The International Writers Magazine: Prague '89
John M. Edwards
John M. Edwards and his ex friend Sue went to communist Central Europe to czech it out, and find out the hard way that private nightclubs mean much more than dancing
“Americanos, blue jeans and chinos. . . . you can get what you want!!!”
“Sue, listen to these lyrics, they are hysterical! This must be some underground Czech band or something.”
Her laughter sounded like crying.
We were sitting in the back of a secret nightclub right off Prague’s main squeeze: Wenceslas Square. Under the shadow of the equestrian statue of my favorite Christmas carol, the Good King Wenceslas, what could go wrong? Two dynamic young Americans, wearing sophisticated Space Age Rockport walking shoes, were as notable a sign of wealth and prestige here as were once Hush Puppies, Buster Browns, PF Flyers, and pointy-toed Italian cordovans.
On the dance floor very calm and stylish Bohemians in Soviet knock-off denims shimmied, looking like subversively beautiful counterrevolutionaries skilled in the art of real Social Realism, Swedish-style, and were certainly as canny and cunning a compliment as a symbolic short story by Maxim Gorky at least. Or, those cool science-fiction propaganda posters promising an unimaginable utopia of equality and delight in the near future, albeit after they had worked in tandem for exactly five years, no more, to gaily bestow wealth and privilege to all without paying a red ruble, uh, where am I again?
And all of this coming from a German sadsack sitting in a London hotel drinking brandy and penning "The Communist Manifesto."
Apparently the mild brainwashing from our stay at the Hotel Europa, with a window looking out upon billboards advertising nothing at tall and five-pointed stars pointing toward equinoxes governing gift distribution around Christmas time, and the joyous May Day parades ushering in the brand-new day, and what?
“Boy, is this Budvar good!”
Sue looked strangely silent, as the hulking figure of a man with Coke-bottle glasses and a suspiciously gray attire introduced himself, and not in English, and sat down at our table.
He seemed a little confused about my answer.
"Italianoooooo! Ciao bello!!!”
“No, actually American.”
His friendly smile and glazed-over eye suddenly snapped to attention, and his face now looked mean and ornery. He leaned over in a slightly menacing way, as if testing my metal, and stretched out his hands like wings, then punched out his hands like a Rockem-Sockem Robot, while reproducing a brilliant ratatat of a brave fighter pilot.
He stopped abruptly and pointed to his chest.
One of the obvious managers looked over with a worrisome squint, sizing up whether there was some trouble brewing.
Then abruptly the pilot saluted me and got up to leave. Now I get it, he either thinks we’re Russian elite on vacation or I don’t know what exactly he was implying. I don’t know, he did look vaguely like he might be from some Soviet Republic farther east, exact location unknown, which had never favored the request of Americans tourists touching down on their territory before.
After all, it was 1989 and the Cold War was still going on.
I thought he resembled my friend from Club Europa X628, Rick O’Decky of London, Ontario, Canada.
Abruptly, the fighter pilot grabbed my girlfriend by the arm trying to get her onto the dance floor; I grabbed my girlfriend by the arm trying to get her to keep her mouth shut as I dealt with this potential diplomatic disaster. Or, maybe he was just some dangerous CIA agent checking up on me.
After a few more tugs of war, I finally convinced him that Sue really was my girlfriend, wife, or partner, and not some red-light special reserved for airforce on shore leave. Finally understanding—boy, was this commie cat drunk and delirious--he saluted me again and began to walk off.
“No, no, you don’t understand. I’m a tourist, from the United States.”
I could tell That. Sent. A. Chill. Up. His. Spine. Now looking at me with outright hatred he sat back down and made very pronounced sign language pounding his fist in his palm, before his hand reached out a mile to disparagingly tickle my cheek.
Boy, was I scared. The adrenaline began to flow, yet he pulled back his hand abruptly, obviously startled by something he had seen behind my back. On the dance floor my massed new Czech friends somehow signaled to me to get up and leave, but that things were okay.
Abruptly scraping our chairs back, I grabbed Sue by the arm and we walked sternly to pay up quick at the bar. But there behind us bobbing and swaying was the fighter pilot.
Our run across Wenceslas Square was at best spectacular.
