The Curse of Romeo and Juliet

Frankie Mitchell and Janet Evans want to be together, but their families are feuding. It’s a story as old as Shakespeare—older, in fact, because they’re Gypsies, the children of two prominent Dallas clans, and ancient superstitions guide every aspect of their lives. Even love.

She was a starkly beautiful teenager, with soulful dark eyes and long, thick hair as black as the pelt of a panther. Her name was Janet Evans, and in the late afternoon she would slip out of her parents’ house, a small brick home with signs outside that read “ESP” and “Psychic,” and drive to the Galleria shopping mall in North Dallas, where a stocky, easygoing teenage boy named Frankie Mitchell was waiting for her.

He too had slipped out of his parents’ home, which had an eleven-by fourteen-inch picture of Jesus near the front door and a rectangular “Reader-Advisor” sign in the front yard. Before backing out of the driveway, he would put his red pickup into drive and ease forward a few feet. It was bad luck, he had been taught, to go backward in an automobile before moving forward. And when it came to Janet, Frankie was going to need all the luck he could get.

Together they looked like any other young couple at the mall, strolling past the shops, stopping to eat at Bennigan’s, sometimes slipping into the back of a movie theater. Janet favored sweatshirts from places like Planet Hollywood, Keds, and long denim skirts; Frankie wore NBA team T-shirts, jeans, and black basketball shoes. They never touched, not even to hold hands. But Frankie would lean toward Janet and say that they were destined to be together. After all, they had been born on the same day: August 1, 1979.

“Our parents—they will understand someday,” Frankie would tell Janet.

“Not my parents,” she would reply. When she was with Frankie, she would pour a few drops of her soft drink on the ground, a practice she had been told would pacify the spirits of her dead ancestors. Her mother called them mulé (“ghosts”), and like so many other women in her family, Janet was said to have the gift: She could tell when the mulé were moving. It was clear, said those who knew her, that Janet was on her way to becoming a drabarní, a great fortune-teller who could earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

It was the autumn of 1996, and a stranger would never have guessed that Janet and Frankie, such All-American-looking teenagers, were the youngest children of two of the most prominent Gypsy families in Texas. According to one expert on American Gypsy life, the Evanses and Mitchells were the Gypsy equivalent of the Hatfields and McCoys. For decades they had been facing off at Gypsy weddings, parties, and funerals, flailing their arms operatically and hurling obscenities and choice Gypsy phrases at one another (“You will weep as I have wept!”). Members of one family regularly had trooped into police stations to file assault, armed robbery, or kidnapping charges against members of the other. The Evanses alleged that the Mitchells were trying to burn down their fortune-telling parlors; the Mitchells retorted that they couldn’t drive around town without worrying about one of the Evanses trying to run them off the road. Dark rumors circulated that each family’s elderly matriarchs were at work in the back rooms of their little houses, conjuring up “omens” that would be sent the rival family’s way. Most people are amazed to learn that Gypsies still exist. Once regarded as the wild outcasts of society, Gypsies were a visible part of the American landscape in the first half of the century, crisscrossing the country in their ramshackle car-and-trailer caravans, camping outside towns, and speaking to one another in a language known to no one else. They practiced ancient rituals designed to appease the ghosts and spirits they said were hovering over their lives. They wouldn’t comb their hair on Fridays, which they called the Devil’s Day, and made sure to leave the clothes of their dead—neatly folded—in the nicest spot in the forest. They wore coral shells to protect themselves from what they called the Evil Eye, and they refused to go near bodies of water after dark, believing the waters to be inhabited by the spirits of the drowned. American sociologists who studied them were convinced that they would never survive: Gypsies were too backward for a technologically advanced country, too ignorant. They needed to go to school, give up their myths, and learn to work in American businesses.

Today Gypsies seem capable of blending into almost every facet of twentieth-century life. They speak perfect English, live in the suburbs, shop at nice stores, travel on commercial airlines. But at their core, they haven’t changed at all. In the midst of modern life, they exist mostly in an insulated shadow society, one replete with self-imposed codes of conduct, laws regarding marriage and divorce, and strict rules designed to keep their race separated from the gadje (the Gypsy word for “non-Gypsies”); there are even Gypsy courts. What’s more, although few Gypsies make it past the seventh grade and some cannot tell time, they’ve built an astonishingly lucrative underground economy based entirely on the age-old Gypsy tradition of fortune-telling. Once the province of Gypsy women in small carnival tents or shabby storefront parlors, the new Gypsy fortune-telling includes Gypsy-owned psychic hotline telephone services, and the top Gypsy fortune-tellers now advertise in high-profile tabloids like the National Enquirer and the Globe. “It’s not unusual these days for a good fortune-teller from one of the established families to make half a million dollars a year,” says Roy House, a former Houston police sergeant who is still considered one of the nation’s top authorities on Gypsy crime. “Many of the women make $50,000 to $100,000 even if they are not good at it.”

Of the one to two million Gypsies thought to reside in the United States, perhaps 5,000 to 10,000 are in Texas. Until the seventies, the Evanses were considered the most powerful Gypsy clan in Texas, led by their legendary Rolls-Royce-driving “king,” Joe Evans of Fort Worth. But that was before a young Gypsy named Bucky Mitchell, renowned for his unrestrained speeches at Gypsy meetings, challenged

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