By Rosalie Tirella
In our last issue I told you my ol’ friend Tony Hmura died at the very ripe old age of 93. I explained how this alt-right Worcester character was in truth a pretty compassionate guy who, for years, ran his own little nutty social service agency out of Leader Sign Co., his small business (and love of his life for 65+ years) on Canterbury Street.
Tony never dug deep to find the reasons for people’s addictions or problems because he didn’t spend time analyzing himself and his own pain. He was a working class guy who made signs! His motto? JUST DO IT! Neon, paint, corrugated plastic, saws, hammers, drills – you name it. Tony loved the physical, loved to be out in the elements, subduing them. The little guy – he was about 5′ 3″ tall and skinny – was happiest working with his son Bryan, in their huge company truck/crane, running up ladders, running on roofs…fixing, building. He was into …
… not …
Tears were a waste of time, for Tony. Life called for ACTION!!!!!!
So Tony had his hands-on solutions to problems Freud would have psychoanalyzed to death. Tony’d take hookers out for hot dogs at Coney Island, so they’d have a “square meal.” He’d give the emaciated neighborhood booze hounds 10 bucks, knowing they’d run straight up the street to Rendell Package store to buy their vino, not once thinking about eating. For years he’d buy 5-pound bags of Purina cat chow and dump a bunch of cat food in the bowl outside his shop for the feral cat colonies he cared for. Tony loved cats – thought they were beautiful – and did a great job of feeding and watering (every day) all the wild kittens and cats who, like the wild inner-city people, made their way to Leader Sign’s door step. But he was never interested in trapping/spaying/neutering them. Or having them vaccinated for rabies. He didn’t understand the feral cat issue – or even knew what a feral cat colony was. I called all my animal rights gal pals and got them ready to go with traps etc to Leader, but Tony never got behind the effort, wasn’t there at the shop to help them – or approve of them on his property. Maybe a group of Tony’s feral cats were “fixed” and vaccinated. Maybe not. He didn’t really get the point. For him, he had beautiful cats at his door step looking for food. So he fed them.
Tony used to brag about his furry kitty visitors – he told me their colors and described their markings with a smile. A tone of wonder. He was a nature freak, but didn’t admit the fact. For instance, he also left cat food and scraps outside the front door of his Auburn home. Often I’d visit to see a styrofoam take out carton filled with spaghetti or bits of bread or pizza crusts to the right of his WELCOME door mat. The Auburn feral cats, along with some very fat happy squirrels, were also cared for by Tony. The swans in the pond behind his house were counted – babies especially. The geese weren’t as lovely – but Tony liked them, too.
Christmas was the time of year Tony tried to make life better for poor kids and people in the ‘hood. For many years he was the “secret” Polish Santa – in an Irish-WASP-dominated city! This was Tony’s way of promoting his ancestry and saying Screw You! to Worcester’s movers and shakers, who always managed to keep Tony out of the loop. Always the narcissistic self-promoter, Tony marketed his Santa brand – had a ton of special Polish Santa silver dollars minted, in his image (a scrawny Santa that looked exactly like Tony), which he gave out to any body and every body this time of year, dressed as the Polish Santa, of course.
Every Christmas the Polish Santa would hit many of Woo’s seedier bars and night clubs to give his Polish Santa silver dollars, along with a $50 bill, to the rough but always very grateful waitresses or “show girls” – some offering themselves up to the Polish Santa for more presents … Oh, Santa BABY!
Tony might have nibbled but never committed himself – he was too rich for a girlfriend/second wife. He wanted to keep all his money to himself. Women were mostly for sex.
Often, with a just-visiting-for-the-holidays gal pal from Naples, Florida, (Tony bought a sexy Mrs. Claus red suit for her) he would fill a sack with cute stuffed Disney animals and plush toys and hand them out to school kids – usuually at St. Mary’s – way before today’s asshole pastor took over the little Polish school and neighboring church.
One year, his gal pal didn’t visit – so I got the call. I said: Yes, but the Christmas toys have to be given to a classroom of little kids at Canterbury Street School.
