Lazy, open the door. It’s 7 PM. You were supposed to have all the equipment down at The Boneyard an hour ago.

Aw Hell.

I staggered out of bed, pulled on a robe and opened the door.

What the fuck, Lazy? Jesus Christ, you look rough. What time did you stop drinkin’?

I don’t know.

We got a gig tonight, as if you didn’t know.

Aw fuck, Staashu. About that….

Don’t aw fuck Staashu me, Lazy, pull yourself together.

I can’t do this, Staash.

The Hell you can’t.

Just go away and leave me alone.

Get it together Lazy. I’m not going anywhere.

Geez man, I can’t do this.

Staashu started opening and closing cupboards in the kitchen. Where do you keep the coffee?

In the…it’s in the bottom cupboard.

Go take a shower.

I need to sleep.

Go take a goddamned shower. We don’t have much time.

Reality began to sink in. We had a gig, our first gig, at an old dance hall called The Boneyard, a place that featured a steady diet of punk acts these days. I was supposed to pick up all the amps and other equipment from the practice space at the Polish Hall and get it over to the gig and start setting up. This was not my finest hour.

I don’t know what happened, Staashu.

He shot me a look, a really nasty one. I tried to duck but was way too slow.

I um…

Just go shower. I’ll have coffee ready.

Unfortunately the shower neither eased my mind nor made the pounding in my head go away. By the time I emerged, Staashu had coffee and a sandwich ready for me. He took the Crown Royal dead soldier from the kitchen table and tossed it in the garbage.

I can’t do this. I haven’t been on stage in a decade.

You should have thought about that before joining the band, Lazy. We’re counting on you.

Staashu…

You’re gonna play.

Staash…

You’re gonna play. You’re gonna drag your sorry ass on stage and play your heart out. Then if you want to quit, quit, no hard feelings. Tonight you’re gonna play.

The truth was, I was scared, damned scared. I’d been on stage hundreds of times but today I was terrified. When I quit the music business I was running on empty, burnt out. I thought I was finished. I felt old. Of course, compared to the rest of the band, I really was old. What the Hell did I think I was doing?

We didn’t talk on the drive over to The Boneyard. I let my mind drift back to the last gigs I played all those years ago. It was a very dark time in my life, one I didn’t think about often. There was one thing, though, I could recall with certainty. People stopped coming to hear us play. That’s what finally finished it. People stopped coming.

It was obvious as we approached The Boneyard attendance wasn’t going to be tonight’s problem. Ndidi and Boom Boom had spread the word to all their friends, and it seemed like every punker in the city had come out for our little polka party.

Inside, I could see all our equipment was on stage and set up. Staash must have sent someone else to fetch it when I didn’t show. We walked back to the dressing room. I took a step in and just stood there, ready to take whatever abuse the band was going to hurl at me. I was feeling like an idiot. Maggie got up and gave me a big hug. Ndidi just grinned. Boom Boom looked at me and slowly nodded.

Fuckin’ eh. You’re here.

Yeah, I’m here. All those punkers out there know we’re a polka band, right?

Don’t worry about it. Just play hard like we been doing.

Staash gathered us around to go over the set list. His plan was to start the show with a long double-speed rendition of Who Stole the Kishka. We need to fill the dance-floor from the first tune. Take no prisoners, that’s what he said. My head hurt and I wanted to puke, but I didn’t. There was no place to hide.

We walked out on-stage without an introduction – which was ok since we didn’t even have a name yet. I could feel the party atmosphere in the air. The crowd, all decked out in leather and those Mohawk hairdos were loud and boisterous and clearly out for a party.

There was no turning back. The pounding in my head disappeared as I hoisted my big 35 pound accordion onto my shoulders and plugged in. Maggie and Ndidi faced one another and tuned. Maggie’s Strat was cranked right up, crackling at the edge of feedback. I turned to the drums and nodded. Boom Boom broke into an extended, intense roll then stopped it hard. I held out my arms, taking in the silence, counting to myself, seven, eight, nine, ten. Whoops and hollers from the crowd. Wait. Wait. Another second, the tension unbearable. I leaned into the mic.

One and two and….

 

 

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Wildcat

Doug Donagal drove his forklift off the high dock at the Bottle & Can at 9:43 PM Thursday May 20, 1982. He died instantly. Three hours later, the union announced the first wildcat strike in the company’s history. It never should have happened.

