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Chapter 11

 

Too Much Flavor

Olga Tokarczuk being interviewed in the tower’s summer garden, 2007

Every advantage I could conceive of in leasing the tower had proven to be an illusion, including the fact that one would think that Tokarczuk’s name and reputation would have been an invaluable asset in attracting customers. In fact, she held a book signing at Baszta in 2007, with members of the press in attendance. There was not one hint mentioned that she owned the tower in articles that were published, not one word about the California artist, who owned La Luz and who had an extensive previous history in Poland, dating back to when the country had just been liberated.

Before I had reopened with the new kitchen and a remarkable new head chef, several articles had been published in the Polish press, and before that about my art exhibitions and live performances. Three of them were published in Gazeta Wyborcza. However, while my new restaurant was receiving spectacular reviews from abroad, not one further word was uttered in the Polish media, after I signed the lease extension, reopened as a new restaurant and the neighbor blocked the only nearby access to the tower.

Just before I shut down for good in 2011, the Guardian published an article that still exists online, stating that my restaurant was the number one place to visit in all of Poland, based on published customer reviews. Around the same time, the restaurant, with a new kitchen, which had been renamed, Abrams’ Tower, won an award of excellence from Trip Advisor.

At the same time, conspiracy against my business from all directions had become increasingly obvious. Online reviews by Poles told incredible lies about the food we served.

One evening, I invited a woman for dinner and was disappointed that the delicious dishes my head chef was preparing had become terribly bland. I went to the kitchen afterward and asked him what had happened. He said to me that a customer had complained to him that the food had “too much flavor!”

During the construction of the new kitchen, I met with Tokarczuk and my manager, who later swore at the neighbor, resulting in a response that was the final death blow. In unison, they insisted I seriously consider renaming my business, which was for good reason, because along with the plan for the new kitchen and hiring my talented new head chef, was a goal to attract a generally older clientele than had become the norm.

This was largely attributed to the inadvertent mistake I had made in choosing a name, which appealed to young students seeking to chill out and drink cheap beer, which was the most popular student pastime in Poland. My first manager in 2006 had to be let go not long after I had hired her, due to the fact that it took four times longer to open than I had anticipated. The one who replaced her repeatedly insisted that the key to success was selling beer at a dirt cheap price. We butted heads over this repeatedly, until we parted ways but the same eventually happened with the next manager too. I do not know how many times I heard this advice from Poles. Not only was operating a beer bar for students in no way my intention, but it would have risked losing my alcohol sales permits, due to the promise I had made to obtain them.

The first time I managed to take a brief vacation, two and one half years after I signed the lease agreement, I flew back to Barcelona, where I had been previously living. The first evening away, I received a shocking phone text from a customer I knew personally, informing me that the sanitation department had dropped by and closed down my kitchen. Forced to rush back to Poland, I entered the restaurant without forewarning and found a sign on the bar counter announcing a big discount on the price of beer. In fact, the sanitation department had never come by. It was a ruse, plotted by my staff to close down the then tiny kitchen, where my student workers churned out microwaved burritos.

Not only did I regularly lose my workers, who migrated west, but several times firings were necessary due to inconceivable insubordination. Over time, it became clear to me that more than one of my managers and assistants treated me no differently than had Tokarczuk: as if I were nothing more than their investor from the West. It was as if, by default, it was their property, because they were Poles and they felt entitled. It was not for me to decide how to run my own business, yet everyone was fine with the fact that all accountability fell onto my shoulders.

One evening there was a private party and the host asked to be in charge of playing music of his choice. Repeatedly, I had to remind him to turn down the volume, for fear of antagonizing the neighbors. Finally, he rudely declared, “I rented the place for this evening and I can do whatever I want!” Just after he made this outrageous declaration, in walked several policemen. One of them spoke to my manager in Polish, who told me afterward that he said that if it happened again he would arrest me, because I was a foreigner!

