Today is Casimir Pulaski Day. Pulaski Day is celebrated the first Monday of every March in Chicago, Cook County, and Illinois. I mean “celebrated” as in Pulaski Day is an official government holiday, but Illinois is the only state in the country where it’s an official holiday. In Chicago, it’s technically also an official holiday. However, it’s not a parking meter holiday, so be sure to feed those meters! That also means I can’t go to the Chicago Public Library today because it’s closed today. Chicago Public Schools and the Cook County offices are also closed today. The United States Post Office just delivered my mail, so it’s not a federal holiday. Pulaski is a very important holiday in Chicago because of our large Polish population. In fact, Chicago is the second largest Polish city after Warsaw.
So who was Casimir Pulaski? He was a cavalry officer who fought for the U.S. Military during the American Revolution. President Barak Obama, a Chicagoan, signed a resolution that made Pulaski a U.S. citizen last November, 230 years after his death. If you know any Chicagoans, you know that U.S. citizenship is topic that is near and dear to their hearts. Hopefully, President Obama will help resolve the problems of living immigrants next!
A few years back, there was a soccer / football / fútbol match at Soldier Field between Mexico and Poland. The game sold out almost as soon as the tickets went on sale. Why? Well, because Chicago is the fifth largest Mexican city and Chicago is also the second largest Polish city. Chicago has a lot of people of Polish and Mexican descent living here.
For as long as I can remember, I have always had Polish friends. In Chicago, it’s just inevitable. In many Chicago neighborhoods, Mexicans and Poles live and work side by side. Despite the language barrier, they get along quite well because they have so many other things in common.
First of all, many of them have strong connection to their home country because they are either immigrants or they know recent immigrants. Most speak English as their second language. Both Poles and Mexicans are mainly Catholic and have a great devotion to the Virgin Mary. They both come from rural areas and adapt to a major city like Chicago. Both groups are known for being hard workers. So, there are many couples that are Mexican / Polish, or, if you prefer, Polish / Mexican, in Chicago. And they, too, get along just fine.
How they meet often remains a mystery since both Mexicans and Poles prefer their own people. But they have plenty of opportunities to meet each other in Chicago because they live and work together. Sometimes, only one person of the couple is a U.S. citizen. Usually, gaining U.S. citizenship has nothing to do with their becoming a couple. There is a genuine attraction between the two because they have so much in common. I’ve been to many Polish parties for baptisms, weddings, birthdays, and family gatherings, and I always felt like I was extremely welcome there. In fact, many times Poles would approach me with a friendly smile and immediately begin talking to me in Polish. I’d have to shrug and tell them that I didn’t speak Polish and that would end our conversation since they didn’t speak much English. Considering how many Polish girls I have met, I’m amazed that I’ve never had a Polish girlfriend.
I met Tony Jr.–his full name was Anthony Borkowski Jr.–when I worked at Derby Foods, 3327 W. 47th Place, home of Peter Pan Peanut Butter and Derby Tamales. His father, Anthony Borkowski Sr.–also called Tony–wanted his son to work while he attended school at DeVry. Tony Sr. thought his son was getting too lazy by just going to school and not working. Tony Jr. was already twenty-two, but still had not graduated from college. He was a student at the University of Illinois Circle Campus–before it became the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC)–and belonged to a fraternity, so he partied a little too much for his father’s liking. So Tony Jr. transeferred to DeVry and started working at Derby Foods.
Tony Jr. towered over me whenever we talked. He had dark blond hair and wore round wire-rimmed glasses. He looked flabby, but was actually rather muscular. He could do any job at Derby Foods, including unloading the 135-pound bags of raw peanuts from the railroad boxcars (somthing I could only do for more than a few days at a time because that job exhausted me). He was always on time for work because his father always woke him and they went to work together, even if Tony Jr. had been out partying all night. Tony Sr. would pull off the blankets and announce, “Time to go to work!” with his heavy Polish accent. If Tony Jr. still didn’t get up, his father would push him out of bed and shout, “If I have to go to work, you have to go to work!’ Some mornings, Tony Jr. was a walking zombie.
