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Chapter Ten


It wasn’t until I hired Robak to manage the business, in the fall of 2007, that my intentions were to promote my business as a serious restaurant. Before he entered the picture, it was mostly a wine and beer bar with a small, simple Mexican menu, an art gallery and place for other cultural activities. Robak came prepared for our interview with a long list of notes, many creative ideas and introduced a culture of professional customer service to the business that it had previously lacked. He had some clever ideas concerning decoration at a very low-budget and did most of the work by himself. The nicest touch of what he did was a line of slanted empty wine bottles at the front base of the bar, which were illuminated from the back. He also claimed to have many connections, special pull with the powers-that-be of the strict bureaucracy and that he could streamline what others couldn’t. Only 27 years old, Robak was a real charmer, who convinced me and everyone else that he could handle any conceivable problem with ease and bring quick success to my business that was perpetually on life support. 

Perhaps the biggest mistake I ever made was to introduce him to my Landlord. Not only did he charm her to the degree that she implicitly believed in him, but she did so to the extent that it was as if she had signed the lease contract with him, at which point I was perceived as just the benevolent foreign investor. We had, in fact, discussed the possibility whereby he would one day become a minority owner on the basis of his ability to bring profitable stability to my business. Because he had no financial investment to offer, I was very cautious about agreeing to this arrangement.

Over time, Robak as well seemed to forget who the boss was, who paid the bills, the contracts, the rent and his salary. Several incidents of dangerously reckless behavior occurred that all but canceled out his admirable traits. Nor did his promises of handling the bureaucracy at critical junctures pan out, which at times left me vulnerable to all sorts of unknown dangers. Finally, I had no choice but to let him go, when I found out that he was telling people that he was an owner of the business.

Around two years later, I interviewed the manager who replaced him, Małgorzata Mrozik, who confirmed what I had long suspected: that Robak had been intentionally complicit in circumstances that caused the downfall of the business. This same pattern that I had come to suspect of my Landlord seemed to make no sense. Why would someone wish to see something fail from which they stood to profit? According to Mrozik, all along he was secretly destroying my relationships with the neighbors, thus provoking the owner of the parking lot next door to erect the fence that blocked the main entrance to the tower. This is explained in an interview that I conducted with her:

My Landlord’s blind allegiance to Robak became evident, after he almost died on Christmas Day of 2007 in a head-on car collision, that occurred after a night of heavy drinking. She wrote to me by email, and I quote her verbatim, broken English and all:  

This sounds very bad – I get use to him and to his way of thinking. I am very sorry but since Baszta is once again in troubles without [him] I cannot even think about renovation. To start this huge project we have to be in absolutely safe position.

One would think that I was the one who drank to excess and nearly killed myself in a head-on collision. Her email was a stunning admission that her obligation to provide her tenant with a safe structure for the sake of operating a business depended on her relationship with my reckless employee, who cozied up to the Landlord, as he intentionally sabotaged my professional relationships.

The first night I was away, I received a shocking text message informing me that the sanitation department had closed down the kitchen.


Thanks to the mass exodus of workers to the UK, finding anyone for any skilled position in my business, let alone who could be trusted, was a complete crapshoot. Few who had grown up under Communism had any idea about standards of quality and customer service, something that many were learning for the first time while working abroad. Most of those who returned home were marginally motivated because they earned a fraction of what they made, for the same work, in a Western country. I had met with the British owner of one of the classiest restaurants in Warsaw, who told me that before Poland joined the European Union he received hundreds of job applications each time he placed a wanted ad, but after the UK opened its arms to Polish workers, they dwindled down to only a few. The reason that most of the job applicants were students is that few Poles who were older spoke English, which was necessary for communicating with foreign customers. However, there was another reason that hiring anyone with experience who was older was highly undesirable: that once someone turned 26, the income tax employers had to pay went up exponentially, which was virtually unaffordable.

