The wind’s direction changed again. The smell of sewage was now blowing into the room that Stefan shared with his five siblings from the abandoned building across the street where dozens of gypsies lived. The structure had entire sections of its concrete wall missing, allowing any passerby to peer inside at the soiled mattresses and piles of garbage. People of the city would avoid walking by it so the sharp smell of urine and feces wouldn’t spoil their day.
There used to be more gypsies. After Romania was admitted into the European Union, more than half of them left the country based on rumors of easier begging, fanning out to places like Italy, Spain, Norway, and France. The poorest ones who couldn’t even afford a one-way train ticket remained in Romania.
Stefan knew he was a gypsy. He became conscious of it at 8 years of age when his mother began sending him on the street to beg instead of to the nearby school to learn. His childhood was skipped so that he could produce income for the family.
His mother did her best based on her own rough upbringing, but lacked the basic knowledge that would have made her life less impoverished. It didn’t help matters that she believed her fertility was tied to the moon cycle, meaning more mouths to feed than she knew how. Her husband was an itinerant worker whose only source of income was collecting scrap metal. He would go long stretches away from home, supposedly for work, but rarely returned with much money.
The two-room apartment Stefan lived in was occupied by nine people—himself, his siblings, his mom, and his mom’s parents. The furniture was old and musty, retrieved long ago from the dumpster. The floor was raw concrete, partly covered with thin rugs. Stefan’s mother would usually sit in front of the television all day monopolizing the remote, occasionally cleaning, while the kids old enough to beg would do so while the younger ones were steadily groomed for it. She would constantly complain of headaches and throw tantrums that had no obvious cause, the sign of a deeply unhappy woman.
By the time Stefan was 10, he became an expert at begging. He knew how to make an effortless puppy dog face that would melt the souls of his targets. He would say, “Anything is enough, no matter how small,” with just the right pathetic tone. After his marks reached into their pockets to reveal some spare change, Stefan would go for the upsell, saying, “Can I have just a little bit more?” It would work most of the time.
Stefan couldn’t yet read, but he was more knowledgeable about psychology and persuasion than learned college graduates more than twice his age. He became so efficient that he was able to beg for only two hours and then mill around for several more, tricking his mom into thinking that it took the full shift to earn his begging wages.
One afternoon Stefan stood in front of a private school as class ended for the day. A flood of kids in clean uniforms streamed out, either to find a waiting parent or to begin their walk home. A boy with an oversized Spongebob Squarepants backpack caught Stefan’s attention when his father greeted him with a hug. The boy pulled out a piece of paper and the father took a look at it before giving him a pat on the back. They began walking towards a small middle-class residential area. Stefan followed them.
After a 15-minute walk, they arrived at a narrow townhouse. Stefan could see through the window that the boy sat at a table with his dad and talked for a while, eventually using what appeared to be a computer. As young as Stefan was, he knew the reason the little boy could enjoy such comforts was because he had a nice dad who earned money from a regular job. Begging would never bring enough for that type of life.
Stefan went to his mother. “Mom, why can’t I go to school?”
“Because we have no money,” she replied, looking annoyed. “How are we going to eat today if you don’t beg?”
“Yes but if I go to school and get a good job then no one has to beg.”
“And so we’ll all starve while you go to school? Leave me with that stupid talk.”
“But maybe we can all do some type of work. Begging brings almost nothing. We can live much better.”
“Leave me I said!”
Stefan got his first idea for a business after turning 12. He was begging at a busy intersection on an unusually hot summer day when he noticed how sweaty and irritable his marks were. A thought came into his head—“They could use some water.” He needed money to execute his plan, so instead of begging for two hours and then slacking off the rest, he begged for the full shift but gave his mom only his typical earnings. He pocketed the rest for a few days until he had enough to buy a pack of 24 water bottles from the supermarket. On his first day he only made two sales. People kept asking him if the water was cold, and when he said no, they refused to buy.
