'Poor Man's Psychiatrist' : Gypsies Fight Stereotypes, Bans on Fortune-Telling

Times Staff Writer

He was in his late 30s, a loud, unattractive little man with a marginal IQ, a practiced Rambo swagger and a pathetically grandiose view of himself. He worked at assorted odd jobs, but he came to Hollywood 20 years ago to be a movie star, and he still clung to the dream, still hung around studio lots awaiting his lucky break. But he was growing impatient. Besides that, he was lonely, a bachelor with neither family nor friends.

So, he had brought his troubles to Madame Lulu. For $10, according to the sign outside her parlor in the heart of Hollywood, she would foretell the future, solve problems and bring happiness.

Now, his expression anxious, he sat stiffly across from the pretty Gypsy with her piercing black-brown eyes, his hand in hers. Incense clotted the air, candles flickered, paper flowers and several pictures and statues of Jesus adorned her tiny shrine.

Like many Gypsies--who still do not send their children to school--Lulu Bimbo, 36, can neither read nor write, but she has an innate ability to size people up in a glance. This fellow, her bored expression said, was no challenge at all. She turned her attention to the web of lines in his palm, speaking with brisk certainty. He was glowing within minutes.

She did not tell him he was going to become a movie star, but she did see in his palm that "unexpected success in business is in your future." Better yet, she also saw "a dark-haired woman" entering his life "very soon."

She pumped up his ego, diagnosing his virtues. He was "honest . . . and kind, basically very loving, but you are embarrassed to show it."

"How did you know that ?" he marveled.

At the same time, she offered a few delicate tips on toning down his obnoxious personality.

'You Talk Too Much'

"You have very good ideas, but I can see that you talk too much; you must keep your opinions and ideas more to yourself, because you make people feel envy, that is why you have difficulty making friends."

"You're right!" he declared. "Guys at work are so jealous of me, it's crazy." He thought her advice was cunningly good and vowed to at least feign greater modesty in the future.

When the reading was done, he hated to go. Whatever else, his $10 had bought him an instant measure of attentive, supportive friendship. He promised to soon return.

"I feel sorry for him," Lulu said, watching him strut down the street. In her line of work she sees a surprising cross-section of the population, from affluent suburban housewives and educated professionals to college kids on a lark. A large percentage of her customers, though, are sad, lonely misfits with nowhere else to go.

"We're the poor man's psychiatrist," she said. "People who can't afford $100 an hour come here to talk about their problems, to get advice, to see what the future holds. And Gypsies are psychic; it's in our culture. We believe very much in our own feelings and intuitions about others, we work with our sixth sense, and we do help a lot of people."

Fortune-tellers, most of them Gypsies, flourish throughout Los Angeles. Strictly speaking, however, they are illegal under provisions of a sweeping local ordinance that prohibits, among other things, foretelling the future, either for a fee or for free. Other California cities have similar laws.

However, many of those laws may soon be overturned. In a case under consideration by the California Supreme Court, a Gypsy couple is challenging an Azusa ordinance banning fortune-telling as an unconstitutional violation of freedom of speech and religion, overly vague in its language and specifically discriminatory against Gypsies.

Representing Gypsies John and Fatima Stevens, Los Angeles attorney Barry Fisher argued that the ban on fortune-telling was so broad it could be construed to include Bible-readings, newspaper horoscopes, maybe even weather forecasters.

A decision in the case (Spiritual Psychic Science Church of Truth vs. the City of Azusa) is expected any day--and the consensus among court watchers is that the Gypsies will win.

If so, Detective Jose Alcantara of the Los Angeles Police Department--among others in law enforcement--predicts the worst.

"The floodgates will open. California will be crawling with fortune-tellers looking for people susceptible to their con games. That ordinance is our only tool to protect the public."

To Alcantara, one of two officers permanently assigned to the so-called Gypsy detail, there is no such thing as an honest Gypsy fortune-teller. Or an honest Gypsy, for that matter.

