Wild, Wild EAST

by Henry Copeland

April, 1992 Matt and I are on our way to Ivana Trump's ball at Prague's opera house. Our tickets say "black tie or tails," so Matt has washed his shoulder-length blond hair, shaved, and put in a conservative earring. He's wearing a rented set of tails with sleeves that reach his thumbnails and a pair of white wing-tips shoes that belong on a putting green. I've spent all day acquiring the last rentable pieces of clothing in Prague that look like a tux: a blue suit that is tight in the crotch, along with a black vest and six-by-three-inch tie, circa '73.

Matt Welch, twenty-four, is covering Ivana's ball for prognosis, an English-language newspaper he helped start a year earlier in Prague. There have been rumors of an anarchist "action" planned for the evening.

We are walking up Wenceslas Square, the cobblestone venue for many of the demonstrations that toppled Czechoslovakia's Communist regime at the end of 1989. Everyone we pass stares, first at Matt's shoes, then at my bow tie. "Dressed like this probably a good invitation to getting the shit kicked out of us," Matt says. He is silent for a while and seems to be calculating the Norman Mailer points he'll earn for a brawl... in a foreign country... in tails.

A crowd has gathered at the top of the square, and man in a trench coat has climbed up on the statue of King Wenceslas himself and is shouting something. Tails flapping, Matt strides into the crowd, looking for someone who speaks English, and soon finds Jiri, a second-year agronomy student in a black leather jacket. Jiri interprets for us: "The rich people at the ball think they are the kings and queens of today." Someone jeers, and Jiri repeats in English, "Words, words, only words." Jiri's friend keeps eyeing our bow ties and muttering. The crowd is ugly and impatient for action.

Our anarchist explains, "This ball is a provocation for poor people-the ticket costs 17,000 crowns. For 15,000 crowns I can study one year."

Another anarchist climbs onto the statue and shouts something that translates as, "This speaking is over, now everyone by himself can walk anywhere." That, as it turns out, is an anarchist's way of saying, "Let's all go to the opera." Jiri grins and pulls a bandanna over his face. The mob of 150 sets off, whistling, jeering, dragging sacks. Matt and I follow.

ON NOVEMBER 7, 1990, SIX AMERICANS WHO had been friends at the University of California, Santa Barbara met in a bar in Prague to exchange stories about their summer travels in Europe. Matt had moved to Prague two months earlier to write The Novel, Christopher Scheer and Jennifer Ogar had just arrived to teach English, and Laura Pitter, Ben Sullivan, and Lisa Frankenberg were passing through on their way to Italy. All these plans were quickly forgotten.

They had all worked on the UCSB paper, the Daily Nexus, and by the end of that night, the six, along with some Czech students they were drinking with, had decided to start an English-language newspaper in Prague.

Ten thousand copies of prognosis appeared the first week of March 1991. That first issue was sixteen pages long, a monthly put out by a staff that had grown little from the original circle of drinkers. By the time the paper went biweekly in the fall of 1991, it was twenty-four pages long, and the staff had grown to nearly forty.

Prague now is often compared with Paris in the '20s. Hemingway was twenty-three when he first met Gertrude Stein, and Prague is crowded with Americans that age or a little older. Like the wine-stained cradle of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Prague is cheap, drunken, and crammed with culture and people who don't bathe every day. In fact, the city is more beautiful than Paris, one of the few cities in Europe where you can find five hundred years of architecture untouched by either shrapnel or stainless steel.

The Wild West or its variations - boomtown, Dodge City, the last frontier (before Russia), the new gold rush - are another easy take on Prague. But the fact is that the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic does resemble the Wild West. There are huge holes in the law's fences and plenty of unclaimed territory. The CSFR is full of hustlers who plan on getting rich, whether by rustling a herd of tourists or by hiring Czech coolies for $100 a month or by staking a claim on a field lawmakers haven't yet fenced off. Evidence of the hustle is everywhere.

