The Last Holdouts
They live by fheir own laws, which involve manipulating and breaking ours. They prefer that we know nothing about them, but if we insist on probing. they try to make sure we come away with a romantic fairy-tale notion of them. Patricia Lynden, twenty-nine, became a Gypsy-watcher two years ago, when she began covering odd corners of New York for NEWSWEEK,where she is an editorial assistant.
by Patricia Lynden
IN A land of assimilation they are the last holdouts. They have roamed this country for over 250 years, but they show no signs of joining us; nor are they ever likely to. They are the Gypsies, and they have been at home away from home since the first unrecorded moment of their exodus from India.
They meet with the rest of the world, the nonGypsies, or the “Gajay” in their language, only to steal our money. Then they disappear behind the doors of their “ofisas,” dingy storefronts where they live and “work,” and laugh endlessly at their latest trick. While they are a people apart, they are infatuated by our status symbols and exploit our credit economy to buy Cadillacs, color television sets, diamonds, and the services of some of the nation’s best medical specialists. They rarely pay, however.
Most of us — who do not seek Gypsies out for magic solutions to problems — are dimly aware of their existence, have perhaps caught glimpses of them emerging from a rented hall after a celebration, or calling out to “suckers” — their term — from ofisa doorways. But try to ask a Gypsy about his way of life, and you will meet with vague answers, lies, an uncomprehending though well-meaning expression, or an appallingly servile manner. One loses interest quickly, and that is their intent.
I had the good luck one day, while on a routine reporting assignment at the New York City Police Department’s Pickpocket and Confidence Squad, to discover that the detective I was interviewing was one of the few people in this country who know about Gypsies. He is Lieutenant Allen Gore, who had at that time spent ten years as the department’s sole Gypsy expert. That same season on Broadway he became the basis of the male lead in Bajoar, a musical about Gypsies. Over the years, Lieutenant Gore had gotten to know them well, and even learned an impressive amount of their language, Romany, which is difficult because it is an unwritten tongue. He said I could go with him on his investigations for as long as I needed to get a story.
Our visits were restricted to Gypsies living in New York City, where the best estimates put the population at around 12,000; but American Gypsies are the same whether you see them in San Francisco or New York. Indeed, they are literally the same, because the American Gypsy population (probably about 200,000) is in constant slow flux from one place to another. Any middle-aged Gypsy has likely camped for months or even years in fifteen or more cities across the country from Portland to Miami, from Provincetown to Los Angeles.
To know the Gypsies, one must practically live among them. So few have that the literature is scant, and much of it marred by untruths. Jan Yoors, a New York artist, did live with them during his adolescence in Europe, and his recent book, The Gypsies, is an account of that life. Lieutenant Gore solved the problem by spending much of his working day and all his free time visiting their ofisas, talking, listening, and watching. It took him five years before he was fully able to distinguish their lies from the truth and the myths from the realities. I was told by Lieutenant Gore that an extended visit at a Gypsy home would be out of the question for me. No Gypsy would ever consent, he said. However, there was one family I had come to know whose members were anxious to cultivate Lieutenant Gore. When he suggested, after a year, that they allow me to visit them for a week, the woman of the house immediately agreed.
My hostess was a woman in her sixties named Peppa, and she set up only one condition to my visit: she would answer all questions except any about the “boojo.” In Romany the word means “bag” (it was incorrectly called “bajour” in the musical). It is also the name of the most elaborate of Gypsy confidence games. At its culmination, the customer’s money is sewn into a small bag, and by means of a deft switch, the victim is given a bag of plain paper and the Gypsy keeps the one that contains the money. Many content themselves with lesser forms of confidence tricks because, while they don’t get rich, they also don’t have to take big risks or work many weeks for results. But my hostess “made boojo,” as the Gypsies say, and made $50,000 a year at it. She was worried that my professed desire to know more about Gypsy life, their beliefs and customs, was just a pretext for learning the mechanics of the boojo.
I had, however, already learned how the boojo is carried off from listening to Lieutenant Gore and suckers tell about it. A typical Gypsy customer was a fashionable New Jersey matron who told how she sought out a Gypsy to work black magic so she could get a divorce and large alimony settlement from her husband. The Gypsy assured her she could solve the problem, and it developed after many consultations that the problem was caused by a “curse” on the customer’s money and valuables. She was told to bring $7000 in cash, some diamond jewelry, and several fur pieces to the ofisa to have the curse banished. The jewelry and furs were left there for further “work,” and the customer returned home with the bag she thought contained her money. Later in the evening she became suspicious, opened the bag to find plain paper, and returned to the ofisa to confront the Gypsy. The Gypsy and her family had, of course, disappeared, and next day the woman went to the police. Her money was never recovered, and the Gypsy was never captured.
