In conversation a few weeks ago, a friend of mine made a remark about “fucking gypsies.” I was a little surprised and he elaborated, “Hey, they’ve more than earned every negative and ugly stereotype ever perpetuated about them.” I was a little shocked. This man is NOT a bigot, quite to the contrary.
He explained that all of his encounters with gypsies were negative and that they were a culture of thieves–a wandering people.
I had been thinking about the treatment of gypsies I’d witnessed in Istanbul, where they were not even allowed inside the Grand Bazaar. Of course they controlled the commerce outside of it, where they sold knock-offs of everything from Adidas tube-socks to Don Ed Hardy T-Shirts, luggage, candy, black market caviar; you name it. I’d mentioned it to Ali, the guy driving us around and he said, “Do not, under any circumstance, talk to the gypsies. They’ll swarm you and pick your pocket.” Though they certainly were practitioners of aggressive marketing; nobody swarmed me or pick-pocketed me. They mostly said, “Big Man, I got leather. . .your size. I got socks for big feet!”
One was certainly aware the gypsies were there. One guy cracked me up by telling me, “Get your deals out here. The Turks and Russians will fuck you until you are dead. TOO expensive, my friend!” While they were all over you, they were no worse than the shills inside of the Grand Bazaar who will chase you down the aisles to persuade you into a sale.
Years ago, there were a whole building of gypsies next door to my studio on Damen and these folks were thieves. The men beat on the women and the guys would surreptitiously sneak mountain bikes and 10-speeds that they’d spent the day stealing, into their building at night. I’d called the cops on them many times over the four years they lived there, mostly for domestic violence. If I heard the women screaming, I’d call the police. I am not one to call the heat, (this is always a last resort for me ) but the beating of these women. . .some of them quite young. . .was beyond the pale.
One night, one of the younger mothers in their group bummed a cigarette off of me and smoked it outside for a moment’s respite. I’d seen her with her kids many times. She was about 25 and had three small kids and in another life she could have been beautiful. At this young age she already had wrinkles and crows feet and she just looked tired all the time. I’d see her standing outside once in a while, in her near-beauty, just trying to catch her breath between the needs and yelling of her children and from the beatings her husband inflicted upon her. She would never press charges, and the asshole would be back the next day. This was the last man I ever hit.
One day I’d called the cops after hearing a particularly desperate sounding howl from the building. Sure enough, the cops came and took the young woman away and the husband who had bloodied her lip and blackened her eye. It got back to him that I had been the one to call the cops and a few days later he came walking up screaming, “cocksucker” and a bunch of other crap at me and then he started poking me on my shoulder. I’m okay until someone lays hands on me; then it’s over. Before I could think, I hit him in the eye, he went down and when he tried to get up I hit him again, this time, much harder, and he stayed down . The other gypsies came out screaming at me and dragging him away and told me they were calling the cops. I went in and had a cigarette and called my lawyer and told him that in the next ten minutes I fully expected to be arrested and to meet me at Belmont and Western with bail.
I realized after about an hour, the cops weren’t coming. Still, I never felt good about it. It felt like an ugly kind of failure. Over the next few days I’d see this man’s children eye me warily going in and out of their building and I could tell what they were thinking. This is the man who beat my father.
As bad as I felt, I never apologized and I continued to call the cops when I heard the inevitable violence erupting next door. The young mother continued to walk by with new bruises and black eyes and I felt like some people get their hell here on earth. From time to time, she’d still bum smokes off of me, tearing the filter off and quietly smoking. Once in a while dispensing a nod or a quiet “thank you.” I asked her once why didn’t she leave and she said, “We don’t run away from our family.” I explained to her that she should not have to endure the beatings, and she said in her gypsy wedding she’d promised to obey her husband.
I never pressed it any further and one night they moved out, having stiffed the landlord and leaving no word as to where they were going.
I’m still offended at the treatment of gypsies that I witnessed in Istanbul. I don’t believe it is ever acceptable to treat any group of people in a dehumanizing way . Gypsies are definitely enigmatic and mysterious and like the rest of us, all too human. Still, I think of that woman who was my neighbor and her duty to a lousy life that literally bruised her every day. This one is for her.