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  • Reading ClassSounding Out Letters and Life with a Roma Clan Leader
  • Eliza Wilmerding (bio)

"I am very good at pool—so good that I win cash and beer."

"C." I look him in the eye. "You just read that perfectly!" I say. His lips purse as though holding in a smile. Here he is reading. He doesn't yet believe it. He was illiterate a year ago in 2003, when I began teaching him. He's the most superstitious man I know.

"You're a reader!"

"I'm a trying-to-reader," he says.

I call him "C" here. The letter has nothing to do with his name or with the various aliases I've heard him use. "C," because of all the letters in the alphabet, it best fits his nature and his build. It's a charming enough letter, round and friendly looking, and it shifts sound depending on its company—the soft C of "cent," the hard C of "calculate," the "ch" in "chief" and "chase." Sometimes it's silent as in "indict," as though it's hiding out in plain view. It's hooked, and might just snag you this way or that.

"One more?" he asks. "I can't tell if I'm really reading or if I kind of know the words. One more." He prefers reading the sentences I've written for him on my yellow pad over those in his workbook. He mocks the book often. I don't blame him. It was written for children—not grandfathers. Further along in his studies, he'll read from the workbook such phrases as, [End Page 61] "Will you bite Kate if she pokes you?" and without hesitation answer, "I'll bite her even if she doesn't!" and then convulse in silent laughter until he gasps for breath.

I write out a short sentence and hold it up. He takes it from me gently with his bear-paw hand and rests his index finger below the first two words. I watch his brown eyes work through the letters.

"I AM," he reads and looks up for assurance.

"Yes …"

"A MAN."

"Yup …"




"Yes …" The next word begins with "th," a new sound for him. He's used to saying "d" instead of "th." He wants to say it correctly.

He sticks his tongue halfway out between his teeth and blows hard: "SSSTHHHSSTHD."

"Th," I say, making a show of blowing lightly.

"THH. … THHINGS. … THINGS." He smiles. "'I am a man who can fix THings.' Right. Everybody's problems but my own—then again, everybody's problems are my problems."

C is Romani American, a clan leader and judge. He is the Rombaro, or "Big Man," of his vitsa—a group of allied extended families. He says that his family has been in the United States for a little more than a hundred years and that around three thousand family members, including many distant cousins, now live across the country. He defends their fortune-telling territories, mediates Rom versus Rom (man or a group, whereas Romi means woman or women) domestic and business disputes, joins other leaders to preside over more complex or serious cases, and acts as go-between or spokesperson with non-Romani agencies (including journalists, judges, and policemen). Whenever there's a problem those in his vitsa can't solve on their own, he's the go-to man. He calls himself a "fixer." He's called often.

I tutored C on and off for two years from '03 through '05 in his tobacco [End Page 62] shop, a few miles down the road from where I lived. If his busy schedule permitted, we met twice a week, sometimes just twice a month, always in Fine Smokes, a shoe-box store no wider than his old Buick, which he parked out front. It was tiny but comfortable. He'd set down a plush, dark-green carpet and had dragged a few wooden chairs in off the streets. He'd boxed off a corner of the room with old sliding-glass doors, making a walk-in humidor. A faded armchair sat between the humidor and the storefront window...


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pp. 61-93
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