By Pauls Toutonghi
My dad, drunk again and singing.
In a previous life of his, my dad dreamed of becoming a country and western singer. The fact that he'd lived this life in a concrete apartment tower in a suburb of Riga, Latvia, seems not to have mattered.
In his dreams of the country and western life, my dad would wear rhinestone-crusted spurs and a black pancake of a Stetson. He'd make his home on the outskirts of Nashville, Tennessee. He'd have a bluetick hound, or perhaps even two bluetick hounds, and at sunset when the light was just so, he'd drink bourbon and mourn the loss of the old American music. He (Rudolfs Balodis, the Lonely Latvian) and his band (the Tragic Trio) would win Grammy after Grammy after Grammy. He would not live in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
He never said this explicitly, of course. But I could infer. He would drink the bourbon – always Heaven Hill Kentucky Bourbon – and sing the classics. They'd pour out along with the alcohol, delivered in an impenetrable Soviet accent: Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, Moon Mullican and his Texas Wanderers. And he yodeled – how could he not yodel? His pursed lips will forever be stuck in my mind, meaty and sweaty, clean-shaven to the point of razor burn, laboring over this foreign vocabulary.
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 16, 1989
Milwaukee is not famous. Don't believe the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company, which has claimed since 1871 that Schlitz is “the beer that made Milwaukee famous.” This is an indisputable lie. As a teenage resident of downtown Milwaukee – as an inhabitant of the zip code 53202 – I was as anonymous as anyone else in America. There was no fame magically coursing through my city's rusted water pipes. There was no fame in the boarded-up homes and concrete warehouses of my neighborhood.
Schlitz or no Schlitz, my family lived in a four-story building on the border of a Section 8 housing development. We inhabited one wing of the top floor. My mom posted this sign just above our mailbox, in cheerful red ink and Scotch tape:
The Balodis Family Welcome you!
Come into our home in Apartment Number 7!
In Latvian, Balodis means pigeon. We were a small roost of Soviet immigrant pigeons – just the three of us – huddled together amid the urban decay.
Yes, the apartment was dingy. But dingy in a hopeful way, dingy with a heart. Looking back on it now, fifteen years later, I recognize that it did have certain low-budget flair. There were posters tacked to the walls, or rather, 8 _ by 11 advertisements that my mom had carefully torn out of the magazines in the library. These were advertisements of many different sorts: Coca-Cola, Wrangler Jeans, the Toyota Camry. Anything with bright colors or a sense of consumer wealth. She tacked them up behind sheets of plastic, and at night the plastic would catch the lamplight and shimmer. “That, my darling,” she liked to say, “is the most beautiful advertising bulletin, do you not think?”
On the main living room wall there was an enormous vainags, a yellow wreath that was made mostly from straw and dried flowers. This vainags supposedly brought good luck if you rubbed it, and so there was perpetually a trail of crumbled straw on the floor. That, coupled with the open jar of salt on the dinner table – salt to bring flavor and fertility to our house – made me feel something like a barnyard animal.
We had five rooms: A kitchen, a bathroom, two bedrooms, and a living room. We ate our meals at a table in the kitchen, just the three of us – at times it would get a little lonely. But to my dad, this was the extreme of luxury. “For an apartment similar to this in Riga,” he once told me, “you would have to turn in at least four neighbors to the KGB.” He loved the thick, olive-colored shag carpeting. Barefoot – this is how he liked to be when he was home. His feet were enormous and hairy, and slightly redolent of decay. He liked to shuffle through the carpet, to luxuriate his decaying feet in the petroleum fibers.
Invariably, though, my dad would end up drinking on the balcony. I do believe that if the weather had been more cooperative he would have slept there, covered in his nylon sleeping bag, staring up at the stars. Some summer evenings when my parents weren't fighting they'd drink wine outside and stand uncomfortably close to each other. This would force me to hurry to my bedroom, where I'd burrow under the covers, embarrassed by their affection, and try to read with a flashlight.
A church and a deli – this was the story of immigration to America in the twentieth century. Of course, the church was often a synagogue, or a mosque, or a Kingdom Hall – but the pattern remained essentially the same. Immigrant communities clustered across the Milwaukee city map, punctures of demographic brightness. The first Latvians, my dad would often tell me, came to Wisconsin in 1903. The Wisconsin Valley Land Company lured them to the farmland west of Milwaukee. They came with the Croats, the Lithuanians, the Bulgarians, the Slovaks, the Poles, the Argentines, the Swedes, the Cubans.
As Latvians living downtown, though, we were out of luck. The Latvian Lutheran Evangelical Church was all the way out in Wauwatosa, a little suburb twenty miles to the west. My dad preferred the Catholic Church, anyway. “The communion wafers taste better, there,” he told me. “More like bread, and not so much like paste.”
When we did go to mass – mostly on the holiest of Holy Days – we bundled our way over to St. Philippe's. The spires of this cathedral rose magnificently over Lake Michigan, a tribute to Victorian Gothic architecture, in all of its gargoyle-laden glory. When I was a kid, I was terrified of these gargoyles. I imagined them sweeping down off of their perches, claws extended, and carrying me off to some distant point in order to eat me.
We were isolated from the Latvian church, and so we were also isolated from the few stores that sold Latvian goods. My mom shopped instead at the Polish specialty stores on South Kinnickinnic Avenue. In her years in the city she'd managed to pick up a few Polish phrases, and so she'd haggle with the retailers, demanding better prices in her scornful, but limited, Polish. When I was free from school I'd accompany her.
On this particular day, we crossed the Milwaukee River twice, taking both the Wisconsin Avenue lift bridge and the steel-truss bridge that followed it. By the time we reached Zigorski's – her favorite of the little shops – my feet ached and throbbed. But, then again, she was my mom, and she demanded a certain amount of Eastern European foodstuffs.
Zigorski's was a Polish delicatessen of the first order. Ropes of sausage dangled from the ceiling. The refrigerated case overflowed with a variety of pickled products – eggs, cucumbers, mushrooms, even a big jar that held the brain of pig, bobbing in a dill-studded brine. No one bought the pig's brain. I guessed that it was a decoration.
My mom was looking for fresh herring. She didn't want herring that came in a tin – this you could buy, she told me, at any supermarket. “We will have a good meal that I have been craving recently,” she'd said.
When my mom asked the man behind the counter for herring, he frowned and said that they were out. They might have some next week, he indicated, and crossed his heavy arms over his chest. He wore a white apron and a small triangular cap. The apron was stained with broad streaks of blood. His graying sideburns, I noticed, reached the lowest portion of his jaw.
“You bastard,” my mom said. “Don't lie to me.”
If I'd been inexperienced in the ways of shopping with my mom, I would have probably been nervous at this point. As it was, a woman standing near the baked goods gasped and dropped a cake on the floor. The cake exploded, scattering frosting in a wide white arc. Another Zigorski's employee scurried out of a back room with a mop.
“Don't call me names,” the attendant said. Then, raising the volume of his voice: “Does anyone else need help?” Though there were several other customers, none of them seemed eager to get involved in this particular confrontation. My mother stood there, resolute.
“I know you have it, you bastard,” she said again. She then added a few phrases of Polish. They sounded guttural and malicious, and from the expression on the man's face, I guessed that they weren't overly polite. He shook his head and disappeared wordlessly into the back.
This was, then, the old way of shopping. My mom took the lessons she'd learned in Soviet Latvia and applied them to the American grocery marketplace. When the counter attendant vanished, she patted my head gently. “Do not worry, Yuri,” she said. “He will return in a moment with our herring.”