whole quarantine business (we’re starting our third month here in
Istanbul) got me thinking. With all these restrictions, perhaps the
best thing to do is take a trip somewhere in your mind. It usually
works for me.
I’ve been thinking about the winter of 2009-2010, the time of the last global crisis. At the time, I was going through a bit of a personal crisis. I had to leave Istanbul because of a visa problem. As a result spent the winter laid up in Prague for three months. Sounds great, you say. Well, as one of my Czech friends used to say, “Prague is a nice city – if you have money.” True, true.
Being unemployed and in enforced idleness for three months during a rough winter and in the midst of the global financial crisis, was like a purgatory, an experience that I shall not soon forget.
This story, “Notes From the Šatna,” was written based on the events of that time. If nothing else, it can give us a break from this blasted quarantine.
“The world’s in the middle of a crisis, and you’re starting a business!”
I said this to Johan the year he opened his club in Prague. I don’t remember what his reply was, but then knowing Johan he probably just chuckled. When it came to business, he always had lousy timing.
He called the club Prodigal, for several reasons.
For one, because of the theatre itself, built back in the 1930s during the Great Depression. A few years later, Czech pilots used to go there with their dates before going off to fight in the war and hopefully return someday.
Another reason is because Johan was an orphan, an adopted child who took the place over. Orphans are by birth prodigal, hoping to someday reunite with their families. Finally, because a lot of the people who frequented the club were outsiders – dreamers, losers, misfits. People like myself, people like Johan and the many others.
Most of all, I liked the part about Johan starting a business – transforming this abandoned old theatre into a concert venue – in the middle of the Great Recession. It had a crazy romanticism, a trip into the unknown, element to it that was compelling at the time. There were also numerous setbacks and turns of events, as you will see.
Johan was raised in Australia to Dutch parents (Johan was so reserved on the subject of his parents that you would almost think they were in a witness protection program). He drifted to Prague sometime in the late Nineties and worked for a long time in various clubs and bars in the center, one of them being the George and Dragon.
When I met him, in the fall of 2007, he was trying to start up a tour guide business. He had a younger brother, Josh, who came over looking for any excuse to stay in Prague for awhile. The theater was in Vrsovice, a neighborhood just outside the center, and had sat vacant for several years. Johan thought he could build a bar or club, and his brother could run it.
Well, things happened. Over the next few months, the tour business never got off the ground. The website, for example, was not not up and running until after the tourism season was over. And the guy who took forever designing the site still wanted his money. Then Johan caught Josh skimming from the till of the new bar, and bought his brother a ticket back to Australia . Johan found himself alone, with an empty dilapidated theatre on his hands with a sizeable rent, and rapidly mounting debts.
That’s when he got the idea for Prodigal. It would be, he said, “a multi-cultural meet point,” a place where people could put on shows, parties, exhibitions, whatever vision they had in their crazy heads. He provided the space and the bar, the clients provided the vision, and paid Johan a certain percentage of the takings. A win-win situation.
The first few months, it was exciting.
There were punk bands from England, jazz musicians from Paris, Baltic interpretive dancers, a blues band from Detroit, as well as local Czech groups. It really was cultural, international. The music was good, or at least loud enough that you couldn’t really tell one way or the other, especially after everyone was drunk or high on the local MDMA.
Thanks to a lot of restoration work that Johan did by hand, local guests were pleasantly surprised when they went downstairs into the resurrected old theater, with it’s high majestic ceiling and dim, drafty ambience.
“I have lived in this neighborhood my whole life,” some local Czechs would say, glancing around rather admiredly. “I never thought anybody could do anything with this place.”
You had the feeling that Johan was providing the neighborhood with the one thing it lacked: a large-scale, multi-use venue. He was giving the neighborhood a shot in the arm, whether it needed it or not.
To my knowledge, the nearest other similar venue was Slavia stadium, where the local football team had its matches but there were concerts too. Metallica played there that same year. But the stadium was a ten-minute tram ride away. That’s not far in most cities, but it is in Prague, since the city is really a patchwork of insular, self-effacing neighborhoods. Sometimes even just one street can be an entire neighborhood, like ours. Plus, a lot of Czechs are lazy, and prefer their local rather than going across town. Of course there are the more famous places, like Akropolis in Zizkov, but that’s another story.
You’d think being the only such theater in the neighborhood would be an advantage for Johan. It would have been, except that people didn’t come. I went to perhaps a half dozen shows that first year, and on average there would be 15, 20 people, me and Johan included. With his debts and bills piling up, Johan had a lot of sleepless nights.
Why didn’t the people come? It was a great venue! A big space, with history, the possibilities were endless. Like 1960s New York, when all of these abandoned warehouses and loft spaces suddenly were transformed into trendy clubs and galleries.
Vicariously, I shared my friend’s frustration.
Some said it was marketing, he needed better marketing. Fliers were distributed; efforts were made to get a web site up (he finally got one, not from the same guy who screwed him on the tourism one), and there were even ads on Prague radio stations. One night a Czech TV news crew came by and did a story, and I thought that would really do something. It didn’t.
In an effort to get some cash, Johan opened the upstairs bar during the week nights. But that didn’t work either because there were already a half dozen bars in the neighborhood, all with loyal regulars who wouldn’t “betray” their bar by patronizing that “cizinec” (foreigner) bar.
Things looked badly for Johan in the summer of 2009, when I accepted a teaching job in Istanbul. I paid the rather large tab I owed, wished him luck and set off for the airport.
