Saturday, August 5, 2006

The War of the Polka Bands

The wind snapped at my toad-green turtleneck like a nun’s ruler at a left-handed first grader. I had been in a queue of one since eleven o’clock last night, determined to get to the front of the hall with my general admission ticket to the War of the Polka Bands. As the sun crested the factory skyline, I gently shook of the excess dew on my orange suede coat, admiring the polka dot pattern.

I had prepared for a night just like this. It took several nights of standing outside before I learnt how to make the dew yield that unique pattern. I cut small circles out of wax paper, and attached them to my coat with balled tape. I then sprayed the coat lightly with hair spray. When I removed the wax paper circles and stood outside all night, the dew clung to the unsprayed areas forming a pattern of polka dots. I was deeply impressed with myself. This was the first public showing of my invention. I knew I would be the focus of many eyes throughout the coming evening.

As morning became early afternoon, I stood alone at the double front doors. My plan had worked: I would easily be in the sweat trail of such greats as Gorgeous George Ehnot as he wailed on his ivory-inlaid accordion.

A little after three, an old bus rounded the corner, belching oil behind bald tires. It stopped suddenly and the doors flew open. A man fell out followed by a dozen or more empty beer cans. He lay in the road for a moment before he raised his ample arm and spilled a half can of beer onto his face, managing to hit his mouth with only a small portion. He burped, sneezed, and farted in unison; it made him flip-flop like a perch tossed on a wooden dock. I’d recognize those sounds anywhere. It was Screaming Sammy Shamowski. Upon instinct, I did what every fan does when Screaming Sammy pontificates thusly – I farted in return. I think he smiled; perhaps he grimaced.

I was torn. Do I rush over and ask for an autograph, and risk losing my cherished spot in line? I had my Polka-Dot Poodle Autograph Memory Book in hand. The pen fell to the ground, slipping through my tight but sweaty grip. When I bent over to pick it up, I accidentally ripped another tooter. Must have been the halupki I ate throughout the night. Ain’t nothing like a fist full of stuffed cabbage to grease the ole Sigmoid. Screaming Sammy looked over at me. I froze in the prone position.

“Hey, buddy!” He was talking to me!
“Y-y-y-yes, Mr. Shamowski?” My voice cracked like a kielbasa boiled too long.
“Come over here and help an old man to his feet.”

As I walked over, I could hear others on the bus yelling and whooping it up. I was in awe. I extended my hand to Screaming Sammy Shamowski.

As he tugged and pulled his way to his feet; he farted. Instinct again – I farted, too. He looked quickly at me. He raised an eyebrow and farted. Return fart. His eyebrows burrowed into and then under his impossibly fat forehead. His eyes penetrated mine. He farted. I returned it.

“What the hell you wearing, boy? Ah, nevermind. How about a beer?” He motioned me toward the bus.

We climbed the stairs. I was numb at the site before me. The entire Screaming Sammy Band was there. Beer cans and liquor bottles were scattered everywhere. Dirty clothes were draped over seats. Women stilled and looked at me: tall coifs, a cigarette in one hand, a high ball in the other. None wore blouses, just brassieres yellowed from exposure to nicotine and holding impossibly large breasts. A dog sat in a metal chair in the aisle; puddles of urine rippled on the floor as freshly vacated volume dripped from the chair. The thickness of the cigarette smoke was surpassed only by the spewed chewing tobacco on the floor. I felt deeply inadequate as I viewed this slice of heaven.

“This boy farts on cue,” Screaming Sammy said, and then broke into a coughing jag reflecting his 60 plus years of smoking Lucky Strikes. Brown spittle dripped off his chin; he may have hacked up a piece of lung. In response to his words, a symphony of flatulence rose from the long columns of potato eaters in front of me. High toots, low toots, short toots, long toots. Staccato toots on the right and long mellow toots on the left. The party resumed with singing, laughs, and disjointed music. I breathed deeply. My eyes filled with tears for several reasons.

