Warsaw — The young man had just gotten a key to a flat in a newly built apartment unit. He was fairly pleased . . . he had waited only eight years.
He, his wife, a child, and later a second child had been living in a poky two-room flat in one of the rundown housing estates built in the first years after World War II.
Last summer, he drew a winning number in one of the housing lotteries open to applicants whose names have been on the housing list so many years. Many others less fortunate must reconcile themselves to waiting a ''normal'' 10 to 12 years. With the way the backlog is growing, they may wait even longer.
Last year some 100,000 flats were finished for occupation, a smaller number than in 1982. A recent government report estimated that at present 1.7 million Poles are waiting for an apartment.
But getting the new flat is by no means the end of a Pole's homemaking problems.
''Now,'' the young man mentioned above, ''our troubles begin all over again . . . furnishing it.''
Furniture is just one of the household snags Poles face after the long decline in the economy. There are the same long lines for basics like tables and chairs, beds and bedding, as there are at butcher shops whenever higher quality meat is available.
The weekly Polityka recently interviewed a score of tenants in a new block on Warsaw's Hawajska Street (Hawaii Street). The name has an incongruous ring in the setting Polityka described - uncleared building debris and mud.
The area probably will stay that way a long time. Poles have yet to develop a do-it-yourself attitude toward such tidying-up projects. And who can blame them when so much effort and time are spent in after-work queueing for the most modest and normal items of everyday life?
But the longing and the will to make a comfortable home and a certain life style persists, and Polityka gave a revealing account of how ordinary people go about accomplishing this.
It seems that one of the first things a tenant does on moving into a newly built apartment is to shift the heating around. Several Hawajska Street tenants told of moving radiators to ''more logical'' places: away from dangerous spots close to bathtubs, for example, or into the kitchen - where much of family life is spent - where none had been installed.
Next, they start hunting for attractive wall units - preferably brightly painted ones - to offset the drab walls themselves and the standard gray floor covering.
But that means standing in line oulside a furnishing store overnight to have any chance in the morning. Or, as Mrs. C., a schoolteacher and mother of two told Polityka, you can ''buy privately.'' She spotted a newspaper advertisement for just what she wanted - for 100,000 zlotys (about $1,000).
Mrs. C. earns about 19,000 zlotys a month - 5,000 above the national average - because she works at school, teaches privately, and for 10 years has forgone vacations to work at summer camps. So she had some money saved. The rest she borrowed from friends, which will mean working more summers to repay them.
Another couple had achieved a long-cherished wish: wall-to-wall carpeting. For years they had lived so close to a railroad station that they knew the train timetable by heart from the public-address system. Mr. G. stood in line for the carpet 17 hours, he said, so that he and his wife could simply enjoy the silence.
They, too, would like to do something with the walls. But neither job leaves them free at the right time of day to queue, and they cannot afford to pay someone to stand in line for them.
Professional ''standing'' is one of the features of the Polish queue scene. Sometimes a grandmother will do it, or a pensioner who charges by the hour. The entrepreneurs are those with permits to go to the head of any queue - war veterans and invalids, for example.
These people demand exorbitant fees. According to Polityka, the going rate is often 100 percent of the purchase price of the goods involved.
With the added space in a new flat, mothers begin hunting for separate beds for children. Curtains, towels, and sheets (sometimes lengths of dress material and tablecloths must do), as well as bathroom tiles are all woefully scarce and expensive.
Apparently the trick to getting tiles is to buy some from a worker at a building site. The worker then breaks some more tiles into rubble to explain away the missing ones, should anyone ask bothersome questions.
Money is usually not a problem. Warsaw radio recently reported a car mart at Lublin, the first of its kind, where supposedly big, worn-out, official cars went under the hammer for 9 million zlotys ($90,000) - in cash! (Buyers reckoned the cars were a good investment since they probably had not suffered the lack of spare parts and service that are the bane of an ordinary motorist's life here.)
It is mostly speculators who have the kind of money in hand to buy such cars. But the bank savings of ordinary people are astronomical.
Despite rising food prices, they have money to spare and few outlets for it, especially in household durables.
The housing shortage has not eased even though the authorities are beginning to encourage do-it-yourself projects and promise materials for cooperative building.
The automobile seems to have lost much of its old status appeal. Asked about their priorities, many Poles - particularly young ones - put an apartment before a car. Young people are more frustrated over the lack of decent basic living conditions than anything else.
''It would meet our most painful problem, some private place of our own to live,'' one says. ''Luxury can wait.''
And luxury means, among other things, a car. Poland, though one of the three countries in the region with a substantial automobile industry, lags behind all but one of the East European countries in the numbars of cars per thousand people.
But when it comes to housing, no other East European country is much better off. Even in progressive Hungary, which has less than one-third of Poland's population, more than 50 percent of young couples must start their marriage living with parents, just as they do here.