The Street

The Street


One breezy March night in Bucharest, I found myself on a ladder between two worlds, poised between the ground above and a five-kilometer network of tunnels underneath the city. From the darkness below, I could hear eager voices urging me down. The voices belonged to the residents of those tunnels: children without homes, many without parents, all desperate survivors at the margins of Romanian society.

Earlier that night, I left behind the warm interior of the Constantin Brancoveanu train station and walked into dark courtyard behind the glowing yellow arches of a McDonald’s restaurant. I sat with a group of about thirty homeless children around the charred remains of a fire. They were sipping hot milk, supplied by volunteers from Parada, an organization founded to help Bucharest’s street kids.

At the edge of the courtyard, a young man was screaming. I looked around for an explanation. Costel Aldea, a one-legged Roma boy who had been thrown out of his home in Brasov, in Transylvania, raised a finger to his temples and twisted it. “Too much Aurolac,” he said, referring to the industrial adhesive that is the drug of choice on the streets of Bucharest.

Costel raised himself on his crutches as he spoke. He took a step back, perilously close to an open manhole. “Watch out!” I said, and the kids laughed. Maricica Vlad, an eighteen-year-old girl with cropped blond hair, explained in her broken French that the manhole was the entrance to their home. “Would you like to see it?” she asked, and scampered down the ladder while I, less practiced, followed carefully behind.

A clutch of hands gripped me as I reached the bottom. The air was muggy; the hands felt light against its weight. A few thin candles, burned almost to their bottoms, flickered in flowers of melted wax. They cast a dim light on dismal surroundings: low brick walls, crumbling in places; damp floors, cratered and uneven; and thick pipes that squeezed the habitable space like metallic pythons.

The children were improbably upbeat. Nicu, a short dark-skinned boy, chattered excitedly; he kept interrupting his monologue to hug me. Maricica, older and calmer, played tour guide. She said the hot pipes were ideal for drying clothes. She pointed to dribbles of water, explaining that the leaks provided water for showers.

My hosts led me to a larger chamber, maybe six meters wide and five meters deep. Maricica told me that twenty-four children lived in this space, I was standing by another manhole, under a circle of stars. I saw bags, dirty mattresses, and some clothes. The walls were a patchwork of green moss and soot from the candles. Later, a girl would tell me about rats, and about the stench of the tunnels. I did not see any rats. But there was a bitter, sweaty smell in the air: the smell of lives squeezed too close together, and then squeezed into corner.

A decade ago, when the curtain cam down on Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist dictatorship, Romania’s orphaned children received worldwide attention. There were 1,50,000 of them, and they lived in appalling conditions. Their plight was the legacy of forty years of tyrannical misrule. Possessed of the notion that a densely populated country meant a powerful country, Ceausescu made childless couples pay a celibacy tax and restricted access to birth control and abortion (women were subject to mandatory gynecological exams to enforce this last provision). The predictable result was a large population of unwanted children.

Since their fifteen minutes of fame–when the media seized upon their story as an emblem of the evils of communism, and when adoption agencies worked overtime to place them with eager Western parents –there has been little interest in these children. Yet Romania still accounts for more than half of Europe’s HIV-infected youth, and it had the industrialized world’s highest infant mortality rate (with a slightly lower GNP per capita, Romania’s southern neighbor, Bulgaria, has a rate one-third lower). Homelessness, unheard of during the Ceausescu regime, is now endemic. In Bucharest alone, something like five thousand children live on the streets and in the tunnels.

The first time I saw them, they were begging outside Gara de Nord, Bucharest’s central train station. I barely noticed: it was my first day in Romania, and the children melded almost indistinguishably into the gloom. The desolate concrete housing complexes, the potholed boulevards, the dried-out fountains, the menacing stray dogs: Bucharest is an urban nightmare, and the physical horror flattens into a kind of psychological numbness. If I had any impression at all of the children in my first weeks, it was shaped by a law student I befriended. “Be careful of them,” he told me one day, over a dinner of cheap pizza in downtown Bucharest. “They are all thieves and drug addicts.”

A few days later, when another friend took me to Parada, I was offered a second opinion. Liana Maican, the organization’s administrator, described herself as ” the wicked witch of Parada” (the only way to get anything done, she said, was to act angry all the time), but on that occasion she was ecstatic. She had sent two children to pay the phone bill that morning; instead of running away with the money, they had returned with a receipt. “I gave them more than a million Lei,” she said. One million Lei is what the average Romanian earns in a month. “Would you or I come back if we were in their place?”

One of those who had returned with the receipts was Radu Nicoara-Vasile, a gangly sixteen-year-old with a long, thin face and a sandy mane that fell disheveled across his forehead. I met Radu later that afternoon, in a kitchen at the back of the building. He was hovering over a pot of chicken noodle soup. I asked him if he would talk to me about life on the streets. He insisted that I join him for a meal first.

After lunch, Radu and I walked outside to Tineretului park. We were accompanied by my interpreter, Lea, a part-time volunteer at Parada. The three of us sat in the shade of a sickly tree, in view of a smoking cremation urn. Radu spoke to Lea in Romanian; she spoke to me in French.