The subsequent measure of time was lost to me – I do not know how long it was or what I did. That happens when I get excited in strange surroundings. The next thing I realized, I was playing strip poker with two large-breasted polish queens, the drummer, and the dog. I had stretched my sweater to cover my exposed yogurt chucker. I didn’t know that women wore several layers of underwear – something about filtering wind. The dog had yet to lose a hand. I was chewing tobacco, and had not yet mastered how to do that and drink beer at the same time. My stomach felt as if a swallowed a lizard whole and unscathed.

The bus driver flashed the internal lights a few times. Everyone responded quickly. Clothes were being put on, instruments grabbed, and beer guzzled. The dog wove his way to the last row and went to sleep. I realized that they would be leaving the bus soon. Disappointment washed over me. I worked to dispel that feeling with one of joy for the opportunity I had, and I turned toward the front of the bus: my heart seized up like a rod in a dry engine when I saw the long lines waiting to enter the hall. All of my plans for sweat trails failed.

I walked with the band to the front of the bus and descended the stairs. Screaming Sammy was signing someone’s autograph book. Other band members were signing books, foreheads, diapers (baby and adult), and thighs. I began to melt into the crowd and another War of the Polka Bands from the back of the room when Screaming Sammy grabbed my arm.

“Help an old man through the crowds, son.”
“Yes, SIR!” I was beaming inside and out.

“Screaming Sammy Shamowski, king of the accordion, coming through!” I yelled it loudly and often. I changed emphasis. The crowd was responding! I worked it.

Sammy leaned, “you’re good at this. Find me some pretty thing I can sign, sonny.”

By the time we hit the stage doors, Sammy signed three breasts, two butts, and one unmentionable. I hadn’t seen such a smile on his face since he won the Grammy for “Pukin’ Polkas” and was able to leak out a b-flat fart that continued to hum throughout his entire acceptance speech.

“Welcome to the band, son.”

I did the best I could not to cry.

Backstage seemed utter chaos. Bands parked their instruments, and quickly paired off. Drummers talked to drummers. Seven accordion players from different bands started freestyle jamming. The women that traveled with all the different bands sat together smoking and drinking high balls.

The War was usually eight bands – including the four heavyweights of our day: Screaming Sammy Shamowski and the Screaming Sammy Band; Gorgeous George Ehnot & His Band; The Polka Playing Potato Eaters; and Benedykt Zygsztwychzt – the only one-man polka band ever with both an accordion and zephyr. Bene’s friends call him “Ziggy”; the women called him, frequently. He is a rare creature, indeed: pure bred Polish with flaming red hair.

The stage work started with the new bands. Two bands would duel by playing one set each followed by a song-by-song face off until the crowd threw food at or physically assaulted one of them. It was a rite of passage for upstarts.

Some passages were rougher than others. I remember 1995 like it was yesterday. I was about mid-floor and off to the side. The first duel was close. But during the face off, the guitar player for one band launched into a solo straight from Oklahoma!. It was probably a good idea at the time inside his head. I am sure he thought it was a competition-defining moment. Instead, it became a life-threatening one. His fellow band members stopped playing one by one and began to stare at him. The crowd began to boo. He played on, certain he could win them over. Pierogi started flying. Some members of the crowd tried to climb onto the stage. Several bands members walked off. The few that stayed began to talk. After a moment, they nodded in unison. They rushed the guitarist, still playing with gusto, and threw him into the crowd. I saw his flight in slow motion. Klopsik and pierogi tracked his arc. He landed with a thump. The crowd piled on. I read the subsequent newspaper accounts with horror: he had been folded like a pretzel. Somehow his hands and arms had been crammed into his rectum all the way to his to elbows. He required a colon bag and lots of topomax. No one would agree to take his place in the band after fans started showing up at concerts with homemade flags reading, “Remember the War,” written in a semi-circle above a picture of a pretzel. The band fell apart and hasn’t been heard from since. I understand that now he lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in complete isolation except for airplane drops of food, colon bags, and meds.

