Maria's Story by Cyndi: Broken Hearts, Helping Hands

portrait by Linn

As she reached for her handbag, Catherine saw Joe approaching with a stack of manila folders. Not tonight, Joe! It’s Friday!

“Leaving early Radcliffe? It’s only six o’clock.”

I’m meeting a friend for dinner … You should try it sometime Joe.”

“Hey, I go out.”

She raised an eyebrow at the stack of folders.

“Yeah … well … I need you to look over a few of these interviews. We go to court in three days.”

“I’ll look at them in the morning. I promise.”

“You better. This scumbag got off on a technicality the last time he used his girlfriend for a punching bag. So, this friend … does he have a sister?”

“I don’t know, Joe … I’ll ask her … but I think she’s single. Want me to put in a good word for you?”

“I - No. I can get a date, you know!"

Laughing, she slipped on her coat.

He put the folders on her desk and cleared his throat, tapping the top file. “Tomorrow, Radcliffe. This is important.”

“Yes, Joe. First thing. I assume you’ll be coming in too? I’ll bring coffee and tell you all about Maria!”

She was still smiling as she entered the elevator.


It had been nearly six months since she’d helped reunite Tony with his grandparents. She was looking forward to seeing him and speaking to Maria, to finding out how Tony was doing. Catherine had hired a tutor to help him learn how to read. She hoped it was working out for him and that he hadn’t stolen the man’s wallet!

She checked her watch: 6:15. She had fifteen minutes to get across town.


Catherine gave the driver the address for The Gypsy Tea Kettle on 50th.

“Ah, old Maddy’s place. You lookin’ to get your fortune told, lady?”

“Just meeting a friend for dinner,” she replied.

“Try the stroganoff. You won’t be sorry.”


When Catherine entered the restaurant, she thought it could only be described as Gypsy shabby chic. There were booths with red crushed velvet seats to match the flocked wall paper, and several small tables where women in full Gypsy regalia were giving readings for customers. The “readers” were gazing intently into small tea cups and murmuring to their wide-eyed customers. The whole room was softly lit, and there were drippy candles in the necks of wax covered wine bottles on each table.

A young woman with jangling coins hanging from the shawl tied around her hips asked if she was here for tea and a reading.

“I came to see Tony Ramos.”

The hostess looked Catherine up and down, “So, you’re a friend of Tony’s?” she asked, obviously suspicious of any well-heeled gaje claiming to be a friend of a Gypsy.

“I met him when he came back to New York. I’m just checking in on him to see how he’s doing.”

“He’s working right now. Let me see if he can take a break. You’ll have to order something … we can’t lose a table. You want a reading or dinner?”

“Your stroganoff was recommended. I’ll have dinner after I talk to Tony.”

“Follow me.” She led Catherine to a booth and handed her a menu. “I’m Anna. I’ll see if Tony is free.” She left Catherine and flounced through the doors to the kitchen.

A few minutes later Tony came out wiping his hands on the stained apron he was wearing.

“Hey, Miss Chandler! Missed me, huh?”

“Of course. Can you sit for a few minutes?” She looked at Anna who was hovering nearby. “I’ll have the stroganoff, please.” Anna turned and went back into the kitchen.

Tony sat in the seat across from her. “You checking up on me?”

“Of course I am. Maria told me you were working here, so I told her I’d drop by. Is she here?”

“Yeah, she does readings three nights a week. You want her to give you a reading while you wait for your dinner?”

“First I want to know how you’re doing. How is the tutor?”

“He’s ok. He’s getting fat! My grandmother makes him eat after my lessons. How did you find a Gypsy tutor?”

“Maria suggested him. Are you enjoying reading?”

“Yeah, it was hard at first, but it’s getting easier. A Gypsy can do anything when he puts his mind to it. I gotta get back to work. You want me to send Maria over now?”

“Sure.” Tony got up to leave, but Catherine stopped him. “I’m glad things are working out for you Tony.”

“Yeah, thanks. Hey … tell Vincent ‘hi’ for me, would ya?”

“I will.”

She watched him walk over to Maria, who soon arrived at the table carrying a cup of tea.

“Hello, I’m Maria. Tony said you want a reading.” Maria held her hand out to shake Catherine's. A slight arch of her brow in the watchful Anna's direction let Catherine know that this ruse was solely for the other Gypsy’s benefit. “I’ll tell you what the leaves reveal when you have finished your tea.”

“Could you do the reading while I eat? I’m starving.”

“Let me tell Anna to have your dinner ready.”

