GB No. 12, winter 1994


There was once on the outskirts of a major Polish city a huge garbage dump which was inhabited by a group of homeless people. The people lived, along with flocks of crows and seagulls, on what was discarded there. They ate still-edible food, wore still-wearable clothes, and cashed in anything of value that they collected, like glass bottles, recycleable paper, and occasionally even greater finds. With the money they received they purchased what could be obtained only in the outside world. A strict hierarchy evolved in the dump involving territorial rights, according to which each individual had his or her scavenging section. The best section belonged to the King of the Garbage Heap, who also had the final say in all disputes. Any outsiders, wanderers, or groups of homeless people who attempted illicit scavenging were dealt with swiftly and firmly, as the whole community united in the defence of their livelihood. This system, which had evolved over a period of many months, was harsh, for its foundation was physical force, yet human, because members of the community could count on each others' support in times of hardship.

One fine summer morning, while scavenging in his section, a man living in the garbage dump found a battered suitcase containing 80,000,000 złoty in cash (at the time about 24 times the average monthly salary), which he brought before the King of the Heap for disposition. On this glorious day, overwhelmed by the man's sense of community and respect for authority (for the man could easily have run off with his find), the King of the Garbage Heap solemnly deliberated on the infinite possibilities that lay in the battered suitcase at his feet. Calling upon his wisdom and knowledge of his people's lifestyle, needs, and habits, he considered the overall good of the whole, ignoring individual preferences and suggestions that would not satisfy everyone equally. A just decision was reached, and that day a bewildered driver delivered to the garbage dump a large truckload of several hundred cases of Denaturat, with 20 bottles of 500 ml per case.

Denaturat, manufactured by the Polish State Alcohol Monopoly and colloquially known as "Denat" (Polish for "corpse"), is a 92% alcohol product used for household cleaning and other purposes, such as lighting charcoal. The liquid, contained in the same classic "half liter" bottles as Polish vodka, has a deep violet color and a strong characteristic odor. The label bears a large skull and crossbones and a warning that the contents have been tainted with poison, to avert the possibility of it being put to recreational use (as Denaturat is priced at one tenth the cost of a standard "half liter" with twice the "voltage," this is not unlikely). A method of treating Denaturat involves using a stale loaf of whole-wheat bread which is cut at both ends, forming a sort of pipe or funnel through which the liquid can then be filtered. This removes the violet color and, to some extent, the characteristic odor -- which, though having no bearing on the poison, makes it at least more aesthetically pleasing. Most often only Denat-beginners bother with the effort required for this process. Among the substandard alcoholic products consumed in Poland, Denaturat rates about average in toxicity, below "Autovidol," a car windshield cleaning liquid, but above "Woda Brzozowa" ("Birch Water"), an alcohol-based hair tonic. An average-to-weak human liver will fail upon encountering the first two substances, while others are capable of withstanding them for many years.

The feast was tremendous. It lasted for many days and attracted hordes of the homeless and the outcast, who this time were welcomed with open arms. Word quickly spread to other cities, and the ragged, abject, and destitute journeyed from all around to partake in the good fortune. Poles, Ukranians, Russians, Belorussians, Romanians, and Gypsies alike gathered, lived, drank, and died together as brothers. The event stood a chance of attaining the rank of historic national happenings on the scale of Woodstock, or perhaps even the French Revolution, were it not that in the course of the festivities, an unattended fire somewhere got out of hand and in a matter of hours engulfed the entire hill that constituted the garbage dump. The fire was so intense that the fire department, after several ineffective chemical dumps from a helicopter, gave up, secured the site, and left it to burn itself out.

The inhabitants of the surrounding area, who had been unhappy about the usual smell of the nearby dump and the presence of rats and vagabonds, used the media attention brought on by the fire to secure a decision by the city to relocate the garbage dump. When the fire died down and was finally extinguished, and when the winds had scattered the charred remains, the site looked like a big black nothing, conceivably similar to a place where a nuclear bomb had been detonated, or the landing site of a gigantic space ship. All there was to be found were large, hard puddles of coarse metal and glass. That was the way it stayed all autumn, a huge void visible from miles all around and from up in the air, until the snow fell and covered everything like correction fluid. In the spring, when the snow melted and things stirred once again, the site grew a green stubble that gradually blended in with the surrounding area, until the middle of April, when the dandelions opened and formed a huge yellow circle that rippled and swayed in the breeze.

Ryszard Kornel Frackiewicz

GB No. 12, winter 1994 | Contents