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KIESKI OU YE?
May 14, 2019
Who goes there? That’s how Hamlet begins. Now stretched on a banner across streets in Port-au-Prince. No source, no acknowledgement, just the existential ever present: WHO ARE YOU?
Come back with me to 1950 when we knew who we were. To begin with, we were children, daughters of Marguerite and Melville Shaw. We trusted them not to die, not to get divorced, to house, clothe, love and care for us, to send us to school and later to college, to pay for dancing lessons, for banana splits at La Belle Creole, for delicate glass menageries at Aux Belles Choses. They had already kept their most important promise made back in New York: as many pets as we wanted. Dogs and cats, a black chicken named Gypsy strutted in the yard, pecking corn kernels from among the cobblestones. On a goat we let them off, though we wanted one, came close, held them bleating in our arms, far from town, where they would smell and eat tin cans, better to leave them here in the countryside, on the way to Miragoâne, Jacmel, Cap Haitiën, Port-de Paix, Les Cayes, the outports.
We were in first and sixth grades at Union School, a leaky wooden house divided into classrooms on the Champs de Mars, next door to the Rex Theatre and Café, where our first teachers were wives of American Protestant missionaries. At recess, we jumped rope and played softball with children of ten or more different nationalities, many of mixed race. We knew what our parents did all day. Our mother was the fifth grade teacher at our school. Our father walked around Port-au-Prince calling on his customers, Elie Joseph, Micheaux, Bichara Izmery, Moscoso, selling La Farine Roi du Nord, aka Pillsbury flour. While we played games at recess, he was having coffee with other businessmen at La Belle Creole, a sort of department store with an American style soda fountain. At lunch he regaled us with rumors, political, financial, sexual, with the antics of his rivals, Kowley and Hakim, agents for Gold Medal and Commander, with jokes and illustrative stories, with poetry, with language lessons. We heard about a boy who talked out of turn in our mother’s classroom, how this amused her, how she coaxed him into better behavior. More serious matters came up when she became principal a fews years later: an unmarried teacher got pregnant, Barbot, a notorious TTM (TonTon Macoute), came in to discuss the progress of his children; during political upheavals, she was equipped with a walkie-talkie to the American embassy. We heard about Depression romance in New York, childhoods in Des Moines, Norman, Fessenden, and Forsyth. We swam in our spring fed basin, ate enormous lunches followed by siestas, played with our pets, spent the night with friends on weekends, went shopping downtown with our mother for staples and fabric and trimming for dresses to be made by Mme. Duchatelier, did our homework, slept and dreamed in our own rooms with our books and our dolls and our dressing tables with flounces.
Such was the stuff of life for us in the 1950s. We studied French and Haitian history. And I think over time we developed a much bigger picture, including classes and color lines, seats of money and power, fluxuations in these and in flour and coffee markets. Ideas about President Paul Magloire: handsome, a military man, a bon vivant, seen on Saturday nights dancing at Cabane Choucoune. Probably he was lining his pockets, but not the worst president in the scheme. We knew who was who in local business and society, among transient and more permanent Americans, religious orders and denominations, among diplomats. We were different from other Americans. Our home was here. Here in Haiti, not in Montreal, or New York, or Massachusetts. We didn’t long to be in the States, as some of our friends did. We ate the lettuce and tomatoes, our ice cubes went unboiled. But it wasn’t big enough, this picture, not big enough back then to see how colonial our life was, how privileged, though money was a constant worry, how supported by servants whose real lives we ignored, how fragile, how unlikely to last.
Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam was the second member of the Sam family (for whom the Hotel Oloffson was built as a residence) to become president of Haiti (March 4-July 27, 1915). His repressive measures caused him to seek asylum at the French embassy from which he was dragged by a mob, beaten senseless, his body ripped to pieces, the parts paraded through the streets of Port-au-Prince.
We switch to rum sours. I see how alike we are, I and the harried manager of the Hotel Oloffson. Back in Los Angeles, my patio is leaking, my decks are rotting, wiring, heating, floors, and windows, all need redoing. Perhaps he doesn’t own the place. But then, who does? The last owner listed on Wikipedia is Al Seitz, whom I remember from earlier visits, who died in 1982. Abandonment, gross neglect, attendant mystery.
Yet how beautiful Port-au-Prince is with its royal palms, the curved arms of the island enclosing the bay. We take in every pleasure. Names we recognize: Mangonès, Celestin, Gardère, Thébaud, carved mahogany bedsteads, armoires instead of closets, the colors in one painting playing off those in another. Water, cold at first, later hot, grudgingly returns to the Jackson Browne room. Did he know who he was when he was here, where he was? I wonder. At breakfast, we ask to have the hot dog rolls toasted, order delicious not included plates of mango, papaya, cantaloupe, pineapple. We dance without partners to Ti Coca, wonderful cover band for RAM, which obliges us with favorite old meringues, Panama’m tombé and Carolina Cao. There’s a kind of negative capability at work. Neither indoors, nor outdoors, luxurious, un-landscaped plant life, tables not jammed together, no pounding music no one listens to, no TV screens no one is watching, no wannabe actors reeling off unpronounceable overwrought plates snatched away too quickly, still working on that? We can have a conversation, make a few jokes, maybe they’re catching the fish, sending to the boutique down the road for some missing ingredient. We are not making fun, but expressing satisfaction. Of all the places there are to be in the world, the gallery of the Hotel Oloffson must still be one of them.
