The poverty struck me mostly in small ways. When one of my friends ordered a pizza while one of his son’s friends was visiting, my friend suddenly realized that the boy had never had a pizza before—in a city with pizzerias everywhere. One March day in a neighborhood cut-rate grocery store, I stood behind a scrawny teen-age girl with sores on her face waiting in line to pay. She clutched two carrots and two chicken backs. The cost was 1 zloty, 67 groszy—about 50 cents). I guessed that this purchase was for her family to make soup for supper, and it didn’t seem like much of a supper to look forward to. I felt a strong impulse—which, alas, I failed to act upon—to pull out the 50-zloty note I had in my wallet and give it to the girl in the hope that she would buy something more substantial for her family’s supper. By the time I paid for my items, the little teen-ager and her smaller sister were on the other side of the store’s parking lot. I suppose I was concerned about what they would think if I bounded across the lot waving a 50-zloty note and pronouncing a foreign tongue. Anyway, I let the moment pass and felt disappointed in myself all the way home. I still do. I have tried to tell myself that soup was just to be her family’s “starter,” but I could tell from her look and manner that there was no pork roast in her family’s oven.
The awkwardness I felt in the face of poverty continued. When someone on the street spoke to me, in Polish, of course, I could not always tell if he was asking for money or for the time of day. I would respond with “No comprendo, senor. No hablo polsku” (I didn’t want these people to think I was a stingy or ignorant American!).