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Chapter 2

 

Everything But Jagger

By the time my life’s path had crossed with Tokarczuk’s, I had already lived in Wrocław, Poland for nine years and had previously written about 100 pages of a still unfinished book, provoked by experiences presenting my music and art that nearly convinced me to leave the country back then. God knows how many times I’ve been asked what on earth a Californian was doing living in Poland. I had several pat answers, one being, “Read my book.” Only I stopped writing, when it became clear that I was still living my story in real time, the by far biggest episode of all yet to be lived, the one I am telling now. After returning home, I wrote a truncated, heavily illustrated interactive online version, though once again I shelved it, when it became clear that the story continued to evolve into something of much greater significance, even after I was long gone.

Meanwhile, I tried to adjust back home to the culturally shocking circumstances that ultimately led to Trump’s presidency, while caring for two slowly dying elderly parents. I often jokingly said that I was suffering from a term I coined, “PCSD (Post Communist Stress Disorder).” In fact, it was no joke.

From what I have since learned of the political climate in the US today, I see this as a destructive mass condition, though in another sense, particularly concerning the baby boomer generation, to which I belong. I came to recognize that the terror we lived through during the Cold War with the USSR provokes a knee jerk reaction among many older Americans in particular, to an anachronistic interpretation of the word “socialism.”

I witnessed a similar dynamic in Poland as well, particularly among older Poles, who suffered under the purgatory of Soviet-style communism. There is one revealing incident I shall never forget during my third visit to the country, in 1996, when I was staying in the home of a middle aged couple, both who were artists. One morning, I was abruptly awakened, when outside of the door of the room where I had been sleeping, the husband started screaming, then he slammed down the handle of an old rotary phone, opened and slammed his apartment door shut and stomped down the hallway stairs. I put on some clothes and walked into the kitchen, where his wife was laughing. “Today is Women’s Day,” she said, “and he received a call from a friend, who reminded him to send flowers to the woman, who is director of an art gallery and who gave him a recent exhibition of his work.”

Why on earth, I thought, would this provoke such a violent reaction, yet make her laugh?

She went on to explain that Women’s Day is an annual holiday each March 8, which was linked to the totalitarian Soviet era. The tradition of handing women flowers on that day persisted after the USSR crumbled. Her husband had run a covert art gallery in an apartment during Martial Law, that was shut down by the communists, who broke down the door, dragged him away and imprisoned him for nine months. Any hint of communism, even being asked to give a woman flowers, triggered an extreme PCSD reaction.

Both most Americans and many, who grew up under Soviet repression, only understand socioeconomics as a hopelessly simplistic black or white duality of capitalism and communism. Even more so in the US, anything that hints of government programs that aid the poor, working and middle class is considered by many Americans to be socialism and socialism equals communism.

Neo-McCarthyism fear-mongering has succeeded in persuading most older Americans to repeatedly vote against their own best interests. We are the only country in the developed world that depends on a for-profit healthcare system, which bankrupts people, if not entire families, when someone becomes critically ill or injured. This parasitic exploitation of human frailties, which had developed during my many years abroad, left me with serious reservations about returning home. The horrific conclusion to my time in Poland, coupled with the dire need of help that caused my father to beg me to come home, left me with little other choice.

It didn’t take long to know that my fears of coming home were for good reason.

For all of the pejoratives I have to say about my time in Poland, it certainly was by no means all negative. Nor does it have anything at all to do with the right-wing government, which assumed power after I was gone, but rather with the corruption that the right exploited, which helped lead to its victory, so similarly to what has also tragically happened here. In fact, it’s not just fear that the Polish right uses to win over older voters, but the fact that the Catholic Church-dominated party is far more supportive of their needs and those of the poor than can be said of either the Democratic or Republican Party in the US.

Just as I had feared, the medical costs I paid after coming home, both for myself during the Obama era and as my mother was dying during Trump’s presidency, is staggering, compared to medical costs in Poland or, for that matter, in any other country on earth.