The watermelon is pale and full of seeds, just as I remember it. I order Pikliz (spicy cabbage, carrot, onion, and hot pepper relish) for breakfast. The waitress laughs at us because we are rich and greedy and strange; the old man on a tall chair at the main entryway, missing a front tooth, protects us, carries Elizabeth’s coffee to the table, because we have asked him about Dieudonné, formerly our “houseboy,” a waiter here at the hotel for many years though, come to think of it, the last time we saw Dieudonné, he was aging, going gray in 1983. Maybe this retainer, this official greeter, does, and maybe he doesn’t, remember him. It was in the past, he tells us, it was a long time ago.
No one in Haiti is as old as we are. Haitian life expectancy is 60 or so, 54% of the population is under 25. When we tell people we lived here in the 50s, we observe their squints, their calculations, those of the old man, who is probably younger than we are, and of some younger men, boys to us, at the Guy Malary ( a Justice Minister under Aristide, killed in an ambush along with his bodyguards) airport who come close to poking us. Solides, they pronounce, amazed, as though they think we are spirits, upright and talking.
A young country. Children everywhere on the backs of motor scooters, clinging to their fathers, some nonchalant, others look terrified. Holding hands, both little children and teenagers, boys with boys, girls with girls, exchanging theories, plans, confidences, gossip, with their friends, their brothers and sisters. All turned out in skirts and blouses, ties and hair ribbons, in socks and shoes, long pants and short, with backpacks and briefcases. They have money for lunches and snacks. Every one of them beautiful. Every single one.
Hard labor, fortitude, sacrifice, money, ambition, hope and love have gone into getting these children ready for school. Online statistics are contradictory as to percentages of attendance, literacy, languages taught and spoken and, indeed, Haitian statistics altogether must be questioned because isolated populations go uncounted. Where are the other children we remember? Little boys, half naked, rubbing their distended bellies, tinges of red (which signals malnutrition) in their hair sometimes, begging for ti cob. Are there any ti cob left? There’s never any change. There never was. Stingy and ugly they said we were. Gran gou was their problem. They were hungry, hadn’t eaten in 3 days.Their toys were hoops, the inner rims of bicycle wheels, spun along with any old piece of wire, a coat hanger; any stand in for a soccer ball would do, anything a kid could kick, not necessarily round.
Have they have died of AIDS, TB, cholera, malaria? Were they killed in the 2010 earthquake? It seems much more likely that they still exist in one of Haiti’s famous slums, in La Saline or Cité Soleil, in a tent city somewhere, in flimsy houses jam packed into a hillside where before there was nothing but vegetation.
What lingers is a sense that they, the child beggars we remember and other riffraff, are not welcome here, not in this neighborhood, where people seem focused, intent, purposeful, forward-looking, which might be Bois Verna, Canapé Vert, Pacot, or Turgeau, half the time we don’t know where we are because of abrupt switches and back switches our driver makes to avoid traffic jams. A sense of walling in and walling out. A sense of populations cleaned up, or swept away. As though a directive has gone out: put them in uniform: school children, servants, hotel clerks and waiters, chauffeurs, airport employees, armed security. The high-rise Marriott lobby buzzes, just like Singapore, Elizabeth says, but the pool is half full and freezing, the changing room has a peculiar smell, the gateway to the street is padlocked, operated by hand. Haiti carries privatization to extremes: no public toilets, drinking water, education, or police protection, health care, garbage collection, street cleaning, maintenance of any kind. Nothing for the people. No government.
No memory. No one remembers what we remember. The building of a flour mill, which ruined our father’s business. The “bloodless coup” which brought down President Magloire. The songs and slogans broadcast on sound trucks, of Duvalier, Jumel, Fignolé, and Déjoie, candidates who followed hard upon. Duvalier’s election, ensuing reign of terror and attempt to create a dynasty, all of this and more, much more, has now become the fuzzy “past,” subsumed in the phrase “a long time ago,“ clearing the path for TTMs and their descendants, for Baby Doc and his, to return, already beginning to happen, according to the owner of Cyvadier Plage Hotel in Jacmel.
We don’t need books, we don’t need television. Talking over Haiti’s problems is quite enough to fill our evenings. This has happened before and is more than the result of strong coffee after dinner. Millions, perhaps billions, of dollars have been dumped here, but Haiti stays the same
Or gets worse. Despite computers and cell phones, tall buildings, escalators, street addresses (so necessary to GPS), plastic bags, and styrofoam boxes, Haiti remains intractable, out of this world, just as it was when we arrived here almost 70 years ago. An oddly comforting thought, fellow to the hideous irony that the country would be better off in every material way if Haiti had not fought its glorious revolution against the French. Compare Martinique and Guadeloupe.
Haiti needs doctors and nurses, economists, historians, agronomists, climate gurus, but we are none of these. We are not here to sell Haitians our version of Christ, or to make a killing in some business venture. A couple of sentient ghosts might be the way to describe us. And who are you is not the right question, too new agey; it smells these days of pop psychology. More appropriate is a different banner: Men prop (clean hands), very likely related to the recent cholera epidemic (brought to Haiti by UN peacekeepers, 800,000 infected, 9,000 dead, still not entirely under control), suggestive of concern with public health. But both signs are amateurish, unofficial, apparently unrelated. Haiti doesn’t have enough water to wash all the dirty hands of an impoverished population without running water, without toilets, sinks, showers and bathtubs, where pools are empty and rivers run dry, nor those of extortionists and kidnappers, of drug dealers, presidents past and present, ministers of justice and other government officials, entrepreneurs, foreign and domestic, of innumerable NGOs, Point IV, USAID and other “missions” to Haiti, of the Haitian elite, of Bill and Hillary Clinton.