Kochanski’s Concertina Bar on the southside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin has held fast against change, choosing to embrace the classic and timeless icons of our American culture against a wave of vapid modernity. Johnny Cash, Tri-Five Chevy’s and polka-dot dresses all live on here, larger-than-life and immune to the river of time flowing around them.
These are the symbols that captivated countless immigrants seeking a better life in this country. Television shows like Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley celebrated and exported this carefree culture of 1950s Milwaukee worldwide, projecting American optimism over the airwaves through the Soviet Iron Curtain and beyond.
So, it’s not unusual that all things American — music, cars, motorcycles and freedom — be celebrated at a hot rod show called the Polish Pile-Up by those who can appreciate it the most.
Members of the local legacy-car clubs are on the scene. The Cam’s n Jammers. The Trouble Shooters. The No-Club. The Kreepers. Some of these car clubs have been around for generations. Grandfathers enlisted sons, who in turn brought in grandsons. There is no acrimony between the clubs and everyone respects each other as they picnic together under shade trees.
A pin-up girl pageant crowns Miss Polish Pile-Up, among other honorary titles. The ladies carry on admirably in the sweltering 94-degree heat under heavy makeup and chiffon dresses to put on a fun show for the crowd. The talent portion includes each contestant’s telling of a self-effacing Polish joke, eliciting good-natured groans from the audience. Prizes include jars of pickles and ’50s-era Pyrex dishes.
The bands are melting in the sun too, with some members commenting that the heat makes it hard to keep their instruments in tune. But it doesn’t dent their enthusiasm, even as the audience retreats to shade under the patio umbrellas or inside the adjacent beer hall.
Smoke wafts off the grill stocked with hamburgers and hot dogs, but also reminders of the Old World — Polish sausage and pierogis, which are small dough dumplings filled with cheese and potato. They’re as good as you’d find in any fancy restaurant and are sublime when paired with a cold Pabst beer from the tapper trailer.
Everyone is happy to talk about their car or bike, and a friendly query about the vehicle’s year or history can open up a conversation which invariably reveals friends in common or shared experiences.
This is America in its quintessential form, focused on commonality instead of division. On this Fourth of July, it’s essential to celebrate community and exercise our freedoms — things that we can often appreciate fully when viewed through the eyes of others.