by TED S. McGREGOR JR. & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & O & lt;/span & ne day in the early 1900s at Ellis Island, an immigrant struggled to get the authorities to understand his name at the registration desk. Frustrated, the immigration guard beat the poor man, telling the others, "Just put down 'Marks' for that one," referring to the fresh lash marks on his back.
Thus were the American Marks born, a Gypsy clan that moved West to Utah, then Spokane, where the Marks family settled. The great-grandson of that immigrant passed away last week, the one-and-only Jimmy Marks.
At least that was the story Jimmy told me when I interviewed him back in February 2000, just before his star turn in the documentary American Gypsy was about to play the Met. As Jimmy's mom Lippie once said, "There is no truth."
When most people think of Jimmy Marks, they think of the curse he famously laid on Spokane after a police raid on his home in 1986. That's been good for a lot of laughs -- and seemed to explain our bad luck, too -- but I always felt like Spokane was missing a deeper truth about Jimmy Marks. One person who didn't accept this caricature -- a caricature Jimmy actively promoted -- was Jasmine Dellal, an ambitious filmmaker who wanted to share the story of Gypsy culture with the world.
Five years in the making, Dellal's American Gypsy is a remarkable piece of work. It sold out its opening night at the Margaret Mead Film Festival in New York, so they booked a bigger theater for the next night and filled it, too. When it ran on PBS, it was the highest rated POV episode of 2000 with 3 million viewers. It'll be out on DVD for the first time later this month.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & W & lt;/span & hen I caught up with Dellal on a Los Angeles freeway Monday, roughly around the time of Marks' funeral, she said she'd miss Marks' many phone calls. (I got my share, too.)
"What continues to surprise me," Dellal said, "is that the Marks family is possibly the most American family I've ever met. They wear Stetson hats, drive Cadillacs, shop at 7-11, have white picket fences out front and are very patriotic. They're just so American, and yet they're always on the outside."
And in her film, Dellal establishes exactly why Gypsies are such outcasts. It's a little-known history, but Gypsies -- "Romani" or "Rom" is what they call themselves -- first migrated from India to Europe more than 1,000 years ago, where they quickly spread out. Marks' unlucky ancestors ended up in Romania, where they were enslaved for more than five centuries. Old prejudices die hard, and Adolf Hitler's very first concentration camps were built for Gypsies. That more than 1 million Gypsies were slaughtered during the Holocaust has been another Gypsy secret until recently, when a Gypsy was belatedly selected to sit on the board of directors of the Holocaust Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Gypsies were even found to be the ethnic group held in the lowest regard of all ethnic groups by a survey of The New York Times -- even lower than a fake ethnic group they threw into the mix.
And Jimmy Marks was cast out by his own band of outcasts, as the Rom banished him for the trouble he brought in his lawsuits with the city and county of Spokane.
"My father was a Gypsy king," Marks said in 2000, "now I'm a madman. My children and grandchildren will always be haunted by what happened here."
Marks' story is not about some imaginary curse; it's about how we all treat the least among us.
"Prejudice arises from ignorance," Dellal said back in 2000, explaining why she spent five years of her life telling Marks' story -- and the story of Gypsies in America.
"Jimmy was heroic at times and crazy at times," Dellal said Monday. "I remember him saying, 'I'm crazy, and maybe I need to be crazy to be courageous.' It may not be the most sensible thing to turn around and fight your whole city, but it certainly makes a point."
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & 'll never forget that day we spoke in my office. No wonder he'd been in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, on all major TV networks -- even a gig on Jerry Springer. He was a kind of performance artist for journalists. One of my favorite bits of hyperbole was when he claimed he was the Gypsy Rosa Parks, barking out, "I'M NOT SITTIN' ON DA BACK OF DA BUS!" as he pounded his fists on my desk.
There was a man on the mission behind all the self-promoting, and that's the side of Jimmy Marks I want Spokane to remember. Marks was no saint -- property from 35 burglaries was recovered during that 1986 raid, but in the end, judges seemed to agree with his assessment that the raid was "armed robbery." His family finally won a $1.43 million settlement, but Jimmy claimed to only realize $1 for himself.
For all his complaints, our system treated him fairly, and I think Spokane supported his claims out of a sense of fairness. I'm proud that little old Spokane accepted Gypsies more than most of the places they had lived throughout their troubled history.
If Rosa Parks' great accomplishment was inspiring others, maybe Marks' claim is valid. Dellal thinks he's the closest thing the Gypsies have to a civil rights hero. American Gypsy has been widely viewed by the nation's estimated one million Gypsies; many European Gypsies have seen it, too. Dellal can recite stories of all the closeted Gypsies who have "come out" after seeing the film.
One European Gypsy sums up the impact of Marks' fighting spirit when he remarked, "I wanna be Jimmy Marks! I wanna sue America, too!"