It is rare that a Gypsy gets caught. Many of their clientele never realize they are being bilked; others arc too embarrassed to tell. As often as not, they get caught because other Gypsies inform on them. As one Romany woman said: “Everybody know it when somebody make a score.” That knowledge is used when the Romany legal system — the only one they recognize — breaks down because a Gypsy refuses to follow its dictates. If he, for example, refuses to pay a penalty imposed on him by a Romany court, his adversary often takes revenge by going to the Gajo law. (Gajo is the masculine singular and Gajee the feminine singular form for “non-Gypsy.”) He simply informs to the police about one of his enemy’s thefts, and the police make an arrest. Gypsy law, or “crees,” has no enforcement machinery. Corporal punishment is not part of the Romany tradition; obeying the law is voluntary. Jurors at a trial do no more than arrive at a decision on who is right and wrong in a case, and name the penalty, usually a fine. After that, if one party refuses to comply, the other takes the law into his own hands by going to the Gajo law.
THE Romany life is concerned almost solely with itself. World affairs are Gajo affairs, and thus of no interest to the Gypsies. What really absorbs them are their own feuds, marriages, divorces, births, deaths, illnesses. A New York internist who was called in for consultation on a Gypsy case said afterward that no patient was ever so difficult to treat. The entire clan arrived from all over the country and encamped at the hospital to assume en masse the anxiety for the patient that is usually reserved, in the Gajo world, only to the patient and his immediate family. Day in and day out they dunned the doctor and hospital staff for reassurances that the patient would recover, fretting with extravagant intensity, which the doctor found inordinate and felt was a hindrance to his attempts to treat the patient.
In a similar way, a divorce also becomes a community preoccupation. During my stay at Peppa’s, the family was the center of interest because one of the daughters was about to have a divorce trial. Day and night, Gypsies were in and out of the house, learning the background of the case, arguing it endlessly. Since it was the major topic of conversation for the week, I too became familiar with its details and nuances. Complicated as it may seem, what follows is a very abbreviated version of a situation all the local Gypsies familiarized themselves with in preparation for the impending trial.
One of Peppa’s six daughters, a woman of thirtytwo called Maleva, had left the ofisa she shared with her husband, taken their daughter, and returned to her mother’s house. She claimed that her husband had abandoned her, and was determined to have custody of their daughter. She was prepared to go to the Gajo court if need be to keep the child, since Gypsy law does not necessarily favor the mother in custody disputes. Wanya, the estranged husband, was countercharging abandonment, and also wanted the child, as well as the return of more than the customary one half of his wife’s purchase price at marriage.
The dispute had become a feud between the two families, since by Romany custom marriages are arranged between the fathers of a couple, and the bride is purchased by the groom’s father. It is not unusual to pay $5000 for a girl who is a virgin, healthy, well mannered, and adept at the confidence game.
Things had been somewhat unusual in the marriage of Wanya and Maleva. For one thing, Peppa knew her daughter felt an attraction for Wanya, although it would have been scandalously improper for Maleva to say so. But Wanya’s family did not have enough money to pay for such a girl who possessed all the Gypsy virtues. So Peppa let her go for only $2500, and she let her go on credit until Wanya’s mother could make the money to pay the price.
By strict custom, the credit arrangement was a compromise of the bride’s family’s honor. However, Peppa exacted in return a commitment from Wanya’s father that because of the low price, Maleva would not be required to spend the usual first years of her marriage living with her in-laws and giving her earnings to them. Peppa herself had been very unhappy as a young wife taking orders from her mother-in-law and didn’t want her daughter to suffer the same. Wanya’s family agreed to the condition, and the couple was married.
The trouble started when Wanya’s father began demanding money from Maleva. Maleva supported Wanya (which seems to be an American innovation among Gypsies) better than Wanya’s mother kept his father. The father became so envious at his son’s good fortune that he refused, even after his wife did make a large sum of money, to pay Peppa what he owed her. Not until a year later did he finally pay $2000, and Maleva had to put up the remaining $500 herself — another compromise of honor.
By then the two families were well into a feud, the couple had begun to quarrel, and the parents to exchange insults. Wanya’s mother threatened to make Maleva’s father “marimay,” or unclean, the worst thing a Gypsy can do to another. An object or a person unwillingly exposed by a woman to her own genitals is considered marimay, and unfit to associate with other Gypsies. A man and his family are ostracized for many months should it happen to him. Wanya’s mother threatened to make Maleva’s father marimay when, one day during a quarrel, she cursed him and pointed to her genitals to indicate that if she got any angrier, she would touch them, and then touch him with the “tainted” hand. When recalled, the incident brought disgrace so near in the minds of Maleva’s family that it was spoken of only in whispers and tones of dread.
