While in some ways I’m a freeloading parasite, crashing in the spare bedroom at the hotel-run standalone house where my friend Jonathan lives, I occasionally feel that my perspective as a first-time visitor to Haiti has its value. One instance: when I reminded him, a few nights ago, that I was surprised to see the parking lot attendant inside the walled gates of one upscale hotel/restaurant toting a shotgun as he helped us scrape out a parking spot inside the crowded lot. This is the kind of job – "a little further back, a little more, you’ve got plenty of room on this side" – I’m used to seeing in the hands of crustached teens wielding nothing more menacing than a wallet chain. Since then, though, I’ve noticed security all over this town casually brandishing single-barrel pump-action shotguns. The guy at the gate of our hotel sometimes leans on his while seated, as a tired man might lean on an umbrella. Yesterday, as we left a grocery store, I noticed their rent-a-cops included one who surveyed the bustling street with, yep, a friggin’ shotgun strapped over his right shoulder. After two years here, following two more in the Dominican Republic, Jonathan is so accustomed to seeing shotties on the way to buy rabbit steaks and 8-year-old rum that he barely notices them.
The grocery was otherwise was what you’d expect, but not. We were clearly shopping at the grocery for bourgie Haitians, for well-heeled out-of-towners, for the blan. There was quite a bit of Spanish spoken inside – Dominicans, likely – and one Asian guy unaccountably pushing around a cart with what looked like 15 cans of corn and almost nothing else. The shelves were stocked with American brands of candies, sodas, cleaning products, cereals, toiletries, snacks, etc., etc. I went cheap and adventurous by buying spicy peanut butter to pair with Italian marmalade. I know, I know. I should be wading into local fare, courting intestinal parasites from the street vendors handing out sizzling weasel on a stick. Whatev.
The night concluded with a trip through the fortifications at the home of U.S. Embassy workers to clobber them and a couple of
spooks traveling tech contractors in a two-hour game of Texas hold ‘em. Over Domino’s Pizza, Coors Lights and Sierra Nevadas I managed to grow a $25 buy-in into $102 by night’s end. It helps when you’re enjoying such stupid luck as having the big blind when you’re dealt an off-suited 9-3, obliging you to play such a no-account hand. “I just want everyone to know that I don’t actually think this hand is going to win,” I announced as I called before the flop. Then two 3s appeared and I shut my flapping yap. The fourth 3 surfaced on the river. That was the first of at least three hands in which I had the nut. Do that, manage to avoid bad beats, don’t chase straights, stick to light beer instead of Tanqueray and you, too, can quadruple your money in just a few short hours against people with a significantly higher pay grade than yourself.
Some Sundays you wake up at noon, sweating like Patrick Ewing at the free-throw line, wondering things like, Why is my head full of snot? Why is it so hot in here? Is my camera really broken? Why is my shirt covered in wine stains? Has the 1997 Geo Tracker that broke down and nearly stranded me on the streets of greater Port-au-Prince at 4 a.m. had its headlights scooped out and tires pinched by hoodlums? What the hell happened last night?
Point-by-point sometimes is easiest. My head’s full of ecoplasmic mucous because I’m fighting off whatever microflora have crept into my system despite drinking nothing that doesn’t do a stint in a bottle first – though noshing a 2 a.m. cup of conch from a street vendor carrying a giant silver pot and brandishing some kind of gut-nuke hot sauce was probably not the most prudent course of action. It’s hot in here because it’s noon in the tropics and the jalousies let the A/C bleed out and the sunlight stream in. My camera, it turns out, is not permanently busted; rather, it decided the connectors between the body and the lens needed cleaning – that’s Error 99 on the Canon 30-D, in case it befalls you. Three people separately guessed that it succumbed to voodoo. Its fagging out on me prevented the thorough photo-documentation of a farewell shindig at the razorwire-trimmed compound of the French Red Cross here in town. There convened a cross-strata of the headiest local foreigners: NGO staffers, diplomats, consular functionaries, cell phone company sorts, entrepreneurs, journalists. For some reason there wasn’t a corkscrew to be found in this French-run manse, so someone opened a bottle of red by stab-ramming the cork into the neck of the bottle, and as he filled my cup, the wine gouting out along the blade, my white shirt soon looked like Leatherface’s apron. This is why I wake up looking like I got my nose bloodied the night before. C’est la vie.