The first four bands had already dueled. The first two losers got through it without injuries. Four more bands were due up. The resulting four winners would face off one-by-one against the polka royalty. One upstart band, it seemed, would survive and knock off one of the premier bands. That lucky band would play with and against the remaining three kings. By the time the evening was done, no one would care who was declared the winner. The crowd would be oozing polka and the music would satisfy its lover.

Ordinarily I would be enthralled in the stage work at this time, searching the new bands for the next great talent. I would be writing notes in my book as I boogied to the polka groove. Tonight I was a Screamer. I got drinks for Sammy. The girls called me over and wanted to touch my sweater, touching it everywhere and asking what material was used to make it. After I watched Ziggy warm up on his zephyr, he let me suck the spit out of the mouthpiece so it was ready for the stage. He gave me a book of matches from his 2004 tour and a bar of soap from his hotel room (still in the Motel 6 wrapper!). I put them in my coat pocket with the individually wrapped flavored balloons the girls had given me.

The crowd was big tonight. It was a sea of undulating Slavics. Bee hive ‘do’s and fur stoles made the women irresistible to the men, who danced their Brylcreemed comb-overs into impossible geometric forms. Sweat pores were open like fire hydrants. The fragrance wafting up to me was intoxicating. I noticed myself grooving; my hips moved with theirs; I touched my neck and a moan escaped. My pants started to get tight. I killed the bad thoughts just like mamma always told me to: I repeated these words until I found myself again, “Gramma on the toilet, gramma on the toilet, gramma on the toilet.”

I came back to my senses. That was a close one. I reached into my pants and grabbed my mud flap, turning it three times clockwise (like mamma showed me) just to ensure that the goodness of pain down there would prevent the badness of unwanted growth. I can’t imagine why men would want the blessing of erectile dysfunction to be cured with medicine. It made no sense to me. I couldn’t wait until I was totally dysfunctional.

The last of the new-band duels was finally finished. Backstage somehow became orderly: half the new bands were now just people milling about, their equipment off in the distance; the royalty had their instruments immediately off-stage and ready to use as bodyguards formed a tight barricade ensuring a newbie didn’t try to touch anything. I caught sight of Ziggy’s zephyr and remembered the warmth of his spittle on my tongue. “Gramma on the toilet, gramma on the toilet, gramma …”

I found Screaming Sammy and asked if there was anything I could do. My hands were shaking both from excitement at the atmosphere and the pain from turning my map flap again so soon after the last time.

I hoped I wouldn’t have to turn them again. My internal clock had already been set to six o’clock in the morning. I remembered when mamma taught me the rule.

She came to wake me up and found the Sears Catalogue on my floor opened to the brassiere section. She woke me up by cramming a page she had torn from the catalogue into my mouth. Then she turned my mud flap three times and screamed like a banshee.

Her screaming continued as she torn out more pages and crammed them into every orifice on my body, including some I wasn’t sure could accommodate that much paper, page after page. I moved to avoid her spit. My yogurt chucker flopped to one side. Her eyes widened and she turned me again.

“It’s six o’clock in the morning, sonny! Got time for breakFAST?!” Mamma was wide-eyed. I farted from pure fear. I looked at the clock. It was 8:12 A.M. I was confused.

Then she began to read from the catalogue.

“For figure loveliness, for youthful allure – there’s real American beauty with Perma-Lift.”

I knew this ad well. My ankle spanker began to swell. Mamma noticed and continued to read, turning at the same time.

“For a miracle happens at the base of the bra-cup – IT’S NINE O’CLOCK, SONNY! – where a patented cushion inset – IT’S – lifts you bosom – LUNCHTIME!”

I howled in pain but couldn’t get the picture of the ad out of my mind.

