Some people don’t like Barton Street. It frightens them. They look at all those empty storefronts and think there must have some kind of war along here.
The proprietor of the Bel Air Grill, the woman who wears a big bright flower on her blouse every day, doesn’t let Barton scare her. She’s lived through worse.
Her name is Grazyna Kowalski, but she tells customers to call her Grace. She turned 54 yesterday and arrived in Canada in 1988 from the Polish city of Wroclaw.
It used to be called Breslau, part of the German empire. And in the final months of the Second World War, the Battle of Breslau was fought there. The Germans had been slow to evacuate the city, even though the Russians were rolling in.
Estimates vary, but it’s believed some 30,000 civilians and military personnel died in that fight. More than half the city’s buildings were destroyed or damaged.
The war had been over for a dozen years by the time Grace was born, but it was still in the air. They were cleaning up rubble into the Sixties.
Nothing on the shelf
Grace went to college, but the only job she could find was selling tickets on the bus. She married at 19.
"I had my first daughter," she says. "I would go to the store to get something for her and some days there was nothing on the shelf but vinegar."
She had a ration card, for meat, salt, sugar, everything. There was never enough.
Another child was born. The young family of four lived in one small room, kitchen on one side, beds on the other. "And there was no chance to do better," Grace says.
Her grandmother had come to Canada, and then sponsored Grace’s mother. In turn, Grace’s mother said she would sponsor her.
So Grace made the arrangements. She declared she was on her own, no children. It was the only way she could get out. She left behind daughters Marta and Agnieszka, ages 10 and five.
In Toronto, Grace started to work. "I cleaned houses," she says. "I’m not afraid to do anything." At the same time, she worked in a restaurant. It was a Polish place, as she spoke no English.
She saved her money, but there was a big expense – phone calls home to her daughters sometimes ran to $200 a month.
In 1990, after two years here, she was able to send for her family. The girls learned the language in months. As for Grace and her husband, it had been too long. They split up.
But through her cousin, Grace met another man. Slawek Kowalski is a machinist at Orlick Industries in Hamilton. They married, moved here, had a son named Patrick.
Grace has always had a job and she looked for one here. For 11 years, she worked at Zak’s restaurant on Barton.
The stools still spin
Four years ago she went a block east of there, to Barton and Sherman, and bought the Bel Air Grill. Not the building, just the business. The Bel Air has been around some 50 years, and it looks pretty much the same as when it opened.
There are booths, with Naugahyde seats and Arborite tables, where so many plates have landed that the pattern is worn away.
There is the counter, with a long row of stools that spin. There’s the genuine mint-coloured three-can Hamilton Beach milkshake machine. And the mighty chrome National cash register, stamped 1944.
"I keep all this because I love it," Grace says. "And the style is coming back."
The accent here, naturally, is Polish. All prepared from scratch, on site. The cabbage rolls are famous. The barley soup is a meal. And the $10.95 special – large salad, 10 plump perogies and schnitzel big as the platter – is a belly-busting treat.
But business is not what it once was. Steelworkers used to load up on those cabbage rolls, but the mills are quieter now. The economy’s tough, especially around here.
So there’s no money for Grace to hire help. She’s the only one on duty, Tuesday to Saturday, noon to six. She always dresses for the day, in her own flamboyant way. "I used to think, ‘Maybe people laugh,’" Grace says. "But when I got older, I didn’t care."
She’s tired sometimes, but carries on. She’s in Canada, and for that she is glad.Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.