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Poster Child
Polka bar owner Andy Kochanski, a hero to gun activists.

Photo by Sara Stathas

To hear polka bar owner Andy Kochanski tell it, his neighborhood near Miller Park is just as safe as the East Side. Never mind the recent news about a deadly confrontation between himself and a small group of would-be robbers (who turned out to be toting handgun-shaped BB guns). Kochanski’s Concertina Beer Hall, 1920 S. 37th St., is otherwise as homey as your grandmother’s living room, according to the former St. Francis firefighter and onetime host of the public access TV heavy metal show “Threshold of Pain.” Also, pay no mind to Sheriff Clarke and other gun activists who’ve celebrated his actions. Kochanski’s “just the guy behind the bar,” as he said when we met at said tavern.

How did you come to own this bar?
I knew the first time I walked in here that this place was really great. It’s got a good vibe, and when I decided I should look into getting a Plan B, I started the process of buying it. And it was a yearlong nightmare.
What happened? Art Altenburg started this place as a polka bar, and it built up around his personality.
It’s the last polka bar and still is. Everything took, like, two weeks, and it was like buying a property from Rod Serling. I think he had some kind of seller’s remorse.

What kind of crowd do you get in here? 
The demographics are from 21 to 75 on any given night. I get blue-collar workers, white-collar workers, business owners, cops, firefighters, gays, lesbians. All walks of life come through this door. The building just oozes a weird, fun vibe. I have bands that play here from all over the world, and they walk in the door and say, “Wow. Yeah. This place. This place.” This is a time-machine bar.

Before the shooting in August, had you ever encountered any problems?
I had a shootout during the tail end of a [2008] Christmas party during a snowstorm. I had two guys come in and fire a shot at me. And, actually, if I wasn’t going for my gun, I would have taken that round in the chest. I started to return fire, and they started scrambling to get the hell out.

Did you ever think that you would take someone’s life?
I pretty much told myself, “I can’t believe I’m going to have to kill these guys.” I was prepared to kill someone back then. I think anytime you’re using a weapon in self-defense, you’ve got to have that mindset. It’s either you or them. It’s not like arm-wrestling.

So this clearly wasn’t the first time you felt that you had to defend yourself.
No. There’s even a bullet hole from Art in the front window, just below the Miller neon. He had some guy come in and try and rob him.

Why do you bring a gun to the bar?
To protect this place, myself, my patrons. I think every business owner should have some form of weapon for self-defense.

So tell me, what happened exactly?
Three guys came in. They said, “This is a robbery,” and I reacted. One guy said, “Don’t do it. Don’t do it,” and he started to draw his weapon up at me.

How many times did you fire?
Five rounds. One man went down, and the other two went out. I ran around the bar with the phone and told the one, “Don’t move, don’t move,” made sure there weren’t any weapons around him, went outside, and on the way out, there was a gun in the foyer and another one outside on the ground. I got on the phone with 911, came back in and checked the guy for a pulse. There was no pulse, so I flipped him over, brought his mask down and started performing CPR.

Had the bar emptied out by then?
No, everybody sort of came in, and I told two guys to go outside and watch – don’t touch the guns.

Have you spoken to the victim’s [Carmelo L. Matoz-Arzola] family?
I’m not going to go out of my way. I’m sure they’re dealing with a lot of emotions. They’re victims themselves. They loved their kid, I’m sure, or their brother or whatever, just like any other family in Milwaukee.

Have you been anxious about going to work since the shooting?
No, I’m fine.

What do you think has allowed you to rest easy?
Maybe the fact that I did the right thing. Your senses are a little more heightened. You watch the door more. It’s not like nothing happened. You’re thinking that it doesn’t happen again, but you’re always kind of thinking about it.

This article appears in the October 2013 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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