Snežana Žabić is the author of the short story collection In a Lifetime (KOS, Serbia, 1996), the memoir Broken Records (punctum books, USA, 2016), and the poetry collection The Breath Capital (New Meridian Arts, USA, 2016). She co-authored, with Ivana Percl, the poetry collection Po(jest)zija/Po(eat)ry (SKC NS, Serbia, 2013).
Mardi Gras morning of 2002, I remember an overcast sky over Chartres St artists, performers, and fortune tellers that competed for tourists’ dollars. I had never before been tempted to pay someone to tell me about my past, present, and future, but carnivals are all about letting go and turning loose for a 24-hour stretch, so I walked up to a Tarot card lady and gave her $10 for a quick three-card throw. She was New Age, all beads and printed cotton. I was a child of Marxist historical materialism, of scientific progress, but I no longer believed that communism replacing capitalism after a period of the dictatorship of the proletariat was a given. While I didn’t and still don’t believe in fortune telling of any kind, I nonetheless suspected that Chartres St augurs were experts at reading us tourists like the simple texts we were after talking to the likes of us all day every day. How many different types of us could there be? Aren’t we all walking clichés, living predictable lives? I wondered if someone could make a wild guess about what has happened and what would happen to me, an unemployed 27-year-old awaiting decisions from US graduate schools, a wild guess still based on some obvious clues.
I approached the fortune teller, told her my name and my intent.
She motioned me to sit down on the camping stool placed across from her at her folding table, and she said:
“Sney Zhana? That’s beautiful.”
“Thank you,” I said, expecting her to follow up with a question about my home country. But no follow-up came although I would have gladly given her more clues. Could she read me, the bespectacled, no-makeup, short-haired woman in Levi’s and a black sweater?
She threw the first card, the one about my past. In it, she didn’t see that my home country had broken up and my hometown had been destroyed ten years prior. Whatever she did see was so off, I don’t even remember any details. Ditto about my present, embodied in the second card. Not a single broad generality she saw in it applied to me.
“You know, I’m a writer.”
“Oh how nice,” the teller of my fortune said and continued misfiring.
She threw the third card, the one about my future. Instead of a piece of her wisdom, I got another impossible prediction: that I would have a baby in the near future.
I tried to help her, and I said, “Yes, but maybe that’s a symbolic baby. Maybe it stands for the next book I’ll write.”
“Maybe it does,” she said, but didn’t run with it.
My time was up, I thanked her, and that was it. Later that day, cops had a run-in with some of the revelers, and so they created a bottleneck in a passageway with a bunch of us tourists and locals literally stuck together. I couldn’t move in any direction, and that lasted a few minutes or an hour, but there’s no normal perception of time when people around you are panicking and starting to push in every direction, and you think you’re about to be trampled to death.
The fiction writer in me likes to imagine that the Chartres St fortune teller could pierce right through me as soon as I approached her and requested her service. I picture her shuffling her deck, looking at me.
Here we go, another nonbeliever. Okay, Miss Marxist materialist historian. How come you had no clue what would happen to Yugoslavia up until the very end? Okay, you were seventeen, and you hadn’t even read any Marx yet, despite two years of high school Marxism. And now, ten years later, you’re waiting to hear back from grad schools. You’ll get the good news. And then you’ll spend the rest of your working life in the cozy purgatory of academia first as a grad student, and then as an adjunct. And later today, you’ll get caught in a bottleneck when cops begin arresting the revelers. You’ll be fine, though. But you won’t hear about it from me! The first card, Ten of Cups: you’ve had much success and happiness already, both professionally and romantically. The second card, XVI The Tower: you’re currently going through a profound change. X The Wheel of Fortune: it’s the cycle of life—you’ll have a baby within a few short years. Have a good life!