Nearly six months passed. Then I had a problem with Turkish authorities over my visa, was ordered to leave the country for three months. Three months! What the hell was I going to do for three months? I couldn’t go back to the States, not with this global economic crisis everyone was talking about. A lot of people I knew were either out of work or very nervous, according to their Facebook posts.
Then I thought, why not go back to Prague? I bought a bus ticket that took me as far as Sofia, stayed the night in a hostel, and the next day got an overnight bus to Prague. The overland journey was dark, starless, as we passed through Belgrade, Budapest and Bratislava in a kind of dreamless sleep.
The following morning, when I arrived in Prague, the whole city was snowed under. All of Europe for that matter, was buried under the hardest and cruelest winter it had seen in decades. I’d picked a bad time to be unemployed and low on cash.
A tramride brought me to Vrsovice, where I got a room just in case I couldn’t find anyone about. Then I walked over to Johan’s theater. It was still early in the morning. He was sitting upstairs in the bar by himself, having a cup of coffee. When he saw me at the door, his eyes lit up in surprise. He waved me in.
“What brings you back to Prague?” Johan surveyed my appearance, which was pretty road-worn after the overnight bus journey.
We sat and caught up for a while. I found out things had changed for the better while I was away. He’d had over the Christmas holidays big shows almost every Friday and Saturday. “You should’ve been here New Year’s Eve,” he told me, when something like 300 people had shown up. At midnight Johan and his bar staff had passed around glasses of champagne.
“I remember thinking of you that night,” he told me. “I was thinking, ‘I wish James was here: he would have finally seen the place up and running the way it was meant to.”
I congratulated him. He asked me about Istanbul, and quickly surmised that I needed his help.
“I’d say no,” he said. “But I realize you’ve no where else to go.”
He let me crash at his apartment, which was on the top floor of the same building. It was pretty threadbare, with sparse furnishing. Johan gave me a blanket to sleep on the living room floor. There was no washing machine. A fluff-and-fold place up in Vinohrady did a week’s worth of laundry for a pretty cheap rate, I later found. Still, it was a place to crash, and I wasn’t going to complain when outside there was a foot of snow on the ground.
Over the next few weeks there were other shows, but after that holiday rush, it appeared Johan had once again crashed. One night only about seven people came, and this after he’d been promised by the organizers that 150 would be there and he spent nearly $1,000 on stock for the event. On top of that the electric bill, some three months over due, needed to be paid or they would shut the power off — a potential death blow for any start-up business. He got some help, from his family, but that was getting harder to do. But he kept the lights on, and by the middle of February the good shows, big groups of people, started returning.
All this time, I’d been living in his flat upstairs for free. With the big parties on the way, Johan decided to have me help out.
“I need you in the Šatna tonight,” he said.
Šatna (pronounced shatna) means coat room in Czech. It was not a task I looked forward to. The last customer service job I had was as a cook at university, and I vowed then that I would never again have to use the phrase “Can I help you?” to anyone again in this lifetime. But, there was still a lot of snow on the ground outside and I had at least another six weeks before I could return to Turkey . And it had been really cool of Johan to take me in with no notice whatsoever. The Šatna gave me a chance to work off some of what I owed him, and as I hope will be seen, an opportunity to see, albeit from the Šatna, how and if Johan’s vision could come to life.
About 150 people were expected that first night. We got under way with preparations in the afternoon. I went with Johan to get the beer. We drove through Prague’s icy streets to a brewery and picked up two kegs. Later he and Andrea went to Carrefour for fresh stocks of spirits.
It was a good thing Rick was working that first night. He was this big, stocky guy from Santa Cruz, married to a Czech, and had lots of nightclub experience, mostly as a bouncer. He knew how to properly set up a Šatna (nice alliteration, that).
The first customers began arriving at about seven o’clock, mostly parents and small children. Nick answered their queries, collected the coins and handed the coats to me to hang in back, along with a numbered ticket. Since it was wintertime and Prague buried in snow, we had a lot of business that night. People handed us jackets, scarves, sweaters, hats, gloves, all of which we stuffed into the sleeves. Of course, it was a job your average simian could perform.
After Rick saw I had things under control, he went upstairs to have a cigarette in the bar. A few more people came and I took care of them. Rick came back with two pints from the bar. We put them in back, out of sight, so as to appear professional and because Johan wouldn’t like us drinking so early.
More people came over the next hour, and before long we had fifty jackets, not counting the children (we gave families a group rate).
The show started; Rick and I took turns in the Šatna so we could enjoy the performance. It was a fun show, I remember, children’s theatre. There were two men stuffed into a giant elk costume running around stalking the children; there were bright colored balloons and live music and lots of food, a great contrast to the dreary cold outside. After a while the children, discovering the extensiveness of the old theatre, broke down into groups of hide-and-seek, chasing each other and laughing in and out of the rooms.
Meanwhile, more people arrived. A group of men, all dressed in powder-blue tuxedos, went on stage and performed traditional Czech and Moravian songs, complete with accordions and horn. “Na zdravichko! Na zdravichko!” went the chorus to one song, the singer waving his beer glass to the crowd. After that there was a tombola, with chickens and pig’s heads given away as prizes. Later on a group of women went up on stage and sang lovely a cappela tunes in cat-like, diva style.
The party was organized by a local gynecologist. When I met him he was very drunk, and it was still early, maybe 11.
