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Detour: Haitian Houses
July 17, 2013
What follows is a detour from my rambles in Silver Lake and the beginning of another series, to be continued in haphazard fashion, about my family’s move to Haiti in 1950. Additions I would like to make would beget yet other detours. Instead, I’ve lumped a few together here as an introduction:
For years, I have written with the Oxford Book of English Verse directly in front of me on a built-in bookshelf, in my den. By accident or superstition, I have no idea, but it is the hardback 1939 edition I purchased to save my family from shame in the fall of 1953. I have rarely opened it and never memorized the poems assigned for summer reading. Perhaps one of my classmates can tell me what they were. What I wanted was to own it, dated as it was even then, full of obscure dead white male poets like Thomas Love Peacock and Francis Quarles.
I have long since forgiven my beloved Shipley English teacher for her thoughtlessness and too sharp tongue, two of my own bad traits, along with a penchant for hyperbole, often pointed out by my children. Nor do I mean that she intended to malign Haiti. She hoped I would give the English language and its literature a place of supreme importance in my life, as she had done. She needn’t have worried.
A different kind of shame attaches to the terms houseboy and yardboy used below, as politically incorrect today as dead white male poets. I cannot defend the terms, or the social system, direct descendant of slavery, of which we so easily became a part. This remains a troubling aspect of our time in Haiti as I try to explain to myself what we were doing there. In this piece, I use the lingo of the time, but will return to this question.
I should also mention my choice of French spelling for words in Haitian Creole (Kreyol), old-fashioned and offensive to some, but I prefer it because it’s what I’m used to, and I like to see the relation between the two languages which phonetic spelling obliterates.
I use the pronoun we to suggest my idea of family views, not to speak for other members.
Detour: Haitian Houses
And so I dream of going back to being is the way Frost puts it in Birches, seeing himself, younger, a swinger, bending back his father’s trees until they touched the ground. Not that I want to be thirteen again. Except to be quicker and smarter with an answer for Miss Y. when she said my family was uncivilized because we did not own a copy of The Oxford Book of English Verse.Unwittingly, she hit upon it, a favorite expression, a high compliment -- this I understood as a child when my father said that so-and-so was a civilized man.
What sort was that? Certainly not a stuffed shirt, or a panty-waist. or a Southern cracker. To me, it was someone like himself: open-minded, emotional, a reader of literary novels, French policiers, and Haitian history, lover of cities, a traveler, linguist and chess player, someone who had gone to college, drawn to intellectual women, who saw Haiti as something more than a backward country the size of New Hampshire, populated by illiterate former slaves, in which two men might carry a mattress on their heads over the mountains from Port-au-Prince to Jacmel and back, because they could not locate the place where they were supposed to set it down.
This story and others mocking Haitian mentality were popular, making the rounds at morning, afternoon, and evening bridge games, cocktail parties, and during the dice game after golf at the Pétionville Club bar. To many: the American Club. But my father said it made perfect sense. A mattress had high value in a country where many slept on banana mats. Buildings had no numbers, telephones were uncommon and mostly didn’t work. Those guys were far from home, without friends or relatives to turn to. They were stuck, so they played it safe.
All this I should have spewed forth to MIss Y. How dare she! She knew nothing about us. She lived with a Mlle G., enamoured of la civilization française. Mlle G. deemed my French too infused with sub-standard patois for an advanced class, but had complimented me on un joli petit accent Creole (a pretty little Creole accent); surely she would have appreciated the fact that my father read Madame Bovary over and over in French, and in English too, and even in Spanish. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, as he might have said. So there!
I began to think about our early life in Haiti, about the civilization we found in a savage country many Americans had never heard of in 1950. I saw it for the first time in my fifth grade classroom at P.S. 89. Mrs. Oxman gathered us around the globe so everyone could see where I was going. Haiti was a green misshapen horseshoe below Florida, close to Cuba and Puerto Rico, names some of us New Yorkers recognized. A squiggly line meant a border. We resumed long division. Haiti was nothing to brag about. A scrap. A piece of something larger, equally unknown.
