Aug 15

American Gypsy Woman

American Gypsy Woman

Oksana Marafioti’s parents performed in a traveling Romani ensemble until she was

15, when they moved to America. Growing up, she saw the Mongolian deserts and

the Siberian tundra, watched her father get into bar fights with Nazis, learned about

sex by sneaking into illicit movies, and endured the hostility of school bullies. What

little Oksana and her sister, Roxy, knew of the United States they had learned from

MTV, subcategory George Michael. Not quite prepared for the challenges of

immigration. Marafioti cracks open the secretive world of the Roma and brings the

absurdities, miscommunications, and unpredictable victories of the immigrant

experience to life, one slice of processed cheese at a time.

Oksana spoke at Vroman’s Bookstore August 7, 2012 on her family life as a gypsy woman.

Video of the talk:

Part 1 – Gypsy Woman Oksana Marafioti

Part 2 – Gypsy Woman Oksana Marafioti

Part 3 – Gypsy Woman Oksana Marafioti

I Live In A Bowling Alley


I Live In A Bowling Alley

My Life Went Down The Tubes

My name is Ben. I live in the San Fernando Valley. I’m retired now, but when I was working I had enough money to pay my rent, buy food, and have some fun, mainly bowling. I love to bowl. I mean I really love, love, love bowling. My friends even got to calling me “Benny the Bowler”. It is my passion, or I should say it WAS my passion. Since I retired and started collecting Social Security, my life went down the tubes, and bowling, among other things, went with it. Here’s my story.

The money I got from Social Security just barely covered my rent. And I didn’t live in a fancy place. Just a dumpy single apartment. Oh, the rent was more reasonable in the past, but it kept going up and up, until it was just under $900 per month. So there wasn’t even enough left for very much food. Some seniors get a lot more than me, they worked for the government or a big corporation and get a nice pension. Me? I started out in retail sales and stayed there.

My first job was a shoe salesman. I was good at selling shoes, but you need a strong stomach for it, smelling the stink of people’s socks and nylons. Shoe stores should have a heated pond when you walk in, sort of a mini-car wash for feet. You take off your shoes and then go through this little pond, which gently soaps up your toesies and gives everything a scrub-a-dub. Next is the warm blow-dry to get off the water and warm you up. Then, instead of wax, you get a shot of perfume on your ankles and feet. At that point, your feet are clean and smelling g-o-o-o-d! Then the shoe salesman sashays in, ready to show you some cool klompers. I might still be selling shoes if that dream was real. But unfortunately, it ain’t.

So, I decided to move up the sales ladder, which means move up the body so to speak. I got into a nice shop selling men’s wear, suits, ties, shirts. I liked the job, so I stuck around for 30 years until the owner died and the merchandise was taken away by the legions of unpaid creditors. Needless to say, I didn’t get a pension. But while I was there I made enough to have a very modest living and I could bowl my brains out.

I learned a lot at the men’s shop. I learned how to dress nice, the different fabrics, ties, everything about men’s clothing. When I first started working there, my boss gave me a pamphlet to read, called “How Clothing Symbolically Defines a Civilization”. It explained the psychology behind the design of men’s clothes. Like the businessman, who needs a conservative suit; the actor needs something sporty and stylish with a fun tie; the politician needs a power suit, not too conservative, power without looking too expensive; a banker needs a very conservative power suit, with a tie that jumps out and whispers in your ear “trust me”! Something for everyone, even clowns and their hip-hop imitators.

I Never Had Enough Food

After I retired, my small savings went quickly. The landlord took everything. I never had enough food. I started to obsess about food. There was no money for anything else, no more bowling, no more eating out, no dating, just trying to get some cheap food, which was usually junk stuff on sale somewhere. I got to the point of putting food purchases on my credit card, then I got behind in my payments and they tagged a high interest rate on me. Then they canceled the card and sent me to collection. This meant if I left the apartment for cheaper diggs I wouldn’t be able to get another one because of bad credit. Things escalated. I was dreaming about food, waking up with night sweats at 4 am. I dreamed I had become like one of the millions of starving people of Africa, like a skinny starving kid with my face on his body. But I had actually gained a lot of weight. Although my fear was starvation, it drove me to eat and eat. I didn’t have any money to go anywhere, so I just sat on the couch watching tv, drooling over the food commercials, and eating junk because it was cheap. I had turned into a sickly fat slob, riddled with fear – fear of when the next rent increase was hitting, fear of going hungry, fear of life itself.

