By Ken Hamilton
Niagara Gazette — Wrotniak’s Highland restaurant was consumed in flames not long ago. Witnesses say that it was young children. Now all that remain is a charred hulk of brick and mortar that is fit for nothing more than the wrecker’s ball. It not only reflects too many of the once vibrant buildings that lined the streets of a once-vibrant city that is now trading businesses and owner-occupied homes for subsidized government housing, wherein now lies the dreams of prosperity that are just as dark and bleak as the remains of Wrotniak’s.
As burned out as the building may be, for me, and perhaps for us all, there will always be a light reflected from it that burns brighter than even the flames that the firemen fought to extinguish there; for it was there that Mona Gwozdek had spent most her life. I often saw her in and around her home and business. To me, Mona was the little old woman who could.
Most people, who either drove or walked past “the bar” knew it as Wrotniak’s, but according to daughter Sharon Hayes, it had been in the family since her grandfather “got off the boat” and bought the then-five year old building in 1920.
Sharon said that her father, Matt, wanting to stay in Niagara Falls, then bought the bar from his father in 1948. That’s when Matt’s job was moving to Oklahoma. He changed the name to Matt’s Tavern, but he kept the painted sign that was on the window just as it had always been. Even his father did not change the name.
Mona joined him there, when his, and every other business, was booming. That was when the smokestacks at both the then-Pittsburgh Metallurgical and National Carbon were belching out the white smoke that rose as pollution, but then fell groundward as paychecks into the pockets of the thousands of workers who labored both there, at the Chisholm-Ryder tractor factory, at Prestolite, Wicker Lumber and at the Lehigh Switchyard nearby. Those workers could walk to lunch at Matt’s Tavern, or to a half-dozen other nearby places, and then return to work in time. Or they could walk there after work and then stagger home, both late and to a waiting wife with a rolling pin in her hand and a half-dozen children underfoot.
But, as Matt’s job had left the city in the 1940s, so did a lot of other people’s jobs over the next 30 years. The smokestacks snuffed themselves out, one-by-one, like the candles in an ancient banquet hall and our city’s prospects darkened along with them.
Matt, a doting husband, died first. I had often seen him go out to that old, foundationless garage and wrestle the doors open; then entering the darkened place, he’d drive out in his huge, black Buick Electra 225 and then take his waiting wife to every place that she needed to go.
There was a time when Niagara Falls was much like Matt. We were once a paternalistic society, where powerful men, such as plant owners and managers, bankers, retail magnates in their chambers of commerce, and even those associated with less noble professions, were at the steering wheels of our lives, too. Times were once good, and not having to make any real decisions about our own destinies, we just went along for the ride.
However, when Matt died, Mona, with three adult children, did something that was totally unexpected.
Having been ferried by her husband to wherever it was that she had needed to go for all of her married life, there was no need for the then-70-year old woman to have learned to drive.
But, she did it anyway.
Mona Gwozdek passed away in February of this year. She was 89 years old. I will never forget her, nor should any of you who never even knew her. That’s because there is a lesson in what she did that we all need to learn; and that is that a 70-year-old woman, who worked a bar most of her life, decided to take the New York state written drivers test, and the determined woman passed it on her first try.
However unreasonable it might have seemed for anyone actually to have expected her to pass the road test on the first try, especially for a woman of advanced her years, Mona didn’t see it as a particular problem. Instead, she focused on what she wanted for her future and then she passed it on her first try.
Shortly thereafter, whereas Matt would drive that huge, black Buick out of the garage to take his Mona to where she wanted to go, Mona would then tool out of it in her little black Ford Focus, herself. It was a car that seemed small enough to have been put into Matt’s trunk, and she would take herself to where she wanted to be.
Thereafter, I didn’t see much of Mona anymore.
Like our city, Matt’s Tavern changed hands several times after he died and Mona moved away. The building went into decline, again, like our city. In all likelihood, Matt’s Tavern will soon be torn down; but that will be the difference between Matt’s Tavern and our city.
I believe that the magic of Niagara Falls is not in what we build or have built with our hands and minds; I think that it is, as it was with Mona, in what we build with our hearts and with our determination.
At 70, Mona learned to drive and to take control of her individual destiny. For those of you who are far less than 70, it may not be a Ford Focus, as it was with Mona; but you cannot afford to focus upon anything other than your own dreams of owning your own business and your own home, as Matt and Mona did.
Because our own proverbial buildings are burned out and half-torn down, it doesn’t have to mean that our hearts and our souls have to be.
It doesn’t take much to change ourselves and our destinies. Mona changed hers. But more importantly, it won’t take us all to first change, and then change our city and the destiny of our young children — like the ones who possibly burned the bar.
That is, if we do like Mona — that little, old woman who could.Contact Ken Hamilton at firstname.lastname@example.org.