Tony Sr. was a minuturized version of his son who never missed a day of work because he loved his job. He was quite a character in his own right, a man who was quite liked by everyone because he was friendly, had a good sense of humor, and could take a joke. Of course, people often tired of his standard greeting that always made him laugh, but no one else. In the morning, he would greet the women by saying, “Hey, good looking! What you got cooking?” No one ever responded to his question, so he would answer it himself with either, “Chicken! You wanna neck?” or “Bacon! You wanna strip?” The first time someone heard Tony Sr. say that, they laughed. Then after about the third time, they were just tired old jokes. After about the hundreth time, those lines became funny again when he used them on new empoyees. But everyone humored him because he was such a friendly guy.
On the other hand, he was disliked because he was a foreman and always wanted to earn his annual bonus by increasing productivity on the peanut butter production line. Number one on his agenda at work was that his peanut butter production line produce at least 100%. Sometimes, he would work harder than his workers rather than just stand there idly and merely supervise. He also was concerned about job security–so much so that he never told anyone how to start up the peanut butter processing machinery. He was so afraid that he would be replaced if someone else learned his trade secrets, so he would come in early Monday morning before anyone was at the factory to start everything up. He even did this while he was on vacation. Once he he was so deathly ill that he didn’t come in at 3:30 a.m. as he usually did. The shift started at 7:00 a.m. and there was no sign of Tony Sr. who had not called in sick. Since he had never missed a day of work, not even due to illness, everyone thought he had died. Even Tony Jr. was MIA. The assistant foreman drove to the Borkowski home and Tony Jr. answered the door. His father was so sick that he had overslept. Tony Sr. immediately got dressed and went to Derby Foods rather than reveal how to start up the machinery to his assistant foreman. The plant was then up and running, albeit a little later than usual. And no one learned how to start up the machinery until about two months before Tony Sr. retired. Tony Sr. insisted that it would take a lifetime to learn what he would attempt to teach in a mere two months. In order to avoid another plant startup fiasco due to illness, the plant superintendent decided that Tony Sr. would train three people to learn the startup procedure. Tony Sr. then started bragging, “See how important I am at Derby Foods. It takes three people to replace me! Maybe I shouldn’t retire.” But everyone insisted that he retire.
But back to Tony Jr. who was promoted from laborer to mechanic because he was intelligent, a DeVry student, and had great clout because his father was a foreman. He would have preferred to remain a laborer while he was in school, but his father insisted he get ahead at Derby Foods in case he wanted to make a career of it. Because of his father’s encouragement, Tony Jr. spent less time drinking and more time studying. It was about this time that Tony Jr. and I became fairly good friends at work. Sometimes we would go out to lunch together. The very first time we went, I had to laugh for two reasons. First, he said we should drive to the hot dog stand that was a block away, but he pointed out that we only had thirty minutes for lunch, so it was actually a very practical suggestion. Second, I laughed when I saw his car. He drove this tiny little Honda Accord. When I explained to him why I laughed, he told me that since he was so tall and husky, he had to shop around for car in which he would fit comfortably. The Accord offered him the most room. He was always very practical like that.
One day, he asked me for help with a composition he was writing for his composition class. I was surprised he asked me because I was not known for my intelligence at Derby Foods. In fact, everyone thought of me as the kid who dropped out of high school in order to work in a factory. Anyway, I told Tony Jr., “Why do you want my help? I only have a GED! You’re a college student!” I really thought I had him there! But no! He said, “You’re a published writer!” Okay, he had me there. I had some local publications. Whenever I was at Derby Foods, I often forgot about my accomplishments. But the main reason he wanted my help was because he had once seen me reading a grammar book. I can read grammar books the most kids read comic books. This really impressed him, so he asked me for help. Needless to say, he got an A on his composition!
When I was growing up, in an age before everyone tried to be politically correct, everyone told ethnic jokes. They were always insulting and mean-spirited to the whatever group was targeted. Sure, some people were offended by these jokes, which only led to them being the target of more ethnic jokes. However, these jokes also brought a lot of joy and laughter among friends. For example, I worked in a peanut butter factory, named Derby Foods, with the ethnic groups who lived in Back of the Yards. In general, we all got along together very well. Shirley, one of my Polish coworkers, loved to hear any kind of joke because she loved to laugh. Her real name was Ursula, but she preferred to be called Shirley. Anyway, she especially loved to hear Polish jokes. She always insisted that I tell her any new Polish joke that I heard. And when I didn’t learn any new jokes, she insisted that I retell her the old ones. Whenever I told her Mexican jokes, she told me she liked the Polish ones better. In this age of political correctness, I will not tell any Polish jokes lest I offend anyone. But, I suppose it would be okay if I told some of the Mexican jokes that I still remember. I’m not doing this to propagate any negative stereotypes about Mexicans, but merely as a scientific exercise to preserve our humorous past. Now, I’m not saying that these jokes are actually funny anymore, but once upon a time, people actually laughed at these jokes. Some of them are actually quite dated. Okay, you have been forewarned!
