Luckier than We’ll Ever Know

You can imagine my surprise upon finding out that the manager of Prague’s Moment Vegan Café didn’t even know the symbol on his hat was the OKC Thunder’s sigil, and that the “OKC” stood for “Oklahoma City.” Of course, I hadn’t even noticed the eccentric manager dressed in blue flip-flops, black and white checkered pants, a white t-shirt and red jacket, and a camo hat with the OKC Thunder symbol on it was wearing such a hat. No, it was the loud-mouthed New Yorker behind me who asked the manager, Yo, you a Thunder fan? prompting me to turn around and face manager and New Yorker alike and go OKC?! That’s me! I’m OKC!

As is the curse of all Okie native sons, the incessant Sooner eagerly leaped out from my quiet demeanor to claim and explain his little-known native land to this old Czech man who hardly spoke English. The manager took off his hat and just kept shrugging—he didn’t understand why Brandon, the New Yorker, and I were making such a big deal out of his favorite cap. Thun-der? What thun-der? No rain today. he eagerly kept reassuring us. Adopting all manners of silly hand motions and excited pedantry, Brandon and I conveyed the message: OKC Thunder, that symbol on your hat with the white letters, blue shield, and orange lightning bolt? That’s an NBA team that used to be really good at playing basketball. How do you not know this? 

No Thun-der to me. the manager replied. To me—he points at the symbol—O-K-C is presenttime. 

Luke Williams | Lets Go

What?! Brandon and I screech. What the hell is this crazy old man on about? we asked each other in strange looks shot across tables. It’s worth mentioning here that this old man had earlier announced to the entire restaurant that Now is Madonna Hour! and had proceeded to only play Madonna music for an hour over the restaurant speakers. Young people were frequently coming into the restaurant to just hug the man, share a few words, and leave. He had explained to us his love for Six Flags and for Golden Corral and California with unapologetic emphasis. During Madonna hour, he had been treading the small restaurant’s isles singing Like a Virgin and proclaiming, in English, that Madonna always goes up! She is only artist who always goes up! Suffice to say, this guy is basically a Prague spiritual guru. 

So when the old man said that to him the OKC Thunder logo means presenttime, we were understandably not all that surprised and very surprised. Here he was making up words now. Breaking new boundaries. What’s presenttime? we asked him over and over while he just kept shrugging. Let me remind you, this man had no clue what “OKC” stands for, what Oklahoma is, what the Thunder is. Finally, he answered.

Another worthy mention: On July 12, 2019, OKC Thunder General Manager Sam Presti announced that Russell Westbrook had been traded to the Houston Rockets, bringing upon OKC the moment it had dreaded since the loss of Kevin Durant in 2016 and even with the loss of James Harden in 2012. The team that earned Oklahoma an international name, a downtown renaissance, and a reputation beyond racism, obesity, and tornadoes had finally lost its entire original trinity after a seven year process of decay. Understandably, in OKC the loss of Westbrook is a tragedy, and while people are taking it a whole lot more honorably than the loss of Durant, a formal Week of Public Mourning has been unofficially declared across the prairies and plains. 

For me, presenttime is… Presenttime is Now. Happy Time. Presenttime is right now, and right now is the Happy Time. the manager of Moment Vegan Café explained to us. He cracked a Joker-sized smile and laughed like an absolute maniac. My life is beautiful! he shouted at Brandon and me as he points at the OKC Thunder sigil once more. O-K-C Thun-der means presenttime, Happy Time, my life is beautiful! 

Yeah, I’m still not one-hundred percent sure this man was sober in the strictest sense. I promise, these are nearly direct quotes—I was transcribing his words as he spoke. 

Later in the day I couldn’t help but reflect on the manager’s words in the context of Westbrook’s trade. The Thunder has always been a big deal for OKC. Its early success is almost the only reason that OKC’s downtown is actually a desirable place to live now. It’s understandable to feel some real pain when that last living relic of the Thunder’s glory days disappears forever, leaving OKC right back at 2007-status: empty, nameless, and destitute. 

But is it really that big of a deal? Is the loss of Westbrook really the end of some epic Shakespearean tragedy of decay like many of my Okie OG’s would have it seem on Facebook?

No. It isn’t. 