The first thing you have to understand is that contract negotiations were heating up. The company planned to introduce more mechanization and that meant fewer jobs and the union was fighting it like John Henry and the steam drill. We all figured a strike was inevitable later that summer, but Doug Donagal changed everything.

I didn’t know Dougie all that well. He mostly kept to himself, did his job. Outside of work the only interaction we had was when he asked me to look at an old accordion he was thinking of buying for his kid. It turned out the thing was a tank, barely playable. I made a few calls and found him a pretty good student model. It was an old box, but it was in tune, the waxes were solid, the bellows hardly leaked, and it was pretty responsive. The best thing was I got it for him at half the price of the junker he was looking at. Now, I have to tell you there was a bit of a downside to that story. His ex was all pissed off because Dougie bought the kid an accordion. Said it was too noisy, too this, too that, she didn’t have time to take him for lessons, and so on. She wanted him to take it back, but he wanted his son to play accordion. I respected him for that.

Have you ever worked in a place that was close to a strike? I can tell you there was a serious lot of tension in the air all spring at the Bottle & Can. The union and the company were trading propaganda back and forth, the usual crap. I was pretty sure neither side was being up front with us. Then on the Monday of that week – on the midnight shift – a conveyor collapsed, stopping production for hours. By some kind of miracle nobody was hurt. Management investigated and told the union they suspected sabotage. Jerzy was indignant and accused The Boss of shoddy safety practices. Every time I saw Jerzy, he was red-faced and shouting. It was getting ugly.

I’d taken break on my own that night, trying to work out some arrangements for the band, and I got back to my station on the line a couple minutes early. That’s how I know it happened at 9:43. The sound of the forklift surprised me because the drivers never, ever came back early from break. I looked up and there was Dougie on the fork, running full speed toward the docks. He was waving his ball cap with one hand, steering with the other.

It all happened in a blink of an eye. When Dougie didn’t slow down I realized he was going to drive right off the dock, and that’s just what he did. There was chaos after the crash. Everyone running to the docks. Several of us tried to move the machine but it was too heavy. The ambulance was on its way but would be of no help to Dougie Donagal.

Walt Martin – he was the blow-hard plant manager – showed up and started barking orders. I tried to tell him Dougie did it deliberately but he brushed me off, didn’t have time for me. Listen, he said, we’re going to do a thorough investigation. We’ll talk to all the witnesses. Fine. I saw Jerzy and tried to get his attention.

Listen Lazy, we can talk later. We gotta get some mechanics in to look at this fork. Looks like the brakes failed.

Fine, fine, fine. We were being herded away from the scene by the security people. I left the plant and walked over to Ruby’s, leaving the whole mess for people who didn’t see a damned thing to sort out.

By the time Jerzy walked into the bar, I was half in the bag. He went right over to Ruby and said something to her, and she stopped what she was doing and shut off the music.

OK listen up everybody. We’re on strike as of now. We have evidence the company missed two preventive maintenance checks on Dougie’s forklift. If it wasn’t for that, he’d be alive right now. Picket schedules will be posted on the union hotline. Everybody is expected to get out there and picket. There will be no strike pay unless you log your hours on the line. That’s it.

He waved at Ruby, turned around and walked out of the bar.

Hey Lazy.

Hi Stash.

You seen Sabina?

No, she hasn’t been here. Maybe she’s down at the union hall.

Yeah, I wish she’d back away from all that union stuff.

You mean Jerzy?

I guess that’s exactly what I mean.

Hey you know Dougie drove off that dock on purpose?

What?

I shit you not. He was waving his hat and I swear to God he was smiling. He looked like goddamned Slim Pickens riding the bomb to Hell in Dr. Strangelove.

Well, fuck. You told Walt Martin that?

I tried to. He wasn’t interested in hearing about what happened. Same with Jerzy. They’re too caught up in this strike crap, they don’t want to know what happened. This poor guy killed himself and both sides are using it to make hay. Bastards.

Hey you figure out those arrangements we talked about?

Oh yeah, no problem. Ready to go for next rehearsal.

Thanks Lazy. You want another?

One more, Staashu. Thanks.

