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Warsaw has a river running down its middle, an unassuming and turpid ribbon of water with a stairstep concrete enbankment along both of its banks, where you can often find retirees fishing (only people on fixed incomes or those close to death would dare eat fish from the Vistula). In between the embankment and the touristy downtown on the western side of the river runs a long strip of parkland, bordered on its far edge by a big divided highway that parallels the river and is packed with traffic at all hours of the day. A simple, linear world - river, embankment, about a hundred yards of lawn and shrubbery, and highway.
This riverside park doesn't figure much in Warsaw criminal lore. You can usually find young mothers pushing strollers along the path, nuns out for a walk, or the occasional staggering drunk, all of them signs of safety and comfort. On this particular day, I was walking along with a backpack on, muttering to myself loudly, and headed to the Old Town not half a kilometer away. It was towards noon and the weather was stunning, but the park was almost empty.
At some point I noticed that a couple of young guys has started walking behind me on the path, your typical teenaged buzz-cut-and-track-suit types (Poland has yet to discover the mullet) who didn't seem very threatening. A little later, I noticed a second pair of young guys to my right, on a parallel sidewalk, and I recall feeling a tinge of uneasiness - there was a little too much in the way of fleeting looks and smirking from them, and I remember thinking that if the two pairs of guys were together, then I was in trouble. But this seemed like a paranoid thought, and I was just a few dozen steps from a very busy road, so rather than cutting sharply right to get nearer to traffic (which would have looked silly but spared me what happened next) I decided to just keep walking.
The sidewalk to my right tapered off into lawn, and the pair of guys walking there cut diagonally across to my own path, until they were walking just a few dozen steps ahead of me. And then they slowed down and started to look back at me, smiling. Not normal. ' "What's up?" said the smaller of the pair, a teenager with an overhanging forehead.
I turned a sharp right, trying to get closer the road, which was obscured by some bushes. But they were clearly not intrested in lettimg me do that.
"Where are you going?"
"To the road"
"Why are you going to the road?" Right in my face now.
My body had pumped so much adrenaline at this point that my overriding emotion wasn't fear, but rather an intense irritation that I was about to get my ass kicked by dorks. These guys had barely cleared seventeen, and I didn't relish the idea of losing my wallet and an entire goddamned iBook to them. But it wasn't clear how I could get myself away.
We had come to a stop when the guy to my left stuck his foot out in front of me and simultaneously reached for my arm, trying to pull me across his leg so that I would trip and fall onto the lawn. In hindsight, it seems suspiciously like the kind of kung-fu move I would have seen in a movie and rehearsed as a nine year old. To my very good fortune, he wasn't very quick in setting up his move, and i was able to see it coming, jumping over his foot and dragging him a few feet in the direction of the road.
At this point my assailant had me by the sleeve, in a tug of war, and his three friends were latching on. Some detached part of my brain noticed that this would be a good time to start yelling, so I did that.
We stood for a second in a state of what choreographers call dynamic tension, and then to my great relief I heard the ringleader in back yell "let him go, guys". He was chickening out. A few moments later I was trotting safely (this being a relative term) down the median of the divided highway, feeling great, flipping off my assailants with gusto. And only after walking for a few minutes, happy as can be, did it occur to me that I should call the police.
If you are ever, ever in Warsaw, I highly recommend you flag down a passing cop car and tell them you've been assaulted. You will meet with a kind of unconditional acceptance and emotional support that I didn't know could be found outside one's immediate family. The police will also go apeshit and run around with guns and screaming sirens in a way that very few families do, and for the police it's perfectly legal. I was lucky enough to flag down an entire van full of Warsaw's finest, and they immediately shouted for me to climb in and tell them which way to go. No invasive questions about who I was, no skepticism of any kind, not even questions about what had happened - just an instant desire to kick hooligan ass.
"I was assaulted by four guys just past that bridge!" I yelled when i got in the van. I barely had time to get my foot off the pavement before we were shooting down the highway in the wrong direction, sirens blaring, shotguns skittering around on the floor.
"MOTHERFUCKERS!" yelled the driver. "MOTHERFUCKING COCK FUCKING SONS OF MOTHERFUCKING BITCHES!"
