Venance Lafrance Is Not Dead
Credit: Photograph by Ben Lowy
About a year after I met Venance, he moved to Port-au-Prince. He was 18 years old, and he went without so much as a gourde in his pocket.

In Venance's way of thinking, the world was like a series of concentric circles, the absolute center of which was Carrefour Prince, the village where he was born and where his grandmother still lived. You might not eat as much in Carrefour Prince as you'd like, but you'd always have something: There was (almost) always breadfruit from the breadfruit tree. But you were absolutely trapped. Life today was like life yesterday and like life tomorrow. The next circle outward was Jérémie. This was the life journey his mother had made: to leave the countryside. Venance had explored every narrow alley of the town and gotten nowhere. He had discovered only the world of his mother – small, provincial, mistrustful, and suspicious. This was a world in which the best you could aspire to was just scraping by, in which either your enemies were plotting against you, or you were plotting against your enemies; a world dominated by the fear of magic. But Port-au-Prince – that was the outer circle of this particular human being's universe. It was the place to go in Haiti if you were young and excited about life.

Port-au-Prince was the only place in all of Haiti commensurate with Venance Lafrance's ambitions – to live decently, to eat copiously, to dress sharply – all without having to work very hard.

Shortly after Venance left Jérémie, my wife and I moved to Port-au-Prince also.

Venance was no longer a daily fixture in our life, but he made a point of staying in contact with us. He'd call every week or two, and from time to time we saw each other. A call from Venance Lafrance is a unique act of telephonic communication, because Venance, having no money to make a telephone call, will call – and hang up – until you call him back. There is no relenting and no choice. He might continue to call – and hang up – for an hour. Then he will take a break, perhaps to play dominoes or take a nap. He will then begin to call – and hang up – all over again, until finally you call him back. Venance is, above all, patient.

My Port-au-Prince was behind high walls and tinted windows: I shopped in a supermarket surrounded by a 20-foot wall topped with barbed wire, and a squad of shotgun-toting toughies patrolled the parking lot. Venance's Port-au-Prince ran parallel to mine and was there always, but without Venance was invisible to me. Venance could hardly walk a block downtown without slapping hands with another acquaintance. He knew how everyone on the street earned their living, every scam, dodge, and swindle. Venance could tell me the latest jokes (I never found them very funny) or the latest Creole slang. He told me gossip from Cité Soleil, the slum where he lived: Apparently the president of Haiti, René Preval, had spent an evening there not long before, drinking rum on the stoop. Every time I left Venance, I gave him a few bucks, and I considered the money well spent.

Venance was getting by in Port-au-Prince. He had scraped together the money to buy a portable telephone, and he wandered the city selling phone calls – anyone who wanted to make a call could use Venance's phone. Half of the young men in Port-au-Prince have the same job, but Venance was unusually good at it: Venance was social and knew everyone, and people liked to use Venance's phone. In the course of a long day strolling the city, he might make a hundred gourdes – about $2.50. This is why Venance had come to the big city. His job took him all over town: He could walk over to the sprawling neighborhood of Carrefour on the south side, with its narrow twisting lanes heaped high with garbage – he had family there – or he could park himself on the Champ de Mars out front of the National Palace. He could just sit on the corner with his buddies playing dominoes.

Venance's hold on the city, though, was tenuous at best. He was robbed at gunpoint and lost his phone and income. Then the cousin he was staying with evicted him from his shack and Venance was forced to mooch off a succession of different, more distant relations, who tolerated him for a short time, then got tired of feeding his perennially hungry mouth. At one point he thought he found a job as a houseboy: A childhood acquaintance had become a police officer and needed somebody to watch over his car and dogs. This fell through when the police officer was transferred to the northern city of Cap Haitien. The last of Venance's relatives was sick of him. Venance had just about exhausted his options in Port-au-Prince when he met Cousin Maxo.

Venance met Maxo Pierre on the Champ de Mars. Maxo made a living selling barbecued chicken there in the evening. It turned out that Maxo came from Chambellan, not far at all from Jérémie. Both Venance and Maxo were proud sons of the Grand'Anse province, so there was a bond between them. Thereafter, on seeing Maxo, Venance always asked after Maxo's bad foot, a kindness Maxo noted. Sometimes Venance passed all day with Maxo down on the Champ de Mars telling stories. This was about the time when Venance was out of a job and home and he opened his heart to the bearded older man. Maxo said, "Venance, barbecue business is good business. Tomorrow if you want you can become a big barbecue entrepreneur. Keep it up. Venance, stay with me for a long time. That way you can get ahead."

Chicken was a good business for Venance, not only on account of the fact that it suited his temperament and he was a good chicken cook, but also because he was observant and a fast runner. You needed to run fast if you were going to make it in the chicken game – the police would impound the barbecue of anyone caught grilling out on the Champ de Mars. That's why Venance was so useful to Cousin Maxo: Maxo had the bad foot, but when the police came down, Venance could grab that 'cue and fly. Together they made a good team, Venance and Cousin Maxo – Cousin Maxo teaching the young man the secrets of the Champ de Mars BBQ game, showing him the special Maxo chicken sauce; Venance protecting the BBQ from the police; the two of them sociable fellows, flirting with the ladies and grilling up the birds and laughing and joking until the early hours of the morning.

Not only did Maxo bring Venance into his business, but he invited this lanky kid off the street into his home, giving him a place to sleep right on the floor with his own kids. That's when Venance started calling Maxo "Cousin Maxo," as a sign of respect and affection. Venance appreciated the fact that Cousin Maxo treated him like a man, but treated him like family, too, showing him kindness, never telling him what to do, just letting him be.

In Maxo, Venance found something he'd been looking for all his life. His father had been a sorcerer named Destiné Paul. Destiné Paul quarreled with an unsatisfied client. The client swore he would take his revenge on Destiné Paul. Which he did – Venance's father died, a victim himself of magic, when Venance was just five months in the womb.

Each morning Maxo would give Venance a little money for coffee and bread. Venance saved a bit of that every day and soon was able to invest in a chicken breast or two, which he put on the grill. The profit was his own, and he turned it around into more chickens. What he was looking forward to and working toward was the day he could buy himself a whole case of chicken. Break up the birds, boil 'em. Rent refrigerator space. Get himself a barbecue of his own. Buy cabbage and bananas and manioc. Go out on the Champ de Mars at night, pay to plug a lightbulb into the generator, and call himself a chicken man, too.

Venance had been out every day with Cousin Maxo for about six months, selling chicken and earning, when Venance got it into his head that he wanted to spend the hot month of August back home in Jérémie. He had a little cash in his hand and he wanted to flaunt it, show the girls back home the success he was making of himself in Port-au-Prince. Cousin Maxo told Venance that this was a poor idea, that if he had a good thing going, he should stick with it. But Venance ignored Cousin Maxo and went home.