One consequence of having traveled as much as I have is that you lose the ability to hold yourself aloof, because you make friends and gain a measure of ground-level understanding of their circumstances. Thus, for example, knowing Haiti as I do – having traveled there many times since 1982 – I know something of the human cost put into words by Edwidge Danticat in a Miami Herald op-ed published May 10:
[Paramilitary death squad squad leader Emmanuel “Toto”] Constant’s attempted deportation, along with the increased frequency of these flights, during a global pandemic, of which the United States is the epicenter, shows how, under the guise of immigration enforcement, the United States can further destabilize Haiti, both by inserting new players into its current political powder keg and by increasing the chances that COVID-19 could ravage a country that is scarcely prepared for it. …
Coming from overcrowded U.S. detention centers, where social distancing is impossible and where detainees’ health often is neglected, many of those who are being deported have had multiple exposures at various facilities with known cases, according to their lawyers and family members. While ICE has announced that it would increase testing, particularly before deportations, the wife of one COVID-19 positive man – who is one of five on the May 11 manifest who have tested positive for the virus – told me that her husband was only tested after showing symptoms, which is consistent with what other lawyers and family members have said.
Edwidge Danticat is known as a novelist, but I’ve learned over the years that she can be counted on to rise to the occasion when something honest and true needs to be written or said, without the gambits and indirection that are inherent to fiction. And, because Haiti is her background and her subject, there has been no shortage of occasions. A book I’d like to read one day would be a collection of all the op-eds and topical essays that she’s written, arranged chronologically. It would be a book of lasting value because, unlike many writers, Danticat is far from profligate with her opinions. She says only what needs to be said.
Speaking of Haiti, someone I knew there has been on my mind lately. Philippe Allouard was an unusual Frenchman, a former novice monk who, when his order told him he didn’t have the vocation, opted to stay in Haiti. He was an instance of a phenomenon that Steven Werlin identifies in his book To Fool the Rain: Haiti’s Poor and Their Pathway to a Better Life: that “Haiti is littered with Americans and other foreigners who say that they’ve fallen in love with the country.”
But Philippe made himself genuinely useful. He was complex but generous and accessible, if you were willing to put in the effort of getting to know him. He professed to be conservative in both religious and political terms, which is to say that he cherished a cluster of high-minded ideals and was old-fashioned on principle. En meme temps, he lived and worked very much at ground level, as one must do in Haiti. A floating bunch of young Haitians hung around the house he rented off Avenue Delmas – David, Junior, Gérard, Chrisnel – whom I got to know and even travel around the country with in 2004. I spent a lot of time in Haiti that year because a lot of politics was happening, and I became Philippe’s long-term house guest.
He and I spent many evenings on his porch smoking cigars, drinking rum, and discussing Big Subjects. One evening we had a long conversation about theology, the significance of John Paul II, whether the next pope would be Italian (Philippe thought not), and the zone where morality overlaps with politics. “People confuse politics and morality,” I asserted.
“You can be a perfect person and be a very bad politician,” he replied. “You can be very honest, very clever, and not be good at getting people to work together or knowing what they want. You can be a very good person but narrow-minded. You can be not perfect but be a good politician. Not only successful, but serving the community well.
“There is a link” between politics and morality, he allowed. “Because if you do not have righteousness, you will be easily corrupted by money or by other people, and it will not be easy to resist following your interest when it is not the same as the interest of your community.” He cited four ways that the philosopher Gustave Thibon had articulated to deal with the gap between moral ideals and reality. One was to be a saint. “… And the fourth way, if you are not a saint, is to accept that you cannot live up to your ideals, but not to give them up. Even if the standard is judging you, and judging you guilty.”
Shaking hands good night I said, “Interesting evening.”
“Yes, but I am not used to talking about such things in Haiti,” Philippe replied. “Politics, price of rice, whether the cistern is full or empty …”
“You have an interesting perspective on Haiti,” I said, “because you’re educated …”
He shrugged gallically. “Well, I had good teachers.”
“… and yet you live the nitty-gritty of daily life in Haiti. You take your water from a cistern, for example.”
“Yes, but I have a cistern. So I am in ze upper part of society.”
The proximate reason Philippe is on my mind now is that I’m haunted by something he told me the last time we met. In September 2011 I went to Haiti, and Jenny went with me. Our mutual friend Ti Gérald Oriol told me Philippe had survived the January 2010 earthquake, and that they were still in touch. So I contacted Philippe, and Jenny and I spent an evening with him and his boyfriend – he had become comfortable with being out as gay – at his house (not the same house). He was in good spirits and seemed happy and settled – as settled as a restless spirit can ever be in a place as chronically restless as Haiti. He had previously affected a shaven-headed look; now he sported an inch or so of brown hair.
Jenny was charmed by him; it’s safe to say that meeting Philippe was a highlight of that trip for her. He regaled us with an anecdote about driving through a lake, somewhere on the southern peninsula, with his intrepid mother visiting from France. And he talked about the strange experience, since the earthquake, of occasionally running into old friends. You would be out and about around the city, he said, running errands or having meetings or whatever, when lo and behold there would be someone you hadn’t seen since before the earthquake. And you would exclaim to each other: “You’re still alive!” And then you would catch up and maybe trade earthquake stories.
A few months after our fond reunion, I heard from Gérald that Philippe had been killed in a motorcycle accident in Carrefour, a notorious traffic bottleneck on the way out of Port-au-Prince to the southwest.
