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The King of the Gypsies

In order to appreciate the story of the King of the Gypsies, you have to know something about my father. He stood about five feet-five inches tall. He was lean – what people in his day would have called ‘wiry.’ He weighed about 125 pounds soaking wet. Despite his small size, or perhaps because of it, he was always ready for a fight. Not that – so far as I know – he ever started one, but he certainly never backed down from one either. That was an important part of his personal creed.

He had a broken nose – the reminder of a not-so-stellar amateur boxing career – and a metal plate in his head from surgery for a brain tumor, which might also have been the result of the same unfortunate career choice. However, neither his demonstrated ineffectiveness in the pugilistic arts, nor the presence of the life-threatening plate affected his behavior. Dad didn’t back down. General Patton would have loved him. He didn’t seem to understand the word “retreat.”

  “Son,” he would say to me, “never start a fight, but always finish one.”

  I called this his “Pearl Harbor Philosophy.” According to Dad, it was wrong to throw the first punch. But once you had been attacked, you were required to fight back to the bitter end – regardless, I might add, of the size of your opponent. According to this philosophy, it didn’t matter if Roosevelt knew about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in advance or not; he had no choice but to wait to get hit and then fight like hell.

  Dad thought of himself as a man of peace, and this non-first-strike policy may have been noble and politically correct, but it had drawbacks when applied in the real world. It doesn’t take too much imagination to realize what the practical implications of this philosophy meant for a young boy like me growing up in Jersey City in the 1950’s

  We had no Internet in the 1950s – hence no wimpy cyberbullying. We had real bullies. They called you names to your face, in front of your friends, and then, bullies being bullies, beat the crap out of you.  Trying to follow Dad’s credo was not easy. I often found myself staring up at some Cro-Magnon jerk, listening to him mouth off, and waiting for him to clock me so I could begin my legitimate and manly defense. I lost more fights than I won, but I always thought that I would have done better if I had been allowed to throw the first punch. However, being my father’s son meant I had to wait to be hit before I could hit back. If that had been Dad’s philosophy in the ring, it’s no wonder he had a broken nose.

  At the time of his encounter with the King of the Gypsies, Dad was in his mid-forties, still lean, but not quite as fit as he had been in his prime. A lifetime of smoking, and an affinity for Seagrams 7 had already begun to sap his strength and destroy his health. 

  However, such grim thoughts were far from the minds of those that gathered that Spring day in 1954 in Dad’s Central Avenue storefront ”headquarters.” We were there to organize the move to a bigger and better headquarters, one more suitable for a newly elected city Councilman.

  The previous Autumn, Dad had taken on Jersey City’s powerful Democratic political machine and won, running as an independent, and earning himself a spot in the newly-reorganized city government as Councilman for Ward D, representing the citizens of the Heights section of Jersey City.  

  The Heights, or Ward D as it was commonly known, was stuck on the north end of Jersey City like an afterthought. On the East, Ward D looked over the Palisades down to Hoboken, the Hudson River, and the Manhattan skyline. It was bounded in the North by the Paterson Plank Road, which separated it from Union City. The strip along the border was known as “The Barbary Coast” because of the numerous honky-tonk bars that featured Go-Go Girls dancing in cages. On the West, Ward D looked down once again from its perch on the Palisades to Secaucus with its garbage dumps and pig farms all vying to emit the foulest odor. The worst weather forecast you could get in Ward D was a westerly wind. The only place Ward D touched the rest of Jersey City was in the South, and that only tangentially, separated as it was from the rest of the city by the “Holland Tunnel Cut,” a depression-era sunken roadway that linked the Pulaski Skyway with the Holland Tunnel.

  Ward D was originally the independent community of Hudson City, which had been annexed by Jersey City in 1869. It never really fit in; it always retained its sense of independence, and nobody exemplified that better than Dad.

Dad was a renegade. He loved politics but hated corruption. This made his life difficult in Jersey City where the phrase ”honest politician” was an oxymoron. He entered politics during the depression era when the Democratic political machine was run by Frank “I am the law” Hague.

  Mayor Hague ruled the party with an iron fist, but he understood that the source of his power was votes, so he controlled the electorate with an “open hand.” He bought votes, but he also bought food for the poor, and made sure the recipients knew where it came from. He gave out quarters to people on the street, sent Thanksgiving baskets to the needy, built the Jersey City Medical Center, and provided free medical care to the citizens of Hudson County. Of course it bankrupted the city, but the people loved it, and it was great while it lasted.

Everybody knew that Hague was “on the take,” but nobody cared – Hell, everybody was “on the take.” Everybody, that is, except Dad.

  Dad had principles.

  God only knows where he got them from. He was one of 16 children of Italian immigrants, had little formal education, and was living through the worst economic depression in America’s history. Yet, like some Knight of the Round Table, he believed that honor and reputation were superior to wealth, that if you gave your word, you kept it, that you respected women, and that you helped – and protected if possible – those less fortunate than you.

