Two Incidents at the Café Kamienica
It was early November in Gdansk. When I stepped outside of my pension in the morning, the sky was gauzy with clouds that dispensed a muted gray light. By the school next door, a group of twelve-year-old boys in backwards ball caps smoked and slouched. Across the street, near a monument to the Polish victory over German forces in 1410, a couple of weathered alcoholics shared a can of beer. This shabby little quarter – hard by a bend in the Motlawa River, which gave the air a constant, damp chill – was the targ rybny, or Fish Market. But fish had not been sold here for decades, if not centuries. Now it was simply a half-empty square, an in-between space. It brought to mind a semi-industrial corner of Queens. Maybe that was why I liked it so much: that feeling of heightened awareness, as if I were just about to be mugged, reminded me of home.
Every morning I walked along the Motlawa to the Old Town, where the feeling was calmer, more northern European – more Ghent than Gdansk. Here the stoops were wide and flanked by iron lamps; the houses were thin, with peaked or gabled roofs. Of course it was all fake – during World War II, the original Old Town had been destroyed by Allied bombs and rampaging Soviets. But the reconstruction effort had been heroic, masterly. On St. Mary’s Street, I felt the same kind peace that I had enjoyed in Oxford or Venice: a sense of a civilization preserved in architecture. A cynic might have remarked that the result was a sanitized version of the eighteenth century, that perhaps the facades were a bit too clean and bright. And that Gdansk had also been cleansed of its ethnic Germans, who had lived here for centuries. But to my American eye, St. Mary’s Street was simply lovely, a testament to the Polish gift for preserving the past; and my Jewish heart did not bleed at the thought of deported Germans.
Most days I had my morning coffee at the Café Kamienica. I told myself I went there because it was quiet: I could study Polish while the mind was still fresh. But really I went there because I knew the owner, Slawek, and because I liked to sit upstairs by the window and people-watch. Every morning at ten, two clerks emerged from the opposite storefront with a heavy-looking iron and glass case, which they shlepped down the stairs to the cobblestones. They were always followed by a salesgirl, who kept her arms up, zombie-like, to support her sleeves of amber necklaces, which she then arranged in the case. It was very satisfying, eating my breakfast and enjoying the first cigarette of the day, while other people worked.
And then I would study Polish. This morning, though, I couldn’t concentrate for more than a few minutes. Not, for once, because of a hangover – I had simply made an ill-fated foray into the accusative case. So my eyes drifted back to the clerk at her vitrine, the strolling tourists. Business was slow. But then one young woman stopped to examine a bracelet. She tried it on, held up her arm. She turned to her boyfriend or husband to ask him his opinion. He nodded and smiled, and then his face became blank again, the slightly bored but patient expression of a man waiting while a woman shopped.
I found myself staring at him. He was about thirty years old, wearing pleated chinos, a polo shirt, a light cotton jacket. He wore brown loafers instead of sneakers, which suggested that he wasn’t American. Really there was nothing remarkable about this man, but I couldn’t take my eyes off him, because he was the first black person that I had seen in over a month.
I was suddenly embarrassed for myself, even though there was little chance that he could see me peering through the curtains. People on the street, however, were not as self-conscious. A middle-aged man did a double-take, nudged his wife; her head swiveled toward the exotic pair. A passing young man made some loud remark in Polish to his friend, and they both burst into laughter. The black guy must have known that he was the source of their amusement, whether he understood Polish or not. But he ignored them, just as he ignored the others who, like me, couldn’t stop looking at him. His patient, bored expression never changed, as if he hadn’t noticed that he was an object of attention.
Or maybe he was used to it. I remembered how once, on our way through Vermont, my African-American girlfriend and I stopped for lunch in Bennington, a town famed for its tolerance. As we followed the host to a table, a family of four was watching us. I got a good look at the son, whose home-cut blond hair and small eyes made him the very picture of a benighted rural American. Never in my life had I seen someone look more stupid and confused – his tongue was actually lolling from his mouth. But I wasn’t frightened until I saw the father. His face was red, mottled, and he gripped the edge of the table with both hands, the muscles of his forearms rigid with tension. Then the host, with conspicuous politeness, seated my girlfriend and me at a table that was conveniently located next to the bathroom.
I was angry and scared, and I wanted to make a scene.
“Forget it,” Dorian said. “Let’s just eat and get out of here.”
This was her way of saying that she had learned to pick her battles. If you fought back every time, then you would spend too much of your time fighting. Sometimes you just wanted a sandwich.
Or to keep your girlfriend company while she tried on amber jewelry. But the white woman with the black boyfriend had seen enough. She took his arm with an admirable nonchalance – for she too must have noticed that they were attracting attention – and, never acknowledging the gauntlet of stares, they went on their way. The strange energy that their presence had created began to dissipate, and the street was normal again.
In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart
Whatever it Takes
The Merchant of Venice and the New Ruling Class
James Lee Byars & the number Ten
Two Incidents at the Café Kamienica
Jacob said to an angel, Tell me your Name
Our 610 Back Pages
The I-Thou Circus
February 10, 2005
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I'll Say Goodbye and Let You Go
mako shark insanity!
The Hamas Class of 1992