“… holds that firm rounded contour, never becomes limp or lax …”

She stopped reading and narrowed her eyes to a slit. She turned and turned. I continued the ad in my head to stop from passing out. “ … through seasons of washing and wear. Kiss the bras,” mamma counted off dinner time, “good-bye that put red ridges on your pretty shoulders. There’s neither bone, bulk, nor pull in Perma-Lift’s gentle support.”

Mamma continued turning and screamed out, “It’s tomorrow, SONNY, what’s the WEATHER LIKE! Got any STOCK MARKET TIPS?!?”

“Bra and Bandeau styles, $1.25 to $2.50. Long-line models …” then I think I passed out.

When I awoke, mamma had cleaned my room and was sitting on the bed. A tray with cookies and milk was waiting for me. Mamma looked like an angel.

“Toadie, good morning. How do you feel, precious?”

I hurt real bad and was about to tell her. She anticipated my words.

“No need to discuss it, Toadie. Mamma has made all of the bad things go away. Now you eat up like a good little frog and mamma is going to explain some things to you. My, you are such a young man!”

Then mamma explained how dirty girls and ugly men would do things together, and that maybe I had learned of some of these things. I began to nod that I had, and a storm came over her face. She reached under the covers and seemed to be struggling inside her head. Her mouth twitched and she looked away from me. I saw the scar on her neck she never talked about, but that appeared only after Daddy and Uncle Jim visited the last time about five years ago.

Her body relaxed and she turned towards me. She smiled so big and her eyes were bright as sunshine. In her softest voice she told me it wasn’t my fault that “the little twig wanted TO BE A TREE – WITH TWO BRANCHES!” and then the rage came back.

“Hickory dickory DOCK,” she said as she counted turns of my map flap in hours. Spittle flew with the last emphasis on the last word. I screamed and screamed.

“A mouse ran up the CLOCK! DID I SAY ‘CLOCK’? I MEANT CO—”

I passed out. I think I remember her reciting the “Twelve Days of Christmas” and thinking, “It’s August. Why is Mamma talking about Christmas?” I recall singing “Happy Birthday” although no one’s birthday was until February.

When I woke up, I couldn’t move. Mamma had tied me to the bed. My groin felt impossibly large and like it was on fire. After several hours, mamma unlocked the door and took the boards off the windows with a crow bar. The sunlight hurt my eyes. She sat on the bed talking quietly about how to drive the dirty demons away when they visited. That’s when I learned the “Gramma on the toilet” trick. I was eleven years old. That trick has served me well countless times over the past 44 years.

“I need some water, son,” Screaming Sammy said to me. “Do an old man a favor and get me a glass of water.” I snapped back to reality and was heading to the water cooler in an instant.

I steadied the glass into his hand, spilling some. He placed it on a table and hunched over it. Then I saw it; then my world changed. It was a secret. My eyes widened. It was scooping bicarbonate of soda into the glass and stirring. He noticed my fascination.

“The old tooter doesn’t toot like she used to, sonny. Needs a little jumpstart if I’m gonna fart reliably out there. Can’t put this stuff into beer. It fizzes all over and tastes like shit.”

This was the stuff journalism careers were made of. I paid good money to read the everyday details of the Polka kings. And now I knew something for free. Wow! Just plain good ole fashioned, WOW! I never felt more alive.

The house lights dimmed. I heard the emcee talking. The crowd was screaming and clapping. Backstage became serious and focused.

Sammy said, “Show time, sonny,” and he gulped down his doctored water. His face looked older than I ever imagined it could. He smiled through his eyes and walked towards the stage.

“… and the Screaming Sammy Band!” The crowd was frenzied. The Polish women were twirling, the Lithuanians forming lines, and the Latvians staring at Sammy as if at the moon on a romantic evening. The Estonians were off to the side, as usual, oblivious to the changes on stage as they played Rock Paper Scissors and drank from their Seagram’s 7 fifths. The Russians were in the rear of the hall, either passed-out drunk or fighting over food. Nobody liked the Russians anyway, so their de facto absence from the dance floor was welcomed.