By the time the two families were ready to make a crees, there was much “dishonor” and “disgrace” that had been suffered by Maleva’s family, and they wanted the jurors to rule that none of the marriage price be paid back, and indeed, they said, Wanya’s family should pay them for their suffering. The trial was held a week after my visit, lasting all one evening and through the night. The principals, their families, and other Gypsies who held an opinion about the couple shouted for hours, coming away hoarse from the rented hall. Maleva got custody of the child, but her father had to pay back $1500 to Wanya’s father.
ONE of the reasons Gypsies hold the Gajay in contempt is, they say, because we are materialistic and attached to our possessions. But the Gypsy is also materialistic, almost a caricature of us in his buying of Cadillacs, diamond rings, mink coats, and color television sets. The difference, the Gypsy maintains, is that he doesn’t become attached to what he owns. To prove it, he takes no care of his possessions. Gypsy Cadillacs, even when they are still new, characteristically have torn upholstery and dented fenders.
Peppa makes $50,000 a year and owns an apartment building in Miami Beach that provides additional income, but one would not suspect it by looking at members of her family or the outside of their little pink $18,000 house in a lower-middleclass section of Queens. But inside the house, all the walls have been ripped out to make one big room following Gypsy preference. Expensive gilt and brocade sectional couches, on which the family sleeps, contrast wildly with the florid red and black wall-to-wall carpeting and ornate lamps. On all the furniture and walls were stains, marks, and tears to which no one paid attention. In the center of one wall was a huge color television set. A broken otic stood next to it; rather than fix the old set, they had purchased a new one. The closets bulged with clothes, many of them never worn, especially the traditional long skirts and low-necked tops that American Gypsies now wear only to Gypsy gatherings. (On the streets they are unrecognizable except to an experienced eye because their dress is American.) There were several mink coats. The bureau held a large collection of gold-coin necklaces, antique jewelry, and diamond rings. Peppa’s husband, Nicola—also known as “Deaf Nick” according to the Romany custom of nicknaming for a characteristic - had many drawers full of handmade silk shirts, and in a closet were as many baggy but custom-tailored suits. His daily attire included large topaz cuff links, a diamond tie clip, and a solid-gold belt buckle with gold coins soldered to it. He wore two gold watches, one on the wrist and one on a chain in his waistcoat. Since, as the Gypsies say, “the woman makes the man,” Peppa kept Nicola always in a new Cadillac. A large portion of the family’s money also seemed to go to innumerable medical specialists, since American city-bred Gypsies are hypochondriacs.
It is characteristic of Gypsies, rich or poor, to be often without money, since they respect spending, not saving. And there was no embarrassment on Peppa’s part when, moneyless, she had to borrow from me. Over the week I loaned money to her, Nicola, and their daughters on many occasions (and was punctiliously paid back each time). Once, when a plumber was summoned in an emergency, Peppa at first tried to get out of paying him. “Just send me a bill. Mister,” she said, with a cavalier wave of the hand. But the plumber wanted cash. “I thought you came to help us out. Mister, but I see you just came to take our money,” she shouted. Cowed, the plumber took what he could get, which was my five dollars, and left. When he was gone, Peppa said: “It’s a good thing he didn’t know I’m Gypsy or he never would have gone away without all the money.” It is a lesson increasingly being learned by landlords, doctors, and stor es that cater to the Gypsy trade.
Among themselves, Gypsies recognize differences of tribe. There are basically four tribes throughout the world: Muchwaya, Calderash, Churura, and Lovara. The Muchwaya and Calderash are the two that have come to this country in the largest number. The Muchwaya are the smaller of the two, and have adapted in such a way that they have become the richer. It is generally the Muchwaya women who make boojo, although some Calderash — such as Peppa, who is married to a Muchwaya — practice it too. The difference between tribes is small. There arc variations in a few of the words they use. The Muchwaya, for instance, say “lovay” for money, and the Calderash say “loy.” Marriage tends to be within the tribe, but this is not a fast rule.
Contrary to the popular belief, there are no kings or queens among the Gypsies. In fact, there are no rulers. They are governed by the crees, which represents the general will, and their traditions. Some Gypsies become more powerful than others by playing politics and having a wile who makes a good deal of money. These Gypsies cultivate the police, local politicians, lawyers at the district attorney’s office, and judges. When another Gypsy gets into trouble, the Gypsy politician uses his pull to get him off and his wealth to cover any expenses involved. Sometimes he can even exact “taxes” for the protection he offers. Gypsies who balk at payment, or become competitive, arc informed on.