There were six cops in the van with me, dressed in full black uniform and combat boots. There were various firearms and body armor piled on the floor, left over from the WTO summit the week before. The driver, whose name turned out to be Elmer, looked uncannily like Timothy McVeigh's kid brother. He did not look like he had seen a great deal of his twenties. A definite Type A personality, however.
"SONS OF FUCKING BITCH-ASS GODDAMNED COCK SUCKING GOAT FUCKERS!", he elaborated.
We were still heading the wrong direction, and whoever had designed the Warsaw highway system had not apparently heard of the U-Turn. I marvelled at the Polish system of signaling to drivers to make way, which was to wave a kind of giant plastic red lollipop out the window, moving it in complex patterns to convey instructions to the driver about which way to veer to avoid the careening cop car. The only signal I could make out was a kind of frenzied shaking, which seemed to mean "read my mind and get out of my way, MOTHERFUCKING COCKSUCKER!!!!", judging by the running commentary.
Not surprisingly, most people's reaction at seeing a huge police van swerving wildly behind them was to hunker down and gradually go slower and slower. The papers were full of stories about an incident the week before in Poznan, where police had followed a car and then shot the driver dead without warning, only later figuring out that they had staked out the wrong apartment block. Just two days before my adventure, riot police in Lodz had mixed up live ammunition with rubber bullets used for crowd control; they had opened fire into a crowd of students, killing three people. 'Lie low , and hope to God they don't open fire' seemed a prudent strategy, so gradually the traffic around us started to crawl slower and slower.
Fortunately the van was not equipped with any kind of forward-mounted cannon, or Elmer would have surely started blowing little Skodas and Fiats out of the road in frustration. Instead he had to content himself with higher and higher flights of profanity, while the other cops and I held on for dear life. I hoped fervently none of the shotguns were loaded.
After finally, finally reaching a place to turn around, we raced back up the road and vaulted up onto the lawn a few hundred yards short of the place I had pointed out to them. I tried to repeat some minimal information about my assailants - four young guys, buzz cuts, nylon track suits - but the cops were out of the van and sprinting down the embankment before I could speak. I looked a little uneasily at the deserted van - door open, siren flashing, large shotguns spread enticingly on the floor - and then jogged down to the path to see where the hell everyone had gone. I could see two of the cops about fifty yards away: they had corralled a derelict with filthy long black hair, way past fifty years of age, clearly in need of a dark corner and a liver transplant. "IS THIS HIM?" they yelled.
"No, no - four young guys, short hair!"
They let him go and leapt back into the van, where the other cops had already materialized, and we were off with a screech.
"MOTHERFUCKERS!" said Elmer. "I'M GOING TO FUCKING TAKE DOWN THOSE MOTHERFUCKING SONS OF BITCHES!". He veered off the road after a hundred yards, stopping just short of a bridge, and the cops next to me shot out of the van again. "Is that them?" screamed one of the cops, pointing to invisible people up on the bridge. Incredibly enough, his partners seemed to be chasing two kids who were actually running away, though I couldn't be sure whether it was out of guilt or just a sudden prudent reluctance to interact with the Polish police.
A long few mintues passed before the two cops reappeared, breathing hard and shining with sweat. They had almost captured three fleeing suspects, but a recalcitrant taxi driver had foiled the capture by not instantly tearing off in hot pursuit when the cops had jumped into his cab and told him to drive. This was to be a persistent theme in the course of the afternoon - whether on foot or on the road, the common reaction among the citizens of Warsaw when approached by a pack of screaming cops was complete helpless terror.
We all piled into the van again and Elmer began a long series of manoeuvers that were designed to get us towards the Gdansk Station metro stop, which for mysterious reasons he had decided was the fleeing suspects' ultimate destination. We started the pursuit by racing up to the gates of the Citadel, an imposing old structure near the train station that now houses an army base. Before the sentries could level their arms at us, Elmer stopped and asked them if they had seen two (?) fleeing young guys. Negative.
We backed out at high speed, Elmer waving his lollipop while steering with one hand, and entered a maze of little streets. Suddenly one of the cops saw a group of three buff guys in their thirties, wearing track suits, standing and smoking by a wall. "IS THAT THEM??" he yelled, as Elmer peeled in to a tiny alley. Hands were on nightsticks, the cops made ready to shoot out of the van again.
