Saturday, November 14, 2009

King of the Gypsies

Beware of anyone calling himself the King of the Gypsies who phones you and says he's decided you will write his true story and "Not that bullshit story that Peter Maas wrote". You will write the true story of Steve Bimbo Tene, whose life was first translated into a book by author Peter Maas and later made into a feature film with Eric Roberts and Susan Sarandon.

I knew about as much of gypsies as any average person, that they wear bandanas and tell fortunes but Steve would change all of that.

It seems a lawyer suggested me to him and he decided I would be the one to tell the real story of his quite incredible life. And that as a consequence, Steve would drop in and out of my life for at least ten years. The book, based loosely on his life but with added drama and fiction by Maas told the story of an American King of the Gypsies back in the 70's and was a best seller. Maas also wrote Serpico, later a movie with Al Pacino and Valachi Papers, a Mafia expose that also was a best seller and movie.

I agreed to meet Steve in a public place as I had no real idea who or what he was, or for that matter, if he was the real Steve Tene. I had seen the movie but that was my experience with gypsies. He showed up, as he always did later, with his "peeps", usually a nephew and a tall, gaunt man named Richard. After seeing stacks of articles and letters he carried in an office box, I realized he was the real thing.

I spend 6 weeks taping Steve as he told me his life story, which seemed to change significantly depending on the mood he was in. It paralleled the book but the book took more dramatic twists, in it Steve fought and killed his father for the throne.  In reality there was no real King of the Gypsies, at least in America and his father was very much alive. There were a few in Europe who claimed it, but author Maas felt that if there wasn't one in America there should be. Yet, what fascinated me was this enigma of Gypsies, of which little is known.

The book and the movie became a curse to Steve, sort of like being the fasted gun in town, other gypsies were usually gunning for him. Needless to say this was not a comforting thought to me. But there was a fascination with this character who, when he needed money, would go to Vegas for a few days, tell some fortunes in bars, and come back with cold hard cash.

I wrote an article for a local magazine and Steve disappeared soon after that. But he would return, calling me from Palm Springs or Riverside or Orange County and ask me to visit and consider writing a screenplay or a musical play. Or maybe lending him some money.

His life was always turbulent, someone was always out to get him, his sister was trying to send him to jail and he was always near death. At least that's what he said. But, as I learned, he was a Gypsy, and I learned not to trust them too much, they are amazingly like they are portrayed.  Steve said the Gypsies had a curse put on them because they made the nails that were used in the crucifixion of Jesus. But that God had also given them the gift of scamming so that they could earn a living.

Steve also taught me a lot about Gypsy culture, that they originally came from India, and settled in eastern Europe where they managed to make a living by working metal into swords as well as their well-known fortune telling which continues to this day. Even now, I can usually spot Gypsies in every venue from classic fortune telling to repairing driveways and hundreds of other scams.

Interestingly enough, Steve was illiterate, he said Gypsies never sent their kids to schools because they didn't want to be known about, they preferred to roam the country without social security numbers or addresses. It has changed a little now, with internet and cell phones, but they still manage to keep hidden.

It is estimated that there are 2 million of them in the U.S. and the amazing part is that they exist without most of us "Gadji's" (a Gypsy name for everyone else) even realizing it. Honor and revenge play a big part in their lives, even as their young attempt to break away from centuries of hidden existence. I remember once when Steve had a dog training business (shortly before the Palm Springs cafe business) I had arrived and told him there was a Ford F150 driving by. He glanced at a man who clearly was there to protect him, who reached in his jacket for a gun, walked outside, and came back to say it wasn't Steve's nephew who had sworn to kill him.

I kept thinking that nobody wanted to kill the writer, they just wanted him to write a story.

When he wasn't dying or being targeted or lied to or threatened, he was planning a big musical and I was to write it, in spite of the fact I've never written one before... nor aspired to. Steve was full of ideas and for a man who couldn't read or write, managed to survive amazingly well. He remembered house addresses from the 1960's, his music teacher's phone number when he was 16. I began to realize his life was full of inaccuracies and contradictions. Some stories had different endings, others were changed completely to suit his mood.

And he had moods. Steve was a tragic figure, and I guess, as a writer, I was fascinated with it, wondering where it would lead to. Then there were the late night calls when he yelled and cried and wondered why his life was so full of hell, and sometimes I just hung up because I was not of his world and somehow, the only one he could trust.

I asked him once what he would like on his grave, and he said he would like to be compared to Mighty Joe Young, a giant gorilla in a 50's movie by the same name, and a copy of King Kong. That he gave life his best.

In a way, I compared Steve and his people to the wild horses I filmed a few years ago in the remote deserts of Nevada, both lived their lives by their own rules, asking no one to feed or help them. And somehow both man and horse managed to survive by their own rules and once you see that, you somehow feel an appreciation and admiration for them as they fight a losing battle. Because eventually, society will swallow them up and we'll lose another independent species, man and horse.

I never did write "the true story" as Steve had always wanted. One of the problems was that he changed his story now and then.  But he also did have real interest in it, as I had met two credible literary agents who were offering a good amount of money for Steve's story. But whenever a deal was offered, Steve always turned it down.  And after awhile, the offers stopped coming.

It's been 2 years since I got a call from Steve, the last one was to tell me his Gypsy food cafe folded, he lost his condo in Palm Springs, but that he had a new idea for the play.


  1. You tell a great story, even just from the tidbits of skewed information that you have; little details such as why Gypsies are cursed to roam - b/c they made the nails for THE cross. I love that kind of stuff. Perhaps you should write a book of short stories based on all the characters you have run across in yours years as a screenwriter? You could call it, "The Life of a Gadji Rebel"

  2. Steve also gave me some good Gypsy receipes and the secret to fortune telling, but I can't tell you because I would become cursed.