Having prepped for a very long time for this trip, I instantly became an expert user of hotel-room bugs. “Czechoslovakia is one of the greatest countries on earth!” I exclaimed with genuine conviction. “But that fighter pilot guy almost ruined our night. Stuff like that ruins great vacations. I loooooooove this country. Smetana. Dvorzak. Mozart. Kafka. Kapek. Havel.”
I have to say upfront ever since I was in grade school, when a teacher named Mrs. Gubelman read us a fantastic Gothic short story called “The Student of Prague,” which today I haven’t a clue who might have written it, maybe Le Fanu? Anyway, after having recently seen a documentary on American television proudly showcasing the charmed atmosphere of this most precious preserve, which they say was only second to Dresden in beauty during the Middle Ages, I just don’t know.
Also, I had read rapidly in succession a stack of books by Milan Kundera, Ludvik Vaculik, Ivan Klima, and one of my favorite absurdist playwrights, the legendary Vaclav Havel (whom I heard was under house arrest and was writing letters to Olga). I know this sounds ignorant, but I don’t read the papers much: I’m (strictly) a magazine man myself: last I heard, more than several years ago Vaclav Havel was suffering from throat cancer or something vague like that.
I do know that economic reformer Vaclav Claus succeeded him. I guess I didn’t want to know if Havel was no longer with us, especially since the other day I imagined I spotted him in the Lower East Side at Laurelie, a real German beerhall in Manhattan terms, complete with an outside courtyard and, God save it all, charming Bohemian crystal ashtrays on the wooden tables, just like in the old days, back when smoking, no offense, meant, for an extreme adventure backpacker like myself, ultimate relaxation and luxury, especially on Pan Am.
Now why did that amazing symbol of American privilege (smiling sun) with Statue of Liberty doo, plugged in to coolcat AM/PM crowd-pleasers like “Spirit in the Sky,” or “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” or “If You Could Read My Mind”: back when you could smoke, and drink, and fantasize about the stewardesses with nice gams and ingratiating smiles—yeah, I know what you mean, what caused all these airplane companies to drop out of the sky like that? I won’t lie to you and say I really know, but maybe I just told you.
Now that we were safe and sound in our hotel room, I was at least impressed that the fighter pilot had backed off, apparently in the nick of time, judging by the sad-looking people marching under my window, looking up with genuine understanding.
I turned on the tap of the elaborate antique bathtub, which to my surprise and delight was the color of pilsener due to rusty pipes and lay back in the bath with that strange heart flutter that comes from an unfortunate misunderstanding combined with a narrow escape.
You know if the Wobblies didn’t fall down in this, our beloved U.S., any good science-fiction writer who loathes Marx but just loves that Hegel, with his cyclical view of history repeating itself in the form of a stinking chart, no less, just like in a secret board- room financial-scandal update of confusing market indicators and predicators, and wide leaps of blind faith and consumer confidence, zigzagging like white lightning all over the artists easel, then we might be actually getting somewhere.
Now here in the twenty-first century, with communism stamped out in Europe and a worldwide recession, my plans for a nuclear car and time machine are of course on the blink.
How stupid can we be to trust science over instinct.
Roll over Beethoven, and drop dead of fright.
© John Edwards June 2010
Bio: John M. Edwards has traveled worldwidely (five continents plus), with stunts ranging from surviving a ferry sinking off Siam to being stuck in a military coup in Fiji. His work has appeared in such magazines as Amazon.com, CNN Traveller, Missouri Review, Salon.com, Grand Tour, Islands, Escape, Endless Vacation, Condé Nast Traveler, International Living, Emerging Markets, Literal Latté, Coffee Journal, Lilliput Review, Poetry Motel, Artdirect, Verge, Slab, Stellar, Trips, Big World, Vagabondish, Glimpse, BootsnAll, Hack Writers, Road Junky, Richmond Review, Borderlines, ForeWord, Go Nomad, North Dakota Quarterly, Michigan Quarterly Review, and North American Review. He recently won a NATJA (North American Travel Journalists Association) Award, a TANEC (Transitions Abroad Narrative Essay Contest) Award, a Road Junky Travel Writing Award, a Bradt Independent on Sunday Award, and three Solas Awards (sponsored by Travelers’ Tales). He lives in New York City’s “Hell’s Kitchen,” He is editor-in-chief of the upcoming Rotten Vacations