 

 

 

 

Lazy Allen’s Top 10

When I gave up making my living as a traveling musician – or maybe I should say when it gave up on me – the whole thing came to a full stop. No more gigs, no studio work, nothing. I even found other teachers for the last of my die-hard students. I never expected to ever again play in front of an audience, though I often day-dreamed about doing just that.

I was an accordion man, a bellows-shaker, and a good one, but by the early 80s the accordion had lost its shine outside of Polonia down in Buffalo and some of the other dying industrial cities south of the 49th. After a decade working at the Bottle & Can, I convinced myself I was satisfied with warm memories of the old life.

Then one day Staash Dudas traded in his Hammond C3 for a Star Concertina and announced he was starting a polka band. A polka band for God’s sake. Staashu grew up on a steady diet of polka. I know because I was his teacher. And I can remember like it was yesterday the day he put the old music down.  I can’t play that shit anymore is what he told me, and he meant it too, so I was plenty surprised when Staashu suddenly fell in love with the polka all over again.

And just who the fuck do you think is going to listen to this polka band of yours?

Kids.

Kids? It ain’t children’s music.

No, not children. Kids. You know what I mean. Like kids who go to bars. Rockers.

Rockers? You’re out of your mind.

Listen, there’s these guys over in London England…

English guys playing polkas?

No, no, no, no.

Well that’s what you said.

That’s not what I said.

What did you say?

I was trying to say, if you didn’t interrupt me all the time, there’s these guys over in London playing old Irish folk songs except they’re playing them like punk rock.

No shit?

No shit. It’s crazy, man, it’s got this amazing drive. It’s like they’re reinventing it. You see what I’m getting at? I want to reinvent the polka.

That’s how the whole thing started, see. Staashu had heard The Pogues. Now, I was flattered when Staashu asked me to be in the band and all, and you know in my day I was the best bellows-shaker around, but I only said OK because I never thought it was ever going to happen. Next thing you know Staashu was dragging me around to all the punker dive-bars looking for musicians. Hell, I was old enough to be their father. What was I doing there?

Now Staashu, I think he’d been thinking about this band of his for some time, and he had a head full of ideas. First of all, and I didn’t know it yet, he’d been writing tunes, buckets of them, polkas, obereks and waltzes mostly. But that’s not all. Staash didn’t just want to play polka music like it had never been played before, he wanted to play other tunes as if they were polkas.

This is where I need you, Lazy. Find us 10 tunes to cover. See, my idea is that every set has originals, classic polkas, and cover tunes.

Like what kind of tunes?

Monster tunes. Big ones. Tunes with big riffs. Tunes with a groove. Dance tunes. Christ I don’t know, I need you to figure it out.

I can do that, Staashu.

I had a mission and I took it seriously. You should know that I know a lot of tunes. I’ve got one of those crazy memories. I can’t tell you what I had for breakfast today but if I hear a tune I remember it. The lyrics too, everything. So I started listening to old music, new music, punk, new wave, folk songs, polkas, rock ‘n’ roll, zydeco, R&B, everything I could get my hands on. Slowly I put together the list I thought we could work with.

At our first rehearsal we started working out with some old school polka numbers: Who Stole the Kishka, Zosia, Buffalo is a Polka Town, Pierogi Polka, that kind of thing. Staashu had found us a rhythm section – Boom-Boom Johnny on drums and and Ndidi Nigeria on bass – who attacked those polkas like Godzilla crushing Tokyo. And Maggie, oh my God I didn’t recognize Maggie. Mind you, I hadn’t seen her since she was a kid and I was teaching her accordion. Now she had a shock of black hair, a black Ramones tee shirt, running shoes and a Stratocaster. And then there was Staashu, with his concertina, red suspenders, pencil moustache, and slicked back hair. Staash was running his concertina through some kind of Echoplex deal and he had it amped up to the edge. Me, I was shaking the bellows, holding it all together. Man, what an outfit.

We stopped for a beer break and Staash asked me what I’d come up with for covers. I started down the list:

In no particular order…

Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll by Ian Dury and The Blockheads
Sweet Little 16 by Chuck Berry
You Used to Call Me by Clifton Chenier
Sixteen Tons by Tennessee Ernie Ford
Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash
Most Likely You Go Your Way by Bob Dylan
I knew the Bride by Nick Lowe
Cadillac Walk by Mink deVille
Last Date by Conway Twitty
Goo Goo Muck by Ronnie Cook and the Gaylads

Before I could say Ronnie Cook, Maggie screamed, THE CRAMPS, I love the Cramps. I just laughed. I had heard of psychobilly but had no idea The Cramps covered Goo Goo Muck.

