WARSAW -- Breaker, breaker, this is Poland. The Commies are gone, good buddy, but the phones are still terrible. Comrades are now citizens, and citizens who can are talking Citizens Band.
The Citizens Band radio craze here began earlier this year, fueled by tens of thousands of new entrepreneurs who saw CB radios as their only chance to get around the country's archaic telephone system.
Since then, four new CB clubs have formed around the country, and an average of 40 people apply for CB licenses every day. The growth has been so explosive that the government cannot say exactly how many CB radios are out there, only that the 3,000 registered radios are a small fraction of those in use. Some CB club officials in Warsaw put the number of CB radio owners around the country at well over 10,000, and growing.
"The channels are very crowded now," said Pawel Calka, a freelance photographer who uses his CB radio as a beeper to alert him to assignments. "This month, it's really been astonishing."
In the early 1980s, when the craze for CB radio was peaking in the United States, Poland was under martial law. For the ordinary citizen, possession of a two-way radio was punishable by a jail term. Even after private CB ownership was legalized in 1984, the Communist government continued to view such communication as a threat to the state.
Now, CB users appear to revel in the free-form conviviality that the radio allows. "We're like a club; we call each other, we arrange picnics for our families," said Miroslav Danek, head of Warsaw's newly formed CB association for independent taxi drivers.
CB "handles," or nicknames, abound, with "Lapis Lazuli" and "Louie Louie" and "Basia Polonez" -- the last for a red-haired Warsaw taxi driver. One business calls its employees to the radio with the sign-on "Invest, invest, invest."
The CBs are touted as business tools, but these days, the CB chatter often has a distinctly non-business flavor.
There's the guitarist who signs on to Channel 10 every Saturday in Warsaw to serenade listeners. In the city of Lodz, young people can be heard arranging dates on Channel 5. After an accident in a village near Warsaw, bystanders used the radios to call ambulances. In Warsaw, the huge fleets of independent taxi drivers use CBs to order kielbasa to go from the Red King Kawiarnia, the city's first take-out coffee shop.
Some people just want to gab. "You can always tell a guy with a new CB," Danek said. "Those guys will be on there day and night. They talk about anything -- the sky, about girls, anything. We call them 'mop chewers.' "
Polish law says CB radios can't be used in commerce, but few CB users appear to pay that any mind. "There's been an explosion. It's because of the total lack of telephones," said Jerzy Malinowski, a director of the government communications agency charged with inspecting and licensing CB equipment.
In Poland, 275,234 private businesses formed in the past year, according to the government. Many of them are one- or two-man operations, but even a business of that size needs to communicate with the world outside the shop. But Poland's telephone system is among the most obsolete in Eastern Europe. Some of the telephone switching apparatus dates from 1925. In most rural areas, people with telephones are in the minority.
Poland has received a $78 million telecommunications loan to upgrade its phone system, but for now, it still takes Poles years to get a phone.
Cellular telephones have been introduced this year, but that system is a government monopoly controlled by the post office, and the present 5,000 cellular phone numbers are available only to those corporations with the biggest clout. And at $1,000 a number and more than 30 cents a minute, cellular phones are also far too expensive for fledgling businessmen like Andrzej Sztymelski.
Sztymelski is a construction company owner who uses his new CB radio to keep track of workers at far-flung building sites. He bought one CB for his office, then another for his car, and then another.
Even for businessmen, a CB radio is often a prized toy as much as a business tool, besides being a reminder of how much has changed.
For some Poles, the thrill of establishing scratchy radio contact with Polish cities that regular telephones won't reach is similar to the clandestine esprit they felt during World War II. "It's like during the occupation, when several districts of the city were out of touch, and you could only reach them by radio," said Sztymelski.
"It's a bit like pornography," allowed Danek. "Until the market is saturated, it will expand and expand."
The CB radios also are being used to help police and fire departments that lack even rudimentary radio equipment. In the town of Grodzisk Mazowiecki recently, residents took up a collection and bought CB radio sets for the local police patrol car and ambulance. But the method can be slow. Because most emergency teams and patrol cars don't have radios, information relayed by CB users is passed along until it reaches someone who also has a telephone.
In greater Warsaw, many of the estimated 50,000 new, private taxi drivers use CBs and code language to call for help when threatened by the capital's increasingly brazen thieves.
There are codes for non-emergencies as well. Warsaw taxi drivers know that a man who tells his CB audience that he's "going to Sweden" really means that he's signing off to go see his mistress.