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The local cobbler: A colorful sole

Tamas “Zen” Pomazi was walking down Waconia Parkway on a summer day, heading toward town. He pushed his toddler in a fancy Swedish stroller with “Biggie Smalls,” a little white chihuahua, by his side.

“Don’t you know I’m gangster,” Pomazi recalls he yelled into his cellphone. Who he was yelling at, he doesn’t remember, but it was probably someone who owed him money, he said.

A few minutes went by until his wife, who witnessed the scene, told him to look at himself and what he was doing, Pomazi said.

Still angry, he looked down to see his son and dog and remembered where he was. At that moment he realized he wasn’t gangster anymore, he laughed.

Photos by Lydia Christianson  

Pomazi working on a shoe in his workshop in Waconia.

In a workshop in the back of a warehouse, Pomazi, of Waconia, a master cobbler and owner and founder of Greenwich Vintage Co., diligently repairs and resoles shoes and boots with his unique colored soles.

These shoes might come from a thrift shop, online, or someone bringing in a pair they want refurbished. He doesn’t have a brick and mortar store, but his work can be found at its site greenwichvintage.us.

LIFE BEFORE COBBLING

Pomazi was born in Yonkers, New York in 1969. As Pomazi likes to say he was “born in New York and raised in L.A.” After his parents divorced, his mom brought him to Las Vegas for a brief period. Then off to West L.A.

Growing up in L.A. and being surrounded by older guys who did graffiti is what got Pomazi into graffiti. He was already fascinated with it before he left the Bronx, but those who participated in that scene kept it quiet.

“In L.A. it was so new that nobody really knew what to do of it,” he said. It was the 1980s and authorities in L.A. had other things going on besides policing graffiti. “It was kind of wide open for us when we were kids,” he said.

An inclination toward the arts was bred young. His father, an oil painter, was one of Pomazi’s biggest influences in art and where he gets some of his artistic ability. “I remember sitting on his knee when he was doing paintings,” he said.

Pomazi came from a Hungarian background. Strong Jewish Hungarian women shaped his upbringing. His mother’s Hungarian girlfriends were always around and felt like family to him. He was the first boy in the family and was doted on because of it. His grandma “ran around with a wooden spoon trying to feed me all the time,” he said.

After a brief time living in Belgium, Pomazi came back to the U.S. and attended San Diego State. He floundered a bit going back to L.A. so he found and attended the Art Institute of Seattle. “That’s when I really got into doing graphic design and doing a lot of art,” he said. He even started doing graffiti in Seattle.

But along with involvement in graffiti, came a lifestyle. During this time of his life, Pomazi was living as “the persona of ‘Zen One’ the graffiti writer. A blunt-smoking, beer-swilling, gun-toting gangster,” he said. He had gotten these illusions of grandeur from watching too much “Scarface” and “Goodfellas,” he said.

Pomazi had been dealing narcotics and was sentenced to do time in prison. Art continued to be a staple in his life. “In prison you have to have a hustle to get along,” he said, but he wasn’t interested in doing people’s laundry or working in the cafeteria.

Other inmates would come to him for greeting cards and postcards. “Guys would come up to me ‘Hey can you draw a rose on the envelope to my old girl,’” he recalled. Eventually he graduated to tattooing in prison.

Tattooing was not only time consuming, but also led to a paranoid state of mind, he said. Other tattoo artists would turn you in so that you weren’t competition. Pomazi was even sent to solitary confinement for his work.

POMAZI’S EPIPHANY

In solitary confinement, Pomazi had a chance to mull over a previous visit. His mom had brought his 85-year-old grandma all the way from Hungary to visit him in prison. She had previously had a stroke, so she was in a wheelchair.

Pomazi revered his grandma. When she was wheeled in he could see that she was disappointed. She tapped him and told him in Hungarian to come closer to her. She had a secret to tell him that she didn’t want anyone else to hear.

“Grandma, I can’t get any closer,” Pomazi recalled saying. She smacked him in the head and made him promise he’ll never come back to prison. The visit was over and he hugged her goodbye.

He never saw his grandma again. She died only a few months later. He took it hard that he wasn’t able to be there for her in the end and wouldn’t be there to bury her. He still had years of his sentence to serve. But in solitary, his grandma’s words rang true. It got him thinking about wanting to be a better person.

Another pivotal moment happened while talking with two other inmates. They asked him what he had planned for himself when he got out of prison. At that moment, he realized his mother escaped Communist Hungary to go to America and did everything she could to give him a better life. All of that, for him to be stuck in prison. “It hit me like a ton of bricks,” Pomazi said.

“That’s when I said ‘I’m done’” with getting in trouble, with the drinking, the drugs, with the lifestyle he was living. He befriended a man that was serving a life sentence. “People doing life don’t have anything to lose, they won’t lie to you,” he said. He took Pomazi under his wing and introduced him to Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.

Between his grandmother and the epiphany about his mother’s sacrifices, “that was the final straw,” Pomazi said. He was ready to get out, be a better person and work hard. “I’m happy to say that I’ve kept my promise to my grandmother,” Pomazi said.