"Why should they (be honest), when they despise you?" he said. "To them, you (all non-Gypsies) are merely the animal they feed off of. They're con artists; they live off their wits and always have. The whole time they're telling fortunes for a few bucks, they're really waiting for that one big mark, the 'last resort' type who's desperate enough to believe anything--and who's got a lot of money they can steal."

Alcantara, a 16-year veteran of LAPD's war on Gypsies, is a man who clearly relishes his work. He could tell Gypsy horror stories all day, unfettered by any apparent need to qualify himself.

Man With a Mission

Alcantara's mission in life is to rid the city of as many fortune-tellers as he can catch, as fast as he can. It is no simple task because, despite the ordinance against fortune-telling, LAPD has to catch the fortune-teller in the act. And the only way to do that is through undercover officers, a limited resource.

Currently, he estimated, there are 3,000 to 5,000 Gypsies in Los Angeles, maybe 100 of them active fortune-tellers. Although he receives "tons" of complaints, he shudders to think how many victims are too embarrassed to report their own gullibility.

In evidence, Alcantara produced a stack of reports he has collected over the years, tales of gullible people who have been duped out of money, jewelry, credit cards, cars, even clothing, not only by Gypsy fortune-tellers but by Gypsies bilking people through staged accidents, insurance frauds, picking pockets, house burglaries and dishonest auto-body work, a common occupation among Gypsy men.

"They prey especially on old people. One scam is for a pair of Gypsies to knock on somebody's door . . . maybe one is carrying a baby . . . and ask for a drink of water. While the owner is preoccupied, the other one canvasses the house, stealing anything valuable laying around."

Typical Swindle

A typical fortune-telling swindle, according to Alcantara, usually involves a victim with serious personal or physical problems who is susceptible to superstition. "Maybe somebody with cancer . . . who doesn't want to believe it. So the Gypsy will try to convince him that his illness is caused by a curse. They're not religious themselves," he said cynically, "but they tie everything to religion." (Academics say most Gypsies are either Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox.)

The Gypsy's next step, Alcantara continued, will be to persuade the victim to bring in his "cursed" money to be "blessed." Commonly, he said, the Gypsy will then switch bags, stealing the money and sending the victim home with a bag of paper, perhaps telling him to keep it under his bed, untouched, for several weeks. By the time he realizes he has been robbed--or "gypped," to use the colloquial slur on Gypsies--the fortune-teller may have long since moved on to another city.

It is the Alcantaras of the world, said John Stevens, an Azusa businessman, who made him finally decide to go to court to fight "the continuing racist stereotype" of Gypsies as unscrupulous vagabonds who will even steal children.

"I've never understood a guy like Alcantara," Stevens said angrily. "He's Mexican. Well, there are dishonest Mexicans. There are dishonest cops. But do we say they're all bad?"

And so, when his wife, Fatima, a fortune-teller, was denied permission to open her business in Azusa, Stevens said: "I got mad. Gypsies have been pushed around for centuries. We're the last minority to fight for our rights. Well, I'm a 20th-Century Gypsy, and I decided it was time to stand up and be counted."

"And fortune-telling is in our tradition," said Fatima Stevens, who dresses, contrary to the stereotype, in tailored silks and linens, not bangles and beads. "We believe it's a God-given gift passed on for generations, and I believe I should have the right to share it with others."

Not all Gypsies approve of his legal battle, Stevens said. Some fear that their own fortune-telling businesses will suffer from an increase in competition. Other Gypsies, historically one of the world's most tightly knit, unassimilated minorities, are simply uneasy about finding themselves in the media spotlight.

Aloof, Conservative

Gypsies, who call themselves Rom and speak Romany, an ancient, Sanskrit-based language, have traditionally remained almost religiously aloof from the non-Gypsy world around them, shunning publicity, courts, even keeping their children out of public schools for fear of such cultural contaminants as drugs and casual sex. (As a group, Gypsies are morally quite conservative.)

