Down and Out in Cluj-Napoca

This has been a very good week and I thank all of you who left messages of support – they were warmly appreciated. I’m grateful to be closer to finding my serenity and joy.

I didn’t plan it this way but I spent a good part of week in the company of a couple members of Cluj-Napoca’s homeless community. You might remember from an earlier post that I’ve known some of them for years. I know a lot of people, especially Romanians, think it’s very odd (not to mention dangerous) to spend time with the homeless but those were some of the most peaceful hours I enjoyed all week.

If I were a magazine writer, or included to chase that kind of short-length freelance work (which can be quite lucrative, btw, if you’re interested) I’d now be shopping around a tighter piece complete with a photograph like the one above (which I borrowed from here) showing the homeless in some dramatic pose, perhaps shot (or adjusted to be) in black and white to highlight the contrasts.

But I’m not a short-length writer and don’t want to be. I wrote over 7,000 words per day last week, most of it for a book, and I have no doubt whatsoever in my mind that I prefer the long reads. The book, by the way, is my first piece of fiction. While it is not exclusively about Romania there is an important angle involving Romania. It’s about a young man meets a stranger with a curious secret and then gets roped into a mysterious adventure. It’s been incredibly fun writing this book, to the point where I turned down offers on Friday night to go out, preferring to stay home and write.

But that book isn’t finished and what I came to write about today was the homeless. Although I’ve known them for a long time, it was always in the context of chance encounters slotted in the various segments of my very busy life. This past week however, I was completely unemployed, no time I had to be somewhere, no job I had to get done by a certain deadline, nowhere I had to be. So when I ran into them and they offered to hang out and spend some time together, I said yes.

Last year on September 11 I wrote When The Tigers Broke Free. This year I spent it in a cemetery. It’s a beautiful old cemetery, incredibly large, nestled right into the downtown city center, an oasis of calm and green and peace in a busy metropolis. My companions mostly chose it because it is one of the few places they can sit and spend some time without upsetting anyone. But there are large, old trees, that sway gently in the mild breeze, and I was very thankful indeed to be out under the open sky again. I had forgotten how much I missed the sky.

Way in the back corner, at the crest of a very long and steep climb, I came across a small section, bordered with an iconic red star that I have not seen in a very long time indeed. As we got closer, I saw to my surprise a large plinth with an engraving in Russian.

In this separate section, bordered with the stars of the Red Army, lie the remains of hundreds of Soviet soldiers who all gave their lives in August 1944. And here they lie today, completely forgotten, weeds growing up in the crevices, the row after row of tombstones, simply adorned with a name and the word “soldat” (soldier) fading into illegibility. Even the great plinth with its bold inscription is cracking and one of the marble panels will slide off soon.

Who here remembers what happened that third week of August, all those years ago? Who here remembers the bullets and the screams and the blood and the explosions? Who here even remembers what it was all for? The Soviets are gone, vanished, disappeared in the waste bin of history. So are the Romanian Communists, and the Romanian Fascists they fought against. The king from those days is a tottering old man and will soon be gone himself. And all of that blood, all of that energy and pursuit of politics and goals is now a sad little relic moldering away in a forgotten corner of the cemetery.

I realized that one day, the dead from September 11, 2001 and the dead from all of the wars that were spawned because of it, all of them will one day be the same, buried in some remote place under tombstones engraved with strange symbols, none of it making much sense at all to future generations. Here died someone for a great cause that now means nothing to anyone.

And that is how I spent September 11 this year, in the stark but peaceful resting place of young men who died a terrifying death a long time ago.

When you spend enough time with the homeless, you begin to realize there’s a completely new layer of society under the normal one you see. You acquire a strange kind of invisibility. Unless you impinge on their space, people are more than eager to not see you at all. You know it because I know it – you see these poor, raggedy people, sometimes smelling absolutely awful and you don’t look because you don’t want to look. What good is looking going to do? They lead miserable lives and it either offends and angers you or else you feel guilt because you don’t think anyone deserves to live like that but you’re powerless to do anything about it.

There is one group of society that sees you quite well when you’re homeless though. They’re always male and they are some very nasty individuals indeed. They are the same men who take jobs as railroad “bulls”, as prison guards, as enforcers, whatever kind of work requires being vicious to the less fortunate especially when cruelty is your favorite kind of entertainment.

The homeless, with their lack of friends, without connections and always carrying around their belongings with them, are the daily target of these bulls. Every homeless person in Romania who begs for money has, at one point, had the shit beat out of them by someone and their money taken by force. Sometimes those doing the beating are the police themselves. Sometimes it is other men, always with the confident knowledge that no one in society, including the police themselves, have any extra energy to care about the homeless population.

It’s a life of circular misery, where there is no safety, no certainty, where every coin received may be taken at a moment’s notice, where you have to find somewhere new to sleep, somewhere to wash, somewhere to set your things without them being stolen, everyone pushing you to move along, get out of here, leave me alone, go away and get a job, you’re not my problem.

When I walk down the street with my clean, pressed clothes, with no raggedy bags stuffed with odds and ends, with money presumably in my pocket, I am welcomed everywhere and treated with respect. The bulls are there but ignore me. I am well-fed and can resist, I have rights and know what they are, I will call the police on my telephone. But every day is fraught with danger when you’re penniless and friendless.