That’s what the doctor ordered, Lazy!

One more, there’s one more.

OK, what is it?

I pulled on my big accordion, a signal to the others to put down their beers and pick up their instruments.

Johnny, give me a big-assed polka beat.

He started the groove and I let him settle into it, before leaning into the vocal mic and starting into the spoken word introduction:

Come on everybody
Clap your hands
Oh, your lookin’ good
I’m gonna sing my song
And it won’t take long
We’re gonna do the Twist
And it goes like this….

Maggie screeched into a power chord. Johnny started an avalanche, and we were off.

 

 

Jerzy the Rounder

Look what the cat dragged in. If it ain’t Lazy Allen. Jesus, it’s been a long time.

Jerzy Nojinski, well I’ll be damned. Last I heard, you was in the big house.

I been out 4 years now. I changed, Lazy.

You been up to no good since we were kids Jerzy. Who changes?

I changed.

If you say so.

Ask anyone Lazarus. It’s true. I’m on the straight and narrow. Local President now. Workin hard for workers rights. I heard from Sabina you signed on. Hard to believe. All I ever seen you do was play music.

Staashu helped me get in. He says The Bottle & Can’s an OK place.

It’s a good place to work Lazy, and that’s because of the union. You remember that.

OK, what’s your angle, Jerzy?

There ain’t no angle. You got every right to not believe me. I know that. You’ll see though, you’ll see. So what happened to you anyways? You look like hell if you don’t mind me sayin. People been telling me you gave up the accordion.

Yeah, I don’t know. Ever since Peggy… you heard she passed eh?

I heard, Lazy. I’m sorry.

I guess I got a little lost after that, Jerzy, and when I wasn’t looking, the polka went and died a hard death. Lazy and the Rockets is ancient Canadian history now. I’m moving on.

See, people do change, Lazy. Listen, I got a meeting. I’ll catch up with you later. You know Ruby’s place? A lot of the guys head over there after work. Come on by later, and I’ll buy you a pint.

I wondered if any of us really do change, deep down? My old man used to bet the ponies. He’d say, son, people are pretty much like horses. You want to know how they’re going to run, read the racing form. Well, the form on Jerzy Nojinski was not promising.

Jerzy and me, we’re the same age, although I got to admit, he was looking a lot younger than I was. I remember back when we were maybe 14 and Jerzy got it in his head to let all the cattle out of their pens over at the stockyards. He told me he was going to do it, and I didn’t believe him. You’re so full of shit, Jerzy, that’s what I told him.

By the time the security guys and the coppers caught up with him there were a couple hundred steers wandering down St. Clair, Ryding Avenue, Keele St, even west as far as Runnymede. Made the papers and everything. I heard there were buckaroos riding around in the back of pick-up trucks roping and herding the cattle. Took damn near all day to get them all back. One guy living on Maria St. coaxed one of them steers into his back yard. I guess he thought he’d have free beef for the winter. Pretty hard to hide a full-grown steer in one of those postage stamp backyards, though, and they made him give it back.

Then there was the time Jerzy went into the moonshine business. He got hold of a set of plans and built himself this elaborate still in the shed back of his old man’s place. I don’t know if the plans were bad or if Jerzy simply didn’t understand the science or what the hell happened. His goddamned contraption blew the shed to smithereens and burned down the MacAllisters’ garage to boot.

Jerzy was always full of crazy-assed ideas, which without exception got him into all kinds of trouble. During his first prison term, he decided to study up to become a card shark. He learned to deal seconds, deal from the bottom, deal you any card he pleased. He had plenty of time to practice in jail and from what I hear he got pretty good at it – just not quite good enough. He wasn’t out of prison 6 months when he got in a poker game with some rough customers who figured out he was cheating. Jerzy denied everything but they didn’t care. Those boys beat him to a pulp. He wound up in the hospital, broken ribs, broken fingers, black and blue everywhere. What the hell did he expect?

