I’m riding in the back of a truck, going way too fast around a hairpin turn with two Haitian guys singing “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley. We arrive in Port-au-Prince—people everywhere, frenzy, chaos. Haiti was poor and crazy before the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that rocked the capital. Our singing dies down at the sobering sight. I see my first one: a building the size of Broadway Grill completely leveled.
Seventy-two hours earlier I was serving mac and cheese to one of the countless suits who file through the Icon Grill downtown. I was in a haze that day at work because I had been watching everyone’s favorite homo anchorman Anderson Cooper reporting from Haiti. They said it was bad and that it would get much worse before it got better. The awful tweets and images poured in, and I felt moved to action. I contacted my cousin Holly, who I knew had worked in Haiti at a clinic, and she said it looked pretty bad and was at a loss about what to do. I went to bed, my head reeling, and decided to Facebook Holly in the morning, explaining that I intended to help any way I could. She wrote back to say that her husband (a pediatrician) and daughter were going to go, and if I wanted to, she would buy me a ticket to join them. I gave her my answer before she was done asking. My manager gave me the time off. Hopefully my shifts are there when I get back. Small price to pay for playing hero in Haiti.
I packed some essentials in a backpack and was in Miami before I knew it, then the Dominican Republic, where I spent the night at Masimo’s house. Masimo was wasted from the word go and danced samba with a gun in his hand while we all watched. I took a deep breath and remembered that I wasn’t in Ravenna anymore. After being awake for 40 hours, I finally got some sleep. In the morning, I met Marline Olivier, the founder of HOPEH, an organization founded in 1998 to assist Haitians with medical care and education (www.hopeh.org). Olivier runs the show and has her shit together. So she, my cousins, and Annette (a Haitian herself and friend of Olivier from New York City) all boarded a huge truck with gallons of clean water, food, medical supplies, and gasoline and headed toward the border. Passing from the Dominican Republic into Haiti is like going from Mercer Island into—well, somewhere very poor. Poor, poor, poor. The people we passed greeted us with curious looks, then smiled as we waved and shouted, “Bonjour!”
We arrived in Juampas, our headquarters, a small village in the mountains. We unloaded the supplies at the clinic, and after another long day I hit the bed running. In the morning we geared up a sort of caravan to go to Port-au-Prince. I found myself in the back of a truck again, but this time I was joined by Johnston and Pascal, two friends of the organization who lived through the quake. Their stories, like thousands of others, are like little miracles. Johnston was supposed to take an exam at his university but was not feeling well. His best friend, Pascal, egged him on but Johnston said no—he just didn’t feel up to it. The university where his exam was to be is now in ruins. Pascal was at an accounting class on the second floor when everything started shaking; the third floor fell on him and killed 23 of his classmates. He said he slithered like a snake to freedom, and after he found Johnston they got the fuck out of Dodge and back to Juampas, their hometown.
It’s when we’re riding in the truck that Johnston asks—in amazing English, by the way—if I know Bob Marley. I say hell yeah and launch into “Buffalo Soldier.” Their faces light up, and they join me, the “why-yi-yoa, why-yi-yi-yoa” part especially joyful. We sing Bob the whole way there—me singing to prepare myself, them singing to forget. Our mission in Port-au-Prince is simple: Get as many pregnant women, elderly people, and displaced kids as we can find and get them THE HELL out of there. The destruction is revealed as we inch closer and closer to the city center. We pass the airport, which has since been turned into a UN compound and U.S. military ops center. With all those UN vehicles, it looks like a movie—a cold comfort. We roll up to a tent city nearby and see thousands of makeshift homes. Sheets held up by sticks and rope. Bathrooms inches away. Entire families’ worldly belongings in a pile. Like the post-Katrina Lower Ninth Ward times a thousand.
We find plenty of people, but only half of them want to go up the mountain and leave home. We load up as many people as we can and head back. It’s a chilling day but nowhere near as bad as the next day, when we go back to Port-au-Prince sans huge trucks (easier to get around). Pétionville, a neighborhood closer to the epicenter, is the worst sight I’ve ever seen. CNN doesn’t do it justice. Nothing ever could. All I can say is “Oh God” over and over. It needs to be seen to be believed. Imagine Seattle in your mind. Got it? Now, demolish the Space Needle. Flatten EMP. Devastate Qwest Field. Obliterate SCCC. Your favorite coffee shop? Reduced to a pile of rock, broken mugs, the remains of chairs and tables. The flyer of your favorite indie band floats in the wind.
Where are you reading this? Are you inside? Look up. Imagine that ceiling falling and crushing you. Maybe you’re reading this on your iPhone outside a Safeway or QFC. How many people do you suspect are in that QFC? Now destroy that QFC and cook what’s inside for days at 90-degree heat. The smell is unbearable. Bodies in the street. Kids roaming around looking for their family. How are you going to eat or drink tonight? You can’t communicate. It’s about to get dark, and you’re in a city with no power. This is hell. Hell on earth. For my part, I’ve handed out water and medicine. I’ve tried to make people laugh. I helped a dear elderly woman and my friend Annette’s mom—who’d had a stroke—get to a hospital. Then I watched as the doctors said there was nothing to be done and Annette needed to make the impossible decision of whether to leave her mom behind or stay in hell. I held her as we drove away.
I’ve found pregnant women and orphans. I’ve tried to give namaste to everyone I see. I’ve done next to nothing in a place that needs everything. The spiritual implications of this will take a while to process. In the meantime? I will remain in Juampas for the next couple weeks—help at the clinic, make more runs to Port-au-Prince, and try to make people laugh, like I’m some sort of fat Patch Adams. (Man-boobs are funny everywhere in the world.)
