"The Last Holdouts"

Story Published in Atlantic Monthly


by Patricia Lynden

[Gypsies are a non-violent criminal population engaged primarily in lucrative confidence games against non-Gypsies -- collectively "the Gajay" in Romany, their language. The games are called "boojo" and are played on lonely women with love, money or health problems. I was eager to write a story about the Gypsies and had come to know the New York City Police Department's detective who was its Gypsy expert. He arranged for me to spend a week at the Queens home of a Gypsy family whose matriarch was called Peppa. She and her daughters were not eager to have me as a guest but their desire to cultivate the detective over rode their reluctance.]

...As my 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 [feminine for non-Gypsy]?  "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 [storefronts where Gypsies live and work].  Some twelve hundred shocked members of the Muchwaya tribe 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 pews 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 the story her grandmother had 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 tale 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." 



Copyright © Patricia Lynden 2010-2013. Photo from istockphoto. Site designed by Bruce R. Jaffe.