Poles Scrape for a Living In Street-Vendor Paradise

IF you have money in Poland these days, you can buy virtually anything. And what you can't find in the store, you can buy on the street - or off the back of a truck, or from the hood of a car, or even from a suitcase open on a sidewalk. Six months after the imposition of a Draconian austerity plan designed to transform Poland's communist economy into a free-market system, industrial production and real incomes have fallen, and nearly half a million Poles are out of work.

Meanwhile, new free-market prices have taken a big chunk out of the average $80-a-month wage, and statistics show Poles must spend more than 60 percent of their earnings on food alone, according to Jan Litynski, an adviser to Labor Minister Jacek Kuron.

Economists estimate that real income has plummeted by as much as 45 percent over last year. Partly as a result, 65 percent of Poles surveyed by the CBOS polling center in April said their standard of living was bad. An estimated 30 percent of Poles live in such tough circumstances they should be given help, Mr. Litynski says.

``We have to work extremely hard to make ends meet,'' says Anna Bogobowicz, a Warsaw teacher and mother of two. ``I have two jobs and my husband has three. On the other hand, there is plenty to buy. I couldn't believe it, but I recently found shrimp on sale.''

And that is the irony, for Mrs. Bogobowicz and others, because for the first time in years, shops in all but the smallest villages are full of basic foodstuffs and even one-time luxuries, like bananas.

In addition, parking areas, vacant lots, and sidewalks across the country have been turned into a vast series of open, free-wheeling bazaars where individuals sell a galaxy of goods they have either produced privately, dragged out of the attic, or, most commonly, smuggled in from abroad.

It is a far cry from the situation even a year or two ago when price subsidies made goods very affordable, but the supply system was so bad store shelves were empty.

``Today, the problem is money, not finding something to buy,'' says Jaroslaw Tambor, director of the community museum in Pinczow, a small town in southern Poland. ``Now, if you go to the store and you have money, you can buy something. People aren't so nervous anymore. They don't have problems with shopping.''

Virtually anything - from toilet bowls to tangerines, from French face cream to fillet steak - can be found, for a price, in the street markets. German shampoo, for example, selling from the hood of a car for $2.50 represents nearly a day's wage. Polish shampoo, sold in ordinary shops, costs one-fifth of that but is a lower grade.

Most street-sellers hawk imported wares unavailable in Polish shops. But to save time and have access to a wider and often better quality selection, many people prefer to shop on the street for items like eggs, fruit, vegetables, cheese, meat, and bread, that can be found in shops for about the same price. Street bazaars crowd the pavement around most supermarkets.

Says Anna Piechotka, a young mother in Wasrsaw, ``It can even be fun to go shopping now. I take the baby for his walk in the stroller and pick up what I need.''

Most of the goods in the sidewalk or car-hood markets are sold by Poles who have perfected what has come to be called ``commercial tourism'' to earn the extra money increasingly needed these days to get by. They smuggle cigarettes, vodka, clothing, and other inexpensive Polish goods - even garden tools - abroad, selling them outside the country at a high markup, and buying coffee, chocolate, fruit, or other products to smuggle back into Poland and sell on the street.

Particularly in eastern Poland, the bazaars are also full of Russians and Romanians, who may wait as long as three or four days at Soviet border crossings to get into Poland. Selling clothing, cheap alarm clocks, Soviet toothpaste, and trinkets, the Soviets know that under new Polish laws they will be able to legally exchange their Polish currency into dollars or German marks to take back home.

The extent of such small-time contraband activities is so vast it has somewhat soured Polish relations with Austria and West Berlin - two places Poles do not need a visa to visit - and has forced Polish authorities to devise tougher customs regulations to go into effect this summer.

One West Berlin police estimate said 120,000 Poles came to the city each weekend primarily to buy and sell. The new customs laws will strictly limit the amount of certain goods - like cigarettes and foodstuffs - Poles may take out of the country with them, particularly if they make more than two trips abroad in a year.

``We don't want to decrease trade in a drastic way,'' says Litynski. ``But we want to give it some organization. Imports should be organized.''

Already some small steps in this direction can be seen. At least two shops selling only foreign imported food have opened in Warsaw. It remains to be seen, however, what effect the new regulations will have on the street markets which now are an important part of daily life for many shoppers.

``I hate to think what will happen,'' says one shopper in Warsaw.

The phenomenon is so widespread, for example, that newspapers print price comparisons of goods sold in shops and on the street. A recent prime-time consumers' television program was devoted to advising customers how to shop under such conditions.

``Be careful,'' one health official said, warning viewers that no quality or freshness controls are in force on the streets.

``Someone in his car can sell the same food one day in Bialystok, the next day in Krakow, then next day in Augustow.''

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