440km. This is what’s left of the journey. A wool blanket and a red quilt hang limp at the sides of two plastic bags carried by a man with scrawny arms. He wears 60s-like cuffed jeans and walks with 4km/hour on the side of the highway. It’s past midnight. As trucks pass by, cold air penetrates his soul leaving inside a death anxiety, although it’s not long since he last wished he was dead.
One night he took an awful lot of pills, somewhere around Cluj. He collapsed in front of a restaurant and got into a coma. He doesn’t know how he got to the hospital but he remembers what one of the nurses said to him: “Why didn’t you just jump in front of a train? We wouldn’t be wasting drugs on you now!”
Hoboing Around the Country
This is how it is titled a page in the personal diary of this man with the hair so black that you could take him for an Indian. On the first page he wrote: “Life is shit! 97, 7% of the people are devils! Emancipation will kill us!”
He wets his index finger and turns some pages until he finds an empty one. He writes a few lines and then thinks of the places he still has to pass through: Brașov, Mureș and then Cluj. It’s not the first time he travels so much on foot.
George has been a homeless wanderer since 2007. He was born and abandoned on 26th of March, 1974 in Ciocani, a village in eastern Romania. He was an active participant in almost all protests that took place in Cluj during the autumn of 2013. He was bringing along many protest signs and was shouting against the gold mining exploitations in Rosia Montana. Because he didn’t have anything else better to do, he was the first to arrive and the last to leave. During that time he was sleeping under a bridge but fancied he didn’t look like a homeless since his clothes and covers were clean.
When the protests were over, people went to their homes while he went back to being a vagrant. He came to Bucharest on foot.
Since he started being one of Romania’s 15 thousand homeless people, he only traveled on foot. He missed just a few poor southern counties, being convinced he wouldn’t find work there. It often happened that with the money he made in a week he would only afford to buy his favorite meal once: a loaf of bread and one two-liter bottle of juice at 0,25 Euro. He would easily feel full after eating this. He would walk and eat in the same time and would only stop to roll a killthroat or wash his feet. He says that’s a rule he needs to follow so that his feet don’t overheat. In this way, he can walk up to 14 hours a day, 4km/hour.
From all the people he met, some helped him, some made fun of him. “I have dark hair and this scares people away, they think I mean to rob or hurt them. I don’t blame them; I know people on the street are bad.”
He asked for a place to work everywhere he’s been, village or city. The herdsmen were the most profitable employers, but also the crookiest. They left him sleep under the clear sky and didn’t pay him money. They only fed him. He looked after ostriches, he took care of two luxurious villas and he also found jobs on building sites. But every time something happened and he ended back on the streets again.
Two hands cut an ad from a paper by the help of a big scissors. Sitting on the stairs of Cluj-Napoca Students’ Cultural House, the man with white hairs in his black beard is cutting the ad about post-high school studies. He then fills it with tobacco gathered from cigarette butts, licks the edge of one side and seals the roll. A killthroat. This is what George has been smoking for seven years and says he’s never been healthier. He puts an ad in the same paper magazine, where he asks for a place to work and money to reissue his vital documents. They were last stolen while he was sleeping on a bench in Otopeni Airport during his night off. He was then working as trash collector for Romprest, a sanitation company in Bucharest.
“My backpack was right next to me, stuffed with personal belongings, clothes, phone card, all my documents, jazz CDs, soap, mirror, razors and whatnot. I woke up without it. It was August, 12, 2014. That night I left, on foot, to Cluj. I knew that without ID I wouldn’t get paid.” He kept two plastic garbage bags as souvenirs. He uses them each night, as mattress, in his temporary shelter under a balcony in Cluj.
He sleeps where he can: in the gutters, forests or parks. Before being a homeless, he used to live in one of Petrom’s studio apartments. He worked for an oil company for 12 years, as a welder. He got the job when he was 18, after he ran away from the orphanage where he had lived for all his life. He sold a magnetic recorder, in order to have money for traveling. He got a job in a village and after two weeks he returned home to pay his debts.
He gave the recorder to one of his colleagues in the orphanage, Florin Busuioc. They share nice memories together. One time they were reworded for their good grades and received a two-bed room. The others were very crowded. When he left the orphanage he received clothes for any kind of weather but he didn’t keep them. He offered them to his friends, being happy on the thought he’d be able to buy his own stuff. That was the dream of them all: to stop receiving benefits from the state.
George is one of “Ceaușescu’s Children”, born out of obligation and abandoned out of need. When he was small, the three-building orphanage provided eight hundred orphans with a roof over their heads. When he turned eighteen, there were only two hundred left. The others had been adopted or transferred to other institutions.
The older boys used to mock him a lot when he was small. He and other kids were being forced to jump with their head down from the top of the closet, give their food to the bullies or pay in cigarettes to be left alone. But they had good days as well.
“I’ve been to the sea side thirteen times for the national cultural festivals during Communist era. I was playing the mandolin – I played for twelve years.”
