"Dying is a wild night and a new road."
For ten years I lived walking distance from the Chicago lakefront at the north end of Lincoln Park. On the weekends during the warm months tribal enclaves of seemingly endless ethnic diversity would stake out territory to barbecue the goat the pig and the fish. And bring together the extended family al fresco. Haitians, Salvadorians, Ethiopians, Hippies, Puerto Ricans, African-Americans, Hillbillies.
But, as an observer, my favorites were the Gypsies. The men in their wide-brimmed black hats and thick mustaches drinking red wine, smoking cigars and strumming guitars. The women in hooped earrings and babushkas reading the cards, peering into crystals and smoking pipes. The young girls in long colorful dresses dancing and twirling with each other. The boys practicing their pick-pocketing skills and honing their knife-throwing accuracy by lobbing their blades into tree trunks.
When I was a kid in Canton, Missouri, Gypsy caravans would move through town once or twice a year. They'd camp in the little park south of town on Route 61. Shopkeepers would lock their doors in a futile effort to prevent thievery and mother's feared for their youngest. But inevitably two or three local babies would go missing. Then, after a couple of days the Gypsies moved on and life was once again bleak and uninteresting.
In 1972 I was dating a woman who worked as a nurse's aide at a hospital on Chicago's near north side. I would wait for her at the hospital's side entrance. She would almost always be late because of all the vomit, shit and blood that it was her duty scrub antiseptically clean. Or because she was fucking some doctor in a supply closet.
It was autumn, dark early and a little chilly when I arrived for my wait. As I approached the side entrance I could see, silhouetted by the light breaking through the doorway, nine or ten figures of men milling around and sitting on the hospital steps. When I got close enough I saw that they were a band of Gypsy men, passing around a flagon of wine and in a celebratory comportment. They were talking excitedly, arms around one another and drunk. I nodded to them and found a space to sit among them. They passed me the wine. And made friendly conversation. They asked if I was waiting for a friend. I said "Yes. My girlfriend." "Is she beautiful?" they wanted to know. "Yes." They laughed approvingly, slapped me on the back and passed the wine again.
They told me that their queen was upstairs dying. By tradition the women were attending to her as she gave up the ghost while the men caroused and quaffed on the hospital stoop. They explained to me that death -- especially the death of a Gypsy Queen -- was a cause for celebration because death was just part of the grand adventure, a continuation of the mystic voyage of the soul that really had just begun with Life. It was a rebirth into a wondrous realm and the queen, because of her stature, would be welcomed with fanfare and ballyhoo by those on the Other Side. A reason to drink and cavort, they said, and passed the flagon around in raucous eulogy.
And -- at the moment of her death -- a new queen would be consecrated. More reason for happiness. More reason to swig wine and sing.
Marcia exited the hospital, took my arm and we began the walk back to her apartment after I said my goodbyes to my new friends. I explained to her what was going on with the Gypsies. She said yeah she knew. In fact the queen had just died she said.
As we walked into the cold, dark Chicago night a great "Huzzah!" erupted from the hospital steps. And the jug of wine was passed around again.