Creole Commuting

by

05/26/2004

400 Flatbush Avenue Ext, Brooklyn, NY

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Flatbush

It’s 12 degrees outside and I am standing at the corner of Flatbush and Glenwood Avenues waiting for the bus.  It’s dark already on this gloomy January day and the wind gusts feel like razor blades on my face. 

There are about fifty other people waiting at the bus stop.  We are all weighted down with winter gear – coats, scarfs, gloves, hats – and the tiredness of the day.

A bus stops at the curve.  It’s slow going and the bus is full when I finally reach the door.  I push my way in. The driver closes the door.  I made it.  But the woman in front of me says in an angry tone: “Don’t push me!” 

Did I push her?  I might have shoved into her in my eagerness to get on the bus.  “I did not want him to close the door on me,” I reply.  She shifts her body, turns her face towards me and shoots me an angry look.  She then says to the woman standing next to her: “Blan yo toujou konpran-n yo gen dwa pouse nou!”  (White people still think they can push us around.)

She saw my white skin when she turned towards me and does not imagine that I am fluent in Haitian Creole.

I normally don’t say anything when people speak Haitian Creole in front of me in a public place, even if they are talking about me.  There is usually no reason to and it often just lead to a light conversation that goes something like this.

“Where are you from?”

“France.”

“How come you speak Creole?”

“My husband is Haitian.”

“What’s your husband name?”

“Paul.”

“Did you ever live in Haiti?”

“No.”  

I do, of course, strike conversations in Haitian Creole with strangers sometimes.  Just a few months ago, I met a woman on Avenue I, near Amersfort Park.  She was talking to herself, repeating incessantly: “Kot kay mwen?” (Where is my home?). She looked like a grandmother; the type who often live in Haitian families and watch over young children while their parents are at work.

 She had gone to the corner store and had taken a wrong turn on her way out.  She only spoke Haitian Creole, did not know her address or her telephone number.  I took her to my home and found her son’s number in the phone book.

The bus reaches a stop.  A few people get off in a shuffle or bodies and bags.  The woman in front of me, the one I accidentally pushed, gets a seat. I move up, slide my metrocard in the card reader and find a new spot right in front of her.  I have just settled in when she says to her friend: “Veye pou’l pa frape’m avek tout sache’l yo.” (Watch that she does not hit me with her bags.)  She is talking about my purse and my bag of vegetables.  I bought potatoes and leeks to make soup.  There is nothing like warm soup on a cold day. 

I move my purse and my bag closer to my body.  I don’t want to offend her further.  She feels insulted because I pushed her and the feeling is magnified because I am white.  I shouldn’t have pushed her and I have learned that animosity between races is just below the surface in this country, ready to explode at the least offense perceived or real. 

I was oblivious to it at first, maybe because slavery never existed in France or because racial prejudices are not as prevalent over there.  I cannot know what it means to be the descendant of slaves or what it feels like to experience racial prejudice but I hope this woman knows some white person who is kind, some white person that she can trust.

“Eskuze’m, m’pat vle pouse ou,”  (Sorry I did not mean to push you,) I say. She raises her hand to her mouth in surprise and says “Oh! Oh! Ou pale Kreyol!” (Oh! Oh!, You speak Creole!)  I quickly add:  “I did not want the driver to close the door on me, it’s so cold outside.” 

I want to shift her attention away from me and towards any of our common enemies and right now I could go for either the driver or the weather.  “I thought I would never make it inside the bus and I did not want to stand outside any longer.  It’s like 10 degrees out there.”

She heaves a deep sigh and says: “It’s so cold here, I wish I could go back home.” 

I know going back home right now, even for a short trip, is difficult.  There is too much unrest. Several people have been killed and many wounded in the last few months.  Even Mayor Bloomberg had to cancel a planned trip to Haiti.

“It’s hard to go there right now,” I say, “so much it’s going on. Three people were killed on Wednesday and more than 50 were wounded.”

We now quickly go through the “What’s your husband’s name?” and  “Did you live in Haiti?” questions.  The conversation shifts to the sorrows of the Haitian people.  We talk about president Aristide, the priest who was elected on a democratic platform and is now becoming a dictator.  We talk about the demonstration planned in front of the Haitian consulate on Martin Luther King’s birthday.  She knows about it.   We both plan to go. 

She is surprised that I know her language and her country so well.  “We learn a lot in thirty years of marriage,” I say.  She smiles.  We both smile.

The bus is almost at my stop when she says: “So many young people have been killed already.  A friend of mine knows someone’s son who got shot!”  I see tears in her eyes and this brings tears to mine.  She sees that, touches my arm and says: “We defeated Napoleon’s army two hundred years ago. We were the first Black Republic.  You will see, we will get through this.”  We say bye like friends.  “Kenbe fem’,” she says, “Na we nan manifestasyon-an.”  (Be well. See you at the demonstration.)  I apologize again for pushing her and steps off the bus saying: “See you!”

As I walk to my home, holding my scarf close to my face to protect myself against the wind, I know we both will be talking about this encounter.  She will mention that I am white for sure but I hope that she will think of me as someone kind, someone she could trust.

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