The day of the ball, I started my search for a tux at Kotva, Prague's main department store. Last summer I had gone to Kotva to buy an umbrella and found a store that looked like it was in the final hours of a remnant sale. Now Kotva is exploding. Where before Kotva offered only three models of umbrellas, now there are twenty-five, including a Michael Jackson version unfurled above the cash register. There is a Levi's boutique, a Barbie boutique, boutiques selling flowers, cosmetics, pens, and gourmet food. A paraglider hangs in the sports department. Shoppers collide and spin and hustle on to buy more. It's like Macy's before Christmas. In the old days. But no tuxes.

I left the store and immediately passed several billboards advertising Harvard Capital & Consulting, a fund-management company set up in a country that does not yet even have a stock market. More Prague hustle. In the last two months, Harvard Capital has acquired control of 5 percent of the coupons for the privatization of the CSFR. It has done this by guaranteeing citizens a tenfold return on their investment. Harvard Capital is run by a guy who got his B.A. from Harvard University in 1989 and then, it is said, worked for a bank in London for a couple of years. He assures his backers, "We have formulas."

In Prague these days, many people have formulas. The city is the magnet of the moment for assorted and sordid drunks, Samsonite-toting carpetbaggers, snake-oil salesmen, hangers-on, recession refugees, moths to the torch of history, and other seekers of fortunes and Fortune. They are filling up Prague's fifteen-dollar-a-month apartments and packing its bars, which serve beer for a quarter. Everyone agrees that Something is Happening here; prognosis is near the center of it.

Sitting in prognosis's big messy office just off Prague's Old Town Square, twenty-three-year-old Jeff Solomon puts it this way: "Where else are you going to get this kind of opportunity? Like, it's impossible to get a job right now in the States in journalism, and if you did you'd be covering your local school board." His mane of hair and drooping hand-rolled cigarette bob as he gestures. "I'm going to interview a count this afternoon about a new Czech royalist parry. I'm doing a story about the influence of the Velvet Underground and getting to talk to a lot of the great Czech band members. The magnitude of the stories blows your mind." Jeff handles the paper's staffing, and he says he has forty-five letters to answer from people in the United States wanting to come work for prognosis.

THE OFFICE, THOUGH, IS NOT NECESSARILY the place to search for the truth about Prague or prognosis. I go to a club called RC Bunkr, a newly opened concrete basement with a black ceiling, a paint-smeared floor, and psychedelic walls. Nirvana buzzes around black clothes, black hair, and white faces with high cheekbones. The Bunkr was created by a bunch of Czech artists and students, part of a complex they have opened that includes a cafe, a radio station, and a recording studio.

"That's Kip. Don't try to interview him, he'll bite you," Matt says. I've been looking for Kip since I got to Prague. He is the city's Dean Moriarty, described as lunatic, brilliant, inspiring, intoxicating, exasperating, or just blitzed. Kip writes for prognosis, Kip is generally acclaimed King of Intoxication in Prague, and Kip was one of the first UCSB alumni to try to get to Prague.

The first time Kip tried to move there, he had lost all his money before leaving and spent his last night in L.A. raising cash from friends in bars, five dollars here, ten dollars there, until he had sixty bucks. Clutching this he had flown to Europe, only to return nine days later with stories of hitchhiking in the driving rain to within fifteen miles of the Czech border. Kip made it on his second try, and after he left L.A., friends composed a song, "Gonna Miss Ya Kip," the last line of which is "when you're dead."

You smell Kip before you see him, his cigar-burning-in-a-jockstrap odor turning your head. He looks like Ichabod Crane on mushrooms, tall and bony, his hooknose framed by squinting eyes that are in turn framed by greasy, chin-length hair. "Five phone callss to Germany, that'ss all it takess, Matt," he says, grinning and hissing, his body dancing with his words. "I've got an opinion piece for your fine paper, my friend Matt, that I will trade for five phone callss to Germany." He repeats this several times, his long, bony hands waving like they're beckoning a rabbit out of a hat.

