Nineteen eighty-eight was a year of heavy metal. I’m not talking about the quality of the local drinking water, which probably no one in Yugoslavia monitored at that time. We trusted everything we consumed and everything we took in through our five senses, there was no doubt it was good—as long as it was ours. But, okay, I admit there were those who didn’t believe quite so blindly in Yugoslavia. And with good reason too—the times were heavy, and getting heavier, just like the music.
At the time when heavy metal entered my life, wearing patches was popular. I didn’t know the names of half the bands, but their logos—skeletons, skulls, guns, guitars—seemed to me sufficient reason for them to find their way onto my denim jacket. However, I did know Iron Maiden and I liked them. Their epic themes, rousing rhythms, and soaring vocals speak perfectly to young souls who are insecure and looking for their place in the world. Those patches often brought me trouble.
“Hand over your money!” The members of the gang known as “Korea” that operated in the area around the World War II memorial and the Sarajka Shopping Center ambushed Hare and me. I gave the impression of being a tough guy, which I actually wasn’t, and that’s probably what provoked them. But maybe they attacked me because they didn’t take kindly to the idea of my having satanic heavy metal logos and standing near the war memorial. It insulted their almost Oriental sense of propriety. But unfortunately, they didn’t reveal their political leanings—pro-communist or pro-American—as they were busy kicking my teeth in. Jokes aside, they beat me up for money, and when that’s up for grabs, all sense of propriety becomes secondary.
There were many times I wanted to believe I was a street kid, because in one sense I think I really was. After the death of my grandmother, my grandfather withdrew into himself and I lost my most loyal companion. He spent most of his time at the War Veterans’ Club, a sacred place for those who’d served in World War II, where they played bowls and cards. My grandfather would almost inevitably lose these games. Much later, I found out they could see his cards in his photochromic lenses, the type that darkened automatically beneath the bare bulbs in the club’s smoke-filled rooms.
Who knows, maybe that was just something my father made up out of envy, because everyone knew my grandfather to be a “human calculator”—he could multiply large numbers quickly without batting an eye, and he could spot a mistake in rows of digits without the aid of a computer. But above all, like a magician, he always managed to find four-leaf clovers, which he would then give to me. All he needed to do was look in a clover meadow and he’d find one!
However, after he ended up alone, he was only a shadow of his former self. This new grandfather got angry at me for no reason, threw ashtrays at me, but he also knew how to protect me from the wrath of my father, who was disappointed at being twice divorced, and whose children were scattered God only knows where.
He smoked three packs a day, while for me it was like smoking one pack a month—taking into account the passive smoke I inhaled. But every now and then, I would light one up as well, if only to try and capture its luring effect. One day I was sitting alone, in front of me a cigarette and a lighter, beside me an empty glass. I lit up and took a drag. The taste, which I couldn’t define, but which I’d later compare to burning metal and rubber, made my mouth fill with saliva. It just began to secrete like crazy. That’s what the glass was for. I spat and puffed. It was disgusting, but I had to go through with it. It was a necessary part of growing up alone.
I grew up on the street with all of its rules. Although, I wasn’t a lout, I never have been. My gentle exterior prevented me from becoming one; besides, I was fiercely loyal to my friends and to the group. I’d never betray them, not for anything in the world. I’d give them everything I owned—and sometimes I did. Every leather soccer ball my father brought back for me after attending medical seminars in Europe, I unselfishly shared with the other members of our group, every tennis racket, every tennis ball—and I always ended up with nothing. All of them got lost in the bushes on the slopes of our street in hilly Sarajevo. And sometimes the shiny, colorful leather soccer balls quickly ended up just becoming plaid patchwork. But that’s how we all lived—not recognizing private ownership and dedicated to the common good. And if anyone violated that unwritten rule—well, tough luck to them.