"No no no no no!" I yelled, Young, younger than me! Buzz cuts! Not these guys!"
"MOTHERFUCKERS!" said Elmer. "NOW HOW THE FUCK DO WE GET OUT OF HERE?"
We were in a tiny courtyard, with cars parked randomly in every direction. There was no clear way out except the impossibly convoluted path we had taken to get in. We began a fifteen-point turn, the guys in track suits looking criminal and very amused.
It had now been over an hour since the assault, but if anything Elmer was more motivated than ever. He dropped two of his colleagues off on an overpass, where they scampered down towards Gdansk Station, and then began phase two of his containment plan, Operation Search Every Bus And Tram In Warsaw.
For the next thirty minutes, the cops would pull alongside a bus or tram, sirens blaring, and flag it down furiously with the lollipop. Then they would have the driver open the front door, and lead me through it to see if I could identify any of the passengers. It was hard to let them down, but the trams were filled with bewildered retirees, grade school students, businessmen, young nuns, and other implausible types. And I had the distinct impression that anyone I identified wouldn't have a very comfortable afternoon. Periodically, while we were searching one stopped vehicle, a second bus or tram might speed by and the cops would yell "did you see them in there? Were they in there?"
"MOTHERFUCKERS!" Elmer would add.
The only voice of sanity in the van seemed to come from the dispatcher, who was getting a little bit testy.
"We were flagged down by a man who claimed to have been assaulted near the Gdansk bridge. We moved out into the terrain and are conducting a penetration" Elmer would report.
"You have told me three times you are conducting a penetration," the voice would reply. "It has been ninety minutes, you have a minimal description of the suspects, and you have no leads to follow. Return to base, repeat, return to base"
"We are finishing our penetration of the terrain and have two men in the field," Elmer would say, undeterrable, "we will report as soon as we have terminated the penetration."
And then - "MOTHERFUCKERS! We're going to GET those motherfuckers!! GODDAMN! There - in that tram - is that them?!"
And so it came to pass that I found myself standing with three police officers on a very remote, very empty bridge on the far side of Warsaw. Elmer had left us on a tram and told us to rendezvous on the bridge, but something had obviously intervened and the van had now been gone a long time.
A very, very long time.
The cops were on their third cigarette and the conversation had turned to employment opportunities in Vermont (Chicago or Brooklyn might be a better choice, I thought). The swarthier officer had even gotten bored enough to ask me for identification, and jot down my name. His colleague was off in the distance, talking softly into his walkie-talkie. He didn't seem to be in a good mood when he got back.
"Is everything all right?" I asked him, as he lit up another cigarette.
"Elmer says he's got two suspects and is checking them out," he said. There was a bit of a tense silence after this: all three of the people who had actually seen the suspects were standing there on the bridge. I was quite sure I heard one of the cops sigh..
"So what are American women really like?"
Half a pack of cigarettes later, a call came in - we were to meet the van down at the foot of the bridge, right on the embankment road, and we would continue our pursuit. We walked down the steps to a deserted riverside road, and stood for a long while. There was no sign of a van. The swarthy cop began another quiet intimate conversation with the walkie-talkie.
"Elmer says he's waiting for us and can't see where we are," he said.
The thin cop didn't say anything, just pointed across the river. There, half a kilometer away, was a blue police van, parked in front of one of the bridge pylons.
"He's on the wrong fucking side of the water."
I thought this was a prudent time to ask if I could go, but a few minutes later I heard heavy footsteps and saw my cop friends walk up towards the tram stop where I was waiting. There was a lone black-clad figure visible on the tracks, on the far side of the bridge. Elmer. "We're going to take the tram over," said my friends. "You don't have a ticket, do you? Don't worry - we'll be your escort".
And that's how I happened to be dropped off by my house by a police van, sirens blaring, three hours after being attacked by thugs in a riverfront park. I waved to my new friends as passengers stared open-mouthed from the bus shelter where the cop van had stopped. I thought I recognized some of them from an earlier tram.
"We're sorry we couldn't get them, sir," said Elmer. "But we'll find them for you! Even if I have to go sit under that bridge on my motherfucking day off!"
I waved them all goodbye and made a mental note to stay the hell away from the river.
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maciej @ ceglowski.com
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