This piece is only a rough draft. I need a little more time and distance from my subject to put my thoughts together a little better. Here it is anyway.
1. There was a group of Gypsy women and children by the public drinking fountain. It was probably about 8pm and starting to get dark. They were between me and the pedestrian bridge across the river. They saw me and the women assumed the begging pose. One woman took the lead with her hand outstretched and the familiar routine began.
“Ay, good sir, give me ten denars, please for some bread for my children.”
“No thanks, sorry.” I had nothing rehearsed and that’s just what came out, “No thanks.”
The woman walked by my side.
“Please, sir, I am starving and I need food, twenty denars! Ten! Five!”
“Enough,” I said. That is what I have seen as second line etiquette in dealing with begging Gypsies, but she persisted and her tapping became pushing and yanking on the shoulder strap of my bag.
“Go away! Now!” I said, raising my voice and looking her in the face. I picked up my pace and did my best to ignore her. She finally fell away from me after a horribly long distance. I felt angry and mad. I didn’t like distrusting people and yelling at them.
2. Coming down the other side of the bridge I saw a second group. This time it was a trio of boys aged somewhere between nine and eleven. They had been playing, throwing things off of the bridge and pushing each other. Then they saw me. As I was already looking at them, it was as if I had signed a contract. One’s little hand went forth and out came the usual words, “Ay, good sir, give me ten denars, please for some bread.”
By now I have come to accept that I cannot hide. I will always be recognized as a foreigner here,and so instead of the regular protocol I spoke in English.
“Really? I can’t stand this anymore! I am so sick of this shit!”
He looked puzzled and his hand lost some of its confidence. I shook my head with exhaustion. He left me alone faster than I expected. I was glad it was over with, but I didn’t like cussing at another person.
3. Crossing the city’s main pedestrian square I saw a small band of very young Gypsy girls going from person to person. The girls were maybe five to seven years old. I watched as they tried to talk to two tall blond women walking along in big sunglasses, short miniskirts, and high heels. The girls couldn’t get their attention at all. The women acted as oblivious to the girls as if lost in a long distance cell phone conversation.
I skirted around the girls before they gave up on the women and before they selected me as their next target. I watched one of the little girls go to the entrance of a small boutique. I was ready to see a shopkeeper shoo the kid away. No one likes beggars and having one near your store or restaurant can hurt business. I watched for a minute as the woman in the store seemed to have a conversation with the child. The woman wasn’t mean or defensive. I don’t know what they talked about, but the woman seemed polite and not threatened by the intrusion. I thought maybe I should try talking and asking questions rather than blank refusals.
As I walked around I found a bench where an older man was playing an accordion. He had a shoe box at his feet for tips. I have been in the habit of giving money to as many street artists as I encounter. On one hand it seems prejudicial, favoring those privileged enough to know an instrument and well off enough to own one. But on the other hand, the Roma are also known for their musical talents. Wedding receptions and funeral processions are the exclusive domain of Gypsy bands.
As I sat I watched a young Roma boy flit from bench to bench asking people for money. His head would nod as if emphasizing the affirmative nature of his request. When he came to me he held out his hand and gave the same quick nod as he said, “Give me twenty denars.” No “Please” and no “Oh kind sir.” None of the usual act.
I asked him what he was going to do. He looked at me like he didn’t understand.
“For bread. Give me twenty denars for bread,” he replied.
“No, not what are you going to do with the money, what are you going to do for the money?” I asked. I felt like a heel, as if I wanted him to sing for his supper, as if I were trying to make a monkey dance for a banana.
He still looked confused.
I pointed to the man with the accordion and said that the old man was working for his money. He wasn’t holding out his hand just asking. The boy agreed but said he had nothing to offer.
“I don’t believe you.
He said he didn’t. He was too poor to learn an instrument.
I repeated that I didn’t believe him. I asked if he was Roma, and weren’t all Roma masters of music?
He conceded that he did know, but he played the drums. He began flailing the air like mad. “You know, drums?” he asked.
“Yes, yes, I know drums.”
“Then give me twenty denars!” he demanded.
I countered that he hadn’t really played the drums but had only hit the air. He told me that the drums were at home and now I should give him thirty denars. When I refused he sat down beside me.
