Into the great American melting pot. From Haiti
THE phone rang the other night. When I answered I heard a voice singing in French. It began: Le pigeon dit a la pigeonne: Nous nous adorons. I knew who it was. I could picture him on the tall stool behind the lectern in the grim, white-light lobby on West 38th Street. He could have looked important sitting there so straight-backed in his starched security guard uniform, but his short legs were dangling far above the floor, his face was wide and pleasant, and he was singing in a bedtime-story voice about pigeons.
This thing with pigeons, it's really quite normal. In Haiti, pigeons are like doves. They are love birds. The first time Michel called Jody and me pigeons was when he worked as a doorman in my building. He sang the pigeon song and I translated. Later he took to greeting me in the evenings with Bon soir, le pigeon, and when I walked in with Jody he would stand up, take a long, dignified bow, and say, Bon soir, both of pigeons. Once in a while I tried to help him with his English.
It didn't matter too much. We had more interesting things to talk about. Michel grew up during the '20s and '30s in a middle-class family in Haiti and went through three years of law school before becoming a teacher of Latin, French, and Haitian history. During the late '60s, when the Tonton Macoutes began bleeding the country, and the government grew lax about paying teachers' salaries, Michel decided to leave. His wife went first, moving to New York and working as a domestic. Michel joined her in 1970. He soon found work as a security guard.
It's not a particularly taxing job, but Michel is 67 years old. Last winter there was no heat in our lobby, so I would talk with him on nights when he seemed uncomfortable. When he wasn't talking it was hard to tell how he felt, because he always sat with such dignity. Once he got going, though - on anything from the nature of the universe to the trials of a doorman - his silent pride turned to fury.
``I see this woman,'' he said once, standing up and jabbing his finger at the door. ``She has three packages, so I open the door. I say, `Hello, how are you?' And she walk by like this.'' Michel went to the door, turned around, and stomped down the dingy hallway. Then he sat back in his chair and frowned. ``That is bad people. She see this old black man with no hair and she say to herself, `Ba. I don't see him.' That not good.'' He laughed. ``She does not know that we are all the same,'' he said, laughing harder now.
Any rational person would have known that. Michel is a great believer in reason. His time is the Enlightenment. He can quote from all the French philosophers and considers himself un homme raisonnable.
As such, he is in a good position to decide that the woman did not act rationally. If she had, she would have smiled, said hello, maybe even chatted for a while. She might have asked Michel about the political situation in Haiti, or she could have engaged him in a discussion about Candide and the necessity of cultivating our gardens in a disappointing world. He would have had a lot to say about that. Michel's garden is centered in a South Brooklyn public housing project.
When I went to the project for dinner, he led me into the graffiti-laden lobby and elevator that smelled foul. ``It look bad here,'' he said. ``But I never meet bad people. I don't get on the elevator with other people. I pretend to check my mailbox.''
Bad people wouldn't be bad, says Michel, if they had a good education - an essential in Michel's household. Michel and his wife, Pamela, sent their youngest daughter to a private church school in Brooklyn and the oldest attends Pace University. ``I don't want my children to work hard for me,'' he told me once. ``I am poor people, but I spend my money for my children's education. I prefer to put in their head instead of put in the bank.''
But a Haitian liberal arts education doesn't go very far in the United States. That's why Pamela enrolled recently at LaGuardia College in Queens.
When I told Pamela that I liked Haitian food, she made me stand at the entrance to watch and listen. I tried to listen to everything, but Michel was also talking. He told how in Haiti his wife had three maids working for her. ``Here,'' he said, ``she is maid.'' After that he asked Pamela if dinner was ready.
``Don't let him in here,'' she said to me. ``He burn things. He never learn how to cook.''
Afterward Pamela filled a large plastic container with food for me to take home. Then I drove Michel to his security guard job on West 38th Street. When he got out, I thanked him for dinner and, holding up the container of food, for the leftovers.
``For la pigeonne,'' he said.