It was one thing after another. Jerzy was a magnet for trouble. Now here he was, running the local union and everybody’s telling me how Jerzy did this and Jerzy did that, Jerzy helped out so-and-so and all that jazz. Sure, I was suspicious. You would be too. Still, everybody I talked to told me he was the real deal and part of me wanted to give the guy the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he really did have some kind of epiphany and turned his life around. Does that really ever happen?

I wondered for just a minute if I had changed too. Being a musician wasn’t exactly a plan. It was more like something I was drawn to, a vocation you might say. Playing music was just what I did until one day I didn’t do it anymore. I can tell you one thing for sure – I never thought I’d wind up working a factory job any more than I figured Jerzy Nojinski would run a union. Maybe we’re all just prisoners of circumstance.

I didn’t spend a lot of energy thinking about it. I just came in every afternoon, worked the line, shot the shit with the guys, and drank myself numb after shift over at Rubys. Later at home, I’d sit in the dark downstairs in my old rec room and play the old tunes. Sometimes I’d fall asleep in my chair with the big accordion still strapped on.

As for Jerzy, he did his thing with the union with amazing energy and a kind of righteous enthusiasm. He did it so well, I almost forgot about the Jerzy the rounder, Jerzy the troublemaker, Jerzy the cheat. He did it so well, he was so convincing, it took years before the truth came out and Jerzy’s world crashed down around him.

 

 

The Bottle & Can Concerto

From the first day I walked into the Bottle & Can I became fascinated by the rhythm of production.  I suppose all those years playing music for a living, I was extra-sensitive to the relationships sounds have with one another, but I know to most people it was just factory noise.

That first day, I was taken prisoner by the rattling, banging, chugging, sucking, clanging, dripping and popping – so many rhythms and exotic melodies dancing across the expanse of the plant. These sounds, by-products of the work-a-day task of producing sugary beverages, took on their own life in my imagination.

Chook chika chooka cheeka chook chika chooka cheeka
Chookita chika chooka cheekita chookita chika chooka cheekita
Chook chika chooka cheekita chook chika chooka cheekita
Chookita chikita chooka cheeka chookita chikita chooka cheeka
Chickita chookita chookita chookita cheekita chookita chookita chook.

This became the basic background track for my years at the Bottle & Can.

Different areas of the plant added in different sound colours to the main bottling rhythm – the silo in-feed, bottle discharger, filling, cleaning & recycling, the air transfer conveyer. Add the cascades over at rotary rinse, the vacuum whir at blow-moulding, not to mention the rolling and tumbling un-scrambler and the satisfying thumpa-thump of cardboard boxes over in packaging.

At times I became lost in that symphony of sound. Most of the men and women working the line blocked it out or simply stopped hearing it after a while, but I never did. When I wasn’t shooting the shit with my buddy Staashu across from me on the line, I made up dozens of melodies in my head over the complex and incessant soda-pop rhythms.

And then, when we least expected it, the line would stop and the rhythm would disintegrate into a groan punctuated by discordant industrial spasms, and then silence. Total silence. Even those who had long ago stopped hearing the magic rhythms of the line were taken aback by the intensity of the silence when it all shut down.

A stoppage on the line meant a break for everyone, save the mechanics crawling around the system to jimmy belts into place or clear bottle-jams, but it left us restless. It just didn’t feel right not being surrounded by the pulse, the heartbeat of the operation.

Late at night, long after Ruby’s Public House shut its doors, I’d go down to the basement of my bungalow, down to the music room I created long ago out of what was once my parents’ rec room and home bar, and I’d sit amongst my accordions and concertinas and button boxes, my Vox Continental electric organ, my battered old drum kit, stacks of old tube amps, and assorted other instruments I’d accumulated back in my past life. I’d pull the big accordion onto my shoulders and I’d try to imitate the rhythms of the plant with my left hand, and when I got it right, when I could feel the pulse, I’d try to remember those melodies I made up while working the line.

I’m an old polka-man but these weren’t polkas. They weren’t pop tunes either. They weren’t jazz exactly. What the hell were they? Work songs? Factory music? I didn’t think much about it. I just tried to play them the way I imagined them.

I finally saved up a little dough and in 1980 I bought myself one of those 4-track cassette porta-studios and enough egg cartons to staple over the plywood panel walls. I started thinking of my basement retreat as the studio instead of the music room. I began recording The Bottle & Can Concerto, and until today I haven’t told a soul.

