Two stories before we begin, one has to do with the book pictured, in English it’s called the Gulag Archipelago, its pictured in Polish because I found it amazing that my friend’s grandmother had the same book in her collection as I did in mine. This is a beautiful Soviet book about gulags or prisons and the island or archipelago they formed throughout Soviet Russia flowing with rivers of blood, stories and anecdotes. My favourite:
An inmate has been sentenced to 25 years in jail. A guard wondering about the severity of the sentence asks him, “What did you do?”
“Nothing at all” says the inmate.
The guard refuses to believe him, “for nothing at all you get 10 years.”
Second story has to do with a good friend of mine who had the opportunity to visit New York City, he went up to the bartender and told him, “give me the strongest shit you have.” He got it and well that’s not a story that’s mine to tell suffice it to say that I learn more from the beginning of stories than I should considering the moral is always at the end.
Now to begin. Life provides each of us with WHAT THE FUCK moments. These are never moments for acronyms or modesty; these are moments where everything that could explain where you are needs to be screamed at. In Krakow I had a WHAT THE FUCK moment. I can pinpoint it exactly. I wake up groggy and still a little drunk. I have on my woollen leggings, a t-shirt and my woollen socks and the sun is shining through a window on the wall. Looking around I see am in a locked room, there are six beds in the room arranged in rows of two and two and lying on the opposite end of the room is a Polish guy in a shirt and boxers. This is never something you want to wake up to.
The night before I had gone out on the town, left the safety of home and visited the clubs in Krakow. They are amazing stone structures built to the worship of a night out. Almost all the clubs in Krakow are built underground so when you get in you have a sheer drop into the night life. When you get to the bottom you are introduced to this airy cavern with corridors to every other place in it. You can walk two paces and get in the smoking zone double back without turning round and be back on the dance floor or back where you began and have almost no hope of getting out again. Kaspuncinski wrote about cultures but he may have been talking about Krakow clubs when he said “...are edifices with countless rooms, corridors, balconies and attics all arranged furthermore into such twisting, turning labyrinths, that if you enter one of them, there is no exit, no retreat, no turning back.”
So I walked to the bartender and I told him,
“Can I have a shot of the strongest shit you have.”
Dutifully he reached for it and showed it to me. He said;
“Its 95% alcohol are you sure you want to try it?” I said;
I danced I went back for another shot and then I got to the place where “past a certain point all the dates grow hazy and confused and the clarity of history become the fogs of legend.”*
Then I woke up.
“Where are we?”
“In the place the police put you if you are too drunk out on the streets.” That actually makes a lot of sense.
And so I talked to my new cellmate. He was out drinking too got caught and brought here.
Our minders hadn’t been to see us in a while and I needed water. In Polish cells there’s a ringer that you press and the police will come open the door for you to see what you want. I rang and the guard came to the door. I wanted information and I received water.
In the Gulag Solzhenitsyn talks about how valuable sleep becomes when your life is deprived of all else. He talks about how earlier he believed that sleep was a waste of life, a cousin of death but that after he had been in prison for a while with nothing, absolutely nothing to do he saw a difference. You see usually life is a sparkling beautiful thing, full of kinetic energy, electricity and chemicals that could set alight anything but being thrown in a gulag turns this down, your glow-worms go cold and all you have is sleep. So sleep you do, 23 hours a day you sleep. When a new inmate comes yes you are all burning with curiosity about life on the outside and his story but you shush him and tell him there will be time for that when you can no longer stay asleep. So you sleep.
So I slept.
When next I woke I was alone in the cell. More sober and better able to panic. I knocked on the door and demanded to see the doctor. She took me in and gave me a breathalyser to blow in.
“You have to stay until 8.”
“But there’s somewhere I have to be at 730” don’t make the mistake of telling them it’s a party.
“Ah, a flight back to Kenya? Then you can leave at 6.”
“Can I at least make a phone call? The number is in my phone.”
I have lost numerous phones and found out in the worst ways imaginable. But the one that takes the kicker is when I was in a polish cell needed to call my host from my phone and the police told me that I couldn’t since I hadn’t checked in a phone in my belongings.
My heart sank. I had no idea where the police station was, I couldn’t call anyone, my host was probably worried sick and pissed the fuck off and I had 2 zloty in my pocket. 2 zloty. They wouldn’t let me use Facebook and they hustled me back to the cell, locked me in and told me to stay there.
A few minutes later I was told that someone called for me and she would be there at 530 so until then I had to stay.
There is a story in the gulag about a man locked up in solitary confinement he had nothing to do with his time except bide it and nothing to do with his space except pace it. He walked back and forth in this little tiny room until by his calculations (he was something of a math genius, he worked out the number of centimetres in each pace of his and the number of kilometres to America and kept a running divisional count) he reached America. In a tiny cell he walked across the geographical and perhaps ideological divide of those two great powers all the time under lock and key.
I on the other hand had no goal in mind I just paced, I walked back and forth. I couldn’t walk round since the bed reached the edge of the wall and I had to keep climbing over it over and over again, or turning around until finally I just moved it. In no time at all the guards were there.
“Don’t move the bed, just lie there, lie there, don’t move.”
So I lay down. The window in my cell was letting in the light and I could see the sun shine through playing on the wall of my cell, taunting me with its brightness, look at me! I am out today and there you are locked in with nowhere, no way to go. But I was in jail so I slept.
When I woke up again I asked for the time. The brought me this little piece of paper with happiness written all over it, 1700 it said. One hour to time. Just one hour and I would be out of here. My heart hungered for freedom for the first time in a long time I thought I could get it. All I needed to do was sleep for another hour, just close my eyes and force myself to sleep. But it doesn’t happen and you are lying awake in bed counting and recounting the night’s activities, trying to pierce the black, blank fog of alcohol induced memory loss to no avail. You sing, you sit, you pace, you think about girls. And you go to ask the time. You stop yourself because you don’t want them pissed off that you asked too much. Then you pace again, you think about girts you sit and you sing. You wake up walk to the door, hesitate and then you knock and ask, confident that its time.
“15 more minutes, but where is your friend. She's not coming?”
HOW THE FUCK SHOULD I KNOW I HAVEN’T SPOKEN TO ANYONE IN HOURS?
“Am not sure.” Is what I actually said.
Then another 15 torturous minutes, the sand in the hourglass rolling too slowly, always too slowly. Stumbling and mumbling speech and mime, tide and time and nothing. Then the creaking of a door and the man said
He looked happy for me; a life of incarceration is not good for you, specially not me. All my anger had evaporated though. I was happy to be out, to be free finally. There was my host deservedly angry paying my bail and saying
“We’ll talk about this later.”
And there the story could end.
But Graham Greene once wrote: A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead." And I choose another end. One day later (all this happened on night 2 in Poland) I reach into my jacket pocket and what do I find there? My fucking phone and its scratched cracked screen smiling back at me.
Let’s say for now this is the end of my day in Polish drunk tank.
*quote from George R.R. Martin