"If I send him to school, he might be kidnaped. Look at all the pictures on the grocery bags," said one Gypsy mother recently, referring to her 10-year-old son, destined to be illiterate.

Believed to have originated centuries ago in India, the Gypsy population now is roughly estimated at 3 million to 5 million worldwide. Few Gypsies travel in the colorful caravans of lore nowadays, except perhaps in parts of Eastern Europe. Many modern Gypsies do, however, still travel about the country frequently, whole families often living together in rented apartments, carrying their wealth with them, often in gold jewelry.

Always disorganized, they still identify internationally by family clans, more broadly divided into groups based on country of origin--most notably Yugoslavia, Romania, Russia and Argentina. (It is another myth that Gypsies are all dark; a sizable population of blond, blue-eyed Gypsies flourishes in Britain.)

Despite such glamorized films as "King of the Gypsies," most Gypsies today say there is no such thing as a single, all-powerful ruler, only recognized clan leaders. In Los Angeles, according to police, territory is tacitly divided among several leading Gypsy families. On a regional level, many Gypsies still resolve disputes before a council of elders, rather than deal with the courts.

According to Gypsy custom, daughters are still commonly "sold" in marriage, sometimes as young as 14, their worth based on their potential as fortune-tellers. The cash exchange is seen as a sign of respect. No conventional legal ceremonies are involved in either weddings or divorces, only Gypsy song, dance and feasting.

As with all proud cultures, however, time is inexorably eroding the old ways. So far, the only celebrity to identify himself as a Gypsy is actor Yul Brynner. Still, like the Stevenses, an increasing number of Gypsies--at least in the United States--are sinking roots, buying homes and businesses and educating their children, assimilating to survive.

Now, there is even a formal Gypsy organization, the U.S. Romani Council, a small but active group based in Boston that lobbies for representation on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. (Hitler exterminated an estimated 500,000 Gypsies.)

In addition, according to spokesman John Tene, the council is attempting to set up "transition schools," among other social service programs, to prepare illiterate Gypsy children for entry into public schools.

"For so long, Gypsies have felt like outcasts, unwanted. Part of our purpose is to just let them know there is a place they can go for help," Tene said.

Meantime, in Los Angeles, the war goes on.

Under normal circumstances, the Bimbo household is always an impassioned place, all the adults talking at once, shouting, interrupting, contradicting and insulting each other in a din of Romany and English, sounding angry even when they are not.

The chaos was greater than usual one day recently. A Hollywood undercover officer, it eventually emerged amid the clamor, had tried to set Lulu up.

A few days earlier, as she told it, a customer had come into her parlor, complaining of backaches, sleeplessness and other assorted problems, and told her that he had recently come into $2,000 which, he suggested, was perhaps cursed.

Lulu considered this quite feasible. "So I told him that if he brought me $200, I would buy candles to light and bless the money," she said. "Also, I told him to put $1,000 in each shoe and walk on it to cleanse it."

The officer agreed, but he apparently overdid it.

Recorder Discovered

"It was the way he talked--he was so eager to get rid of his money that I got suspicious he was a cop," Lulu said. And so, casually touching his leg, she discovered a hidden tape recorder. Whereupon, she said, she promptly told him that she was no doctor, that he should seek medical advice and take his cursed money to a priest--"anywhere but here, I just wanted him to get out!"

The frustrated officer arrested her anyway, along with a brother and her mother, confiscated her signs and took them all to the Hollywood jail. They were released, without charges, several hours later.

Sourly, Alcantara still insists the Hollywood police made a good arrest. "But the city attorney told us we had no case because, once she discovered the bug, she negated everything she'd said before."

Meantime, Lulu and her relatives, following the Stevenses' lead, have filed a claim against the city, citing harassment, false arrest, battery, and assorted violations of their civil liberties.

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