Lacking something does not equal poverty. Memories from Polish backyards prove helpful in maintaining a healthy dose of moderation in these times of indebted overproduction. Before we began fencing and privatizing playgrounds and housing estate courtyards, they were democratically governed and controlled by a children’s economy of sharing.
In a small basement room at the bottom of our staircase, we established a sports equipment rental booth. Neighbours from the whole estate could come and ask to borrow sleighs, ice skates, balls and hockey sticks – even those living in the farthest blocks from ours. My dad kept a reservations notebook, as he was the one who came up with the idea of a trove of precious racquets and paddles. Funding came from the Estate Community Committee. I can remember the smell of that tiny room, lit by a single naked bulb. The padlocked basement air was thick with the promise of excitement – others had already experienced the fun and had time to tell everyone how great it was to play, race and skate. The scent of leather, plastic and wood mixed with the whiff of used objects, once-lived stories and experiences that, while not owned, allowed participation.
The assortment of our rental room was impressive for the modest 1980s. Kids queued in a long line to borrow one of two narrow teardrop-shaped skateboards; a handful of hockey sticks (cracked and duct-taped time and again) with two heavy black hockey pucks; wooden tennis racquets; a badminton set (back then, we called the game ‘birdie’), the shuttlecock weighed with a pebble pushed deep inside a lump of plasticine; two sleighs; downhill skis and cross-country skis; girls’ ice skates made of white leather and boys’ ones, black and with broad runners; patched footballs, basketballs and volleyballs; frayed table-tennis rackets. In those times of permanent deficiency, waiting was normal and nobody found it strange. Just as it was normal to have access to something that could not be owned by just one person. Everything could be figured out.
“Hello, is Tomek home? Can he come out and play?” At the playground, our modest individual means were immediately multiplied. Together, we could do more, have more, come up with more. All it took was for one kid to come out with a football and begin kicking it at the wall; the echoing sound soon lured out the whole pack of kids and the match could begin. Girls and boys played football, tag, dodgeball; five-year-olds with 15-year-olds, everyone together. There were no divisions and no cliques, because it was only possible to have fun in a large group. Only then was there a point to the competition, emotions and victory.
All it took was for one kid to sit in a sandbox and start digging, building and patting down some structures, and soon those little sand dunes were crawling with children. We would build things together or everyone did their own thing. Sandbox corners were the best spots, because that was where you could find the best, moist sand that was easy to mould. But even in the middle, surrounded by the driest and loosest material, you could sift and cook fancy leaf-and-stick soups. There were no bad spots to play, everything was just a matter of imagination. We would then ‘visit’ each other’s castles and fortresses, checking out what our friend had made, driving a toy car to her ‘place’ or bringing a doll along. After some examination and praise, an invitation was issued to come over to the other corner of the sandbox or to the rainwater pipe where a grand dam was made out of bark. The dam held water in, creating an imposing lake that held the water all the way to the sewer grate by the road.
“Hey, can I have a ride?” This question always came with a follow-up offer: “I’ll lend you my ball”; “I’ll let you play”; “I’ll give you mine”. At the socialist playground, reciprocity and exchange were the ground rules of coexistence. Of course, acts of one-sided generosity did happen from time to time, but our everyday life taught us, above all, how to barter. That was how I rode a grown-up bike for the first time, its wheels so huge and handles so far apart I could hardly steer it. My little kiddie bike waited abandoned on the grass. In exchange, I probably let the owner play with a slingshot or a toy gun, precious goods among the citizens of the playground, both nicked from my big brother’s arsenal. Having a big brother was priceless, for he owned numerous treasures, such as an army of miniature plastic soldiers that we spent hours placing carefully on fields and hills made of duvets and blankets, planning their motionless battles. The tiny warriors fired their guns only in our imaginations – we made up the sounds of shots, the groans of the wounded, the howling of ambulances, the barks of commands. We changed the course of history, even though the microscopic battalions did not make a single move. Such ‘wars’ would often be played at our friends’ homes, in the next staircase or on the fifth floor. Mum didn’t call us back home before bedtime, it was obvious that some ‘auntie’ would feed us with leftover dumplings or cucumber soup, and our mum would return the favour some other time. The visits were paid fairly, on rotation. At Karolina’s, we’d watch our first video movies; at Ewa’s, we played with her guinea pig; at my place, we built houses out of audio cassettes and sold plastic radishes or tomatoes in my little shop that had a tiny scale with weights.
Quid pro quo was an obvious everyday economic transaction, practised in times when money did not mean much for everyday people. Because in those days, not much could be obtained with money anyway.
The era of imagination
Before 1989, when almost anything became possible (children’s backpacks began sparkling with pink lights, pencil cases swelled with bright felt pens, and balconies became crowded with satellite dishes), our wealth consisted of two almost unlimited goods: time and imagination. Only those two came in surplus, while objects and devices remained in the realm of dreams we didn’t hope to materialize any more than we would expect to meet an exotic animal, such as a giraffe or hippopotamus.