He was drinking from my glass, and when I pointed out his error, he just looked at me and said, in the best Czech way, “Well you should put your beer somewhere else!”
I had never been called out by a gynecologist before. What’s the comeback? If he were a proctologist you could say, “Up yours!” but with a gynecologist I was kind of stuck. He was really nice guy actually.
All in all, it wasn’t a bad first night. Sometime after midnight the party thinned out considerably. There were maybe 10 jackets left in the Šatna, so Johan had me lock it up, with a note directing customers to the bar, and I was free for the rest of the night. Most of the party had by then migrated upstairs to the bar, so I sat at the bar with Rick and had a beer.
The gynecologist was pretty wasted by then, he was hitting on some of the girls at the bar while his wife was downstairs cleaning up. Maybe he was just getting in some professional practice. The police came, owing to an alleged complaint about the noise. The gynaecologist started to stumble outside, determined to resolve the matter himself, in fine Czech fashion. Fortunately Andrea waved him off and dealt with the police herself. After the police left, the music was turned down. I was pretty drunk by then and, seeing I wasn’t needed, went upstairs to the flat and crashed.
A couple of weeks passed. During this time, I got to know the others on the crew better. Foremost there was Andrea, Johan’s hand-picked assistant. He’d met her at Circus, one of the bars in the neighborhood. She was selling marijuana at that time and Johan was one of her customers. A pretty girl, in her early twenties, with raven hair and dark eyes; a self-contained, guarded way about her. She spoke English but generally didn’t like to, and you sometimes got the feeling that unless you had some pressing business with her, she’d rather not be bothered. Johan she treated respectfully, as he was paying her salary, the rest of us she dealt with on a need-to-know basis.
Not that Andrea was that bad; actually it was she who I think insisted on paying me on really busy nights, even though by rights Johan didn’t have to pay me anything, since I was already staying for free at his flat. She drank, but not too much and took her work seriously. There were nights I watched her put in a 12-hour shiftwith only one five-minute break. She was energetic, resourceful and organized, I know Johan turned to her to help get his paperwork, taxes, bills, etc, long neglected, into some semblance of order.
Andrea was rumoredly on salary, though I can’t say how much, and I think Johan had great expectations. Early on his expectations even branched into hopes of intimacy, but over time Andrea had made it clear theirs was only a business relationship. To be fair, Andrea also had expectations. When they initially met, it was understood that Andrea was tired of selling marijuana and looking for “something steady.”
There were the bar girls, Agnes and Kristina, and another girl I never got to know well, all in their early twenties, students, who rotated different nights and were all pleasant to work with. There was a sound guy, “Rock,” was his nickname, a bull-dog of a man, who liked to sip whisky behind the controls of the P.A. Like most soundguys he was in love with volume, lots of it, and often had to be restrained by Johan.
Finally there were Mirek and Standa, who also helped with the bar and promotion and who had entered into some kind of profit sharing agreement with Johan. The initial impression you got of them was that they were brothers, which they were not, since they looked and sounded so much alike. They were both slightly built, with light brown hair, bright, almost anxious eyes, and collegiate manner. They both worked hard, seldom complained, even though there were nights they weren’t paid and were honest, as far as anyone working in the clubs can be – meaning they didn’t steal. They also had done the website and designed drink menus.
I fell into a kind of desperate, dismal routine.
During the week, the club wasn’t open, and it was too miserable to go out, so Johan and I would watch movies in the bar, and occasionally he had me do some cleaning. There was an old guy in the neighborhood, David, a pensioner with a bad heart and a weakness for rum. He cleaned the toilets, swept up and took out trash for a shot of rum and hot water. “Holy water!” he’d proclaim, his eyes shining, raising his glass, still breathing hard from his tasks. David also helped out with the shows, even with the Šatna though to be honest he drove me crazy. He was always rambling, in bits of English and Czech, on about this and that and bumming cigarettes. Plus he was fond of all things Americana and had taken up the habit, rather mysteriously, of calling me “Al Capone.” For the record, I do not even vaguely resemble the late gangster.
“Al Capone, sir!” he’d say, his old Czech eyes shining with mirth as he downed a shot of caged rum.
The shows were generally on Friday and Saturday nights. Come Friday afternoon I’d go with Johan to get the beer and we’d drag the kegs downstairs, and he and Andrea would go and get the rest of the supplies. Around 8 or 9 the shows would start, really get going by 11, and the afterparty would go on until dawn or even later. Most people left around 1 or 2 o’clock, and when the Šatna thinned out, Johan was usually pretty good about letting me lock up the Šatna and leave word at the bar. He knew I wasn’t used to working those kinds of hours.
Most of the time I didn’t need much Czech (In the five years that I resided in Prague, my command of the language had rarely strayed beyond “pub Czech.” The vocabulary of the Šatna was fairly standard. “Kolik?” meaning, “How much?” “Deset,” or ten crowns, and that was about it. If there were other questions I didn’t understand, most of the people would promptly switch to English.
Often people, seeing I was a cizinec, would ask: “Where are you from? America? What are you doing working in the Šatna? Have you ever considered teaching English?”
They were curious, and often after they’d had a few drinks would come back and talk about my situation. “ Turkey ? And what do you do in Turkey ? Do you like it?” and so on.
