In this era of all-night raves and metallic pants, polka hedonism is grossly underrated. Like any other under the colored lights, the polka lifestyle can be vital and variegated, glamorous and grueling.
"We eat, drink, dance, and make love," 82-year-old Eddie Basiewicz says of polka trips taken with his girlfriend, Patty Baker. A favorite spot is Seven Springs Resort in Pennsylvania. "The restaurants are all in one place, and you stay in one place. There's free beer, and people are lying around in the sun. Some of them even dance around the pool."
When the bus pulls up, the bands are already jamming -- there's no time to lose, so the partiers polka down the steps and across the lawn before they even set foot on a varnished plank. Inside, the ballroom floor is as smooth as butter, and they twirl from the table of hors d'oeuvres on one end to a table of drinks on the other. If they see something they haven't sipped or tasted, they try it out, then leave the rest untouched, so they don't lose their momentum.
After dancing: dinner. "You choose whatever you want," says Basiewicz. Prime rib, or perhaps a Chinese combination plate. After dinner, there's a live show. "Then you dance till 2 o'clock and sleep till 7, when they wake you up with polka music in the hallway and vodka and tomato juice." Besides what's on the menu, one couple might have a stash of booze in their room and another a smorgasbord laid out, so they make the rounds, whooping it up and partaking in the spreads.
From the Catskills to Vegas, Eddie and Patty have been partying in fine fashion since they met 20 years ago at the Brookstate Inn, a no-holds-barred polka palace in Parma that changed hands in 1989 and has since become a sports bar called the Goal Post. Its former clientele can still deliver pocket eulogies to the place on a dime.
"They brought in all the good bands, every Friday and Saturday night," says Baker. "It was so crowded, you had to get there early, or you didn't get in." When winded polkaers couldn't get to the bar, they shouted out for drinks, which were passed over people's heads. After closing time, regulars would socialize in the bar's kitchen, where the owner kept a pot of coffee and hot dogs on the stove "so you shouldn't go home with booze on your breath."
In the annals of compressed time, Basiewicz isn't that far from the days when he was too young to get into the neighborhood dance hall on East 141st Street. "At that time, the Hungarians and Italians would have dances there," he says. "I would sit in the window and watch the musicians -- I was 12 or 13."
Working nights at a downtown restaurant a few years later allowed him to make the first set at Circle Ballroom on Euclid Avenue, dance with four or five different girls, and then leap onto the streetcar to get to his job on time. On weekends, he and six other guys would cram into a friend's three-seater and cruise the polka clubs searching for the best bands and the best-looking girls. When he got a car -- a 1939 Nash with air-conditioning -- they'd take road trips to Chicago, haven for all the best polka dancers.
"And we met girls from Milwaukee at the Chicago dances, so then we'd have to go to Milwaukee."
Getting drafted into the army during World War II didn't keep him from being a good-time guy. He was a cook with the 2nd Division stationed in Northern Ireland, until one night when he was playing poker with the boys, and the firewater got the best of him.
"You know, that 120-proof scotch -- a couple swigs, and boy, you get loaded in no time!" It made for a mean hangover, and the next morning at 4:30, he refused to get out of bed and make breakfast for the troops. He was promptly thrown out of the kitchen and into soldiering.
He survived the front lines on D-Day, then partied on the train taking the troops through France, on the first leg of their victorious journey home. But the train got boring -- he wanted to see Paris!
The men weren't allowed to leave, so "I got off the boxcar on one side when the lieutenant was getting on, on the other," he says. "I met some Polish girls in Paris, and I got to talking with them, and the war was over for me." At least until the lieutenant collared him in a tavern and put him back on the train.
After the war, he met his future wife, Irene, at a bowling alley on 42nd Street and Harvard Avenue, where he used to stop to hear "what kind of music they were playing, and if the music was good, I'd stay there." When he first danced with Irene, "her back was real rigid, and she wouldn't relax at all. Once I got her to relax, she was a good dancer."
Irene died of breast cancer in 1977. In a black-and-white picture on Eddie's record cabinet, she sits on his lap, wearing shorts and momentarily worrying that his wandering hand's too high up on her leg for posterity. He's smiling rakishly -- since she's squirming in his embrace, there's more of her to hold.