Although they live surrounded by the Gajay, and get to know the most intimate secrets of some, Gypsies surprisingly understand very little about us. They make generalizations from what they observe of their customers, from what they see on television, and random experiences. I he picture is distorted. Since they do not send their children to school, or attach any value to the kind of education we prize, there are great gaps in their understanding of Gajo institutions and culture. I was in Washington, D.C., one day and happened upon a Gypsy family taking a guided tour through the Capitol. It was unusual, so I followed to eavesdrop on them. Near the Senate chamber they smiled and nodded appreciatively as the guide told the dimensions and other statistics of a mural. But they did not understand what the Senate chamber was about. “Who sits there?” the Gypsy woman asked her husband. “The jury,” he replied. During my visit at Peppa’s. she asked one night, “Who is Gromyko?” I replied that he was once the Russian ambassador to this country, and she wanted to know what an ambassador does. I explained that he watches over his country’s interests in another country. She could understand why they would be necessary to try to keep the peace in unfriendly countries, but she could not understand why the Gajay need an ambassador in a country they get along with. She soon tired of my attempts to explain Gajo ways, and changed the subject.
As the visit wore on, the hostility that attended my initial presence — as an outsider who would not make them richer — subsided, and the family began to speak less guardedly, Sonia, one of Peppa’s daughters, asked one night, as we shared a plate of fish and potatoes — eating the Romany way, with our fingers — what I thought of the Gypsies, having seen them up close, I said I thought them nice. She replied: “You know what I mean. What do. you think about, you know, the way we make our living? You think it’s bad that we do that . . . make boojo, don’t you?” she pressed. “You have to, those are your people. I would if I was you.” If she was sympathetic, I asked, why didn’t she stop? “I have to do it. It’s in the blood. If you’ve got the blood, you have to do it,” she answered with finality. Did she ever feel guilty? “You don’t feel bad. It’s not something to feel bad about. You feel good when you make boojo. That’s something good. You don’t think about the woman,” she replied. Did she ever wish she were a Gajee? “Sometimes I wish I was a Gajee. You have a nice life. But we’re different people. A Gypsy, he doesn’t murder, he doesn’t kidnap, he doesn’t rob banks . . .”
The religion was the most difficult of all to pin down, and in that respect it tells the most about them. Although they claim to be Catholic, the Gypsy religion is actually a confusing mixture of Christianity and ancestor worship. The latter is perhaps a surviving remnant from their Indian origins. As the Gypsies arrived and spread into the. Western world, beginning around the fourteenth century, they picked up smatterings of Christianity and assorted local folkways. All these make up their religion today, a creed that is without an organized dogma. When they do go to church, which is rarely, the Gypsies generally choose an Eastern Orthodox one, and they usually bury their dead in Eastern Orthodox cemeteries. Their forays into church are casual, and the one I witnessed was also raucous, although no disrespect was intended. Early in January five members of one family were killed in a fire at their Brooklyn ofisa. Some twelve hundred shocked members of the Muchwayatribe came from all parts of the country to mourn, and as they entered the church, many wailing with grief, they ignored the No Smoking signs that the experienced priest had put up for the occasion. Seating was a noisy business, with much yelling and changing of seats to join friends and console one another. Later, at the gravesite, still crying, they showered the coffins with liquor and money to give the departed a start in the next life, as the priest stood by praying aloud but being ignored. Again no disrespect was meant. And, while they seem to take their religion seriously, they are not averse to using it to fool the Gajay. Each ofisa has a small corner with an altar — a cross surrounded by candles and photographs of any recently deceased relatives. It is used by the family for its own infrequent observances, but also as a prop to convince the Gajay of their spiritual powers and closeness to God.
While at Peppa’s I persistently questioned members of the family in an attempt to grasp a body of dogma that I later learned does not exist. Tired of my questions and amused at my confusion, one of Peppa’s daughters repeated a story her grandmother had once used to answer her questions: The Gypsies once had a church,.she said, but it was made out of cheese. One day the Gypsies got hungry and ate it, and that was the end of their church.
There is another talc they tell — the only hint I heard of an attempt to rationalize and explain the Romany life. Some Gypsies say they believe it, others wink when asked if they do. When Christ was on the cross, the story goes, His persecutors were preparing a fourth spike made of silver to pierce his heart. Some Gypsies stole the spike, and Christ was spared the additional agony. God was so grateful that he gave the Gypsies permission to steal thereafter. I asked my hostess whether she believed the story. “How else can you explain it?” she replied. “Why can a Gypsy steal but he’ll never get caught? The Gypsies don’t have a church, and they don’t have a country, but God made them free and He watches over us.”