Gypsies & Stick Shifts

When I was a kid, my cousin Mark and I were playing in my grandparents’ yard. While we crashed our bikes into trees or played Land of the Lost, a woman walked onto the front porch and knocked on the door. She spoke to my gram for a little bit, then left.

So we both ran into the house.

“Who was that lady?” we asked, breathlessly.

“It was the woman from the adoption agency,” my mother replied, matter-of-factly. (Though I am sure she will deny this, it is true, trust me.)

“What’d she want?” we asked, a bit scared now.

“Well, if you two don’t behave, she’s coming back to pick you up.”


Anyone who’s spent even a nanosecond around kids knows you never know what they’ll remember, and this is one of those very incidents. It’s stuck with me all these years for two reasons:

One: I totally believed her. Anyone who knows me knows I tend to be a bit too, ah, literal. It’s a curse I’ve suffered my whole life. When we lived in an apartment complex outside Philly, I remember coming in from playing covered in mud. I was probably four, and my mom freaked.

“Oh my god, and look at your new sneakers!”

So she cleaned me up, washed the sneakers, and eventually I was good to go back outside, with the admonishment: “And don’t you dare come back with muddy sneakers again!”

A few hours later I appeared at the door, covered head-to-toe in mud, barefoot, pristine sneakers in hand.

Two: I’ve heard more than a few tales of growing up that included the threat that if said kids didn’t behave, they’d be given to the Gypsies. So why were my cousin and I threatened with the orphanage when perfectly good Gypsies abounded in our central New Jersey existence?

Because we were the Gypsies. Not that we lived in wagons, told fortunes or even looked like your stereotypical cigány. But my gram was Hungarian Gypsy. Telling us we were being sent to Gypsies would’ve been about as effective as saying we were going to Aunt Katie’s to swim in her in-ground pool.

Since moving into the tin can, I’ve been thinking a lot about that side of me. I used to joke with my family that I got all the gypsy blood – I’d moved to more cities, states and countries than my age starting at about five, and never stopped.

But all joking aside, the existence of actual Romani, especially outside the U.S., is one of hardship and constant persecution. I nearly had a stroke when I heard about French President Sarkozy kicking all the Roma out of the country and back to Romania.

Right now, there’s a trial on in Hungary of a bunch of men who went on a cigány killing spree, taking out kids, babies and old people in their hatred. Apparently the killings were performed with military precision, and it wasn’t until a baby was killed that the authorities bothered to take notice.

Europe’s human rights court is also hearing about forced Roma sterilizations:

“The Communist governments in Hungary and Czechoslovakia applied a semiofficial policy of forced sterilization to limit the population of Gypsies, whose large families were seen as a burden on the state. The practice ended only in recent years, long after the fall of those regimes.”

Problems abound with the inclusion of Eastern European countries in the EU. Finland doesn’t know what to do.

Gypsies have been hated for god knows how long, which is probably why, when my gram’s people came to the U.S., they simply Americanized their name and pretended to be just like anyone else.

And why, to seek out actual Gypsies, I had to face one of my greatest fears at the time: the manual transmission.

Gareth McIntyre, Mr. McIntyre & Heather in Dumfrees.

On my second trip to Lockerbie, Scotland, in 2001, the photographer working with me realized we needed to get around quicker than the bus.

“I think we should rent a car,” was out of her mouth before I could even think to change the subject.

I froze. This was not good. This was Scotland, and the odds of an automatic-transmission car for let were about as good as finding a six-foot tall blonde guy at the local pub. In a word: not bloody likely.

“Well, maybe there’s something. Why don’t we call around?” I said, trying to keep the panic out of my voice. “Maybe find an automatic?”

The entire McIntyre clan snorted with laughter. We’d been staying with them, and they thought renting a car would be a fine change from hauling us all over Scotland hunting down Robert Burns’ ghost.

Robbie Burns apparently got pneumonia & died after bathing here. Not shocking.