Why can’t Mexicans be fireman? They don’t know the difference between José and Hose B.
Mexican weather report: Chili today. Hot tamale.
Why do Mexicans wear pointy shoes? To kill cockroaches in the corner.
What is the name of the Mexican telephone company? Taco Bell.
Why don’t Mexicans have barbecues? The beans keep falling through the grille.
How can you tell if you’re at a Mexican birthday party? There are more adults than children.
What do you call a Mexican basketball game? Juan on Juan.
What do you get when you cross a Mexican with an octopus? I don’t know, but boy can it pick lettuce!
Why doesn’t Mexico have an Olympic team? Because every Mexican who can run, jump, or swim is already in the U.S.
What do you call a Mexican in a BMW? A valet.
Upon further reflection, I retract the above listed jokes because they are in extremely bad taste. With apologies to Ursula, I mean, Shirley!
When I was in Holy Cross School, I had several paper routes and I really enjoyed delivering newpapers. My best friend in the fourth grade was Patrick McDonnell. One day he asked me to help him deliver newspapers on his paper route. One of his older brothers had the paper route, but when he got tired of delivering newspapers, he gave the paper route to his brother Patrick. In those days, it was almost impossible to get a paper route on your own. True to Chicago tradition, you even needed clout to get a paper route.
I helped Patrick deliver his newspaper, The Chicago American, for a few days. One day, he asked me if I knew who all the customers were. Of course, I did! “That’s good,” he said. “Because you can have the paper route!” He had gotten tired of delivering papers and couldn’t quit the paper route until he found a replacement. Well, I was extremely happy to be his replacement because I loved delivering newspapers and I especially loved having some spending money. I’m not sure how long I had that paper route, but it was long enough to see the Chicago American become the Chicago Today. I loved reading the newspaper as I walked door to door delivering it. Then one day, the Chicago Today folded and I was out of a job. But it was fun while it lasted.
Months later, my friend Patrick asked me to help him with his paper route again. He had found another paper route and again he was tired of delivering newspapers on his bicycle. He immediately thought of me as his replacement. This route had many more customers than the other one and you needed to deliver the papers on a bicycle because this route covered our entire neighborhood. This paper route was the most memorable one for me. Paper route number 9! I really learned a lot about life while delivering newspapers on this route. And, I also truly learned a lot about the Back of the Yards and its residents. On this route, I delivered the Chicago Daily News, the Chicago Zgoda, and the Chicagowski, the last two were newspapers published in Polish. I tried to read the Polish newspapers, but they seemed be written in a foreign language to me. And most of the Polish subscribers hardly knew English, but we always understood each other.
There were two facets to delivering newspapers. One was the actual delivery of the newspapers. Some subscribers wanted it delivered a certain way. Folded without a rubberband, or with a rubberband. On the front porch, or on the back porch. Between the screendoor and the door. There were considerate customers who didn’t mind if I just rode past on my bike and threw the paper on their front porch. And my aim was true, most of the time.
One day, as I was approaching a house next to the alley, I was about to throw the newspaper on the porch when suddenly a car sped out of the alley. I was shaken a little and when I released the newspaper, it broke the glass on the storm door. I was so scared that I kept riding and delivering papers. When I returned to the newspaper agency, the subscriber had already reported me to my boss, Ernest Pressman. I swear. That was his real name. She knew it was an accident and she only wanted me to pay for the broken window. I remember I had to pay about four dollars for a new window, roughly my weekly salary before tips.
Sometimes delivering the newspaper could be downright dangerous. One customer wanted the paper delivered in the rear hallway. What I didn’t know was that somethimes she kept her German Shepherd there. One day, I open the hallway door and saw the German Shepherd lounging at my hand that was attempting to drop the newspaper in the hallway. I quickly shoved the newspaper in his mouth and slammed the door shut. I was waiting for another reprimand from Mr. Pressman when I returned to the newspaper agency, but I was never reported for this.