One of the homeless I spent time with this week is a woman, her skin dark, her hair filthy and stringy, most of the teeth missing from her mouth. She is a target and she knows it, never spending even a minute away from her fiance out of fear of being robbed, beaten or worse. Neither she nor her companion speak English but he does one word in my language, “dangerous” and over half of his questions to me involve this word.

“Sam, politia in America (police in America) dangerous?”

“Sam, negrii (black people) dangerous?”

“Sam, indienii (Indians) dangerous?”

The stories of their lives are a never-ending a series of misfortunes, a young cousin who died, the time they got robbed, the time they got beaten, the time they were shaken down by the police, the time they had to sleep in the cemetery, the time other homeless people beat them up and took all of their money.

Whatever formal education any of them had is impossible to determine but I know it wasn’t much. Most of what they know about the outside world, meaning beyond the limits of Cluj-Napoca, are a mishmash of stories they’ve heard from other people and a few movies they’ve seen on TV. My homeless friend has only the vaguest idea about geography, always asking me what continent certain countries are in and where the continents are in relation to each other. I realized after talking to him for a while that he has never seen a map.

He’s certainly never read a book and while he has heard of the internet, it is a vague and amorphous concept. And so, in a strange and unexpected way, I have become something of a teacher, the knowledge in my head making me like a walking encyclopedia for them. What is the largest city in the world? What language do they speak in Japan? Is it true that cannibals still exist? What is a Muslim? Is it true that all black people have guns in America? Does marijuana really grow on the side of the roads in Jamaica, free for the taking?

Was it an odd mix, me the American with the nice apartment and a good living, spending time with some homeless Romanians? Certainly. But just because it is odd or unusual doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with it. Who else would I sit with under the open sky for hours and talk in Romanian to? All of my other friends and associates are busy just like I was, working, studying, constantly busy.

My homeless friends were glad of my company. It can be a very lonely life when you’ve moved along and shunned by most of society. It was a fair trade for both of us. In fact, it was probably me who got the better end of the exchange because of their unflagging generosity with me. Everything they had, as meager as it was, was always shared with me in full measure, never asking me for any money or favors. I cannot say that I know a single “regular” Romanian who is as generous as my homeless friends are, who freely give without the slightest hint of wanting anything back in return.

There were many more things that happened, and many more things to write about but I will wrap this up for now. Perhaps after this book I’m working on now is finished I will write one about the people I’ve met in this country. I realized this past week I am in a sense like a special envoy, a witness sent deep behind the lines, able on one hand to converse in the international language of the educated (English) and on the other hand able to spend time with the homeless, work in the fields and milk cows with villagers who speak only Romanian. I don’t work for any newspaper and yet in a sense I have become a reporter, filing away my experiences to form dispatches I will share with the wider world.

One last comment though. Last week I watched the final episode of this year’s Master Chef (USA version), a televised contest to determine who is the best cook. I later found the blog of one of the finalists on that show, who wrote about her never-ending passion for food, for going to any length to discover a new ingredient or new combination, never ceasing in her quest to perfect her recipes, her techniques and her dishes, researching, investigating and then exercising her art because it is the path that feeds her soul.

I am something of an amateur cook myself and enjoy working in the kitchen but her words struck a chord inside of me because I feel exactly the same way about writing. I think I’ve always known that but this week really made me realize it consciously, with purpose. Writing is the wind that fills the sails of my soul and blows my little vessel on its journey across the vastness of the unknown.

And knowing that has brought me a lot of joy.

8 thoughts on “Down and Out in Cluj-Napoca

  1. Irish boy found himself in Bucharest last Oct. Met a different kind of homeless. Maybe 60-ish, skin spent too many years in the sun, beard obviously more important than the two plastic bags of possessions. Maybe Roma but I’m no expert. His English was only slightly better than my Romanian. We spent half an hour of a Thursday night hiding from the rain on the steps of a bank. Mostly we discussed (by creative hand signals and bad French) that the pretty young people wouldd one day be old and wise like us (ignored the fact they were already wise enough to carry umbrellas). Two points to this story…man had some history I didn’t ask. Deity of your choice tells me to follow, I want 3 good reasons and a promise of good food. This guy reeked of Command…he was somebody once. And before I left I gave him about £20 for good room and hot meal. He counted it, frowned, said ‘Too much!’ and gave me back about a third. The wonder of Life – there’s always another layer waiting :)


  2. Best of luck, Sam!
    I have dreamed that there will be a talented writer one day that will do for Romania what Alexander McCall Smith has done for Botswana with his Ladies No 1 Detective Agency series and his fabulous gift of image for the country. No pressure :-).


  3. This is a fantastic short piece – and wise in its simplicity: “When you spend enough time with the homeless, you begin to realize there’s a completely new layer of society under the normal one you see…. They lead miserable lives and it either offends and angers you or else you feel guilt because you don’t think anyone deserves to live like that but you’re powerless to do anything about it.”

    I’m currently in the process of doing ethnographic research about homelessness in Grand Central Station, in New York City, and the parallels between some of your findings and mine, particularly where “figures of authority” are concerned, are uncanny. Thank you for writing, and I look forward to reading future installments on your blog!


  4. Hurray! Welcome back! I’m looking forward to reading your next book. The passion of your mind and heart explodes in your writing. It would be a pity to write without a purpose. You have the power to strike a chord inside of others.


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