I remember one guy who was pretty drunk, a guitarist with one of the bands, he came and sat with me an hour or so. He wanted to visit America and had many questions. Other times people would sit at the tables smoking joints and they’d come over and offer me a a hit. It was nice of them but I generally said no, since I was already drinking and had to keep some semblance of sobriety to run the Šatna.
Even though I had never worked in a club, like most people, I’d spent a lot of time in them, especially in my early days in Prague. I got to know what goes on late at night (I’m thinking of La Clan, Studio, Nebe – God!). The owner is always wondering who’s stealing from him, there are people doing coke and ecstasy in the toilet (that happened at quite a few shows), there are sudden jealousies and rages and fights that can erupt at any moment the later it gets, and always worries about the police, especially since Johan at that point was not properly permitted.
It was important for me to do the job right and have Johan know that he could trust me. I was deadly afraid of the Šatna coming up short, even though it was small potatoes for Johan, and having to account for it, so I wanted my wits about me should that ever happen. A certain bond develops in clubs between the crew. After 10 pm, midnight, 3, 4 o’clock anything can happen. Someone pukes all over the floor (expect this at least once a night) and it has to be cleaned up. Sometimes the customer, feeling embarrassed and suddenly sobered, wants to help but usually not. There’s a fight, and the police show up because a neighbour complained about the noise. All of these things happened, sometimes all on the same night.
Before opening the club, Johan had worked in bars and clubs in Prague ’s center for years. As I said before, he’d helped build the George and Dragon, one of the biggest bars on Old Town Square . After that he’d worked as a tour guide and tried, briefly, to launch a tour business himself (at a bad time, when the recession was hitting and Prague ’s tourism honeymoon was beginning to end).
He’d come across the old theatre by chance. The club itself was located at the bottom of a building of flats, owned by several people, including a man named George, said to be descended from an old Czech aristocratic family. George took a shine to Johan, for whatever reason, and decided to buy into Johan’s idea of revamping the theatre.
This George was an interesting character. I never spoke to him much, as he only came by when he had business to discuss with Johan. At first glance he resembled a traveling salesman, with a cheap-looking suit, with thinning hair combed across his balding forehead; in his fifties, he was thin and dour-looking, yet he had a certain dignity, perhaps a remnant of his aristocratic pedigree. Johan told me his family had an old chateau outside Prague with something like 75 rooms.
Anyway, George was the biggest shareholder of the building, and the rest was divided up among the other owners, whom I never saw. Apparently the other owners didn’t like the fact that Johan was running the club, and were always conspiring to get control of the building and get Johan (and George) out of the picture. I suppose that’s what drew them together; an alliance against their enemies. But as much as George liked Johan, his patience had limits. At least once in my hearing, he left after a cup of coffee and status report, and over his shoulder said, “By the way, Johan, put some rent money in the account this week, if you can.”
One afternoon, sometime in February I think, I showed up and Johan and Andrea were already there.
“We’ve got a lot of work today,” Johan announced abruptly, just as I sat down.
He said we had to get everything out of the building – everything! – that very day. It turns out the neighbors had filed some sort of administrative complaint with the city. Some health and noise inspectors were expected to drop by in the morning, 8 o’clock sharp. Johan had obtained a permit to run a business (the old tour business) but could still be shut down since he was still not legally permitted to run a nightclub.
“That would be end of me,” he had said, on more than one occasion. “If they shut the place down, I’ll never be able to get it back open.”
By that, he meant having to pay fines for not having the licensing, but also because his cash and credit flows were already depleted, and the only thing keeping him above water were the shows. And there were some big shows scheduled for the coming weekend, shows that had been booked for months. So I could understand the urgency in his tone.
“There can’t be any evidence that there’s a bar here or that we have shows,” Johan said. “I have my lawyer telling the city now that I hang out here myself and just like to turn the music up occasionally – you know, just for me.”
We didn’t have time to stop and wonder if the city, or anyone, would believe that. Johan was by then on the phone to the sound guys to come and haul all their equipment out. There was a storage room in the basement of the building, and all the stuff was to go down there, including the lights and the stage, which was to be broken up and hauled downstairs. I was glad Johan wasn’t counting on me to do any of that. Instead, over the next few hours, me, him and Andrea packed up the bar, and put everything in boxes and carried them next door to the basement.
In the evening Mirek and Standa (they were both university students and went to classes in the day) arrived, as well as some people interested in renting the place for a party. Johan had them stay upstairs while the work went on dismantling everything downstairs.
“This comes at a very bad time,” Mirek said to me in a gloomy voice. “People finally are coming to know about this place, and now we may have to cancel some actions. It’s very bad for our reputation. How do you say in English? Word travels?”
Mirek was right. It was terrible timing. After nearly two years of constant uphill climbing, of disappointment and loss, the club was finally starting to get on its feet. The last five shows had made money, or at least covered expenses. And in just a couple of weeks the club was set to host Aqua Sky, said to be one of the world’s most renowned DJs. I’d never heard of them but that doesn’t mean anything, since I’m ignorant of electronic music. At least 300 people were expected, the maximum the club could hold. A sold-out house. Johan was banking on this gig to finally put him on the map of Prague ’s club scene, and also to finally put him ahead. He had, as I’ve already said, tremendous debts – he estimated about 500,000 Czech crowns, which is about $25,000. He was also hoping to get away, to Italy perhaps, to get a break from the club.
We stayed late that night. A few other people came and helped out, and by midnight the place was totally empty.