My dog’s bigger than your dog

Working on the line takes staying power, not brain power. Pretty much anybody can do the job. Sticking it out day after day after day is another whole story. It may be easy work but it takes a certain kind of personality to handle it 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, 52 weeks a year.

There are two choices. Either you live in the moment, be here now and all that, or you live in some imaginary place nowhere near the Bottle & Can. Some people medicate themselves to get through shift. Drink. Pills. Powders. Herbs. Whatever it takes. That’ll get you through alright, but it’ll catch up with you eventually.

Me and Staashu got through by shooting the shit. Shooting the shit is a special form of conversation, a kind of conversation that slides from one topic to the next, a kind of conversation that goes on and on without really saying too much. There is a special sub-category of shooting the shit that’s all about one-upmanship, a sub-category Staashu and I indulged in from time to time.

Like one day I was telling Staashu how I met the Clown Prince of Polka, Walt Solek, at a stag in Wisconsin. My band, Lazy and the Rockets were playing out there at some kind of polka-fest. We met all kinds of players out there, some of the top guys. To make a long story short there was this guy, this trumpet player, Bourbon Harris, I met out there. Bourbon Harris, as his name might suggest, was a bit of a piss-tank, and he was half in the bag and he was selling tickets to a stag party.

Now we didn’t know the guy getting married or know anyone, really, outside of these musicians, but it didn’t seem to matter. Bourbon Harris was selling tickets and we had an off-night so we showed up and did some drinking, and got involved in a 7 card stud poker game. So we’re playing and I don’t know anymore if I was up or down, but anyway that doesn’t matter, what matters is this. What matters is that Walt Solek walks in, and he says, hey boys got room for one more?

I’m talking about Walt Solek here. Pierogi Polka. Who Stole the Kishka? They’re Always in the Way. The Julida Polka. I’m talking about the Polish Spike Jones here. I played 7 card stud with Walt Solek.

So I was about to tell Staashu about what a lousy poker player Walt Solek really was, but he interrupted me and started telling me about some night back when he was with West King’s band at their house gig at the Palace. Now I’m the first to admit Staash Dudas played B3 in one of the truly great R&B bands. I mean they were top drawer if you know what I’m saying.

Anyways, Staashu starts telling me about how they’re playing Cry to Me, that old Solomon Burke number, and he catches some kind of glint from the back of the room and he looks up and that glint belonged to a gold cape and the gold cape belonged to the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. And Staashu says, Lazy, honest to God I never felt that way before. I felt like I was in the presence of royalty.

Now I had heard this story more than once before, but I did what was expected of me. I said, James Brown? THE James Brown, the hardest working man in show business? Soul Brother Number 1? And Staashu says, you know it Lazy. It was THE James Brown and he was walking toward the stage, and West King stops singing, and we were  playing Cry to Me and  West says, Ladies and Gentlemen, ladies and gentlemen, this is a very special evening. This is a very special evening, my friends, because we have a very special individual in the house tonight. Ladies and Gentleman, Mister James Brown.

And Staashu goes on about how James Brown waves and blows a kiss to the crowd as he gets up on stage, and the band closes out Cry to Me, and James Brown looks at the band and says, Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.

So now it’s my turn to interrupt Staashu, but it’s pretty damn hard to top James Brown. I had one ace in the hole. That must have been something else, Staashu, something else again. I never played with any famous R&B musicians. Then I paused, just long enough….but I did get to play Johnny’s Knocking with Li’l Wally once.

There’s a certain point in this game of one-upmanship when you just have to call bullshit. Staashu knew that I knew that he really did play with James Brown that one time. But I had never told him before that I’d played with Li’l Wally, and I might as well have told him I’d been onstage with I don’t know, God. For polka players, that’s how big Li’l Wally is.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Lazy Allen, you never played with Li’l Wally.

I did.

Cut the crap, man. You did not.

Did.

Yeah, like I’m going to believe that.

The buzzer sounded to end the shift, and that ended our shooting the shit game for the day. We headed over to Ruby’s for some beers and just let the whole conversation slide.

Later that night, I was at home, sitting at the kitchen table, at least half-way drunk, and I drifted back to that night at the 505 on South Brainard Ave in Chicago, way down in Hegewisch. I had been introduced to Wally once before, by a mutual friend, Trever oh-I-can’t-remember-his-last-name, who told Wally I was the best accordionist he had ever heard – but I never expected Li’l Wally to actually remember me.

