The young girl in the red T-shirt got the next verse.
She was an indeterminately aged blonde teenager. A big smile and ponytail, maybe a bit of acne but not too much. Happy, sunny, laughing. And about to heft her banjo for the second verse to bust out in a clear, pealing and deeply Czech-accented alto.
“Oh ven ze sun, begins to shine, oh ven ze sun begins to shine,” she sang, strumming along on her banjo, her perfect voice curling around the audience of jazz fans, commuters and the lady selling cupcakes. “Oh ay vant to be in zat number, oh ven ze sun begins to shine.”
And the young Czech man who sang the “Ven ze saints go marching in” verse cut in with a perfect, curving trombone solo in the middle of the Polish Triangle.
“Polish Triangle” is the fancy-pants name for the little wedge of curb formed by Ashland, Milwaukee and Division. Also known as “Polonia Triangle” (or more commonly, “where you get off the Division Blue Line stop”), the triangle is a fountain and two bus stops amid a Jackson Pollock of bird doo.
Across Ashland from a bank-turned-drug-store, across Division from an old restaurant and a Polish-language newsstand keeping the Polski fight against the long-encroaching hipsterdom and across a cab stand and Milwaukee’s sputtering bike express lane from half-filled storefronts and a bakery, the triangle sits.
It’s nothing. Less than nothing. A side effect of geometry and diagonal streets that don’t quite hit the intersections. It’s just… there.
Unless the Polish Triangle Coalition gets its way.
“The Polish Triangle Coalition was formed to improve the surroundings around the area bounded by Ashland, Milwaukee and Division street,” the group’s website states. “Neighborhood community groups, merchants and local schools are working to create a more pleasant and lively area at the Polish Triangle.”
They’re the ones who brought in the Czech youth Dixieland band in red shirts to play to the crowd. It’s part of their Tuesdays at the Triangle events, which since April have brought dancers, musicians, DJs, spoken word artists, food and fun to the triangle, trying to make that wedge of nothing into something.
The kids were already on tour in Chicago through the sister cities program when the Triangle Coalition reached out to them, a smiling-faced Triangle volunteer told me. (I was glad to hear they did not come from the Czech Republic to play between two bus stops and a cab stand.)
They were excellent, just rippling with the elegant chaos that defines good Dixieland. The horns wailed, the bass and drums kept time, the banjo plucked and hummed to the sounds of New Orleans in Chicago via a spa town called Mariánské Lázně.
They played by the fountain. They played by a couple strategically placed food vendors the Triangle Coalition had managed to cram in the tiny space. They played by commuter and cab stand and Pollock of bird doo. And in the moments as the band played to clapping children and smiling adults, the Triangle Coalition had, at least for one sunny Tuesday evening, done its job.
The triangle was pleasant. The triangle was lively. The triangle I hurry past at night to avoid bums and drug dealers was, at least briefly, a place I wanted to be.
“Ay vant to be in zat number, oh ven ze sun begins to shine,” the Czech girl with the banjo sang.