As Mr. McIntyre got on the phone to local car rental places, I looked for a paper bag to hyperventilate in. See, my stick shift history at that point was less than stunning, not to mention downright scarring.

I spent the summer I was 16 in Norway, hanging out with my 18-year-old cousin Eivind and his equally teenaged friends. So, yeah, a whole summer of teenage boys and me. Problem was, I was like the tagalong kid sister to the lot of them, though one – a drummer named Kjell – took pity on me one day.

“You want to learn?” he asked, pointing to his stout, maroon Volvo sedan with leopard-print seat covers and fuzzy dice.

“Sure,” I said, trying to act all cool.

So, we drove to the base of the Olympic ski jump and switched seats. A few popped clutches, a spot of whiplash, and only a little bit of gear grinding later, I was cruising around the parking lot, laughing my ass off while the Scorpions wailed out of the tape deck. “This is so easy!”

Which made what happened when I finally got my drivers license that much worse. I took the driving test in my mom’s big Chevy station wagon. Then my parents decided to make the 5-speed Chrysler LeBaron mine, with a big caveat: I had to be able to drive it.

“No problem!” I said, hopping in, my mother clutching her seat belt, half a dozen cigarettes lit in the other hand. I reversed out of the driveway, put it in first, and stalled.

Honestly, it doesn’t even matter what happened next, because this is the end of this saga.

I’m not even going to relive the trip to the store with the whole clan, brother yelling at me from the back seat, mom smoking like a chimney, dad next to me telling me to “Go!”

They sold the LeBaron. I drove the wagon.

And from that point, my manual-transmission days were done. The family joke was that I should probably move to the U.K., the rationale being that everything’s on the opposite side, and since I’m left-handed that’s probably my problem.

Which I was thinking of when Mr. McIntyre finally got off the phone with the good news. “There’s a place not far away that will give you a discount because you are working on the book.”

Oh lovely.

So I got in the car to face my nemesis. We arrived at a tiny building with two or three cars outside. They were puny, and all stick shift. I walked in, my bravest face on, handed over my credit card and walked out with the keys.

“Here, you wanna’ drive?” I asked Heather, the photog.

“I can’t drive one of these things.”

“Um, I can’t really either.”

“Okay, I’ll try it.”

We got into the little blue Renault Cleo that would be our home for the next few days and started her up. I can only hope the owner wasn’t watching as it took at least a dozen attempts to simply move it into the road, bucking like a bronco.

We started along the road, slowly. “Oh my god! You’re on the wrong side!” I hollered. She swerved to the left-hand side and drove up and over the curb with a thud. “I guess I know why those plastic ties are holding the hubcaps to the wheel!”

We made it to the end of the road. Mr. McIntyre’s was another left, up a hill, and a right. We made the left, started up the hill and … hit a light. It wasn’t a San Francisco-worthy hill, but when you can’t actually drive a stick shift and are sort of improvising, it might as well be the Himalayas.

So I pulled the emergency brake.

“Hey, it’s not moving!” Heather said when the light changed.

“Oh yeah!” I released the brake and the tiny car with the sewing machine engine squealed its tires like a NASCAR racer. After that, we had about four car-lengths around us in every direction.

We managed to get the thing from place-to-place for the next few days. That’s when the road trip idea was born.

“There’s apparently this cool horse fair down by England where the Gypsies buy and trade horses. It’s supposed to be pretty cool,” Heather told me after getting the low-down from Mr. McIntyre.

Gypsies? Real Gypsies? In Appleby, England, of all places? I was sooo there.

“You have to drive,” Heather told me once we’d left the McIntyre’s. “I’ve been doing all the driving. It’s your turn.”

So I tried. I got in, adjusted the seat for far too long, and finally, taking a deep breath, turned the car on. I made sure the clutch was in – no bucking broncos while the McIntyres were watching – and put it in reverse.

For some reason I have no problem with reverse. Backwards brain? Who knows, but I got it out of the driveway, and slid it into first.