I met a homeless man today. He showed me and nine other people around Prague for two hours. His name is Roman. He’s been homeless for 14 years. Roman showed us where people shoot up, where they take showers, where they go to buy more meth. He also showed us where people are most likely to freeze and die in the winter. He told us his life story and ended the tour at his home, under a bridge with near-constant trains running above our heads, tents, mattresses, and needles strewn all over the ground.

Food hanging from the roof of the bridge’s underbelly so that rats couldn’t get to it at night. It was under this bridge my group and I met Timi, Roman’s best friend who is currently dying of Hepatitis C and looks like a prisoner at Auschwitz. Timi prefers homelessness to “real life,” and Roman and Timi argue about this to no end. 

Holy shit, it sometimes takes a lot to give you some perspective.

I took a tour with Pragulic Tours—a tour company that helps homeless Prague residents to get clean and then sometimes employs them to give tours of Prague. Every one of Pragulic’s tours are different: the routes and information given are always closely linked with the tour guide’s personal story. Some tours focus on prostitution, others on the drug market, others on squatting. I took a tour with Roman, the up-and-coming star tour guide who covers Prague’s drugs, squatting, and prostitution all in one go. He only spoke Czech, but with the generous help of my interpreter Clara, I was able to experience two and a half hours of world-shattering reality.

It’s not always apparent when you’re walking Prague’s streets, but the de facto capital city of Central Europe also has one of Europe’s largest homelessness problems. With the rise of the Czech communist government and its consequent black markets, meth exploded in popularity throughout the latter half of the 20th century. After the Velvet Revolution and the fall of Czech communism, heroin took over in the 90’s. Today, both share the underworld throne.

Besides drugs, homelessness is also a major problem throughout Czechia because of strict divorce laws that end up either leaving the mother and children or father destitute if one fails to pay requisite child care and taxes. Timi, a formerly rich Slovakian, fell prey to one such law and had everything he owned seized by the government after a particularly nasty divorce.

Take any time to look around and you will see this other side of Prague. I have been to Prague’s main train station over ten times now, and not once did I take the time to really see it. Just 20 steps from the front door I had walked through so many times is part of the front lawn called Sherwood by locals—an area dominated by homeless people sleeping on benches, shooting up, and getting high, mere meters away from droves of arriving Prague tourists like myself who never even notice. The cops tolerate this so long as the homeless population of Sherwood is docile. During our tour through Sherwood we were asked for cigarettes and one of Roman’s friends asked him for meth. Roman had none to give. He’s been clean for two months and recovering for four. 

Roman was abandoned by his parents at two. He grew up in an orphanage and calls it the “happiest time of his life.” He dreamed and dreams of being a fashion designer. At 18 he was forced to leave the orphanage and live with his grandmother, the only family he knew and loved. He spent three years in fashion school, but in his fourth year his grandmother died and his first serious boyfriend broke up with him around the same time. Roman spiraled into a state of depression, and one night a friend of his offered him meth, just trying to lift his spirits. Roman initially resisted, but soon gave in and tried the meth. In his words, “I was immediately hooked.” 

As his addiction became more serious, Roman dropped out of school and tried to recover a relationship with his mother and father. He first went to his father in Ostrava. Upon arriving at his father’s house and seeing him for the first time, Roman only thought, “Wow, this man is short,” and nothing more. When he saw his six younger siblings, all raised by his father, Roman was only dumbfounded that these strangers were actually related to him.

After spending a few years homeless in Ostrava working as a male sex worker—a period of his life so replete with danger and pain that Roman teared up and said he couldn’t talk about it—Roman moved back to Prague to see his mother. He lived with her for a time, until she saw his injection scars and put him back on the streets. To this day, none of Roman’s family knows he is homeless and he prefers it that way. He wants nothing more than to rent a dorm room—but that costs 300USD a month, an impossible sum. He also recently managed to procure a sewing machine, and is working on getting his first textiles so that he can put the “hundreds” of clothing designs in his head into reality. He is even working on organizing a trans-only fashion show at one of the homeless shelters he frequents. 

Now, Roman is working three jobs. He is acting in a local theater production and getting paid for his work. He is giving tours with Pragulic. He is training to become a paid peer advisor at shelters across Prague. With these three sources of income on the line, Roman said that he was able to gather the will to get clean once and for all, to work to finally move out from under the bridge he’s been living under for six years. 

