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Chapter Twelve

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The King of Baszta

And All the King’s Men

The King's Servants: Mietek, Bartek and Curly Marek

One of the big surprises that followed signing the lease of the tower in January of 2005, manifested itself in the spring, when the ice-covered courtyard thawed, grass grew, and trees turned vivid green. That is when an entourage of bums living in the surrounding tenement apartments came out from their winter hibernation to play.

On several occasions, one or more of them showed up at the door, invariably insisting that they owned the tower. One hot summer day, one of them sneaked inside and scampered up the stairs. He pulled off his T-shirt and, like Tarzan, began beating his chest, as he proclaimed, “I am the King of Baszta!” Little did he or I know at the time about the plans of the wicked Queen of Baszta, who was secretly plotting a hostile takeover.

I came to suspect that most of these characters had likely grown up in the neighborhood, and that the abandoned tower had been the fortress of their playground when they were children. When I was a kid in LA, I used to create forts with toy tanks and soldiers in the backyard, but what a heaven it would have been to play inside a real medieval defense tower! The sense of entitlement of these men – who spent their days drinking cheap beer and sweet wine outside – made the tower’s kitchen, bar, cash box, waitresses, female customers and myself, a constant target.

The joker: 'Fredzio! Amerykanim! Pięć złotych! (Freddy! American! Five złoties!)'

No one and nothing was off-limits. One of them in particular deserves to be mentioned, Zbysiu, a tall, bald man with a Jimmy Durante – like nose, who became a chronic irritant. Whenever he saw me, he would chase me down and beg, “Fredzio! Amerykanim! Pięć złotych! (Freddy! American! Five zloties!)” At first knowing no better, I generously gave it to him, a sum that amounted to a little more than one and a half dollars or one euro. This quickly became a daily nuisance, so I decided to put him to work picking up garbage or debris from the interior construction. As Poles often say, “Give your hand and they will take your arm.” Sure enough, whenever I was not there, he would attempt to make headway with my workers. When sloshed, he couldn’t control his penchant for kissing the hands of the waitresses and female customers. Though it was a Polish tradition, kissing hands was no longer favored by most young women, especially when practiced by smelly boorish older men! One time I entered the tower’s door, just as he ran out of the kitchen with whatever he could grab first, which happened to be a large, just-prepared jar of homemade salsa. My manager called the police only to learn that the bald headed man with the big nose had been in trouble before for petty theft, but there was nothing authorities could do to keep him locked up longer than overnight. Another time, when I was shopping far from the center of town, I received a phone call from a waitress telling me in a panic that he was sleeping on a sofa on the top floor.

Another congratulatory greeting came in the name of a bum I had never seen before, who dropped by to inform me that he was going to kill my new head chef.

Finally, I installed an expensive alarm system, which failed to curtail these wayward men’s indiscretions. Calls to the city guard were equally useless. As if acting out an obligatory ritual, a policeman would come by and lecture the bums, who would then scatter and return after he was gone.

It all came to a head when I first reopened the business as Abrams’ Tower. Another congratulatory greeting came in the name of a bum I had never seen before. He thoughtfully dropped by to say he was going to kill my new head chef. One of my waitresses finally wrote a letter to the editor of the city’s most widely-read newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza. No answer came. After my manager’s subsequent phone call was greeted with a cold disinterested reaction, I visited the newspaper’s head office, met with a young, enthusiastically interested journalist and got the same blasé reaction from her editor. I was later personally introduced to one of the paper’s reporters, who interviewed me, but did nothing afterward. Out of frustration, I sent him an e-mail with a sarcastic question: “Does [my Landlord] own the newspaper?” This really ticked him off! The funny thing about it is that I had no idea, at the time, of the big award that they had recently given to her for her latest novel. In reaction, he accused me of making a big stink over nothing.

And still, there was a simple solution to my biggest problems, the one that depended on the Landlord’s follow-through on the demand made by the director of the Conservatory of Historical Buildings: to repair the roof and reopen the entrance through the medieval wall that was attached to the tower.

Click on the derelict doggy!

Having built her reputation by writing vivid prose describing the sad, morbid souls of Polish village life, she once said of the tower’s courtyard, “I kind of like the derelict atmosphere.” Perhaps it made her nostalgic for the good old days of small town communist purgatory that she grew up with? Did she think she was providing me and my staff with a cultural enhancement, by imprisoning us with the King of Bazta and all of the King’s men?

Click here for Chapter Thirteen: The Great Pretender