In the morning, I had some business in the center (Johan had insisted everyone except Andrea stay away anyway), so I wasn’t there when the city inspectors arrived. After lunchtime, I dropped by. Johan was there.
“They’ll be back next week,” he said. Meanwhile, he was planning to “quietly” go ahead with the weekend’s scheduled events.
It wasn’t like he hadn’t taken chances before. Growing up in Australia , he used to sell weed, and one night, he was in his car carrying a half-pound of marijuana when suddenly a police car appeared, lights flashing. Instead of pulling over immediately, Johan speeded up, raced ahead over the dark hills and tossed the bag out the window. When he finally did pull over, the cop gave him hell. Johan just apologized, saying he didn’t at first see the police lights. The cop let him off, and the next day Johan drove back to the spot and picked up his weed.
He wasn’t so lucky in Greece a few years later. He and some friends were high-diving off some cliffs into the Aegean Sea . On a dare, Johan jumped off a cliff that was some 70 feet, high enough that he estimated he was at terminal velocity when he hit the water. But in mid-air, the wind was too strong and he couldn’t keep his feet together. He hit the surface of the water so hard he broke his back, and would have surely drowned if his friends hadn’t come to his rescue.
How this gamble would pay off remained to be seen. It wasn’t my business – I’d be in Šatna again, but either way I could walk – but I worried about the neighbors.
The people on Donska Street were split on Johan. Most of the old ladies in the building loved him, thought him handsome and considerate. It’s true there was one old lady, Elizabeta, in her eighties, who used to come in and sit and talk with Johan for hours, did so because she had no one else to talk to. She died the previous summer, and Johan was the only person from the neighborhood who went to her funeral. And it’s also true during the winter, when the sidewalks were covered in ice and snow, Johan shovelled and swept the area in front of the building so that the older people wouldn’t fall.
But these people, and George as I said, were in the minority. Most of the neighborhood resented him, outright disliked him – partly because he, a foreigner, had such a “valued” old property (though it had sat vacant at least a year before he took it over).
Part of the resentment was Johan’s fault; he could come across as aloof and superior at times because he was generally a private person and didn’t like talking with people he didn’t know.
That’s important because in Prague, in the Czech Republic in general, or in any country, I suppose, when you’re a stranger, and people approach you, you’re expected to receive them politely and answer whatever questions they have.
In the beginning, when nothing much was happening at the club, few took notice. But now that it was starting to get off the ground, to literally make some noise, and attracting new people to the neighborhood, that got under their skin. They felt like strangers in their own neighborhood, even though I suspect that secretly they liked it. It wasn’t just ‘their’ street anymore.
Understand, this is how Johan saw it, and how he told it to me. Everyone was against him, he felt.
Of course, not “everyone.” Again there was George (that was important), some of the old ladies in the building (also important, they’d lived in the building since the beginning of time), and some of the younger people in the neighborhood were at least curious and receptive, and a handful, for instance some of the people from Shakespeare and Sons, the café and bookshop down the street, even dropped by.
I should point out too that, like many bar owners, and many reserved, private men, Johan was not a good drinker. During the three years I knew him, there were occasions when a perfectly good night would be spoiled when he let the guests buy him too many shots. He had a temper that came out when he’d been drinking, and his frustrations also boiled to the surface. At least once during my stay there Andrea left in tears from some vicious dressing down in Johan’s office, usually over a trifle, or something she wasn’t really responsible for.
“These people — they don’t understand,” Johan would tell me, during one of these episodes.
“The only thing that makes this place go is me! I’m the one who did everything! If it weren’t for me they’d be out on the street!” And so on. The next morning, invariably, he’d be sober and chastened, and hand out a string of apologies. This didn’t happen to often, these episodes (usually after one of them he’d drink only Coca-Cola the next few shows), but it was these kinds of episodes that made it hard for people to get close to him.
On Friday we went ahead with the show – and of course the police showed up. It was about midnight. There was a birthday party, with a DJ. From what Mirek and Standa told me later, a lot of people were popping pills and snorting coke. I didn’t see any of this because Johan closed the Šatna that night (it was slow). He stationed me upstairs at the bar to watch the front door, and moved everyone downstairs to reduce the noise level. So all I had to do was just sit behind the bar and watch the door. One guy came up and passed out on the sofa; I ignored him and watched a movie on Johan’s laptop.
Then the police suddenly came in the door, the wide-shouldered types with the blue “Metro” overhaul-type police uniforms. Two of them marched right up to me. Without speaking, I just motioned for them to follow me downstairs. They ignored the passed out guy.\
At the bar downstairs, the music was pumping and people were dancing under flickering blue lights. I waved Johan over, then went back upstairs. A few minutes later they all came up, the cops and Johan and Andrea. They checked Johan’s passport and asked to see his papers.
Apparently they didn’t ask to see licenses, because after a couple minutes, they handed the papers back, satisfied, told Johan to turn the music down and to post his open hours on the door out front. Then they left.
We got out late, sometime near dawn. I remember talking with Standa about the police. He was worried. “Next time if the police come,” he said. “they could file a complaint with the magistrate.”
So the next night, Saturday, we all held our breath. That evening it was “Fresh n’ Flesh,” an art exhibition organized by students, young artists, actors and musicians. Their leader was a young Czech woman, annoyingly supercilious and dishing out orders to the staff. But overall it was a good night. There were paintings, films (it was nice, I might add, to see movies being played again in the old movie theatre); stage performances, including one skit where someone dressed as an astronaut and, with Thus Spake Therasthrusta playing on the speakers, planted the Czech flag on the moon (a nod, I think, to the Czech comic sketch Zimmerman, who “discovered the North Pole,” “invented the light bulb,” etc. Now the Czechs, not Neil Armstrong, were the first on the moon.