Another evening, I entered the building and found the symbol from the children’s game of “Hang Man,” drawn with a Sharpie pen onto the wall. Instead of a stick figure hanging, there was a Star of David. Also scratched into the bathroom wall were the words:

“JUDA WON”

No, Juda had not won anything. What is called a “false friend,” when the same word has a different meaning in another language (such as luz), “JUDA WON,” translated from Polish means:

“JEW GET OUT”

During the warm weather months, the down and out drunken neighbors would congregate in the courtyard and not only would they harass customers, particularly were they young women, but also my female workers. Several times they came inside and staged derelict cabaret performances. In one instance, one of them scampered up the interior stairway, pulled off his T-shirt, beat his chest, as if he were Tarzan, and pronounced, “I am the King of Baszta!”

Another came to the front door one day and proudly proclaimed, “I’m going to kill your chef!” Apparently, he had heard that the food had too much flavor.

More than once, when the building was closed, they would climb the wall, squeeze through one of the narrow windows and steal everything small that they could get their hands onto. It became necessary to install iron bars in front of the window. Still, whenever the door was open, one of them might sneak into the kitchen, which was on the ground floor. Once I arrived when no one was in the kitchen and one of the locals scampered out with a gallon-sized jar of freshly made Mexican salsa. He probably thought it was soup!

I was being inundated daily by classic examples of what I had read in Tokarczuk’s first translated book. In fact, once she even said to me that she rather liked the depressing atmosphere surrounding her badly damaged building. Apparently, she thought that the courtyard of derelicts and a badly deteriorating roof was a valuable theme park feature. It must have been a nostalgic reminder of the good old days in her village back home, where as a young woman she feared she would be trapped for life and wanted for me to enjoy all of its virtues, as she traveled the world.

Unfortunately, I felt no such nostalgia, as several times one of my workers would call the police for me, they would come, talk to the affable neighbors, who would disperse and as soon as the police left they would return.

Baszta had remained a war-damaged empty vessel for many years after WWII and I conjectured that it had likely been a playground for some of these sorry adult men, when they were children growing up in the nearby tenement buildings.

Once I invited the vice-president of the Wrocław City Council to the tower, hoping to help Tokarczuk apply for government restoration funding. As he arrived, he said to me:

“Your problem is that you have a medieval building inside a communist courtyard.”

Poles who had lived abroad for some time and came home were often ecstatic to find my restaurant in their native land. They knew how to find the obscure passages because they had been customers years earlier. Contrarily, Poles, who had no such worldly experience, often acted offended that I wasn’t serving traditional barszcz (Polish beet soup) and pierogi (Polish dumplings). At one point we served delicious exotic pierogi like no one had tasted before but it was as well received as showing a cross to Dracula.

Over time, it became increasingly clear that I was regarded by many Poles as if I were an invader. While workers left my business for better salaries abroad and my landlord pursued her exotic writing career, God knows where, more than once managers, who stayed in Poland, would form private liaisons with her, as had the one who caused the neighbor to block the entrance through the parking lot to the tower.

It was he and Tokarczuk, who convinced me during one of her rare visits to Baszta, to rename my business. They suggested I change it to include my surname, as Abrams’ Tower.

At first, I was adamantly against their suggestion. Naming towers after oneself, after all, was left for sleazy megalomaniacal real estate speculators. A particular New Yorker comes to mind. It didn’t dawn on me at the time to ask Tokarczuk, “Why don’t you name it after yourself?”

It only struck me much later that she had cleverly created the public perception that I was the tower’s owner, but in her mind with no owner’s rights, while my manager, without whom she wouldn’t restore the building, was telling people that he owned the business!

