„Only who has money, can afford to brag he is a Gipsy”
Author: Livia Cimpoeru
Since we are little, we learn that work makes you nobble, regardless it’s nature. But we grow up and we learn to turn our heads when we pass by the people who dig up in trash. Bucharest is full of them: starting with the little recyclers who fish from fetid PET waste, wood and everything they can monetize, and continuing with the cleaning ladies, who labor in staircases and recover whatever they find from the dumpsters. They don’t have labor contracts, nobody pays for their holidays, they aren’t invited to courtesy visits and also they do not receive smiles too often. If they have a darker skin, the stereotypes and the mere human malice denies them any right.
At 41 years old, Costel bears the burden of two stigmas: one year in jail for a youth stupidity and the misfortune to be born in a Roma family in a country full of prejudices. With no home, he sleeps in a block staircase and lives from one day to another, collecting and selling recyclable materials to a recycling center from Mosilor, a street from Bucharest.
He talks with care and with attention to his words and he has a consistency that would give class to the commentators that we see so often at Tv. He doesn’t like to talk about his past mistakes and he doesn’t allow us in any way to make him pictures, „at least not in the conditions I live now”. He only wants a chance. „I have a criminal record, but I want to work. I went to school for ten years at a commercial professional school and I am conscientious if you respect me. Why I’m not granted this chance?”, he rise his hands questioningly. Three months ago he tried to be again like the rest of the world, hearing that there are vacancies ar Romprest, a sanitation company that accepts people with criminal records. „I did my medical exams, I signed a pre-contract with the Human Resources, I even talked with the director. They told me to give them a phone number, that they will call me…”
He does not understand why he has to pay all his life for a guilt that he already paid for. He doesn’t know for sure if that’s the reason for rejection, because his skin tone it’s not an advantage in front of the Romanian employer. „I left sick from there. I am still a human being, although I am dark-haired!”, he tries to convince an imaginary employer. He resigns himself with the finding that “among the Roma, nor those with higher education succeed in finding a job”.
For his politeness and his education, he has to thanks to his parents, „peaceful and hard working people, he only Roma family from a block in Berceni – a neighborhood in Bucharest”. Although he doesn’t keep the memory of notable incidents with his neighbors, he confesses that „I always felt a different look upon me, even if I was a child like the others”.
Costel thinks that „all this story with the Roma integration is only a bla-bla, a bullshit”. „Only talks and too little change. From the authorities, but also from our side”, he concludes briefly. „Sadly, in my situation there are many people. Some of them don’t even know how to write. I would like more understanding from those around us. I got to be ashamed to say I am gypsy. Only who has money can afford to brag that he is Gypsy”.
Alimony from „trash”
Although he doesn’t have an employment contract, Costel toils very hard daily. From dawn to night, he fishes paper, cardboard and aluminum doses from the dumpsters of blocks around the Bucharest’s city center. His luck is that the Romanians are convenient and they don’t know their value. He throws the recyclables into a dumpster on wheels and rumbles them to a collection center from Mosilor, from where he cashes around 15-20 lei per day (4 – 5 euro per day).
Like in any other business, he has a partner, Vasile, with whom he brotherly shares the streets, the money and a dusty mattress, from a block’s staircase. Vasile also comes from a Roma family, sheltered during the Communist times in one of the houses from the Old Town Center and evacuated from there a few years ago. His mother threw him out of the house received in exchange at the eviction and refuses to help him make an ID. This is why he can’t find a job and his only income source is the waste.
He has a 12 years old boy, for whom, although he doesn’t have any legal obligations, he struggles to raise money to give him „when his mother brings him from Prundu”. He is satisfied that, from trash and small commissions, he managed last month to give his child 260 lei (around 60 euro).
If employers prove to be sensitive to the skin color, ordinary people seem to show a little more solidarity with them. Costel and Vasile receive every day a meal from the kitchen of a luxury restaurant from the French Street. In return, the two men help them get rid of the garbage and everybody is satisfied. The residents of the block on Smârdan let them sleep in the staircase and, Vasile swears, nobody did them any troubles.
They collect the waste in a parking lot from the Old Center, where they are tolerated by the guards because „they are so poor and they collect a penny to survive”.
Costel and Vasile form a couple that never argues. Everything is divided by half, specially the poverty, which becomes, this way , easier to be endured.
„I don’t give charity to gypsies, because is not received by God”
Being summer, being winter, auntie Florica wakes up every morning along with the hens, to catch the train to Bucharest. From Curcani village, crowded in the famous commuters train from Olteniţa, she nods for two hours until she arrives into the big city, where she starts from the beginning the same the scenario of the daily toil: sweeping, scrubbing down and collecting the garbage from eight block staircases. She earns monthly 100 lei for a staircase, money for which she commutes six days a week. On her way to, she’s riding the blinds. On hers way back, she’s hitchhiking. She is 60 years old, she has rusty bones and dark skin, like many of the people from her village. The miserable pay doesn’t absolve her of the absurd claims of the residents nor of their racist remarks. Recently, a retired lady told her directly that „ she doesn’t give charity to gypsies because it is a sin and it isn’t well received by God”.
She is taciturn and she never comments. Nor she could afford. She couldn’t survive only with the 600 lei pension, received after working for 20 years „at Filatura, at cotton”. „Back then, the people didn’t have any problem with me being a gypsy. Now, they trough bad words to me”, says the old lady rising her shoulders.
When she encounters kindhearted residents, at charity she says „kiss your hand”, whatever she would receive: old furniture, food, worn clothes and everything people don’t need anymore in their homes. But she doesn’t rely too much on the Christians mercy, whatever Romanian or Roma, because she knows that „ if you don’t help yourself, nobody will”. Besides the daily toil and moil, she collects from the dumpsters anything she can monetize. Scrap („ now it is more difficult to find it because everybody is looking for it”), paper that she sells „ to a truck that comes weekly on Socului” ( A street near the block she is working in) and woods, to make the fire with them. She carries everything on her back, although she is very frail. At ten hours day work, she affords an one hour break, that during summer she „sleeps it”, on a small bench in front of a block.
She has a daughter and three sons, whom she helps as she can. „People die of hunger in Curcani. My boys stay home because they don’t have what to do. Where to work?” After 18 years of cleaning after others mess, her gaze is marked by the resignation of the survivor. She doesn’t dream at miracles from her peers and she doesn’t waste to much time thinking about what a difficult fate she had. She wants only this: „God to keep me healthy and strong as much as possible”.