Radu’s story evoked the euphoria of Romania’s revolution, mingled with the hangover of the day after. Like almost all the children I met, he had spent most of his life in orphanages. Radu was abandoned at the age of two. He said he had a memory—or maybe just a reconstructed image: he didn’t know–of himself crying, “Mama, tata, mama, tata!” as his parents handed him over.

The orphanages were miserable places. “Very strict, very rigid,” I was told by Ana-Maria Grigore, another of the street children. “They say, ‘Eat when I tell you, sleep when I tell you.’ That’s impossible. You have to be able to do what you want.” For Radu, as for so many others, it was the Romanian revolution that finally offered an opportunity to do what he wanted. As the country erupted in protests and demonstrations one December night in 1989, the directors of Radu’s orphanage left for Bucharest. There remained “only an old lady who couldn’t do anything.” So Radu and some of his friends escaped; they boarded a train for the capital. The old women tried to run after them, but she couldn’t keep up. “She just shouted at us,” Radu said, and smiled mischievously.

Across Romania, as government offices closed in financial or political uncertainty, and as the police state began to wither, boys and girls like Radu found the doors of their jails thrown open. It was a moment of giddiness shared by the population at large. Suddenly anything was possible, and years of pent-up frustration found expression in the elation of revolution. “What everyone needed for a very long time was freedom,” Liana told me one day, trying to account for the large number of street children. “Maybe that is why they ran away: to have more freedom.”

The celebration was short-lived. Thrust helpless into a society itself too helpless to lend a hand, Romania’s children–along with their nation–soon discovered the fine line that separates freedom from chaos.

Radu cam to Bucharest on a Wednesday. It would have been the 27th of December, 1989, the day after Ion Iliescu, until then a career party man, was named head of a new “people’s” government. Five days before, less than twenty-four hours after the police had killed several demonstrators in Bucharest, Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, had fled by helicopter, barely escaping the angry crowds roaming the city. They were captured the next day, then executed by firing squad on Christmas. Their trial was secretive and hasty: its purpose, most people now agree, was to get rid of the Ceausescus before they could implicate their acolytes, many of whom were jostling for positions in the new government. I did not ask Radu about these tumultuous political events. I assumed Radu had been preoccupied, fighting for his own survival as Ceausescu’s communist cabal fought for its.

December is a tough month to spend on the streets of Bucharest. Before visiting the country, I was warned to avoid winter; a story had it that wolves flee the cold mountains to wander the streets of the capital. The story is no doubt apocryphal, but temperatures in Bucharest can descend to -70 degrees.

Sometimes the children manage to sneak into a building and make a hard bed out of a dusty staircase. If they are truly lucky, they find a radiator. Occasionally, Radu told me, the doors to buildings are left open: sometimes he forces them open, kicking until they give.

On the worst nights the children are found and thrown back onto the streets. “I was caught thousands of times and kicked out,” Radu said. “Once at three in the morning, when it was really cold, someone chased us out.” If they couldn’t find a new building, they would spend the night outside, in makeshift shelters. “We covered cardboard boxes with plastic bags,” Radu told me. “We used to blow and blow into the bags to get warmer.”

Radu and his friends found their building materials in the markets. Each person glued four boxes together and climbed inside. Someone else would wrap the boxes with the bags, making holes for breathing. There was always one child, the last person, who had no one to wrap his box, who spent the night in the cold. When I asked Radu whether they ever argued about who that person would be, he shook his head and pointed to a square-jawed boy in a baseball cap, kicking a football on the other side of the park.

“Edouard always recognized that he was the oldest,” he said. “He was a good friend.”

Earlier that afternoon, when I first met Radu, I was struck by his cheerfulness and bantering sense of humor. “Look,” he said, and pointed at my feet, and when I looked down he chucked me under the chin. Now, at the end of his story, he had tears in his eyes, and there was nothing left of that cheer. Lea, herself glassy-eyed, told me she couldn’t continue. “Was life any better now?” I asked Radu myself, in my broken Romanian.

“I don’t know,” he said, and as he stared vacantly into a row of benches bordering the lawn, the tears began to flow easier.

It was only then, after almost a month with these children, that I finally recognized the extent of their misery. Nearly all the children I met had, like Radu, impressed me with their good humor. There was Ana- Maria, who amused herself by mangling my name to “hashish,” and who aspired to be a clown, because “I want to make people laugh.” There was the boy in a tattered cowboy hat who had introduced himself to me as Elvis, swinging his hips in the doorway to Liana’s office. And there was the young girl, her head wrapped in a saffron cloth, who answered my foolish question about whether life was difficult on the street with: “It was great. I had plenty to eat. I lived in a palace.”

Ever since I experienced the unlikely ebullience in the tunnels, I had attributed moments like these to a certain youthfulness, an inability to acknowledge the seriousness of their situation. But as the pain of Radu’s life seeped to the surface, I realized that their jokes were a form of fortitude: what Conrad, in Lord Jim, calls the wisdom of life–“which consists in putting out of sight all the reminders of our folly, of our weakness, of our mortality.” It was a means of coping with adversity,  a method of survival.