Sammy walked on stage with his trademark red accordion. He grabbed the mic, bent over, placed the mic next to his ass, and ripped a long one – low and steady tone. Forty-five seconds later he was still smiling at one end and tooting at the other. The crowd was hollering, “dupa, dupa, dupa” as the seconds ticked by. Then he ended with a “vrupp!” a few octaves higher. Everything got very quiet. Then one here, another there, five or six to one side. The crowd began farting in response.

“Ah, my friends,” Sammy said. And with those words, Screaming Sammy Shamowski launched into a soulful rendition of “Too Fat Polka” that had them all dancing. He seemed to grow younger and younger the longer he played.

The War went on for three more hours. It must have been Gorgeous George’s night to relax, as he was “bumped” by an upstart band with a pretty-boy lead singer. Mr. Ehnot took it graciously on stage and headed straight down the hall off stage afterward. I couldn’t tell if he was upset or not. Maybe that part of the War was real?

About 20 minutes later, Sammy walked over to me before he had to be back on stage for the final free-for-all.

“Walk down that hall, sonny, and make sure that Gorgeous ain’t sucking up all the liquor.” Sammy then rushed back on stage, playing his accordion the entire way. Everyone was so “on” tonight. It was nothing short of heaven being back here. I walked down the hall mumbling, “Gramma on the toilet, gramma on …”

I saw where I was supposed to go. It was a hospitality room set up for the bands. As I rounded the corner and the room came into full sight, I was awed by the view: Czarnina, Fasola, Ogorki kiszone, Pierogi, Halupki, Wieprzowina, Kapusniak, Pieczen siekana. Endless desserts. Pickled eggs.

And then it came into view. The Holy Grail of drinks. In huge punch bowls. Little cherubs with it pouring out their nostrils. There must have been 20 gallons. I actually feel to my knees. The Bloody Pollock. Equal parts beet juice and potato vodka served at room temperature. It was beyond description.

And there was Gorgeous George flat on his back with a cherub moved into position above him. He drank everything he could but couldn’t keep up. The liquid had stained his entire face. He made gurgling sounds and little purple bubbles formed at the bottom of his nostrils. I thought I heard him snoring. I moved the cherub backed into place and rolled him under the table. I cleaned up the floor. No one could see him behind the tablecloth. It was as if he was never in the room. I no sooner admired my efforts than the room was swarmed by polka bands. They looked at me as if I had made all of this food and drink possible, and they were impressed. I thought to myself, “How did I ever deserve such an evening?”

It was four hours before the only two conscious people left in the room were Sammy and me. My pockets bulged with treasures: hair pins, napkins with drawings, guitar picks, more balloons (some were “ribbed for your pleasure”), and even a saxophone reed (spit intact).

Sammy asked me to help his driver carry out whichever band members of his remained in the room. It took only a few minutes.

With everyone loaded on the bus, we stood outside talking.

“You ever think of going on the road, son?”
“Call me ‘Toadie’”
“OK, Toadie. Wanna a bus ride to nowhere?”
“I am nowhere. I’m in Scranton.”
We shared a laugh.
“Thank you, Sammy, but I have to say no. I have a cat and three fish.”
“I understand,” was all he said. He shook my hand and we parted.

As he stepped onto the bus, he looked over his shoulder towards me, ripped a quick one, and winked. I tooted in return and smiled.

I went back inside and moved the tablecloth so Gorgeous George wouldn’t be left behind. I drank one last Bloody Pollock and surveyed the room. I absorbed everything lest the memories every dull.

I walked home, and stayed up all night. Sitting in my kitchen with a cup of coffee made in my sauce pan, I emptied my pockets of all of my memories and arranged them on the table. I would frame them in the coming days. I had seen the War of the Polka Bands as a Field General would watch battles of old. Tonight, the Polka Gods had blessed me. My tears added just the right amount of salt to my cup of joe. Shamowski. Wow.

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