It was between sets and Wally was walking over to the bar, talking to people as he moved along, and he saw me and the son of a bitch recognized me. Hey, don’t I know you? Aren’t you Lazy Allen? And I said Mister Jagiello… and he said none of this Mister Jagiello crap, Lazy. You just call me Wally. My dear old friend Trevor has told me many times you’re tops on accordion. And I said, Wally, I play, yes I play, but I’m not in your league. And Wally he says, we’ll see about that, and off he goes to get his drink.

So the next set starts, and they do a waltz followed by an oberek, and then Wally says, I’d like to bring up one of the best accordion players in the land, ladies and gentlemen, Lazy Allen. I froze. I was stunned. I didn’t know what to do. And then I heard my name again, Lazy Allen, come on up here. So I walk up to the stage and Wally’s accordion man hands me his box, and I sling it up on my shoulders and look over at Wally and he says, Johnny’s Knocking, and off we go.

In those days, Wally was playing concertina, and there we were onstage trading licks, and the dancers were all up and Wally nods at me and gives me a solo. I played my heart out. I gave that polka everything I had, and when we finished, Wally put his arm around my shoulders and said, Lazy Allen, ain’t he great? Lazy Allen, ladies and gentleman.

The funny thing about it is that there was an entertainment guy there from one of the papers and he was doing a story about the polka scene and he shot a picture of Wally with me up there right beside him playing Johnny’s Knocking. It ran the next day with a caption, Li’l Wally returns to the 505. I wasn’t mentioned or anything, but there was my picture in the paper, playing with the king of the polka.

I walked downstairs and started looking through a few old boxes I had packed away until I came up with my old photos and press clippings, and there it was. The newspaper had turned golden brown with age, but you could see us, me and Li’l Wally plain as day. I stuck it in an old drugstore frame and hung it up over by the kitchen table.

One day, this is a month maybe two months later, Staashu comes over with a care package. Everybody’s always trying to feed old Lazy. This time it was Staashu’s mom, Beatty. She sent him over with a tray of her wonderful home-made cabbage rolls.  Staash comes in with the gwampkis and puts them down on the table and I can see he’s spotted the picture.

I didn’t say nothing about it and he didn’t say nothing about it. Staashu he just looked over at me and nodded. I said, tell Beatty I said thanks for the cabbage rolls Staash. Tell her the old man appreciates it.

The Clip-board

You’re going to think I’m making this up but it’s the Gods-honest truth. You’d think working on an assembly line in a bottling plant, nothing much would ever happen, and sometimes it seemed that way too. Other days it seemed like life’s dramas were amplified and twisted around in ways you could hardly imagine. I don’t know how many times I walked over to the bar after work, shaking my head, thinking you just can’t make this shit up.

The first thing you should know is everybody loved Louis Prima. I don’t mean Louis Prima the singer – it goes without saying that everybody loved that Louis Prima. What I’m talking about is Louis Prima the old soop at the Bottle and Can. Louis retired maybe 6 months after I started at the plant, and we all chipped in for a big party at Ruby’s Public House, the unofficial company bar. Everybody had some kind of personal story about Louis and I think in their own ways, everybody had some kind of special respect for him.

Louis, he’d been there longer than anyone could remember. He was a sight for sore eyes if you know what I mean, with this signature combination of handlebar moustache and frumpy cardigan. The guy had his own style, that’s for sure, and did he ever love to swear. Git ta fuck ta work already Mister Lazy Allen and git ta fuck out-a my hair while you’re at it. Louis knew everybody. He kept track of birthdays and anniversaries and names of kids and Lord only knows what else. I don’t think he wrote anybody up in 34 years at the plant and he didn’t need to either. When Louis Prima was in, the job always got done.

Most soops had trouble enough running their own section, but I seen Louis run 3 at once. He could do it because of the relationships he built up with the guys. If somebody called in sick, Louis would start singing, off-key, IIIIIIIII ain’t got noooooo-boooooo-deeee, and we would scramble around to cover the line until he managed to borrow somebody from another soop. That’s just the way it was. Of course upstairs they were oblivious to his singing skills.