“Hey, everything’s the same, only moved over to the other side,” I said, shocked that the clutch and gears were exactly where I always used them. “That’s really retarded. Why put everything on this side, then?” I mused, feeling a bit better that I didn’t have to do everything opposite and flipped-around.

I managed to get the thing from Dumfries to Lockerbie in one piece and without stalling. We met up with our fellow writers and photographers, told them what we were doing, and headed out, me coaxing the blueberry through the streets with only a little bit of staring when I’d shift.

The next few hours were magical: Having endured years of American drivers, it was a real treat to drive a highway where all the drivers moved when you needed to get by, let the merge lanes in and generally anticipated drivers’ actions. By the time we exited for Appleby, I was drinking soda, setting up an apartment in London on my cell, and only knocking the car out of fifth gear with my knee sometimes.

I was feeling capable, unstoppable, ready for anything. Until, that is, we arrived in Appleby and followed the traffic around a corner and up into a field. No camping there, buddy, just a bunch of horse trailers parked willy-nilly.

It was rainy, and the road into the field was muddy. I’d tried to keep moving, but was forced to a complete stop right before the slick entrance. So I put it in first, let out the clutch and … stalled. Again. And again.

At this point cars were honking, Gypsy kids were surrounding the car, laughing, and I was right at the breaking point where my sanity leaves me and all of a sudden I’m girl, interrupted.

But the universe works in obnoxiously strange ways, and on my fourth try I actually felt the proverbial sweet spot where the clutch and gas come together, like peanut butter and jelly…cigarettes and alcohol…Ben and Jerry. Next thing I knew, I could not only drive, but do it well. I’d mastered the blueberry beast. I was competent, hear me roar!

We drove from horse trailer to horse trailer, hoping someone would let us park next to them, but at each stop we were waved away. Finally, a particularly massive horse truck let us park about five feet away from them. We got out and wandered to the back, where the occupants were sitting on the back ramp, drinking whiskey.

“Thank you for letting us park next to you!” we said.

“Not to worry. Would you like some drink?” they asked.

“No thank you, we’re heading into town right now. But we’ll be back.”

We walked away, the older couple waving us goodbye, through the ever-increasing chaos in the field and down into the town.

Clean horsies.

The center of town was exactly what one might expect in the middle of the U.K. – stone, ancient, gorgeous. A bridge crossed a large stream from one side of town to the other, and just beyond it riders stood waist-deep next to horses of all shapes and sizes, lathering them up in the hopes of getting a better price.

We grabbed a beer, checked out the locals, and eventually decided we’d better head back toward the car. Heading up the main road to our field, we noticed an older Gypsy following us about fifty paces behind. I ducked into some bushes for a pee, hoping he’d keep going, but he just stopped. We continued on, he continued on. It got to the point where dude was so creepy, we didn’t even want to confront him to find out what the hell he was doing.

And this is one of the biggest problems with the Roma: it’s impossible to trust that they’re not going to gank you for your watch. Is it true? For some, yes, but even in those cases, their turn to lawlessness has more to do with the law itself than Roma morals. In fact, Roma morality is quite strict.

But when you’re got modern governments putting into law that Roma are forbidding to work, go to school or simply live in society, you force their hand. I doubt if you were forbidden simply because of the blood running through your veins to rent a home, hold a job or send your child to school you’d fare much better.

We have a long history of those sorts of persecutions in this country, all the way back to the wholesale demolition of the Native American communities and culture. Hopefully we’ve learned, in hindsight, what kind of bullshit was perpetuated.

Yet in Europe it’s still politically accepted, even popular, to cut the Roma off from greater society. True, Gypsies have always kept to their clans, but the laws make it impossible for them to have a safe and clean environment without fear of constant harassment, reprisal and torture.

If you don’t have an actual physical address in this country, you might as well curl up and die. H. and I have a perfectly good U.S. Postal PO box, yet when we tried to get some help from the state during the worst part of our economic debacle, we ran into a wall.

“You need an address,” we were told.

