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 a 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.

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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.