The Chaos Downtown

Erik’s elbow was within inches of my chin. His hip was jammed solidly against mine. We might have been playing basketball for all the pushing between us, but we weren’t. We were packed into the back of a small pick-up truck, a tap-tap, with a dozen or so others, leaving downtown Pòtoprens for Kafou, a suburb just south of the city. We were headed to the first meeting of a group we will lead for teachers and parents in the pre-school division of a large Catholic school on Bizoton 53, a road right off the main route, most of the way to Kafou.

I had the right-hand seat closest to the driver’s cab, and Erik was directly to my left. We were squashed tightly into our little space, but we could look out the window above the cab in front of us. He was reaching across my face, holding on as best he could. There was nothing else for him to grab. My feet were propped up on the truck’s spare tire, leaving my knees most of the way into my chest. As we watched a sports utility vehicle of some sort bearing head-on down on us, I wondered how bad the collision would really be. But the S.U.V. flashed its headlights, cut swiftly in front of us, and parked on what was for it the left side of the street. No harm, no foul. Erik said, “It’s chaos.” It seemed really funny at the time.

Now, unless you mean “chaos” very literally and are very good at math, it is a hard thing to describe. That’s just not what language seems to be for. Language puts things in an order, and whether it’s an order we make or one that we disclose, it’s an order nonetheless. An order, not chaos.

You can report a feeling, though. For example: Three hours later, on our way home, at an intersection in downtown Pòtoprens, Erik was witty again. He said, “I don’t think my senses are supposed be able to take in this much information at once.” Although I had been ignoring almost everything around me for several minutes as we walked up Ri Mirak, looking for a ride up to Petyonvil, I immediately knew just what he meant. We were walking up the street, trying to find a Petyonvil tap-tap nearing the end of its trip
downtown. We knew that if we waited until it reached its final destination and started on its way back to Petyonvil, where we wanted to go, it would fill up, and we’d have little chance of pushing our way on to it. So we were hoping to jam our way onto to one before it reached its end-destination, before its last passengers could get off.

Let me try to describe the scene that was around us, Erik’s “chaos.” Noise of every sort on every side: CD stores and car stereos blaring a wild blend of the latest music of every style; car horns beeping; street merchants and tap-tap packers shouting; engines roaring, humming, gurgling or squealing; people yelling and arguing; dogs barking; wheels screeching. Cars, trucks, busses, motorcycles, wheelbarrows, pull-carts and even bicycles
swerving on every side, in every direction. Mobs of people everywhere: waiting, running, walking, shouting, fighting, talking, eating, selling, buying, begging, laughing, choking, crying, struggling. Smells of kerosene, gasoline, coal, diesel, frying food, burning tires, sweat, perfume, urine, garbage. Dust, dust, dust covering colored signs; covering brightly painted tap-taps; covering all the cars, busses and trucks; covering graffiti; covering walls; covering buildings; covering people; covering dogs; covering merchants’ wares; covering street food. Trash everywhere. Filth. You wipe the sweat off your forehead with your hand, and your fingertips turn black.

This was our first cross-town trip together, but I had made the trip twice already. There’s no simple way to get to Kafou from where we live and work without crossing the center of the city. Finding yourself in downtown Pòtoprens is striking in the worst way. I say this though I know that there are places here – I once visited one – that are considerably worse.

I am very comfortable in my village on the mountain. Erik is in another, less affluent village, but he’s comfortable too. The people around me are pretty comfortable as well. Though there’s no one in my neighborhood with any sort of economic security, there’s no misery to speak of, either. “//Nou pa pi mal, gras a dye//” (We’re no worse, thank God), Madanm Anténor likes to say. When she’s angry, in fact, she will tell her children that they have things too easy. I suspect that none of the families in my neighborhood has cash reserves just in case . . . But every child in the neighborhood goes to school, they dress decently, eat well, and have safe and solid homes. The village is, excepting its roosters, quiet. On Saturdays or Sundays, as the case may be, they have the leisure to spend much of the day in church – whether Adventist, Catholic, or Protestant-other. In short: Things aren’t so bad there.

And even in the harder cases, they get by. Toto’s mother, Madanm Boby, is widowed, but her five children in the States help support the four here that still depend on her. Madanm Kastra’s blindness and ill health hurt her family: It leaves her daughters especially with a lot of extra work to do, and it deprives them all of a second income. But they manage. Bòs Jean-Claude’s hypertension keeps him from working, but Madanm Jean-Claude is
a successful merchant in at the market in Petyonvil – she sells flip-flops – and they have her aging but competent mother to keep house. Between her flip-flop sales and the land they farm, they manage to support their 5 children, her mother, his oldest brother, and a nephew – my friend, Big Elie – without any evident difficulty.

Then I find myself downtown. There’s something that one sees on almost every face there. In the faces of the better-off, of the folks from Delmas or Petyonvil or elsewhere, young people who are heading home from school or adults struggling to fight their way home after a long day’s work, or who are not done with work yet, who are bustling back and forth, trying to get their work done, one could call it “stress.” It’s a tightness, a strain, a gritting of the teeth. At best, a sad resignation.

But there are other faces, too. And for what I think I see in those faces – when I can bear to really look at them – a word like “stress” fails to say nearly enough. It seems too trivial a word, almost flippant, disrespectful: street boys packing the busses and tap-taps, hoping the drivers will give them a goud or two; venders weaving on foot through unpredictable traffic, at risk of life and limb, hoping to sell cold drinks out of the heavy boxes they carry with them all through the day; and beggars of all ages, young and old, man, woman, and child, dressed in rags or worse, with withered faces and withered limbs, wounded and suffering.

Talk of “what to do about it,” or “how to help,” starts to feel terribly shallow. I don’t have the resources to intervene dramatically in any material sense, and I don’t know where to find the strength to show helpful solidarity – if mere solidarity would be truly helpful. I often, too often, find the need to simply, guiltily look away.

For all the misery I see in the chaos, in little corners of open space, there are street boys playing soccer with an empty plastic bottle or a small bundle of rags or the tattered remains of a ball. They laugh, and that’s part of the chaos, too.