We drink a few whiskeys. I'm realizing that I unknowingly experienced Kip on my last visit to Prague. It was one of those late, hash-hazed parties in an artist's attic way up six dark flights of stairs, furnished with a few mattresses shoved against the walls and lit by a spotlight someone was waving around. Two guys were sitting on the floor banging on guitars and caressing feedback out of the dial of an amp. Fifteen feet above them, perched at the top of a ladder, a voice was unwinding a two-hour rap about Prague, Armageddon, the Garden of Eden, money, motherhood, and flowers. That was Kip. But Kip stumbles off before I can get him to talk about Prague or prognosis. Later, I learn that he has been thrown out of the Bunkr for biting someone.

I TAKE A CAB UP THE HILL TO THE CASTLE (capitalized like the White House) overlooking Prague. The Castle is a majestic fortress, but it is also the lair of the mythical Havel. I'm going to meet John Allison, a former New Yorker, an "almost thirty-two"-year-old ex-magazine editor who works in the office of the president and writes columns for prognosis. John has been here since September of 1990, and people say he knows every American in Prague. John meets me at the reception desk, and I spend the five-minute walk to his office trying to reconcile John's bookish manner with a photograph on the wall at prognosis depicting John with a three-foot fish hanging out of his mouth.

The office looks out over St. Vitus, a spectacular cathedral, and down into the courtyard where Havel passes daily. John opens a bottle of wine. Explaining his move to Prague, he says, "I wanted to be where something new is happening, where something is growing. In New York, everything was falling apart, everything was crisis management." John gestures to the card file on his desk that holds the names of Americans and Czechs he knows here, most of them young, most of them in politics, academia, and business. He intones, "I'm out every night meeting people." Has he met Havel? "I watched him take a leak at a New Year's Eve party."

Then John gets to the roots of his attraction to Prague. He says he heard Havel's speech to the U.S. Congress in February of 1990 and thought, "My God, this is what politics should be, this is what public discourse should be, this is my calling." John's voice has risen majestically, and now he pauses, looks out the window, and smiles. "Also Prague is a great party town." Aha. We drink a liter of wine while we talk.

The visit with John highlighted three of Prague's attractions: architecture, proximity to History (even if that only means taking a leak beside Havel), and alcohol. Alcohol. As John says, Prague is a great parry town. The Czechs have the best beers in the world, beers that are twice as strong as most anything in the United States. Pilsner Urquell and Budvar for thirty-five cents a bottle.

ON NOVEMBER 7, 1990, THE NIGHT THE SIX from California got together and conceived prognosis, alcohol, of course, was involved. "There was," as Matt wrote later, "a lot of drinking, a lot of talking and dreaming, a lot of brainstorming. We'd be weekly, we'd sell shares, we'd hit up rich liberal types, we'd be damn good, we'd be a place for Nexus grads and entry-level burnouts. We'd at least have a great time trying." Remarkably, the paper didn't evaporate the next morning.

Back in America, word of the new paper spread like a fire up a dry hillside. Calls and letters poured in, saying not just that people were interested, but that they were coming. Wade Daniels, a Nexus editor who had graduated in '89, wrote a letter to Matt on November 29 that began, "Yes, Yes, Yes," and continued, "I would really be stoked to come hang out and do what I can for the magazine. What I need is details, directions. How does one find you in Chekoslovankea?" He is now managing editor.

Amy Collins, who was still in college, heard about the plans for the paper sometime that November from friends at the Nexus. The night before Thanksgiving break, she made her decision to move to Prague. She had drunk six cups of coffee while working on a term paper, gotten into bed after midnight, and been unable to sleep. She was thinking about Prague. Amy says, "About five hours later, I had somehow come up with this whole idea, not only that I was going to go, but I had gotten down to what I was going to pack. It was simple. It wasn't anything I was going to shout about, it was just like, "Why wouldn't I go? . Why hadn't it occurred to me earlier that I should go?"

