Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Maybe We Should Send Them To The Gypsies

There have always been gypsies in Greece. When I lived there as a boy in the 1970's they were there. The stories people told about them are awful, about how they lie, cheat, steal, and worse. There had been an encampment just through the fence of the school I attended. They left us alone and we left them alone. Mostly they just seemed poor. A couple years ago, I became obsessed with a television program called The Riches, which followed the lives of a family of Irish Travelers, sometimes referred to as "white gypsies." Indeed, they lied, cheated, and stole, the whole family, working together, treating the rest of us like trees in an orchard from which they harvested their bounty. They weren't portrayed as "noble," but they had a strong, loving loyalty to family and tribe, and the fascinating part of the series was not just seeing their brilliant scams from the insides, but seeing our middle class American life from their perspective as worthy targets for their petty criminal activity.

For the past several months I've been engaged in a personal ritual here at home. Living downtown Seattle as I do, a city ranked near the top in terms of our homeless population, I've been filling my pocket from our change jar and making a point of giving something to everyone who asks. It's not an act of altruism, but rather a self-improvement ritual in which I challenge myself to not sit in judgement. If they have been reduced to begging on the street, be it the fault of society or self, be their attitude contrite or combative, it's none of my business. They are asking me for money and I have money to give them so I do, with eye contact, but usually without comment, unless they thank me, to which I reply appropriately.

I told my host John that I had spent my first morning wandering around downtown Athens giving away my change. He laughed and said, "You're ruining it for the rest of us." He understood what I was doing, but warned me that many of the people on the streets in Athens weren't necessarily homeless beggars, but professional con artist types, usually gypsies. It was the first time I'd thought about gypsies in years, my most recent exposure having been that television program.

As I sat drinking coffee one morning amongst tourists in the Plaka, I noticed a delightful girl who appeared to be around 10-years-old, a child-sized accordion across her waist. She was up on her toes, almost dancing as she moved, her eyes and smile bright. I was impressed by how boldly she approached tables, playing a few chords, beaming, standing perhaps a little too close, full of confidence, oozing charisma. When people waved her away she persistent, playing more chords, flirting with men and women alike, not taking only one "no" for an answer. Some gave her a coin or two just for moving on.

Between gigs, so to speak, she moved like a sprite among the tables. When a waiter attempted to chase her off she danced away, giggling, sometimes knocking silverware or napkins on the ground as a kind of prank, stopping to play a few notes and collect a few coins, even while chased. I watched her for several minutes, charmed by her girlishness, moving seamlessly between harvesting coins from tourists, taunting her tormenters, and stopping to (literally) sniff the flowers, play with dogs, and peer through shop windows. I've never seen anyone go about their work with more joy. She never came to my table, but had she, as charmed as I was, I'd determined I'd wave her off, not wanting to allow myself to be harvested by this obviously talented professional. I was later told she was probably a Romanian gypsy.

On my last evening in Greece, a group of us were eating sandwiches at a table on the sidewalk when a mother carrying a small child approached our table for alms. This is quite common in Seattle as well. We gave her a few coins, but when she persisted, we thought it might be fun to have one of our palms read. This was all taking place in Greek, so I didn't understand what was being said, but it was an amiable exchange. I began to watch the boy who was probably not yet three. While his mother predicted the future, the boy began to wordlessly point at our table top, struggling in his mother's arms. She lowered him to the ground without missing a beat. Our table top was bestrewn with the remnants of our meal: silverware, plates, glasses, bottle caps, napkins, and a few stray coins. It was the coins he was after, grabbing them in his tiny fist, ignoring the rest, harvesting.

The friendly exchange turned into a quarrel as our palm reader attempted to reject the five Euro note we tried to give her, insisting that it must be ten as five was bad luck. Meanwhile the boy had moved away from our table and was working to push the coins into his pocket. That done, the argument intensifying, he came back to our table, this time attempting to harvest the phones from our table. These were professionals at work, Turkish gypsies I was told, and this boy, not even three was already a master of his trade. At one point, a table mate said to me, "That boy is good. You'd better check your wallet."

I'm as against lying, cheating, and stealing as the next guy, but, you know, I'm also aware that these are professional talents used by business people in every country, everywhere. I'm aware that it was the lying, cheating, and stealing by the world's largest banks that were behind both the Great Depression and our more recent Great Recession. You can say what you want about these gypsies, but at least they don't compound their sins by hoarding houses, cars, yachts and cash the way those corporate gypsies do, those men in office towers who look upon the rest of us as something to harvest. If anyone deserves my anger it's them.

Corporate gypsies like Bill Gates, a man who started with a good idea, quickly built his market share on being first, not best, and who has now used his market muscle, governmental lobbying, and other bully-boy tactics to secure his business rather than the creativity and innovation of neoliberal legend, would now have our schools dedicating themselves to getting our children "college and career ready." They would have us ignore the finer purposes of educating our youth, to instead focus almost exclusively on vocational training, on competition, on "market forces."

If that was truly our goal, to get kids ready to assume their role in the economy, to chase after coins, then perhaps we would be better off sending them to learn the lessons of the gypsies. I mean, the gypsy children I saw will never starve, they have the skills and focus to be professional money makers already, even as two-year-olds. And on top of it, they really seem to be enjoying themselves, which is more than we can say under our current educational regime.

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