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Chapter Eighteen

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Just three weeks later and four days before Christmas, I returned home to a small folded piece of paper squeezed into a crevice in my apartment door. It was a notice from a court-appointed collector, demanding I pay up in full. Even this, according to two lawyers, was odd since I had not even had an opportunity yet to file for an appeal. Did they think I was an American Santa Claus of Eastern European Jewish ancestry? Did they just assume that I had returned to my family’s lost treasure, that neither they nor I had ever owned, to dig up free goodies for everyone? It seemed that they felt entitled, just like the bums in the courtyard, who insisted that Baszta was theirs.

Another memory resurfaced. A Polish language translator, who had lived in New York for 12 years driving a cab, described to me what his country had turned into. Upon returning home, everyone expected him to foot every bill because, in their minds, he had become a wealthy American. One day he told me of an American of Polish heritage, who had a large collection of Polish art that he had protected from being stolen by the Nazis during WWII. After Poland’s liberation from Communism in 1989, he offered the country his collection – but was told that he could not do so, unless he agreed to pay to build a new museum for its permanent exhibition.

Long before the lawsuit had even commenced, one of my former managers, who later migrated to Ireland, urged me to hide everything of any value that was in my possession. He painted a dark picture of the secret police breaking into my apartment in the middle of the night and grabbing everything possible, down to my dirty socks. With such paranoia planted in my head, of the Gestapo or KGB pounding at my doorstep, I went into hiding, sleeping in the dead of winter in a private art studio that had no hot water. Living in such conditions was even worse than the good old days of my first visit in 1989 to Poland. That studio also so happened to be the same place where Zbigniew Makarewicz ran Galeria X in the 1980s during the era of Martial Law, when the secret police broke in and took him away to prison.

In the middle of the night, I would sneak back into my apartment to scan thousands of documents and take a hot shower. In stealth mode, I moved out everything I could from both the restaurant and my apartment and put it into storage, another futile back-breaking exercise, for nearly all of it would be lost forever . About all that I salvaged was ten boxes of irreplaceable personal items that I shipped back to Los Angeles.

The reality struck home that: ‘I am an escaped prisoner of war! Where’s the fanfare? Where can I find a Veteran’s Administration post-xenophobe commie-trauma treatment center?!’ But I couldn’t find anybody who had even heard of Wrocław.

Upon visiting my businessman friend, Michał, before leaving, he informed me, rather too late, that no longer did small items like computers and socks matter to the institutional mafia that was finally driving me out of Poland. This was no longer like when I crossed the German-Polish border in the winter of 1996, when Customs officials made documents with estimated monetary value for virtually every conceivable item down to a computer mouse. They were after fancy cars and houses. What a disappointment I must have been, the American cash cow who owned neither.

I sold a few of the most valuable items from the restaurant’s kitchen and from this was able to pay for my ticket home, carrying all that I could onto the plane. Until I got safely on board, time seemed to have stopped, as I escaped the deadly grasp of the ghosts of Poland’s crippling past.

One month after the collector’s notice was squished into the crack in my front door, I was back in LA. It was the first time that I had seen my feeble parents since before I started my ill-fated business, my deceased sister now the ghost of my return. For the following year, recuperating in laid-back suburban West LA, lounging in the sun with the leaves of a palm tree lightly swaying overhead in a pastel blue sky, I asked myself existential questions like: did any of this ever really happen? At the same time, the reality struck home that: “I am an escaped prisoner of war! Where’s the fanfare? Where can I find a Veteran’s Administration post-xenophobe commie-trauma treatment center?!” But I couldn’t find anybody who had even heard of Wrocław.

Exactly one year after returning home, I flew to London to make a presentation of my artwork at a historical conference commemorating the 150th anniversary of the London Tube. It was a fluke that after so many years of neglecting my own work as an artist that I had been invited to participate as a guest speaker and that an article about the history of my project, “The Underground Cathedral,” was published in a book commemorating the event. Afterward, I took the chance of sneaking back into Poland to revisit Wrocław during the coldest month of the year. Fearing that the frozen ghosts of my icicled memories might arrest me at the airport, I instead found the remains of another failed uprising.

The evidence only mounted that I was dealing with ghosts during the three-week return visit, following my Great Escape in January of 2012. Was the tower itself a ghost? Inexplicably, despite the extensive promotion that I had done for my business for five years, almost no one I encountered had ever heard of the tower. And this does not even account for the wine bar that had been inside of Baszta during the previous decade! How could this be?

Paradoxically, during the entire first year spent back home in Los Angeles, I met only one person who had ever heard of Wrocław. Poles often say that Americans cannot find Poland on a map, yet what can be said about the fact that most Poles could not find a haunted medieval tower in the heart of their own native town?

Click here for Chapter Nineteen: Tower of Bear, House of Ghosts