What can you do? Be mindful with your donations and your assistance. Help me get Pascal and Johnston into the States. These guys are amazing, educated fellas. Have a contact? An idea? E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can donate to HOPEH at www.hopeh.org. Pray, if you believe in God. And don’t forget about this place once Anderson Cooper leaves. Talk about it. Do something. I will never forget what I’ve seen here. A countryside filled with love. Eyes filled with hope through tears. A city in ruin. The boldness of compassion. I’m not a hero. I’m just a guy who serves mac and cheese at the Icon Grill and sings Bob Marley in the back of a truck.
Leaving Haiti began with a four-hour motorbike trip—we got a flat and, while we waited, danced on the side of the road to Jay-Z with our Haitian brothers Johnston and Pascal. Then a day in Santo Domingo where I ate sancocho for the first time. Then a flight to JFK, with a 12-hour layover partially spent in shorts and sandals in very chilly Manhattan. Then a 3:00 a.m. train to Newark and a plane taking off as the sun came up. Then some piss-poor excuse for sleep in Chicago O'Hare. Then finally touching down at Sea-Tac. After 40 hours and an immune system driven into the ground, I got a phone call on the drive home. It was a number I didn't recognize, so I silenced it, but sure enough they tried again. I picked it up and heard some sort of inaudible, cracking error message. I hung up, annoyed. It was a 404 area code, and they ended up calling two more times. Creditors always pick the worst time to call, or maybe they just always call me.
Then memories. Many of the people I met in Haiti simply say, "There is no Port-au-Prince anymore." For them, it's gone. The longer I was there, the more I started to agree with them. The deeper I traveled into the city, the deeper my heart would sink. The more I breathed the air filled with the smoke of burning garbage and bodies—mixed with exhaust from trucks and recently created dust—the more shallow my breathing became. You could taste this earthquake. But the city is still operating—a chaotic order, a desperate calm. The folks of Port-au-Prince didn't drop 20 notches on the ladder of development; they dropped maybe two or three. Life among these fallen buildings goes on because Haitians have been poor for 200 years. It would take more than a crippling earthquake to stop them from running the cramped, elaborately painted buses or peddling the shoes of the dead on the side of the road.
I arrived at home in Ravenna and poured a cold glass of water, a luxury that never gets old after returning from the developing world. Closing my eyes on the couch, I imagine a tent city, or the tent city, a city of broken rocks and tents, and not even tents but bedsheets on sticks that house 5 to 10 people each, in 15-by-15-foot "living" encampments. This particular tent city—100,000 people crammed into an area one-quarter the size of Volunteer Park—sits on the side of a hill that was grass originally, is now dust, and come three or four months down the line, after the rain falls for days on end, will become a muddy pit.
We walked up on a line of people waiting for bags of rice via USAID. I say "line," but it was a massive amount of people, mostly women, in a staggered crush, pushing on each other, none of them ready to deal with the idea that they may not get any food today. I wondered: Where are they going to the bathroom? How are they showering? What about the garbage? How can all of these people eat? What about education for these hundreds of thousands of kids? What's the plan? This isn't a long-term solution, right? What if there is a hurricane? Worse yet, what if, like in 2008, there are four? I pray hardest for these people.
My friends threw a coming-home party for me the other night, and instead of inundating me with the same questions, we had a group Q&A session. I got a question about God and talked about the dust and grime from the earthquake that blanketed most of the vehicles in Port-au-Prince and how on many of them, in the windows, people etched with their fingers, "Merci, Jesus." I got asked about the press. I told a story about a shopkeeper in Port-au-Prince hiring an armed guard to watch for looters and thieves. Most of these people are stealing to feed loved ones; a man had taken some goods and, before he could escape, was shot in the face by the guard. The man survived the shooting, and when the servicemen responded, they walked up to find the wounded man lying in a wheelbarrow surrounded by three photographers. I got a question about poverty. It's everywhere, and it is incalculably worse now. I got a question about the devastation, and I asked everyone to close their eyes. I asked them to picture in their minds their family and friends who live in Seattle. Then I asked them to imagine half of them dead.
Coming home didn't bring culture shock; it brought something way worse: the typical righteous cynicism that comes from having just traveled to a horrible place. I'm irritated by how many people I see spending money on an iPad or $200 jeans. I feel spite toward your leggings and hipster beards. I see people on the Metro going to do something fun or mundane or whatever, and I want to shake them and say, "WAKE THE FUCK UP!!!" Because, you know, I've seen things. Which is a shitty attitude for me to have. So traveling to Haiti and seeing the hell there makes me better than you? That's the same attitude that I get at Everyday Music when I go in to look for a pop album—the feeling like, no matter what I pick, it's not going to be good enough. It's bullshit when you realize that the world can sometimes be like a big Everyday Music.
I'm no better than anyone. Yesterday, I sat on my couch and took a good look at what my DirecTV DVR had recorded: Jersey Shore, Deadwood, and Randy Jackson Presents: America's Best Dance Crew. While in the midst of all this stimulating entertainment, that 404 area code had called again. This time they left a message. Through the awful reception, I heard: "Sac passé. This is Johnston and Pascal. So, we've been pending"—I think that's what he said—"to call you but we cannot get through with you again today. We are calling on the internet just to see if we can be in touch, just to know that you had a good trip. So I call you, and nobody pick up. So, when you get this, call me because I really want to talk to you, okay? Thank you. This is Johnston." I am reminded that my work in Haiti has only just started, and I pick up the phone immediately, ready to do whatever I can.