Belonging

Belonging

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Belonging


The ideals embodied in the word "community" deal with the scientific description of specific human cultures. While traveling throughout the city of Warren, Michigan, you are bound to notice one of the many signs stating the following; "Welcome to Warren, the third largest city in Michigan." In the midst of this large city dwell approximately seventeen thousand humans of Ukrainian descent. With this many people you would need Cobo Hall to throw a get-together; however, we all seem to congregate happily at the Ukrainian Cultural Center. Throughout the Ukrainian Cultural Center’s twenty years of existence, the Center has faithfully serviced its patrons with libraries of knowledge, a museum, great food, and a social place to gather, the Odessa Lounge.

The Ukrainian Cultural Center serves as the hub of most activities for Ukrainians in the metro Detroit area. You might say that I grew up in the place, nurtured by the members of Ukrainian decent who have served me like surrogate parents. It’s a large community, but I’ve grown to personally know most of the members and their families. The Center, as it is called, is not just a place to learn about me heritage, attend lectures, concerts, weddings, social and cultural activities. For me the Center is a place of belonging where "everyone knows my name," just as the words to the song in the TV sitcom "Cheers".

The Ukrainian Cultural Center is situated south of Interstate 696 on the west- side of Ryan Road. This brown brick building does not look extremely elaborate or fancy, but rather, has the appearance of a large house. The building façade is complimented with almond colored trim and brown shingles, the kind found on many homes in this residential area. The building’s pitched roof further adds the look and feel of a large family home. The elaborate landscaping intensifies the large house effect as well as hiding the road that runs across the front leading to the massive four hundred ninety-space parking lot in the rear. Masking the road with stones, shrubs, and several pine, maple and crab apple trees makes it look attractive and inviting from the front.

Upon entering the building, you automatically know it is not a typical banquet hall. It has the look and feel of another country. The display at the entrance is filled with Ukrainian artifacts, like embroidered pillows, decorated pysanky, wedding wreaths, and other objects reflecting Ukrainian ethnicity.

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To a non- Ukrainian, the foyer has an Old World affect. To me it has the familiarity of home. The walls of the hallways are covered with the murals of important Ukrainian events. The foyer floors are composed of marble and the rest is carpeted. The walls are painted an off white color with elaborate oak molding. To the left you will see the coat check and the stairs leading to a small museum containing paintings, books, and actual weapons used in wars. An elaborate hallway leads to the giant banquet hall that can be partitioned into three smaller parts. This giant room is capable of accommodating up to 1500 people, a necessity for the large weddings often held at the Center. In addition the to the huge hall, the Ukrainian Center boasts its many rooms for meetings. In the rear portion of the complex you can find the entrance to the gym with and a medium sized bar called the Odessa Lounge.

The Odessa Lounge is very special place for a large and diverse group of people. Attracting from demographics of a large yield, the lounge can become over- crowded at times. The name of the lounge is derived from a province in Ukraine. The city of Odessa is known for its various "discos" and a more relaxed atmosphere. By titling the lounge Odessa, the owners of the Ukrainian Cultural Center were trying to create a relaxed, resort type of atmosphere. They paid close attention to their intended goal, and I think they did a great job creating the atmosphere. This lounge is a hopping bar especially on the weekends. Often times there are fights, broken glass bottles and lots of loud music with occasional cussing in the background.

There are two possible ways to enter this portion of the complex. One is a set of glass doors in the rear of the building by the huge parking lot, and the other is through the hallway that connects the banquet halls. I observed that almost everyone walked in through the glass doors. When you walk through the glass doors you enter a hallway with brown tiles similar to the ones in every McDonalds. The wallpaper is mustard yellow most probably from the cigar and cigarette smoke. The lavatories and the entrance to the lounge are on the right side of the hallway. On the left side you can find a coat rack and the entrance to the card room and gym. The door to the Odessa Lounge is about two inches thick and is very hard to open. If you are a member, you can swipe your membership card to gain access into the lounge. If you’re not a member, you can make it in by following card-carrying members. If not you have to wait to get buzzed in by the bartender, which can take a long time because the bell is difficult to hear over the voices of the patrons.

When you step inside the first thing you notice is a large coffee table with sofas around it. This secluded section is where you go if you are working on homework. It is generally understood that if you are in that area you do not wish to be bothered. As you continue toward the back of the room you will begin to see the large countertop which separates the bartenders from the crowd. I always stop to admire the large selection of alcohol they have on display. The mirrors behind the bar make it seem as if the room is twice as large. The barstools, tables, and comfortable leather chairs all rest on a dark green carpet. The walls on one side of the room are painted off- white with red trim. On this wall hang paintings of significant war scenes and the Ukrainian soldiers known as Kozaks drinking. This side of the room holds the pool table, dart board and a few video poker machines. Windows from the floor to ceiling cover the other side of the room. There is a door wall that opens to a paved stone patio. This is the elaborate setting of my community. This is where I belong and interact. It is because of prior experiences and a lifetime of camaraderie that I feel at home here.

Upon entering the Odessa lounge, it’s not sights and sounds as much as the odors emanating that strike me. Each group of patrons, marked by age or social group, releases a certain smell, that is as familiar to me as grandma’s apple pie. The younger children are usually in the lounge getting ready or coming back from soccer practice. Odors of gym shoes and children’s sweat mingle with popcorn, potato chips, and soda. The Odessa is home to Chernyk’s Sports Club and the lounge is the hub for younger athletes. I too was a young athlete who spent many days waiting for practice or my coach to arrive.

