Tue 26 Feb 2008 11:44 PM
There was a time in my younger days when I fantasized about living in a shitty Chinatown SRO where I, completely alienated by my surroundings, would find solace and respite by pounding out brilliant fiction on either an aging Remington or my aging Mac Plus. Chez Daily seemed particularly well suited to this pursuit: One room with a bed, desk and kitchenette and unlike actual tenements in cities across America he even got his own bathroom. The fact that the shower was nothing more than a raised plastic dias with a drain and a hand-held shower-head wasn’t daunting; my travels in Japan had me well versed in this style of bathing. For someone who wants to be utterly focused on their studies, fiction or research of whatever, the apartment in Schoelcher seemed a blessing. The fact that Truman Capote and William Faulkner had decided to use the island for stories (the latter in his re-write of Hemingway’s”To Have and to Have Not“) was icing on the cake.
Chickens in the backyard to either side, crowing and scrabbling around in the dirt. It felt more authentic than residing in the lap of luxury, being catered to by a staff of robed servants pouring tea and cooing “Bonjour” whenever you passed. We had descended into the foreign now and it would be up to us to make it through to the other side. The apartment sat behind a mechanic’s shop: Two corrugated metal walls with enough room in between for two small cars. It was owned by Daily’s landlord who was a strong proponent of “creole economics”– the mechanic shop, Daily’s apartment and a building across the narrow street were all sources of income. My imagination ran wild, expanding the delusions of younger days to incorporate laboring as a skilled “jack-of-all-trades”. Reality reasserted itself when Daily began to regret not having told his landlord that I would be staying there for the next several days. While the mechanic shop was closed the fact that Chez Daily sat above the landlord’s son’s house and across a concrete corridor from the landlord’s sister suggested that my presence would be observed. I thumbed through my trusty phrasebook struggling to figure out how to explain to someone that I was visiting my friend who lives here, I swear. A more immediate concern was that Aaron had booked himself a room at Le Lafayette, a hotel in downtown Fort-de-France, and that he would have to check in. A couple hours were whiled away to allow the rain showers to pass and the sun to cool before we considered embarking on the half-hour hike down into the city. By the time we began descended the metal stairs of Chez Daily the air was filled with the distant pounding of drums. We were a couple miles away.
Daily had found as efficient a path as was possible but the layout of Shcoelcher required innumerable twists and turns. Many of his immediate neighbors kept guard dogs who barked, howled and growled as we would pass, running along the fence, lunging and feinting. I was quickly lost but the overwhelming foreignness was more distracting than the fear that I might have to find my way anywhere. Leaving the narrow alleys onto a main road lead to tripping over cracked and sunken sidewalks hugging the walls and fences of houses, some of which continued to be patrolled by angry dogs; to make matters worse the people of Martinique had long abandoned the concept of the pedestrian making each intersection a death-trap. “Don’t challenge cars here” Daily warned us, and the puzzled looks we received from drivers thundering past echoed his instructions. Fortunately traffic was light so we could progress along in the street, ducking in between cars or back onto the sidewalk whenever it became necessary. We juggled Aaron’s bag along the way, ducking down past the Radio Caraibe headquarters and onto an even broader avenue. Occasionally we would pass another defensive walker or someone waiting for the taxico and greet them, “Bonjour”. Everything I’d read about the happy island people of Martinique led me to believe that their old fashioned ways demanded this bygone courtesy. Their almost startled replies led me to believe that they had read the same books. Descending the hill into the heart of Fort-de-France revealed the impact of European investment. Towering multi-storied hotels had begun to loom over the city bringing with them the stench of recycled air-conditioning, chlorinated pools and fabric softener. The island is a major port-of-call for major Caribbean cruise-lines and the economy survives, second to direct assistance from the French government, from tourism, but visitors seem to require a homogeneous experience when it comes to their accommodations. Despite our recent stay at Cap Est there was little interest in supporting these abominations; Le Lafayette was integrated with the buildings around it, as much a part of Fort-de-France as the houses we passed. We could also see the impact of Carnaval, encountering a long row of cars which had taken residence on the narrow, crumbling sidewalk we were depending on more frequently to safely avoid the passing motorists. The drumming was joined by the indistinct murmur of a thousand conversations.
A hundred thousand conversations, choking the narrow streets of downtown Fort-de-France. People were lining up before police barricades to cross Canal Levassor, vying for entry amongst gangs of teenagers on dirt-bikes and motorcycles. Daily spied a second bridge closer to the bay and guided us through the quickly crowding street, but we found ourselves attempting to enter a staging ground for the parade. Some French was employed, our destination was made known and the barricade parted way to allow our entry. Merci! We were followed by a dozen motorcycles. There was respite from the speeding cars, but now faced the danger of being run over with the danger of being suffocated by the masses. Daily cut a path along the waterfront where, by virtue of an open expanse opening to the ferry docks, space was less of a premium. We skirted food stands, groups of people wandering aimlessly, motorcycles, hopped traffic barricades and low fences of
chain and somehow weaved our way three blocks. Smashed against the roller doors of Aaron’s hotel and a hundred people tried to shuffle through us we read the note: Use Night Entrance. We negotiated passage with security on the corner and hopped over the barricade. The metal gate to Le Lafayette buzzed us in and we stormed up the narrow stairs– this was definitely not Cap Est. While Aaron checked in with the harried clerk Daily and I were attracted to a small balcony colonized by blue-haired tourists gazing out over the crowd below. The clerk coughed and gagged and insisted we couldn’t. We weren’t allowed in the hotel after this, he said. Ah, okay. The greatest appeal (except for Aaron who mostly wanted a bed) of a room at La Lafayette was its prime location during the ensuing craziness; being surrounded by a drunken crowd can only be handled when you have an escape, some safe haven to catch your breath and use the toilet. The room was nothing more then a bed, wardrobe, TV and air-conditioner. The bathroom was clean but for some reason the toilet seat was propped up against the bowl, not actually attached. I suggested Aaron make mention of this at the desk but he made sure it sat correctly and shrugged his shoulders. There was a list of rules on the back of the door to the hall: Do Not Touch the TV; Do Not Touch the Air Conditioner; No Guests; No Food or Drinks… We ditched the bag and nodded to one another. It was time to face the music banging and roaring outside.