Until the end of the communist dictatorship, Poles were forced to learn Russian in school. Only later, did studying English become the norm. At that point in time, few Poles over 30, outside of the capital city of Warsaw, spoke more than rudimentary English. Due to this, more than once I had no choice but to put my business in the hands of a highly unqualified student manager. A restaurant cannot stop operating when a manager leaves and someone must serve as a replacement. I tried to remain optimistic as I repeatedly placed ads in search of the next manager, who hopefully would be better. Regardless, no matter what I did, workers would pick up and leave Poland at the drop of a hat. 

Prior to hiring Robak, the constant instability of personnel kept me wedded to the business, to the point that I had no life of my own. In early 2007, two years after signing the lease, I took my first one-week vacation to visit friends in Barcelona, where I had previously lived. In so doing, I left everything in the hands of two young female students and asked an older American guy I had come to know to watch over them in case they needed any form of assistance. The first night I was away, I received a shocking text message from a customer I personally knew informing me that the sanitation department had closed down the kitchen. My entire vacation was instantly turned upside-down, as I tried, from afar, to make sense of what had happened. Living in fear of bureaucratic extortion became a way of life, but this instance turned out to be a manufactured false alarm. According to what I was told later, it was a plot orchestrated by the American, who had notions of taking over my business, and who I would also later learn had a serious drinking and gambling addiction.

When the cat is away, the mice come out to play and when I returned unannounced, I found beer on sale for a dirt cheap price. As this seemed to be the only business plan any of my previous managers had, I found it impossible to convince them that cheap beer and wine sales is what had sunk the prior business inside of Baszta, that was owned by students. It further fell upon deaf ears that in order to obtain my alcohol sales permits in 2005, I had to convince the director of the city department, who grants the permits, that I would never allow this to happen again. This was because the prior owners had lost their permits, according to what I had been told, due to loud drunken students repeatedly waking up neighbors in the adjacent tenement apartments.

This was among the most vital information that had been kept from me, when I signed the lease. Unable to understand, before leasing Baszta in 2005, why it had lost its charm as a wine bar, I came to see that the new focus on selling cheap beer was intended to attract as many students as possible. Bottom line, wine, especially the low-quality wine that was then the only option available, was not widely consumed in Poland.

By law, one could not apply for such permits before the completion and approval of construction. Surely one of the reasons my Landlord had the fail-safe clause in her contract with the prior owner, should it take an entire year to open such a business, is that had I been denied the permits, I could have lost everything after investing in improving on her new real estate acquisition’s value. As I was to discover months after the first phase of interior restoration was completed, out of anger at the prior ownership, the neighbors voted against allowing me to obtain the required permits. Only after making visits to various city offices and a meeting I arranged with the entire staff of the alcohol permit department did the city give me the green light to sell alcohol.

When I informed the Landlord of the latest development – as usual she was meandering somewhere abroad – she acted surprised and offered no support. After all, the terms of purchasing the tower protected her, to the extent that she stood to profit from my failure.

Lost entrances, lost summer gardens, lost partners, lost alcohol sales permits, false investigations, a conspiratorially closed kitchen, the roof falling apart – what else could someone sabotage?

Alcoholism is a pervasive problem in the former Eastern Bloc countries. The BBC reported in 2014 that 25 percent of Russian men die before the age of 55 from excessive alcohol consumption. Few of my young employees would listen to the gravity of what was at stake. To them, I was an ignorant foreigner who fretted over insignificant matters. The outcome of this was that disrespect for my authority repeatedly resulted in disastrous consequences. This proved to be the case when I also attempted to establish a small wine shop inside of the tower. No one ever forewarned me of the gravity of failing to pay for the permits on time. This I inadvertently found out one day upon visiting the office that grants the permits, as a young female bar manager walked out crying. When I asked her what was wrong, she sobbed, “I came one week late to make my quarterly payment.” I never knew, until then, that the rigid penalty for being late just a single day was to lose the right to sell alcohol for about nine months!

