On the wings of cardboard (from the series „the street urchins of Chisinau”)


A police officer from the Center for Minors’ Distribution from the  down town of the capital showed me a detained „prepared for interview”. He was an 11 years child who cried and said he came from the rural area and that he was „for the first time at the police”. „We do not have others now. We send home those who come from the city”– told me the officer, advising me to go to the „central department store, where next to the rubbish boxes live several families with children. „They stay there at night too. You will see them. The elder is Artiom and is about 16 years old. His mother is also there. She is an idiot, for having sold their flat and keeping her children in the street”.

            I found „Artiom’s mother” surrounded by cardboard boxes and various small packages. There was one more lady with her; it was obviously from same category. They were unfolding some papers with food residuals collected from anywhere else. It was evening, twilight, cold and drizzling. Several meters away, right on the cement, close to a concrete fence, somebody was sleeping covered with a piece of waxcloth. On his white hand, as if of a dead man, outstanding beyond the cover, rain drops were oozing. Then I though that under the waxcloth tent there was somebody dead, whereas people are passing by going shopping…  „I do not know where is the boy. He has not come here for about 4 days” said the woman who introduced to me as „Artiom’s mother”. “Come in the morning, may be he will pop in”. I was there next morning. The vendors that were close to rubbish boxes told me they had not seen the boys and that I should go to the bus-station or market place, because there are quite a few „guys” I was looking for. „But I want to ask you something, – a vendor stopped and asked me, – do you happen to know where was taken the woman that was found dead this morning, laying over there?”. She showed me the direction where I had seen the body covered with waxcloth…

            Ultimately I could not find Artiom. The policemen from the bus-station advised me to go to the railway station, because they do not come here so often, we drive them away”. I tried to handle by myself and find the kind of youngsters I was looking for.

Petrică – street urchin, 15 years old,

Nicolaie – street urchin, 16 years old.

I recognized them immediately judging by ragged shoes and old dresses they had on. One of them was carrying a bunch of cardboard boxes on his head. The other, somewhat taller, was accompanying him with his hands in the pockets, at several steps distance. They looked at me with interest, and certain suspicion, when I told them I am journalist and I would like to talk to them. When I saw they were busy on their way, by carrying cardboard, I promised them I will serve them with a breakfast. My promise implied the expected effect. „Let us go ant leave the cardboard and then we will talk” told me the elder.

            They took the cardboard to an individual residing close to the bus-station. For 5,5 kg of cardboard the boys were paid MDL 2,5. After breakfast I promised them, served at a canteen nearby, they followed me calmly to the car.

Petrica’s  confession. They boy has never been to school since he knows himself. He cannot read. He says his parents did not send him to school, although the teachers used to come to their house to call him to school. His father used to say: „You rather stay at home and work”. His parents are alcoholics and live in the country side with his younger sister and his grand-mother, who is paralyzed. He has an elder sister who is married. The boy has not been home for almost 4 years, since he came to Chisinau. Sometimes he makes a call, when he can, to some “godfathers” and asks about the news in the village. When he was at home, his father used to beat him and send him as day-worker to different people, and look for bottles and bring money home. „I had to bring money for drink, and when he beat me, only my grand-mother would protect me. She said: „Let the child in peace for he will grow up and abandon the home”. Petrică’s parents used to go to work in the Ukraine, in summer time, leaving him with his sister, under his grand-mothers’ and elders sister’s tutorship. She knows that during the recent years the mother had worked for a boiler-room, and father – as porter for a warehouse in the native village. „They get drunk every day, look for bottles in the rubbish and make money for drinking. I think they beat my younger sister too. He used to beat my mother too. I tried to defend my mother and he would beat me. He cracked my skull twice, once with a chair, and once I fell and hit myself against a nail”.

He came to Chisinau together with a boy from his native village, who told him: „Let us go and see how nice is the city”. Petrică reminds how he entered the first time in the city and how nice it seemed to him everything: many storied buildings, many people… Initially he got acquainted with a gypsy who told Petrica to beg for him, and he will show where to stay overnight. The gypsy lead him to a basement of a hotel, the hotel from the down town (very close to the City Hall); there used to „live” over 20 people with their children. „It was well there. We used to have heating from the pipes (thermal pipelines o.n.), we had where to wash, beds…”. He regrets about that basement until nowadays. The police drove away all of them from that place. „The police could have left us in peace, but there was a boy crying all the time that he wanted back to his mother, and the residents of the neighboring houses could not stand his crying. I guess somebody called the police to come and take us”. Petrică also was taken to the police, but he did nothing. „They kept me for two 2 weeks with them. There were many children. They used to feed us three times a day and used to ask us why do we stay in the street, why don’t we go home…”. After being set free from police he went onto the street again. Once, when he was taken to the police, the boy called an acquainted man from the city: „I forgot his name, but he is a man who films and makes pictures. He made a picture to me too… He came and took me to his place, he gave me where to wash, he gave me to eat and some old clothes  from his children”.

            Before knowing Nicolaie, Petrică was in „Robert”’s group (17 years old) and „Dlinnyi” (18 years old). He used to beg whole days „worked on the market place” (used to steal when he perceived convenient moments, something from bags) or „watch” for others (when police was coming). All the money were given to „Dlinyi” and „Robert”. It happened to collect up to MDL 50 a day, of which he received MDL 5 or 10 for food and for „video”. Dlinyi and Robert „used to smell” glue and smoke hemp „herb that is sold by a woman close to the theater house”  and used to spend all the money for girls and in the bars. (The boy told me in detail what is the “flavor” of the glue, and which kind of glue is the best for this). „For them it was little to spend one evening MDL 200 or even 300”. Now he knows only that those guys are drug-addicts, but he does not know where they are now. „Robert was an Armenian and he had rich parents. He even sued to steal gold items from home and sell for drugs”.

