One morning in Madrid, en route to the sumptuous Prado National Museum, I told the taxi driver that the day before I’d visited and been shocked by the harsh industrial neighborhood Villaverde where around the clock provocatively dressed women stand on streets, waiting to rent their bodies.
“I know a place a thousand times worse than that,” he said.
“No, Valdemingomez is the most tragic place I’ve ever seen. Gypsies live there.”
“How far is it?” I asked.
“Just ten or fifteen minutes.”
A short time later, as he pulled off the freeway and moved toward Valdemingomez, the driver, Fernando, locked all four doors and said, “I’m scared.”
I opened my notebook, placed it in my lap, and pulled out a pen.
“It’ll be a little dangerous because the Gypsies sell so many drugs: heroin, cocaine, hash, marijuana, LSD, ecstasy.”
We moved off a smooth paved road onto an old one marred by many holes. Garbage and numerous mud puddles rotted next to the road in front of dwellings that should not be called houses; they’re shacks with cardboard or flimsy wood roofs, and some have corrugated gates, that used to be roofs, leading into yards behind graffiti-blighted walls. About a quarter of the lots bore piles of rubble from destroyed shacks, as if Valdemingomez had been repeatedly bombed.
“The rats here are big as cats,” said Fernando.
“Look,” I said, and pointed at a young woman frantically running both hands through her long thick curly hair, as if trying to put out a fire.
“Drug addict,” said Fernando.
Valdemingomez is long and defined by the main street, and very narrow like a pipeline to hell. As we moved deeper inside, numerous women, generally middle-aged and overweight, ran from their homes and vigorously motioned for us to pull over. They seemed to have plenty to sell, but we probably wouldn’t have gotten out for interviews even if the police hadn’t pulled in behind us.
“Get ready, they’re going to stop us,” Fernando said.
“That’s fine. I’ll show them my notes.”
“They’re stopping someone else.” Several evident drug consumers had driven in from middle-class Madrid. The one behind us would not be leaving with what he came for.
In contrast to the women, a majority of the men we saw were unnaturally thin, almost skeletal, and had gaunt, unshaven faces. These fellows drove dilapidated cars. Unseen and presumably enterprising residents parked plenty of Mercedes Benzes and BMWs in front of shabby homes boasting satellite dishes.
“About ten years ago the government gathered the Gypsies and brought them here,” Fernando said. “Most of the kids don’t go to school. As you can see there’s not much garbage collection. It’s sad.”
For a people who were enslaved by the Romans and murdered by the Nazis and have usually been shunned in most countries, the Gypsy tragedy continues.