Street Boys

Byton and I were heading down the hill the other morning. When we got to Malik, we saw an unusual sight: There were two street kids in the back of the tap-tap that was waiting to fill up before leaving for Petyonvil. They called to us to hop on, but we said that we’d walk, and off we went. The sight was unusual because they boys don’t usually come up the hill. They pack the tap-taps in Petyonvil for the trip up, but they stay down there.

I told Byton that I enjoy seeing the boys, and I do. He asked why. I explained that I love their manner. There’s a group of five or six of them that work at the station in Petyonvil where tap-taps leave for either Bwa Moket or Malik. They call out each ride’s destination, and get a goud or so from the driver if he’s satisfied with the way they fill his truck or van.

They are genuinely playful. They are playful in the way they shout out destinations: “Malik! Malik! Malik! Ann ale! Ann ale moun mòn nan!” (“Ann ale moun mòn nan” means, roughly, “Let’s go, mountain folk.”) Or: “Dola Malik! Dola Malik! Dola Malik! M prese! M prese!” (Here, “dola” means a Haitian dollar, or five gouds, and “m prese” means, “I’m in a hurry.”) There are plenty of other variations, too. They are playful too in the way they sing, dance, and play-fight with each other as they work. One or another of them might occasionally have a little radio, or even a walkman, and they’ll pass the earphones back and forth. And they are playful in their exchanges with drivers and with passengers as well.

I explained to Byton that I had to like them, because they make me smile. And we talked a little about how we understand their situation. Or how little we understand it. We suppose that they are street boys, homeless. Neither of us had a reasonable guess as to where they sleep or eat. I imagine Byton’s own life as hard-his unpaid apprenticeship demands long hours of heavy work, and when he gets home there’s always more work waiting-but we both tried to reflect sympathetically about the boys’ lives, too. There’s little about it that we’re very clear about. They seem to be organized at least loosely as a union-like body, working the Bwa Moket station, and it’s there they spend their days. It’s always more or less the same boys, enough so that I recognize them and they recognize me-even though I rarely take the ride to Malik. They seem happy.

I had a lot to do on that day, but I spent much of it, on and off, thinking of the boys and about my conversation with Byton about them. I had to go to Bizoton and back that afternoon, a trip which takes me through downtown Pòtoprens. The various rides I take there and back take me around and through several other, bigger tap-tap stations, and so I see many more of the boys. Things are different downtown, though. A fair number of the folks packing the tap-taps are adult men, or much older boys, and no one seems to be having as much fun as the boys at Bwa Moket station do, but those facts didn’t really strike me as I made my way back to our office in Delma. My thoughts were jumping back and forth between the talk with Byton, and the difficult class I had just had.

But as the tightly packed van that I was taking from the Pòtay Leyogann station to the station at Delma 65 turned up Rte de Delmas itself, it ran, predictably, into traffic. Somehow I always end up in the worst possible seat in these vans, right behind the driver, facing the back of the van, with nothing to brace myself on but the hope that I won’t quite end up in the lap of the person whose knees are pressing tightly against the half-seat beneath me. We were in the left lane, with a concrete barrier separating us from oncoming traffic a few feet to our left. Strolling up and down the narrow space between us and the barrier were drink venders, carrying buckets and boxes, and calling out whatever it was-water or various soft drinks-that they had. They spend their days there, selling their wares, and choking on whatever fumes Delma traffic can produce. As I stared out the window that I was clinging to, I started to see another procession walking up and down that little space. They were boys, dressed or half-dressed in filthy rags, many of them barefoot, each carrying a no-less-filthy rag in his hand. They make eye contact with each driver, silently asking for permission to wipe his or her windshield, perhaps the whole car or truck.

None of this really grabbed my attention. It’s surprising how hardened one can become. I was still thinking about my class, and about how uncomfortable I was. Days earlier, I had complained to Erik that I always ended up in the same bad seat on this trip, and I was looking forward to telling him that it happened again.

But then I saw a boy. He was no bigger or smaller than the others. He too had his rag. He too was looking for a windshield he could clean. But he wasn’t looking very hard. He couldn’t, because he was crying. He was walking along, hanging his head, dragging his rag along the street. His torn shirt, whatever its original color, was dark gray-the color of the worst that Delma traffic was coating him with. His reddish brown skin was the same dark gray.

I don’t know exactly why he was crying. It’s not unusual to see a child cry. Maybe someone hit him or yelled at him. Maybe he lost something important. It’s hard to say. I thought about getting out of the van to try to talk with him, but it was getting late, it would have been hard to catch another ride, I didn’t know how he would react. There are always such reasons. By the time I realized that it was indeed the thing to do, it was
too late. So I’ll never know what he was crying about.

But I can say what I imagined. He seem defeated, disconsolate. He seemed to be crying because of everything all at once.

Since that day, I have seen the boys at the Bwa Moket station several times. They’re just as happy as they’ve always been. As nearly as I can tell. But their happiness seems even stranger and more wonderful to me now.