The next day, Stefan found a sturdy cardboard box. He buried the water bottles under two bags of ice. A new problem developed: the box was too heavy for him to carry. He asked one of the gypsy kids to help him carry it, but the kid refused, demanding payment. He gave the kid his remaining money and finally arrived at the intersection with his product. It took him two and a half hours, but he managed to sell all the water bottles. In his little hands he counted the equivalent of $14, almost double his initial investment.
Confident from his first success, Stefan told his younger brother Ciprian about his business. Ciprian showed little interest. “It’s too much work,” he said, adding that it would be too easy to lose money and be left with nothing but water bottles. “You can’t lose money when you beg.”
“Yeah but the money is so little,” Stefan replied.
“I don’t know, begging is easy.”
Stefan decided to run his business quietly, relying on two gypsies to help him carry water and ice to various intersections. Stefan found that not all intersections were equal, identifying two in particular where drivers were thirstier. He would sell 24 water bottles within four hours and then play or wander for the rest of his shift. He gave his mom money she thought he earned from begging, burying the profits in a nearby field. Once he got to the sum of $100, equivalent to one month of rent, he decided to tell his mom how well he was doing.
“Mom, I started selling water on the street. Look how much I made.” He showed her the $100.
“Did you steal this?” she asked, staring intently at the money.
“No, I buy water bottles and then I sell them.”
“And what do you plan to do with this money?”
“I want to buy an iPod.”
“An iPod?” She shook her head and looked down. “Stefan, my son, do you love your family?”
“Yes, of course,” Stefan said, nodding sincerely.
“Your sister needs new clothes. We need new pots and pan for the kitchen. And Ciprian has a birthday coming. We need this money for the family, not some toy.”
“How much do you need?”
She needed all of it, and so she took it. He begged his mom to leave him $10 so he could buy a pack of water for the next day, but she refused. Since summer was on its way out, the leaves beginning to change color from green to orange, his business was done.
Days went by and Stefan didn’t see the new clothes for his siblings. There was one new pan he saw in the kitchen and a basic birthday cake for him brother that cost $5.
“Aren’t you tired of begging?” Stefan asked Ciprian one day.
“Not really, it’s the easiest way to make money.”
“But it’s not. You can make so much more if you do real work.”
“There are no worries with begging. Nothing can go wrong. Yeah, we make just a little money, but we are free, more free than the people who give us money. The next day they have a schedule, a list of responsibilities, a boss to answer to, but we don’t.”
“Don’t you want things?”
“We have a color television at home. What else you want?”
Stefan would always fail in trying to get Ciprian on board with his business ideas. He didn’t dare share his activities with other members of his family, especially his mom, because they would just criticize him or demand his money. Over the next five years, he would perfect street selling on his own.
By the time Stefan was 17, he was selling water, flowers, and sunglasses at six different intersections. He gave his hired helpers a surprisingly large share of his profits, because when he tried giving them a smaller wage he thought they deserved, they would just end up stealing from him. He was pocketing about $27 of profit a day, a modest sum based on the amount of labor he was expending, but in the process he was gaining an invaluable business education. Through trial and error he learned how to manage employees, budget, forecast demand, and sell products to initially uninterested customers.
One of his favorite techniques was humor. Making a customer laugh lowered their guard and gave him a seemingly eternal 30 seconds to complete a sales pitch. He also found guilt to be quite useful. When he spotted a car with a man and woman, he’d grab his rose bucket and approach the driver window. If the man waved him off, Stefan would say, “Your beautiful woman is not worth a $1 rose to put a smile on her face?” The woman would usually look at her man and raise an eyebrow. More than 75% of men would then make the purchase.
During an especially strong week of flower sales due to Romanian Valentine’s Day, Stefan’s mother confronted him. “You’re ripping us off,” she said. “You’re not contributing to the household.”
“What are you talking about?” Stefan said angrily. “I give you $5 a day. That more than covers the rent.”
“Yes but you make a lot more than that. I know you do.”
“So what? I give you more than father, and I don’t ask for anything. I even buy my own food. And for that I share a dirty mattress with Ciprian.”
