Port-au-Prince Diary: 'Did You Forget Me, My Man?'
"hello mrs tate, how are you? i don’t hear from you."
Every few weeks, my phone buzzes with an SMS from John. We met on the streets of Port-au-Prince shortly after I arrived in Haiti in 2012, a freelance writer with no assignment but my own. I've got no money, no contacts. But I'm American, and to John that's a chance.
Americans were in the vanguard of an invasion of aid workers and peacekeepers and journalists that arrived after the January 2010 earthquake flattened the capital. Haitians at times loathe the newcomers, but Yankophilia is everywhere. You’re as likely to see Kobe Bryant or Jay-Z adorning the side of the tap-taps -- ubiquitous, colorful trucks that bus people around the cities -- as you are Toussaint Louverture or Jean-Jacques Dessalines, two of Haiti’s founding fathers.
In a conspicuously Catholic country, the only tap-tap figure more popular than American rappers might be Jesus. But when it comes to hope and salvation here, America looms just as large. I never have anything useful for John, but still my phone buzzes. "did you forget me my man?"
He's John, with a hard "J," not the French "Jean," as I first mistakenly assumed. He spelled it out for me the day we met: “J-O-H-N.” I found it unusual in Creole- and French-speaking Haiti. Did his mother name him that way to protest the country's bloody colonialists? Or did he adopt it on his own?
I never ask.
John quickly warmed to our conversation, seemingly happy just to be practicing English. He wasn't long-winded but seemed interested to find out who I was and teach me a few Creole phrases. A white-toothed smile was plastered above a not-so-white undershirt that couldn’t hide the brawn of his upper body. I learned that we were both 26, even though I thought his close-cropped hair and neat chinstrap beard made him look younger. He was sitting on the side of the road with grease smeared on his hands and pants, trying to find a hole in a motorcycle tire tube. If he could patch it, he'd make 50 Haitian gourdes -- a little more than a dollar -- and probably buy a plate of rice.
He’d finished high school, where he'd studied English. After the earthquake, he got work as a driver and a translator for a foreign company building temporary shelters. The company left after 18 months, leaving him jobless, fixing discarded tires and doing other odds and ends when he found them. Could I help him find a job, maybe at a foreign NGO?
Ever since, John has texted me every few weeks without fail. He always wants to know two things: Do I remember him? Do I have any work?
If you are a journalist and a foreigner it is nearly impossible not to meet Carlo.
Short in stature, usually wearing jeans a little too long for his frame, he is a big personality in Champs-de-Mars, a central square at the heart of the city that shares its name with the field that stretches out from the base of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Carlo isn't his real name, it's just one nickname among many. He speaks what a friend of mine calls “deportee English.” He's always talking about something -- often about Haiti, but even more often, about leaving Haiti.
Carlo says he picked oranges in Florida. He says he made his way once to California. He lived several years in Tennessee. He's gone to the States by boat three times, he says, and three times he's been sent back. He says he has an eight-year-old daughter and a six-year-old son there, who he hasn't seen since 2009.
Everyday, he dreams of returing to America.
One day he asked where I was from. "Nashville, Tennessee," I told him.
“Oh, I was in TENN-ehh-see” he said. “I do wooofing in Lah-FEE-yett.
“That job is a tough job," he continued. "I make $10 by the hour. Cash money. Every morning from 8:00 to 4:00 I put 300 packet shingles. Whooooaaa-ooooh, that was a hard job! Tough job. Sometimes 500. I was crazy at that time.
"I love Lafayette. I worked hard, but I always have food. In Haiti, I can work hard, but can’t eat.”
Carlo almost always has a few blue-backed canvas paintings rolled up in his hands when I see him. He sells them in Port-au-Prince along with a pack of other guys who materialize from underneath the palms that shade the grounds beside statues of Haiti’s revolutionary heroes downtown. Their customers are missionaries and aid workers and tourists who get out of their cars for a few minutes to snap photos of the National Palace -- or used to, before Sean Penn's group tore down the ruins. After the earthquake, the broken palace had just sat there untouched for two-and-a-half years, one of its domes sagging forward in a disapproving frown.
When friends visit Port-au-Prince, I send them to Carlo. They walk with him to the earthquake-ruined cathedral, Notre-Dame. They continue past the black market, full of electronics, where I'm to come to find my laptop if it’s ever stolen, and then on to the Marché en Fer.
Here locals hawk colorful paintings and Voodou flags and wooden sculptures to foreigners, and produce and tin-can lamps and cell phones to each other. Carlo then takes his visitors to see the well-known Atis Rezistans sculptors off of Grand Rue, the downtown street that according to early-20th century photos used to feature medians with green space and a tramline. Today tap-taps stack one behind another as close as tram cars, and a coating of mud and trash covers the pavement.
Carlo keeps up a constant narrative, telling his customers about Haiti. In his version, misery knows no bounds. He describes gang violence and kidnappings and crushing poverty. It's not the city I've come to know. It’s like the Port-au-Prince version of ghost tours you can do in American cities in the South, like Savannah and Charleston, based partly in fact, but superficial and mythologized, geared to shock credulous out-of-towners.
The group finally circles back to Champs-de-Mars before giving Carlo a little money and maybe buying a painting from him out of charity. It’s not much, and it's too infrequent.
He talks about returning to America. No hope for a visa, which he claims would run him as much $5,000, riches beyond reach.
No. The Haitian equivalent of $375 would do it, he says, to pay smugglers who would put him on a boat in Port-de-Paix, a northwestern town where barely-seaworthy sloops depart regularly, teeming with a hundred or so Haitians looking for a new world. “I would go to Florida,” he says. “I would pick oranges."
"I love picking oranges.”
John texting again: “hi my friend! how are you doing guy? i ever hear from you. are you okay?”
“Hi John I am good,” I text back. I tell him I’ve been away for a couple of weeks working and visiting family and just returned to Haiti. “I still don’t have a job for you. I am sorry. But I hope you are doing OK.”
“my friend i was so happy to get your massage yesterday, and i thank you for thinking about me. now i got a taxi i work with it in the evening and i go to school in the morning”
“That is great,” I respond. “I’m very happy for you my man!”
“thank you my man. if you need a taxi in the afternoon just call me”