“We have one – our PO Box.”

“That’s not an address. Where do you physically live?”

We fucking don’t was the answer I wanted to give. In the end, I left the profanity for the car. Because we don’t have a physical address – i.e. the basis of homelessness, right? – and don’t know anyone else with an address we can use in Pa., social services sent our information to itself, at its own address.

Then, we were expected to constantly call in case something was there. And when we did pick stuff up, “Does not live here” was written on the envelope. Yeah, no shit. I’ve never seen anything so ridiculous, backwards, convoluted and pointless in my life.

And so, because we still do not technically have an address, H. and I continue to move through society, but not actually exist inside it. I can only imagine what it’s like across the pond.

I didn’t feel like stopping to find out that night in Appleby, though. Still not able to shake the shakedown artist – or so we figured he was – we approached about half a dozen large, strong and extremely inebriated non-Gypsy men.

“Excuse me. Can we stand with you? There’s some guy following us.”

“Aye, ladies! We’ll protect you! Would you care for a drink?”

Unfortunately, they were so drunk they eventually just wandered off, leaving us searching for the giant horse trailer – in a sea of dozens – and our little blueberry car. When we finally found it, we also found the trailer owners – an older couple from the north of Scotland and their horse hands – sitting on hay bales around some sort of heater by the side of the trailer, drinking whiskey.

“We were worried about you!” the husband exclaimed.

“We were about to send out a search party!” chimed the wife. “Come, drink!”

We spent the next several hours sitting on bales, eating Lockerbie cheese and bread I’d grabbed at the grocery before we left, drinking ourselves silly and having a great time.

Every now and then, and far more often as the night wore on, one of us would head into the horse trailer, pee in a bucket and dump it off the other side.

Finally, not even the Norwegian in me could compete with the apparently bottomless Scots. “I think I’m gonna’ pass out,” I finally announced, making for the car, opening the door and wondering where the hell the steering wheel had gone. “What the … oh, wait…”

I crawled around the blueberry and into the driver’s seat, while Heather climbed into the passenger seat.

“Hey, it’s goin’ get cold,” someone said at some point, handing a blanket through the window. We covered up all the way over our heads. Suddenly, the car started shaking. I heard laughing outside from the bale-pit.

“Dudes! Quit it! I think I’m gonna’ boot!”

For the rest of the evening I had nightmares I’d accidentally engaged the clutch and sent us careening down the field. It was an uncomfortable, lurching kind of sleep.

When I finally awoke to the sound of roaring engines and banging noise, I peered out of what, in actuality, was a well-used horse blanket. I climbed out of the blueberry, reeking of stale whiskey, cigarette smoke and horse. I grabbed my water bottle, brushed my teeth and wandered into the horse trailer to pee. As I tossed the bucket out the side, I realized there’d been a poor Shetland pony tied up there the whole night. She looked less than thrilled to have shared her few feet of dirt with multiple dousings of urine.

Finally, we could manage to stand well enough to wander around a bit. Which is when we found the Gypsies. A series of ornate wooden wagons stood in a line, with a middle-aged woman cooking something in a cast iron griddle suspended over an open fire.

“Hold on,” I said to Heather, walking up to the woman and engaging her in conversation. Finally, when it seemed like we weren’t going to be chased away, I asked if it was okay to take pictures and talk to people. She said okay, and I wandered over to a girl of about twelve, who was sitting on the step of one of the wagons.

We made some small talk, and I asked her where she was from. She looked at me like I was mad.

“Right here,” she said, matter-of-factly, motioning to the wagon.

And that’s the real deal about being a Gypsy – Roma or in spirit. And it’s what I love the most about my tin can. No matter where I am, I’m home. No moving, security deposits, packing and unpacking, or worrying about eviction. It’s the cheapest living outside a cardboard box, and it’s mine all mine.

For me, I suppose this is the American dream. Which is ironic, considering the pains my forebears took to come here, change their names, ignore their past and live the other, now seemingly deceased dream.

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