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Ghosts of the city

16 of October '23

The column is from A&B's 05|23 issue.

It was pouring in November, and I reluctantly put my foot out the door of the car that was my umbrella that day. I thought of the Latin adjective "lugubre," meaning "mournful," as I trudged toward the Zodiac huddled in my rubber coat. A year earlier, I had attended its opening as curator of an exhibition on the unfulfilled visions for the construction of the Millennium Route, a representative street intended to connect the two Praga districts. At my invitation, eight offices then showed their responses to the idea of Stefan Starzynski, the legendary president of the capital. The realization of the Route never happened, the concept like a ghost still hovers in the air. It is not there, and is mysteriously present in the address of some building from the 1970s standing next to an empty space that is a land reserve for something that just isn't there.

The route is written into urban plans, like so many other planned road connections in the city. All these streets, pedestrian lanes, routes and bypasses exist somewhere enchanted between yellowed maps and the tangible world. Arguably, every city has such a cohort of phantasms - either forgotten or deemed utopian and unworthy of attention, because after all, there are plenty of matters more pressing and tangible than the churning of spectators. And finally, to everyone's surprise, the ghosts become flesh, because someone believed in them. When, a few months before the November plunge, a voice on the phone invited me to attend an "informal" party for the Zodiac's first birthday, as I had finally been involved in its inauguration, I thought: "What the heck, it could be fun!". "Or do you have an idea of how you'd like to perform?" the voice asked innocently, and I - unaware of the implications - replied that I could foretell the future of the city, like some futurological fortune teller. I heard laughter in the receiver and the statement: "Fortune teller Jacob! And that's a good one!" We laughed, and I promptly forgot about the matter. On a November evening, cursing under my reddened nose, I finally made it to the elegant door of the still-fresh-looking building, which was built to educate and inform the capital's residents about urban planning, architecture and landscape design, which is once again gaining importance. But this evening wasn't meant to educate or inform, just to celebrate. It was simply a rave where architects and urban planners, architecture fans, varsavians, activists, politicians of various options and city officials could meet. Because that's what places like Zodiac ultimately serve us, the bourgeoisie. And praise to them for that. Except that I already had red conjunctivae, and a hasty inspection of my coat pocket revealed that I didn't have a handkerchief to combat the dangerously growing glop that seemed to be maliciously chirping: "I'm about to leave for company!".

"How good that you're already here!" the producer of the event greeted me on the doorstep, with the "already" indicating that I was late. Helpful hands removed my coat. I asked for warm tea with honey and let them know I didn't want to part with my scarf. The girl pulled me through the crowd toward a niche in the concrete wall, where she pointed me with a smile to a chair behind a small table with a red lamp. This is where my first suspicions arose, but my runny nose had not yet allowed me to connect the dots. I raised my head and realized that the line of people along which I had just walked was a queue. "What are they waiting for?", I thought, fighting off an intrusive glut.

I realized that there was another chair on the other side of my table, facing me only when a familiar tall magistrate official squatted on it. Someone had brought me tea, but the official, instead of the light wine obligatory at such events, held in his hand a mug of instant red borscht, judging by the intensity of the smell. We clattered our mugs as if it were beer in mugs. "I don't know how it will all turn out," he began with a dumbfounded frant. "But what?", I asked. "A crisis. In every way," he stated and pulled the subject, revealing to me the landscape of a guy who found himself in the eye of a cyclone. Around his hunchbacked figure the wind was swirling with incredible speed, carrying all the possible problems that can beset a middle-aged man. Finally, he laughed, sadly concluding, "Hey, well don't think I'm going to force you to tell me something good, but believe me: everyone standing there could use some warm words!". He smiled and leaned slightly to the side, pointing discreetly with his head to the queue. And then I understood.

