One evening in Zürich, autumn 2010, I found this bag on the pavement, next to my bike. I put it aside, unlocked the bike and rode off. The next day I parked on the same spot. The bag was still there, as if waiting for me. In the evening I found it in my bike-basket. I took it out, hung it on a nearby fence and rode off. This game kept going on for the next 2 days. On the third day I decided that fate wanted me to have this bag.
I had been looking for a new bag for a long time. I always wear my favourite things till they fall apart – and tend to distrust new ones I am finally forced to buy.
So I looked inside, half fearing it was contaminated- or I’ll find an abandoned new-born inside! -but no. Creamy white lining, some blue and red stains from a pen – and a few bugs. And the smell of new leather!
I took it home, washed everything that wasn’t made of leather – and started using it soon. “Oh, since when are YOU wearing brand-stuff? This one must’ve cost you a fortune. I know a real DKNY when I see it, it’s my favourite brand” a friend said. – No, I found it on the street. – …
When I was packing for Haiti, I was determined to not show off with my things in any way. I even took down my old favourite ring and left it behind. What bag should I take? I only had this one – and a beach bag. You can’t go to a meeting with a beach-bag, can you? And this one looks rather modest, people will just assume it’s a fake.
For the last months it did its job well and does match most things I wear.
Then a few days ago I parked the car in front of the bookstore at Place St. Pierre, Pétion-Ville, the poshest part of Port au Prince. Got out just to see it was closed for Fête Dieu. A bunch of street kids were pestering me about watching the car. I said there was no need for that, I’m leaving right now, as the store is closed anyway. I get into the car, put my cellphone between my legs – where I alway put it when I drive – while I close the door, put the bag down on the floor and – just as I was about to push the “lock-all-doors”-button, someone opens the back door, darts over the passenger seat, grabs the bag – and runs away with it!
I jump out of the car yelling like crazy – and clenching my cellphone. Decide I can’t follow the guy and leave the car, cause he’s probably faster than me on high heels, he knows the neighbourhood a lot better – and I risk to have the car stolen as well. So I scream “SOMEONE STOLE MY BAG! GET IT! RUN! THAT WAY! I’LL PAY NICE MONEY TO THE ONE WHO’LL BRING IT BACK! If I don’t get it back I swear I’m gonna kill someone…”
And all people start running down the street in the indicated direction. All of them- including the guy with the basket full of drinks on his head. The money-exchangers and the cigarette-vendors. The old lady selling fruit on the corner. The phone-company advertiser. The street kids. The school kids. Their parents. The toothless beggar. The passers by, on their way to church.
One street kid turns around: “Where there lots of money in the bag, Ma’m?” – No, but keys and papers, and it’s MINE… MY BAG!!! run, what are you staring at?!” – so he, too, gets in motion.
Only the old newspaper-vendor couldn’t free himself of the newspaper-burden fast enough, so he looked sadly after the others…
After a few minutes, my knees all trembling, the guy with the drinks-basket comes back. “Bag! go there! bag! there!!” and points a few blocks down the street.
“I won’t go anywhere – you guys think you can steal my cell now? or my car?” But I go. On that corner, in the dust, with 40 people gesticulating and quarrelling around it, was MY BAG. Open, like I had left it – and with the wallet on top! Nothing missing.
“This your bag, Ma’m?” Some old people from Mairie de Pétion-Ville, in some sort of sand- or dust-coloured uniform, all escorting me back to the car. Everyone else, who had been running, escorting me as well. I take out money to pay them, thinking that there’s too many of them… They refuse it. I give them the money, still: You guys just all go to the next bar and have a beer and think of me and the wonders of the church on this holy day!
They accept in the end – but only when I’m already in the car, with all doors locked.
I leave with trembling knees, this is incredible.
The next day I return to the store on foot, aware and nervous – what if I meet the perpetrator again?
So this guy comes strolling up to me, huge smile on his face: “Happy you got your bag back, Ma’m?”
Yeah, and who are you? “I’m the one who told the thief to drop the bag on the corner, Ma’m. I’m the Godfather of the street kids of Pétion-Ville. Enchanté!”
I’m eyeing him with distrust. He goes on, smiling: “The only reason why you got it back, Ma’m, is because we liked your reaction. You didn’t yell “police!”, like the other “blancs” do, when they get mugged
– you never even mentioned it. You promised ransom for the bag!
Yeah, because I grew up in a fucked-up country, where police was really the last you could expect help from when you were in distress. It never crossed my mind to expect help from them.
The one time I have, after being assaulted in the street – they wanted to charge me with street-prostitution, cause it’s not ok to be out at night as a woman. So, no, I don’t trust police in most countries either.