People ask him what he was addicted to. Was it the alcohol, the money, the drugs? Pomazi’s answer is simple “I was addicted to the game.” All of the other things just came along with it. “I loved it so much they had to put me in prison,” he said.

NEW GAME

But the game has changed for Pomazi. He has been sober for 22 years. It’s not exactly the same, but it’s pretty close. “I wake up, look at my phone and go ‘What can I create today?’” He gets the satisfaction of putting something together that will make a person happy, and he knows they will be wearing his shoes for a long time.

After Pomazi got out of prison he moved to Minnesota in 2000. His stepbrother gave him an opportunity with his business. When that didn’t pan out, he started customizing sneakers for local rappers and did murals in Minneapolis. At a certain point he was done with sneakers. “Then it was like a natural progression into grown man shoes, wingtips, doing my own thing,” he said.

At a summer wedding is where he had his “aha” moment. When his stepfather passed away, he left Pomazi with a bunch of his old wingtip shoes. He decided to wear a pair for the event, but by the time he got to the venue, his shoes had become unbearable to wear.

Photos by Lydia Christianson  

Pomazi with his camouflage shoe soles. “I wake up, look at my phone and go ‘What can I create today?’” he said.

The rest of the night at the wedding Pomazi puzzled over how he could make the shoes more comfortable. He later realized no one in the shoe industry was doing colored soles. “That’s where the spark went off in my brain. There’s a hole in the market,” he said. He got his start renting space in Papa’s Shoe Repair as well as hand-pouring the shoe soles in his home basement using molds he made himself.

Photo by Lydia Christianson  

Pomazi with his glow-in-the-dark shoe soles. He was drawn to the arts as a child; his father was one of Pomazi’s biggest influences in art.

Things have changed since Pomazi started. Papa’s Shoe Repair went out of business. Pomazi bought the machinery that he would need from the shop. Now, he works in the warehouse in the back of the building where the shop once was.

What hasn’t changed is the work Pomazi puts into his craft. He is still hand-pouring his signature colored soles in the basement of his home. He prides himself not only on his craftsmanship but also his customer service, he said. “You call my number, you’re not talking to an empty shell of a company that doesn’t have a personality,” he said.

Photo courtesy of Greenwich Vintage Co.  

A pair of boots fitted with glow-in-the-dark soles.

FAMILY MAN

“I don’t know where I’d be without her. I definitely wouldn’t be here,” Pomazi said of his wife. She guides him on strategy and marketing behind the scenes at Greenwich Vintage Co.

The two met when she was selling her grandmother’s couch on Craigslist. He was with his friend who wanted to buy the couch. After meeting her, the couch was the last thing on his mind. When he said he didn’t want it, she said “OK” and slammed the door in his face, Pomazi recalled.

A couple of emails went back and forth between them until one night. Pomazi was working on a legal graffiti job in Minneapolis when she called him. “She goes, if you can find me, you can take me out on a date,” he said.

After they found each other she brought him to a Thai place that was “inedible,” he laughed. Now, they’ve been married for almost 10 years, he said.

Their son Elijah Pomazi is 5 years old. He likes to watch his dad work on shoes in the workshop. What keeps Pomazi driven is in large part, his son.

“When you’re just the guy in Waconia trying to do what you can do to survive. It is very tough to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. Sometimes he considers going and just taking some job. “But how does that leave anything for my son at the end of the day. I want my son to be his own boss.”

Mary Bloomgren, Pomazi’s mother-in-law, describes him as “a great family man,” she said. “He’s a great husband to our daughter and a fabulous father to our grandson.”

NOT JUST CUSTOMERS

Customers become friends when they meet Pomazi. Luke Ibis remembered seeing the colored sole work in a local publication and soon after followed his Instagram page. Ibis met Pomazi about a pair of shoes he wanted done. The two connected discussing a shared interest in sneakers.

When Ibis got remarried in 2017 he invited Pomazi and his wife. When Pomazi walked up to the groom’s dinner, “he’s got this gigantic smile on his face,” he recalled. The first thing he does is grab Ibis and start fixing his pocket square to how he thought it should be.

“Then he walks into the house and basically proceeds to charm and talk everyone’s ear off including my 90-year-old grandmother,” Ibis said. From a first impression he’s a bit intimidating, you might not expect him to be that kind of guy. But, “he’s definitely got the gift of gab,” he said. Everyone was saying at the end of the night “who was that guy?” Ibis said.

Photo by Lydia Christianson  

Tamas “Zen” Pomazi working on a pair of boots.

Another friend he met through Greenwich Vintage Co. is Freddie Brown, who was checking out Pomazi’s website and wanted to have his shoes worked on. Pomazi told him to come out to Waconia so they could figure something out. The two got to talking and realized they had similar interests.

