Tuesday, April 13, 2010

King of the Gypsies

When I was a child, the gypsies visited each spring our rural homestead in Forest Knolls, out in West Marin. Each spring, they came unannounced to fix our pots and to buy scrap iron and cotton rags. It was always exciting when the tinkers came to visit. They never stayed long—a half a morning, at most.

When the ancient cattle truck loaded overflowing with scrap iron and bare mattress springs—like something out of the Grapes of Wrath—heaved and grunted its way up the long driveway each spring, my grandmother hauled out her old pots. One favorite cast-aluminum pot was so old, she had worn a hole clean through it with her constant stirring, cooking for a full house of eight children and their friends, and then, later, me.

My grandmother kept things until they completely wore out—a hangover from the Great Depression. We kept tinfoil and rubber bands, newspaper and glass bottles. All our tablespoons had an oblique slant to them where she had worn them down. The saucepot was so far gone, I thought it couldn't be fixed. But the tinker stuck a flat bolt into the hole and threaded a nut on the outside if the pot, then he soldered it, and rasped down the nut and bolt. We still have the pot.

The gypsies sold all manner of odd things from kerosene to shoe brushes. One year, they sold us redwood patio furniture, No matter that we had no patio, only the wild hillside for a yard. We couldn't afford the fancy Adirondack arm chairs or the beautiful bent willow setees piled high in the cattle truck. But the redwood stake set was a good investment. My grandmother was living on a pauper's pension of $200 a month— I think they didn't charge her the full price for two chairs and a table.

I was surprised that my grandmother had dealings with these swarthy, dark men with moustaches and gold teeth, who spoke a strange language. But she treated them with respect, saying the Irish had their own tinkers too—she remembered them as a child. They fixed pots in the same way with nuts and bolts.

The gypsies lived up north—in Sonoma County. Sometimes they brought their young boys with them. I remember eyeing one boy my age but we were too shy to play. We were worlds and languages apart. It seemed like they were from the far ends of the earth—and so they were. These men were the real Ladino Gypsies, not Irish tinkers—or travellers, as they're called today. I feared for my horses. My uncle said, "you'd better be careful, or the gypsies will carry you off…" The thought was terrifying and sort of exciting at the same time.

One year, the tinkers stopped coming. They couldn't sell my grandmother another redwood set, the chairs were too well made. She cooked less, there was just the two of us in that bee-loud glade, so the pots held their own battle with entropy. The last of the scrap iron was long gone. Rags were replaced with useless polyester.

I sat a child's half-life in those redwood chairs until they disintegrated around us, and the staves became kindling for the woodstove, as we grew up and my grandmother grew older still. But we carried away with us a lifetime of stories to nourish our hungry minds another half-life away.

This fragment was spurred by a late night Facebook conversation with the great poet and storyteller, Lorna Dee Cervantes, when I told her about the funeral of the King of the Gypsies I involuntarily witnessed in Santa Rosa circa 1979 or '80.

I was trapped in my VW bug by Madame Rosa's palm reading parlor on Santa Rosa Avenue. All four lanes of the street were jammed. There was some sort of a procession with hundreds of eclectic and motley cars: old Cadillacs and even older cattle trucks—straight out of the Grapes of Wrath—filled with strange, dark men dressed in black and appointed with silver and turquoise. Their women dressed in full skirts, headscarves and bright floral shawls, and children, children everywhere—some were on horseback—painted horses dressed in tooled leather and silver—as they escorted Old Man Silva, the last King of the Gypsies, to his final resting place.

It was a strange meeting of worlds. And that day, Ladino was the official tongue of mourning.


judy said...

as you carried a lifetime of stories to nourish you, your writing is nourishing to me, the reader. i look forward to reading more of your blog, maureen. judy

Anonymous said...

You will find an article in the Santa Rosa Democrat Press that details the funeral. You will find it interesting. There was no obituary only word of mouth of the funeral.

Maureen Hurley said...

Dear Anon,

I can't find the article. I tried searching under Silva, Gypsy, King of the Gypsies, etc. Do I even have the name right? Do you have a date? Were you there? It's such an old memory, so surreal—as if I imagined it. I think it was circa 1980.


mmm said...

Maybe circa a bit later? Jewels thrown into the grave? A bit scary with guns? Mixed European and Native American or Judeo-Spanish? Perhaps a memory or record at http://www.saintseraphim.com/?

Maureen Hurley said...

mmm: It was in the early 1980s, I still had my VW bug. I was on Santa Rosa Ave, ironically by Madame Rosa's palm reading shop (not Madame Lisa—she's recent—tho she's in the same building, I think). I don't understand your comment about jewels thrown into the grave or gun reference. The men on horseback probably did have rifles—they were in full regalia with silver saddles—the likes of which I've never seen before—and I've seen silver saddles. I wasn't at the graveyard but everyone was headed south away from town. Not Judeo-Spanish—as in Saphardic. People were speaking Ladino and Silva is a Portuguese name.

mmm said...

I suspect the funeral was Orthodox as would befit The King of the Gypsies, and that one of my brothers was the priest. He wasn't scared but somebody asked him why he wasn't. The Church drew people from diverse backgrounds. I notice now it even has Poetry Nights.