Interview With Anthony V. Bukoski, Part One
TJF: You are a fictional chronicler of the Polish-American experience, but you have chosen to localize your stories, most of which either take place in Superior, Wisconsin, or have a character from Superior’s East End. Tell me a little about the Superior you grew up in.
AVB: I was born in a port city at the western terminus of the Great Lakes. When I was in grade school and high school in the 1950’s and early ’60s, Superior had the world’s largest ore docks, huge grain terminals, shipyards, mills, railroad yards, and a stinking oil refinery, still the only one in Wisconsin. We had a steel plant, whorehouses, taverns, a Finnish newspaper, Tyomies, a synagogue, ethnic parishes, and ethnic lodges such as the Vasa for Swedes, the Norona for Norwegians, and the Thaddeus Kosciuszko Fraternal Aid Society for Poles. My father and uncles belonged to the Polish Club. I’ve belonged for years.
My hometown is a city of neighborhoods. Many Belgians lived in Allouez. Pronounced “Al-o-weeze” or “Al-o-wheeze,” it sounds like someone choking on ore dust. I’m not kidding. You can see ore dust streaks on the sides of houses. Poles and others inhabited the East End and the Midtown--neighborhoods which had, and have, their own air-quality problems. A section of the latter neighborhood at the end of Cedar Avenue by the Dew Drop Inn was known as the “Gas Plant.” Three ethnic churches stood in the Midtown and East End, Sts. Cyril and Methodius for Slovaks, St. Adalbert’s and St. Stanislaus for Poles. Itasca, Central Park, South Superior, Billings Park, the downtown, and the North End were other neighborhoods with other churches. Some of these neighborhoods had ethnic enclaves.
Back then, the houses and parks of Superior were maintained. City workers planted petunia beds and trimmed wild rose hedges. We had a busy downtown and Class-C minor league baseball. I consider myself blessed and, in a way, cursed to have been raised here. Psychologically and emotionally, I’ve never been able to leave. When my wife and I have lived in other places, I longed for the non-existent spring, rainy summer, and never-ending winter of Superior. The seasons can shape people in such a way as to make them either escape Superior, tolerate it, or fall in love with it and stay for the long haul. To many of us, there’s something valuable here. In Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Dr. Reefy describes the people of Winesburg who go through the apple orchards after the commercial pickers have taken the best fruit to market. The latecomers know that gnarled fruit is sometimes sweetest, and so they collect the fruit the pickers don’t want. “Only the few know the goodness of the twisted apples,” Dr. Reefy says. I could use this metaphor to describe why I never want to leave Superior.
TJF: How did Superior change from the 1950’s to the collection of dying neighborhoods, unpainted houses, and rusting factories it became?
AVB: I don’t know when things went bad. The economy didn’t concern me in grade school, although I understood the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway to foreign vessels would benefit the shipping trade. With the Seaway operational, grain from the Midwest could be shipped from Duluth-Superior to overseas markets. When I graduated from Superior Cathedral High in 1963, the economy was okay. The refinery was going strong. It was a good economic sign that sulfur dioxide stank up the East End because it meant there was work. At the same time, Hog Island Inlet at the mouth of the bay was becoming one of the most polluted inlets on the Great Lakes, mainly from refinery effluents. Maybe in my adolescent mind I suspected something was amiss, a downturn coming, when Canadian tankers no longer put in at the oil dock a mile from our house. The minor league baseball team left town. On the other hand, my dad was getting in his hours at the flour mill.
Amid all this, change was coming. It took probably ten years—say, the decade of the 1970s--for the Tower Avenue business district to fall apart except, of course, for the taverns which did a booming business. I’d begun noticing “Superior” associated with the phrase “economically depressed.” The decline has gone on forever. Much of the Northern Pacific ore dock in East End has been torn down, the wood and steel sold for salvage or scrap. Only one of the docks in Allouez is working. Occasionally, an ore carrier puts in there to load taconite pellets. The flour mill in East End doesn’t process anything. The last I heard, its silos stored barley. Fewer ocean-going ships put into port. Businesses have closed. We have no K-Mart, no Target. Kentucky Fried Chicken, Wendy’s, and Quiznos are gone. In April 2018, an explosion at the oil refinery forced people to evacuate parts of town. In December 2018 on the waterfront in the North End, a fire destroyed what was once the world’s largest grain elevator.
I’ve written a lot of short stories about a deteriorating city. Consider one: “Rain. Fog. A Harbor City.” In the slips behind the North Third Street taverns in the story, lake carriers rust as they await the cutting torch. Railroad tracks rust. In the Gas Plant area, the globe that stores natural gas rusts. So, too, does the wife of a drunken businessman, a bar owner. He encourages his wife’s oxidation by running the humidifier in the house, by taking her for walks when the icy streets have been salted, and by insisting she use the pressure cooker to prepare meals, thereby producing more steam in the kitchen. With her rusted, he’ll be able to drink without her nagging him. Despite his dad’s telling him to the contrary, the son in the story insists the red-lesions on his mother’s arms are beautiful red roses when in fact they’re rust.
Anyway, I view Superior as a decaying, benighted place that I love.
TJF: Do you think that a backwater like Superior, despite its obvious drawbacks, has some advantages for a writer?
AVB: It’s no drawback to write about my hometown. I have the luxury of exploring and reimagining a place that other writers wouldn’t care for. Superior is interesting geologically, geographically, climatologically, botanically, architecturally, and in many other ways. We live in a basin on the edge of the world’s largest body of fresh water. In most directions, hills surround us, for instance, to the west the 1.1-billion-year-old “Duluth Gabbro Complex” of tall, gray, rocky hills, or the range of hills to our south. As they breast the hills, visitors marvel at the fogbanks that sometimes form over the city below. Though the summer day may be warm in Brule or Lake Nebagamon, not so in the lowlands, where Lake Superior influences the weather. The cool, often-wet summers, the winters, the ore and cement docks, the refinery effluents, the old houses and rust, Al-o-whe-e-e-ze which sounds like an aging drunk with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder trying to explain where he lives—these and other things play on my imagination.
I think Superiorites are as worthy as people anywhere to be celebrated in fiction. We’re as venal, generous, high-minded, proud, pious, industrious, despairing, hopeful for the future. Because as a story writer I’ve written about my beloved city—or its East End neighborhood—for many years now, what else can I write about? I don’t belong anyplace but here. The characters I write about are similarly rooted to place. For example, in “A Geography of Snow” from Time Between Trains (2003; reprinted 2011), a Marine bound for Vietnam plans to take a topographical map with him, a map of “the NE/4 Superior 15’ Quadrangle of Superior, Wisconsin.” If he’s wounded or dying, he can console himself by remembering how aspen trees smell after a warm spring rain and how the Nemadji, the “Left-Handed River,” winds its way to the bay.