Even having become acutely aware of this potentially debilitating business loss, I faced the same fate, not once but twice! The first time it happened, my assistant cried for an entire week, but she would not tell me why. After constant prodding, finally she confessed to me that she did not believe my warning, and she had gone to pay for the wine permit one day after the deadline. Since then, I went to pay by myself, but one time I was too busy with other urgent matters, and incredibly, it happened again!

The second time, I put the responsibility onto the shoulders of my newest manager, who came with high recommendations and assured me that he had the experience I so desperately needed. In self-defense, he claimed that he had called the office that grants the permits, and was given the wrong information. I had two wine permits, one for the bar and one for a small shop. According to my manager, even someone working in the city office handling the permits did not know the difference between the two licenses. The office clerk told him that he only had to pay for it once and that the payment was not due yet. In both cases, I lost not just the right to make wine shop sales, but I lost partnerships with wine distributors, who planned on managing the shop.

Lost entrances, lost summer gardens, lost partners, lost alcohol sales permits, false investigations, a conspiratorially closed kitchen, the roof falling apart – what else could someone sabotage? Fabricated bureaucratic accusations were very common, and so were unavoidable run-ins with the law.

Microwave ovens changing colors, tiny artworks mysteriously disappearing from the walls, tiles falling from the roof and banderoles falling off of wine bottles, the ghost must have done it!

Among the list of fears I lived with daily, was the display of any behavior that would anger the neighbors. For the sake of my business’ survival, I was sometimes forced to play hardball but it was a no-win approach to solving problems. One unforgettable private party was a case in point. I was unable to stop someone who had rented the tower for one evening, from cranking up the music volume. Each time I asked him to turn it down, he did, and each time I left the room, he would turn it up again. When I finally reached the boiling point, he replied that he could do whatever he wanted because he had paid for usage of the building for that evening. Only minutes later, just as I had feared, police officers came inside the tower and told my manager that if it were to happen again I would be arrested and put in jail – because I was a foreigner.

This had become a pattern, of regularly having been scapegoated for behavior that I could not control. It was the exact same pattern I had faced when planning multimedia musical performances for media art festivals years ago.

There were countless clever ways that I found myself being set up to be placed on a legal chopping block. Several times, someone brought something of petty value into the building, then claimed that the object in question had disappeared as they attempted to hold me responsible. Once a young woman who claimed to be crippled and walked with the aid of a cane, lent me a microwave oven, that was almost as ancient as the tower, for use at a private party. She delivered it in the box that it came in when it was purchased. Later she claimed that when she opened the box after taking the microwave back home, that the oven inside was the wrong color and did not match her newly painted white kitchen wall. Somehow, the microwave had transformed from white to pale yellow. Even though it matched the photo and serial number on the box, the woman demanded that I buy her a new oven. Observers told me that the evening of the party she was dancing wildly without need of her cane, when I was not there watching.

Sometimes I wasn’t sure whether I was operating a business or a theatre of the absurd. Exhibitions went well that I sponsored for serious professional artists, which usually included around 10 to 12 artworks accompanied by a price list, but it was sometimes another story, when I exhibited the artwork of students from a nearby art academy. In two cases, they plastered the walls with countless tiny drawings. In both instances, the students later claimed that one of them had gone missing from the wall. Then they demanded I pay for their presumably lost artworks. The second time this happened, the student’s boyfriend threatened that he would call the police if I failed to I pay up. As just compensation, I offered him some tortilla chips and salsa made with ketchup.

Microwave ovens changing colors, tiny artworks mysteriously disappearing from the walls, tiles falling from the roof and banderoles falling off of wine bottles, the ghost must have done it! I was at the mercy of secretaries, assistants and managers who didn’t know the laws and students in need of a temporary job who could easily terrorize my business. Pegged as the foreigner with the loot for others to play with, so went the spirit of cultural exchange that inspired me to visit the “new” Poland in 1989 by special invitation.

Click here for Chapter Eleven: Warding Off Evil Spirits