It was a snow storm on that day of the end of November 1999, one that Bucharest didn’t see in a long time. It was late afternoon, and I just came back in my office at the National daily from the prison where I volunteered—helping to rehabilitate prisoners—with a pile of letters from the inmates. I threw them on the desk, swearing at the weather and public transportation. It took me two hours to get back to the office, instead of one. I was freezing dead; my head was pounding, and all I wanted was a hot coffee. But at the newspaper only the boss could get coffee. We, the reporters, had to find stories. And write them well.
I wanted to go home but not before selecting several letters for my weekly column I had established, called “Messages from Prison.” As I was starting to sort them out, a neatly handwritten letter captured my attention:
Dear Mister President Constantinescu,
I am 20 years old, and I grew up in an orphanage. I have a two-year-old daughter. I was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for stealing two meters of copper cable from a construction company on my street. I didn’t steal it; I found it and recycled it to buy one liter of milk for my daughter. Please, pardon me so I can raise my daughter!
WOW, I thought and took the letter to my boss’s office. The next day was the National Day of Romania, December 1, 1999, and my boss Voicu’s birthday.
I just handed him the letter.
I could sense his tension reading, his right eye pulsing as usual when he was emotional.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“If this is true, it would be a great case for the newspaper. I think I should call Andrei, the officer who collects these letters for me. He must know her.”
“Do you think you can find anyone at the prison now?”
“Someone must be there—it’s a prison, not a store. They watch them 24/7,” I said.
He handed me the phone and put it on speaker.
“Yes, I took the letter from her and placed it in a pile with the rest,” the officer said. “Yes, what she says is true. She was taken from her bed one night, didn’t even know why. She makes clothes for her baby. No, she didn’t steal that damn copper cable, she found it. I know because I saw her file, and the owner of the construction company didn’t press charges. Yes, you can see the file when you come here.”
I paused and looked at Voicu. He made a sign to hang up.
“Have a seat,” my boss said as soon as I put the phone down, excitement in his voice—but I couldn’t sit. We never sat down in his office. “Look, Dana, this might be the story of your life,” he said. “You could be the best journalist ever, or you could fail terribly. If she is a liar, you’ll go down. No one will ever trust you.”
“But what if it is true? No newspaper in Romania has ever done something like this before,” I said.
“Okay,” Voicu said. “But I don’t want to hear you say that I didn’t tell you the risks if it doesn’t work out. Type the letter, and get the original scanned. We’ll make it the front page: “Letter to the President on the National Day of Romania.”
At first, Simona’s letter to President Constantinescu was considered a joke in the media world. When I entered the newspaper’s building the day the story ran, I heard some reporters from another daily talking about it, smoking outside. “How could you ask the president to pardon that woman?”
I went in tiptoeing, and afraid others would say something similar to me. Or even worse. I didn’t stop in my office that day and went directly to Voicu.
I asked my boss for a photographer and a car to go to the prison. He gave me his car and told Fane, the photographer, to come with me. But Fane was mad. Jailbirds were not his interest.
At the prison, Fane took some quick shots of Simona sitting on her bed and holding our newspaper, showing the headlines of her letter to the president. After that he left, saying that I was wasting my time and his. “Who would believe a convicted jailbird?” he said and left me there to finish the interview.
Once done, I asked Andrei to make me a copy of her file. Fane had taken the newspaper’s car, so I had to take a taxi back to work.
I found Voicu looking over the pictures Fane had taken at the prison. “She looks pretty. Blonde. She’s lucky. People will like her. How’s the story coming?”
I told him what she had said, and showed him the court sentence’s order.
“Write it up. Have it done in one hour, or I will fire you!” his left eye winking.
“By the way, Happy Birthday!” I said, spinning to my office.
Voicu came several times to see what I was doing in my office, looking at the computer screen as I was typing. Three hours later I gave him the print story.
“What about tomorrow?” Voicu asked me after he finished reading. “Could you go to see her daughter? And the father of the child?”
“Yes, boss!” I said. I spun on one foot and left immediately.
I couldn’t sleep that night. At six o’clock in the morning, I ran to the closest store to buy the newspaper. The front page headlines pronounced in huge letters: “Simona Wants to Be with Her Daughter This Christmas.”
Later that day, I found Simona’s house. It was an abandoned flat, ready to collapse—on the waiting list to be demolished. A few blocks away, I saw a new building under construction, possibly the place where Simona had found the copper cable. I couldn’t imagine anyone living in those conditions: no power, no water, and no windows. At the entrance, I saw a woman carrying a fresh loaf of bread.