Though my standard of living would have been far higher had I remained in the US, I had become accustomed to a simpler quality of life in Europe that had taught me a different set of priorities and values. As an artist, I already knew that I could create what others had to pay for and this became conducive to the art of living in Europe, enjoying good wine with long social meals, café society and more time to smell the roses, without worrying that one day healthcare costs could kill you.

Nevertheless, I had developed a sense of purpose abroad, although I had no thought at all about ever visiting Poland. When I was invited and applied for a 45 day VISA, never in in my wildest fantasies did I even consider staying there for a day longer. Yet, as events transpired, I was convinced that I had been chosen to fulfill an important mission, at a pivotal moment in its history. When by chance I met Tokarczuk in 2005, I was certain that it was another sign of an inescapable destiny that couldn’t be ignored on the day in 1989 that I met Ryba.

April 5, 1989, the day that we first met, is now considered an important date in Polish history. Ryba was clearly unaware of this, when we spoke, with the aid of a translator, in an artist’s loft in downtown LA.

The next morning, the New York Times headline blew my mind:

It is said that Jews are the chosen people, but never would I have imagined that I would be chosen at that very moment to visit the scene of the greatest crimes against humanity in the modern history of Western Civilization, where millions of Jews were exterminated.

The purpose of the invitation was for the sake of cultural exchange but how on earth could I have ever conjured up a scenario whereby fifteen years later I would lease a medieval tower from a famous Polish author, engage in its restoration and aspire to fulfill my sense of purpose in such an ambitious way? Inside of that building, I introduced Poles to everything possible from abroad, culturally speaking, that I saw was so sorely missing, particularly with respect to cuisine, wine, music and cinema.

This was precisely why I believed that becoming Tokarczuk’s tenant was meant to be. From the New Yorker article:

In her teens, Tokarczuk became aware that much of the world was closed to her. “Everything that was interesting was outside of Poland,” she said. “Great music, art, film, hippies, Mick Jagger. It was impossible even to dream of escape. I was convinced as a teen-ager that I would have to spend the rest of my life in this trap.”

She didn’t have to leave after meeting me. I brought it all to her directly, that is, except for Jagger.

With my UC Berkeley housemates in San Francisco, 1970

Hippies? I wore an enormous afro and lived among them, when a student at the University of California at Berkeley, during the Vietnam War. I saw them all, from Hendrix to Dylan to the Stones. When I first visited Poland in 1989, there were shops that sold bootleg cassette recordings of popular music, but the selections were incredibly limited. The exposure Poles had to western popular music was so severely restricted that just a few singers and groups became famous, most of them, who were not as prominent in the West. One was English singer, songwriter, Chris Rea, another the Euro-Caribbean disco pop group, Boney M, which was based in West Germany. Perhaps the biggest of them all, that was as big in the West, Swedish pop group, Abba, had become huge throughout the Soviet Union. One of my goals was to introduce the best music I knew from abroad, and in various genres, that few Poles were aware of, but it was impossible to host a party without requests that I play Abba. Once at a New Year’s Eve party I played “Light My Fire” by the Doors and people complained that they couldn’t dance to it, as they demanded I play Abba.

By the time I met Tokarczuk, I had won first prize at the International Audio Art Festival at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw and had performed in Poland the soundtrack of my musical film that won First Prize in three European video festivals. A documentary of the live performance had been broadcast on Wrocław’s main TV station. Tokarczuk never knew of any of this and for five years she missed out on the entire artistic and cultural itinerary that I sponsored inside the building she owned, which she said she chose me to inhabit for this very reason.

Tokarcuk instead taught me all I will ever want to know about being ensnared in Poland’s awful past, the incomprehensible irony being that with the aid of my rent money, she took flight, even wrote a book called, Flights, while I tried my best to help both her and her country progress into the future but fell into the trap she had set for me.

When my Danish friend cried out that the Poland he had adopted since the nonviolent revolution three decades earlier was facing the same possible horror that millions of Americans feared could be happening here, it struck me how true it is that everything happens for a reason and that I could stay silent no longer.

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