"Life would be unspeakable here without Caritas. It has given us hope," says Moldovan, an unemployed seamstress.
This collective madness has sucked in a staggering number of people. By most estimates, Caritas has four million depositors, nearly one-fifth of the country's population. Some estimate that as much as half of Romania's private savings is invested in Caritas.
The rules of the game are simple enough. You put your money in. Your friends and relatives put in more money. Three months later, you take out a sum anywhere from 400 to 800 percent larger than your original investment.
Ion Stoica, the 54-year-old bookkeeper who runs Caritas, grandly calls it a ''financial mutual assistance circuit."
Most people would call it a pyramid scheme - in which the early depositors at the top of the heap are paid off by the vast majority, the suckers who come in at the end.
Eastern Europe is rife with such dubious investment companies, but usually they collapse within a few months. Caritas already has defied its life expectancy as it limps into its 18th month.
And although the pyramid is clearly collapsing, Romanians continue to flock to Cluj, enduring miserable trips in unheated trains and fume-belching buses for a chance to make money.
The unlikely headquarters of this modern-day El Dorado is a shuttered mining company on a wind-whipped hill at the edge of town. Inside, a crumbling stairwell leads to a filthy, almost bare room with six makeshift cashiers'
windows. A computer with a large color monitor blinks incongruously amid the squalor.
Caritas used to promise investors their money would multiply eightfold in three months. Since last month, the return has been cut to four times the original. Caritas has assigned customers only one day of the month, based on the first letter of their last name, on which they can make withdrawals.
Customers coming to collect their money have to wait for hours, sometimes days, in the cold, while arrogant bouncers guard Caritas' entrance.
The customers who come from remote villages, many of them peasants in threadbare coats with scarves tightly wrapped around their heads for protection from the cold, have so little money that they need to sleep at the railroad station.
If people are willing to endure this humiliating ritual, it is because of evidence of success that they see before them. Since Caritas was started in April 1992, it claims to have created 80,000 millionaires.
Of course, that is millionaires in Romanian lei, but one million lei (about $1,000) goes far in a country where the average monthly wage is $60.
Typical is Gabriel Milos, a 27-year-old law student.
Until a year ago, he was living primarily on his wife's $45-a-month salary as a registered nurse. Today, he has two cars, a large-screen color television set and VCR. He just bought himself a leather jacket, his wife a stole of white fox.
Milos says he started with a deposit of only $60 in Caritas last summer, and has already withdrawn close to $20,000. He still has money in Caritas and is hopeful that it will keep going a few more months.
"If I can get another 25 million (lei), I'll buy a Mercedes," said Milos.
Ioan Ispas, 48, a factory worker, says he used the proceeds of Caritas to buy a color television set and a refrigerator, and to support his two university-student daughters.
"I didn't expect to get rich, but I want to make life easier for my daughters than I've had it," said Ispas. "I am very satisfied with the game. Here, we all consider Caritas to be a gift of God."
Indeed, it is almost impossible to find anyone in Cluj, a city of 400,000, who did not invest.
The local newspaper, Mesagerul, devotes most of its front page to listing people whose turn it is to collect their earnings. During the summer, when Caritas was at its peak, the Romanian national railroad had to put on special
trains for Cluj.
As a result, Cluj has become one of the more schizophrenic cities in a rather eccentric nation. It is a city where horse-drawn wagons trudge past soot-stained apartment blocks with newly installed satellite dishes sprouting
from the roofs.
It is a city that now boasts of having Romania's highest number of cars per capita (286 per 1,000 residents), even though there are only three gas stations in town and waits of 10 hours to buy gas are not uncommon.
With an economy ravaged by 40 years of communism, Cluj is a place where it is almost impossible to buy milk and where people still queue up for bread.
Yet new, private shops on the main square sell camcorders and fur coats to the nouveau riche with the Caritas gains.
The scent of money has attracted scads of foreigners to Cluj, everyone from American missionaries to would-be investors and hustlers peddling various wares.
Nobody questions that Caritas has provided a windfall to Cluj.
Dan Ene, a salesman at Fiala Center, an appliance store in downtown Cluj, estimates that 90 percent of his customers are buying with Caritas money.
"These are things they thought they wouldn't be able to buy for the next six years," Ene said. "A color television here costs six to seven months' salary, and that means going without food. . . . A normal salary here doesn't even allow you to buy a toaster."
Nevertheless, he complained that too few Caritas winners have done anything to invest their money for the future, or even to start businesses.
With inflation running close to 300 percent annually, "everybody feels that there is no use keeping the money," Ene said. "People just spend it on clothes and cars and appliances."
Sandor Kerekes, a member of the opposition Romanian-Hungarian Democratic Party, complains that Caritas has conned people into believing they can get money for nothing.
"People don't want to work when they have this. Everyone stays at home, thinking that this will last forever," said Kerekes. "And it's had a terrible inflationary effect. The prices here are so much higher than in other places in Romania. You have to blame that on Caritas."
Gheorghe Funar, the mayor of Cluj and the leader of a rabidly nationalistic Romanian party, has closely linked his political fortunes to that of Caritas. For a short time, he even allowed Caritas to operate offices in a municipal buildings.
In return, Caritas has donated generously to the mayor's grandiose political projects. The city is erecting an 80-foot stainless-steel cross on a historic fortress and spending nearly $200,000 for a statue of an 18th-century Romanian hero who led the fight against the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
As of last week, Caritas was still paying depositors, but only sporadically. Reporters watching the traffic in and out of Caritas observed that many of the satisfied customers who were collecting appeared to be well- dressed people from Cluj, who seemed to be acquainted with Caritas staffers.
Customers from the countryside seemed to have more difficulty collecting, and were often forced to come back several days at a time.
"This is simply a mockery," said Maria Muntean, 45, an unemployed factory worker who had been sleeping at the Cluj train station for three days, waiting for her money. "I've used half the money I would have made just taking the train here. I'm pretty depressed about it."