After that there was a dance party.
I had a slight crisis in the Šatna that night. We’d managed to get everything moved back into the club after the city inspectors’ visit, but apparently in the process some of the coat racks had been lost or stolen. So when we got busy that night I didn’t have enough coat racks. One of them actually broke, snapped, because I had overloaded it. Johan came in and we sort of jury-rigged it. After that I just started piling the coats up on a table. When I had over 75 coats I just started turning people away. They weren’t happy about it, but I didn’t care. It wasn’t my dream to be a perfect Šatna boy, and when they looked in and saw the colossal pile of jackets dumped on the table they understood and walked away.
I got a bit too drunk – it was hard not to on those late nights. There was a blonde girl with a sharp profile sitting on the steps going down into the theatre. She and her date were smoking cigarettes and ashing on the floor. Everyone did this and by then the stairs were littered with butts. For some reason I got angry and took it out on the girl and her date. Then I started sweeping up the butts. She came over and said she was sorry.
“We appreciate your job,” she said earnestly. “Really! We appreciate what you do! Your work is important.” Great. Next they would be calling me “Jeves.”
I think that’s why I got mad in the first place, to be honest. I was starting to “lose my identity” on those late nights, hanging up coats and sweeping floors, while everyone else was enjoying themselves. After that I saw the girl and her date sitting at a table. They pointed to the ashtray, where they were carefully aiming their ashes, and smiled.
As it turned out, the cops didn’t come by, and the show ended relatively early, like maybe three or four. After the people left, we all sat at the bar and had our own small staff party. When I took the Šatna money up to Johan, he counted it up and gave me half, and later I learned he’d made enough to pay his staff and his electric bill.
Our relief was short-lived. The very next day Johan told me one of the women in the building (not the ones who liked him) had filed a complaint with the Prague 10 municipality, and had posted a notice in the building describing how Johan had “deviously” moved everything out of the building before the inspection, and was now continuing to do shows “under the city’s nose,” in short telling about all that had happened.
“You should talk to her,” I said.
“Well, it’s not just her,” Johan said. “There’s a few people, and now she’s trying to get the rest of the building to turn against me.”
I suggested inviting the neighbors to a show, perhaps even giving them VIP seats.
“If it were only that simple,” Johan sighed.
“If you could talk to that woman,” I said. “Maybe you could work out a compromise.”
“She doesn’t have to compromise.”
The meeting with the neighbors was set for a Monday evening, the week of the Aqua Sky show, which promised to bring in some 300 people. Johan politely indicated that I should get lost while the meeting was taking place (it would be Johan, Andrea, Standa and Mirek, along with the neighbors), but I helped with preparations. We cleaned the whole place up, upstairs and down, brought up an extra table and chairs, and a beer keg that was still half full, along with a few bottles of wine. A few paintings were left over from the last show (the artists hadn’t come back for them yet), so we hung these conspicuously downstairs in case the neighbors desired a tour.
That evening I went to the u Rozjeta Zaba, a bar down the street, and had a few beers until the meeting was over. Then I went back to the club.
Johan was glowing. Turns out the meeting had gone better than he expected. The neighbors agreed to let the Aqua Sky show go forward, in exchange for a promise not to have any more techno shows. Johan agreed to keep the music down after midnight, and if the neighbors had a complaint, they could call Andrea on her mobile – rather than the police.
It was the meeting itself that made the difference. Most of the residents on the floor directly above the club were elderly, had lived in the building for years. They were lonely. They felt disregarded, disrespected. So when Johan invited them down, served them wine and, with Andrea and the boys translating, listened to them, they were charmed, subdued, appreciative. That was what they wanted: someone to tell them what was going on, to seek their approval. They were, in granting it, nearly magnanimous.
So we went about preparing for the big weekend; Johan was in a good mood. This was to be, he said, the weekend that , if all went well, would finally put him on the map. “And then I could think about having a normal life again,” he said.
Johan stocked up for the weekend: a dozen kegs of beer, six Staropramen 12 and six Gambrinus 10; two dozen cases of wine, a dozen bottles of vodka, another dozen of Bacardi, those were just some of the bigger purchases. Over the weekend I know he ran out at least once, and he and Standa had to make emergency runs to the non-stop brewery in Prague 9, as well as to the potravinys.
I, of course, was in the Šatna, but because so many people were coming, I had help from the old guy David. As I said before, he was a talky old fella, with merry eyes and a drinker’s red nose and cheeks. He’d do just about anything for a spot of rum, “holy water!” When you handed him a glass, he’d beam, look heavenward and cross himself. “Holy water! Holy water!” In the Šatna he was more of a distraction than a help, although for a time he did the cash desk and tickets while I hung and organized the jackets. But as the evening wore on he got drunker and talkier and I took over. Still, I came to respect him that night – I and the others – for a nearly 70-year-old retired pensioner with a bad heart he hung in there. He stayed all night, both nights, was even there after I pooped out and went upstairs. One girl beerily asked, “Is that your father?” to me, but she was just being drunk and cheeky.