Catherine finished the tea. Anna was busy with a group of college girls looking to have their fortunes told, but Maria returned, carrying Catherine’s steaming stroganoff.

“Tony looks happy. Thank you for keeping me informed.”

Maria tipped Catherine’s tea leaves onto the saucer and spoke to her in a hushed voice as if she were doing the reading.

“I thought you might like to see where Tony is working. But only on weekends,” she quickly added. “He washes the dishes. His grandmother dotes on him, but she makes sure he studies hard during the week.”

Over the next half hour Catherine ate while they talked about Tony rather than what was in the leaves. She laid her napkin on the table. “That was delicious. The taxi driver was right. That was the best stroganoff I’ve ever had!”

“What can I say?” Maria laughed. “Gypsies like good food.”

“Tell me Maria. How did you become a … How did you meet Vincent?”

Maria looked around. “Why don’t I meet you for coffee down the street? I’ll be at the corner in a few minutes. I’m done here for the night.”

Anna brought the check and Catherine paid the bill, leaving a rather nice tip. That won her a smile from the girl, who tucked the bills into a pocket hidden in the folds of her skirt.


Catherine waited at the corner newsstand for Maria. When she arrived they began walking, but Maria always maintained a distance of several feet from Catherine. Maria asked, “I hope you don’t mind going somewhere else for coffee. Anna and the girls have a habit of listening in on people. It helps with the readings, and none of them know about Vincent or that I’m a Helper.”

“How did you become a Helper?”

“I guess you could say I inherited the position. My father was a Helper before I was born. After he died ...” She shrugged. “I continued to help as much as I could. Helping the tunnel folks meant a lot to him.”

“I’m guessing there aren’t many Gypsy Helpers …”

“No, none. And no one can know why or how my father became a Helper. It wouldn’t have gone well if anyone knew my father was helping the dead.”

“The dead?”

Maria stopped in front of a coffee house. “Let’s go inside and get that coffee. It’s a long story.”


They sat at the small table. Maria took the seat which faced the door, watching customers as they came and went. When the waitress brought their coffee, Maria took a sip. “It’s not Gypsy coffee, but not too bad.”

“Tell me about your father and how he found the tunnels.”

“When I was little, my father used to tell me fairy stories about a lion boy who lived with secret people under the ground. He would make up stories about the lion boy and whisper them to me at bed time. In a Gypsy family, it’s the father that tells bed time stories, and he was a wonderful story teller.

"Then when I was fifteen, he brought me to Winterfest for the first time. Before we went, he told me that all the lion-boy tales were about a real boy – in a real place – and that if he brought me to see him, I would have to keep it a secret. So, that's how I found out about the tunnels and Vincent. And how I became a Helper."

“You said your father told you the stories when you were little. He must have been a Helper nearly from the beginning. How did he become a Helper? And why did you say he was helping the dead?”


“My father had a sister – her name was Cha’risma. I never knew her; she was banished before I was born. She was betrothed to a man in another vitsa. The marriage was to align the two clans. This would have made a strong kampania - the strongest in the city. Shortly before the wedding was to take place, Cha’risma told Julio that she couldn’t - wouldn’t - marry him. She wouldn’t tell him why, so he had her followed. He found out she was meeting a gardener who worked in the park … a gaje.”

“Julio was so angry that he went to the bandolier to see what could be done. Since she was refusing to marry her Gypsy betrothed and had been seen with a gaje man, it was considered a serious offense, involving two vitsi. A diavano was called. That’s sort of like an informal hearing. Both parties were called to see if things could be resolved. Another bride was offered, but Julio would have none of it. His pride was insulted, and he demanded justice, so a kris was called. Cha’risma was a bold woman, even by Gypsy standards. She stood her ground, and in front of the kri she declared her love for the gaje gardener.

"The kris ruled against her and declared her marimé. When you are marimé ... I don’t think you can imagine, Catherine, what it would be like to be marimé. Every person you know, everyone you care about, turns his or her back on you. Literally and figuratively. When you die, your family cannot even bury you. Your life as a gypsy is truly over.”

Catherine gasped. “That’s what happened to Tony’s father.”

Maria nodded. “When you are judged marimé, your whole family is banished. That is why Tony was not welcomed when he came back. It really was a miracle that a new kris was called for him. It’s just not done!”

“So, Cha’risma’s family disowned her?”

“There is no choice, Catherine. To go against the kris would have meant banishment for anyone who stood by her. My father loved his sister, but he was newly married. He couldn’t turn his back on his wife, so when the Krisnitorya stood and turned his back on Cha’risma, my father did too. As well as my grandparents, aunts and uncles. It is our way. It’s hard, but this is what has let us survive as a people for hundreds of years.”