There was a new local English language radio station, where I was invited for an interview and I was asked why she didn’t want anyone to know about her ownership of Baszta. I replied diplomatically that I believed it was because in post-communist Poland, being seen as a capitalistic real estate speculator would be damaging to her reputation as a writer. Though I couldn’t prove it, by then I’d heard rumors and various stories about the prior ownership and had come to question what was sometimes asked of me: how was it possible for an individual to be able to own such a historical building in the first place? A taxi driver told me that the prior student owners were a communist organization. I often reflected back on why I visited Baszta just days before it closed down and she purchased it. I had been informed by a real estate agent that it was for sale and was told to talk to the manager. When I visited the tower, I asked for him. He came to my table and denied that it was for sale. A week later, another agent called me and said that a famous Polish author had purchased the property.

For months I heard no word about what had come of the radio station interview. One of the last events at Abrams’ Tower was the exhibition of art of a Mexican painter and video maker, Guillermo Roel, who is well recognized in his country. A great deal of effort was made to promote it to the local media but it was completely ignored, except by the radio station’s journalist, who had interviewed me. At the reception that evening, she confessed to me that she had been fired for conducting the interview and that it was never broadcast. She told me that the station’s director had said something to the effect of “that Jew would never succeed in reopening the passage through the medieval wall.”

The editor of a Polish magazine about historical architecture renovation, who I had met at a book fair, took sympathy in my plight and he published a story that I wrote about my dilemma, which was published but never did I hear a word about it from anyone afterward, other than from him. He too was fired, thanks to trying to help me in my futile battles, in helping to restore a historical treasure.

What I also had not considered was that at the time the controversy was brewing over Jews from abroad making claims on property that had been confiscated from their families after WWII. It did not take much for many Poles to add two plus two, as the historically biblical Hebrew name Abrams was posted onto the tower’s walls.

I couldn’t help but wonder, had Tokarczuk thought about this when she suggested I rename my business, Abrams’ Tower?

After the corrugated metal wall was erected, both I and one of my assistants separately contacted different sources of the local media and in Warsaw but not a thing came of it. One young journalist from Gazeta Wyborcza eventually interviewed me, but he did nothing with the interview and when I questioned him about why, he rudely accused me of making a big fuss over nothing.

Tokarczuk had just recently won the first of two lucrative Nike awards from the company that owns Gazeta Wyborcza and instead of restoring the roof and reopening the passage through the wall, she purchased an apartment for herself in the center of Wrocław.

At that point, I was running out of options. I was completely broke and faced declaring bankruptcy, which I was warned would be a painful, drawn out procedure, surely as tormenting as what it took to open the business. Several Poles insisted that I take Tokarczuk to court, to have the upper hand before she sued me. I couldn’t fathom this because I had been repeatedly warned that a court case in Poland would last for several years. With many contracts for concessions and services to fulfill and a sense of social obligation, to which I felt a deep commitment, I closed the restaurant and tried the only thing I could think of: to hold occasional private cultural events, weather permitting, in order to raise enough funds to pay off all of the outstanding bills, except for the rent payments, which was by far my greatest expense. Even if I had the money, I would have been out of my mind to continue paying a landlord, whose conniving gross negligence had killed my business.

Kombinować zasadzkas were ubiquitous. One of my contracts was with a middle aged woman, who owned a small sandwich bar. I was introduced to her by the inspector from the sanitation department, who proposed that she would cut fresh produce for me, because according to archaic Polish sanitation rules, separate rooms were necessary to cut vegetables, for meat and for any preparation of eggs. The space available for installing a new kitchen couldn’t possibly accommodate three rooms for this purpose; there was only space for one. My father, who had designed restaurant kitchens all over the world, had never heard of such a silly regulation. Normally, different cutting boards are required, nothing more. The absurdity of this went even further. The woman demanded I sign a year-long contract, in exchange for her sole job: to bill me monthly, and the sanitation department inspector, who introduced me to her, knew this. Just more institutional mafia extortion, just one more example of someone I was forced to depend on, who said that if I broke our agreement she would report me and close down my business.

Most discouraging of all, my brilliant young head chef was long gone.

 

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