The second facet was collecting the money for the subscriptions. Collecting money from some customers required an excellent memory, ruses, and strategems. All this just to collect a measly fifty cents! I had to remember what day they got paid so I could go collect the money that day before they squandered it away on rent, food, utilities, and other such nonsense. And I also had to make sure I had enough change so they could pay and I could give them change. They wouldn’t pay unless I gave them correct change.
One woman once asked me if I had change for a five. Of course, I did. So then she upped it to ten dollars. I told her I had change for a ten, too. Then, she said for a twenty and I said yes. She then told me she had a fifty dollar bill and I showed her that I had enough change. I was ready for her because she had tried this before. She then paid me in exact change and gave me a nickel for a tip. I mean I got to know all of my customers very well. One woman told me to collect the money on Saturday morning at 8:00 a.m. and then wait for about ten to fifteen minutes until she opened the door. Not a problem, I told her. All I wanted to do was collect my money, and hopefully, a small tip. The reason she wanted me to knock on her door so early was that I was her Saturday morning alarm clock. And she took so long to open the door because she went to the bathroom first. I always hoped she washed her hands.
I delivered the Daily News to a bar on the corner of 43rd Street and Wolcott. When the bartender paid for the subscription, he would tip me fifty cents and tell me to take a bag of Mrs. Vitner’s potato chips, any candy bar of my choice, and a pack of gum. One customer I never saw. She left me a note on her door in the rear hallway saying she would leave the money hidden in a crack in the wall. I was pleased by this arrangement because this mystery woman tipped well.
One little old Polish lady always wanted me to deliver both the Zgoda and Chicagowski directly into her hands. So I had to get off my bike, go knock on her door, she would say something in Polish that I didn’t understand, I would say I was the paperboy, and then she would open up the door. I did this everyday! Actually, I didn’t mind doing it, either. Of course, she wasn’t a big tipper, either, even though she considered herself extremely generous. On the day I had to collect the money for the subscription, she would tell me to enter her apartment and lock the door behind me. She would give a crisp brand new dollar bill to pay for her bill of 99 cents. I would then give her her change of one cent, which she would give back to me immediately as my tip and insist that I put the penny in a different pocket because that penny was for me and not the newpaper agency. Most subscribers would tip a nickel or a dime and that was extremely generous in all reality. But I really loved going through this weekly ritual for my one cent tip! Sometimes I had to run out of the apartment so she wouldn’t hear me when I couldn’t contain my laughter anymore. I really loved this little old Polish lady!
There was another little old Polish lady on paper route who received the Chicago Daily News, the Zgoda, and the Chicagowski. Her bill was about $1.50 per week. She wasn’t as demanding about her delivery, either. When I went to collect the money for her subscription, she would tip me 100%. I told her that $1.50 was way too much money for the tip, but she insisted. Well, being the polite Mexican boy that I was, I would pocket the money, in a different pocket, of course, so the Mr. Pressman wouldn’t get my tip. Sometimes, she would feel really guilty about the tip and slip me an extra nickel or dime before I walked out!
After we moved from Pilsen, our family moved to Back of the Yards where my tío Simón and tía Mari lived. They lived at 4546 S. Marshfield and we moved to 4545 S. Hermitage. Back of the Yards was named thus because it was literally located behind the International Union Stockyards if you headed southwest from downtown. They were made famous, or infamous depending on your point of view, in Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle. In grade school, the Lithuanian nuns always mentioned the novel proudly because the protagonist was Lithuanian. They always talked about the man who drowned in the unpaved street and when I finally read the novel I convinced myself that I had deduced exactly where he drowned. The Stockyards where ever-present in our consciousness because many of our parents worked there in one of the meat-packing plants, we had to drive past them to go downtown or to the lakefront, or mainly, because of the pungent odors produced by a fertilizer company ironically named Darling and Co. The stench produced in the fertilizer-making process was inevitable if the wind blew in the direction of our neighborhood–even if we were indoors. My friend Patrick McDonnell used to take me there to play because it was the ideal playground for boys with over-active imaginations. But we had to look out for security guards, Patrick told me, and run if we saw them in order to avoid getting shot by their pepper guns. Luckily, we never saw any. One day Patrick told where there was a swimming hole and we went swimming there. It was dirty, smelly water, but Patrick talked me into jumping in. The next day when I told one of our neighbors where I had gone swimming, he laughed uproariously. He finally told me we swam in the pool that they used to wash the pigs before they were slaughtered! Well, we never swam there again.