Roman says that to this day “mother” and “father” are nothing more than words to him, that he prefers being alone now because in all of his relationships he has only been a “springboard” for others, and that his one drive right now is to help others lift themselves out of their addictions and to design the clothing he can’t stop dreaming up. 

All four of the squatters’ sites Roman showed us are hidden right in the midst of metropolitan centers, a mere 15-minute walk from Old Town Square where 10 million tourists flood the historic streets every summer to blow $10 on two scoops of gelato en masse. One squatters’ site we visited is in an old abandoned warehouse, and over 100 people sleep there every night, some on mattresses high enough to keep the rats off, others not. 

On Prague’s account, the city’s police force is tolerant, if not helpful. They allow the squatters their peace so long as they don’t disrupt public life. The city also has set up numerous centers for homeless people to take showers, grab meals, and to get warm during the day. Ambulances come by most of the major squatting centers twice weekly to distribute clean needles and to run voluntary check ups on anyone so desiring. It’s more than many of the major US cities are doing, and Roman seems very grateful for the care the city puts forth. 

The reason I take this massive narrative detour is, of course, to bring everything back to Russell Westbrook. It’s easy as an Oklahoma City native to see Westbrook’s trade as personal, to see it as some grand tragedy putting the final nail in the coffin for OKC’s renaissance. I’m not kidding when I say the Thunder literally rebuilt our downtown. In a measly five years the run-down, empty, bankrupt graveyard that was downtown OKC for almost 20 years became a booming center of arts, creative cuisine, and business that could match even the likes of Fort-Worth and perhaps even St. Louis. Harden, Durant, and Westbrook gave Oklahomans a reason to be proud of their heritage again, and furthermore, a reason to love the place they called home. And now they’re all gone. 

But even as Westbrook is traded and OKC’s Golden Age seems an impending relic of the past, the manager of Moment Vegan Café in the quaint residential section of Prague known as Žižkov has managed to grasp onto the Thunder’s sigil and make it his personal symbol of presenttime, Happy Time, and My life is beautiful! A stupid, garish, flashy little symbol without any inherent meaning and a, frankly, meaningless acronym plastered onto it has somehow, inexplicably, become the key item of Mr. Manager’s fashion—the camo Thunder hat is an item he wears almost every day to remind him, in all his spiritual acumen, that his life is Now, that it’s the presenttime that counts. 

While the residents of OKC may feel that they are in dire straits, while the era of the Thunder may have finally come to a close, halfway across the world someone grabbed onto the Thunder without even knowing it meant basketball and found a world’s worth of meaning in a stupid little symbol. The fact that I had both these interactions — the manager and Roman — in the same day, strikes me as one of many of life’s great symmetries and leaves me with the inescapable impression that there is nothing like travel to bring everything back to perspective, provided you do it right. 

The OKC Thunder simultaneously means decay and presenttime. For Roman, a sewing machine and much-needed textiles simultaneously convey the beginning of his addiction to meth and the loss of his grandmother and first true love and the means with which he will revitalize his life and fulfill his dream of making his designs a worn reality. 

What we may perceive as tragedy may be to another triumph, what we know means the end will be to another new beginning. Symbols, stories, sports teams: these all have the power to transcend country borders and to become something new in the eyes of another. And perhaps travel is the truest way to bleed across country lines and to look again, to see things anew. Travel, when done right, reminds us that our symbols are never just ours, that they always mean more than what they mean to us.

And in the midst of all this paradigm shifting power, travel also has the ability to remind us, over and over again, just how lucky we are. And “luck” is the proper word. No Zeus, Jehovah, or Siddhartha decided that I would be born to an upper-middle class southern family and to keep me well provided for just as Roman was born to an orphanage and would be made to struggle against love, family, and addiction for the rest of his life. It was just the luck of the draw that decided our lots: uncaring, unfeeling, and cruelly unfair. 

So when you buy your plane tickets and head on over to Europe, whether you’re traveling on the University dime or your three years’ savings, whether you’re staying in Shitty Hostel #4 or four-star Hilton, whether you prefer Czech food or Polish food, never forget that the most potent, and perhaps, most foundational purpose of travel is to give you a new perspective.

To develop in you knowledge and consequent empathy, to send you back home informed, active, and grateful, because the simple traveler’s truth is that if you’re like me and you find yourself eurotripping at all, we’re both luckier than we’ll ever know.

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