The tall security guard asked another question. “You talked to them?”
“Yes.” Said California, a college student who arrived in Krakow, Poland today and would start volunteering for my same organization in a few days.
“Man or woman?” The short security guard asked.
The two guards talked back and forth to each other in rapid Polish.
“You have more information?”
She showed them the calls. The texts. The emails. And the receipt to show that she paid one thousand dollars for her two month stay in Miguel’s apartment.
The two men spoke back and forth, back and forth.
A few days ago California had a bad feeling about this apartment deal, and sent a message through our volunteer organization page asking if someone could walk with her to her new apartment. I offered to go along; I know what it can be like to be a woman traveling alone.
We met at the large mall in the center of town. California told me that she may have been scammed. The man she did business with stopped answering her calls and messages. He disappeared a few days ago.
She booked a hotel room for tonight and would figure things out from there.
I exhaled quickly and suggested we head over to the apartment and see what’s up. I told her that if they did scam her, it wasn’t her fault. Scammers know how to scam.
On the way to the apartment, I told her stories about smart friends who had been scammed. Scammers know how to make you trust them.
She said that the guy offered to pick her up at the airport. He talked about refinishing the kitchen floor after she left. She signed a lease.
No, she didn't pay through the website she used. She wired money directly into his bank account.
She knows. It is all much clearer right now. That wasn't a good way to start her summer in Krakow.
The tall security guard at the enormous apartment complex was surprised to see us.
He told us that he didn’t speak English. California speaks Russian, a language she learned in college. They were able to communicate in a perfectly unclear way, but it was enough to share information.
He asked her name while he fumbled around his desk. He asked for the apartment number.
In a complex with over 400 apartments, not knowing the number can be a problem.
She showed him the lease that she and the supposed owner signed. The security guard excused himself and said he would get someone who spoke better English.
A shorter security guard entered and started asking questions.
The two men gathered the information and stared at it. They stared at the wall, deep in thought. They asked each other questions, back and forth they talked.
I wondered what they were saying.
California said, “Well. I guess that we all know what is going on. I will go and find a….”
But the men wouldn’t give up.
She turned to me and said I didn't have to stay. And that it was taking longer than expected.
I told her I was staying and to not worry about the time.
She handed me a bottle of water. I wanted to ask if she had popcorn, too, but didn't want to distract the men.
The men paced the floor. They called the number she had been using and yelled at the person who answered the phone, a woman—who claimed it was a wrong number.
They checked the email address. They read over the dates and times of all of the correspondence between the scammer and California.
They refused to give up.
They asked to see photos of the apartment. The tall guard went to take a photo on his phone of that same area. The two guards sat huddled over the phones comparing the two photos.
The short guard excused himself and said he would be right back.
California and I sat on the couch. I told her how heroic these men were, how beautiful that they wouldn’t give up and how exhausting it was to wait for them to give up.
I was getting teary at their anger over a stranger’s situation and their kindness in wanting it fixed. I told her that I didn’t think all Polish men were this helpful. Only Polish men who are security guards.
We both laughed.
I told her about going to the computer store to buy a new card reader for my camera. The guy said he was out of them.
I waited. Nothing.
I asked when they would get them back in.
He didn’t know.
I waited. Nothing.
I asked if he could suggest another place where I might buy a card reader.
He sent me to another store in the mall where the same exact thing happened.
California jumped up and pulled a bag out of her suitcase. “What kind of card reader do you need?”
I told her about the USB type and the size of the card.
She pulled the exact card reader I needed out of her bag of electronic gadgets. She said she didn’t even bring her camera and didn’t know why she packed it. She handed it to me and insisted I use it as long as I needed it.
This was better than shopping in the mall. This morning I wondered if I would have to have my sister overnight this necessity to me from New York. And now the very card reader I needed was handed to me in the lobby of a random apartment complex.
I’m pretty sure this is a travel miracle.
The tall guard returned. The two men spoke quickly back and forth. Back and forth.
California stood next to them and politely turned her head from man to man, as if she were following the conversation.
The tall man said, slowing as if he were in pain, said, “Not for sure, I think he already used the money.”
California and I were ready to go. We had been there for over an hour.
But the men wouldn’t give up. Likely they had children who were college aged.
Then they started talking rapidly again. Back and forth. Back and forth.
They asked for his banking information. She showed them the screen shot she took that included his routing number.
This excited the men. They talked faster to each other.
The short guard tapped his fingers on the counter in thought. The tall guard leaned against the wall and bowed his head in a way that looked like a prayer.
The tall guard’s phone rang. And rang. His work phone. He ignored the ringing.
The short guard said, “You write down all of his information for us. All of it. Here.”
He handed her a yellow post-it pad, and she wrote out four lines of the information she knew. His name, his phone number, his banking information and his email address.
The two men studied the information.
The tall guard paced up and down the lobby, deep in thought. His face twisted as if he were ready to beat someone to the ground. His personal pain for this cruelty came out in a long wail that stretched out into five distinct syllables.
If security guards are this caring for someone who doesn’t own one of their apartments, I wonder what kind of service the owners get.
The tall guard grabbed at his list of apartment owners and worked through all of them again, hoping to match the scammers phone number with an owner’s phone number and solve this riddle.
The short guard picked up his phone and called someone. It appeared that he was telling the story of what was going on, but he could have been ordering bread: Polish is very different than English.
The short guard asked her where she was from.
“Oh.” He said. “I only know New York.”
If this were a social gathering, she could have told him that Hollywood movies are made in California, or that the Beach Boys sang about California, or that her state was once known for gold but is now known for wine.
She didn’t elaborate; there wasn’t room for chatty talk about home. And I didn’t confuse the issue by mentioning that I was from New York.
The men spoke some more. Back and forth. Back and forth.
The short one asked. “You go to Poland tomorrow?”
That question stumped California since she arrived in Poland today.
I told her I thought he was asking if she would be around tomorrow.
“Yes.” She said.
“Now we are going to the police.” The tall guard said.
I said that I thought they wanted her to go to the police tomorrow and share all of this information.
She told them she would, and that perhaps it is time for us to leave.
But they wouldn’t give up.
I was seriously impressed with how well California was handling this. Calm. Cool. Present. Accepting her role in this.
I would have been a puddle of tears.
She is one of those rare people who can look you in the eye and say, "I messed up." and then move on. Likely she would collapse later, but in the now she exudes strength and confidence.
I wasn't like that in my twenties.
Am I like that now?
The men motioned for us to follow them. We did.
We walked through the complex with long rectangle buildings surrounding long courtyards while California dragged her suitcase behind her. It was a beautiful complex, if you like living right next to thousands of your favorite people.
We went to the short security guard’s desk. The men talked. The men paced. The man stared at the wall some more.
Losing money to a scammer is hell. So is having to discuss it ad infinitum. How were we going to get out of their caring orb?
The short guard said that I could sit on the couch while they figure this out.
Is this their way of calling me old? “No thanks. I’m okay.”
He said that I can sit while they help her some more.
“No thanks. I’m okay.”
He shook his head. “You stay here and she will go and find her apartment.”
Were they trying to split us up? Was all of their kindness a guise?
“No thanks. We stay together.”
The tall guard walked us to every area of the complex while California pulled her suitcase behind her so we could speak directly to every guard to ask if they were expecting a woman named California to check in.
The first guard, a young man roughly California’s age, laughed so hard that I worried he couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t tell if he thought it was funny that she was scammed or that a beautiful, young American women wanted to stay in this complex that was housed far from the cool side of town and next to a random highway.
The next guard was a woman who was a decade older and wearing baggy camouflage pants. She stood behind a glass door staring at us as if we were the real scammers. She refused to open the door to have a conversation, but did say that she was not expecting anyone to check in today.
The third guard who was also in her thirties, covered her hands over her mouth as the tall guard told the story. She asked California’s name, just in case it sparked some kind of memory of someone checking in.
She suggested that California contact that booking agency if she wanted to stay at the complex and handed her a small, colorful brochure.
I started to worry that all of this caring could take several days.
The tall guard signaled that we were done and there was nothing more to do.
I was polite and didn’t clap my hands together in gratitude.
California was in the middle of thanking this man for his time and attention and help for the past ninety minutes.
He interrupted her kind words and said, “Thank you. Bye.” And walked away quickly.
We stood quietly for a moment, then laughed at his abrupt exit.
I guess he doesn’t like long goodbyes.
I worried that we would never escape the complex maze, but California had already punched her hotel’s location into her phone.
We found our way to her hotel in the Old Quarter to store her bag until check in.
We headed to my side of town and I walked her into my favorite church to light a candle for her. So many churches use battery lighted candles these days, which are not the same. Poland uses real candles and real flames.
I told her that I wasn’t Catholic or religious, but that I loved the idea of adding more light to the world and having people pray over it.
I told her that this added light would ensure that she would have a great two months in Krakow where she would volunteer with Ukrainians and work on her PhD project.
I placed the candle on the stand and it nearly blew out.
We both gasped as the little candle gasped for air. Flickering. Flickering.
“Come on little fella.” California coaxed. “You can do this.”
Though not as bright as the candles around it, the little flame grew just enough.
It would burn on its own.
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