Free time and imagination are inseparable; one cannot exist without the other. Hanging off a carpet beating stand or kicking a pebble against a fence led us to the best ideas: radiant paintings made on the tarmac with colourful chalks. They remained, the rainbow creations of a dozen hands, until the first big rain. Cold mornings were when home games were invented: imaginary Paris-Dakar rallies in the world atlas, palaces built out of chairs and blankets, haphazardly assembled restaurants that served jelly with whipped cream and kogel mogel. On hot July afternoons, when only Arabela re-runs were on TV, we went for trips to the woods and made princess beds out of moss, on which we could lay down and rest in the shadow of birch leaves. On boring days, we ended up organizing spiritual seances on basement stairs and building treehouses. Trees deserve special thanks, anyway, for their hospitality and patience for our curious hands and shoes, for putting up with our swinging and hiding in their branches. To climb a tree, live among its leaves for a bit while hiding from the world, to become a part of it and see everything from above – there aren’t many things more beautiful in the hierarchy of childhood’s moments of joy.
It is often said that imagination was an antidote to the constant lack of everything else; that we lived on it to substitute the lack of other goods – but it doesn’t do justice to its powers. Free time and a free mind create space for entertaining alternative worlds; they allow us to be somewhere else and create images that are often more beautiful and better than a real experience. Imagination is the most wonderful of all games, and in the reality of adults it turns out to be a prized ability without which the world would grind to a halt.
Our secrets, your shelters
To dream of something, to wait without the promise of fulfilment – we knew how to do it. Wishes could not be artificially blown up or accelerated because the whole world as we knew it was limited in its opportunities. Today, we would call it ‘poor’, but this term comes from the universe of free-market surplus; none of my playground friends considered themselves ‘poor’. Our childhood teemed with games, experiences, fantasies, and also objects – although most of the latter was enchanted in one way or another, gaining a special worth. An example of such unique and carefully guarded treasures were ‘secrets’ – belonging exclusively to girls. We made these charming tiny glass-covered pictures by placing flowers, leaves and sticks on the sand, and then covering them with a piece of glass we’d find somewhere by the bins. The glass was then covered by sand and became a secret, shown only to the best and most trusted of friends. We would go visit them from time to time, making sure nobody destroyed our precious creation, whispered about it to each other when nobody could hear us. Boys had their shelters and dugouts built in the woods or in far-out corners of the housing estate, and they kept those to themselves, too. They went there in packs when we were busy skipping the Chinese jump rope we made out of a piece of stretchy white tape bought in a haberdashery shop with our pocket money. Some of those tapes were better than others. The owner of the best one decided where we’d play – usually choosing her own turf, in front of her building entrance.
Owning something precious – such as a ball, bicycle, or a collection of bottle caps with cut-out flags from the world atlas, fastened with a drop of wax – allowed the owner to make the rules. We’re playing on our field, on this pavement, not that one. But this privilege did not change the basic idea that wealth mattered only when it was shared. On your own, you can’t flick bottle caps across a chalk-drawn slalom, or kick a ball. That would be sad and pointless. We preferred to be together and play with others.
And anyway, scarcity of objects did not lead us to excessively focusing on them. Bikes and rackets were fun for a while, but they never superseded the hide-and-seek, tag or stalking we played using various parts of the estate, including basements. We shared not only our modest material goods but, above all, our space. Of course, the vocabulary of childhood knew how to make a distinction between ‘our’ and ‘your’ blocks, sandboxes and swings, but it served mostly the purpose of differentiating closer areas from those further away, less known ones. We knew we had equal and unlimited access to all of them, just like we could roam freely around the amphitheatre, community allotments, and the hill in the nearby woods which, come winter, morphed into a sleigh-and-ski track. The world was open and shared; it was probably the reason why nobody felt poor, even though our parents had to spend hours queuing in front of depleted shops, and we too sometimes were sent to stand in line to buy some sugar.
Of course, we wanted to have many things, even though for a long time, we had no idea what one could even wish for. Everything everyone owned was pretty much the same: one type of trainers, one kind of pleated skirt, three bicycle models to choose from. Depending on what was available in the shops.
And anyway, whatever new precious thing we could possibly obtain, we couldn’t just show off and hide with it at home, enjoying the new treasure on our own. The world was arranged in a collective and utilitarian way. The ideological order affected children, too – making them spend very little time alone. One of the heroes of my socialist childhood was Piotruś, the owner of a bowl-cut, a dog named Pimpuś, and a magic pencil. In the popular cartoon, the boy went around fixing problems. His magic pencil allowed him to create anything he wanted: utensils, drinks, machines, even the rain. But Piotruś never drew anything on a whim; he only created things that were needed to solve a problem or to help someone. He never drew anything just to own it. We admired him and were jealous – not of the objects, but of his causative power. Several years later, the newly imported bedtime cartoons began opening with advertisements. I can remember one about a Barbie dollhouse with an elevator that she and Ken took to ride downstairs for a party in their living room. That was the first time I experienced that burning, impatient feeling: I want to have this. What for? What would I do with it? I had no time to think about it. The arrival of new toys happened along with the privatization of the world and the end of our childhood: we no longer invited each other home so often, we stopped playing together, consumed by our individual treasure troves.