I told Tony the kids were needy and would love the presents and seeing Santa (Tony paid a lot of money for an amazing Santa outfit). And NO, I wouldn’t wear the sexy Mrs. Claus outfit with go go boots.
Tony had aspirations but he was, at his core, a pragmatist: OK, he said.
So the next day Tony and I went to a nice big box store and bought 15 cute little girl toys and 15 cute little boy toys, a ton of wrapping paper and red and green ribbon. We went to Tony’s house where he turned on America’s Most Wanted and I slaved over the gifts. Wrapping THIRTY Christmas presents in one go – complete with ribbon, red for girls, green for boys – is not really fun in one sitting. Especially with America’s Most Wanted blasting on the TV. Old Tony sat in his Lazy Boy and drank a glass of Moxie (yes, I was surprised they still make it) and annoyingly cracked open and ate pistachio nuts, his favorite snack.
Finally, I was done and annoyed. I told him: LOAD THE GIFTS IN YOUR CAR TRUNK YOUR SELF! Pick me up tomorrow and we’ll go to Canterbury.
Tony, in between sips of Moxie, said, Yep.
Next day Tony picked me up. As the Polish Santa. We drove to Canterbury Street School. He was told: We have two kids who are Mormons. You can’t bring in presents because it’s against their religion.
Tony walked back to the car, tear-assed. WHAT THE FUCK! said the Polish Santa. And added: Put the Mormon kids in another room!
Shit! said Santa’s exasperated helper. They can’t. You have to respect all families’ religion and you can’t discriminate. Especially in a public school. Even one filled with poor kids who would have loved getting Christmas gifts from Santa (even the Mormons).
This was the kind of politically correct explanation that was anathema to Tony. He hated hearing stuff like this – stuff that was right and true but still deeply fucked up. The new America. The America that he didn’t understand. The America that had left him behind.
That’s bullshit, Santa said to me.
I know, I said. And sighed. Then I suggested we go to St. Mary’s school where he could still have fun giving gifts to kids dressed as Santa.
Tony said OK. We drove to the little school on Richland Street, met the nun who at that time was school principal, walked down perfectly spotless, silent corridors and entered a third grade classroom whose students promptly rose to their feet and said GOOD AFTER NOON SISTER…
The good nun explained what would happen. Tony passed out the gifts. The kids sang a song for him as a thank you. The nun lead us out, thanking Tony profusely. I think he gave her a Polish Santa silver dollar.
The class sent Tony a cute homemade thank you card.
Next year I pushed Tony into donating toys for Chandler Elementary, another Woo inner city school filled with poor kids. I called the school to explain. They said no thanks to the Polish Santa but they would take his presents. Well, back Tony and I went to the big box store to get toys. Back to his house did we go where I slaved over gift wrapping again.
We drive to Chandler a few days later. No we can’t enter a classroom and no, the gift will not be given to grade 4 but to the special needs teacher for his one on one work with special kids. I thought that was nice. Tony did too. The principal shook Tony’s hand and thanked him.
Tony never got a thank you card or a call to come back, though I said the Polish Santa would love to adopt a classroom.
Yes, we did it all on the fly. But…so what?
Back at Leader Sign Company, a disappointed Polish Santa and his feisty elf sat, trying to make sense of the world we lived in. Yes, it was good to help. But it was bad to run with your feelings. Just do it. There were forms to sign, CORI checks to be run, fingers to be printed…everybody was equal but nobody was alike. There were all these trigger points ready to trigger off at any second. If anyone could trigger … panic, it was right wing Tony Hmura. Even as the Polish Santa!
It’s Ok, Tony. I said. Next Christmas we’ll do it right.
I was lying to my friend. The world didn’t work the way it used to. Tony was part of that violent, weird, old America. He didn’t have the keys to this new one. He didn’t know how to start the dialogue. Couldn’t understand.
But now the Polish Santa is buried in Notre Dame cemetery on Hope Ave., hopefully making merry with bare-assed cherubs and Jesus Christ himself, who I believe has forgiven the Polish Santa his main sins of cupidity and lust. Now for Tony it’s just peace and looking down on Leader Sign and Canterbury Street and wishing he could be a part of the chaos again.