A Gypsy in New York
by Juliette de Bairacli Levy
Pre-publication preview courtesy of Ash Tree Publishing
Chapter 1.9, continued from last month…
In any Spanish or Turkish or Balkan town one is almost sure to find a Gypsy quarter, also in many French towns; but New York has no Gypsy quarter nowadays, although I believe there was one once. I had no intention of asking the police to help me to find my friends! The only American guidebook that I ever saw which mentioned the Gypsies said there was a Gypsy quarter in New York in the neighborhood of the Essex Street market.
The book went on to say that around Broome Street, close by the market, there are many dark-complexioned people living in ground-floor places such as long-abandoned warehouses, or tenting out in backyards. These families are especially numerous along Attorney Street, where almost every ground-floor room is occupied by them. As their doors are nearly always open, it was easy to look inside and see the strangely “foreign” dwelling places of hanging curtains dividing the rooms into smaller portions, where family lived along with other families.
Mattress beds or rag-littered floors, very little furniture, and charcoal brazier fires in wintertime; and above all, flocks of dark-faced children with flashing smiles and teeth of pearls, the only begging children in that poor-class neighborhood, who dart out from almost every home, pleading, “Gimme a nickel, kind lady, kind genilman, gimme a dime” – these are the proofs. “These are the Gypsies,” the guidebook said.
And the book description is true enough of the kair (house) Gypsies of New York. For no matter how prosperous the fortune-telling Gypsies are, they nearly always choose to sleep behind their place or in their place, after the clients have gone away. They prefer bedrolls on the floor, thin, mattress-type things, which they will roll up and store away during the daytime. And the same house-living plan applies also to the other American Gypsies, whether they are the fortune-tellers or not. Some even erect tents inside the stores, and burn wood chips inside old tins, and that way fire worship as usual, although to a very limited extent!
I went to the Essex Street neighborhood in search of the Gypsies soon after my arrival in New York, but although I found there people from almost all lands, including many of the old-fashioned Yiddish-speaking types of black-clad European Jews, and many Puerto Ricans in gaudy clothes, there were no Gypsies to be seen. I patiently searched every street in the neighborhood and made inquiries in many shops. That way, from the shopkeepers I did find that Gypsies had lived there once, but only as recently as a year ago their places had all been condemned and the tenements had been pulled down.
Now big new apartment houses stood ready completed where the Gypsy tents had once been in the open yards, and more big modern buildings were being erected. Indeed, that typical noise of New York building construction could be heard on all sides, that hammering of steel girders, the whirring of the concrete mixers, and the knock of bricks falling or being laid into place. One Jewish grocer said he did remember the Gypsy families of Attorney Street, “Nice people, very handsome. They seemed to live mostly on bread and bars of chocolate. Did not use electric lights, liked to burn candles.”
I thought of the Gypsies that New York friends had described to me. Jean Goldfarb remembered when Gypsy families used to encamp at Jamaica, out in the borough of Queens. In her childhood there, a copse of trees was still standing, and the Gypsies would come and stay there, bringing with them their van-houses of beautifully carved wood, pulled along by fine and mettlesome horses, greyhounds running at their sides. They would light fires and sit around them.
The local children used to hurry from school to the Gypsy encampment and would be allowed to look inside the wagons and see the babies in wooden-box cradles. The schoolchildren were asked by the Gypsies to bring them a little boxwood kindling for their fires, and roots – potatoes, carrots, turnips – or stale bread leftovers, in return for the privilege of being allowed to see inside the Gypsy wagons, and to sit on the horses’ backs, play with the greyhound puppies, and so forth.
Jean remembered very well that the Gypsy people, not their animals, had a peculiar smell about them, “like goats.” The New York schoolchildren found that very exciting; people who really smelled like goats and who also spoke a language to each other that was quite unlike any of the many foreign jargons commonly heard in the New York streets.
Then further, they were a people who would suddenly strike up a wild singing or dancing for seemingly no other reason than that they wished to sing and dance, while they were leading in their horses or chopping wood for their fires. And sometimes they would pick up one of their brown babies and toss the child from one person to another across the leaping fire flames, to the astonishment of the New York children watching, and the unmistakable pleasure of the tossed little Gypsy.
To be continued…
by Juliette de Bairacli Levy
Author of Common Herbs for Natural Health