Brown recalls receiving three missed calls from Pomazi when he was in Cleveland looking at shoe repair equipment. Filled with excitement he told Brown he had found a pair of size 16 wides in a warehouse. Exactly Brown’s size and somewhat difficult to find. Those are “still my favorite pair of boots,” Brown said.

However, Pomazi’s dedication goes farther than shoes. When Brown’s son was getting himself into trouble, Pomazi offered to talk with him. He “ruffled his feathers” a bit, he said. Brown appreciated that Pomazi cared whether or not his son turned out OK. “It’s hard to find people who really care nowadays,” he said.


Education
top story
EDUCATION
Schools closer to identifying budget cuts, propose East Union closure

The Eastern Carver County School District is closer to finalizing budget cuts for the 2020-21 school year.

Included in the proposal, to be finalized Feb. 24, is the closure of East Union Elementary School. Also in the 2020-21 plan is changing the high school schedule to six class periods, increasing elementary school class sizes, and freezing pay for non-teaching staff.

It’s part of a larger push to decrease district spending by approximately $6.03 million in the 2020-21 school year; cutting an additional $3.2 million in 2021-22; followed by more cuts in subsequent years, according to district's "Proposed Budget Containment" document.

The preliminary budget was also addressed at the Jan. 27 School Board meeting.

The cuts come after a failed November referendum vote for more education spending, including a question for a $550 funding increase per student.

That revenue would not have been enough to completely cover the gap between revenue and expenses, said DeeDee Kahring, district finance and operations director, at the Community Forum Budget Presentation.

"The School Board knew that the $550 per pupil unit would not cover all of the shortfall and that the district would still have to make budget reductions regardless," she added. "The School Board also knew that the community would not support an amount more than the $550 per pupil unit."

Historically, the School Board has used unassigned fund balance money to ward off direct cuts to the classroom but this year, officials say that’s not an option.

“Unfortunately with the failure of the referendum, we are now in a position where impacts to students and the classroom are unavoidable,” said Superintendent Clint Christopher.

The sentiment was shared by other school officials.

“It’s not something any of us care to do, but we need to move forward,” said Kahring.

SPECIFICS

Though cuts can change as the board reviews numbers this month, proposals already include specifics. In total, the district’s budget for the 2020-21 school year is $172 million.

Kahring said expenditures have steadily increased since 2010, due to district growth and inflation. The problem? The dollar amount in the fund balance has generally remained flat, she said.

Kahring said if no budget cuts happened, the fund balance would soon be in the negative.

Next year, moving high schools to a six-period schedule would save the district around $1.6 million. Increasing elementary class sizes would spare $1.1 million, and freezing pay for non-teachers would save about $690,000.

The following school year, 2021-22, the district is again proposing a soft freeze in pay — this time, with teaching staff. Also on the table is an increase in athletic fees, cutting a foreign language program and staff, and using inhouse transportation. East Union is proposed to close that year to save around half a million dollars.

As far as expenses, most money is used on salaries and benefits for teachers and staff, totaling $76 million, or just under 80% of the total budget. Other big costs are transportation, snow removal, and classroom supply costs, according to the district.

EAST UNION

The smallest elementary school in the district, East Union, holds just over 100 students today. Officials said there are inherent costs in operating a small school.

Kahring said it costs around $4,000 per student in operating funds — double the cost at Chanhassen Elementary. The Clover Ridge and Carver elementary schools are even lower, at $1,600 per student.

It’s also an older building, contributing to a higher operating cost, she said. But the proposed closure doesn’t come without grief.

“We understand that community dearly loves its quaint little school,” said Tim Klein, school board member.

Parents said they were first notified of the proposed change the last week of January.

General budget cut planning progress was communicated with families in December, said Jolaina Falkenstein, who has three children enrolled at East Union. But she doesn’t feel like enough emphasis was put on the possibility of the school closing.

“The first email they sent also seemed rather vague, considering the full ramifications that were not communicated more clearly until recently,” she said.

Jay Woller, principal at East Union, sent an email to parents on Jan. 28 alerting families to the possible closure.

"This is obviously a difficult subject for all of us, and the decision to include closing East Union was not an easy one," Woller said. "No matter what decision the board makes, nothing will happen this school year or next school year."

"Even if East Union Elementary closes, it is very likely that they will continue to go to school with their friends," he continued. "In a similar vein, the district will still need teachers and staff to support our students, so many of the teachers and staff members they see every day in East Union will continue to be part of the district."

Falkenstein said the current classroom size at East Union is perfect for her children — sitting at around 20. Class sizes in the elementary schools are proposed to increase by 1.5 students in the coming school year.

If the school closed, all East Union students and teachers would be transferred to other schools, also increasing class size.

Falkenstein said she isn’t convinced closing the school is the best option.

“It sounds like there's some other ways that the budget can be cut without losing a whole school,” she said.

Moving forward, the board will review the cut proposals and take a vote at a Feb. 24 meeting.

"The board has a difficult decision ahead of it," Superintendent Christopher said. "(It) will continue to review the proposal, consider feedback, and evaluate options before it votes on a final plan."