Villa Creole, Petionville, Haiti
In 1974, one March morning, I boarded a Pan-Am airliner at Kennedy International headed on a direct flight to Port au Prince, Haiti. It was the 13th of March. It was still slightly chilly in New York City and the morning of the 13th, it was drizzling rain. I had been to Haiti before--virtually, though not actually.
The first time I knew of Haiti was due to my knowledge, playing, and love of baseball. All baseballs in my day were stamped just over the seam directly opposite the sweet spot with the word Haiti. That signified, I found out, that all baseballs used in the official professional leagues in the USA were made in Haiti. Of horse hide. They were handstitched by Haitian women. Thousands upon thousands of baseballs every year.
Later, living in New Orleans I became enchanted by the Creoles--the New Orleans Haitians--they were unto a class by themselves at one time--blacks who acted as though they weren't blacks--and were pretty much treated as nonblacks by whites until the Jim Crow era when Old South whites vented their biblical hatred of all blacks, but especially those blacks who had gained freedom and prestige and political power during Reconstruction.
Plus in New Orleans I got into Obeah and Voo-doo through my friend Henri Dix, who turned out to be a voodoo pianist (yes there are Haitian composer/pianists who compose voodoo songs, tunes, sonatas, concertos), a Creole whose greatgrandparents had been part of the Independence of Haiti in the 1860s and 70s--fairly "prosperous" years for Haiti due to the fertility of their fields and the lushness of their mountain forests. Sugar cane and sugar refining; syrup making; molasses making, RUM making. Haitian rum at one time was the class rum of the Caribbean, Barboncourt Rum, like drinking five-star cognac. Through Henri I met one night when I was sittin' in with Laverne Baker--I was not a member of her kick-ass band but was sittin' in because her regular pianist had gotten sick during the last set and she asked if anybody in the audience knew her book and I raised my hand so she called "the little white boy" up and I played three tunes with her, then her regular pianist came back--I assumed he'd needed a hit or a drink or a tug on a reefer roach--that was his illness--but after I gave up the piano bench Henri took me over to a corner table and introduced me to Allen Toussaint who said he was glad to meet me and "Son, I dug your chops up there" giving praise to my choppity-chop-chop piano playing.
Allen Toussaint came on the hit scene in the 60s when Glen Campbell did his "Southern Nights" and took it to the top of charts. Then Allen really hit the big time after some of his own records got big in the black r and b community when Patti LaBelle took her Blue Belles now simply called LaBelle (Patti, Sarah Dash, and Nona Hendryx) down to New Orleans to record and the first track they recorded on that LaBelle album was Allen Toussaint's "Lady Marmalade." LaBelle's biggest hit by far; and certainly a hit that made Allen a comfortable income for awhile.
And the night I met Toussaint I went down to Papa Joe's on Bourbon and Kenny O'Brien the bass player told me about Louis Marie Gottschalk, the Haitian-born Creole pianist whose dazzling pianistic technique (they said he rivaled Franz Liszt for pianistic showmanship) gained appreciative audiences from New Orleans all over Central and South America. The first piece of Gottschalk's music I finally got to hear was his "Grand Tarantelle." It stunned me. It was simply marvelous--especially to a budding pianist like I was at the time.
That Creole interest in New Orleans turned me to reading a lot about Haiti, my first truly real reading experience on it coming from a book called The Black Jacobins by a native Trinidadian C.L.R. James. From James I learned all about the Haitian Revolution, the Boukman Slave Revolt that eventually led Toussaint to form the Haitian army that eventually overthrew the French plantation masters and claimed Haitian independence from France. The Haitian forces overthrew what was essentially Napoleon's famous French forces, an embarrassment France has never gotten over. Ever since then France has rebuked Haiti.
So, too, has the United Snakes of America in its checkered history in dealing with Haiti. Check out what our supposedly great democratically minded president Woodrow Wilson did to Haiti. Those wooly-boogers were acting arrogant about allowing US corporations in to takeover all their lands and industry, especially their sugar industry. The Haitian said hell no to our taking over their country so President Woody showed 'em, he sent the US Marines down there to take their Black asses over, which the US Marines did in 1914, keeping up the occupation and control of the country until the 1930s.
Of course, too, I had read the play and then seen the movie of Eugene O'Neill's great play The Emperor Jones with Paul Robeson in the star role.
When I first came to New York City, I had just discovered Malcolm Lowry's writing through reading Under the Volcano. This was a writer's kind of writing and it fascinated me, not just because I knew most of the locations in the novel, but also I recognized most of the people in that novel. I especially knew Cuernavaca and the famous baranca in the story since my wife and I had while living in Mexico City gone down to Cuernavaca on several occasions looking at jungle overgrown old Spanish-style mansions that were for sale or rent--one with an Olympic-size swimming pool with an undergrowth growing up in it, pushing its sturdy roots up through the concrete of that pool, cracking portions of it up to pile it up in tiles--I mean, it was right out of Under the Volcano and near the house Malcolm had lived in while starting to write his masterpiece. Later on, when I got into all his works, in one book he and his wife, Marjorie, end up in Haiti--and it turns into a typical Malcolm Lowry disaster.
