I spent my New Year’s Eve in Miami with some friends. It was my first time in Miami as an adult, and while there I half-expected to see Haitians liberally sprinkled throughout the city, much the same way one see’s Eritreans and Ethiopians everywhere in DC. I’m sure somewhere in Miami there is a “little Haiti” to parallel the corresponding little Eritrea and Ethiopia in DC, but I didn’t find it. Truth be told, I stayed on South Beach most of the time, which might be as far as one can get from little Haiti for all I know. I did, nonetheless, run into a few Haitians at one club.
The contrast was too deep for humor. At one of Miami’s three largest clubs, where one of America’s biggest entertainers at the moment (Rick Ross) was supposed to perform, I ran into two Haitians, working as bathroom attendants. I’m sure this scenario doesn’t raise eyebrows for most. After all, if you live in a big city, it’s not unusual to find that the ones cleaning the bathroom stalls and handing out mints for tips are immigrants, or poor Black men (sidebar: what does it say when still, today, there are Black Americans who are socioeconomically on par with struggling immigrants?).
For me, though, it was like running into an Eritrean taxi driver in DC after spending two years in Asmara. I couldn’t NOT comment. Kouman ou ye? (how are you?), I said to the first one, as soon as I walked in. I didn’t ask if he was Haitian, something just told me. Mwen fatigue!! (I’m tired!!) he immediately replied, with a half-smile. I repeated a similar greeting to the second one, whose job it looked like it was to point out available stalls to the next waiting person. In my non-expert opinion, it seemed the first Haitian had the easier job, handing out paper towels and peppermints at the sink. He was in a better position to get tips. I thanked him for the paper towels, tipped him, then left.
That was it. Part of me wanted to stay and have as much of a conversation as I could with them. I wanted to find somewhere to sit and just ask them questions. The other part of me knew this was a foolish venture that would be written somewhere in the big book of irony. It would read something like this: A U.S. diplomat spends $25 on admission to a night club, spends $15 on a drink, tips the immigrant bathroom attendant a fraction of that, then spends the rest of his time in the immigrant’s home country trying to convince others he really cares. Literally, I can see the headlines now.
But if I did stay, the one question I’d want to ask is was it worth it? I don’t know when they left Haiti or for what reason, but I know where they ended up: Miami, cleaning up bathrooms in nightclubs for pocket change.
One thing I admire about Haiti is the myriad of opportunities available. Poverty exists, but the country is scarce on destitution. The difference between the two is hope. Poverty is an economic status. Destitution is the same, sans hope for something better. It’s the presence of hope, despite how abject the poverty might be, that pushes Haiti forward. But I wonder if a small fraction of that hope comes from the notion of being able to come to the U.S. and do even the most menial of tasks.
I once heard that if Africans new exactly the type of slavery other Africans were being sold into, they would have had no part in it. Does the same hold true for Haitians in Haiti when it comes to dreams of immigration? If the average Haitian in-country full-well knew what it meant to work endless nights in the bathroom of a club for the change that slips from the opulence of others, would it still be part and partial to the whole of hope?