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Dyngus Day’s neighborhood roots

Buffalo’s Dyngus Day celebration today will be bigger than ever, with a parade and polka dancing, kielbasa and pierogi feasting, and pussy-willow and squirt-gun flirting.

But the tradition started out much smaller, decades ago, in the working-class family taverns of the Polish neighborhoods on Buffalo’s East Side. There, cooks in barroom kitchens created stove-top delicacies.

And it’s where the heart beat of today’s parties still pounds.

Dyngus Day “brings families together,” said Lottie Pikuzinski, who along with her husband, Ron, has owned the R&L Lounge at 23 Mills St. since 1969. “It gives them a reason to come out and celebrate ... Let them not forget their Polish culture.”

Since the early days of the Dyngus celebration, many Polish-American families have migrated away from the old neighborhood and can be found scattered from the northern tip of Niagara County to the southern edge of Erie. But the most densely Polish-American neighborhoods today, according to a Buffalo News computer analysis of census data, can be found east of downtown along Broadway, and through Cheektowaga, Lancaster, Alden and Marilla.

Today, those Polish-Americans will return en force – along with their non-Polish friends – to the heart of Buffalo’s Polonia on Broadway for the end-of-Lent celebration called Dyngus Day, with its swell of parties at church halls and social clubs and local taverns.

The R&L, which serves Dyngus plates of “lazy pierogi” noodles with sauteed sauerkraut and onion, gets especially busy.

Some patrons walking through the door may be old family friends or former neighbors, and when they return they will find the neighborhood around the Broadway Market populated with people of many backgrounds. Only 9 percent living there now have Polish ancestry, according to the latest census. That doesn’t matter to Pikuzinski.

“We’re all in it together,” she said, amid the Easter egg cut-outs dangling from the ceiling. “People are people. They’re all my friends.”

Beyond the city borders, more Dyngus Day permutations will unfold throughout the day.

You can start with a 10 a.m. bloody Mary breakfast at Cheektowaga’s Polish Villa 2 on Harlem Road, which will include live polka music. Later, take in lunch with a sausage sandwich at Ray’s Lounge on Clinton Street, where Buffalo, Cheektowaga and West Seneca meet. Tonight, you can dance at Pvt. Leonard Post Jr. Post, Veterans of Foreign Wars, 2450 Walden Ave., Cheektowaga.

“I think Buffalo’s approach to Dyngus Day is wondrous,” said the Rev. Czeslaw Krysa, rector of St. Casimir Catholic Church on Cable Street, which is in the region’s second-most-concentrated Polish neighborhood, Kaisertown.

Krysa, who grew up in Niagara Falls, has priest friends form out of town who make the trip to Buffalo to share in the fun. The party in his church hall at 1388 Clinton St., from noon to 3 p.m., will be aimed at children, with games, dancing and food.

Throughout the season, St. Casimir features Polish traditions, like the blessing of food baskets before Easter Sunday. The church attracts families who want to stay connected to old traditions. It also makes a point of reaching out to the entire neighborhood, attracting nonchurch members to the youth group and monthly fellowship meals.

“People do watch out for each other,” Krysa said. “The church needs to be responsible for the neighborhood.”

Near St. Casimir, you don’t need census data to know you are in a Polish neighborhood. Krysa can count at least eight establishments that sell pierogi on this stretch of Clinton Street, from Wiechec’s Lounge at 1748 Clinton in Buffalo to the Deer Head Inn at 2683 Clinton in West Seneca.

“This brings people into the neighborhood,” Krysa said. “Food is an expression of love.”

In Sloan, the third-most-densely populated Polish neighborhood, according to census data, the parking lot at Camillo’s supermarket was nearly full a few days before Easter. The clerks were wishing people a happy holiday as they checked out, butter lambs were on sale for $1.99, and 17,000 pounds of the store’s homemade sausage had been sold to shoppers preparing for Easter Sunday feasts.

Geaton Camillo said his Italian family makes sure to stock seasonal Polish staples like horseradish and pierogi. He likes seeing his customers dance in the aisles to the polka music he plays.

While he has long heard how much fun it is to celebrate Dyngus Day, joining in has always been out of the question.

“I’m usually so burnt out from Easter week,” said Camillo, 32.

At Sloan Village Hall, Deputy Clerk Karen Guminski Gold reminisced about a Dyngus Day during the 1980s that she still remembers clearly.

She was in her 20s and had gone downtown with friends to the now-defunct clubhouse of the Chopin Singing Society, which is credited by many with starting the Dyngus tradition in Buffalo.

She stepped inside and could smell the food, but it was so crowded she couldn’t get near the kitchen or the bar. Men were tapping women with pussy willows and shooting squirt guns. People were laughing.

She danced to the polka music for few hours before heading to a more-low-key family bar, where she ate sausage and lazy pierogi.

“It was a fun night,” she said.

Gold plans to join the mayor and other staff this year to watch the Dyngus Day parade in Buffalo. Afterwards, they plan to return to Sloan and eat and drink at the local “R” Bar tavern at 2139 Broadway, where a $10 “Polish Plate” includes a helping of lazy pierogi with a secret ingredient.

While Gold has never enjoyed a Dyngus Day celebration as much as that one all those years ago, she’s still looking forward to hanging out with friends and celebrating “the camaraderie of being Polish.”

”You have a beer and eat ... It’s all about the food,” she said. “It’s truly a fun people-watching day.”