"If the end is right, it justifies the beans."
— Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods
Last week reports of prospective parents thrown into turmoil by the new Guatemalan adoption scandals took me back. In the early 1990s I was in Romania when the gold rush for orphans was under way following the fall of the indescribably crazy Nicolae Ceascescu. I'd been sent there by a celebrity magazine to do a light profile of a tennis star, and I did, but the free-for-all for babies was overwhelming Bucharest , and I've remembered it vividly ever since.
It all centered around the Hotel Triumf, a sinister mass of brick resembling a 19th-century mental hospital. Till recently it had been a guesthouse for B-list Communist bureaucrats, and the staff was just now taking its first stab at catering to customers Western-style. The notion of what that involved was still imperfect. Guests routinely had to bribe the desk clerk to check in or out, or the maid to get soap and towels. Nevertheless the place was thronged, the Triumf having become unofficial headquarters for many of the Westerners pouring into the country to adopt a child. In the lobby — painted a queasy institutional green, dotted with palmettos and, it was widely assumed, agents of the secret police — Americans and Europeans could be found each day cooing over infants not officially theirs yet or haggling with lawyers and translators. Other adopters, many of them single women, filled the dining room with babies attached to their shoulders, but racked with fear like everyone else that their paperwork wouldn't go through. Some hadn't found a child yet at all. They were depressed and jealous. Like Rick's Cafe in Casablanca, the Triumf was the place where plans were hatched, deals were struck and rumors mongered, and where everyone asked, as if anyone knew, What's going on?
TV images had lured these hopeful parents in the first place: appalling scenes of 100,000 to 150,000 Romanian children thrown on the slag heap of state institutions. But instead of sweeping in and scooping up a child or two, adopters found that orphanages not already strip-mined of their youngest and healthiest were either closed tight now or demanding big bribes. (Who could blame them? The country was desperately poor, worse off than ever, and children were its one marketable commodity. ) And that's when things really got out of hand. Determined not to leave empty-handed, adopters began casting about for babies elsewhere, fanning out across the whole country. Soon more children were being "identified" outside of orphanages and maternity hospitals than in them, and the black market was launched in earnest. I remember one day when I was at the Triumf, two Irish sisters were hanging around the lobby waiting for a Romanian mother to give birth to the baby they had dibs on. Then came news of a murder-suicide — a husband killing his wife and then himself — and that sent a Canadian woman sprinting north to see the newborn they had left behind.
An adoption agent let me tag along one day with her new clients — a young American couple, Patrick and Ellen — when they went out to scout prospects. We wound up in the town of Ploiesti, an hour north of Bucharest, standing in the crepuscular little rotunda of the courthouse. It was filled with a great hubbub of petitioners and hangers-on; the agent, Sonya, was being pressed upon by a number of eager faces, both because she was giving out cigarettes and because she was known to be involved in adoptions.
In the midst of this surge of people, gabbling and holding up babies in the brown light, one proud mother was making moues at her chubby infant, pinching its cheeks, then thrusting it forward with both hands: See how adorable? Others, including a ferocious-looking man in a squashed hat, were waving Polaroids of other offspring.
Sonya conferred with one mother in a bright kerchief and purple skirt, who cradled a baby swaddled in felt. The woman pointed to its highly valued blue eyes and blonde hair. Behind Sonya stood the client couple from South Carolina. She turned back to them.
"What do you think?" Sonya asked.
"I'd want to see it unwrapped," said Ellen. "To make sure it has its arms and legs."