Monday, January 18, 2010

Port-au-Prince in darkness

By David Heinzmann

First of all, I’ll be Centuries & Sleuths on Madison Street in Forest Park at 2 p.m. next Sunday, Jan. 24, signing copies of A Word to the Wise. Please stop by.

So, I was at a dinner party over the weekend and my host asked me if I’d ever feared for my life because someone I’d written about had threatened me. He was a little surprised when I said no, but the truth is that by the time I get to writing about killers, drug dealers or dirty cops, with a few exceptions, they already have some much heat on them that I’m the least of their worries.

Probably the scariest things I’ve had to do as a reporter have been venturing into high-crime areas of the city at night to try to talk to people. Once when I was working on a series of stories about whether the police department had covered up numerous bad officer-involved shootings, I had to drive to a rough part of the South Side late at night and bang on the door of a cop who had shot a kid several times in the head after he tried to steal her car. She had ignored all of our phone calls and day-time visits and we needed to exhaust all avenues of trying to get her to talk about what happened before we published. I volunteered to go. Nothing happened, of course. I knocked. She shouted at me from the other side of the door and then told me to get lost. (Later, the Cook County State's Attorney's office re-opened the investigation of the shooting based on our reporting.)

Anyway, the question at dinner got me to thinking about the times that I’ve experienced real fear. Like most of us, I suspect, my scariest moments were venturing into the unknown, being taken out of my familiar surroundings and forced to make decisions that could have life-or-death consequences. Lost in the woods at dusk. An out of control car coming at you: do you brake or accelerate to get out of the way? That sort of thing.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about Haiti in the last week after the horrible earthquake that has managed to afflict the Haitian people with new levels of misery. And one of the more vividly frightening moments of my life happened there more than a decade ago. It was all about the unknown.

I went to Haiti in 1997 with fairly ill-defined purposes. Part tourist. Part would-be journalist. All wide-eyed and ignorant.

The cheapest and best place I found to stay was a mission run by a bunch of fearless nuns from Indiana. The Hospice St. Joseph, a walled compound on Rue Acacia, was a converted hotel that housed a medical clinic and school, and provided housing for people waiting for surgeries at the nearby hospital. They also took in lodgers. Like every neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, it sat on a crowded hillside packed with shanty dwellings where people cooked over charcoal fires and more or less lived outdoors.

One night one of the sisters, who had not lived there very long, and I decided we were going to the famed Hotel Oloffson for a drink. If you’ve ever read Graham Greene’s The Comedians, (and I recommend you do) the Hotel Trianon is modeled after the Olaffson, a sprawling and genteel gingerbread mansion on the edge of the city center.

We set off in a little four-wheel-drive Nissan down into the darkness. One of the most ominous things about the city was that despite more than two million residents, it was nearly pitch black at night. It is easy to get lost. And we did.

We made wrong turn after wrong turn in a crumbling labyrinth of dark, unmarked streets. If it’s possible to be off the map in the middle of a capital, we had done it. My anxiety grew because I had gotten lost on foot in broad daylight over the preceding days, wandered aimlessly while suspicious eyes watched me. Even then, I had felt that creeping anxiety of “what am I going to do?” if I run into the wrong folks in this country of desperation and violence. Now it was the middle of the night, just me and a middle-aged woman of the cloth who didn’t know her way around.

Finally, we turned into a dead-end, a cul-de-sac of partly collapsed buildings, driving over rubble, our surroundings an abyss outside the feeble glow of the headlights. When we stopped, with nowhere to go, I could sense we were surrounded, dark shapes cautiously moving toward us. They came closer until an expressionless young man stood by the door of the truck. My heart was in my throat. For a moment no one said a thing.

And then he asked in Creole if we were lost. More men came out of the darkness and they shouted at us, helping us make a three-point-turn without blowing a tire. My companion spoke just enough mangled Creole and the young man spoke just enough mangled English to get us back on a main road. We gave up on the Olaffson and headed up into the hills above Port-au-Prince to the luxurious El Rancho Hotel in Petionville. Guards with pistol-gripped shotguns guarded the parking lot. Feeling relieved and foolish, I drank Barbancourt rum and tonic and watched all sorts of shady “business men” in cowboy boots talk deals and smoke Cubans. One guy seemed to be trying to sell telephone poles to the government.

My fear from that night seems quaint now, doesn’t it, given that I don’t know the fate of the Hospice St. Joseph or many of the other places I visited years ago. The earthquake has destroyed much of the city and taken thousands of lives with it.

I feared the unknown there, and found people willing to help. Those suffering in Haiti now know all too well what they face. Their worst fears have been realized. Again.