His mother was not moved. “I don’t believe I raised such a selfish son who hates his mother. Why has god done this to me!” She put her hands in her face and started crying.
“What do you want?” Stefan asked.
“I need more money.”
“But I need a reserve for the business. It will get slow in winter and I must be prepared.”
“But we need help now. We need to buy winter clothes. Your grandmother needs medicine.”
“I will give you money and you will waste it. I don’t want you destroy what I’ve built.”
“You rotten boy—I wish I never had you!” Her crying became hysterical and nothing Stefan said could calm her down.
To Stefan’s credit, he didn’t waste his earnings. He understood the cyclical nature of business and wanted to have a cushion for the inevitable downturns, but his mom didn’t understand that he was being prudent. She had no concept of saving or budgeting. If there was money, it must be immediately spent on today’s pleasures and needs. Stefan’s main motivation in life was to avoid being a squatter in the filthy building across the street, yet it seemed that his mother was doing her best to make that become his destiny.
When Stefan finally offered her $20, saying he couldn’t spare more than that, she ordered him to leave the house. She thought it would make him appreciate her more, but it steeled his resolve instead. He left the house with a small bag of his belongings, assured in the knowledge that his money was safely buried in five different wooded areas of the city. He found a cheap room to rent in a workers dormitory, one month shy of turning 18.
Stefan had never read a business book before (he could only read at a grade school level), but he was perfectly executing the bootstrap concept. All his new business was executed with cash where he leveraged some existing success into further expansion. While his growth rate was slow, it was steady, and created a foundation that would be hard to knock down. By the time he was 19, he had enough money from street selling to buy a small kiosk. He sold beverages, cigarettes, snacks, candy, and little souvenirs for tourists. He maintained the street operation with his hired help and was soon profiting $100 a day, an enormous sum by Romanian standards. To celebrate this milestone, he bought a tablet, but after only two days of playing with it, he got bored and gave it to Ciprian, who he’d often see loitering on the street, hitting him up for a couple bucks here or three, mingling with shady men who organized lucrative ATM theft rings in Spain.
By the time Stefan was 23, he was a success in every sense of the word. He had a flower street operation, a kiosk, a convenience store, and two 24-hour kebab shops located strategically near nightlife areas. He rented a nice apartment in the center of town and drove an older model Audi.
His success drew the attention of many women. He wanted someone that didn’t remind him of his impoverished roots, so he settled on Mary, the blondest, most pale-skinned girl he could find, one whose parents gave her all sorts of hell for dating a gypsy. Only after they became fully aware of his business holdings did they warm up to him. Stefan didn’t want to waste time chasing girls when his passion was business, so he settled down with Mary and allowed her to move in with him.
Mary didn’t come from a rich family, but since her dad was a university professor, she was always surrounded by intellectuals and upwardly mobile characters. Stefan’s money was agreeable to her, but she had many doubts about marrying a man from such a low class. The problem was that she was already 25, and it was almost unheard of for a Romanian girl to be on the wrong side of 20 without a husband. Stefan was her best option.
Over the next two years, Stefan’s businesses stabilized. He optimized his operations by cutting costs and establishing standardized training programs for his employees. This gave him breathing room and he no longer had to put in the 16 hour days that Mary—now his fiancée—complained about. They did pleasant things together like go to the theater, dine in fancy restaurants, and take short trips to the countryside. These activities were boring for Stefan but he wanted to keep her happy. When he finally popped the question to her during a romantic night walk in the park, she accepted.
A couple months after the proposal, Mary was having a bad day and began an argument with Stefan. “I’m not happy,” she said, her hands placed on her hips. “We’ve been living in this apartment forever. It’s too small. How can we raise a family here?”
“It’s close to all my businesses,” Stefan replied. “It saves me a lot of time.”
“I want to buy things for the house and decorate it, but for that we need more space. I feel like I’m in a jail.”
Stefan frowned. “The big houses are in the suburbs. We’d have to buy another car.”
“But we could use a new car. The Audi is old. Why can’t we get a Mercedes? We can afford it.”
