I had been out of college for a couple years when a friend got me a gig studying the “socially displaced.” This wasn’t as lofty as it sounds; what I really did was spend a couple months going around asking bums about their problems. The arrangement was fairly straightforward: they’d give me their stories and I’d give them a dollar. So I spent a few days roaming Castries—the capital of Saint Lucia—with a cheap recorder and a heavy bag of coins, tracking the street people and hoping a few would talk to me.
I’ve never been great at interviews, mainly because I don’t like bothering people, including vagrants. I felt like I was invading their private space, which I sort of was. But surprisingly some of them were willing to tell me their life stories even without the promise of money. They had nothing better to do—and clearly neither did I.
I found Nancy standing by the market on Jeremie Street, bedraggled and waiflike, with light skin and soft hair, which she alluded to as signs of her middle-class origins. She told me she loved getting high in the cemetery near Trinity Church, but after a couple rough encounters she’d switched to the Gardens. Though I was carrying the bag of coins for exactly this purpose, I still questioned the ethics of giving a fiend money. Shouldn’t I just buy her something to eat? Eh, this is research, not charity. I gave Nancy two dollars.
Castries proper is barely more than a village—you could stroll the circuit from the Fire Station on Manoel Street down to the wharf on Jeremie, across to the Chaussee, up to the Leslie Land gap and back down Brazil Street in less than an hour. But it wants for quaintness or even provincial charm: it lost that and most of its buildings in a 1948 fire. I hadn’t roamed the city, small as it is, much since high school. Once when a friend and I were making a trek to the Morne via the Pavee steps, we took shelter from the rain at the Rock Hall junction. The guy under the bus shelter asked what we school boys were doing in this area. He lifted his shirt to show a long scar across his torso. “This is what my best friend did to me.”
I found Anthony, sitting on the corner of Constitution Park, next to the cannon near the entrance to Parliament. He looked like he was approaching forty, which seemed pretty old back then—but he sounded prepubescent. He’d lived in a nearby apartment his entire life. He’d never finished school or held a job. He’d depended on his parents and his big brother Lenny, but they were all dead now. He hung out at the park because he didn’t want to be alone in the apartment all day. On afternoons, he got leftover hotel food that was served at the back of Town Hall a few yards away. Anthony looked like he had a sweet tooth; maybe he’d like dinner mints. I gave him three dollars.
In “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” Virginia Woolf criticized an older generation of writers who, however well-meaning, decentered characters from their own stories: “They have given us a house in the hope that we may be able to deduce the human beings who live there. To give them their due, they have made that house much better worth living in. But if you hold that novels are in the first place about people, and only in the second about the houses they live in, that is the wrong way to set about it.” The whole point of my search was to place these little stories in a wider context—to show the conditions that impinged on these people so policies could be crafted to help them. But the more I spoke to actual people (and I spoke to nearly two dozen, not just in Castries but all over the island), the more I got interested in what they had to say than in the impersonal forces that had led them to the street.
Maryse was sitting on a bench by the Square, near the Micoud Street entrance. She had a small home, she told me. Her son had gone schizophrenic and had taken to the streets before being hospitalized. When he returned home unexpectedly, she’d had a nervous breakdown; then she was hospitalized, too. So now Maryse sat on a bench begging. Apparently her daughter was a teacher and occasionally gave her some money, but it wasn’t enough. I couldn’t just give an old lady a couple coins; how would it look? I do have some home training. On the other hand, I was on a strict budget, and she did technically have her own house. Maybe she had bills? My heart was moved. Five dollars.
Matthew St. Ville Hunte lives in Saint Lucia. He is one of the Daily’s correspondents.