That Friday there were six DJs. Later on I learned that Aqua Sky came on about 2 am, and I missed it. We were too busy in the Šatna. Everybody worked that night. The old guy David was also assigned to look after the toilets, which got downright nuclear on those busy nights. He came back from re-stocking the toilet paper and told me people were shooting up in the toilets. That was no surprise. Over the course of the night, some people came to resemble zombies, their faces blue and distorted like gargoyles, eyes rolling, their mouths in a twisted grimace.
It was even worse the following night, Saturday night. Even more people came, nearly 200, and they got all coked up. There were more DJs – Mittik, Dan Vandal, I remember these names from the program – and the stage was stacked with something like 20 TV monitors and there was a multi-media light show. But again we were too busy to really watch.
Sometime near midnight the cops came – but not because of the show. Some of the “guests” were outside on the sidewalk, drunk and raising hell in the classic Czech fashion. Johan, Andrea and Mirek took care of the cops, agreeing to keep things under control. Johan himself nearly got into a big fight that night. He told me later he walked by a table where people were openly doing cocaine. He’d had a few drinks by then himself, but he told me it “irritated” him to see them doing it so openly right in front of him. There was a confrontation, but then Mirek and Standa suddenly appeared and separated Johan from the offenders, and the boys escorted them out and that was the end of it.
The party wore on and on. Sometime after 6 a.m. the power abruptly went out (the circuits overheated). I was upstairs in the bar by that point, laying on the sofa, exhausted. I have a memory of daylight being visible, a pink-blue spray, coming in through the glass doors. A fleet of taxis were waiting outside. As people left they swayed back and forth and tossed a farewell over the shoulder on their way out. Then suddenly the music came back on downstairs – the party was starting up again.
After the Aqua Sky show, Johan seemed satisfied. Although we’d fallen short of the promised 300, still a lot of people had come, and they’d drunk a lot (thanks to cocaine). He’d made enough to cover his most pressing debts, pay his staff and stock up for the next weekend. That’s not to say he was in the clear. One of his allies in the building, perhaps George, sent an email saying that at least one of the building residents was still after him, had in fact hired a lawyer and was trying to get Johan from the tax angle (he owed a fair amount of back taxes). This pressured Johan all the more to get his affairs in order. The friend also reported that the other owners of the building were conspiring to get rid of Johan and George, cut them out all together and “take back” the theater.
“It looks like they will shut me down after all,” Johan said, gloomily. This was the Monday night after the AquaSky weekend and his euphoria had worn off.
One morning the following week, I woke up and a bright sun was coming through the window. Spring! The long Prague winter was finally dead.
With the spring, I really began to switch gears back toward Turkey , and with the warmer weather, people began leaving their jackets at home, so Johan didn’t need me as much in the Šatna. I still tried to help out a bit, emptying ashtrays here and there, sweeping up broken glasses, etc.
Then, on one of my last weekends, a near-disaster struck. It was a private party, organized by some students; I don’t remember if they were from Prague or from the outskirts. At first it looked like it was going to be a dead evening – near midnight there were only about 20 people. I was sitting upstairs, just watching the door. I played music on YouTube and drank a beer.
After midnight more people began to arrive, in threes and fours, so that by 2 a.m. we had a decent party going on downstairs. About 3 a.m. Johan came up and had me lock the front doors. It was about an hour later the craziness started. One of the organizers, this tall, thin guy, who earlier had sat at the bar rambling to me drunkenly about “how underground” our place was, “really underground!” he kept saying. Well, this guy came up, with this girl at his side, and tells me they are going across the street to the Zaba, which was also still open. I let them out, thinking it would be good to throw some business to the neighborhood (normally, a charitable thought, but at 4 a.m.?). About 15 minutes later, they came back and the girl (who by the way had been drinking absinthe) was upset about something, and I dimly gathered (to be honest at that time I didn’t really care, it was late) something had happened across the street.
They went downstairs and came back up with small group of people (the guys at the Zaba later claimed it was “15 people” but I think they exaggerate, if only slightly). This small posse (I later learned it was a posse), all went across the street, telling me to keep the door open. Of course, looking back, I should have been a little quicker, but like I said it was late and I was just waiting for the party to be over. They all came back a few minutes later, and after I let them in, the leader, the tall, skinny guy, told me, “We have some problem at Zaba but we —-!” he made a gesture, slamming his fist into his palm menacingly. “We take care of it!”
I happen to know the barman – all of them, in fact – at Zaba very well. I knew that evening the owner was out of town and that Bolek was working, Bolek! – who I or anybody who knew him knew was the last guy you’d ever want to hit. He’s one of those hopelessly gentle, likeable guys who work their shift at the bar day in, day out, without causing any problems.
“You hit Bolek?” was all that had time to register with me, but they were already heading back downstairs – seeking, as I was beginning to realize – the safety of the club downstairs, knowing that the upstairs would be locked. They said something, as they were going down, that Bolek had cheated the girl (the one who did the absinthe) and that there had been words exchanged, etc.
So that explained why, in a matter of moments, the people from the Zaba (I recognized most of them, there were about four or five) were standing outside on the sidewalk, looking really pissed off. Johan came upstairs at that moment and surveyed the situation. I hardly had time to explain anything (not that I knew that much) when suddenly the lights of a patrol car appeared outside. Johan at that point had opened the front door long enough to tell the Zaba folks that he wasn’t going to let them in. They wanted to go in and find the guys that had hit Bolek. Johan had to literally shove the door closed and lock it. “Turn everything off up here,” Johan instructed. “And don’t let anyone in.” I turned off the computer and blew out the candles.
