Jun 24, 2014

At Chet's Corner Bar, we turn a corner and face home, with fond memories of Baldo and Diogenes

Sign of the times at Chet's
Doc's report:

In his last column for this blog, Dan Nowak, who wrote under the pseudonym Baldo, asked a rhetorical question suggested by the last place we visited, the Circle Bar: “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”

It's a question fraught with tragic irony, as Dan died days later, 69 years old. T.S. Eliot was right: April is the cruelest month.

Harry and I answered Dan's question with our feet, arriving at Chet's Corner Bar in the shadow of St. Stan's twin steeples, the parish church that anchors Bay City's predominantly Polish South End, where Dan was baptized, educated and buried. Days earlier, just around the corner, Bay City witnessed its first murder since 2012. Bay City is such a civilized and friendly place that a murder is so rare -- “Jesu Christi!” -- people hardly know what to make of it and just go on with their lives.

Dan, Harry and I had attended three funerals at St. Stan's in the last year: those of Dan's mother, my girlfriend's mother and, of course, Dan's. I was raised in the South End, too, and it's in my blood; but enough with the kielbasa at 11 a.m. on a weekday, already. (Dan's rationale for ordering his mother's funeral breakfast: “It's mom. Spring for the ham.”)

I like a dark, smoky, moody bar: broken lives, interrupted anecdotes. That's not Chet's -- at least not on a Friday afternoon in early June. But it was exactly what we needed: a bright, clean, L-shaped bar as the tavern's name suggests, friendly, under new ownership right out of the St. Stan's church directory: Czerwinski. Dan would have pronounced it “Chdeh-veen-ski,” with a trilled “r” on the “d.”

The young owner's father had died recently as well. I felt right at home immediately. It couldn't have been a better time. I beat Harry at pool; he beat me at shuffleboard, on what was obviously an oily, biased, overly sanded surface with which he was only too familiar: “There's the rub.”

The bartender put on “Jeopardy.” Tip: Don't compete in knowledge-based games against the locals in a South End bar; a respect for education runs deep in the Polish culture. You can't win. People fear the Felician nuns who educated us too much to make a mistake. The Final Jeopardy answer in the category “19th Century American Authors” was: “He was known as the American Diogenes.” As though with a single voice, the 10 or so patrons nailed it: “Thoreau.”

I had never met anyone at the bar; but everyone I met knew someone whom I knew: “I went to school with your brother.” “I worked at the Chevy with your dad.” That's Bay City -- a city of neighborhoods and relationships. And between the generations, too. Two weeks later at a
A tribute to Don Zube
nighttime celebration of a previous owner, Don Zube, a much younger and larger crowd of local residents mingled amiably with the older stalwarts. Even without my training, I recognize a symbol of renewal when I see one.

And so our journey continues, but always somehow tugging us back to the South End, where Chet's Corner Bar joins Trix's, Bay City Bill's, Bishop’s, Malickey's, St. Stan's AC Summer Festival, St. Stan's AC annual sports banquet, Pulaski Hall, the PLAV Hall, the Eagle Club at the K of C Hall, Jim's, Jake’s South Inn,  Ole Tyme Broadway, the Spinning Wheel,  Krysiak's, Bemo's, Tubby's, Barney's, the Oasis and any number of places where Dan's spirit continues to call up memories of a writer and patriot whose virtues read like an advertisement for the Boy Scouts: funny, kind, talented, generous, loyal, clean, hard-working, smart, courteous and proudly South End Polish.

So the Circle remains unbroken; Dan is still with us, in sunshine or in shadow.

Oh -- a footnote: Harry took his quest for Bay City's best Manhattan to the next level, thanks to my alerting Chet's  weeks earlier to stock up on bitters.

With apologies to Dorothy Parker and a nod to Dan:

I like to have a Manhattan,
But only two – at the most.
Three, I'm under the table.
Four, I'm under the host.

In future posts: Harry relates the anecdote of a panda walking into a bar, and I tell mine about a dog ordering champagne.

See the hairy guy's report on Chet's: Where the beer flows on but the shuffleboard table might have had one too many

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