He stands up in front of the statue of Matthias Corvinus to show some of the moves they used to do. He moves like a soldier and sings a song he remembers. “We used to go to all kinds of contests. Miss Elena Huianu used to join us. When we were winning the first, second or third place, we were supposed to receive some money as well, but never did. This lady was taking our prizes and she would severely beat us if we weren’t nice – we were punched and kicked in the stomach.”
George met his mother when he was 20 years old, in a strange day. He was queuing at the post office in his village to get 250 euros coming from a privatization coupon. Everyone who turned eighteen was given one. But in order to get the money, he had to personally go to the post office in his home town. He went to Ciocani village because he still had the same address. But he hadn’t been there too often before, so nobody really knew him. Out of curiosity, some people asked him who he was. He showed them his ID saying he was an orphan. This made the men point towards a woman in the queue:
– There’s your mother.
“My heart stopped.”
The men started swearing at her:
– You knew how to spread your legs, didn’t you, you damned mother!
Being ashamed of the scandal he had provoked and feeling sorry for the woman, they left “home” together. He stayed there for three days and found out the entire story: his father had died of cancer when he was only one year old and she couldn’t keep him. He had three more brothers – Fănică, Ion, Petrică – and one dead sister. He only met Fănică and Ion, because Petrică was homeless and they hadn’t seen him either for some time. They were only seeing his name on police citations. He was told that his sister died of asphyxiation (“but, of course, I don’t know if this is true. If mother lies, I lie too”).
He didn’t need much time to forget he was upset with them and seeing how they lived, he gave them his money. He was kicked out when he went broke. “I’ll wander about, see what I can do and maybe I’ll bring something for you”, he said.
Since the incident he still returned a few times, but only when he had money. When he’s back to being broke, the roads open up in front of him, to the unknown.
He opens up an instant coffee stick with his teeth and pours it in a bottle of Coke. After a short time, he adds another one. And another one. He drinks caffeine all day, but no alcohol. Coffee and cigarettes are his guarding angels.
“That’s the reason why I am so lonely all the time, because I couldn’t find someone to understand me, to talk to. People want you to be their friend only if you drink, rob, talk dirty, get in a fight for them or stay with them all day. Usually, if you take drugs or inhale all kinds of stuff you can relax and forget about all your worries.”
He had friends only during one winter since he’s been homeless. He was living in Bucharest, in a shelter for the homeless. Many of his colleagues were ex convicts, thieves or drug-addicts. He only bonded with other three “hopeless guys”. They were staying together, sharing responsibilities in order to survive. One of them was buying the juice- he was selling copper and could daily buy two six-packs of juice at 0,25 Euro.
George was picking cigarette butts from the street, morning to dawn, getting enough tobacco for six normal packs. He was passing them to Badea, who was in a wheelchair and could roll cigarettes all day long. Badea was also helping with the food. At the end of the day, in order to get food for all of them, he was exchanging cigarettes for food, with the chefs. The fourth guy was a heroin addict but they accepted him in their group because he was a minor and they wanted to help him.
On the street, the most difficult thing for George was to get used to all the freedom. He didn’t have to be anywhere, he didn’t have to pay taxes, he didn’t have to clean up and he didn’t feel at all pressed by all the small things that used to feel compulsory in the past. This feeling was, somehow, encouraging him, and was making him feel that all he needed was a van parked on the top of a hill, like Mel Gibson in a movie he saw. But his dream was even more modest: “A parking lot in Cluj would do. I’d live in a small car, turn on the heat and that’s all I’d need.”
Routine. This is the other demon eating him since he’s been on the street. He wakes up, goes looking in the garbage bins, waits for the night to come and falls asleep. The next day, same thing. He feels like he’s living in idleness and this thought disturbs his peace of mind, making him want to give up.
The Others: these are the most bitter and pronounced demons of all. Since he gave up shaving his beard and stopped caring about his clothes, he feels like he belongs to another species – “the street man” – who is obviously different from “the common man”. The latter throws away food, unused gadgets, clothes or pieces of furniture in the garbage bins where the street man finds his survival kit. The growing gap between these two troubles him every day.
“I sometimes wonder the streets and I see a guy wearing a fancy shirt, Armani glasses, expensive watch and a smartphone who drinks a 1,25 Euro coffee. I look at him, he looks at me, I look at him I I feel like barking at the world, young lady, but I don’t know if it’s worth barking at him, who doesn’t know that with the 1, 25 Euro he drinks I buy food for one day or it’s better to bark at myself, cause I don’t know how to live on this planet anymore.”
I wish I could sleep more. Dream life is much more beautiful than real life.
The Past. George’s life has been better before 2007. With his paycheck from the oil company, he was able to buy things that his colleagues didn’t have – a computer and a cool audio system, which he used for playing music at weddings or other celebrations. His studio was always filled with kids who played computer games and at some point it was also filled with love. He got engaged and right after he took a loan of 680 Euro for the wedding, he caught his girlfriend with some other guy. He drank two liters of pálinka that night. He was found by one of his colleagues, nearly dead. The doctors pumped his stomach and later on he was transferred to another hospital. When he came out of coma, he was given 2300 Euro per month worth of Interferon.