The group went silent and the dancing stopped immediately. We were celebrating Vedo’s birthday at his place, and everything was going great. The capitalist Coca-Cola went perfectly with the socialist pretzels that we mixed in our glasses, producing an exciting, frothy chemical reaction. We were listening to music, and then as a counterpoint to the seriousness and epic greatness of my favorite song, “Seventh Son”—“Push It” by Salt-N-Pepa came on the cassette player, a plain, simple, infectious, playful, sexual song . . . everything that heavy metal wasn’t was in that song, which I thought sounded totally wicked, and so I was ashamed of myself. But that wasn’t the reason for the shock. The silence came after one of our friends looked under the bed to retrieve a pretzel, and dragged out a brand spanking new tennis racket, unused tennis balls, uninflated soccer balls, and God knows what else! The spirit of sharing had been betrayed. I never looked at Vedo the same way again, and from that moment on I was quite reserved toward him.
But the group as a whole didn’t change. It always found ways to move forward, to forget, to restore its energy through games, through coming up with new rules and new ways of playing. Vedo decided to share some of his tennis balls with us. We welcomed his initiative by gathering a few potato sacks and tying them together into a tennis net. The game continued.
It seemed that the group as a whole always lived according to the spirit of another popular song at the time, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” while at the same time the world was slowly preparing for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of socialism. Yugoslavia was trying to maintain its own self-governing socialism, and failing miserably. “Be Worry, Don’t Happy,” as Rambo Amadeus would say many years later. Everything became more pressing.
The economic reforms of 1988 as a last-ditch effort for recovery of the virtually collapsed Yugoslav economy did not succeed. Even then signs began to appear that the nationalist and socio-economic uncertainties in Yugoslavia would lead to a state of emergency, but we were completely unaware of it.
To us kids, Yugoslavia was indestructible and more powerful than ever before. As for the economy . . . we knew how to deal with that as well.
Yasser was celebrating his birthday with a circus theme and, in the spirit of the new socio-capitalist times, he invited us to take part by performing some sort of an act. As the most jovial and the most inventive member of the gang, Hare immediately accepted. He put on a clown act in which he stumbled about, performed a pantomime, rode a bike hands free while falling over multiple times. We rolled around in hysterics.
“And now,” Yasser announced theatrically, with a look of pure satisfaction on his face at the success of his self-organized circus (which at the time Yugoslavia itself actually was), “I invite you to take part in a competition!” We were all flabbergasted. The word “competition” echoed in our heads like a promise in the form of a sweet delicious lollipop, a shiny new toy, or the soccer and tennis balls we dreamed about. Instead, Yasser explained that we had to buy a ticket to win. We cried foul.
On every ticket,” Yasser continued without hesitation, “there’s a number. And each number corresponds to a toy.” Hope returned to us. Wary, but tempted by the chance of winning something nice, we gave him the money. The first few tickets had no winners, but we’d come to learn that all games of chance were like that—you win some, you lose some.
And in fact, Hare won a shoddy toy truck that badly needed a new coat of paint; Fatty was delighted by the half-used notebook with Smurfs on the cover; and I won a toy Red Indian with one of his arms broken off. Several of the others won similar prizes, but then again, it was better than nothing—which is what a lot of them ended up with. The group wasn’t happy. Serious arguments erupted over who got what, and whether Yasser had cheated us. He defended his entrepreneurial spirit, and told us that such was our luck.
Then his mother appeared, a strict but fair-minded woman of whom Yasser was deathly afraid, like fire. When she found out what he’d done, she gathered up all our old, shoddy toys, and brought out a box with newer and much nicer toys. She marked them with numbers and made tickets where there were no losers, bar one—her own son, who for the whole time sat with arms folded and a frown on his face, while the group thanked their lucky stars.
Yasser was ahead of his time. He was the embodiment of what many years later would become commonplace in all the former-Yugoslav republics—brute capitalism, a transition without end in which all are left to fend for themselves and survive as best they know, lying, cheating, doing whatever necessary.
The state no longer protected us, and it didn’t actively discourage those who wanted to do harm, it didn’t put a damper on their dirty dealings, and it didn’t give the losers a second chance.
I fared better than my friends—I survived the breakup of my home and, with the death of Yugoslavia, I got a mother. But, overnight, people became orphans abandoned to the winds of time.
Excerpt from the book “3 Minutes and 53 Seconds” (Goten, 2015)
Translated by Paul Filev
Copyright © Branko Prlja, 2015