For Poles in America: “It’s a Clean Thing”
by Stan Bednarczyk
Polish American Journal / June 2006
Pani Czysciutka was not a fanatic. Certainly not an obsessive, neatnik freak nor one possessed by irrational tidiness. No, she was just one of the majority of the home owners in the Polish, Whitman
Park section of Camden (N.J.) who took much pride, much satisfaction, and much glory in her home, her family, the street and the neighborhood. There never was a need for organized, community clean up crusades in
this section of the city. For goodness sake, if the saying “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” holds true, then the area was on the threshold of Heaven, as were almost all the Polish neighborhoods
throughout the country.
Maybe the reason for all this immaculate orderliness was caused by some mysterious ingredient included in the consumption of all those yards of kielbasa. I don’t know. But there also was this
uncorroborated rumor that Prince Mieszko I, who introduced Christianity to Poland in 966, won a Heaven poker game with St. Peter. At stake was an extra “clean gene,” that since then has been imbedded in
all Polish births. And Pani Czysciutka seemed to possess it in abundance.
She would be out bright and early every Saturday morning like most neighbors, scrubbing the porch, the rocking chairs, the steps, the sidewalk, even her part of the street. Anything that was
stationary was fair game.
“Very dangerous is a Polish woman with a soapy bucket of water and a scrub brush,” the mailman was heard to say. “If I don’t keep moving I’m liable to get scrubbed down
and get my Saturday night bath early — right there on someone’s sidewalk.”
But scrubbing wasn’t the only criteria for these efficient, high octane, abode administrators of yesteryear. Extra points seemed to be credited to those homemaker moms who were out early,
surpassing their neighbors in the Saturday, timetable production. The same approach would be applied to the Monday, washday standard. Whoever hung out their back yard clotheslines, full of beaming clean laundry, got
extra credit for being early morning first. Competition was keen and came in unique formats. Perhaps the old Polish saying: “Kto rano wstaje, temu Pan Bog daje” (Who rises early, to him God gives), had
something to do with it.
It even related to the curbside where putting out the trash and garbage for collection was expected to be early, orderly and in spic and span fashion.
Buffalo’s own, internationally-famous Tim Russert, in his wonderful “Big Russ and Me” autobiography tells of his blue collar upbringing and how, in his early years, he was employed
by the Buffalo Sanitation Department and his experiences in picking up the haphazard, carelessly mixed garbage intermingled with the trash and how “We’d have to smell it and wear it the rest of the day.
Others, especially the Polish neighborhoods, wrapped their garbage so neatly and carefully that you almost expected them to put a ribbon on it. As soon as we picked up their trash, they’d be out there with a
hose, rinsing out the empty cans.”
Proficiency, cleanliness and stability, they certainly were dominant status builders. Unfortunately, taken for granted were those serene, ethnic neighborhoods of personal responsibility based on a
moral structure and discipline that are no more. Bastions of tradition, these were fortresses of strength, headed in many cases by brigades of scrubbing, washday, family-oriented generals of nesting fame.
(“Greatest Generation” critics take note.) Now, only precious memories remain of slower, more gentler times—distant remnants of well being and security. Where somehow, within the scope of less
choices, there was an almost mystical freedom in the realm of rigid restrictions. Where making do with very little somehow equaled out to so much more. How could that be? Does anybody have an answer? Or a time
machine? I sure would love to go back to those years.
If for no other reason, than to just once more, have the opportunity to place that ice card in the front window to let the iceman know what size block of ice to deliver. Or to, one more time, be
awakened in the wee hours of the morning by the klip-klop of hoof beats and melodious jangling of milk bottles as I sleepily snuggle under my pierzyna with the thought that all is well in the world because of the
muffled sound of the milkman’s “giddy-yup.”
Or even to, one last time, put curbside the trash in those old, metal containers,for posterity’s sake. And the garbage, neatly packaged, with a big red and white ribbon—for Tim
Stan Bednarczyk is a frequent contributor to the Polish American Journal. He lives in Haddon Heights, N.J. in one of the cleanest houses on his street.