Mentally I checked out of the party once I realized that I was hands-down the least interesting person there and that the playing of “Informer” wasn’t a mistake or foray into ironic 90s-nostalgia but an actual harbinger of the other anachronistic abortions that would be popping up on the iPod. It was time to go clubbing. Of course, clubbing turned into drinking and dancing, and dancing turned into flailing like a fawn on slick rocks compared with the locals, then led to bouncing across the street to a Haitian-mook bar called Barak where I proceeded to gulp lager with an ebullient Irishman, which convened into a near-disastrous mechanical collapse on the part of Katz’ car that involved swift bilingual mechanical fiddling, a pointless battery swap and at least 10 neighborhood dudes poking, pulling, suggesting, testing and generally swarming the vehicle on the dimly lit street while a kid of about 11 implored me, in melodious English, “Hey, chief, why don’t you just give me some money?” We wound up hitching a ride home in the SUV of a Red Cross worker who had joined us at the bar and who suggested us, prudently, to pay one of the guys 500 gourdes (about $12.50 American) for their time.
The vehicle survived the night. Mechanics swapped out some insulated tentacle from the starting system and we were back on the road Sunday morning. “What a fucked-up night,” I told Katz. “The capper on the evening is that everything broke.”
“If you like that,” he replied, “you’ll love living here.” With those words, I introduce you to a prescient video of our drive around Petionville on Saturday:
These are my friends Ashley Harrell and Mike Mooney*, seen here in their usual morose state of unfaltering sobriety. If you have the sort of idle time afforded mainly to victims of skiing accidents and the tiny-dog rich, I suggest you curl up with one of their stories. Here’s Ashley detailing the plight of a crackhead mom snitch who fingered a murderer then suffered bizarre consequences and Mike writing about a triple-digit screwdriver-stabbing crime of lesbian passion. Yee-haw.
*Bonus points for recognizing Brantley Hargrove, author of this methodical takedown of a one-time near-decapitator turned multimedia pastor, in the background.
Went last night to the Hotel Oloffson to see RAM, a Port-au-Prince rasin band that incorporates rock, kompa, roots and folk elements of voudou, rara and petwo. At one point, I counted something like 17 performers on the floor and stage at once (sort of like half a Wu-Tang reunion, in that regard) -- all in a packed lobby that felt like a South Beach crowd transported to the house that inspired former resident Charles Addams' illustrations. I couldn't even begin to explain it. Here's a moving, talking picture instead.
My friend Jonathan Katz, who is, in the words of the BBC, "the AP's man in Haiti," picked me up from the airport in Port-au-Prince yesterday. Well, "picked up" is perhaps too gentle a phrase. "Evacuated" is more apt.
Picture the most congested, loudest, most chaotic mob you've ever been in. (Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras, about the time some pneumatic tart starts baring and bouncing her wares from a balcony, comes to mind.) OK. That's the baggage claim at PAP. Then you walk outside, and a crush of people are pressed against a barricade so tightly you'd have thought the world had been turned 90 degrees and they were falling against it. That's the parking lot. Katz and I brushed off the calls of "Taxi?" and jumped into the hard-knock SUV of his fixer, the indispensable Evens. We went for fuel, and had words in Kreyole with another driver. "There's some problem in this country with knowing who goes first at the gas pump," Katz said. "Other problems include: everything else."
We then detoured through Cité Soleil on the way to the hotel. Cité Soleil, an infrastructure-free shantytown with the population of Newark or St. Paul, is objectively one of the worst places humans live. We saw the following, in the skinny, strangled paths: open sewers, flaming garbage, pigs eating garbage, chickens eating garbage, soccer on a basketball court, crying pantsless babies, people cooking, people bathing, people selling candy, people selling lotto tickets, people pounding metal, packs of little boys calling "hey, you!", skinny dogs, a U.N. jeep, one little boy on his ass in the road leering at us with a feral and bottomless expression and a face smeared with some unidentifiable black shit. "Is that kid stoned?" I asked Katz. He speculated that the tarry mess might be glue. The drive was all color, color, stench, stench. I refrained from taking many photos, and none with human subjects. I might be a slumming white tourist, getting high myself on the furnace-fumes of unimaginable blight, gawking at shelled-out snipers' nests and young women carrying boxes on their heads and the whole delirious impossibility of it all, but I didn't want to be the drive-by fuck-you photog. No need to make folks any more self-conscious, especially since so many of them greeted us with a smile, a wave, a soft "bonswa."
