So, you're in Krakow on a Friday evening. Tomorrow, you’re going to be ringside at the biggest European fight show of the... and you’re getting paid. You toy with the idea of staying in and bolstering your research for around five seconds.
You spot a pleasantly distressed looking spot on the Bohemian side of edgy and take up residence at the bar with half a litre of the local brew. When you shout your second and supplement it with a hefty slug of the best vodka in the house, you become an honorary Polish Norm. The lads wanna talk Premier League, the hippy chick insists on a guided tour of the art works on the bare bricks and the hot doctor in the Velma specs is keen to practise her language skills.
Your wife calls to see how it’s going and you tell her it’s pretty much the fantasy foreign drinking session as you nod your approval to the old dude who just sent over a cheesecake flavoured spirit for you to sample. You break out a big note and signal drinks for the company.
It’s dark.The mattress is thin and sweaty. No point in trying to sit up for a while. Attempts to make sense of it hit a wall. Back to sleep. Sort it in the morning.
It’s still black. The heavy door clangs open. The guy is huge. He shouts some gruff words at you and gestures ‘up’. You follow him into the light and down the corridor. You notice he’s dressed for hospital rather than the jailhouse. This reassures you- until the idea you may have gone off the charts and wound up in the cuckoo's nest hits.
Two more heavy dudes and a far from hot doctor await you. You are delighted to be asked to blow into the tube. Surely a simple drunk bust. It’s been a while but you know the drill: out in the morning after a suitable period of pretend penance. The doctor speaks English but won’t engage with you. The heavy guys take your jacket and escort you to a new cell.
There are six beds and the light never goes out. Only one other occupant- a spark out mid twenties kid. You are shown to the cot in the opposite corner. The steel door slams behind you.
It opens twice in the night. An scruffy old feller with no trousers and a heavily strapped knee hobbles in and tries to make conversation. Every time you tell him ‘no Polski’ he gets more aggressive till you sit up and give him the international ‘keep the fuck away from me’ look. It’s the last time any inmate utters a word. A young kid with a sharp haircut passes you on the way to hiding under a blanket. It dawns on you that you’re closer in age to the messed up wino than the party boy. This disturbs you. Like all career drinkers, you see yourself in the devil may care limit dwellers. Brendan Behan, Richard Burton, George Best; rat packing things into life that the suburban souls will only ever see through the Volvo window. Up close and personal- you can’t help but see yourself in the bitter spluttering of the adjacent old boy. Inelegantly wasted and feeling the pain- you know that could be your lot now you’ve passed the age of both rock’n’roll death and respectable contentment. You seek to hide more than you explore.
Time must have passed and the door opens again. The high window shows that, outside, it’s the grey that passes for daylight in Poland. They’ve come for the kid. Great stuff. You suss that they are starting the clear out and you’re next in line. You approach the heavy dude in the doorway and he shapes to hit you. Palms up in surrender then you point at his watch. He shows you a digital 8:30. You mime fingers walking: “When me out?”. He considers showcasing his language skills then simply holds up four fingers. You wail in protest as the slam comes.
Motionless mental frenzy. You stare at the dull square light on the ceiling and do the maths. If he meant four hours- that’ll be just after midday. No problem. If he meant sixteen hundred then it becomes a bit of an ask. You’ll have to get from wherever the hell you are to the hotel, then get out of town to the arena. A stretch but doable.
Other issues are pressing. After enough years living in high crime areas- you have a healthy paranoia. Routinely; passport and cards are stealthily hidden at the hotel. This means you carry plenty of cash- evenly divided around four trouser pockets. An inspection finds that three are now empty- with a back pocket still holding three hundred zloty notes. You also find your room key and some loose change. That means you’re missing around a thousand zloty and an iphone.
Back to the small matter of the blackout. This never happens to you. One minute you’re discussing the brain drain with Dr foxy- the next you’re elsewhere with no explanation. That vodka. You were tossing it back like nobody’s business. You begin to pat yourself down for clues. No facial bruising. No abrasions or swelling on the knuckles. Knees and coccyx show no sign of fall damage. Best guess is you sat down on the way home and didn’t get back up.
So where’s the gear? Best case scenario- you get sprung at midday, you sign for your possessions, you’re handed a phone and some dosh and this is an awkward/hilarious anecdote. Worst case- you hang till four pm then find out it’s all gone. The phone has a couple of good interviews on it and maybe some info that a canny pro could use to defraud you. That would put a real downer on proceedings.
Nobody to blame but yourself. It’s the little boy in a go kart mentality that makes drinkers feel alive- but you’re bound to have the occasional crash.