  I know – it’s crazy. But that’s who he was, and he spent his life, like Don Quixote de la Mancha living in the shadow of Mambrino’s helmet. And I, like Sancho Panza, followed him, although I never understood him. Sometimes I thought he was the most naïve person on Earth. Other times, I simply thought he was nuts. Dad always wanted to “be somebody” – ideally somebody like Hague, but honest. So he turned to politics.

  “Biggashots,” his mother Angelina called him, “Allatime, biggashots.”

  I don’t think it was a compliment.

  But Dad was undeterred. He had his dream, and he intended to follow it.

He got his opportunity when Jersey City switched from a commission form of government – in which all candidates ran city-wide for one of five spots on the commission, which then selected the mayor from among the winners – to a mayor-council form of government that allowed Dad to run for Councilman from Ward D only, instead of running for a city-wide office.

  So he walked up and down Central Avenue, gathering signatures on a petition so he could get his name on the ballot. With 15 siblings he might have had enough signatures right in his own home, but Dad probably would have considered that cheating. He succeeded in getting his name on the ballot, but nobody took him seriously – after all, he was running against the Democratic party’s hand-picked candidate, a favorite of then-boss John V. Kenny.

 In 1949, Kenny had wrested power from his mentor Hague in one of the great betrayals of Jersey City politics. He ran the party with the same iron fist, but he forgot all about the ”open hand.” Rumor had it that what came to Kenny stayed with Kenny. To Dad, Kenny represented everything that was wrong with politics and politicians. In his mind, JVK was dishonest, disloyal, and corrupt – the epitome of evil.

  So he formed his own Democratic party (there were no Republicans in Jersey City) and called it the Regular Democrats for Clean Government or RDCG for short (presumably there were “irregular” democrats someplace and/or “regular” democrats who were not in favor of clean government). The first meetings of the RDCG were held in our four-room apartment above a beauty parlor on the corner of Paterson Street and Central Avenue, ironically only a stone’s throw from Kenny’s headquarters across the street. These meetings, as I vaguely recall them, consisted of Dad’s brothers and his close friends smoking and drinking beer (and whiskey when they could afford it) and planning a coup. It wasn’t quite “backroom”’ politics. Given the amount of beer that went down, it was more like “bathroom” politics, but they were serious reformers, and in time the organization grew. By 1953, the RDCG had gained enough membership and support to get Dad elected as the first-ever Councilman from Ward D.  

  Once elected, Dad approached his new responsibilities with his customary vigor. His heroes were FDR, and Harry Truman, and, like them, he saw himself as the champion of “the little guy.” This led him to support anybody he perceived to be the underdog in a fight, regardless of the individual’s race, ethnicity, or country of origin.  He enjoyed helping people, and if in doing so, he also twisted the tail of the Establishment, so much the better.

  It was his inability to turn down any plea for help that led the King of the Gypsies to march into Dad’s Central Avenue headquarters demanding to see “Theez man Tomas.”

  His appearance had been announced only moments before by my breathless Uncle Tony, the oldest and most enigmatic of my father’s 11 surviving brothers. My grandparents, Frank and Angelina Maresca sent their tree oldest sons off to WW1, and got one-and-half back. My first Uncle Charlie, was killed in the siege of St Denis one month before the Armistice. My Uncle Chris, who had been sent to Panama to protect the Canal by day and the senoritas by night, returned intact, but the afore-mentioned Tony was not so fortunate.  He came back permanently scarred from the conflict. Today he would probably be diagnosed with PTSD, but in those days, there was no such diagnosis.

  Like most towns, Jersey City had its share of “characters,” and Uncle Tony was our contribution. He always wore a rumpled, randomly stained suit, but never wore a tie. He could be found most days scampering up and down Central Avenue in a perpetual hurry to go no place in particular. Tony never walked – he scurried. And he never stood still for more than two seconds. He was constantly in motion, although no one ever knew why. Tony spent his days (and nights one must assume) in a constant state of restless anxiety and nonstop motion. So far as I know he never worked. He ran errands for Dad and did odd jobs around the club. Mostly it was his responsibility to take the blame for anything and everything that went wrong.

  The expressions “Tony did it.” “It must have been Tony.” “Ask Tony.” and      “TONY!!” were commonplace in the club. If Uncle Tony had been around when Jesus was alive, he would have no doubt been held accountable for the crucifixion, and Jews would have avoided centuries of unwarranted persecution.

Uncle Tony never seemed to mind what anybody said. The only time I saw him get upset was once when my father lost his temper and shouted at him. He idolized my father, and would do whatever Dad asked. He spoke Italian-American with a strong Jersey City accent, understandable only to my father, and perhaps a few of the other brothers.