“You know, we are in the street all day long, we watch everyone, we know their habits. We spend all our life in the streets. I’m 29 now (he looked more like 45+), I’m out in the streets since I was twelve. I got locked-up for four years and a half. I wouldn’t wish a detention in a Haitian prison, not even to my worst enemy I would. I would do anything possible to keep other people from being locked-up. I don’t steal – I manage. Anything that gets stolen in this area, I get a percentage. I try to help the blancs get their papers back, cause I know it’s hard to get them redone, all ID’s and passports and everything. But if they call police, I’m out.”
I watched his brown hands while we were talking – the knuckles were so scarred, I’ve never seen anything like that. As if the guy had been walking on his knuckles through a field of glass-shards… While he was talking all the time with a peaceful smile on his face, he looked like a tired Bob-Marley.
“It would take a miracle to get me out of the streets. A woman – or death -will probably do it, like it happens for most of us. Out here, you don’t live long, you know? I’d so much like to learn something from you – a language, some story, anything. See these kids?”
The street kids were gathering around us, first 2-3, in the end there were almost 20, avidly watching his every gesture. He insisted on continuing the conversation in English, not French or Creole.
“Look at them. These kids have never been to schools, they can’t even read or spell their names. They left home, cause for them the street was the better alternative. Where to get the money for school? (NB: In Haiti you have to pay for tuition; only 15% of the schools are state-owned, the rest are private and a lot less affordable).
– But you speak good English, how did you learn that?
“Well, I worked around hotels and picked it up there…That’s why I am their godfather, I find ways.. If only one could teach them something useful, I’d organise the canteen, they would gather and they would learn. They’re willing.
I’m leaving soon. Are there no NGO’s or other organisations you can apply to with your idea?
No one talks to us, we’re scum, street people. There’s no money for projects like that from the blancs. We’re not flashy in the press – nobody likes being associated with. They just roll their window down and give us some change, they smile, wave and drive on. You think anyone stops and talks to us? You’re the first one in years.
Well, I can somehow understand people you mugged for not feeling like having friendly chats with you.
“You sent away the kids who wanted to guard your car yesterday. That was a mistake, should have let them – and tell them you pay some other time.”
I’m sick of being mistaken for an ATM all the time, it’s so annoying, you know? Think I’m a tourist here, just for fun? I work here – and I could work somewhere else, why do you think I’m here, man? I came for building schools!
“Yeah, but you pissed them kids off, so…when the guy made me a sign that he’s gonna steal you’re bag, I shrugged. But then when I saw the way you reacted, I thought you were worth it – and told the guy to ditch the bag, untouched, and run. Don’t worry, you’re cool. From now on, nothing bad is ever going to happen to you in this area again – trust me, you can leave the car unlocked. If anything should happen, ask for me, I’ll get it back to you in one hour.”
He gathered the kids around and told them some things in Creole, holding on to my shoulder. They were watching the whole scene rather puzzled. He turned to me. “See?”
If you guys steal like that, why don’t you make something smart with of the money? I guess a rather large amount comes together at the end of the day. Put your kids to school, do something for them!
“You know, money that you don’t earn gets spent fast. Stolen, gambled, drug money- it’s gone in a short while, no matter what amount comes together. The only money one respects is the one you earn through work – or get as a gift. You respect the person who gave it to you.”
I was becoming impatient. Too hot outside, work to get done – and the afterwork beer was calling as well. So I passed him some hundred gourdes, like 4-5$. He refused. “Ma’m, I don’t take money. As I don’t steal myself. I’m the godfather, money’s not for me. If you want, do a friendly gesture – show some care for me and the kids. But don’t be petty.”
So, at what amount does your friendly gesture start? (I always hate it when people who want something from you refrain from naming a figure. Like job interviewers – it’s always them asking you what you think you should earn! But it’s them offering you the job in the end; they have a clear idea about its details and the work that needs to be done – just make your damned proposal, so we can start negotiating!)
He wriggled around with the conversation for the next minutes. In the end he was at 20$ – “with this amount I take all these kids to a place were they get soup and a coke”.
Ok, you convinced me. Here’s 20 bucks: if I give it to you, means I take it from someone else in need, like… the cleaning lady… It’s not only you street guys in need, you know?
Ten minutes later I meet him at the grocery store and give him a questioning glance. “I came to buy sweet drinks for the kids, trust me.”
Well, I trusted you and gave you the money for something good. If you used it for something else, it’s you who will be ashamed of yourself and before your own god. I don’t care. I did my part. Why are the kids following me now?
“Cause they like you. They’re just curious. Good luck!”
I leave the store, the street kids waiting to the both sides of the entrance, then escorting me back to the Embassy, shouting various things along the way. “You’re beautiful, Madame!” was one of them.
I smile and clutch my bag.
Epilogue: The bag has a new owner now: my son’s nanny.