I still had my old computer, and would send out a few emails, but I mainly used it to look for food coupons and market ads. I somehow stumbled on your gypsy cool website. At first, I didn’t pay much attention, I actually laughed out loud that there would be a website for someone living in a vehicle. What a joke, I thought. Then one morning at 4 am I woke up with the usual anxiety, sweating like a pig, my heart racing. I was at the end of my rope. What the hell was I going to do?

I remembered your website. Could living in a vehicle solve my problems? I somehow knew that I was finished at the apartment. I was done. Ready to take the pipe as they say. Life was no fun, no joy, I was miserable. I went back to the gypsy cool site, I started reading everything on it. I got out a notebook, and for the next week I made notes from your website and a few others that were similar. I was desperate, but reading about others in the same boat started to give me courage. I learned there are tens of thousands of people in America living in vehicles. Yeah, in some spots it’s illegal. So what? How “legal” was it for the stinking bankers to steal all the wealth of the country? Besides, the West was settled by people who lived in vehicles: COVERED WAGONS. Remember them?

I Decide To Go Stealth

I followed all your advice. Once I had made my decision it was full steam ahead. I gave notice to the landlord. I sold my car and bought a used van for stealth living. I put in carpet that I got used for almost nothing, then put down a pad and bedding. I got it fixed up like a mini RV. I rented a cheap storage unit and moved my dresser and some bookcases and my computer into it. I plan to get a laptop soon, but amazingly the storage unit has power, but no internet. I fixed up my unit like a mini apartment, since I have power I can use a hot plate and a small toaster oven. I picked up a small refrigerator and plugged it in, I’m just hoping they don’t catch on or care about that. Most of my clothes are in the storage unit, I found a couple of large cardboard boxes that had held water heaters and I rigged up a pole inside to hang suits and slacks.

Your articles mentioned a health club, so I joined one. I go there every couple of days for a shower. And since I’m there, a sauna and some exercise. Your advice about food was great. I signed up at the local senior center. They serve a hot lunch every day of the week for $2. It’s a nutrition deal, low calorie meals. So in the last 7 months, since I moved out of the apartment and started living in the van and eating at the center and exercising at the health club, I’ve lost a lot of weight. I look a lot better and I feel a lot better.

My budget is simple, no more rent or electricity. Only gas and occasional service for the van, which I had with the car anyway. So my Social Security check is almost all bottom line. My lunches at the senior center run $40-50 per month, the storage unit is $150, the health club is $40. I had a lot left over and I realized that I could easily get back to bowling! A wave of emotion ran over me, I literally started to cry. Years of my precious life had gone by. Now I could bowl again. I can’t describe my happiness about that, I know it must sound stupid, with all the things going on in the world, but there it is.

Most lanes charge by the game or by the hour. I could bowl for an hour a day for $15 bucks, meaning I could bowl almost every day, even on my s.s., and still be able to eat, go to a Dennys or a Sizzler once in a while. You get the idea. My life has totally changed. The sounds in the bowling alley, the balls skidding down the alley, crashing into the pins, the low murmur of the bowlers, the smell of popcorn. And then there’s the sports bar. A big-screen TV set to watch the games. I can duck in there on a hot day for a beer and watch baseball for hours. I thought life couldn’t be better. But it got even better.

I Live In A Bowling Alley

I was checking out bowling lanes all around the L.A. Area. Many have deals on certain days, so I travel around to different alleys, I now have kind of a “bowling route”. I got noticed by people and started getting some “students”, people who wanted to improve their skills, so now I’m making a little “geeda” on the side. I got friendly with some of the managers, and a couple of them let me park the van all night, so I’m off the street and snuggled up to the wall of one of the alleys. I’m living on the property, having fun, making extra dough, no more rent sweat, eating regular. Life’s so good I could squeal. Thank you gypsy cool for making my life fulfilling again!

Benny The Bowler (Once Again!)


Jan 15

Return to Paradise by “5”

October 9, 2011 marked my return to Los Angeles, after having moved away for nearly six months. The initial plan, after having been let go from my latest stint of employment in L.A., was to start a new life in a new town, find a job, rent a room from my brother, and to try to carve a niche for myself in the local Hotlanta music scene.

After two weeks I soon realized that southern culture was not for me. Neither was the extreme heat, nor the unbearable levels of humidity.

And after two and a half months of searching for a job–any job!–to no avail, it started to sink in that maybe, just maybe, moving to Atlanta was probably not the greatest idea in the world.

