Thirty-two years ago when I was a sophomore in college I found myself sitting in the student lounge one evening with little to do. It was after 8 PM and I was hoping that a certain young lady (whom I had my eye on at the time) would make an appearance and join me for a drink. Alas, she was a no-show. In fact, there was no one in the lounge aside from Bob, an accounting student whom I had only spoken to superficially in the past. Bob appeared to be about 10 years older than me, wore a beat up army jacket, and carried a black messenger bag full of books and loose papers.
As Bob seemed to be in no particular hurry to go anywhere either, we struck up a conversation and before we knew it an hour and a half had passed. I have no recollection of what it was we talked about, but I do remember that we decided to continue our chat over a cup of coffee. In those days, there wasn’t a Starbucks conveniently located on every college campus, and our only option was a vending machine located in the cafeteria (by now closed for hours), which dispensed a vile concoction which was coffee in name only. The cafeteria was located at the other end of the hall from the student lounge. We gathered our things and began walking. Although I didn’t know it at the time, it was a walk that would change my life.
By this time, the hallways were deserted except for the cleaning staff. We came upon a classroom where a woman was straightening out the desks. I remember thinking about how her dyed, red hair clashed with her light green uniform. As we walked by, she recognized Bob immediately and gave him a warm greeting. He answered her back and they carried on for a few moments. I had no idea what it was they were saying to each other because they were speaking in a language that I had never heard before. After they said goodbye, we continued on our way.
“Bob, what language was that?” I asked him.
“That was Polish,” he replied casually.
I don’t remember saying anything after that, but as we continued on our walk down the empty corridor, we came upon another classroom being cleaned, this time by an elderly man wearing the same light green uniform as the Polish woman. The same scene as before played itself out. The old man lit up at the sight of Bob, spoke to him in the same type of gibberish, and afterward seemed genuinely sad to see him go.
We finally reached our destination, inserted our coins into the machine and received our beverages. As expected, the coffee tasted like swill, but at least it was hot. Attempting to ease us back into conversation, I remarked to Bob that I was not aware that there were so many Polish people employed as cleaning staff by the school. He seemed somewhat puzzled. “The woman,” he said, “was Polish. The man was Russian.”
Did I just hear him correctly?