In May, my mother, my sister, and I made a quick trip to Oklahoma to say goodbye to my mother’s parents, Grandma and Grandpa Van Dyke. In Norman, our impending move provoked considerable interest. Haiti was in the news. President Dumarsais Estimé had been kicked out, replaced by a military threesome, a triumvirate, a junte. Taking this unexpected and uneasy development in stride, my mother told the local paper she was not afraid. We endured tetanus typhus, and typhoid shots, were sick for days, our arms painfully swollen. Soon after, back in New York, we boarded a Dutch freighter, the Trajanus, its hold full of flour for my father’s customers, also lard, sardines and anchovies, tomato paste. My sister and I wore our Easter outfits, navy blue wool suits with boleros and detachable white piqué collars, white gloves, traded as we sailed south for the cotton shorts, skirts, and eyelet off-the-shoulder blouses we would wear in Haiti. We were seasick. We sat at the Captain’s table, surviving the four day trip on candied fruit my father’s boss and Pillsbury office colleagues had brought to see us off. From now on my father would be his own boss. The portly Captain feasted on Dutch delights: smelly fish, raw bacon sandwiches. He flirted openly with a Dominican woman, who lived in Haiti, whose name I don’t remember. She was light-skinned, voluptuous in white dresses with low necklines. When the Captain stretched out in a deck chair after lunch, she made space for herself at his feet, leaning forward over him to pop chocolate covered cherries in his mouth.
Already, from the moment I saw it on the map, I was there, immersed in the stuff of Haiti: its littleness, its insignificance in the world, though fought over in the past. A third of a divided island, French speaking, alien to its neighbors, subject to coups d’état, dependent on imports, a land of dangerous diseases, its sexuality, live, visible, risqué, like nothing ever seen or spoken of in front of children in Jackson Heights.
Our first house in Pacot, close to downtown Port-au-Prince, was pink, identical to every other in Wilsonville, as garish with its maroon and white tiled floors as our second hand Ford coupe was pale and tan. Tall teenage boys dangled their legs over the low front wall, catcalling at our arrival. I held up my doll and learned the word poupée (doll). There were filigreed bars on the windows, rumors of voleurs (thieves), but I don’t remember feeling strange, just excited. That night, my sister and I started out in our own beds, but long before daylight, our family was in bed together, giddy with happiness at being disconnected, no friends, no relations, just us, awake all night. Talking, listening. The isle was full of noises. Alive with laughter, high-pitched exclamations, music, drum beats, crowing roosters, packs of barking dogs.
We didn’t stay long in Wilsonville. Perhaps the house was too expensive, and Leo, hired by my father to cook and keep house, didn’t get along with my mother. Leo was tall, handsome, suave and knowing, prepared to serve rare fillet with a side of frites for dinner every night. This was Paradise! But my mother found him bossy. Snooty. Behind her back he asked my father what he would like for dinner since what Madame had ordered was presque rien (almost nothing).
Madame she might be, but as long as we lived in Haiti, my mother was never again in full control of her kitchen, populated as it was, dominated, by servants, ants, giant cockroaches skittering for cover if she turned the light on after dark. Once in a while, over the years, she got a yen, but the results were unsatisfactory. Canned corn on the cob (because only field corn was available) nearly killed us; attempts at doughnuts and pizza didn’t come close. Fudge, four different kinds of Christmas candy, peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies -- these we managed, but there was a gradual giving way; our lettuce went untreated, our drinking water unboiled, misunderstood gelatin salads melted, pots and pans, used on charcoal, wobbled, china broke, silver was lost or stolen, while we marvelled at the memory of cooks, who could hear a recipe once and have it, who went to market at five in the morning, brought produce home on their heads using a round wedge of cloth to cushion the rough basket, who taught us to love riz djon djon, leeks, mirliton, pumpkin soup, banana bread, hearts of palm, griot, sauce ti malice, pain patate, hot peanut butter with cassava bread.