Because he didn’t die, his faith in God strengthened and decided to go to church, for the first time. He believes he wasn’t baptized and has no idea whether he’s a catholic, orthodox, protestant or something else. He forgot to ask his mother about it. He went to several places to ask for some help, but didn’t receive any since most of the priests were doing renovations. Only once he met a clergyman, in Cluj, who let him issue his documents on his home address.
Bad Luck. Before being a garbage collector in Bucharest, he tried to get a job in Slovakia, at some plant. He got the tip from the good clergyman. After a few phone calls he was already heading towards the place, in Galanta. He only had 5 Euro on him, money received from the clergyman’s wife. On his way there he found out from the others that it was unlikely to get the job if you were a gypsy or older than forty. He was a 40 years old gypsy.
They arrived there late at night, on a Sunday. He was given a nice room to share with three others. None of them could sleep and they all concluded they needed to pray so they won’t be sent back home. There was one man amongst them who wanted to become a priest. They called him to hold a service. At 5 a.m, 27 men were kneeling with hope.
One of the managers arrived at 8 a.m with two bags of sandwiches and juice. He lived like this for three days. He made friends and started feeling encouraged, but they couldn’t find him a place in any of the seven plants. The same for the 43 years old guy. The last interview, for the seventh plant, was held with The Koreans. They shouted “HOME”. He already knew what it meant, but he didn’t want to believe it so he asked for a translation.
He left the place the same night, with one of the company’s cars. He was left in Oradea and from there took a truck to Cluj. “Not that I had a home there, but I preferred to be a homeless in Cluj rather than in Oradea.”
A GLIMMER OF HOPE
September, 3rd, 2014
– Excuse me, can I take a look at “Piata” to see if my ad is in?
The paperboy hands him a heavy magazine. George wet his fingers to turn the pages to the Jobs section.
– Hey, there it is! Look!
September, 4th, 2014
A sudden flash startles him in his sleep. Two policemen are looking at him with pity. They take a picture and ask him to come along. He can’t understand what is going on. He grabs his covers and his food and goes in their car. It smells like piss and alcohol. Other three street men breathe heavily in the back of the car. The door is shut and George’s heart shrinks until it reaches the size of the bugs that have been circling him each many nights in these seven years.
He gets off when he is called upon by a policeman, in front of a grim, sad building. “Take that entrance!” he hears. He follows the instructions mechanically and reaches a hallway filled with drug addicts, alcoholics and crying babies. The few beds he sees are already full so he sits on the ground. Talking with some women next to him, he finds out there are raids in the town. The gendarmerie is cleaning “the filth” from the streets and brings it in here. He couldn’t fall asleep fearing the people will steal from him, but when the morning came he was free to go, on police orders.
September, 5th, 2014
George is surrounded by a group of kids who run around, listening to the music of DJ Darius, a young boy from Cluj-Napoca. He sits on the grass, smoking a killthroat and trying to write a poem. It’s Play Mănăştur, a festival meant to bring together the people living in the outskirts of Cluj and enjoy all the green space surrounding them. George heard about the festival and helped with the organization.
The entire forest shudders at the echo coming from three young baritones. They’re dressed like at the opera.
George sits alone on a bench, listening, and after the first song he moves to a quieter place, like a bird that’s been looked at for too long.
When Play Mănăştur is over, he’s still alone, wondering. He decides to remain in the forest to avoid the police.
September, 13th, 2014
440km. This is what’s left of the journey. A wool blanket and a red quilt hang limp at the sides of two plastic bags carried by the man with scrawny arms. He wears 60s-like cuffed jeans and walks with 4km/hour towards Bistrita-Nasaud. Discouraged by his situation and lack of purpose, he took the wrong turn. He wanted to go to Alba-Iulia and then to Bucharest, where he hoped he’d find his papers in the place they were stolen. He walks until exhaustion and reaches a friendly village. He’s given shelter by a poor family with four noisy kids. He befriends the 9 year old girl and offers her one of the telephones he’d found in the garbage – he already has one, also found in a garbage bin. They give him soup and bacon and the next morning he starts off again.
– Hi, about the ad in the paper…
– I need someone to work with me on a construction site, in Cluj. We’re building a house. I can also provide accommodation.
– I’ve been working in constructions for six years. I’m your guy.
– Are you as described in the ad? Homeless and against alcohol?
– Yes. And alone.
30 minutes. That’s how long their conversation lasted. George spoke with Mr. Nicolae, the man who made him return to Cluj and offered him a bed in a trailer.
September, 17th, 2014
A dark haired man with Indian features smokes a filtered cigarette on a roof under construction, somewhere outside Cluj. The smoke caresses his freshly-shaved cheeks, traveling up to his white Chicago Bulls cap. He fixes it on his clear eyes and stands up without any sign of fear.
A smell of “good velouté sauce” is coming from a three bed trailer down below. George doesn’t know for how long this dream is going to last, but he feels that this time his luck changed.