In the early 1960’s, when I was seven, my mother took me to a bar every Saturday morning. We would walk to the back of the bar toward the narrow, dimly lit stairway leading down to the basement. That’s where I met a handful of other kids waiting for the Saturday morning Polish language class.
Not much enthusiasm emanated from our little group. We spent five days a week learning English, now we got to go to school for a sixth day. Great.
The teacher walked in from another century. She was the opposite of the 1960’s “mod” fashion. She wore high-button shoes and wore her hair in a Gibson Girl bun popular in the early 1900’s. Abandoned by my mother just below the shots and the beers, class began.
I stayed in that basement school for nearly a year. I lasted until the school Christmas party that was held in the basement of a VFW hall. Every student got a present; mine was a doll dressed in a Krakowiak costume (an ethnic Polish dance).
I didn’t hear or speak much English until I was four. I lived in Hamtramck and all my aunts and uncles knew Polish, along with a few of my cousins. Hamtramck is a small city that is surrounded by Detroit, but it might as well have been a chunk of Poland broken off of Europe and dropped into Detroit.
All my grandparents came from Poland as young adults, settled in Hamtramck and learned virtually no English at all. Why bother? The butcher, baker, and banker all ran their businesses speaking Polish. Even into the late 1990’s, I noticed a want ad for a Polish-speaking bank teller.
My grandparents immigrated to this country in the second decade of the 20th century. They never meant to stay. That’s another reason that they never bothered to master the English language. World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II forced them to stay in America. Sandwiched between the Germans and the Russians, Poland played the center in a deadly tug of war game.
By the time my first day of elementary school loomed near, I moved out of Hamtramck and English was my second language. My first-grade teacher set me up with speech therapy classes in order to get rid of the foreign accent I picked up while living nowhere else but in the American Midwest. I was diverse when diverse was not cool.
My mother unsuccessfully tried to force Polish culture on me through piano lessons as well. She played Chopin and Paderewski on the piano if not passably well, at least recognizably. Piano lessons, another dreaded Saturday morning class held in the basement of a nearby bungalow. I picked up the basics of piano easily enough, but I would have rather spent my Saturday mornings watching Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons instead.
Yes, I spent a lot of time hanging out in basements as a kid. Too much subterranean living must have played a part in the development of my dark side.
My mother bought me a Polish dance costume with an embroidered velvet vest and ribbons sewn into the skirt, which resembled the costume of the doll I got from the VFW hall Christmas party. I never learned to polka, but I did wear the outfit for a couple of Halloweens. The other kids kept asking me what I was dressed up as, and I got tired of explaining what the heck a Krakowiak was. Finally I gave up and just said I was a gypsy. That they understood.
In junior high school I refused to do an oral report on my ethnic heritage and accepted a failing grade instead. How could I stand up and talk about my 100% Polish ancestry? Too many Polish jokes circulated in those days and junior high is cruel enough as it is. Surprisingly no one else in my class claimed a Polish background even though my city had a huge Polish population. This was before the pride of the Polish pope and Lech Walesa hit the scene. Apparently I was not alone in running away from my family.
When I was young, Hamtramck and I were saturated in Polish culture. Now the Polish share the cultural dominance alongside newer immigrants and trendy, young urbanites. Many Middle Eastern, Asian, Indian, African-American, and other ethnic groups mix with the long-standing Polish population of the city.
On a Hamtramck street today, an old Polish woman wearing a babushka may be found walking next to a young tattooed girl, or a man with a turban. Years ago many streets had a neighborhood bar smack dab in the middle of the family homes. Recently many new bars opened up that showcase modern urban music. A few years ago, a magazine named Hamtramck “one of the 15 hippest neighborhoods in the U.S. and Canada.”
Times change. Today calls to prayer collide with the last call in bars. I wonder what language they speak in the basement of those bars?