Sunday, February 16, 2014

Chapter 17

I am spending the rest of the summer working, to earn money for my growing smoking habit and other necessities. My father finds me this job through one of his strange connections in the semi-legal world of small-time entrepreneurs and street peddlers. This time it is an owner of an ice cream shop on Bazar Różyckiego -  a sprawling, walled-in area in the run-down section of Warsaw, with hundreds of stalls hawking wares that the state-run industry cannot provide, or those it does provide but can't keep on the shelves. (Selling this latter type of merchandise is considered speculation, branded as anti-social and punished, although with half-heartedness that becomes the modus operandi of the Polish state in that decade.)

As travel restrictions loosen up - especially within the Eastern Block - the Bazar (bazaar) becomes the main conduit for bringing merchandise from abroad: children's shoes from East Germany; pepper and spices from Romania; caviar from the Soviet Union; cheap sheepskin furs from Turkey; salami from Hungary. That in addition to plentiful wares produced in private homes and tiny workshops all over Poland, from clothing to shoes, to herbal remedies, to foodstuff, to household hardware, to toys, to religious kitsch. This enclave of free-market economy is tolerated by the communist authorities because it partially fills an important hole that the centrally-planned economy is unable to fill: the seemingly insatiable appetite for consumer goods, which keeps the shelves of the official stores bare, and the lanes of the Bazar teeming with crowds.

The ice cream store is not a stall but a small shed divided into two sections:  ice cream is dispensed from an Italian-made gelato machine at the front of the store, and it is produced in the back, where I work. According to state regulations that ice cream is supposed to be made from a powder (supplied by a state-owned factory), but that is too expensive and provided in quantities not sufficient to make a viable business out of it. We keep a bag of that powder for state inspectors, but each morning I go into the stalls to purchase dozens of eggs and vats of milk. I then combine those ingredients with bags of sugar and vials of vanilla flavor, pour the mix into the machine - and voila! In an hour of so the vanilla ice cream is ready for consumption.

The work is not well paid, but it is easy and relatively stress-free (if not for the specter of a state inspector's raid, but I figure it is not my headache).  There are two of us working here: myself, and a middle-aged woman selling the waffle cones of ice cream.  The owner shows up in the morning to give me a shopping list and money for the daily supplies, and then disappears in pursuit of other business opportunities.  That is, until he discovers that I make a good drinking buddy. From that point on he shows up twice a week in the afternoon and sends me to the monopolowy (liquor store) for his drink of choice: Krupnik, a mixture of vodka and honey.

I'm under age , but he introduces me to the store manager as his employee, and I will have no problem purchasing alcohol for us. Actually, it is not that unusual for children to be sent to a liquor store to buy alcohol for their parents, but I'm at an age when I can drink this stuff myself, so under normal circumstances I would be asked for an ID. I do have a school ID that I doctored in order to be able to see movies rated for 18-year-old, but in a liquor store I would be expected to show a state-issued ID confirming my adulthood.

I am a good listener and don't say much myself, so Sylwek (we're now on first-name basis) can dazzle me with stories of his drunken escapades and of blowing sums of money  I can't quite imagine.  At his wedding, rather than have new dishes put on the same plates, he orders the waitstaff to remove the table linens, together with china, silverware, and glassware, put it in trash, and then set the table anew for the next course. He dots on his wife and his twin sons with expensive presents and vacations in exotic places. He buys absurdly expensive, Italian bunk beds for his sons' bedroom, and then, after an argument with his wife over the color scheme in that bedroom, smashes them to pieces with a sledgehammer.

I take these stories with a big grain of salt, until one day he brings me an article he clipped from the biggest daily newspaper in Warsaw - "Życie Warszawy" ("Life of Warsaw"). It describes a drunken brawl he caused in a fancy hotel restaurant with a business rival of his, and the mayhem that ensued when he tried to evade two bouncers intent on ejecting him from the establishment.  At some point in the melee, with tables overturned and chairs being hurled across the dining room, he managed to jump behind the cocktail bar, from where he yelled triumphantly, "Bar taken!", and began throwing bottles of expensive liquor at his pursuers.

To appreciate the rich hilarity of this account one has to keep in mind that these two words, "Bar... taken",  have special meaning and are well known to every educated Pole. They appear at the end of volume one of the much-beloved XIXth century novel "With Fire and Sword" ("Ogniem i Mieczem") by Henryk Sienkiewicz , referring to the news that the Polish defenses of a  fortress in the town of Bar in Ukraine succumbed to the masses of  revolting Cossacks led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky (Chmielnicki) and aided by the Crimean Tatars. That XVIIth century revolt was a turning point for the powerful Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, starting a downward spiral that resulted in the loss of independence for Poland a hundred years later.

My boss is probably completely unaware of that, but his drunken exploits are much more than funny vignettes from a life of an immature 30-something with too much money to burn.  Projected against the rich cultural and historical background of Poland, they are ironic contemporary appendices to that background, illustrating the sad truth that it was the extreme individualism and obstinacy of Polish gentry (szlachta), more than anything else, that led to the demise of Poland. (With alcohol serving as lubricant for these two destructive traits.)

For my part I am usually too drunk after these sessions to make astute observations of this sort. I am so drunk I serve a woman ice cream on a 20-zloty bill she just handed me. I am so drunk I don't know how I manage to navigate the multiple transfers required to get home after work - all the while drifting in and out of consciousness, and fighting a powerful urge to puke. I do wonder occasionally what the other tram and bus passengers think of a 17-year old so hopelessly inebriated, but I discover that I don't really care. Nobody ever says a word, especially not my parents, who happen to be out of town on vacation and know nothing of it.  I just wish my hangovers would not be as bad. I don't know it yet, but my body reacts to alcohol as if it were a poison. (Which it is, of course. In a sense.)

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