At about the same time as I was into Malcolm Lowry, Graham Greene published The Comedians whose setting was Haiti and Port au Prince's fabulous Hotel Grand Oloffson (see Tequila Minsky story below). And then I discovered Selden Rodman.
First I heard him give a lecture on Haitian art at the New School. Then I found out this dude was a phenomenal writer as well as lecturer. He was a poet. He was a writer. He was a historian. He was an art connoisseur and critic. He knew all about Brazil, Brazilian art and Brazilian music, writing about Carlos Joabim and Bolo Sete, guys like that, before they brought the bossa nova to the USA, actually brought over here by Stan Getz (he stole Astrud Gilberto from Gil Gilberto) and for that reason it ended up a staple beat with jazz groups--even Ella Fitzgerald had a bossa nova hit ("One Note Samba")--Stan Getz himself having along with Astrud a big hit with "The Girl From Ipanema."
Old Selden Rodman was as close to a Renaissance man as you can get in the 20th-21st centuries. Through Rodman I was introduced to Haitian art, but also to the beauty of Haitian women (yes, Selden had an eye for the ladies)...and then to the Haitian brothers, Philippe Thoby-Marcelin and Pierre Marcelin, who in 1946 wrote this great book The Beast of the Haitian Hills.
Rodman, too, at another time, introduced me to Jorge Luis Borges, one of the most interesting dudes I've ever read about and then read and then really read. What a dude. I could write a whole post on Borges, but I won't. [One of the last persons I know who went out to Jersey to interview Selden--he was near death and a little senile, as she reported--was Tequila Minsky--see below.]
So, on March 13th of 1974, on a rainy chilly morning in New York City, I boarded a Pan-Am nonstop flight to Port au Prince.
I remember the flight so clearly. The plane was full of Haitians...Haitian families...a baby wailing loudly from every seat. After a couple of hours in flight the pilot announced we were flying by Cuba--on our left--and I looked out the window and WOW there was Cuba--we were flying in international airspace but we were close enough to the island for us to see how huge it was. How thick with trees its mountains were. We then flew off the Cuban coastline for nearly an hour and then the pilot was announcing we were approaching Port au Prince airport and we should get ready to disembark and go through Haitian customs.
The airfield was small. The terminal was a concrete block one-story structure with a control tower at one end and a windsock at the other. I filed into the terminal and soon saw a very tall black man holding a sign "Mr. Wolfe, please." It was my Haitian contact, Napoleon Bonaparte Bonenfant. He didn't speak English; I didn't speak French...oh I spoke a tourist French but at best I could order a beer but not hold a conversation with a Haitian.
Napoleon Bonaparte took me to a raggedy looking Renault and we started up into the hills out of Port au Prince to my residency while I was in Haiti, the Villa Creole Hotel (see the above photo) up in the hills of Petionville.
You see, I was in Haiti to get a divorce from my wife of ten years. Napoleon Bonaparte Bonenfant was my Haitian attorney. He would represent me in the Haitian court that would eventually issue me a divorce decree.
The National Palace, Port au Prince. The court room where I obtained my divorce is in the wing at the far right, the driveway leading up to its portico-ed entrance.
After a lovely evening at the Villa Creole, my life in Haiti official began. At dinner my eye for the ladies had been attracted to the woman that served me my salad. As I ate, I couldn't take my eyes off her; I followed her every move as she served salads all around the restaurant--an open-aired restaurant overlooking the Villa Creole swimming pool. By the end of the evening I got her to talking to me, I got her name, and I got the fact that she worked until 11:30 when she got off. Could I meet her when she got off? I boldly asked. She didn't know. She was married. To a very jealous man. He expected her home by twelve--she lived just up the road in the town of Petionville. I insisted. Well, she guess she could meet me for a couple of minutes before she had to go home. She ended up spending over an hour and a half with me--leaving my room in a nervous rush after we had made love. That night I slept with the windows open, naked, with the brisk dry breezes blowing in the big casement window that looked out over the valley below on which sat Port au Prince on the rim of the far-reaching Caribbean.
The next morning, Napoleon Bonaparte picked me up and we went to court. The court was in the National Palace. It was a grand-looking building as we drove up to it for my first look at it. It at first reminded me of the Jefferson's Monticello...but also the Jefferson Memorial in D.C. White. Alabaster white. White all over. I don't remember seeing any other color than white until we got inside the building.