But then the police were there, in full riot gear, with flashlights beaming through the glass. The Zaba folks were talking to the police, gesturing toward the club. I unlocked the door myself and let the police in (you could see they meant business) and they followed me as I went to get Johan.
“Go home,” he told me.
Outside I ran into Bolek. He was white as a sheet, and upset, but otherwise unharmed. I told him I was sorry about what happened.
“I know,” he said. “Tell Johan – I am sorry.”
I went upstairs to his flat, relieved. But I could still hear the commotion downstairs, so I got up and looked out the window. Down in the street, four stories below, everyone, or at least a large group, had assembled on the sidewalk. It looked like a scene from a movie. The police had brought the culprits up and they had all of them, a dozen of them, and their friends, and the Zaba people, were all talking at once and this great din rose up in the streets (even from the fourth floor high up you could hear it), a riotous clamor. In the other buildings the lights were coming on and the neighbors were looking out the windows. Outside the first blue streaks of dawn were spreading across the sky.
“Nothing happened,” Johan said later.
This must have been the next afternoon, when we were having lunch at a restaurant near the club. It turned out the police asked Bolek if he wanted to press charges against the guys that hit him. Bolek said no, he didn’t, and that was it. Johan shut the party down (he gave back the deposit because the contract stipulated the party would go on until 6 a.m. – after I filled him in on what had happened upstairs, he got angry and said he wished he’d known that sooner, he would’ve kept the deposit).
At first I thought Johan was angry at me for opening the door for the police after he’d told me not to let anyone in, but then again the police are not just anybody.
“They’d have crashed the door in,” Johan said. “And I could have sued them, but …” But of course he still wasn’t fully licensed, so his lawsuit probably wouldn’t have gone very far.
So the net result of the fiasco: it could have been worse. Nobody was injured, not even Bolek, he was just shaken up, nothing was broken or damaged, and even with the police visit and all the neighbors being woken up, at least for the moment no one was knocking at the door. Johan could even plan for the next week’s shows.
Over at the Zaba, people were still pissed off for the next week or so. Bolek himself shrugged it off. “Ne voli!” he said. “No pain!” The others, the regulars, were pissed because “15 guys” – again they were fixed on this number, as if anyone had time to count! – had come into their bar and hit their bar guy, and most of them weren’t even there when it happened, they just heard about it. What bugged them most, other than the odds, was the fact that we had locked the door when Bolek and his band of avengers had appeared on the scene.
I defended Johan, explaining that the assholes who hit Bolek were not Johan’s friends, just people who had rented the theater for the show, and who had got drunk and created problems at Zaba on their own. “How is Johan supposed to know what goes on at another bar?” I asked. “He was busy with the show downstairs, how is he supposed to know people are causing fights at another bar?”
And I explained that we had locked the door because we saw the police coming, and we didn’t want a fight to happen just as the police were showing up. It would have been chaos. They still weren’t happy about it, but we had drinks and gradually, as the story got told and re-told, it started to settle a little better with people. I brought Johan over a night or two later, even though he always resisted going into the Zaba (a strange aloofness, one of the reasons people mistrusted him, I think) and he had beers with the same people who were cursing him a few nights before. They heard the story from his mouth, and again it helped the matter go down a little bit easier.
Well, I’ve reached the final bit of my story, and I’m not sure what to make of it. I began by remarking on how remarkable I thought it was of Johan starting up a business in the middle of the biggest economic crisis in half a century, and not only that but as a foreigner, a stranger, with all the difficulties that entails. I also remarked that in doing so he also resurrected this old, forgotten theater, provided a venue in a neighborhood that was really lacking one. And I also said how he’d provided a kind of home for the lost, the confused, the artistic, the restless, guys like Mirek, Standa, the old guy David, Andrea, all those people who put on shows, even those assholes who caused trouble, and guys like me too, who just needed a place to hole up and get through the Prague winter before getting on with my life in Turkey. What would happen to Johan’s club in the long-term? Would he hold out? Would the neighbors shut him down?
I wasn’t going to stick around to find out. The date of my departure arrived. With a ticket to Istanbul in hand, I thanked Johan and nearly ran to grab the overnight bus.
A few months after I returned to Istanbul, I got a phone call in the middle of a random night.
“Hey, mate,” Johan’s voice startled me out of sleep. “How’s it goin’?”
“Johan!” I said. “What’s up?”
“Just thought I’d call and let you know. I’m back in Australia. Workin’ on a ranch in Queensland. It’s good money.”
We chatted for a few minutes, just about what I was up to and what he was up to. He didn’t have to tell me what happened to the Prodigal. That was pretty easy to figure out, so I didn’t press him.
“Ah, it’s good to be home,” he said. “A fresh start.”
“Yes,” I said. He was right. Sometimes we all need a fresh start. I was glad to know that he had finally gotten his.
As for the Prodigal, who knows? Maybe it’s a Russian casino now, or perhaps another dreamer has long since invested it with their own reckless crazy dream, cut their losses and so it again sits abandoned, waiting, like a siren, to draw in the next guy down on his luck. Does it matter? What matters is that, win or lose, we both survived. Hopefully, ten years from now, we will be able to look back at these present circumstances the same way.
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher in Istanbul. His latest novel, “Somewhere Near Centerville,” is available now at Amazon.