NEARLY nine months after Poland's ``shock therapy'' economic reform plan went into effect, the drastic attempt to switch the Communist system to a free-market economy has begun to create new social and economic stratifications. ``We are seeing the emergence of - if you can still talk in these terms - a new class, a middle class,'' says Warsaw writer Gustaw Gottesman.
By working several jobs, these people can make enough money to sample the pricier local and imported goods sold in grocery stores or in the open bazaars that have become an important economic focus of most towns and cities.
Other classes are also emerging. When adjusted for inflation, wages are expected to drop by 32 to 34 percent this year and old-age pensions (about $40 a month) by 31 percent. Already an underclass exists - pensioners, people with fixed or single incomes, and the 1 million thrown out of work in the economic restructuring. They are forced to rely on charity, social assistance, or soup kitchens - dubbed ``Kuronowki,'' after Labor Minister Jacek Kuron.
``I don't drink. I don't smoke. I don't have any luxuries,'' says one elderly pensioner who lives alone in Warsaw. ``I get by. But many people can't make it.''
Daily near the Hala Mirowska supermarket here, dozens of pensioners spread out used clothing and other bits and pieces to sell. One woman recently was asking four cents for a pair of used shoes. Another sold a clasp, apparently cut from an old plastic briefcase.
At the same time, there is the growth of a class of new rich, who are living the good life once reserved for top Communist Party officials and black marketeers.
One man in his 30s, for example, has made a fortune by getting in early on the trade in computers. He shuttled constantly between Warsaw, Berlin, and elsewhere. He now drives a Mercedes and is prepared to spend $60,000 for a lot outside Warsaw on which to build a house.
New restaurants have opened up here to cater to the trade.
Gwarek, a luxury restaurant on Pulawska Street, with its glitzy decor of mirrors, polished black-and-white marble, and banks of potted plants, is like no place else in Warsaw.
``I feel like I'm on the upper West Side,'' says New York painter Diana Horowitz. Dinner for three came to about $50, more than half the average Polish monthly salary of about $80.
After dinner, Gwarek patrons can step across the street to buy Perrier water, French cheeses, and even snails at a fancy new shop called Michel Badre, the first store outside France of a Strasbourg-based chain.
A joint venture with Polish investors, it operates round the clock, seven days a week. Prices are exorbitant by Polish standards. Perrier at 12,700 zlotys (about $1.30) a bottle or a can of French cassoulet for 24,400 zlotys (about $2.50) are a hefty chunk of the average income.
Public response to extreme new wealth involves envy and encouragement as well as distrust.
``There is still the legacy of 45 years that rich is wrong,'' says Joanna Onyszkiewicz, a partner in a private real estate company. ``The gates are wide open for people with initiative and imagination and the guts to act on it.''
But, she adds, successful yet shady businessmen ``have cast a bad light on [making money].''