The court was in the far right wing of the large building, with its own columned entrance, up some steps, and into this barn of a court room. It was like a warehouse, a big room with a wide-plank wooden floor, plain wood walls, wooden benches like church pews, whitewashed walls; not painted.
The judge sat at a large desk, though he wasn't elevated; he was floor level. The wall behind the judge had a portrait of Baby Doc up there and a big unfurled Haitian flag. To the right and right in front of me was a huge open door--a big sliding door, like I said, like you'd find in a warehouse, opening onto a loading platform. Outside this big open door was a grassy courtyard full of Haitian girls using straw brooms sweeping up the dirt areas as well as the grassy areas too. At least ten young girls. Several of the girls stopped sweeping and stared into the courtroom. I was the only person on the docket that morning. I sat alone on the front row just in front of the judge, a light-skinned Haitian man wearing a black robe and a black hat like a British judge wears--not a wig, but a black hat.
The first question he asked me was had I seen a priest about this divorce. My lawyer advised me to say yes. So I said yes. Then he asked if I had considered the consequences of divorce with my wife...the consequences...under God? Again I answered yes. The rest of the proceeding was in French. Soon he had me approach the bench and sign a document, then sign another document, and finally he handed me a large document, a legal-sized piece of parchment paper, with the Haitian Seal at the top, a long handwritten text in French, I couldn't read it, it could have said anything, that I was a terrorist or something for all I knew. At the bottom of the document on the right side was a huge gold seal with a blue-ribbon scissortail hanging fluttering down from it. The tail of the document bore several very important looking signatures, one, I assume was the judge's, and one was my lawyer's, and one was mine, but the others I didn't recognize--assuming maybe one of them was Baby Doc's sign.
I left that court a free man--loose in Haiti--on my own then. Mr. Bonenfant introduced me to a man named Daniel who had a cab and Daniel became my own special driver from then on.
I got back to the Villa Creole, ordered two bottles of champagne sent to my room, called my now ex-wife, and she had some champagne opened back in New York, and we proceeded to celebrate the end of our 10-year marriage. I've always said, that night over that phone getting bombed on champagne was one of the most fun times I ever had with my once charming wife.
This, too, would be the first night I was to be awakened, frighteningly so, by a strange sensation creeping over my sleeping body, first manifesting as a dream, and then as an actual experience. I'm an atheist, remember, so I don't believe in the supernatural, ghosts and such, and certainly never imagined I could be the victim of a voodoo spell, but that night? I don't know. I think the voodoo boogie got a hold of me. I woke traumatically in the deep middle of the dark night. I woke up trembling and sweating with incessant drums rattling and pounding about my blasted head. Once awake and cognizant I made it over to the window and sat hypnotized for over an hour listening to the voodoo drums higher up in the Petionville hills behind me. I have to admit I was transfixed in a voodoo sitting.
Danny the cabdriver took me out the next day and I ended up at Danny's house in Cite Soliel, meeting his sister, Nancee, an absolute stone beauty who after being there for six hours drinking rum and listening to old Haitian records I was certain was a voodoo priestess. She ended up dancing naked around the room in a glistening brilliant sweat as she worked herself into a love trance. Love was constantly in the air when around the women of Haiti.
I ended up staying in Haiti for nearly 4 months. Four months of cruising around in Daniel's taxi, meeting Brit developers and an American paper products dealer from Connecticut, true bigshots down there to make deals with Baby Doc. One afternoon, this Brit dude Dai, a Welshman actually, a building supply rep for a big British steel company who I'd started hanging out with said, "Wolfie, you want to go with me to meet Baby Doc?...and whatever you do, Wolfie, don't call him Baby Doc--and remind me, too, not to call him Baby Doc." And I went with Dai to the Palace and I got into Baby D's secretary's office but when Dai went in to confer with the Baby himself, I was told I had to have a seat "over there, please" and that I did. Dai
came out an hour later with a fat contract in his little Welsh mitts. We went over to the Oloffson and had a Dylan Thomas drinking bout, on the porch of the Oloffson, complete with loud shouted poetry and ribald ditties.
I love Haiti and the Haitian people. It is such a shame the abuse these wildly imaginative people have had to endure since they kicked the Frenchman's ass back to France without a sou in his blood-soaked jeans. I especially fell madly in love with the beautiful and enduring Haitian women. They are the ones you now see in the islands of safety amongst the massive ruins of Port au Prince crying and wailing and praying and singing as death boils its stench up around them and up and into their nostrils and then down and into their lungs, the force of death invading and living in their continuing presence--death now a living part of the remaining living.
Tonight I am wondering about Daniel the cabdriver and his sister Nancee. I wonder about Napoleon Bonaparte Bonenfant. I wonder about the salad girl--her name was also Nancee--and later the maid--Millie--Millie who stayed with me more than one night and who cried when I left the Villa Creole, saying she wished she could come with me.
And Then How Surprised Was I This Morning!
When I opened the New York Times Website on the advice of a friend--"Check it out, Wolfie, see who it is--see who's lucky to be alive this morning"--and there I found an old friend...an old Haiti-lover friend, a woman I've known for 25 years, a daring woman, a photo-journalist who boldly flies right into the face of danger wherever the holy hell it may be to get a photo or a story--she was in Sarajevo while it was being shelled daily; she was in Mexico in 1994 during the Chiapas Zapatista Revolt--she has no fear...her name is Tequila Minsky. You heard me right. That's her name--not her birth name, of course, but her constant persona name [she's a Growler and doesn't realize it], her character name, and she fits it to a T. She is a Tequila. And she is a Minsky. So how surprised was I when I opened the NYTimes Website and found this:
On Tuesday morning, Tequila Minsky enjoyed a reputation in Lower Manhattan as an enterprising freelance photographer.
By Tuesday evening, the world learned just how enterprising she can be.
Over a spotty and faltering Internet connection, Ms. Minsky transmitted some of the first photographs of the earthquake in Haiti, pictures that instantly conveyed the awful human toll.
What gave Ms. Minsky the edge over other journalists was that she was in Port-au-Prince when the quake struck, in her room at the Hotel Oloffson, having returned from a weeklong trip to visit a peasant cooperative in the central highlands.
“She knew it was an earthquake,” said Janet Higbie, a friend who shares Ms. Minsky’s abiding interest in Haiti. “She went running out into the streets, where she got those daylight shots. It was chaos. There were dead bodies. Buildings were down, utility poles were down.”
“It’s very rough covering that kind of thing,” Ms. Higbie said. “You just don’t want to get hurt because there’s no medical care at the moment. At night, there’s no light. You can’t see anything.”Read the rest: lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/01/13/behind-28/
The incredible Miss Minsky (foto by tgw)
The last time I talked to Tequila (last year we had Mexican food together) she had just returned from Haiti. She had stayed at the Villa Creole this time rather than her usual home down there, the Oloffson. She said, "Your Villa Creole sucked. The food sucked. I hated it. I'll never stay there again."
We are glad Miss Minsky wasn't even scratched--how she is able to know when violence and destruction are fixing to hit a place is beyond my atheistic rationalizations--that's the amazing part of her profession and her own professional nose for the disasters she's so drawn to. To be in the biggest earthquake to hit the Caribbean in 200 years--damn right I'd expect Tequila to be there.
And Then How Insulting
I was frozen in my tracks this morning when listening to Amy Goodman's Democracy Now (Amy Goodman reminds me a lot of Tequila Minsky) to hear her say that President Obama has picked Slick Willie Clinton and of all people GEORGIE PORGIE PUDDIN' 'n PIE BUSHY-WOSHIE--our two-term faux president and all out world criminal to help out the Haitian people as the US representatives there. I suppose Obama's logic is the same as his was in the financial crisis by picking the heathen bastards who deregulated the industry, Larry Summers, Big Ben Bernanke, and Little Timmy Geithner--"You guys fucked it up, now let's see you fix it." I know Obama isn't nuts. I know he's smart enough and in the mix enough to know even more of what's going on than I can empirically guess at. Yet, he continues to believe he can repair the damage to the ship of state using the very criminal assholes who tried to sink it in the first place. Backwards-thinking logic--I'm sorry, Obama may be a brilliant man, but he's one dumbass Dumbocrat politician as far as I can see. A trickbagging daddy. A Prince Charming on the speaking platform but a massacre-ing criminal with his George Bush Army and Army leaders leading us down the WAR PATH to DOOM. Come on, Obama, get kicked in the head or something. How do we get you to do a 360 and think straight ahead rather all around Robin's god-damn barn.
I'm sure, the KILL POWER boys are sitting up all night in one of those White Man's House private back rooms where the secret deals are made deciding on whether or not to occupy Haiti--the commercial rags and online pundits are saying "US takes charge in Haiti...." Kind of a scary headline I saw on Yahoo Headlines. US takes charge. Yep, Obama didn't send aid workers, rescue squads, firemen, tractors, bulldozers, nope, he sent the US Army--in their WAR CLOTHES--saving the Haitians from a disaster, a disaster Rush Limbaugh said today was of the Haitians on making. The American way of thinking: "They brought it on themselves."
Lord Chaos, folks, is laughing his ass off right now. Devastation sits awaiting our further mistakes. Remember, folks, there no such thing as Global Warming. And remember, folks, Haiti is a BLACK nation and BLACK to we Christians is the color of the deepest kind of SIN! Our Great God has condemned Haiti to the Curse of HAM.
for The Daily Growler