The room is silent bar a low buzz. Recently, you’ve been working on being more positive. That’s a stretch in the circumstances- but you kick the various outcomes around and keep telling yourself that, whatever happens, it’s not the end of the world. You also try to remember; remember anything- but it is the height of futility.
No clock- no sense of time. This is the longest you’ve been off the grid in forever. Two more punters come in- both stripped of their pants and dignity. Each time, you spin round, put your feet on the floor, straighten your back and generally demonstrate that you’re ready when they are. Each time, you’re ignored.
The window is now a black square. There’s been no food or drink for anyone. Surely it can’t be the evening already. Panic melts into acceptance. Amid the short term concerns- there has been time for some serious thinking. Proper philosophical gear. You reckon that, if you did some proper jail time- you could work out some pretty profound shit. If you did that chained to a Beirut radiator for years gig- you could reach Dalai Lama level; plus you’d score a book deal.
Finally, it’s your turn. Down the hall again- same doctor sitting at the desk. You smile and get a promising reaction. A glance at the clock shakes you. Five thirty. Instant mental arithmetic tells you you’re not going to be as well turned out as you hoped to be when you take your seat on press row tonight. One last formality as you have to blow the breathalyzer again. That five second breath is always longer than you expect- but you manage it. The doctor kills the mood- letting out an ‘oooh’ and a snappy aside in Polish followed by a stern ‘No’ to you. You appeal in amazement. This can’t be. it must be eighteen hours since you touched a drop. The doc gives it to you straight:
“Three more hours”.
But this can’t be. You’ve got work to do- prestigious big boy work. The only reason you’re in this godforsaken dump of a nation. You explain the importance of getting out immediately. Lay it on thick. You hope for decency- you get scorn:
“You think you can come over here to Poland and go to work drunk”.
Yeah- fucking right you do. You’re a sports writer, not a heart surgeon. Working with a drink in your hand is part of your heritage. Realising that this is not going to play in this environment- you reasonably point out that you are not drunk and you haven’t been for a while. The response:
The biggest guy takes your arm and leads you back to where you belong. Your rightful place among the refuse; your fellow Shanghaied souls. The lost, drunken men who no longer care.
The kid with the sharp haircut raises his eyebrows when you get back. It’s the closest thing to humanity you’ve witnessed all day. Lay down and count the crawling seconds. It’s easier now the hope has gone. Even if they stay true to their word, getting to the show is out of the question. Forget that positive thinking. Let that inner chimp out to run riot and jump to conclusions. No-one else in the tank flinches. No-one mumbles. You all stare straight up and wait.
Eventually, a new guard comes in. He’s bigger and balder than the rest. He kicks your cot and signals for you to get up. You follow and he turns and shouts in your face. After you plead ‘no Polski’- he picks up your blanket and smacks it into your hands. It looks like it’s finally your time.
You dump your blanket in a cupboard then get led to a reception desk with a big lump behind it. To your left- four cops are loitering around what looks like the front door. Polish cops with their army boots and bad squaddie haircuts. You inwardly pray they’re not here for you. That there’s something serious hidden in the blackout.
The lump gives you sheets of paper full of meaningless language and gives you a pen to sign them with. You have two things on your mind.
The lump shakes his head.
This time- he ceremoniously holds up a large envelope with your name on it and tips it up to show its emptiness. Now for the punchline. In broken English- he points at a form and tells you that you have to pay for your ‘treatment’. His fat finger rests next to the figure 302,00 zl. You reach for your back pocket and it hits you. The clarity is overwhelming. Three bills left in your back pocket and the change you’ve counted a million times adds up to six more. Exactly enough for your ‘treatment’ pus the four zloty you need to ride a bus from outer Krakow to the Old Town.
You half open your mouth then think better of it. Everyone in the spot knows what’s gone down and there’s no gain in making it formal. In the near future, you’re going to find out all about how the Polish drunk tanks work. You’ll Google the shit out of it and read harrowing tales of hosepipes, nudity and leather straps. How the no food, no drink, no phone call policy is a leftover from the Communist days. In Poland, drunks don’t get treated like criminals- they get treated like stray dogs. You know this is going to hurt you professionally and you’ll soon find out that people have been mining the data on your phone during your enforced isolation.
So you keep your mouth shut- sign the shit and head to the door….where the cops block your way. One last humiliation game to play. You look at them and they stare hard back at you. And you stand there; a foreigner locked away in a place nobody knows about. Where they’ve kept you all day and they can keep you as long as they feel like it. So you do what he wants. You say please- and he slowly makes some space; eyeballing you every second and daring you to make a move. But you don’t because all you want to do is leave by any means necessary- but preferably the easy way. As you shuffle by with your head slightly bowed- you half expect him to whip out your shiny white iphone for a victory selfie.