I wonder, now, how many of my friendships – far-flung but even local – will either fade away or simply not resume once the dust finally settles after this pandemic, if it ever does settle. And the news of Philippe’s death was a hard reminder that you never know when will be the last time you see someone. That’s on my mind these days too. But right now I don’t have the time or mental energy to take a proper inventory. So be it, I guess. So far since the lockdown started a few friends have lost loved ones to coronavirus and other causes, and one good family friend on the East Coast has died of a heart attack. Yesterday Jenny and I took part in a virtual cocktail party to mark what would have been his 70th birthday, hosted by his widow on Zoom, and it felt surprisingly intimate and touching.
Yesterday evening I learned – from University of Maine journalism professor Michael Socolow, via Twitter – that the city of Chicago was underwater following heavy rains. Michael’s tweet focused on the secondary but disturbing point of what he saw – or rather didn’t see – when he went to the website of the Chicago Tribune. “Downtown Chicago is flooding right now,” he wrote, “and there’s nothing about it either on the homepage, or at the breaking news tab. Biggest newspaper in U.S.A.’s 3rd largest city. Incredible.”
Jason Martin, program chair for journalism at DePaul University, replied sharing a tweet from Paige Fry, the Tribune’s only remaining overnight reporter: “Hello followers, I was off Twitter this past week due to personal reasons. This week I’m off because I’m on furlough. This means the Tribune will be dark on nights this week because I’m the only overnighter. I wish I could be working, but that is not an option right now.”
I guessed that if Chicago was flooding, Milwaukee and environs – where I grew up – might be too. I guessed right. This morning I got an email from David Howell, a friend I work with who teaches humanities at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. “Yes, let’s schedule a call,” he wrote.
I’m going to be a bit distracted for a bit. There was a flash-flood yesterday, and my new (well, built in 1947) house is surrounded by water. Can’t get the car out of the garage. Thank god the basement has yet to flood. It’s ironic: can’t leave the house due to 1) global pandemic and 2) flooding. We live in Old Testament times!
Sports used to function as a distraction, often unhelpfully but often very welcome to millions of us, including me. Now, I have less than no interest in watching any version of a 2020 baseball season, especially since Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Blake Snell – who grew up in Shoreline, the Seattle suburb just north of my neighborhood – said, on May 13: “I gotta get my money. I’m not playing unless I get mine, okay? Y’all gotta understand, man, for me to go, for me to take a pay cut is not happening, because the risk is through the roof.”
As Seattle Times sports columnist Matt Calkins observed, “The players already agreed to take a prorated pay cut, which means if MLB goes forward with its proposed 82-game season, Snell would make about half of his initial salary. It strikes me as odd that a guy would be willing to put himself at risk for $7 million but shudder at the idea of doing it for $3.5 million.” Pittsburgh sportswriter John Steigerwald put it more bluntly on Twitter: “He and other athletes are beginning a campaign to be considered heroes for facing near certain death by showing up to play a game. It’s enough to make you puke.”
Blake Snell is all of 27 years old. That’s exactly half my age, and it’s the same age as Stefan, my British stepson. For whatever it’s worth, I’m confident Stefan would never say anything as stupid and arrogant as what Snell just said.
From Seattle Times business reporter Katherine Kashimova Long, May 15:
Without federal aid, local officials say, the $1.8 billion Washington State Convention Center expansion in downtown Seattle could be out of money by the end of the year, putting 1,000 people out of work and stalling one of the city’s largest-ever construction projects.
Project managers say the economic crisis induced by the coronavirus means they can’t guarantee they’ll be able to sell $300 million in bonds to finance the rest of the project, which is now about one-third complete. Meanwhile, the sprawling construction site at Ninth Avenue and Olive Way is snarling traffic and rerouting transit until the project winds up, currently scheduled for mid-2022.
Sometime in 2007, the year Dennis Rea and I worked together at the small tech company Wadeware, we wandered together into a garden supply store on our lunch hour and both bought hummingbird feeders. Dennis was enthusiastic about putting his on the window of his eighth-floor condo facing a wooded area downtown, near the Convention Center. Jenny calls the one I bought Ethan’s Hummingbird Juice Bar, and she often reminds me of the need to keep it filled with fresh sugar water. Just a few days ago, I did just that and restuck its suction cups to the window in our mud room. And just this morning I read something that reinforced Jenny’s reminders.
In Nature Obscura: A City’s Hidden Natural World, just published by Seattle-based Mountaineers Books, Kelly Brenner explains the surprising fact that the species called Anna’s hummingbird has been known to be present in Seattle only since 1978, as a result of migration over the decades since eucalyptus trees – on which they thrive – were introduced in California. She writes:
Simultaneously, humans moved into other areas historically devoid of nectar flowers and began dramatically altering those habitats by planting gardens filled with exotic, nectar-producing plants. Landscapes that had been previously unsuitable for hummingbirds were now capable of sustaining them, and thus began a historic change in Anna’s distribution. From California they moved steadily northward, following the landscape of flower-rich urban and suburban gardens into Oregon and shortly after into Washington. Although not yet directly studied, it’s currently believed Anna’s are entirely dependent on the feeders humans put out, along with the exotic flowering plants in this part of their current range. They rarely venture far from human settlements, living alongside us all year round.