Illustrations by Ella de Souza
This article originally appeared on VICE Poland
"Here you will learn everything you need to know about gambling, prostitution, battery, and extortion," my boss, Józef, told me while staring at the fruit on the slot machine. A cherry, a cherry, a cherry, and a strawberry. His hand—a hand as wide and fat as a bear's paw—bashed the side of the machine. It was 5 o'clock in the morning, and I had been working since 6 PM the day before. I took some breaks—a couple of minutes here and there that I spent hiding in the bathroom, trying to relax a little. It was my first day working at Yangtze as a waiter, and I had told myself it was going to be the last. But I ended up staying for a few months because the tips were good, and I wanted to save, so I could go on vacation and never return to that shithole.
Józef was nearing 50 at the time. Over six feet tall, he had the face and body of a gorilla—short legs, enormous shoulders, and a small, round belly. The look in his small, dark eyes was one of indifference and emptiness. Emptiness and indifference are a part of everything Józef—or "Matador,"* as he is known in the Polish underworld—does.
In 2007, I had just graduated from high school. My first girlfriend had dumped me three months earlier, which I responded to by linking sad songs as status messages on Gadu Gadu—the Polish chat service that was popular at the time. I needed a job, so I took my pathetic CV to the Yangtze restaurant, situated in Warsaw's market square.
The place was always full of customers and decorated with a couple of bamboo sticks and fake plant leaves. Faux Chinese pictures hung on the walls. Aside from the cheap decorations, there was clearly money invested in this place. That's the first time I saw Józef, standing next to the bar, looking like a rather busy businessman and host—greeting customers and filling in shipment forms. He seemed like he could be a lovely family man. I obviously had no idea what I was getting into. Here are some of the things that I experienced and some of the characters I met while working in a restaurant owned by a Polish gangster.
One evening, a well-dressed middle-aged couple ordered a tiramisu for dessert. "That's not on the menu," I replied. My boss appeared out of nowhere, hands folded, his air uncharacteristically gentle. "Please don't worry, we will bring you some tiramisu from our other restaurant," he said to the customers. He told me to go to his other restaurant, La Fortuna*, and ask for tiramisu. "You'll get a bonus if you hurry," he added. I walked through the crowded market square to La Fortuna, which looked like the Doge's Palace on the inside. All 50 tables were fully set, but there was no one there, except for the chef who was sitting at one of the tables. He was sipping whiskey and reading a newspaper.
La Fortuna has about three to five customers a day, but the restaurant was not established to make money any way—it was supposed to impress the business partners of Matador's father, a well-known Polish "businessman." Every now and then, he invites a group of Warsaw's major league gangsters to gamble and have dinner there. They'll have lobster or beef and sweetbread and sip on the most expensive whiskey around. Once they've digested, they'll go meet the prostitutes waiting for them in Yangtze and keep the party going to the wee hours.
The tiramisu was waiting for me, in a neat little package. I took it to the kitchen of the Yangtze and asked the chef to prepare it—take it out, split it in two, and powder it a little. He looked at me and smiled, but he didn't touch the package. Józef came in, patted me on my arm and told me to clean up the now empty table of the people who had ordered the tiramisu. It turned out they'd given me a $40 tip.
Józef put his enormous hand on my shoulder and looked me in the eye. "If you keep performing like this, you'll get some nice side jobs," he said. The cook would later tell me that I transported a very expensive tiramisu package from one restaurant to the other and had basically become a drug mule.
One night, I was standing outside the Yangtze, waiting for the boss and his cronies to pay their prostitutes and finally go home, so I could close up and go to bed. It wasn't looking like that would happen soon, because they'd lost a couple of grand that night and were trying to win the ladies' rewards on the slot machine. Józef knew that the girls were upmarket professionals working for one of the most important people in town, so his usual approach of giving someone a beating and telling her to get the fuck out wouldn't have worked in this case.
I was also waiting for him to win something, because he'd lost so badly that he'd borrowed some money from my tips. If I didn't stay around, he wasn't going to remember anything the next day, and I would never get my money back. Suddenly, the slot machine played a song and spit out a ton of coins. Józef gave me a handful without counting. It must have been about $50, and he owed me a hundred.
"How much do you know about computers?" he asked, suddenly in a great mood.
"As much as anybody else," I replied.
"Come on, help me out. You're smart, and these fucking idiots don't know shit," he said, pointing at his helpers. We went upstairs, while the prostitutes got ready to leave.