  “EEZACUMMINEER!” Tony excitedly announced

  “Who is?” My father asked.  

  “DAGIP! DAGIP!” Tony said. He could barely contain himself.

  Several of the regulars in the club rolled their eyes, shook their heads, and exchanged “Poor Tony” glances of understanding. Dad, meanwhile, remained focused on trying to get some sense of what Uncle Tony was trying to say.

  “What is a ‘dagip’?” My father asked, but before he could get a satisfactory answer from my extremely upset uncle, in walked one of the largest men I had ever seen.

  Who is theez man Tomas?” he asked in a booming and somewhat menacing voice.

  Everybody took at least two automatic, involuntary steps backward. Only Dad held his ground. ‘Dagip’ was a big, dark man, straight out of central casting. He wore a bright red, shiny shirt with long, blousy sleeves and a black leather vest. Loose black pants were tucked into calf-high black boots, A luxuriant black mustache covered his top lip and dropped down each side of his mouth to his chin. His long black hair was kept under control by a red bandana, and yes, believe it or not, he had a golden ring in his left ear. I thought he was auditioning for a role in  “Zorro in the Land of the Giants.”

  This had to be a joke. Nobody really looked like that. I kept expecting Allan Funt to jump out from behind a curtain and shout, “Smile, You’re on ‘Candid Camera’!” I didn’t know whether to laugh or call the cops. But nobody was laughing. Least of all Dad. He was calmly, but intently eyeing up this behemoth, and I instinctively knew what he was doing.

  “A left hook,” I said to myself. Dad was measuring the distance to his jaw. Actually, I had some doubt that Dad could reach the giant’s jaw without leaving the ground. Me, I was thinking that a kick directed to the lower extremities of the giant’s anatomy would probably be more effective – at least when dagip doubled over, Dad would be able to reach his jaw, but Dad never would have considered such a tactic.

  “I come to see Tomas,” he repeated, while his eyes moved from person to person around the room. 

  "I’m Thomas,” said Dad calmly.

  I had never before heard Dad refer to himself as “Thomas.” He was Tom, or Tommy to everybody who knew him.

   “Who are you?” Dad asked.

  “I,” responded the colossus, pulling himself up to his full height, and puffing out his chest, “am Voltan, King of the Gypsies!”

 You could hear jaws dropping all around the room.

  I’m thinking, “You’re king of the loonies,” but I kept my mouth shut because Dad, pulling himself up to his full five foot, five inches, and puffing out his chest, responded: “I am Thomas Maresca, Councilman for Ward D.”

  This was getting serious. As an American, Dad had an inbred distrust of royalty, and as man of the people he felt obligated to stand up for democratic principles. There they were, mano a mano; in one corner, Voltan, the King of the Gypsies, and in the other corner, Tom Maresca, Councilman from Ward D. It was a little bit like David versus Goliath, but Dad didn’t have a slingshot. Then an amazing thing happened – the giant smiled, a great big golden-toothed smile.

  "AHA! Tomas!” he said, as he lunged forward, wrapped Dad in his massive arms, and lifted him off the ground. Dad squirmed; he wriggled; he kicked his feet. He tried frantically to get off a punch. But it was useless. He was pinned more thoroughly than Captain Nemo in the arms of the giant squid. To his credit, Dad never called for help. There was no “no mas” in him. Or perhaps it was simply that the giant had squeezed him so tightly that he could barely breathe, let alone call for help.

  Then disaster struck.

  Voltan planted a big wet one right on Dad’s lips! Dad’s gyrations became frantic. He spit, He thrashed. This was worse than Pearl Harbor. He got one arm free and pounded the monster’s back. Voltan didn’t notice. He seemed unaware of Dad’s hostile intentions. He casually placed him back on the ground, and quite calmly and deliberately reached with his right hand into his vest.

  “I come to give you theez.” He said.

  There was immediate mayhem in the room. In an instant, chairs and tables were overturned and we were all scrambling for safety. This being Jersey City, everybody assumed that Voltan was reaching for a gun.  But what he drew out of his vest was not a gun, but a slender black leather case, which he offered to my father.

  “Theez for you. For you helping my people.” He said in a surprisingly moderate tone.

  A few weeks earlier, Dad had successfully championed the cause of a small group of Gypsies in their fight against eviction (It wasn’t until many years later that they would be called Roma). It wasn’t that Dad loved Gypsies, he just hated landlords. Nevertheless, it was an unusual and gutsy move for a politician to stand up for a group like the Gypsies, who were not entirely welcomed into the community with open arms. But Dad didn’t see them as Gypsies. He saw them as people; more importantly, they were his people, constituents of Ward D who needed help. So he helped them. It never occurred to him that the Gypsies probably weren’t even registered to vote, that, in all likelihood, the Gypsies, being true to their heritage, would be long gone before the next election – and probably before they paid the rent – but either that never occurred to Dad, or he simply didn’t care.