“That’s very expensive. New house, new car—it would require a lot of money.” Stefan calculated the costs in his head.
“Don’t you care for my happiness?” Mary asked. “Let us grow old in comfort, and enjoy the nice things in life.”
Stefan wondered if Mary had a point. He had worked hard for so long, so why not award himself and his woman with a little luxury? It would also announce to everyone that he had arrived and was not a poor gypsy like the rest of his family. He opened a third kebab shop and returned to working 16 hour days. A couple months afterwards he purchased a large and stately house. There also came a brand new Mercedes, which allowed Mary to arrive to social functions in style to the envious whispers of her friends.
Stefan could only feel validated by his choices when he’d see Ciprian on the street, running errands for a new racket that would steal cars in Western Europe before smuggling them into Romania. It would be just a matter of time until Ciprian was caught and sent to jail, but in the meantime he had some money and seemed to be pursued by several gypsy girls. They didn’t come close to having as much beauty as Mary, but they did seem to be low-maintenance, only requiring Ciprian to buy a pack of cigarettes every now and then in exchange for regular sex.
The wedding date was getting near and Stefan was conflicted on whether he should invite his family or not. For years he had spoken to his mother only through his siblings, usually when running into them on the street while they begged or scammed. Mary didn’t want his family to come, mostly so she could invite more acquaintances to the lavish ceremony she was planning, but in the end Stefan felt that blood was thicker than water and allowed 20 spots for his relatives.
When the day of the wedding finally arrived, Stefan prayed that his family wouldn’t embarrass him. Initially, they were on their best behavior, perhaps intimidated by the other well-to-do guests, but after nuptials were exchanged and Stefan and Mary became man and wife, the gypsy in them could no longer be contained. They danced in a large circle with arms locked, yelling and clapping, smashing expensive champagne glasses on the floor. They dragged the newly married couple to the dance floor and forced them to gyrate in an animalistic style. Thankfully, the other guests were more amused by the gypsy caravan than anything else, sparring Stefan from complete humiliation. A reconciliation of sorts took place between him and his mother and he connected with his more distant relatives, though he steadfastly refused to allow them to “kidnap” the bride, as dictated by traditional gypsy custom. By the end of it, Mary’s family remarked how it was the most exciting wedding they had ever been to. Besides a couple sneers about Stefan’s background, the wedding couldn’t have gone better.
Once life returned to normal, Stefan felt a sort of gravitational pull back to his family. He enjoyed talking to Ciprian about his car hustle and to his siblings about crazy things they had done on the street, bringing back memories of his own lost childhood when he experienced much of the same. He would get asked for money, of course, but he couldn’t give much because business was tight. The house mortgage and Mercedes payment left him no breathing room when the jumbo pizza slice trend arrived from America and decreased demand for kebab. He was busy trying to expand his menu so that he could compete.
Mary was deeply troubled to notice Stefan getting closer to his family, but when Ciprian would come over for the occasional late dinner, she put on a smile and warmed up plates of food. At one of these dinners, after Mary retired to bed, Ciprian questioned Stefan’s life.
“Your home is nice,” Ciprian said, “but this is not who you are. Our people are not made to live in castles.”
“So you want me to hustle on the street like you? I have a good home for my wife, and things will only get better.”
“It’s not in our nature to work so hard. You’re killing yourself, and for what? There is no gold at the end of this rainbow. No matter how much wealth you acquire, or how big of a house you buy, your wife will always resent you because you’re not of her kind.”
He pointed his finger directly at Ciprian. “That’s just not true! There is… love,” he said, hesitantly.
“Oh yeah? If you lost everything, and had to hit the streets again, would she stay with you? I wonder how fast she would go back to mommy and daddy without even bothering to help you get back on your feet. I know I’m supposed to want the life you have, but it’s too delicate, like a house of cards. If one of your businesses has a bad month, the panic sets in and your wife will start breathing down your neck. But if I have a bad month, it’s no big deal. My girls won’t care because they expect nothing of me.”