The attic was basically one big pile of red armchairs, bar a table on which sat an old PC. Józef asked me to copy his birthday pictures from a camera to the computer and email them to somebody. He sat next to me, extremely excited, like a little boy who is about to show his father a prize. When I clicked "copy," his dark eyes began darting between the screen and my face.
There were 15 pictures, all taken in a large living room. A couple of passed-out naked women, empty bottles, lobster, and pieces of what looked like to be a roasted pig were scattered around the room. All the pictures were a variation on the same theme: a bunch of half-naked guys, threesomes, details of male genitalia, a smiling face of a woman with a black eye. One picture stood out: Józef, naked, is standing next to a friend—both smiling at the camera. Two women are going down on them, while Józef is holding a large pork leg and his friend's is holding a Kalashnikov.
I attached the pictures to the email and said nothing. Józef grinned and said: "I had a party, for my birthday."
Patrycja* was 18, had brown, shoulder-length hair, the body of a model and slightly crooked teeth. She wasn't too bright, but she was OK. She was the first to realize that nobody was getting a proper wage and very boldly shared these suspicions with the boss. She would get aggressive and demand money from him in front of customers. Whenever that happened, Józef would take her upstairs, and they would disappear for about half an hour. She would always return relaxed and a bit ruffled. After every one of these private sessions, she would forget all about the financial injustice.
She was one of the few women who got some respect from Józef, instead of punches. Sometimes, he would pick somebody and be OK to them. But his soft spot for certain people didn't stop him from raping waitresses or smashing his girlfriend's head on the hood of a taxi. Most girls, like Patrycja, resigned after a month or two—sometimes after one of Józef's gross friends or business partners put their hands on them. And after a while, they'd become managers of other bars. They knew what they wanted and what they had to do to get it.
Karol* was a boy from a small town—a total simpleton, but with a kind heart. He worked as a kitchen porter. One time, he took his break in a bar next door, but he stayed out longer than he was supposed to because there was an important match on. When he came back, the boss and one of his cronies dragged him out of the kitchen and beat him like a dog in front of all the customers. They took care to hit him without leaving any marks on his face, though. I had never seen anything like it before, and I had no idea what to do. I didn't stand up for Karol, and the customers and the rest of the staff didn't either.
Karol apologized to the boss and returned to work. "Report it, get the fuck out of here, do something," I said to him—careful not to be overheard. He refused because apparently he wanted to get somewhere in life, and Józef had the connections to help him get there. "He's like that, it's no big deal," he said. "And anyway," he went on, "the police chief drinks coffee here on the house, so who am I supposed to report it to?"
It was a fair point: The police never touched Józef and neither did the city government, people whom he owed several hundreds of thousands. That debt had somehow escaped their attention, while the boss gladly complained to the local press about rents ruining him financially.
The Yangtze attracted a lot of interesting customers, of course. Like Jarek*—a thief who'd always have a brand new designer jacket for you, for a special price. "The Gypsy King,"* the boss of the local Romani underworld, would also pop in every once in a while. Over six feet tall and at least 350 pounds, he was decked out in gold chains and wore a tracksuit and a cowboy hat. He'd always have four to seven shifty-eyed boys who were between 12 and 17 years old with him too. Their hair always shined with hair gel, and they all wore Lacoste shirts. The boys were much shorter than the King, and they whined a lot.
We also had some lame pop stars come by, and local pseudo-celebrities who appeared in shitty reality TV shows. They were all proud to know Józef, but, to me, it didn't really make a difference whose vomit I was cleaning from the toilet. I just wanted to be able to go on vacation.
Józef never hit me or really threatened my life. But what surprised me were the moments when he yelled at me and returned after a couple of minutes to apologize. He would sometimes explain his behavior, praise me, or stop his cronies from mocking me. He probably had serious mental problems and some kind of manipulative disorder. Add insane amounts of drugs, brutality, and lawlessness to that cocktail, and you get the idea.
The Yangtze and La Fortuna don't operate in their old form anymore, because Józef is in prison for battery and attempted rape. The names and the interior of the restaurants that came in their place have been changed, but it's clear that the same kind of people are behind them. I see them on the streets sometimes, high-fiving one another, parking their yellow Hummers illegally, and laughing in everyone's face. They might be looking for new kitchen help soon.
*The names of the author, the people, and the restaurants in this article have been changed to protect their identities.
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