* * *
In February 2017, I was invited to the Northeastern Illinois University to give a reading. Standing in the Student Union area called “The Golden Eagles Room,” (I remember salmon-colored walls and green chairs), I read the first chapter of my memoir Broken Records in which the narrator remembers the results of the first multiparty elections in 1991. In it, there’s a passage that goes:
War raged, and politicians on TV hustled “democracy” like another cheap commodity. “Democracy” meant, in brief, that we all got what the 51% wanted, no matter how horrible their choice was, no matter how far it was from John Lennon’s “Imagine,” which to me was the only acceptable party platform. But John Lennon was dead and wasn’t running for office anyway, and I was too young to vote.
During the Q and A, a serious middle-aged man (later I learned he was a creative writing student there) posed the following question:
“Based on what you experienced in Yugoslavia, and what we’re seeing here in the United States now, do you see any parallels? What do you think will happen here?”
I can’t remember my answer.
About a year later, I gave another reading, this time at a North Park coffee shop. The place used to be a laundromat and it still smelled like damp porous surfaces and detergent, but the coffee and the treats were delicious. The mismatched patio furniture and faux plants came most likely from local Salvation Army and Goodwill thrift shops, and the wall decor consisted of framed prints depicting elegant sidewalk cafés and gardens. The coffee shop was packed with folks who spend their days or nights tucked away in offices, behind counters and cash registers, freelancing at their laptops, driving their cars for tips, the secret society of seemingly ordinary citizens who are in fact readers of obscure poetry collections. One of them told me after my reading that he was following a blog about Yugoslavia and its demise.
“Oh, what made you interested in the topic?”
He said, “I want to find out what happened there, so that I know what to expect here.”
Again, I engaged in a discussion I now don’t remember.
* * *
I went to a Halloween party in 2018 dressed as Rosie the Riveter because I already owned a roomy black jumpsuit (men’s size medium). With that, a bandanna, and my Timberland lace-up boots, I thought the costume looked good enough. What was sorely missing was hair and makeup. According to YouTube tutorials, this involves: shellacking your hair; “contouring” your shapeless face with liquid beige and bronze stuff; drawing black wings on your eyelids; adding false eyelashes. I decided the tutorial was for drag professionals, and I was a once-a-year amateur. Red lipstick makes my teeth look yellow, so I never use it. Even subtle eye makeup melts during the course of a working day and stings my eyes, so that’s another thing I forego commuting from campus to campus and gig to gig.
So there I was in a kitchen in Logan Square, talking to a group of confident thirty-somethings dressed as cartoon characters, some of them in full body makeup, beaming with delight and booze. I was more focused on dips and salsas and cheeses paired with all kinds of chips and crackers. Then everyone went to the porch to smoke except me and one young woman. I asked her what her newly-incorporated consulting company was focusing on, and she explained that they were in the business of advising progressive Democratic Party candidates on how to construct a winning campaign message. It had to do with some guy’s theory about how candidates need to construct a compelling story about the future.
“That makes sense,” I said. “My grandmothers became communists when they were teenagers because they were inspired by the story about a better future, about liberation.”
With half a beer in me, I was ready to launch into the whole story about communists being illegal for a while between two world wars, and how they organized the guerrilla resistance against Nazis and their collaborators, and how, after the war, my grandparents indeed lived in a decent workers’ society for several decades, but of course it didn’t last, etc. But I didn’t get the chance to blurt any of that out. The young professional said, instead: “Of course, progressive parts of the US might just have to secede. Chicago could become its own state, maybe join Canada!”
“Well, I wish you the best of luck,” I said, and the words must have been covered with icicles because she gave my biceps a little patronizing squeeze, and she excused herself in order to join her friends.
The thing is, this time I didn’t feel even remotely flustered. I’ve had worse experiences at house parties where strangers ask me to repeat my name over and over, and they mouth it until they “get” it. At house parties, snacks are often bad, and conversations get tense. At house parties, a local politician says, “Oh, you’re a poet. You know who else was a poet? Radovan Karadžić.” Or a lawyer says, “Oh, you’re a teacher. Rod Blagojevich taught history when he was in prison.” For all of Nikola Tesla’s fame, no one ever associates me with a genius that happens to share my ethnic or geographic background, I always get genocidal ex-psychiatrists and corrupt politicians. By comparison, this Halloween party was great. Most costumes were on point. I had my fill of delicious appetizers.
