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Changing Lifestyles : Life in the Dorm at the School of Hard Knocks : * Housing for laborers in Poland offers shelter but few of the comforts of home.


WARSAW — Janusz Kowalski, 21, trudged up the steps at the building called Mangalia No. 3, in the southern suburbs of Warsaw, carrying a little plastic bag with margarine, a piece of sausage and a small jar of mustard, sustenance to launch himself into the adult world of work.

It was Kowalski's second day at Mangalia No. 3, a 10-story slab of concrete known as a "worker hotel," and, like a new arrival in the cellblock or the fresh replacement in an army platoon, he was understandably cautious in judging his new surroundings.

"Well," he said, "I guess it's OK."

Kowalski's new quarters are a jarring change from home, the small town of Ostroleka, 80 miles from Warsaw, a place where not much happens, where jobs are scarce and pay is low. Kowalski, who looks closer to 16 than 21, is just getting to know his roommate and to adjust to the idea that this is home to 700 other single men.

Like him, they are mostly unskilled or semiskilled laborers who have come to Warsaw to seek uncertain fortunes, fleeing bleak villages around the countryside in search of work. A few are his own age, but many are older, rougher men, their faces scoured by work and drink.

They have come to see life as a school of hard knocks. And Mangalia No. 3 is just one of its dormitories.

About 70 such worker hotels operate in the Warsaw area, housing between 15,000 and 20,000 men, depending on the season. There are hundreds more such dorms ringing major industrial centers in the country, including the steel-mill towns and coal-mining areas in southern Poland. They remain as artifacts of the push to industrialize and rebuild the country in the aftermath of World War II.

When big work forces were needed and housing was in short supply, the worker hotels were seen as a solution. But housing in Poland, as in most East European countries, has remained a huge problem. What once was a temporary solution has long since become a permanent institution, although, like virtually all institutions in post-Communist Poland, worker hotels are now beset by change and uncertainty.

Once operated by government agencies--adjuncts of the ministries of industry or labor or housing--most of the buildings are now in the process of being privatized, with stock being sold to employees or managers. Some are shutting down, making those remaining more crowded. Sometimes local officials want them closed.

"The new district government wants to take our building," said Zbigniew Rutkowski, who manages a worker hotel in the rough working-class neighborhood of Praga, across the Vistula River from Warsaw. "They're just looking for money. What would happen to the workers? They don't care about that."

For most residents, the old system still prevails, in which employers pay all or most of the rent for their employees. In the Warsaw area, most residents are workers in construction trades; many have joined worker "housing cooperatives," which withdraw money from their pay with a pledge to provide them with an apartment at some, usually distant, time.

Krzysztof Rek, 22, has lived in Mangalia No. 3 for three years, working as a house painter for a building concern. His home is in Nowe Miasto, near the central Polish city of Radom, and he figures that he will have to wait eight more years for a flat of his own.

He now lives with two other young men in an 8-by-12-foot room with three sagging metal-framed beds, two chairs, posters of Polish beauty queens on the walls and three empty beer cans set on a shelf for decoration. They share a bathroom equipped with toilet and bathtub. And they hang jars of milk and jugs of bigos-- a cabbage and bacon soup--out the windows. They cook simple meals in the communal kitchen (consisting of a sink and two four-burner gas ranges), one of which is on each floor.

Once every three weeks, the management provides clean sheets. It also keeps the common rooms, the kitchens and halls spotlessly clean. For Rek, dedicated to saving money (he makes between 2.5 million and 3 million zlotys a month--or $250 to $300), life is simple.

"I go to work at 7 a.m.," he said. "After work, everyone makes his supper and goes to bed. You can watch TV or you can sleep."

On paydays, usually the 10th of each month, the younger residents may head off for the Golden Duck, a disco in town. Others drink.

"Oh, people drink a lot," he said. "Oh, God, do people drink!"

Most weekends, Rek said, he goes home to Nowe Miasto, rather than sit around the hotel watching the older men reel back to the hotel from the beer gardens and the vodka store. He has a girlfriend back home, he said, and he has a plan: He wants to start his own construction company, get a flat in Warsaw. He knows it will take time, but his dedication has not wavered--so far.

Yet all around him are reminders of similar ambitions broken to shards by years of working and waiting for plans that did not quite work out.

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