The Demon of Warsaw

From the Forum Hotel lobbby, we hurry down Jerozolimskie Street. He knows where we can buy vodka cheaper than at the bar where he had strolled over and introduced himself. His name is Zbigniew, and hurrying seems his manner, even as we sat at the small round table in the corner. I did not mention the vodka in my suitcase lying on the table next to the bed where by now my mother surely was asleep, the bottle wrapped tightly for the trip home as my cousin Elzbieta had packed it.

To save a few hundred zloty means a dollar to me, but to Zbigniew it is something he could turn into a financial savings bonanza beyond any dollar. He seems determined, and so I follow him down the dark street where I had window-shopped all afternoon. Why this urgency? Why this desperation over a dollar?

Sprechen ze deutsch?” Zbigniew had said before sitting down.

Nie,” I answered in my American Polish, “Do you speak English?” And we began the kind of conversation one has when the people speak only a little of one another’s language. I wanted to talk to a real Polish man, but maybe not this guy.

We walk on and pass the Palace of Science and Culture, a gift from the Russians to the Polish people after the war a tour guide told us. “Small but in good taste,” the man said contemptuously, glancing back at the bus load of Americans and grinning.

I try to tell Zbigniew about the gypsies in the passageway beneath Jerozolimskie Street, but I do not know how to describe in Polish their clothes, their manner as they tried to pick my pockets. I know how to say “gold tooth” and “they wanted my money,” but Zbigniew is preoccupied. “Here, here is where we can buy vodka, he says as we reach a dark alley and a woman staggers in a stretchy polyester sweater staggers toward us mumbling. Two men appear, propped against the cement wall, one sliding toward the brick pavement. Zbigniew speaks to one of them, then darts back to me. “No vodka, nobody has vodka.” He turns away before I can reply and races back toward Nowy Swiat.

“I have vodka in my room,” I tell him. He is younger than I. His high-browed forehead and nervousness have made him look older. But now his urgency seems like youthful impatience, with which I am now prepared to have all the patience in the world, curious to know why I am following this peculiar Polish man down a dark street in the middle of Warsaw.

Still we hurry. He is racing, his tight jeans encasing his legs like blue sausage skins, his black bag first clutched under his arm, then swinging from his thigh by a leather strap.

As we approach the hotel, he says, “I want to get out of Poland, you know.”

“And I want to get into Poland,” I laugh. He is not amused.

“I live in a two-room flat, my mother, my sister and her husband and now their new baby. There is no future for me here. It is Germany, he says as something of an announcement. I have friends there. My future is there–or anywhere but here.

I’ll wait here,” he says when we get back to the Forum. I leave him in the lobby as the elevator rises to eleven. I know he will show me Warsaw as I cannot see it on a tour bus.

My mother wakes up. “What are you doing?” she calls, irritated.

“Go back to sleep. I just want to get something.” I dig in the dark through my suitcase crammed with souvenirs until I find the bottle. “I’m going back out. We can’t take this booze through customs anyway.”

“You’re crazy,” she says with some combination of alarm and disgust in her voice.

Zbigniew has asked few questions of me and is facing the lobby as the elevator door opens, talking to a blonde woman who glances sideways when I appear and rushes off.

“Do you know what is dzalki?” he asks, agitated.

I know about the garden patches people have planted all through the outskirts of Warsaw. Tidy rows of vegetables and flowers to get them past the inflated prices in all the markets.

I notice how tidily Zbigniew is put together. Not a man about to go gardening. How he smells of some harsh cologne that I never smelled before, how he seems scrubbed and clean, every hair in place, his blousy shirt arranged to conceal an expanding midriff. He reminds me of my Polish Uncle in New Jersey, how I remember him looking at thirty, ready never to be Polish anymore.

“How old are you?” I ask. Twenty-seven, he says. “I am so much older,” I tell him.

We are about the same,” he says.

“I am a dozen years older,” I correct.

“Americans always look young,” he answers as we pass through the revolving door. “You have no worries, you are like children.”

He scans the streets for a taxi or any car that he can convert to a taxi. Then he steers me toward Nowy Swiat. “Hotel taxis charge too much,” he says, holding my vodka tightly in his fist.

The streets of Warsaw are lost in time–a grey cement time of grotesque shapes. Here a building shaped like a yoyo. Here another one like an American motel on stilts. Here a restaurant in a reconstructed modernist style, its interior coyly shielded by white lace curtains.

Nowy Swiat is nearly deserted. Now and then a Polish Fiat speeds by, but the window displays at the Pewex seem less tired in the shadows, less sun-bleached.

My feelings, not so unique. Other Americans have come to this country at the end of the 20th century to see where they came from. To shake their head. click their teeth, count themselves lucky their grandparents got on the boat.

Zbigniew and I take our places twenty feet from the Forum Hotel. I don’t question his logic. He is working the system, searches up and down the street for any car. A cab stops. “Where are you going,” the driver says, then flaps his hand at Zbigniew and drives off.

Dupa,” Zbigniew says with a nervous laugh. Asshole.

As we eye one another stupidly, two men stagger to the taxi stand–young handsome men, their arms around each other, first one pushing the other away, then the other pulling him back. The more sober of the two, the one holding a vodka bottle, runs his hand through sandy-colored hair and stares up at the streetlamp.

To me, he says in Polish, “Take some, have a drink,” extending the bottle and leaning against the sign pole.

Zbigniew reaches out and grabs the bottle. He glances at me nervously and hands it to me. “Drink,” he says. The vodka is warm, the rim wet with their spit. I drink mindlessly.

The sandy-haired man staggers up to me and says something I cannot understand, in a challenging voice. He laughs and grabs the bottle, putting his fingers to his lips and kissing them. Then he looks at Zbigniew and begins talking. I understand his exclamations to be about the breasts his face would soon be nestled between.

Clearly, Zbigniew wants these men to disappear. His single-mindedness never sways, even as he encourages the boasting and swaggering of the two drunks, the drunker of which is now seated on the curb with his face buried in his hands. He is crying or about to be sick. I cannot tell which.

Zbigniew searches up and down the street for a cab, swinging his black clutch bag, then throwing it under his arm. I stare at him but he does not look back at me.

At last a cab pulls up. Zbigniew shoves the drunks in and slams the door behind them, then looks at me and smirks. “Drunks,” he says. “Too many drunks in Poland.”

Deeper into the night we go, and soon I am lost with no sense of where we are in relation to the hotel. We jump out of the cab and we are soon in the middle of a large plot of urban gardens, most with little tool sheds. Zbigniew directs me to his special garden. “I want you to see this,” he whispers without a sign of interest in whether or not I want to see it. He swings open the door and his face falls. Inside the shed lies a man, red-faced and contentedly snoring.

Zbigniew is furious. “He is not supposed to be here.”

The man is an uncle of some sort and he rouses lethargically, as if happy to see us. He greets us in Polish. Ziggy, ciesc, Ziggy fine. “Odcedzińá kartofelki,” he announces, he has to “strain the potatoes,” a euphemism like “drain the lizard.”

So smiling, staggering Uncle Kaspar and I line up outside the shed and urinate into the night beneath the Warsaw stars. Ziggy is clearly pissed, so to speak. And Uncle Kaspar is completely taken with the fact that an American has turned up at his hideout in the middle of his drunken reverie.

Zbigniew pouts while Kaspar and I bond over yet another swig of vodka. He smiles and asks a million questions about what the hell I am doing wandering the streets of Warsaw in the middle of the night.

“Go to sleep uncle!” Zbigniew orders, and under a ratty old blanket and in his dirty clothes smelling of earth, he does. Zbigniew signals to me that I may put my arm around him, then balks when I start laughing and slap him on his ass instead.

“Uncle will wake up,” he warns.

“So what?” I ask.

Exasperated, Zbigniew orders me to lie down and sleep off my drunk. He turns off the battery-operated lantern and whispers in my ear in the best English he can muster, “You will help me? You will help me leave Poland?”

“I cannot help you leave Poland. I am leaving Poland the day after tomorrow.”

“Maybe you can give me some money?”

When I wake up, the sun is rising, and next to me lie two authentic Polish men, one a drunken uncle and the other a desperate nephew who thinks he has found his meal ticket.

“Good-bye Ziggy,” I whisper and sneak back to the main road and a cruising taxi.

My mother is still sleeping when I open the door to the room. “Where the hell have you been?” she murmurs.

“Just out. Talking with some real Polish guys.”

“You’re crazy,” she says.

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