            Now their „boss” is Nicolaie. There are 4 of them in a group. There is one more girl (13 years old), and her younger brother. Petrică gives all the money to Nicolae because that had been their agreement. Nicolaie is stronger and not everybody can pick fault on him. (Nicolaie shook his head in affirmation). The boy told me that often, late at night, the drug-addicts take their money. Two weeks ago there was a case. „First they asked for one Leu, or two, then they started to search into the boys’ pockets. They took him MDL 25”. Petrică knows that it is not good to run away from drug-addicts, for if they catch you, it is worse, they can beat you. Nicolaie saw such a “scene”, but he could do nothing, for the drug-addicts are bigger and stronger.

            The whole group begs through the trains. They get together in the evening and count the money; Nicolaie gives them as much as he considers it is necessary. Sometimes they earn MDL 80 and 100 a day (in all). The boys make savings. Of the saved money, the last time for example, they bought for the girl pants, shoes and a pullover. They bought also shoes for her younger brother. The biggest problem of the boys is that they play „poker” on machines. „Sometimes we loose all the money we make” said Petrică. „Sometimes, I win up to MDL 40” added Nicolaie. But the boys always keep some money for all „for a large pie, with sausage and „video”.

Nicolaie’s story. The boy comes from a Russian family of alcoholics, from Chisinau. He finished 5 grades and then did not go to school. His father died and now in the flat lives his mother, step-father and four elder sisters; 3 of them are married. All of them are drunkards. In a three rooms flat live about 10 people and all of them drink. Nicolaie’s mother worked last time two years ago, in a park, as cleaner. Since his step-father came, the boy cannot stay at home. „They drove me away from home, saying that they have only costs with me, and that I can support me by myself. When I go home to see my mother, I always fight with my step father. He said he would kill me. I also told him so. Yesterday in the morning we popped in home with Petrică, and he saw how he beat me. He hurt my ear”.

            Given that he is the eldest, Nicolaie takes care of all the members of the group. He goes to “defend” when it is necessary. This happens when another group come across them and they start a skirmish. Usually the “leaders” fight. The others just watch. Nicolaie says calmly that he beats them until they run away.

            Now they live in a basement. Today the girls and her brother will carry cardboard for the whole day and will have what to eat. In order to get the permission to collect cardboard from the market place, the boys pay the policemen MDL 5. „We do not give them voluntarily. They ask MDL 5 when they see us”.

            Nicolaie had many problems with the police. He was arrested for a theft. „We stole from a flat in Chisinau MDL 6000 and we were caught. It happened so that a boy started to count the stolen money close to that house, and somebody saw us and called the police”. For that case was sentenced to conditional imprisonment, for an year, and is still registered with the police. The boy says that the reason he was driven away from home was different.

            They steal from whoever they can, when they are on the market place, but they know it is dangerous. Nicolaie steals and Petrică and the others cover him. The easiest is to steal from bags, given that they know how to open them.

            Last summer he was with Petrică to Odesa. There he helped in unloading watermelons on the market place, a  work for which he was paid „well”. In the evening they also begged in Odesa, and stole; the boys think that it is much easier to run away from the police there, because there are more people than in Chisinau.

In Odesa Nicolaie got acquainted with a girl, whose parents were gone to work somewhere. „She was one year elder than him and invited him to live in the flat with her because she was afraid to stay at home alone”. Although he did not love her „for she was not beautiful”, Nicolaie was in a relation with her like with a true wife. Each time he used condoms, because he knows about syphilis and other diseases. But most of all he was afraid the girl not to become pregnant.

Petrică also stayed with them. The girl from Odesa helped him find flats for robbery and she was very good in watching; thanks to her he did not have problems with the police there. „In Odesa he had problems with guys from Moldova. They ask money, drive us away, and ultimately beat me and leave us in peace” said Nicolaie.

            The largest robbery when they were not caught, was organized in Odesa. In a flat they stole USD 9000. „On that money we lived the whole summer, three of us” added Petrică joyfully. I asked them how could they spend so much money, and Petrică added again: „We sailed a boat almost every day…! And what foods were there Nicolaie, did you like it?” Nicolaie also added in a low voice that he lost several thousands in hazardous games. They did not change the stolen money at the bank, but rather at the vendors on the market place.

„Did you hijack cars?” – I asked them. „No, said Nicolaie, because you can be stopped by police”. OK, but can you open the doors of a car?”. „No problems, particularly one like yours, which has no signaling”.

            We parted at the railway station,  where from boys wanted to get the train to Odesa. There was some more time. „What do you plan to do in the future Nicolaie?”. They boy answered like an adult: „To work… I want to have a girl… I do not like prostitutes”. He said that he had more prostitutes in Chisinau, “for free”. „But don’t you remember how you paid to that girl MDL 200?” quickly reminded him Petrică, with a naivete that still denoted the child within.

About Tofan Gheorghe

I was born in Moldova. Have my degree in human communication. Love reading, writing, watercolor. I live and work in Dublin, Ireland.
This entry was posted in Short stories, interviews (English version). Bookmark the permalink.

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