This is not a story but a memory.
In August 1980, having just lost a job in New York, a Brooklyn contractor sent me to Jacksonville, Florida to work on an oil tanker. I was an electrician, but the bulk of the work crew was a strange mix: its leaders were Greek; the bulk of the welders Greek and European; the pipefitters mixed Greeks, Europeans, and a slew of Panamanians. We electricians were mostly American—with one exception. He answered to “Mark,” but that wasn’t his name. He was a Pole who fled to America to work. He understood little English—only what he needed for the job, speaking even less.
He was, however, friendly, joining the crew for beers even though he had no idea about our conversations. I think he just liked being around other people and hearing stories and laughter, understood or not. He did get involved in our gatherings at the end of the work day in some ways, introducing us to a great Polish beer, Krakus. What made it such a good beer, mark explained with his best English and an improvised sign language, was that it was brewed with Polish water, some of the purest and cleanest in Europe. When someone mentioned how good Russian vodka was, he sniffed and let us know that Poland’s water is why Polish vodka beats Russia’s every time.
I also represented a strange anomaly: I read, wrote and listened to classical music. Many on the crew joked about this, calling me the “professor,” a title I would acquire much later. I also traveled with a chessboard, and when Mark discovered this, he stopped by my hotel room with a six-pack of Krakus, pointing to my chess set. Since that is an activity that needs no conversation other than each player’s moves, we broke out the board, drank beers, and played. We even tried connecting in limited conversation; this is when our “relationship” began. I discovered he was married with two daughters, sending what money he could to them through legal or illegal channels. Then, we made a major breakthrough. I mentioned names: The Rolling Stones, Poe, The Godfather, Salvador Dali, Joseph Conrad (he was, after all, Polish). Some of them he shook his head “no” to. Either he didn’t know the names or judged them unworthy of interest. To others he nodded in the affirmative.
Then I said, “Shakespeare.”
His eyes lit up. He left, returning with a copy of Shakespeare in his native language. He spent about an hour turning to and pointing out the parts he liked. Somehow we figured out the Polish to English translation, marveling at how we both enjoyed many of the same plays, soliloquies, or characters—and often for similar reasons.
The next day, standing on the foredeck, Mark came up, pointed at the sun trying to cut through heavy fog, and said, “MacBeth. Witches,” comparing the gloom of that scene to the day we were about to experience. From then on, we talked on many topics by using lines, titles, or quotes from Shakespeare, whose work became our medium. The relationship grew through the quotes.
Toward the middle of October that year, labor leader Lech Walesa saw his previous organizing and protest efforts coming to fruition, and there was a loosening of governmental policies in Mark’s native nation. He came one night, and again, using Shakespeare, informed me he was returning to his family. He held optimism for his country; it was time to go back. The conversations, such as they were, ended, but my admiration never has. I hope he valued our brief friendship as much as I over the years. I think of him often and recall our brief time together as one of the treasures of my life.
I saved a photo of Mark, standing under rows cables and in front of some breaker boxes. I still have that Polaroid shot. He wears a yellow work shirt and floppy white hat, as he smiles slightly with pride in his work. He was a great man who did whatever he had to for his loved ones, and in spite of the fact that we could never talk at length, I believe I knew him as well as I have known anyone in my life.