Feb 6, 2019

Back from the ashes, the Oasis serves up memories (along with its food and drinks) in the South End

Roxy at the Oasis
Roxy behind the bar at the Oasis
Doc’s report:

I used to have the $3.99 breakfast at the Oasis Lounge at 8:30 on Wednesday with Dan, who co-founded this blog under the name Baldo. Dan was my best friend; he passed away in April 2014. The $3.99 breakfast is the same today as it was then: two eggs any style, and a choice of potato, meat and toast.

Twenty or so people are there on any morning during the week for breakfast: retirees or people on their way to work.

The Oasis is at Kosciuszko and Lincoln, where Lincoln jogs between two stoplights. Dan grew up four blocks north and a block east at 18th and Birney, I grew up 10 blocks south on 32nd and Lincoln, and we both went to school at St. Stan’s, four blocks west at 22nd and Grant, the heart of the South End.

You’d pass it several times a week, wherever you were going. It was easy to take the Oasis for granted. It was just always there, unchanging, with its palm tree logo, and famous for its Friday night fish dinners.

So when a fire closed the Oasis two years ago, Facebook went viral with rumors as to the cause of the fire, the destiny of the South End staple, and memories of happier, earlier times -- always better in the selective memory than in the experience. South Enders take their traditions about as seriously as the Russian peasants in the opening scene of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

But like the phoenix -- or, in this case, the perch -- rising from its ashes, the Oasis reopened last March, just in time for Lent. In the Roman Catholic tradition, meatless Fridays during Lent are part of the fast, along with prayer and almsgiving, in preparation for Easter. Fasting is supposed to stimulate the sense of hunger, making us humble and reminding us of the true source of spiritual life.

In practice, it’s simply the occasion to eat a lot of the best fish you can get your tartar sauce on. An informal survey (whose sole participant was my friend Margie) ranks the Oasis in a dead heat
Oasis wall
A mostly barren wall at the Oasis
with J&R’s on Center for the county's best Lenten Friday fish fry.

But they’ll be popping up at parishes and Knights of Columbus halls all over the area when Lent begins on March 6 this year. (I once attended a Lenten fish and chips fry at a monastery and quipped to our server: “Are you the fish friar?” He retorted: “No. I’m the chip monk.” Lesson learned: Even if you think you’re as witty as Robin Hood, don’t engage with Friar Tuck.)

On a recent afternoon visit to the Oasis with Harry, with the windchills in the sub-zero double digits, the Oasis lived up to the billing promised in its name: an island of refreshment and civility in the midst of a barren clime.

I was delighted to see the new, clean interior, with pristine restrooms and controlled hues spanning a concise gray palette. (I haven’t seen that many shades of gray since my last Dakota Johnson movie. I asked a friend if she wanted to see it, but she said she was already tied up.)

Our charming and experienced hostess Roxy gave Harry and me her full attention for four hours, largely because there were no options. It was just the three of us, and a more delightful afternoon I haven’t spent since the last Ice Age. Roxy said the lounge once carried the nickname the Dirty O, as a '70s, hard-partying, last-call biker bar and that people at the summer St. Stan’s Polish Festival, held a few blocks south on Lincoln, flee the beer tent and fill the Oasis for its air conditioning.

Despite her years of experience, Roxy thinks they come for the air conditioning. There’s still a lot of girl in Roxy.

But if they’re anything like me, for patrons who grew up in the South End, most of what’s
Oasis menu
Front of the menu
happening at the Oasis is happening in their memories.

The Sunday after my visit with Harry, Margie and I stopped in for breakfast and chatted with Don and Diane, who were there, like many others, after 9:30 a.m. Mass.

In 1963, I was an eighth-grader in a Polish folk dance with Diane as my partner, part of a three-hour program honoring St. Hyacinth’s pastor, Monsignor Skowronski, on the 50th anniversary of his priesthood. The program also featured the reading of congratulatory letters from President Kennedy and Pope John XXIII.

Don, a 1968 classmate of Margie’s, is as handsome and athletic as ever in his tailored dark suit, starched white shirt, and muted tie, still worn by the ushers at St. Stan’s.

On my last breakfast at the Oasis with Dan, he told me that during World War II, his father played in a polka band at the Oasis, and his mother would sit and listen. Dan was born a half year before the end of World War II. That must have been a very happy time at the Oasis and in the South End -- having babies, beating the Germans, dancing to polka music and drinking beer. Like the '60s were for me and my classmates.

At the Oasis, I thought that happy memories, sustained by tradition and made happier through the filter of time, are the pay-off for growing old. But there’s a price.

So I was delighted when I got home to read this traditional joke on Facebook from my 92-year-
Oasis window view
View out a front window
old aunt and godmother Ellen, of Reese by way of Essexville:

A Polish immigrant goes to apply for a driver’s license. During the eye test, he's shown this line: “CZJEDRZEWCHLEWOJOICZ” and asked: “Can you read it?”

“Read it?” says the Pole. “I know the guy.”

My takeaway from my afternoon with Harry and Roxy at the Oasis on a frigid midweek afternoon was how fortunate I was to have grown up among the generous, smart, devout, affectionate, honest, hard-working Poles in the South End. I’m Irish, my father a Missourian displaced by the war. I did nothing to deserve my childhood and adolescence. 

Shakespeare wrote that gratitude is the shortest-lived human emotion, and that in winter’s landscape we see that  time of life where we’ve become “bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.” 

I guess everyone makes mistakes. Even Shakespeare.

See the hairy guy’s report on the Oasis: Perch for sure, but also liver and onions, gray walls, porch chops (but no porch) and breakfast

No comments: