First published in Subtopian, Spring 2014
Greetings from Haiti. Sorry it took so long to write, but as you may have seen on TV, it has been chaotic here. Who even knows how long this letter will take to get to you? I have been thinking about what you said, about my wanting to help everyone all the time. You were right.
After 9/11, I was ready to move to New York to become a fireman. When Katrina hit, I packed half a bag. I was going to help save New Orleans. I never made it out of the house. Either you or my mother talked “some sense” into me. I hated myself for listening to you.
Then I watched the news that day—7.0 magnitude; Port-au-Prince decimated—it felt like I had waited so long. You said okay, and before I knew it I was standing in a first aid tent handing out bottles of water to nameless people. “Merci,” they say. Sounds so much like “mercy.” I wish I had mercy to give, pitié.
A boy was carried in with a bandage on his face. One of the doctors removed the bandage. Maggots filled the open sore. I threw up immediately, trying to cover my mouth. A nurse escorted me out of the tent.
Yesterday I began shoveling. Today I am shoveling. Tomorrow I will be shoveling. Some aid worker told me that something like 25 million cubic yards of debris have been removed. Sounds like a lot. It’s not. I shovel the mountains to make mole hills, which are carted off. In the few hours that I have been performing this job, I have found toys, office supplies, books, and death. When someone finds human remains, we are supposed to blow a whistle, like a coach’s whistle, and the clean-up stops until the remains are safely removed. I have not made it more than five minutes without hearing that chirping. When I was a chubby kid, pretending to be sick to get out of gym class, marshmallow dripping from my chin, I would break out in a cold sweat whenever I heard a whistle. God, I wish I was getting picked last for dodge ball right now. I wish I had a Valomilk right now.
I’ve never been to Hollywood, but after coming to Haiti, I don’t have to. This place is crawling with celebrities. Susan Sarandon got a mani/pedi at one of a hundred tent salons. She said it was the best one she ever got. I saw Ben Stiller, looking more lost than I was when I got here. I wanted to go help him out, but how do you approach Ben Stiller, even here?
The guy who has gotten the most attention is Sean Penn. I’ve always thought he was overrated. “I’m not seeing a movie with Spicoli in it,” I said to you that one time. Last week, a group of us was invited to tag along with him on a tour of “his” tent city, Pennville. The makeshift streets are thick with vendors selling everything from hotel soaps to DVDs. One guy had dozens of bootleg copies of I Am Sam, all signed by Penn—I bought one for you. There are photos of him for sale. The locals call him “mayor.” No kidding. Maybe it’s an act, but he really seems to care. He is carrying bags of rice and getting medication donated and organizing the homeless.
Still, hundreds of thousands of people have died here. Entire city blocks look like they were made out of wet sand, and a wave came along, leaving in its wake destruction and the stench of decay. Then there are the criminals: the gangsters, thieves, rapists, and procurers—those fuckers who sell children into slavery.
At night I think about how Americans would react if this were to happen in our country. Katrina killed, what, 1,500 people? The damage here makes the 9th Ward look like a water ride at Disneyland.
What if New York or L.A. or even Louisville just collapsed, caved in? Would the celebrities flock? Would the rule of law fall apart like wet toilet paper? Body dumps? Five-year-old scavengers digging through corpses to find jewelry? Women raped in broad daylight?
I ask these questions, but the one I always fall asleep thinking about is why am I here? Why couldn’t I have just watched the news, said, “Oh, that is just terrible,” and gone about my boring life like you wanted? Will the country rebuild itself faster because of one middle-class white guy making piddling piles of nothing? I had a good life. A few phone calls and one plane ticket later, I can never go back. Once you see it first hand, you can’t just work a few days, wash your hands, and say, I’ve done my part. It’s not like quitting your suck job as a dishwasher.
I have this little radio that I listen to when I want to hear the news about what is going on around me, or when I want to forget and just zone out. There’s this oldies station that I really love. That song “Stand by Me” came on. I always thought it was a love song, but the images in the song are so dark, and I the singer sounds like he’s on the verge of tears. Fear and crying, the sky falling and mountains crumbling. Haiti.
When I look out of my tent, I can see this manmade hill with a giant cross on top of it. It has Christmas lights on it, though they aren’t plugged in. In this country of voodoo, people sure are asking God a lot of questions lately. And I thought about that song. I have been asking God if he will ever show up in Haiti, maybe take up a shovel.
Who knows? Maybe he’s already here, only he is disguised as Angelina Jolie.
Don’t write back. It will only make me miss you more.
Title photo courtesy of Save The Children
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