So… it was only a matter of time before I had to face the inevitable: The long drive back to L.A.

But first, I decided to visit my folks (long divorced) in Pensacola, Florida. Here again, something about the south did not sit right with me. It felt as if I had gone into some type of vortex which sent me back in time, and I was no longer connected to the modern world.

Three months later, after packing up my belongings which were stored at my brother’s place, and after filling up the gas tank of my trusty ’96 Jeep Grand Cherokee, I merged onto the I-20 and headed west. Honestly, it felt as if some type of reverse deja vu had been bestowed upon me.

But it was well worth it because three days later I was back in L.A. Only this time I didn’t have a cozy, studio apartment to go to, nor did I have a pot to piss in.

Fortunately, my friend Alyson let me stow the majority of my belongings at her place and that freed up the back end of the Jeep, which soon became my living quarters.

With the back seat positioned downward to create maximum cargo space, I put a sleeping bag into the back area, along with a couple thick blankets to add to the comfort level. Amazingly, the back part of the Jeep was just long enough for my 5′ 10” body to recline comfortably. And given to the fact that I’ve always slept in the fetal position, it provided more than enough room to get some decent shut-eye.

But… where?

I missed my old neighborhood like crazy, the Beachwood canyon area just south of the iconic HOLLYWOOD sign. In fact, it was quite possibly the greatest neighborhood in the entire world. And I’m not exaggerating one iota when I say that. If you don’t believe me you can go there for yourself and talk to the local residents. They’ll all tell you the same thing: They love it there!

You see, there’s a certain creative energy in the area that is perfect for poets, writers, musicians, painters, and filmmakers alike. Per capita, there are probably more people in the entertainment business in this little area of Hollywood Hills, than anywhere else in the city of Angels. However, don’t quote me on that, because it’s merely a guess on my part.

As far as taking up residency in my Jeep in this desirable part of town, there was one minor hitch: At night there were tons of private security companies who patrol the area like it’s no one’s business. And to add insult to injury, there was a strongly enforced “Neighborhood Watch” program among those who resided there. Perhaps the locals thought it was no one’s business to nocturnally freeload on the streets of their sacred space, who knows?

Being new to this type of gypsy cool thing, the last thing I wanted was to be busted for the crime of sleeping in my car. I was committed to outsmart them, to find the perfect place where no one would even suspect a snoozing body in the back compartment of my nondescript, black Jeep.

My first thought was to find a vacant home nestled somewhere in the hills, where I might be able to get away with parking in the driveway (if I felt daring enough) or on the street out front (if I felt less daring.) I drove around the narrow, winding streets of Beachwood canyon for nearly half an hour looking for the perfect crash pad. I saw lots of posted real estate signs alright, but the majority of them still had tenants living in the homes.

I eventually stumbled upon two vacant homes with “for sale” signs, or at least they appeared to bevacant, but neither one of them felt right according to a strong intuitive hunch. One of them had a neighbor too close for comfort, and the other looked as if it were haunted.

So I kept driving…

It was now approaching the midnight hour and after three days on the road my body, along with my mental faculties, were ready to shut down.

Alas, I found the perfect place not far from the Beachwood Market. Without divulging too much information, I found a strip of land which was lined with a thick wall of super-tall bushes that shot up into the night sky about two stories, which barricaded the home on the other side from the sidewalk and street… Perfect! Whether someone lived there or not, I couldn’t tell. And at this point, I didn’t care. I figured if I was quiet enough, no one would know and everything would be hunky dory.

So I pulled over to the curb, turned off the lights, and killed the engine—all in one motion. I silently stood watch for a while, sitting perfectly still in the driver’s seat feeling like a spy on a clandestine mission.

At one point, a patrolling security officer slowly approached in a light-colored import of some type, and I immediately ducked for cover behind my dashboard. Luckily, the driver did not notice anything odd or unusual, and kept driving.

Minutes later I watched a coyote heading down from the hills in search of a midnight snack of some type. This neighborhood was notorious for felines disappearing in the middle of the night.

Finally, it seemed as if the coast was clear as I cracked the rear passenger’s side window an inch. I then crawled into the back compartment of the Jeep and situated myself under a sheet and blanket.

All things considered, I slept pretty well that night. Especially for someone who has frequent battles with insomnia. Perhaps not having to worry about paying an exorbitant amount in rent aided in my restful evening. Sure, I was tired from an exhaustive, three-day drive from Hotlanta-GA, but hey, you gotta do what you gotta do.