Some of these we must have tasted first in what we later called the little pink house in Canapé Vert, another hot, ordinary neighborhood, close to town, where some streets remained unpaved, or partially paved, as ours was. Our new landlord, Capitaine Paris of the Haitian army, was eager to point out the oil drums attached to the side of the house, cleverly collecting, all by themselves, enough water for several hot showers. Even more impressive were the two unfinished sets of wooden stairs which met at a landing between two small bedrooms. Madame should have no fear of exposing herself en deshabille when she could glide down the back staircase early in the morning to consult with her cook: Eliane.
Eliane was a fat country woman. To support her constitution, she drank the oil surrounding anchovies and sardines straight from the tin. To ward off colds, she put on her hat each time she opened the refrigerator. Our backyard was full of packing cases my sister and I played house in, a rectangle strewn with gravel, but the houseboy refused to sweep away the few leaves which fell from the mango tree. Apparently, Madame had not lived in Haiti long enough to know that le garcon qui travail dans la maison ne travail pas dans la cour (the boy who works in the house does not work in the yard). Our dogs in that house were Faso and Friskey, curly tailed, untrainable Haitian hounds. One of them, after nipping the Sunday roast from a neighbor’s table, met death by poisoning.
How charming, how pretentious, how primitive, how ridiculous everything was -- a combination found in many Haitian paintings -- and the woman on the Trajanus, Leo, Capitaine Paris, Eliane, the houseboy, even Faso, the poisoned dog, were artists. Haitian impressionists. Amusing, whether calculating or ingenuous, memorable. They told it like it was; the very houses were instructive. Servants were necessary to survival, not a luxury. Bargaining might be a way of life, but certain rules remained immutable.
Only once can I remember being homesick for New York, missing my friends during the long summer before school started. Too big for this, I sat on my mother’s lap wearing a green and white checked sundress she had made for me. Come to me, my melancholy baby, she sang when I was sad. I can hear her now. She always knew how to comfort me, and soon the moment passed, and Madame du Chatelier began to make our clothes, without patterns, from pictures in Seventeen, the material measured -- bolts imported from Switzerland thumping on dusty counters in backstreet stores -- in the many aunes needed for the full skirts of the fifties.
That summer, my sister and I played with Alley Babe, a tiger-striped kitten, dropped off for us by the sexpot of the Trajanus, first of cats uncounted with which our parents fulfilled the promise which had lured us to Haiti. And we learned to swim because our American neighbor and manager of Pan American had a pool. Another American, wife of an artist on the GI Bill, former Aquacade performer, taught us a rudimentary breaststroke. My mother disapproved of this couple. They were on the fringe, not members of the Club we might or might not join. They peed in the yard, she said, but my father was attracted to bohemians, and joining the Club could be bad for business.
Much of Haitian civilization remained hidden during these early days; we had a lot to learn. But gradually, we were becoming part of an intricately layered society, part of the Haitian economy, as my father engaged in rivalry with Hakim, agent for Gold Medal flour, and later protested the building of a flour mill by rich Texas oil man, Clint Merchison. The taxi fare to the strip of pavement in front of the little pink house was a full gourde (twenty cents, at the time) though, according to my mother, it should have been dix centimes, since we had gone less than two feet into a new zone. The driver tossed the coin she placed behind his head into the street, so great was his pride and scorn. We acquired a new respect for things handmade; thus no two napkins or sisal chairs would ever be exactly alike, and ordering more than one did not make them less expensive. In buying mahogany bowls and furniture, we supported industry and tourism while contributing to irreparable soil erosion.
We soon had a clear idea of our role as blancs for whom the price, though rarely fixed, was always higher. But blancs were cautioned by wealthy Haitians not to pay too much lest they spoil the market for everyone. Begging children pawed my sister and me in the streets, called us shish, laide (stingy and ugly). Because we wore shorts and had freckles, because we were white. And though we liked to walk on the Boulevard Harry S. Truman on the Exposition Grounds, pretending for a minute to be in Miami, we did not say, as other foreigners did, that somewhere else, like Montreal or Trinidad or some American city, was home. And yet, we could never be Haitians. Our kind had been ripped forever from the tricoleur. The Haitian flag was blue and red. We were embarked upon a journey whose end and meaning we could not foresee.