In 1979, Basiewicz, who now lives in Garfield Heights, started going dancing at the Brookstate Inn. "I decided not to come home and think about my wife every night," he says. "I had to get out and do something." A second-shift supervisor at Cole National, he'd close the shop early on Fridays, then polka until 2:30 in the morning. Early on, one of his favorite partners was the dance teacher: a lusty, fair-haired woman named Rosie. He started showing up at beginner's lessons at the bar, even though he already knew all the steps in his sleep. They'd add some jitterbug moves to their hop and dance cheek to cheek under the blue light, where the impossible was attainable. Basiewicz and Baker are longtime members of the Cleveland Polka Association, a club for hard-core polka groupies that boasts some of the rowdiest organizational meetings in town. Unaffiliated with any nationality club, the group started 25 years ago purely to promote polkas.
Amid the old minutes and new business, members can feast on pizza and baked goods, imbibe (first highball free!), and dance to a live band. "Our life revolves around polkas," says Helen Fletcher, past president of the CPA. "Whenever there's a dance, we're there."
Such dedication often involves a road trip -- perhaps to Pittsburgh, for polka river cruises, where the ships meet halfway and the dancers switch boats so they can hear two bands in one night. Or to Wildwood, New Jersey, for the marathon weekends, where 12 polka bands play in 12 hours. To take a breather, "you figure out which band you don't like, and you go out to eat while they're playing," says Basiewicz, who keeps a polka scrapbook with photographs of his favorite bands and programs from his favorite weekends.
When not carousing in far-flung towns, the CPA sponsors several of its own dances each year. They held their most recent soiree at the Alliance of Poles Hall on Broadway Avenue, a resplendent 1930s ballroom with a mirror ball spilling diamonds on the dancers, who move in a constant circle, forming a frenzied, organic mass that neither begins nor ends. When they get tangled up and fall, hands reach out to help them, and they fall back in step, winded and flushed but undeterred. Though it's only afternoon, people are dressed in their evening clothes, as if they stepped over the gold-painted threshold and transformed, Cinderella-style.
The band is Ray Jay and the Carousels, a Polish or "honky style" polka band that's driven by a brass section rather than an accordion (though one member does play a mother-of-pearl concertina). In their hands, polka becomes a living music: wild, impassioned, and unpredictable. When the band gets really hot, old people rush the stage, hollering "more, more" and shaking sets of sleigh bells in appreciation.
One of the more muscular builds in the crowd is that of Ray Lozinski, a 73-year-old weightlifter from Warren. He's dressed in his formal wear: a silvery warm-up suit that ties around the waist. But his muscles don't get in the way of his polkaing. Actually, he says, his athleticism really helps him when he dances the "hatchet dance," a vigorous number where he has to swing a hatchet and kick out his legs in a Cossack frenzy.
If the CPA's 900 members put their hair up for Alliance of Poles, they let it down at their monthly meeting, usually held at Ampol Hall on Pearl Road. For the Halloween shindig, a clown wearing pumpkin-shaped slippers helps membership chair Sylvia Namitka pronounce some of the more obscure Polish names. A witch with a jack-o'-lantern sippy cup listens intently as CPA president Paul Namitka delivers an elegy to the cupcakes with orange sprinkles and pumpkin cookies arranged in the kitchen. It's a far cry from the mirror ball and diamonds on the floor.
Baker sits at a nearby table. "How old do you think I am?" she asks. 59? 62? "I'm 78. That's why I play these games -- nobody guesses."
Baker has arthritic knees and doesn't dance too much anymore. "Eddie likes to turn me around too much. I say, "That's enough.' He wants to dance every dance. I tell him go get her, go get her."
The band's playing a Polish-language polka, roughly translated the "Son of a Gun Polka." Baker, being Ukrainian, can't make out the words, but she knows it's "dirty." There are good polka bands and bad polka bands. This one would fall in the second category.
Everyone in the CPA seems to agree that polkas are happy music, that nothing about them is depressing or even melancholic. Perhaps the melancholy, then, is unspoken, delivered to a driving beat by a sparkling brass section. Life is filled with peaks and pitfalls, and the most intense -- like growing old and saying goodbye -- are the ones best set to music.
Laura Putre can be reached at email@example.com.