Painting: Crotchety Rara in Port-au-Prince
A septuagenarian man named Charles used to panhandle outside the Olympic market on Lalue, in downtown Port-au-Prince. He was a fixture, perched on his crutches, dressed in black in the Haitian sun with blind musician-type sunglasses, a gaunt Satchmo smile and asymmetrically platformed Van Goughesque boots. His figure, limping toward me with outstretched palm, horrified me at first, but I’m glad I didn’t look away. He would always take my hand and kiss my cheek, and I would buy him chocolate milk and stop for a bit of a chat. I always wanted to draw his portrait, and tried once, but the foot merchants – saddled by all manner of trinkets, regalia, papita (plantain chips) and over-ripe food – would stop, huddle round and gawk at me, the blan, drawing an old cripple. Charles got too embarrassed so he gave me his number, which I saved in my phone as “Charles Olympic Bequille”, and we planned to go to his house, if he had a house, for a proper portrait.
Charles called sometime in November wondering when I’d be down for the portrait. I said I didn’t know, as there was now cholera spreading rapidly throughout the country and the national elections were mere weeks away, and I was overworked. A lull from the election and cholera protests finally came with the Christmas holidays in mid-December 2010, but the merchant ladies told me they hadn’t seen him in two weeks – “very unusual” – and feared the worst: Charles had died of cholera. The last I saw of him, I was rushing to catch my Taptap and stopped neither to exchange kisses nor chocolate milk. People die without a trace all the time for the stupidest reasons in Haiti. I tried calling many times, with no luck. Was his death marked by any loved ones? Did he manage to amble his way to a cholera treatment centre on those crutches, or was he found along Lalue like another man that December? Was he just dumped from a Taptap into a mass grave, his rigor mortis limbs awkwardly tumbling onto those of children, malnourished and elderly who are all dropping like flies? Where are his crutches now, and those specially tailored black boots?
I don’t know if Charles played music, or if he died of cholera, or if he is even dead, but that’s the memory I have and this is a painting he inspired: some Olympian and melodious je ne sais quoi, in spite of the shambles, crutches, UN white tanks and blue helmets.
Thanks to Claire Payton and Jonathan Katz for giving the painting a home and giving me a wad of cash.
Here’s the original sketch. I never managed to capture his face:
And the background photo:
The mass graves of Titayen, once used to dump political dissidents, then earthquake victims, are now used for the daily round of cholera casulties: