Sunday, 2 September 2012

that's really funny

the first year I lived in Poland
I lived alone,
something like six storeys up
a building that swayed in a wind which whipped in
from east to west, starting out beyond the steppes
of central Asia
and gathering speed across the low
green Świętokrzyskie Mountains.
and on the evenings when the power went out,
I'd sit on the floor, reading Bukowski by candlelight and
eating meatballs or bigos heated on the little gas stove, and
I never complained
about the lack of furniture
or about sleeping on a very thin foam-rubber mattress
or about the graffiti
and the shaven-headed teenage smokers
on the stairwell
of the block.

I liked the solitude,
I liked it better than coming home
to the sound of someone else's voice
and the tutting and the post-it notes
about not rinsing out the bathtub
about not double-locking the door
about all that stuff
you have to worry about
when you share a place
because working your drop-out job
pays far too little
to buy you
even the smallest space
in which to be

but ten months in Kielce was enough.
it was unlovely,
with its little bits of life and light
all seemingly straggled
along one long central street,
ulica Henryka Sienkiewicza.
and all that was
was a couple of places
to eat bad pizza
or drink a beer in a cellar,
worrying that some arsehole
in a bad tonic suit
might shoot some other arsehole
in a bad tonic suit, and
all the time
not knowing enough of the language
to know how dangerous
those fuckers really were.

don't get me wrong,
there were some good people there,
hardened into humour, ready to share
their homes, their food
and their stories
with this young Englishman
who was crazy enough
to spend time
scratching out a living
in their out-of-the way town.
yeah, don't get me wrong,
before and after the snow came
I liked to walk arm in arm with this one young girl,
this smart little Anna,
through the untidy parks and
across the cobbled marketplace
where peasant women
in tight headscarves
sold their potatoes, their plums,
their jars of fat.

so I took the offer
of a bigger city, taking my few things
to Kraków,
not suspecting,
of course,
that I'd be there,
in love with the place,
in love with everything going on there and
in love with one maddening girl there
and in lust
with a few more there
for a few more years
after that.

for the first few months
the only bad part about having moved there
was needing to live in the same apartment
as a pretty curious fellow who worked
in the same place as me.

this was Chuck, an American,
a graduate
of a state university in New England,
and a native of the Connecticut suburbs
to the north
of NYC.
curious? yes, yes, curious.
a real weirdo, in fact,
but harmless.

he had a small number of ageing checked shirts
which he buttoned right to the throat, and
a small number of pairs of fading jeans
that he tucked tightly
into these stupid looking
pale brown waterproof duck boots
just as soon as a few drops of rain were heard falling
past the windows
of the flat.

he was a man of strange habits.
for instance, he was particular about the way he ate his cornflakes.
he would pour a layer of the cornflakes
from the packet
to the bowl, then
he'd splash on a little milk and then he'd pat down the cornflakes,
using the back of his spoon.
pat pat pat. like he wanted the cornflakes to lie perfectly flat.
then he would pour on more flakes
then more milk and then go
pat pat pat
again, with the spoon,
pat pat pat.
over and over this went,
four or five layers of cornflakes
applied in this way.
oh, and the whole time
he did this
he was standing up,
with his spoon held right out at arm's length.
it was one of the damnedest things I've ever seen
and he did it like that every morning
for all the mornings I lived there.

and he was obsessively tight with money.
I mean, we all earned nothing in real money,
our wage in złoty,
well it would make you wince
to convert it to dollars or pounds.
but everything was still cheap there then.
I never worried about what I spent.
there was no point saving,
'cos as soon as you went home for Christmas or whatever,
the cash was really worthless.
so you'd eat in restaurants,
take pretty girls to the cinema,
spend all night in bars,
get haircuts,
go to the football matches
and always have a little left over
when payday came around again.
but not Chuck. he watched everything he spent,
and he took to schlepping right across the city
just to get to a supermarket
where things were a fraction cheaper.
he used to head off with this little shopping trolley,
one of those two-wheelers that old ladies use,
and he'd load the thing with cartons and cartons
of fruit juice
that cost a little less
than the same thing
from the all-night convenience store
forty paces
from our front door.
we were on the third floor and I'd hear him
and his trolley
coming up the stairs
with all those cartons.
slap, slap, slap,
as he dragged it
up from the street.

Chuck was also a very strange guy to talk to.
he didn't really get jokes,
he listened in complete silence
when someone else spoke,
not giving back any signals.
then sometimes,
at the end of somebody telling him a story
about something they'd done
or something they'd seen,
he would say,
without smiling,
and with no laughter in his voice,
"that's really funny".

he was strange about women.
I know he really lusted after this one red-haired girl
from Manchester
who was also working in the city
and who wandered into our workplace one day,
looking for other English-speaking people she could hang out with.
but he never made any move on her
and he seemed more painfully silent
and shy than ever
when she was around.
and then one night
he saw me walking somewhere with her,
from one bar to another, I guess,
we were drunk
and holding onto each other for support,
tottering about
in the dark.
and that's all it was. I wasn't into her.
but he kind of confronted me.
a day later.
asking why I'd been with this girl,
what I'd been doing and
didn't I know
that he liked her.
there was a flash of violence
in the usually unperturbed eye
of this bloody American fruitcake.
I was, seriously, like
what the fuck are you on, Chuck?
cool it, brother. really.
for fuck's sake.
anyway, this didn't go on forever.
pretty soon I was living in a big house full of boisterous Poles,
wild parties
and the sweet smoke of cannabis.

anyway, that was all years and years ago.
it sometimes shocks me to realise that it's fifteen years now
since I finally came back from Poland for good.
yes, I have seen him since. he stayed in touch by email,
back when people were starting to get into email.
he used to send these very very long messages,
describing everything he'd done for months and months,
where he was working, how much money he was making,
how he was back at his parents' place, how he started to make money
selling stuff on eBay,
back when people were starting to get into eBay.
and he'd tell me
about trips back to Poland, where he'd always meet a new girl,
a girl with whom he had exchanged emails or whatnot
prior to getting on the plane from New York.
and these trips of his, well it broke your heart to hear about them.
he'd fly three or four thousand miles or whatever it is,
with the idea that the Polish chick waiting for him
was actually waiting for him,
when in fact all she'd done
was say "yeah OK"
when he suggested meeting up.
in a couple of these stories he told,
the girl wasn't even in her home town when he arrived from the USA.
generally he managed to embarrass them into showing up at some stage,
but he seemed impervious to the rejection
and kept doing it every summer.
different girls. same results.
in one message back
I asked him why he didn't just get together with someone in the States,
meaning a woman living close by.
he never answered.

then I was getting married
and he sort of invited himself to the wedding.
it was hard to say no.
I'm glad he wasn't in time for my stag weekend.
the frenzied screaming at the football,
the jibes of my old mates,
the blizzard of cocaine.
well, it wouldn't have been his scene,
and the boys would have been all like
who the fuck is this bloke?
but there he was
at the wedding with,
guess what?
a confused-looking Polish girl in tow,
a girl who visibly didn't feel attracted to him.
and then,
a few months after that,
my wife and I were in America, and we wanted to spend
new year's eve in Manhattan,
getting wasted,
all that.
so of course I mentioned it in an email,
and of course he showed up one December afternoon.
and guess what?
he had those fucking duck boots on.
actually the same pair, I think,
something like eleven years
after I'd first seen them
in the hallway of the flat in Kraków
and wondered what they were.
he also had these fuzzy earmuffs on.
it looked ridiculous
and my wife felt awkward, shuffling around an art gallery in New York,
me, her
and this funny dude.
and he suggested a place to eat, and it was decent enough,
which surprised me, because I remembered him only eating in the cheapest places you could find.
and, at his suggestion, we had wine. and the wine was kind of expensive,
but what the hell. we were on holiday. and we were doing OK moneywise.
and we'd be splitting the bill, right?

no, he got up and walked out to the toilet when the waiter brought the bill,
and he was out there long enough for me to realise
that me meant for us to pay.
I didn't get angry. I guess he was broke,
having lost another job to which he wasn't suited,
having spent years, by then, living with mom and pop.
again, sort of heartbreaking really.
so we paid. and he dashed off to catch his bus back to Connecticut.

the last time we saw him
I decided enough was enough. this time he was really a pest.

our kid was just a few months old,
I had a lot on at work,
and it wasn't an especially convenient time.
but Chuck wrote to say that this time he was going to look around England
rather than Poland and I said OK when he asked could he come stay with us for a short time.

he drove my wife crazy.
how can you talk to this fucking guy? she asked.
all he does is just list how much he's paid for really banal things
and tell me he got a good deal on this or that.
it's maddening. he doesn't listen to what the other person's saying.
get him out of here, she said. find a way of not being a shit about it.
but get him out of here.
so I did.
well, I just said it was a little bit more of a strain than we'd expected,
that my missus wasn't really feeling up to having house guests,
what with the boy being so young and waking us up
a zillion times a night.
so he was off.
but not before telling me about his trip to Newcastle, a couple of weeks before he'd come to stay with us.
he'd emailed some girl he'd met online on some chat site or something.
she'd said sure look me up.
so he went to bloody Newcastle of all places,
only to find she wasn't there.
poor bastard.

I guess he's somewhere on the autistic spectrum
and I guess that shit with the cornflakes and the saving money
is some kind of OCD.
you want to dislike him. because that would be easier.
but I guess I'm not quite as hard-hearted as I tell myself I am.

I wonder when he'll turn up next.


  1. nice one, joe. some of your details cracked me up & reminds me of a guy i know (minus the duck boots)... krakow, by the way, is the next place on my list.

  2. Get yerself to Kraków, MP! ... and let me know when you do, 'cos I would DEFINITELY take a weekend there. Would be pleased to show you some good places. Let me know. As ever, I need a few weeks' notice ideally...

  3. Looking like sometime within the next 2 mos. Gonna start investigating & I will let ya know. Also, going to the UK around Nov. 8th. I'm going with Dave, who you met when you were here. First Leeds, then possibly Brighton, London and Bristol. Only 4 days total though... I don't think we'll need a place to stay. Wouldn't expect you to put up 2 people, but I'll let you know as things get figured out. I'll def wanna meet up.