“Your filthy hoes would give me no pleasure, and neither would being on the street. I don’t want to be a gypsy, don’t you understand? Whenever I see one I feel ashamed that my blood is like theirs, that it must be an accident to have been so stained by god’s will. I want to be a success. I want to be a somebody.”
“And who are you a somebody to?” Ciprian asked, raising his voice. “You’re a somebody to the people who need your money. Your employees, your wife. And the minute that money goes, you’re back to being a nobody in their eyes.”
“No, you’re wrong. I don’t want to be poor—I won’t. I don’t want to be poor like you!”
“You are already poor, brother. You are poorer than me.”
Stefan knew that it was his money that won Mary’s heart and allowed him to socialize in the expensive homes of his new friends. But what was the alternative? Give it all up and go back to selling water bottles, living in a worker’s dormitory? That was unacceptable to Stefan, but he needed some breathing room. He needed to lower his expenses. Mary, predictably, did not appreciate his plan. “You want to sell the Benz?” she exclaimed. “Are you crazy?”
“I will trade it in for a Honda. It’s a fine automobile that is more gas efficient. It’s also five times cheaper. Finances are tight right now. I’m being pushed to the limit.”
“I don’t give a fuck about your limit,” Mary replied, her fists clenched. I’ll look like a fool if I have to drive a Honda around. Everyone will think we are poor and that you are a failure.”
“We’re overextended,” Stefan said calmly. “We bought too much too quickly. If the new kebab burrito takes off, we may be able to get an even better Mercedes next year.”
“I knew I shouldn’t have married a gypsy. Once a gypsy, always a gypsy! Your brother put you up to this, that street thug. He’s jealous of your success, and now he wants to destroy what you’ve built up.”
“You’re wrong. He sees how stressed I am, how much I work, and he’s concerned. Business goes up and down. We’re on a downswing now, but we’ll get out of it.”
“Why don’t you work harder?”
“Do you want to drain the blood out of my veins?” Stefan pushed his hands towards Mary.
“You better get your shit together.” Mary stormed upstairs and went for a soak in the bathtub jacuzzi to soothe her rattled nerves.
For the next six months, Stefan diligently worked on improving his kebab business, but the burrito didn’t take. Business was steadily declining. Other kebab shops were closing down and changing to the jumbo slice format. They competed by increasing the surface area of the slice, making profit margins as razor thin as the pizza itself. It didn’t help Stefan that ProTV, Romania’s largest channel, did an investigative report that concluded kebab meat had equine origins. Unbeknownst to viewers, the segment was secretly paid for by a cabal of men who owned the most jumbo slice shops in the country. Kebab, and its close cousin, shawarma, were done.
Without any advance notice, Stefan closed down his three kebab shops and laid off his workers through a handwritten sign on the door. He sat in his car for two hours thinking about what he was going to tell his wife. On the drive home he wondered if she would leave him, but he was determined to make her understand that their take-home income would only decrease by a small amount since the kebab shops were hemorrhaging so much money. At the same time, he knew Mary didn’t care about the accounting as much as the image. People would see that her husband had to give away the Mercedes and close three shops. To anyone that mattered, it would appear that she’s making a straight-line march into a gypsy slum.
Stefan thought that if Mary left him, he at least could fall back on his strengthening family relationships. He wouldn’t have to face it alone, and who knows, maybe he could start a legitimate business with Ciprian based on his Western European connections. The brothers were getting along quite well now, talking almost every day, and even Mary began to tolerate Ciprian’s dinner visits.
When he opened the door to his house six hours before his standard arrival, fully braced to tell Mary the bad news, he heard rapid footsteps coming from above. Confused, he walked upstairs and saw Mary sitting in a state of half dress on the bed, looking frightened. “Is there a burglar?” Stefan said softly. Mary said nothing, but accidentally revealed the intruder when she threw a glance towards the walk-in closet. With his mouth half-open, in complete disbelief that his wife was cheating on him, Stefan walked to the closet and opened the door. There in the corner, wearing nothing but a pair of underwear, was his little brother Ciprian.
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