That winter, apartments were hard to find. Everyone first moved into the apartment Matt was sharing with two Czechs. The two Czechs slept in one room and the six Americans slept in the other room along with two or three stray visitors who crawled in most nights. Matt wrote later, "We'd have eleven or so smelly people, at least four of whom were coupled off, living in a small smelly place, running the cold water with the bathtub plugged and then bailing out into the kitchen sink." (The bathtub drain leaked into the apartment below.) There wasn't much food in the stores. Dinners were often potatoes and onions, with an occasional pot of spaghetti or canned tuna for variety. Tea, lemon vodka, and beer washed it all down.

"It was much worse in our next apartment," says Christopher Scheer, twenty-four, who survived the winter to become the paper's editor-in-chief. The heater, which also was the source of all hot water, was broken for two months. They wore coats, hats, and gloves around the apartment, even blankets. The stories from that winter sound too miserable, too crazy to be true, like Valley Forge on acid. There were the mice. At Christmas, Christopher bought Jennifer three mice named Vaclav, Olga, and Faust that grew into foot-long rats and chewed their way out of every cage to forage in the frozen mess.

The rats ate a set of accounting books, and soon everything else was equally surreal. These Americans knew little about what it took to start a business, especially in a foreign country. Information was garbled by interpreters, but everyone in Prague was having problems. There was chaos, like after an earthquake. Old laws had fallen and nothing put in their place. The group spent the briefly lit winter days trying to find a printer, an office, a distributor, a lawyer. They met with a lot of Czechs who, as Christopher phrases it, "had dreams themselves that were bigger than they could pull off." Which is to say they promised things they didn't deliver.

A lot of time was spent just looking for a lawyer, one who had a phone, who didn't disappear after three weeks of work, who didn't want to own half the paper for his trouble, who didn't say "nemozne" (it isn't possible). There were many weeks when nothing got accomplished, when each person would leave the apartment every morning and chase shadows through Prague's narrow streets all day, returning empty-handed. Money was dwindling. The group began to wonder, in Christopher's words, "Is this thing real, is this thing happening, are we shitting ourselves?"

Finally, at the end of January, things started to click. The group rented a tiny office for $300 a month. Two days later, a competent lawyer showed up. In a six-week push, prognosis secured licenses from the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Finance, and the Ministry of Statistics, passing out bottles of gin to whomever looked thirsty. But the paper was still two licenses short. According to Laura Pitter, twenty-five years old and now news editor, "By this time we were desperate to publish. We had all this energy pent up from months of thinking about the thing." Rather than wait, they borrowed another paper's printing license and sidestepped the lack of a distribution license by passing the first issue out free on the streets.

On March 7, 10,000 copies of Zero Issue rolled off the presses. Given its hellish gestation, the paper was surprisingly healthy. Ben wrote an article on Prague's new drug problems, Jennifer wrote an overview of the expanding Czech press, Matt went looking for "underground" culture, Laura examined the government's privatization of small businesses, and Christopher wrote about a Czech woman who had started her own paper in a small mining town.

Soon, people started to show up from the States looking to pitch in. Mark Mirko, a wild-eyed photographer for The Palm Beach Post, heard about the paper and called to ask for a job. Ben Sullivan, the twenty-four-year-old publisher, told him, "Sure, come on over, bring $200 and we'll take care of the rest." Mark recalls, "When I got here and saw the office and the issues, I couldn't understand how the two went together. We were in this tiny room in an old barn. there was shit all over the floor, and a dozen people trying to put out a paper with no space to work in."

The staff got down to reporting. Ben and Mark went to Yugoslavia soon after the first shots were fired to report back that full-scale war was imminent. Ben wrote a letter to be mailed if he didn't return: "Dear Family, Well folks, guess I died. I'm sorry it was so stupid of me to go (ask prognosis folks for details) but I wanted to and, in a weird way, had to, journalistically." Jennifer interviewed a woman who had set up outrageously profitable sex shops all over the country. Wade interviewed, and finished a bottle of vodka with, the head of the Czech Communist parry. A Czech staffer, Denisa Schüková, went undercover to expose a scheme to lure unsuspecting women to Switzerland to work as strippers. Kip participated in and reported on a thirty-four-hour event/train ride/binge organized to honor Andy Warhol.