Washing machine, my friend
The empty orange lemonade bottle could be simply washed and put away on the windowsill. But when it came to milk bottles, mum told us to brush them properly in hot water. They would also be returned sooner rather than later. On our way back from the shop, we lugged heavy baskets lined with old newspaper, and in the greengrocers, Zośka would pack potatoes in paper bags adorned with her hasty calculations, always done manually. When we went to buy ice creams, we brought them home in our own thermos. We had two of those at home – white for ice cream, and red for the soup I ate before leaving to school for afternoon classes. Jars and caps never went in the bin; our basement was full of preserves. In our allotment garden, my parents grew everything, which we then ate all year long. Radish salads in the summer, along with young carrots wiped hastily on trouser legs, munched on the run, and green peas nibbled like a delicacy. At lunch, there was sorrel soup nobody liked, but then we had rhubarb pie for tea. Breaded courgettes, raspberries warmed in the sun. My job was to catch potato bugs with my little hands and look for tiny cucumbers. My dad would squeeze them into jars with dill stalks and garlic cloves while mum patiently cooked plum preserves in a bowl that once was the bottom part of an electric baking tin.
The only things we bought were potatoes and onions, purchased from farmers who first used to visit our estate by horse wagon, and later, driving in a van. The old man who collected glass bottles also drove a horse cart for a long time. When there was too much old paper at home, my brother and I tied the stacks with rope and carried it to the paper recycling centre. They paid us pennies, but the piggy bank was patient.
I can’t remember throwing anything away. What I can remember is the soldering iron, screwdrivers and the large toolbox. Wood and neoprene glue for constant repairs. Dad’s Saturday disputes with our neighbour – what was the best way to fix something, and who could do it if they didn’t know how. In Marek’s basement, there was a universe of old radio receivers, lamps and cables – you could give him your broken hoover and on the next day, you’d get it back in mint condition. The washing machine man came round often because it kept choking or spilling water. But nobody ever considered buying a new one; the handyman calmly opened his box and silently tinkered for a bit, bringing our washing machine back to life.
Old but working equipment never had to worry about being thrown away. There were three scenarios awaiting it: retirement in a storage cupboard or in the basement just in case we needed a spare; a new life at the allotment garden; or moving to a family we knew in some village nearby who could use some help.
A new appliance at home, just like a new piece of furniture, was like an important guest. We would dust it more often than others or cover it with a doily. It would be admired, complimented, loved. I cried two times when saying goodbye to old objects: the first was a 17-year-old bottle-green Zastava 101 that we used to drive when visiting my grandmother; the second, a Zelmer washing machine with a colour programming board, whose silver drum was my own space station. We befriended these machines and we were grateful – back then, appliances and objects spent enough time with us to establish a relationship. To swap them for a new one or throw them away? Unthinkable.
Flavours of lacking
That world rolled forward at the lazy pace of the wheelbarrow in which I sat when my dad and I went to the woods to collect fuel for the bonfire. The memory of it now seems a priceless resource. Not because of its sentimental value, but because I know and can imagine an order different to the one in place today. I know from experience that a different reality is possible. And that the reality in which I grew up was made not only of mistakes, deprivation and shortages. It was also filled with wisdom and practical solutions. I don’t have to look for tips in handbooks on minimalism and zero-waste. I know how those things are done.
I also know what it means to eat seasonal foods. I know the ethical and nutritional superiority of pickled cabbage over avocado. A binder packed with my parents’ recipes could easily double as a guidebook on a sustainable ecological diet. To this day, their basement offers a varied menu for all year long, everything grown on just a few plots. I always take empty jars with me to give them to my dad. And at my own place, I still have a storage cupboard populated by mixers and only slightly burned electric kettles. I’m sure they still have some life left in them.
All those memories are more than a handful of photographs sleeping in an album. I consider them my assets and have used them ever since it became clear that capitalism won’t take us to the land of joy and abundance. And that sooner or later, we’re going to need to reinvent our reality. Just like many other people, worried by the predatory and insatiable nature of human development, I’m beginning to look forward to the end of the world. I want to see the end of a world governed so unfairly and wrongly. I dream of a boy or a girl with a magic pencil – or, even better, an entire generation of people ready to come up with a new world order and draw it for us. Changes often bring fear, but I cannot pretend to be afraid. My past, spent in a modest common playground, was a magnificent vaccine against the fears that could limit my imagination. I know we can exchange things, we can lend and borrow, mend, repair and save. Unlike the societies of Western Europe or North America, we have the memory and know-how necessary to create different, more sustainable social and economic relationships.
For the past 30 years, we have been unlearning the ideas of things that are common and public, we worship private ownership and individualism. But 30 years are not an eternity. Who can still remember hanging off a tree branch, hands up! The truth is, going back to reusable shopping bags, drinks in glass bottles, and riding on borrowed skis is easy and fun for a lot of us. It’s not only fashionable again, but also good and sensible. And memories of old times can only make it easier to come up with new solutions.
Translated from the Polish by Aga Zano
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