“Twenty denars,” he repeated, as if it were my last chance to get in on a good deal.
He sat for five minutes or so before he moved on to other benches and pedestrians. I saw one girl standing with a friend waiting for someone pony up a bill for the kid and he went traipsing away. I sat and enjoyed the folk songs coming from the man with the accordion.
Ten minutes later the boy reappeared. Visibly happy I had not moved, he approached in a bid to pick up where he had left off on his attempt to erode my will power.
He pointed in my face and demanded twenty denars. I laughed and shook my head before I realized he was pointing two fingers at me like his hand was a gun.
“Give me...money,” he said now in English, but I told him more seriously he wasn’t getting anything that way, that that was wrong.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “What is that? You have chocolate on your face. You’ve been eating ice cream!”
He put his hand to his mouth and told me I was wrong. That wasn’t from ice cream, he said. That was from candy.
“Whatever,” I said, but told him he hadn’t used his money for bread but for candy. I wasn’t going to pay for his candy. He swore he would use my money to get bread. Twenty denars! He pleaded.
“No,” I replied. I told him I would never believe him again. It would be better if I bought the bread for him myself. He thought it was a fine idea until I questioned how much he really wanted a whole loaf of bread.
He told me that if I was going to buy him a loaf of bread, it would be better if I bought him a sandwich with tomatoes and French fries. He said it, again, in such a way that it seemed it would benefit me more than him.
I told him I didn’t believe that he’d be happy with that. That the next thing would be a drink and desert. I stopped myself, “Oh wait, you already had desert!”
He rolled his head around in frustration and asked one last time if I was or was not going to give him twenty denars. I told him if he hadn’t had all that chocolate on his face I might have. He put out his hand to offer an handshake. We shook and he formally bid me good bye. As if to prove something, he went to the next bench and approached a young man who was half way through eating a ear of roasted corn. The guy looked at the kid, then at the corn, then at the kid again. He handed the boy the corn and the kid started gnawing away as if he was an animal who had caught his prey.
I was glad I had talked to the kid rather than yelling at him to go away. I still wished there was a better way though. I wished I could really know what a beggar needed and give it to him or her.
4. The next day I was back in the town square. I had spent part of the day hiking on Mt. Vodno. I was exhausted from the steep climb and was taking a rest before I headed back to my apartment. It was around 7pm and people were starting to come out of hiding from the day’s heat. The square was filling with vendors of toys, used books, bootleg DVD’s, ice cream, corn, and little fried dough rings.
I didn’t see the Gypsies out tonight and felt relieved. No guilt for having a better life, no fear of being pickpocketed. A woman, probably twenty-five years old, was walking slowly by me when she stopped and looked at me. She was wearing a big sweatshirt with “USA” on it and baggy plastic running pants. She didn’t look Roma and I was surprised when she asked me if I had one Euro I could give her. She said she needed to get home and didn’t have money for the bus.
I couldn’t believe I was hearing the same story I often heard in parking lots in the US. I told the woman no, and that everyone I met said they needed money and I didn’t have enough for everyone. I said that this was Macedonia, there is an economic crisis, everyone needs money. But she stared at me as I sat there. She looked like she was thinking.
“Where are you from?” she asked me in English.
I told her I was from the US and she asked again if I really couldn’t give her a Euro. I said no and asked her to leave, but then she sat down next to me. She kept staring at me. I didn’t like it. She was close enough that I could see the hair growing out of the mole on her upper lip. There was something in her eyes that I couldn’t make out.
I asked her to leave me alone. She sighed and looked down at her hands, then back at me.
“Would you like a massage?” she asked.
I resisted my jaw dropping open. Without thinking I said, “You need to go, now!”
She made no move at all. I got up and left feeling dirty for having been asked such a question.
The next five minutes as I walked through the growing evening crowd, the next half hour as I walked home, then next days and week as I went about my business as a teacher on summer break, a writer taking time to work on his craft, and as a tourist buying souvenirs and eating at restaurants, I thought of this lady. I thought of the sigh and how she looked at her hands. I had been so shocked that I didn’t have time to think about how she must have been working herself up to the question. All I could think about was myself and not about what she was willing to do for money.