Sunday, September 21, 2014

Chapter 20

1970s in Poland are times of a great rift in the youth culture. Two camps form  and quickly become locked in a bitter, often violent struggle: the Hippies and the Gits ("Git-people" - "git" being a prison slang for "good").  The Hippies are a Western import: dressing and behaving like their counterparts in Western Europe or US, but within the confines of a police state, so no sit-ins, peace rallies, or giant rock concerts. They are apolitical pacifists dabbling in Buddhism, preoccupied with music and getting high. All these pursuits are alien and treated with disdain, even hostility by the rest of the Polish society - massively catholic, in which other religions are tolerated but also looked upon as somewhat inferior, like an errant cousin. Having had countless wars and uprisings in her history - heroic but mostly futile - Poland views pacifists as cowards, traitors, or mentally retarded. As for the drugs, they are extremely difficult to find, except for the household chemicals, like glue or paint thinners. Getting "high" thus generally means getting drunk.

Gits are a strange subculture, largely homegrown, although one suspects that identical currents are at work in other societies in Eastern Europe, leading to the formation of gang-like groups with similar "ideologies". Like the Hippies, the Gits are non-conformists, but their rejection of the society's norms manifests itself in aggression, physical violence, vandalism, heavy drinking, and glorification of the criminal (people and behavior). The biggest respect in those groups is shown to the most aggressive and reckless, and those who served time in prison. Gits do not have any particular "dress code", but they do have visible marks of their belonging to the subculture: small dots tattooed on their faces, necks, and hands, and signifying their status and role in the local groups. Thus, the reckless among them would have a dot between their eyes, the mark of a "świr" ("wacko"); those who are good at stealing would have a dot between their thumb and forefinger; those who served time would be marked by a dot near the corner of their left eye.

Hippies fear and detest Gits. Gits hate Hippies. At least that's the norm and ideological dictate. In reality, it a bit more complex. Belonging to one subculture or the other is often driven not by one's deeply held beliefs, but by landing in its orbit by other reasons, for example, by not being admitted to a gymnasium (dominated by Hippies) but going instead to a vocational high school (dominated by Gits). On a personal level one would therefore occasionally run into "sensitive" Gits, who think more like hippies, or "militant" Hippies, who would fit quite well in the other milieu.

My high school is most definitely in the Hippie camp. We wear bell-bottom jeans, long hair, lots of beads, peace signs dangling from our necks on leather strips. The few of us with curly hear grow something resembling afro - an object of envy. My hair is light brown and does not curl, but has a tendency to twist in unfortunate directions, like handfuls of straw sticking out of an otherwise neat pile. I love it and hate it at the same time. Why can't it be like the gorgeous mane of Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin?

Having no access to drugs and very limited access to alcohol, we seek "higher level of consciousness" by listening to music. Since Western LPs are not available in Poland (and we could not afford them anyway), this is music recorded from radio stations or the few LPs in private possession, and then copied hundreds of times. Our "anthem" is "Stairway to Heaven" by Led Zeppelin, which also happens to be one of our favorite bands. Soon we discover others: Pink Floyd looms especially large (I drift away into other worlds listening to "Echoes" while lying on the floor in my dark room. It is such bliss I wish I would die, so that I would never have to experience any less blissful state...) Then, there is King Crimson, Carlos Santana, Yes, Genesis, Tangerine Dream, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin, Jimmie Hendrix.... Interestingly, the Gits also have their "anthem" and, ironically, it is an American song, "House of the Rising Sun", although most of them are likely unaware that it would be a disgrace to their chauvinism. Sung in "grypsera" (Polish prison slang) it tells a story of a young man dying in a prison cell, and so it tugs at the heart of many a Git, who sees himself ending up in prison sooner or later.

An interesting feature of the Polish society at this time in its history is that it is truly a tossed salad of different social groups, forced to live close together (at least in big cities) due to housing shortage and being assigned apartments in big "ant hills". One apartment building will have a doctor living next to a cop, next to a factory worker, next to a university professor, next to a cobbler, next to an army officer, and so on. Obviously, it has both Hippies and Gits in dangerous proximity. It helps that most Gits tend to be shy and cowardly when sober and away from their group, but this cannot be relied upon, as I learn the hard way one night.

I am walking home through my subdivision after a lengthy rehearsal at the theater and my path crosses that of "Krasnal" ("Gnome") a well known Git and bully, with a taste for terrorizing younger kids, robbing them of pocket change or snacks and making them cry. He is three years older than I but only a bit taller, hence his nickname. I am a bit tipsy and cocky, having had a beer or a gulp of wine at the rehearsal, so when he starts challenging me, blocking my path, I agree to fight him. (Not that I have much of a choice, except perhaps acting very submissively, but I would not even consider that option.) Trouble is, I do not have any fighting experience whatsoever, while he probably has been in more than one brawl. He quickly positions me where the street light shines in my face (with him remaining in the shadow) and punches me in the face with his fist. It hurts like hell, and I feel something wet (snot? blood?) flowing down to my lips. I move back a step, so he cannot reach me again, and then the other part of the "fight or flight" response kicks in, so I run like crazy toward my house (path to which he unblocked for me by circling around.)

Before he can react and give chase I cover the 100 or so yards to the entrance, jump three stairs at a time, and reach our apartment door in seconds. I'm safe. I'm bleeding from my nose, and that's the extend of physical damage, but my ego is badly bruised. I watch from my dark room as Krasnal walks around the house like a cartoon bull, head lowered, almost with visible jets of angry breath shooting from his nostrils - expecting what? That I will reappear and resume the unequal fight? I'm not an idiot, and yet it pains me enormously that I cannot face him and beat him to a bloody pulp, to teach him a lesson. This asshole so deserves it. I promise myself to start learning martial arts.

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