Coronavirus Connections Part 2: The Shangri-La Chinchilla Ranch

“As a young child, I danced on the bar for nickels!! Lol!! Could you please call me? The emailed message added this tantalizing tidbit: “Your grandma and grandpa are my godparents!!”

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, people with a link to my grandparents who owned the Rose Café bar on Michigan Avenue in Detroit have been in touch. Mostly, they want to reminisce about the old days in that Polish neighborhood. Sometimes, they want to talk about chinchillas.

chinchillas
My grandmother, Rozalia Krzemienski, in her basement with chinchillas.

The Rose Café opened during the Great Depression and closed on December 1, 1986, the morning after my grandfather died in his sleep. But the tiny shot-and-a-beer establishment (now renamed and under new ownership) remains a cultural touchstone in a time of fear and anxiety. People are thirsting for connections.

Ron Watson, a 74-year-old retired Ford engineer who now divides his time between homes in Howell, Michigan and Venice, Florida, is the one-time tap dancer on the bar who reached out to me. The son of Ervin Wojtowicz, a Detroit-area bowling alley manager, Watson, it turns out, had a deep relationship with my family that went far beyond his baptism in 1945 at Holy Redeemer Church. I never knew about our ties until this week.

Watson’s family lived in the upstairs rooms in my grandparents’ flat at 5207 St. Lawrence Street in the 1940s, years before I was born. They didn’t stay long. My grandfather closed the bar at 2 a.m. and went to bed about the time three-year-old Ron would begin making a racket upstairs. The family moved out in 1948, but they remained friends and even business acquaintances.

Always on the hunt for get-rich-quick schemes, my grandparents raised chinchillas in their basement; they gave godson Ron two of them when he was 10.

“My family started the Shangri-la Chinchilla Ranch in Farmington Hills, thanks to your grandparents,” Watson said. “200 chinchillas later, our house stunk and my dad moved them into the garage. I don’t think he made a dime. But my dad gave them all names, and sold them to pet stores until he was in his mid-80s.”

A point of pride for Ervin Wojtowicz was his election as the president of the Lucky Rose Club in 1938, the social organization my grandfather started as an offshoot of the bar. His sons changed their last name, but kept the Lucky Rose tie-tac their father proudly wore.

lucky rose club
Ervin Wojtowicz is the tall man in the middle of the front row.

“The Lucky Rose Club was a good excuse to get together and drink,” Watson said. “The Rose Café was a happy place. Your grandparents knew everybody who came through the door. They would put Polish music on the jukebox, and I’d dance on the bar when I was five. I still love to dance.”

He added: “Your grandpa took in all strays. And then he’d belly up to the Communion bar.”

That mixed metaphor conjured up memories of my grandfather Michael Krzemienski, the chain-smoker of Newports who stumbled out of his bedroom every morning and went straight to the kitchen cabinet for a shot of Seagram’s whiskey to get the day started.

Earlier in the day, I had a similar conversation about the Godfather of Michigan Avenue with Hank Paciorkowski, a retired Ford Motor Company photographer who relocated to California in the 1970s. He told me my grandfather was his “godfather” or sponsor for Confirmation, another Catholic sacrament.

“I made my Confirmation at St. Andrew Church in Detroit,” said Paciorkowski. “Your grandpa came back to the house on Chopin and my mother made a big dinner.”

We reminisced about all the bygone Detroit dive bars that populated the neighborhood: Flash Bar, Elbow Bar and the 52nd Show Bar. We talked about the Polish bakery on Proctor and the smell of pumpernickel bread that permeated the neighborhood.

grandpa baptism
Grandpa in a familiar role as godfather. This time, to my son Daniel in 1979.

“Your grandfather used to pay a lot of attention to me, almost more than my father,” Paciorkowski said. “We went on fishing trips together. We talked about raising chinchillas. He was the only really good friend my dad ever had.”

Later, Ron Watson’s brother Erv weighed in with a few more critical details about the past, although providing little insight into why customers sought out a Detroit bartender to be a spiritual guide to their kids.

Erv’s memories are secular, and more related to rodents and rifles than religion. He still owns the .22-caliber shotgun that belonged to my grandfather.

“He said Dad told him Mike was a great champion skeet shooter,” Watson texted. “Said we still have a couple chinchilla pelts somewhere if you want a keepsake.”

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