Our neighborhood was typical of any Chicago neighborhood in that there was a surplus of neighborhood bars. There was at least one bar on every corner. But there were some corners that actually had two or three bars. And usually there was at least one or two bars in the middle of the block. The whole theory behind having so many bars was that if the man of house went out to tipple a few beers, everyone would know where to find him. Every payday, I had to make the rounds of the bars within a two-block radius to find my father before he spent too much of his salary before he got home. Later, I got the brilliant idea of taking my shoeshine box with me when I looked for my father in the bars. I would first go to the bars where I absolutely knew my father would not be and ask for him. Some of bar patrons whom I thought were surely upright citizens would see my shoeshine box and then ask me for a shoeshine. I made some pretty good spending money this way. One day, my father didn’t recognize me because I didn’t get to him in time and he paid me for a shoeshine. And he gave me a generous tip, which I dutifully gave to my mother when we returned home.
The neighborhood served as a port of entry for many ethnic groups. When we moved there in the 1960s, the Mexicans were just starting to move in, but there were plenty of us to go around. I had friends who were Lithuanian, Polish, German, Irish, Italian, and of course, Mexican. I remember going to many a friend’s house and not hearing any of their parents speaking very much English. In my neighborhood, there were three parishes within four blocks of my house. I attended Holy Cross Church because they also had a grade school. There was also Sacred Heart of Joseph that was the Polish parish also with its own school. Immaculate Heart of Mary was the Mexican parish, but they didn’t have their own school, which is why we attended Holy Cross. The main reason I attended Holy Cross School was because it was the closest Catholic school in the neighborhood. In fact, we lived right across the street from the school.
I remember my first day at Kindergarten. My tía Mari and her daughters Lourdes and Jane came for my mother and me and we all walked to school together. After school, I went out to the schoolyard with my cousin Jane who was in my class. We saw her mother, but my mother wasn’t there for me and I started crying. How would I get home, I wondered, even though I only lived across the street. My tía Mari told me not to cry. My mother showed up a few minutes later. She said that she had forgotten all about picking me up and I started crying again. The next morning, my mother woke me up to go to school. I was surprised. I said, “I have to go again?” I didn’t realize that Kindergarten would get so involved. But I agreed to go only if my mother remembered to pick me up this time.
Back then, no one sent their children to a Chicago public school if they could afford to send them to a private school. Holy Cross had Lithuanian nuns and they were very strict, but it was an education that lasted me a lifetime. I remember we had to go to mass everyday before we went to school. Back then the masses were still in Latin, but I liked the old masses better. Of course, I rarely go to mass now, but I haven’t forgotten what it is to be Catholic. I still feel guilty if I even think of committing a sin. Anyway, some of the Holy Cross students, namely the Mexicans, began attending mass at Immaculate Heart of Mary because the priest said the mass in Spanish. Well, this didn’t go over well with our Lithuanian nuns. They insisted that we attend mass at Holy Cross and started taking attendance at mass by keeping track of the envelopes that we gave during the offering at mass. We had to sit with our class at the 9:00 a.m. mass. Attendance was mandatory! Unless we could bring documentation that we were hospitalized or that something more serious had occurred to us. Because of this new rule, I often went to mass twice on Sundays. My mother would send me off to mass at Holy Cross and when I returned home, we would all pile into the car, go to Immaculate Heart for the Spanish mass, and then do our Sunday visits.
Our neighborhood was very territorial. Everyone knew where everyone belonged. Territorial transgressions where sometimes retaliated with physical violence. I remember once during our school lunch, my brother and I went to the candy store that was more or less between Holy Cross School and Sacred Heart School. He left the store before me. When I went out, I noticed my brother was crying. It so happened that two students from Sacred Heart had beat him up. As the older brother it was my moral obligation to defend my little brother. So I chased the two kids and I started punching them and telling them never to hit my brother again. Just then, a nun from Sacred Heart grabs me by the collar because I’m a stranger in a strange land. They take my brother and I to their principal’s office. One phone call to my school and my brother and I are in really big trouble so I try to be polite to the nuns. Luckily, I didn’t accidentally punch the nun who grabbed me. All we got was a lecture! But not a very good one. The principal, also a nun, said my brother and I reminded her of Cain and Abel. I couldn’t help it, but I absolutely had to correct her. I told her, “Cain killed his brother. I was defending my brother!” They principal told me not to talk back and she released us.