When the Odessa lounge opens at five in the evening, it is filled with younger children, usually still in school uniform from the Immaculate Conception Ukrainian School not too far away. Some of them are screaming and preparing for soccer practice. On the other hand, some children participate in the Ukrainian equivalent of boy scouts. It is a busy, loud, and hectic time to be there. When the children are practicing or in meetings, the parents walk into the lounge with their suits and briefcases. The parents usually end up watching television or talking with one another. There is always something happening on different days of the week. All of the screaming and yelling is usually over by seven in the evening.

The scent of the teen sprit is common in the Odessa. Teens trying to impress the opposite of gender tend to over do the Calvin Klein cologne, which permeates from that group as they play pool and banter one another with jokes and endearing put-downs.

At half past seven the young adults invade the lounge. Some bring their homework, and others come to relax with their friends. The opportunities to shoot pool, throw darts or socialize usually keeps the teens from doing their homework. As I observed, the teens are always well dressed. The bar tender treats the teens well, serving them with pitchers of pop, and an abundance of chips. Everybody knows one another and it is not uncommon to be interrupted at random all the time to answer a stupid question. The ratio of males to females seems to be the same. I noticed that on a few occasions when a regular patron brings a friend in, oftentimes, they are completely ignored. After a short period of time everyone becomes more accepting of one another.

Still a most distinct odor is released by the group of new immigrants know to us as the boaters. These newly arrived Ukrainians are in possession of a green card or a visitors visa. We’re all Ukrainians at the Odessa, but the boaters are not as Americanized as we are. They are marked by a certain scent of body odor due to their European hygiene. They bathe only once a week and feel Americans are too obsessed with showering. Their "natural" body odors tend to make them least accepted by the other patrons at the bar. Social interaction occurs between the patrons and boaters, but the boaters generally sit and hang with themselves. They’re accepted on the fringes of the premises of the Odessa. In addition to their smell, the boaters have a distinct appearance marked by their gold teeth and dress. Most don’t have the means to purchase designer wear and sport second hand clothing provided by the Ukrainian Women’s Auxiliary or the Church charities. Although most boaters don’t have money, they do have the means to purchase the social camaraderie provided by the vodka, cognac, and beer available at the lounge.

It’s interesting to observe that social groups or ethnic groups all have their own hierarchy of status. The boaters are the bottom of the social status at the Odessa. Most Ukrainian Americans steer clear of them. To befriend a boater means becoming his or her economic sponsor. Boaters always want something. In fact, they feel entitled because they were the ones to suffer under Russian communist domination, while we enjoyed freedom in America.

These sentiments of the boaters often encourage altercations between them and the other patrons. There are never ugly conflicts, but there are many differences of opinions. They say they the older you are the wiser you are. I agree with this saying; sometimes it does not apply with the logic inside the Odessa lounge.

A third familiar scent is that of the old men who sit and play cards. They sit around tables, shot glasses rarely empty, toasting to a good hand at pinochle or a good joke. Their distinct odor is that of stale cognac, cigarette and cigar smoke. They are at the top of the social ladder. They dominate the Odessa and their wishes are commands. The other patrons give them respect. Dressed in dark suits and ties, they remind me of the men out of a "Godfather" movie. They often scold the younger kids for running or making too much noise. They control the volume of the music the teens want to play. They dominate the big screen TV and dictate what program should be on the screen. They get their way!

At the head of the old pack is Wolf, a Korean War Veteran, and an alcoholic. He often slurs his words and is not understood by most of the other patrons; however, when he speaks, people listen. He’s generous and buys rounds for the bar. He’s like a landmark at the Odessa. He knows the history of the Ukrainian community and everyone in it. He knows my father and the fathers of other young adults. He keeps peace in place with his authority. He rarely loses at cards. Quite frankly, I think he cheats, but I’ve not seen anyone challenge him. He’s like the patriarch of the Odessa.

Spending numerous hours inside the lounge, I never stopped to observe the small details that uniquely identify the community that I am a part of. I could see myself perfectly in the faces of the children. I was continually looking forward to soccer practice inside the gym. The real bonus came after practice when my father took me inside the lounge. He would place me onto the tall barstool and order some chips and a coke. I would look around wondering what everybody was doing. When I asked my father he said they were taking care of business. Now that I’ve progressed to a young adult, I’m starting to realize this important non-existent business that everyone is tending to.

My generation of participating patrons is in full force. We are a tight knit group that is socially accepting of all. Our trust and loyalty will never be defied or betrayed. This generation is large group. At times it is hard to stick together but in the past we have. It does not matter what we are dressed like, or how much money our parents have; we all follow the same customs, traditions and practices. I guess you could say there is an unwritten code of ethics that everybody follows. I can see that many of these unwritten rules of loyalty and fellowship come from the generation before us. I am assuming that with age we will evolve into our elders. With this evolution we are shaping our communities’ future. "We will make it better," exclaims my friend Katya. It is funny to watch the eldest generation of card players in action. I can not help but wonder if I will follow in their footsteps.
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