Louis’ replacement was a guy named Byron Smith. He signed his letters T. Byron Smith, though, so to us, he immediately became known as Tee-Byron. Tee-Byron was uniquely ill-equipped to supervise anybody and the symbol of his inadequacy became the clip-board he carried with him at all times.

Tee-Byron never learned anyone’s name. I think he barely knew his own. Louis, on the other hand, knew the names of everybody’s spouse and kids too if they had any. Hell, he even knew the names of some people’s dogs and cats. But when Tee-Byron started, he’d gather us around the punch-clock at the start of every shift and he’d go down the list on his clip-board, taking attendance. Stealing Tee-Byron’s clip-board became the Prime Directive among the guys.

The very best thing about stealing Tee-Byron’s silly clip-board was his reaction. He was a clean-cut starch-collar kind of guy. When he’d reach down to pick up his clip-board and realize we’d stolen it again, his face would go crimson red, and his ears would go two shades deeper. Then he’d start on a tirade. OK, who took it? Who took it? When I find out, I’ll have your goddamned job, you hear me?

At some point every shift, Tee-Byron would put down his clip-board, and like boy scouts, we were prepared. Somebody would create a little distraction and voila, somebody else would snatch the target. We weren’t mean about it, exactly. It’s not like we made him buy new ones every day. At the end of shift it would be waiting for him on his office desk.

Tee-Byron got so furious with our little clip-board stunt he started a paper war. He was going to fix us. He started writing us up for every little infraction. There were no more gray areas, just the rules, black and white. No problem. Mr. Smith, sir, I’d like to see my union rep please. I need to file a grievance. Of course in Tee-Byron’s mind, grievances were a measure of a job well-done. He was an angry man, but completely pleased with himself at the same time.

We kept Tee-Byron plenty busy performing disciplinary interviews, writing up letters and otherwise wasting his time. As long as we took turns messing with him, nobody was going to get fired. It was all good clean fun, or so we thought.

See, we never thought of Tee-Byron as a person, if you know what I mean, with genuine feelings and anxieties and hopes and dreams. We simply thought of him as The Man and messing with The Man was fair game. We were wrong – I can say that now. He was an asshole, no doubt, but maybe we pushed him too far.

If T. Byron Smith had taken the trouble to get to know his employees, even a little bit, he would have known that Baxter Spingal was a deeply troubled guy. Baxter came in and he did his job and all that, but he didn’t talk to anybody. For a while we weren’t sure he even could talk, but I learned along the way, he could talk just fine, he just chose not to.

Of course there were stories but I don’t know if any of them were true. Sometimes I think we make up stories to help us understand this messed up world. Some people said Baxter was a brilliant scholar at the university or that he was a professor’s son, and that he killed off most of his brain cells dropping 400 or 4,000 hits of LSD. Another story was that he was in the army and suffered a brain injury in some kind of bizarre training accident. Or that he was in Viet Nam and was a prisoner in a bamboo cage, tortured by snakes, silenced by PTSD. I don’t know, maybe he was just really shy.

One day Tee-Byron somehow got it in his head that Baxter Spingal stole his clip-board. He was pretty much fed-up because we had stolen the goddamned thing on him every single day for a month. The thing of it is that since he didn’t talk to anybody, I doubt Baxter even knew anything about the clip-board caper.

Where is it? I know you took it.

Silence.

Come-on already. Game’s over. What did you do with it?

Silence. Tee-Byron knew nothing of Baxter’s self-imposed silence. He expected an answer. He raised his voice.

I know you did it. I’m gonna have your job, you hear me? I’m gonna have your job.

Silence. Cold stare.

Don’t you just stare at me, I’m talkin to you. What did you do with my goddamned clip-board?

Tee-Byron gestured, pointed with his finger, stuck it right into Baxter’s face. Baxter never said a word. He just grabbed Tee-Byron’s hand, neatly broke his finger, twisted Tee-Byron’s arm behind his back and dislocated his elbow. Tee-Byron started screaming in pain and Baxter he just walked away, walked out of the building and kept on going. I guess the police caught up with him later. I don’t know what happened to him after that, I just know we never saw him again.

We never saw Tee-Byron again either. Of course there were stories, stories that he got fired, completely opposite stories he got promoted. Maybe he was off on disability. Maybe he transferred to another plant. Nobody was talking and nobody knew for sure. They brought in a guy to replace him from down east, a guy named Drago.  As far as I know Drago’s still there today.