The sadness, though, was always lurking below the surface. I learned never to trust a joke.

Marian Caldararu, a thirteen-year old with a smile that could have been impishly naive or infinitely knowing, told me about the parties. One time there was a fire in the tunnels and the heat melted the rubber isolation off the electrical circuits. Marian and his friends collected the exposed copper. They took a train to a town outside Bucharest and sold it; there were sixty kilograms all told. They had a party with the money: there was meat, plates and casseroles, a Christmas tree, and a cassette player–” this big,” Marian exclaimed, stretching his arms the width of his slender frame.

Marian, so full of stories about the thrills of tunnel life, had scars near his wrist. I asked him what happened. “I cut myself over a girl,” he joked, and smiled seductively at Lea. She laughed, but the humor of Marian’s story lasted only a second.

Marian’s girl worked at a hospital in Bucharest. She was known to offer hot meals and baths. The trouble was that kids needed a medical reason to be admitted to the hospital. That’s why Marian slashed his wrists. “She gives us clothes and feeds us and bathes us and then,” he giggled, waving his hand in a dismissive gesture, “pa si pusi”–a colloquial expression that means something like “hasta la vista”

Marian’s parents kicked him out at the age of seven. One day, he said, they told him, “We have other children,” and left for another town. Marian spent two days alone in a train station, begging for food, before he met a group of street kids. They fed him and introduced him to the tunnels. Barring a few stays in orphanages, Marian spent the next six years with these kids. They were good to him, he said. They treated him well.

Earlier this year, Marian moved in with his sister, who has a flat in Bucharest. It is cold in his new home and his sister can’t find work. There isn’t a lot of money; he is often hungry. Does Marian ever miss his friends from the tunnels? I asked him. Does he miss the fellowship, the celebrations, about which he had so enthusiastically spoken?

He doesn’t ever talk to his friends from the tunnels; he doesn’t even acknowledge them when he sees them. “I don’t know how I could stand it in the tunnels,” he said. “When I hear the word tunnel I feel like hanging myself.”

Many of the children I spoke with had stories of a nation that was less than sympathetic to their plight. Gabriel Mihai, an employment counselor at Parada, told me that Romanians assume all street kids are thieves or drug addicts. “We are trying to integrate them into society,” he said. “But what is society offering them? Society is very disoriented.”

That disorientation is a legacy from the past, a ghost from the Ceausescu era that refuses to leave. Ten years after the revolution that promised a new beginning, Romania is still seething with popular resentment. Its GDP shrank by 6 percent last year; plagued by corruption and inefficiency, the government is desperately short of hard currency and unable to attract foreign investment. Unemployment is rising, along with the prospect of mass violence. Earlier this year, ten thousand disgruntled coal miners began marching on Bucharest. Before they were stopped by riot police, the country seemed to be headed for the kind of uprising–also initiated by angry miners–that brought down the first post-communist government in 1991.

For Romanians, the country’s persistent poverty and chaos are frightening; they suggest a future as bleak as the present, in which the nation’s destiny drifts further away from the Western world that seems to offer modernity, wealth, and security. “Do you see?” a friend asked me in a Bucharest cafe, pointing to a group of beggars at the window. “We have fallen off the map of Europe. Now we are part of the South.”

The street kids appear to confirm such fears. Living in much the same conditions today as ten years ago, they are symbols of the nation’s lack of progress. Like so many symbols, though, they are also victims: no society likes to confront an image of its own suffering, and often, the images bear the brunt of the suffering. “You come to Bucharest and you write about misery,” one women told me, angrily refusing to photocopy some papers I had borrowed from Parada. “In your country, misery is golden. But we do not want to hear about misery. We are tired of misery.”

One cloudy morning, I boarded a rickety bus on Bucharest’s stylish Dacia street. Dacia is a tree-lined boulevard of elegant villas, many of them housing foreign diplomatic missions; it is one of the few areas of the city that was spared the ravages of Ceausescu’s Stalinist architectural program.

Seated near the rear of the bus was a young boy, his face the blank, drooping slate that I had come to associate with Aurolac. Curled in the boy’s lap, resting under his hands, was a bedraggled puppy. It was a poignant scene, one that filled my mind with thoughts about the sad comradeship of the dispossessed.

My reverie was shattered when the puppy began to emit a distressing howl. I turned around to see the boy suffocating the dog. Then, just when it seemed he might kill his pet, he began to stroke the animal gently. Soon he was torturing the howling beast again, and this distressing, manic routine continued for another fifteen minutes.

At that point, a skinny young man walked over to the boy, shouted at him, and slapped him across the face. The boy, now howling himself, dropped the puppy. I had not noticed the man before, but his anger suddenly filled the bus. He grabbed the boy by the hair and lifted him from his seat. Still shouting, he pushed the boy to the front of the bus, toward the exit. I did not understand the words, only the rage.

No one said a thing. At the next stop, the boy, still whimpering, still clutching his dog returned to the streets.

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