It turned out that they underestimated their readership. In addition to the armies of young Americans and other foreigners passing through, there were those who stayed to teach English. Most importantly, there were also the young Czechs. Three thousand copies of prognosis are distributed free every two weeks to Czech and Slovak schools for use in English classes. A teacher I talked to said five classes read the twenty five copies of the paper he gets. He says, "They are completely silent for the first twenty minutes after I hand it out. The American perspective on things seems to have a special appeal to them."

The Americans, in turn, find something in Prague that they can't find at home. "In Prague, everything is so open that you can reinvent yourself every day," says Brenon Daly. He's been up all night writing. Through the window comes the sound of coal being dumped, wheelbarrow-by-wheelbarrow, down a chute into the basement. Brenon graduated from the University of Kansas in May 1991, and came to Prague in August. "The grim economic scene was propelling me out," he says, "but there was also the sense that there was just a morass of people in the States not knowing what they wanted to do, and really just uncertain and inactive. Prague is different. People have so many visions because everything here is up for grabs."

8:45 P.M. THE MOB, WHISTLING AND JEERING, positions itself across the avenue from the opera house. A ballgoer arrives in a polished Mercedes and is greeted with a roar and a barrage of rotten peaches. The crowd chants in Czech and sometimes in English, "Fuck you," and "No future." Matt catches up with Jiri, who explains that they are throwing peaches because "eggs are very expensive." A chef in his tall white hat walks out onto the balcony of the opera, provoking another roar and peach fusillade. The pace of the arriving cabs is picking up, and the rain of peaches and jeers develops a kind of tempo, a rhythm that is itself accelerating. Someone tosses an M-80 under a passing car. Every time a peach scores, smearing a fur coat or catching a policeman in the face, the mob's engine revs.

9:00 P.M. An anarchist steps on my foot and says, "Excuse me." Or so I hope. An anarchist is offering Matt something to throw, but he politely declines. One half of the mob surges across the four lanes of traffic, and now vastly outnumbers the police who are guarding arriving ball-goers. A white stretch limo with New York plates slows down in front of the opera house and then, as the crowd rushes to it, speeds away. The anarchists now surround both the front and side entrances to the opera hall. Policemen are shuttling people through the throng, shielding arrivals with their bodies. The police try to drag away a hooded protester, and the crowd chants, "Ge-sta-po, Ge-sta-po, Ge-sta-po," punching each syllable out. The most vehement anarchists swarm from entrance to entrance, pursuing each flashy car, kicking the doors, spitting on the windows. A pack of twenty photographers dashes behind them, its flashes mingling with the dark-coated roar like a summer lightning storm. One anarchist stands clapping mockingly in front of a trapped black BMW full of ball-goers. A cloud of tear gas lets loose. A muzzled police dog arrives, a big black pit bull that lunges at the crowd.

9:45 P.M. The riot is not abating, but neither side is using new tactics. The night has reached a strange equilibrium, like an arm wrestling match when equal opponents have become exhausted, arms still balanced upright. I'm freezing, and I haven't seen Matt for half an hour. Maybe he's inside. Bravely waiting until the mob's attention is focused on the front entrance, I walk slowly up the stairs to the side door. I pretend to peer in, but at the same time I'm trying to signal the guards inside with my bow tie. They open the door, and I slip inside. The gilded entrance hall is packed with silk dresses and bow ties, wrinkled flesh and champagne glasses. A smirking white coat decked with medals strides by.

1:00 A.M. I've found Matt. Neither of us has gotten close to Ivana for an interview. The anarchists have gone home, and we are left to wander through the opera house's four tiers looking for empty tables where we can sit and drink from abandoned champagne glasses. At 4:30 A.M. I head to bed, but Matt sticks it out, just in case something happens. After all, the decade is still young.

© Henry Copeland 1992-2002

This article appeared in the April 1992 issue of Details magazine.
Click to read more about
prognosis alumni Matt Welch, Ben Sullivan, John Allison, Chris Scheer, Amy Collins, Ken Layne and Os Tyler.
More
prognosis alumni links welcome.





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