But here's this: a Caribbean sunset framed by a fetid, suppurating canal of pig-munched garbage and sewage. When I get audio capabilities up and cranking on this site, I'll update this with some sound files.
In CNN.com's coverage today of Lollapalooza I'm struck by how dull the festival sounds -- a factor, I suspect, of a neutered reporter and the oatmeal-flavored tone of most mainstream music coverage. I shit you not, the last line of the piece is, "We were thankful the rain finally stopped before the evening headliners started and it was an awesome night." Then we toddled back home and drank a tepid glass of 2-percent before tucking ourselves in by 10:30 sharp. Rock and roll.
Here's a story I wrote on Lolla last year for the Arkansas Times. (Representative quote: "To attend was to pay $190 to volunteer as an extra in a disaster movie set in a Hieronymus Bosch painting infested with Vice magazine DON'Ts.") Snowplowing my way into the epicenter of a Rage Against the Machine mosh pit counts among my most intense concert experiences ever: shoving past layer after layer of tightly packed humans, this heaving, pulsing colony of flesh and sweat and feet and elbows. The front was a sauna of stale breath and August humidity, everyone heaving to "People of the Sun." It's the one great part about the overcrowding of festivals, that when you try to engage a band as visceral as Rage, there are tens of thousands of other people there to conduct the music with you. What's the word for it? Oh, right: it was a mind-fuckingly awesome night.
The career journalists have to ask: Will any of us have jobs in twenty years? In two? Yes, came the answer again and again -- or, at the very least, the world will always enjoy a rousing anecdote. It is unlikely that doctors at medical conferences reassure each other so constantly that, job market be damned, people will always need surgeries. But here we were, a tribe whose members hope to live long but not die last, for then there would be no one left to talk to. -- in CJR.org
This past weekend I scooted down to the fifth annual Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference outside Dallas, and learned, again, what a self-reinforcing loop it is to a) make a living as a writer and b) live like a cockroach. And not at all in a bad way.
Let's say you have a fascination with a subject, be it cars or music or fashion. This may intersect but still remains distinct from a fascination with an object, which of course can also be cars or music or fashion. The difference is that fascination with a subject can be sated with experience, and the key to experience is merely access. When the object of your fascination isn't really an object at all, but your own knowledge of and love for a set of ideas that, while they may be represented by concrete things are really, in the end, ideas and emotions -- why, then your currency becomes the most ephemeral thing imaginable: being there. Ask someone for a car or a CD or a dress, and you're likely not to receive it. Ask to ride their car, or to listen to their CD, or to admire the dress, and you're likely golden. At the end, you're materially none the richer, but you have experience, which is the thing you're really after, and you can, as a writer, convert that raw ore into things like food, beer, gas, a cell phone payment, a roof over your pointy little head. Once you do that, people can tell you were sincere about wanting to make your experience a tangible thing that others could also experience, and they're more likely to continue offering you time and access, because it makes their enterprise more real.
In the case of last weekend, I contacted the Columbia Journalism Review with the notion of covering the Mayborn -- which, aside from some complimentary coffee and melon slices in the morning, was going to be an exercise in collecting ephemera. The editor of cjr.org gave the green light. I contacted the Mayborn during the five-hour drive from Little Rock to Dallas and explained the situation. Organizers offered me a press pass (i.e., access) with the understanding that I'd make their existence tangible to others who couldn't experience it. So out of my own interest in hearing people talk about their stories (which, in the case of most nonfiction writers, are merely the stories of others, commandeered and repackaged) I was able to tell a story, make a few bucks and attend the conference. Here 'tis:
And along with it, the cover of this month's CJR, which I get a kick out of, because in this case, the magazine's serious about no free lunch. And its commenters are testy:
On my last trip home to Fayetteville, I found that the old cattle sales yard had closed. That just meant no one around to chase off the sort of folks who would use the rusting labyrinth of cattle pens as a photo backdrop.