“From the newspaper? God bless your heart!” she said. She directed me to the third floor, the second apartment on the left.
When I entered, I realized there was no floor. It was just dirt. Just one old table. I could smell mold. Plastic covered the window frames. An old metal bucket sat in the middle of the room—used to bathe the child, I guessed, but also to collect the water from the ceiling when it was raining. There was a place in the room where a fire had burned not long ago. The ashes were still hot, but the room was icy. I could see the vapors of my breath forming a silk cloud.
Cornel, a skinny gypsy young man, was sitting on the bed and rocking the baby on his legs, singing a lullaby. The baby was sucking on a dried slice of bread. Cornel told me that the only difference between living there and not on the street was the leaking roof over their heads and a bed where they could sleep. I believed him.
Fane took some pictures right away, but the flash scared the little girl. I couldn’t stand her crying, so I took my winter scarf and put it around her neck, and walked her around. She seemed to like the touch of cotton, or maybe the fresh scent of my Versace’s perfume. I held her and rocked her, kissing her dirty cheeks, until she felt asleep. For days afterward, I kept smelling her scent.
When I left, I gave Cornel some money I had in my wallet to buy something to eat. He thanked me a million times, almost getting on his knees. Before I left, I asked him one more question: “Does Georgiana know she has a mother?”
“The only words she knows are ‘tata’ (daddy) and ‘bebe’ (baby).”
I didn’t see any toys anywhere.
The next morning, I saw a big picture of Georgina crying on the left side of the front page and one of Cornel’s holding her on the right side. “Please, Pardon My Mother,” was the headline. Beneath the story, there was a line that said, “Please call our office if you want this baby to be with her mother.”
I hurried to the office, where I found Voicu walking in the hallway. He was waiting for me.
“Guess what? Over 100 phone calls since eight o’clock. People are going crazy. They want her out!”
“That’s good,” I said.
“Well, we need to keep the story going. Go to the prison and do a second interview. Get Fane to go with you and take my car. I want a picture with her with the newspaper showing the kid crying.”
This time Simona told me about her upbringing. She lived in an orphanage, but at fifteen, she wanted out and met Cornel. He worked for a gypsy family making bricks from clay and found that filthy place they called home. On April 23, 1998, she gave birth to Georgiana. A year later, on the same day, she was arrested from her bed.
A month later she was an inmate at the Rahova Maximum Security Prison, outside Bucharest. I found out that she never received a paper to inform her about her conviction. The address on her ID was her mother’s. She had cancer when she gave up Simona and her younger sister to the orphanage; she sold the house to be able to pay her medical bills, and the old address of the house was the place where all the papers from the court landed.
I ended up going back to Cornel’s place the next day, and then to Simona’s on the third day. At Cornel’s I saw that people brought Georgiana food, laundry detergent, and clothes—I even saw a salami on her bed. She called them all “bebe.” She had a couple of dolls, but for her, food or toys were the same. She’d never had either one before. I look at those pictures now and still weep.
By the end of the week, over one thousand people had called the office, with more than 200 letters arriving daily. Voicu hired a third person to answer the phone, and he gave up his direct phone line to take messages from the people calling in.
Eventually, after a press conference with the Minister of Justice, who called the office to let me know that he wanted me to attend, I had my say about the justice system. President Constantinescu asked in a press release for Simona’s court file for his review. It was my birthday, December 8th when the Minister of Justice signed her release. The Prison Director wanted me to give Simona the news and bring her home.
When I arrived at the prison that early morning, all paperwork was ready. Everyone knew what was going on, but Simona. I gave her the news, trying not to cry. But she did, thanking God and me.
While Simona packed her few things, she left a cellmate one of her best T-shirts. I gave her money to buy some bread and juice and saw the reunion with her daughter, while everyone in that building cheered. Simona and I were the loudest.
When I got to the office, Voicu told me that the mayor had a contract ready for Simona, for a two-bedroom apartment.
By the end of the day, I couldn’t hear well and ran a high fever. I ended up with pneumonia, but when I started to feel better, I wanted one more story of Simona in the new house and with her first Christmas tree. We published the story in the special New Year edition. I didn’t understand at first why Fane insisted on coming with me, but before we left, I saw a Barbie doll under the Christmas tree. I winked at him, smiling.