That evening, for these people, I really was Fairy James. After a life full of changing roles, I was to become the wrinkled witch from Macbeth standing over a vat of tar. A signaler of impending disaster and a masseur of souls. And I had already been everything: by my own will, against it or completely unwillingly. I've been a newspaper and advertising cartoonist, an assistant director, an art director, an artist, a writer, a lecturer. I've dug ditches, been a Mr. Television, a bar bouncer and a screenwriter. A discreet representative of the interests of the Republic abroad, a columnist, yes, even a bit of an architect. "Oezu," I thought, pulling the scarf over my head. While its length didn't allow me to make a decent turban, it at least allowed me to look more like a Podlasie whisperer or a dybbuk-chasing rabbi from Podolia. "Thanks and good luck!" the clerk said and disappeared.

"May I?" asked a young brunette, the first in line. I invited her with a hand gesture. "I would like to thank you warmly for coming. I hope you realize that this situation should be treated with the necessary detachment," I began with the warmest smile I could afford. The lady nodded, looking sadly into my eyes, which deepened in me the impression that she would not treat this situation with the necessary distance after all. In fact, as I write these words now, I wonder if fortune-tellers are not bound by the same rules as confessors. If so, I'll be circumspect, because you never know. And so, in two less than hours, I served more than a dozen women of various ages and just under two men. These people sat at my table in the belief that I would really advise them, that I would reassure them, that I would tell them what to do. That it wouldn't be so bad. That they would eventually find a husband. That the one there will come back. That a depressing job can be changed if you believe in yourself. That this life doesn't have to be a string of misery and frustration forever.

People were opening up on their own, after all, that's what they came for, but after a while I started asking them guiding questions and pulling out more information. I felt a scratching in my stomach. These were not symptoms of poisoning, stomach catarrh or the appearance of a foreign body, but a sign that responsibility had kicked in. This scratching appeared every time I hosted a couple on the verge of divorce in my studio behind the table, who were saving the relationship with the idea of joint investment. When I had to weigh my words, asking questions about their negotiated vision of a future together after all. Like many architects, over the years I have had to face the burden of performing an additional function: couples therapist. So, too, on that November evening, I did my best not to hurt people. Not to open Pandora's boxes, not to advise something that would affect their biographies badly. I was not able to completely play the role of a fortune teller who says "it will be so and so." People were looking at me expectantly, and I was frantically asking myself where my place was in this twisted story. I wondered if I was able to push the bullshit on anyone that "everything will work out" and that "next Friday at 7:30 pm you, esteemed citizen of our beautiful city, will experience the ultimate fulfillment." Somehow, most got up contentedly from my prophetic table. Perhaps because someone had listened to them, taken an interest, asked the right questions and reassured them. Like my own children and myself as I bite my nails, feverishly contemplating the future of the world.

At the end of it all, there was a twenty-year-old girl in a gothic style. The case of the cheating boyfriend. Before she said goodbye, she stated: "You know what, I actually thought you would be like those other fortune tellers, but you asked an awful lot, and so I think it's good, because somehow I have more clarity now." The notion of clarity contrasted dramatically with her black clothing, raven black hair and even blacker makeup complemented by black contact lenses. I couldn't have gotten a better review for the impromptu role. I breathed a sigh of relief. The runny nose had normalized. The company in the hall was already in very good spirits. A familiar clerk came over to the table again. Stunned, I told him about the whole situation and my feelings. If I were an American teenager I would probably throw out "OMG!" and "That was weird, bro!" every now and then.

"It's because of the scarf. Well, and because of the poster," he concluded. "What do you mean?", I asked. It turned out that the city had printed posters announcing the Zodiac's birthday, and I was penned in with the words: "Fairy Jacob will perform." "And the scarf?" I inquired. "Well: the poster and the scarf have legitimized you, as they say. I guess those there didn't see your scarf as a mere scarf, but as a sign that you are a real fortune teller, a guy who will say that everything will be fine. You get the idea, like those other guys with the various scarves, strange caps and, right away, as it were, the garments. Except that you did it for free. Hence the queue, I guess." I guess the clerk was right. I walked around the hall full of chattering citizens, saying hello and goodbye to whomever I could, waddled to the checkroom to get my coat and, wrapping myself in a scarf, stepped out into the wet square. So, dear readers, if you need someone to reassure you that everything will be OK, you know who to write to. Address known to the editors.

Jakub Szczęsny

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