No need to be reckless, tho. As the crowd was restricted to major avenues by barricades the interior streets of downtown were almost empty so we decided to wander through the calm. We walked in the middle of the streets, closed store-fronts to either side– the entire city seemed to have shut-down except for the hotels and, ah, McDonald’s. No surprise there but the KFC a block away was certainly unexpected. Eventually we ran out of quiet streets so we found a less crowded outlet into the throngs and rejoined the meandering progression, but instead of going with the flow we battled back towards the Canal where Daily’s internet cafe, Cyberdeliss, sat. The keg of Lorraine had been drained and the bottled were all warm so we had a round of this horrible Brazilian swill, some sort of malted-whiskey beer. Plastic cups were required but we could at least sit outside hoping for a rare breeze drifting in off the canal. A couple other tables hosted quiet but lively conversations held by people more dressed for the occasion than us. We let time drift a little, choking down the beer as best we could and ordering a round of the superior which had been given time to cool. A kid came up and asked Daily for a sheet and Daily tried to hand him a zig-zag. No, no, no, hashish. Oh, non merci. My resolve had been dealt a severe blow when we were barred from La Lafayette but the prospect of whiling away Carnaval here was restoring what confidence I could muster. Plus the toilet seat was actually attached. A parade of sorts had broken out now that the sun had set, troops of people in ramshackle costumes marching and drumming segregated by the occasional truck with a massive sound-system or, better yet, a band. Along the route women sat selling beer and sodas out of coolers, paper funnels of peanuts and candy-bars, shaved ice cones topped with rum. We slowly made our way along the parade, catching the large government buildings, heading to the main thoroughfare of General-De-Gaulle Boulevard. The going was slow but without any sense of urgency or tension– people seemed quite content to mosey along at a slow gait. An ambulance lit up behind us and everyone very quickly made way, including the parade troupe dancing in the middle of the street. Somewhere in the chaos was a strong sense of order and I began to suspect it was made of up everyone’s personal sense of responsibility.
As overwhelming as the evening was you can only walk so many kilometers before you need to eat. Aaron was stricken with a temporary bi-polar disorder, dragging us to the waterfront with its bustling food stands but intimidated by the prospect of attempting to identify and order something with a stick shoved in it. His most confident moment resulted in our finding the one place on the island that seemed to be grilling hamburgers. There was an restaurant open across the street but my memory of reading the internet began to insist we see if the downtown Snack Elize was as well or if McDonald’s had cornered the market on late night fast-food. And by late night I mean ten. Fortunately they were lit up and ready for action, tho of a less intense variety that their contender. As soon Daily explained what tuna was I began babbling at the woman working the register who very patiently asked me a question I couldn’t understand. Daily prompted me and I ended up ordering a combined meal, bumbled through a side of frites instead of rice, and successfully procured a Biere Lorraine. Originally my intention was to buy everyone’s dinner but things quickly became complicated so it was everyone for themselves. However this left me standing in line with my order tag waiting for one of the girls working the serving counter to take it from me. One did and said something in French, then she came back and placed a tray on the counter. She said something else and I nodded, sagely. Another girl came up saying something and looking at my order, to which I smiled and nodded again. This repeated itself a couple of times before Daily was issued his own order form and he explained they were just keeping me aware of how things were going. I’ll be damned. When the meal was finally packaged, the beer
finally produced, I thanked them graciously but they all refused to fall in love with me. At least they allowed me to believe I had pulled off the exchange without them catching on I was oblivious to what they were saying.
When I had heard about Snack Elize I remember it being described as fast-food. When we walked up I was a little taken aback with the florescent lighting and plastic furniture and the menu dedicated to hamburgers. Popping the little carton open my mind was absolutely blown– grilled skewers of tuna and onion were dripping goodness on the frites. And it was fucking delicious, I shit you not. And they serve beer. And it was relatively cheap. And it was a place where normal, everyday Martinicans seemed to come and eat, hang out, live their lives and move along. I once tried to explain American culture to a French girl while we waited in line at In-and-Out, citing the ample evidence of worthlessness and filth and degeneration which surrounded us. She probably just wanted me to shut up, but relaxing in Snack Elize, eating surprisingly good tuna-kabobs, quietly enjoying conversation among kids out on the town gave me a pretty positive impression of the scene in Fort-de-France. It was a little irksome that you had to use a code printed on your receipt to access the bathroom but, well, at least they didn’t just hang a sign on the door saying it was broken. By local standards we were raging party animals and should head to bed. We left the restaurant and walked Aaron back to the night entrance of Le Lafayette. Plans for the morrow were made and as we parted ways the rain began to fall. There was an umbrella sticking out of a trashcan but, wouldn’t you know it, the spines were poking through the cap and we returned it just as quickly. Even so it was warm out and the rain was an almost welcome change. The streets had cleared out almost entirely, all activity now focused along the waterfront where the food stalls were still smoking away. Traffic had begun to flow again, the cars parked on the sidewalk were gone. You would never know that hours before hundreds of thousands of people had filled streets. It was strange, there wasn’t even that much trash strewn about in the gutters. (more…)