  Apparently the news of Dad’s good deed had spread throughout the Gypsy community until it reached the ears of King Voltan, in whatever far-off land he lived – probably Brooklyn. Gypsies, the King explained, always pay their debts, and they felt indebted to Dad. Voltan gestured that Dad should take the leather case.

  Dad obliged.

  Voltan stood looking, smiling meekly, waiting. Dad was supposed to open the case, but Dad was still dealing with conflicting emotions. He held the case in one hand, wiped his mouth with the other, and never took his eyes off the King. He was in a state of deep moral conflict. His code of honor had been breached – or had it? Was a kiss an act of aggression? Was he supposed to strike back?  And if so, how?

There was silence while Dad considered the metaphysical dilemma. Everybody was holding his breath, waiting for Dad’s next move. I could envision Dad telling Voltan what he could do with his gift. And I could guess Voltan’s response.

  Disaster was in the air.

  The silence was mercifully broken, and along with it the tension. There was a chorus of “Open it, Tommy” from the club members, who had slowly returned from their hiding places, and were anxious not to see a punch thrown. Dad already had a broken nose. Nobody wanted to see him get a broken neck.

  We all moved closer, forming a semicircle around Dad as he somewhat reluctantly, like a bashful bride-to-be at her wedding shower, opened the case and held it up for all to see. It contained a gold watch with a black leather strap. There was an appreciative murmur from the group. Dad seemed impressed, even slightly moved. He looked from the watch to Voltan, and back to the watch again, as if trying to determine the validity of each.

  In response to requests from the club members, Dad passed the watch around. When it came to me, I saw that it said “Lucien Picard” on the back and “genuine leather” on the strap. Not too many people in Jersey City in 1953 had Lucien Picard watches with genuine leather bands. They were about as common as Rolexes are on the Jersey City streets today – in other words, they were either stolen or knockoffs. Dad’s friends passed the watch around, oooh’d and aaah’d as they held it up to the light, and exchanged knowing winks.

  I was only fourteen, but even I was smart enough to know that it was worthless.  First of all, I was convinced that this guy – whatever his real name was – was no King of the Gypsies. And I was also cynical enough to know that if the watch were real, he wouldn’t be giving it away. He may be nuts, I thought, but he ain’t that nuts.

  Dad disapproved of our behavior. He believed in treating people with respect, and he didn’t like what was going on – besides, all hell was going to break loose if Voltan ever realized that people were mocking him.

  Things were growing tense again.

  “I can’t accept it,” Dad said to the King. “I didn’t help your friends for money, and I don’t accept kickbacks.”

  “NO!” said Voltan, looking offended. “You tink theez iz bribe? Theez iz gift! Gift cannot be refused. It is an offence.” 

  “Well,” Dad said looking directly at Voltan, “I wouldn’t want to offend anyone.”

  “GOOD!” exclaimed Voltan, “now you are Gypsy’s friend!” and, without warning, once again swept up my father and kissed him on both cheeks. Then he dropped Dad to the ground, turned quickly and walked out leaving a stunned and amused crowd behind.

  For a few moments, nobody said anything. Then one person started laughing, and soon we were all having a good time covering our failure to say or do anything to help Dad out by strutting around and mimicking the King of the Gypsies now that he was no longer around to bash in our brains and eat us raw.

  And so the King of the Gypsies passed out of our lives, although his story doesn’t end there.


* * *


  Dad brought the watch home, put it in a bureau drawer and forgot about it until, many years later, for reasons known only to him, he gave me the watch. Because I didn’t have a watch, or the money to buy one, I wore it. It looked OK, and it kept accurate time, so the fact that it was a Gypsy knockoff hardly mattered. Besides, nobody knew but me.

  One day, many years later, the watch stopped. I was going to throw it out, but my wife thought that since it had been a gift from my father, I should take it to a jeweler’s to get it fixed. I thought that it would probably cost more to fix than it was worth, but my wife was right – it was a gift. So I took it to the local jewelry store for an estimate.

  The jeweler looked at it under his loupe, scratched the surface of the watch, and handed it back to me.

  “I’m sorry,” he said. “I can’t fix this.”

  "Why not?” I asked, although I really knew the answer – the watch was obviously so cheap that any attempt to repair it would prove fatal. It would probably fall apart at the first touch.

  “This is a Lucien Picard,” he said. “It can only be repaired at the factory, or by an authorized dealer.” Then he added, “I’d be very careful where I took this. It’s solid gold, and worth a lot of money. They don’t make these anymore. You’re lucky to have it. If you ever decide to sell it, let me know, I might be interested.”

  “No,” I said, “I couldn’t sell this. It was a gift to my father from the King of the Gypsies.”

* * * *

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