Tom Simasko

Tom Simasko

by Ellen C. Warren, photograph by Peter DiAntoni

“When you walked into a store with your eyes closed you could smell where you were. The hardware store smelled oily. The grocery had a bouquet of greens and fresh fruit. The bakery… well, you know. The butcher shop smelled like blood and sawdust.” The Riverwest of Tom Simasko’s youth glows through bright eyes in a face not unlike Santa Claus’s as he continues. “We were always getting yelled at in the butcher shop for sliding on the sawdust. Step and slide. Step and slide.”

In those days Tom “knew everyone in the neighborhood… and most of them were cousins. Second and third cousins, you know.” His grandparents on both sides had arrived in America from Poland and settled in the area now called Riverwest. In the early 1900s his maternal grandparents purchased a house in the 3100 block of Fratney Street while his father’s parents bought the house in the 3000 block of Bremen Street where Tom has lived since 1946. “I’ve lived on two blocks all my life,” Tom says, with apparent contentment.

But don’t let this rootedness fool you into imagining Tom as a provincial stay-at-home. Au Contraire. This bearded man with the quiet demeanor is one experienced world traveler. With him it’s not a question of “where have you been?” but “how many times have you been there?” His most recent adventure, which postponed his being “spotlighted” last month, was to Paris. It was his fifth visit. “This time I stayed on Boulevard Strasbourg which is like our Broadway,” he explained. He took in a performance of Fiddler on the Roof which, although he speaks no French, he loved.

Tom began traveling on a more limited basis while he was working, but now that he’s retired, nothing holds him back. Since leaving behind his twenty- five year tenure with the City of Milwaukee, the last ten on a surveying crew, he’s returned to many of the places he’d previously visited. Most of his early travel was on bus tours which allowed only a day or two in each place. Now he goes back for extended periods for the experience of getting the feel of the place and the people who live there.

Tom tells a striking story that begins on an excursion to China in 1986. “It was a real nice trip and I enjoyed it very much.

“But,” he adds, “you had the feeling that the people were afraid to talk to you. It made me very uncomfortable.” As a result he decided that he would never visit another Communist country. This meant that Poland, his family’s original homeland and a cherished hope, was now off the map for him.

“Then,” and his whole face lights up with the wonder of what he’s remembering, “without a war, without violence, the Wall fell in 1989! It was a miracle! Absolutely amazing!”

Shortly thereafter he was on a bus tour that took him to Warsaw and Krakow as well as East Berlin, Vienna, Frankfurt, and Budapest. He finishes the story with another anecdote. “It was funny,” he says. “You’re riding on the bus and as soon as you cross the (German/Polish) border you think, ‘This must be Poland!’ After miles of seeing no one about, now everywhere you look there are people in the woods picking mushrooms!”

Tom has traded bus tours for independent travel. “It’s a kick to arrange things by yourself on the Internet,” he exclaims. He loves being able to book flights and hotels anywhere in the world, as well as set his own itinerary. Although his knowledge of the languages usually extends only to “thank you,” “please” and “point,” he recalls, “I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t nice to me.”

Back in Riverwest one can see reasons why people might be nice to Tom. For instance, pass down his block this coming spring. Look west to see his house, the one with the rising suns ornamenting the porches. Look east to see a thousand flowers – crocuses, daffodils, hyacinth, and tulips – filling Snail’s Crossing with color.

“It looked a little dreary in the spring,” Tom recalled. So he had the idea to plant all those bulbs. Volunteers from UWM helped him with 400. The other 600 bulbs he dug on his own, putting in “a hundred or so” every few days.

Besides brightening up the community, he admits that with his perfect second floor view he’s looking forward to enjoying it the spring flowers himself. What a change from the coalyard that covered the same spot back when Tom and his family first moved into the house.

Riverwest Currents online edition – January, 2006