Thursday, July 24, 2008

On Arrive en Haiti

I called Jim O’Brien in Haiti. The connection was bad, and the telephone call cost $22 (and this was in 1981!) I learned that the only way to call out of Haiti was to call collect. If the calls weren’t billed to an outside party, Ma Bell would have no way of collecting their share from the Haitian TPTC, Travaux Publics, Transports et Communications, a government monopoly. Even if they did pay, the check would be written on a Haitian bank, and the payment made in Haitian gourdes, which, then as now, was not the world's most negotiable currency. Jim said to get a one-way ticket to Port-au-Prince, and that if everything went according to plan, the company would reimburse me. I had only a little more than $300 left, and that ticket cost me $304. That night I had a vivid dream in which I pictured the place where I would be living and some of the things that would happen the first day. Still, it seemed like such a wild-eyed caper that I wasn’t sure what I had agreed to. There was a sense of unreality about the whole thing. Was this really happening?

The next day the phone rang. It was Mindy, Doug Gaines’s daughter, calling from Marathon. "Doug wants you to come up here and pick up a Schmidt hammer to take to Haiti tomorrow." A Schmidt hammer is a gadget used to test the hardness of concrete. Apparently this was really happening. (I found out later that Mindy was definitely a "chip off the old block.")

O’Brien called again. Another $22. "Forget the Schmidt hammer. But pick up two or three cans of Skoal snuff for Doug, and bring them with you." I told him when the plane was supposed to get into Haiti, and he said he would be at the airport.

Jim was at the airport as promised, along with a good ole boy from Greensboro, Horace Rogers. Somewhere I have a picture of my arrival, coming across the steaming tarmac wearing a pair of tennis shoes, a polyester sport coat I had bought at Eagle Army Navy Discount for about $10, carrying a tennis racket and snorkel equipment under one arm, and a few things in my father’s WW II army knapsack in the other. Horace told me later that I looked like the damnedest fool he had ever seen. "This guy’s coming here to work?" he said.

"He, who travels light, travels best," I had always thought, tennis racquet and dive gear to the contrary.

Jim and I went up to a fancy hotel on a mountainside overlooking the city to have dinner. The opulence and cool mountain air were in stark contrast to the slums and heat of the lower elevations. On the walls were pictures of celebrities who had dined there over the years. The only ones I can remember were Leonard Bernstein and Dick Nixon. We had a few drinks. Jim, being an Irishman, was known to enjoy a libation or two. Or three. The dinner was roast guinea hen, a Haitian specialty. It’s all one shade of meat, not dark and white like a chicken or turkey, more like a pheasant.

After we ate, we drove higher up into the mountains. Doug had decided that the only proper place to live was high above Port-au-Prince, and had rented an impressive multi-bedroom house from a prominent Haitian architect. As it turned out, he was right, not so much as to live among the Elite, but because almost all the Americans who lived near the coast got malaria. The house where we would be staying was a little more humble, a short distance away. When we got to the turnoff to our place, I noticed it was just as I had pictured it in the dream a few days before, right down to the little borlette booth at the corner. (Borlette is a Haitian lottery game, similar to bolita in Key West, or boledo in Belize. In some parts of Haiti every third enterprise seemed to be a borlette house. I have noticed that the poorer the country, the more gambling seems to be part of the culture.)

As soon as we got to the house and stashed my few belongings, the telephone rang. It was Doug. He wanted his Skoal. We had been summoned to the throne.

Doug was there alone, with a glass of rum liqueur in his hand. He was short and feisty, with a definite Napoleonic air about him. Smiling but ready to fight at any minute. I had met him once before, so I seemed vaguely familiar.

Over his lifetime Doug had both made and lost considerable amounts of money. A few years earlier he’d run afoul of the environmentalists in the Keys, when he had bulldozed a great area of protected mangroves on Grassy Key. Subsequently he had gone bankrupt. Shortly afterward he had gone to the retail fish market connected to the seafood producer I had been working for, and bought a huge amount of lobster tails and stone crab claws for some big shots he was entertaining. The bill came to about $600 in today’s money. "Put it on my tab," he said, "I’m Doug Gaines!" and walked out. When we sent him an invoice, we received a notice from bankruptcy court, saying we’d have to get in line, so to speak. I wrote him a letter saying, "Since you were already in bankruptcy when you bought the fish, unless you want to rip off a simple fish house, don’t you think you’d better pay it?" He came in and paid it. Then he came into the office to see me, "I just wanted to shake hands with the son-of-a-bitch who wrote that letter!" Of course when I reminded him later about how we met, he had conveniently forgotten the episode.

He seemed delighted to get the cans of Skoal, however, and he treated us to a few more rum drinks. (This sugary liqueur was called Barbancourt, after the famous Haitian rum manufacturer, but was in fact produced by another company, owned by an old German perfumist who had married a distant relative of the original Barbancourts. Through some quirk of Haitian law they were allowed to use the same name. His products were the basic hootch, mixed with plain sugar plus a variety of artificial flavors he had learned to produce in the perfume business. They came in dozens of varieties, e.g., lemon, lime, coconut, cocoa, coffee, hibiscus, peach, papaya, and so on.) Doug talked about his heyday in Marathon and the crowd at the Buccaneer Lodge, what they did, how he’d play backgammon for $10,000 a hand with his buddy Congressman Gallagher and other major players of the era. We left about midnight, thoroughly "wasted." We were expected on the job, about thirty miles away, at 6:30 sharp.

Jim headed his pickup truck down the steep, curvy road from Doug’s place. There was a heavy dew on the road surface, and the truck was light in the rear end. We fishtailed, and he lost control, with no traction on the slick surface. The right front tire went down into an irrigation ditch and we came to an abrupt halt. I vaguely remember being thrown into the windshield, then the door flew open and I fell out onto the ground. The roadside was covered with stinging nettles, something I had never experienced before. The stinging, and the shock of the accident, quickly sobered me up.

At this point I remembered a story I had heard a few years before from a friend from Long Key. Len was a Ft. Lauderdale insurance man who had a midlife crisis, got a divorce, lost 50 pounds and moved to the Keys to enjoy what was then the simple life. He said he had once met an upper class Haitian who had invited him to his house high in the hills above Port-au-Prince. After dinner, he and his girlfriend decided to take a walk around their host’s sizeable yard. As they walked, they got the feeling that they were being watched. They looked into the woods, and all around the yard, about 10 feet back, were hundreds of people watching them.

I looked up and saw a large number of young Haitian men coming down the rocky hillside through the darkness. By now Jim was out of the truck, looking at the situation. The frame was down on the roadbed, and the tire was suspended in the ditch. Then I remembered the dream I had, and somehow the right words came to me, even though I’d taken only one year of French, fifteen years back. "Nous avons besoins des pierres." We need some rocks. They happily obliged us, and within minutes they filled the ditch with rocks, making a platform so that we could jack the truck up, and drive off on the now-filled ditch.

Then we went home for three hours of sleep. The next day would be the first day of work at the new job in Haiti.

Next: The job begins; we hire some men.


Pep said...

Can you please tell me the architect's name you rent the house from?

Concerned Neighbor said...

This was 25 years ago, so he might not even be around any more. The house was in Thomassin, and I think the man's last name was Price, although I'm not sure.