I finished my beer standing alone in the kitchen, and I’m a one-drink-per-outing kind of a drinker nowadays, so I went out onto the back porch and then down the stairs. Typical Chicago buildings aren’t big on either balconies or steel fire escapes. Instead, they have wood fire escapes that feature wide stairs, and each landing is big enough for people to set up tables, chairs, and potted plants. This building was the type that also had a spacious backyard for neighbors to enjoy collectively.
I decided to join a few folks standing around the backyard fire pit. They were in their civilian jeans and jackets and knit hats, and in their twenties, shooting the breeze about music scenes in Chicago and in St Louis. Even though we were a generation apart, we fell into an easy conversation about the hobby we had in common: forming bands, playing guitar or bass or drums or singing for our beer, and writing and recording our songs for no good reason, just because. Around the fire, we compared notes on which clubs were good for gigging, which ones should be avoided, which recording studios were dependable and affordable, how to sign up for a DistroKid account so your recordings appear on all streaming services at once. All of our questions had simple, factual answers.
I was wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt and a pair of leggings under my jumpsuit, but I still had to stand as close to the fire as possible in order not to shiver. I knew that every fiber, every strand, every molecule of me would be saturated with the smell of smoke the minute I stepped away. I didn’t care. Embers were flying off into the night, and I decided not to use my real name anymore when introducing myself to people. Some of my friends had already been calling me SZ, and that felt just fine. Most people can’t detect my accent unless we engage in a longer conversation, and I also decided it wouldn’t be a bad idea to mainly listen from now on.
Any given year, I patch together teaching gigs at five or six institutions, and I’ve learned and forgotten names and faces of about two thousand young people by now. Let me take my last eighteen years as a teacher and make one sweeping generalization: each new crop of 18-year-olds is a little more aware, graced with a little more solidarity than the one before.
Spring of 2014, we were newly unionized at the University of Illinois at Chicago and about to strike after two years of non-bargaining on the part of the administration. I have gone to many more non-bargaining sessions since then, and I’ve gotten to know that look of contempt with which administrators look at the workforce without whom they could administer nothing. But students, angry that they’re forced to obtain a degree along with crushing debt, are on our side. I taught my writing classes in the days before the 2014 strike and held my office hours as usual. I remember meeting a whip-smart pre-med student to go over her essay. After we were done, she said, “You make thirty grand a year. That’s how much I make. And I work at a nail salon. You have a PhD.”
“Well, I think we should all earn a living wage, you and me and everyone else.”
“Yes, but I work at a nail salon. You have a PhD.”
She got up to leave. She was already in the hallway, and she turned toward me once more.
“I work at a nail salon. You have a PhD!”
“I know,” I said, and we laughed.
As she was leaving, she repeated her mantra again, within the earshot of everyone in any office on the 20th floor of University Hall. If she got onto the elevator and the chancellor happened to be there, she probably grabbed her by the lapels and said: “I make the same salary as my professor. I work at a nail salon. She has a PhD!”
That was 2013/2014, when I made 5,000 USD per course at the University of Illinois at Chicago, when I had a full-time, 3/3 load for two years as a visiting lecturer. Thanks to the union, those who still work there are making a decent salary at last. For comparison, I made an average of about 4,000 per course this past spring of 2020, teaching at three different institutions, at one of which I’m unionized, but not secure. I’m fairly sure young nail salon workers make less now than their counterparts did in 2014. My former student is now probably three years into studying to be a doctor, and I wonder if she is helping out at a hospital where nurses and doctors have to disinfect and reuse their single-use PPE. I wonder if she’s chanting in the streets.
Here’s my mantra, stolen from Joe Strummer: the future is unwritten.