“What happened to her?”

“When the judgment was made, she didn’t say a word to anyone, not to Julio, not to the judges and not to her family. She held her head up and walked out in silence. My father never saw her again until almost two years later.” She stopped talking and stiffened when the coffee shop door opened. She relaxed when a young couple stepped up to the counter.

Catherine looked over her shoulder, then back to Maria. “You really do worry about being found out, don’t you?”

“There is more than me at stake Catherine. Vincent and all the others ... You have to understand, I love my people, but there are a lot of like Tony’s Uncle Vic – ones, always working an angle or trying to take advantage of the gaje. They don’t believe gaje laws apply to them. Some of us are a little more … let’s say, diplomatic in our dealings with outsiders. But even at my brother’s shop, we don’t care if we are over charging for knock-off handbags.” She shrugged. “If the gaje are willing to overpay, then they’re getting what they deserve.

"But helping gaje when I could be helping Gypsies? I could be banished for that, even if I was just providing basic necessities. My first loyalty - my only loyalty is supposed to be my people. Necessities should go to a Gypsy in need and never to the gaje. And the tunnels ... they could be used for a lot of illegal activities. It wouldn’t matter to men like Vic that the tunnels are home to so many. They are gaje. They are nothing. There are those who would destroy everyone below if they wanted those tunnels. I don’t want to think what they would do if they found Vincent. There could be lives lost on both sides, and if they overpowered Vincent … It couldn’t possibly be a good thing. They could kill him, or worse, sell him to a traveling carnival. I’ve seen some of the people they keep in their sideshows."

Catherine nodded, thinking of Charles, and how his own brother abused him. Suddenly Catherine wanted to look over her shoulder whenever the bell over the door jangled.

“Tell me about your father and aunt. How did her banishment lead your father to become a Helper?”

“Two years after the kris my father was walking in Central Park with my mother, when he saw Cha’risma coming out of the conduit in the park. It was late autumn and she was dressed in mended clothes and without a coat. He told my mother to go home. He didn’t tell her he had seen Cha'risma, and when my mother left, he followed his sister. He trailed her for blocks, until she went into a place that gave food to the homeless.

"He waited outside, until she came out. He said she was not the same. She was thin and she looked tired, but when she saw him … He said when she saw him she just stood there. She would not speak first. She was still proud, and he knew that if they were to speak, it would have to be he who broke the silence. So, he did.”

“She was living in the tunnels? What happened to the gardener?”

“Yes. They talked for an hour or more. She told him that Danny, the gardener, had died of the flu. When she couldn’t pay the rent on the small place they’d shared, she was evicted. So she went to the tunnels. Danny had told her that there were whole families living under the park, people who had nowhere to go. When he could, he would sometimes leave them food or blankets that had been left behind in the park. He’d leave them just inside the cement conduit to be found. So she went there and waited. When someone came out, she asked if there was a warm place she could sleep until she could get on her feet.

"She had been there for six months when my father saw her. When he offered to help her find an apartment, she refused. She said the people below were like a family and that she wanted to stay and help them. He didn’t like it, but he also knew she couldn’t come back to her family and her Gypsy life. After that, he would help whenever he was able to. The first thing he did was bring warm clothing, coats, and blankets. Months later he went to meet her and she didn’t show up. So he left the basket of food by the entrance. Sometimes he would find a note she had left for him. When the notes stopped, he waited for someone to come. That’s when he found out she had died. He was heartbroken. But to honor her memory, he continued to help. Eventually he earned their trust and was welcomed Below and years later he told me his little stories of the lion-boy. I think he was preparing me."

“What a wonderful story! I’m glad you told me. I just have one question. Vincent has told me a lot about the early history of the tunnels, but I don’t think I remember him ever mentioning a woman named Cha’risma. That’s not a name I would have forgotten.”

“Oh, you wouldn’t have heard that name. Like I told you, she was a proud woman. If the Gypsies didn’t want her any more, she didn’t want the name they gave her either. She changed it to its English word. In Romani, Cha’risma means state of Grace … So she changed her name to Grace.”



Broken Hearts, Helping Hands
By Chelsea Volpe

When a broken heart,
is lying in your arms,
do you mend it,
or leave the opened wound,
When the sky is grey,
and the hungry swarm,
do you progress,
do you feed,
If tomorrow was never to come,
and today was your last,
would you love,
or hate,
Would you help and shelter,
or would you leave them bare,
and feed them to the arms of hell?


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