At work, taxi drivers’ thoughts are back home

USA Taxi driver Dominique Pamphile managed to reach relatives in Haiti. He wants to make his way to Haiti to retrieve his mother and two nieces. USA Taxi driver Dominique Pamphile managed to reach relatives in Haiti. He wants to make his way to Haiti to retrieve his mother and two nieces. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / January 15, 2010

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Inside the USA Taxi garage, a squat, unmarked building of brick and cinderblock near a shuttered bowling alley in Dorchester’s Fields Corner, men talked anxiously in Creole or English or stood alone, making urgent cellphone calls. On any day, the garage is busy during the evening shift change. But yesterday at USA Taxi, where three-quarters of the drivers are Haitian, it crackled with worry.

“I’ve been trying all night long, since Tuesday night, to get through,’’ said Jean Benoit, wearing a haggard look, coming off the 4 a.m. to 4 p.m. shift. He had not been able to reach even one of the dozens of relatives and friends he had dialed. “I’ve been trying. I called, I called, I called, I called, I called. And I called many different phones.’’

Dominique Pamphile said he had gotten through to his mother, on her satellite phone, and learned that his 6-year-old cousin had been crushed to death. The family had no choice but to bury the boy on the spot, their home reduced to rubble, their homeland in chaos. Pamphile’s brother was hurt but would be OK. All the land lines and cellphones were down, but Pamphile told Benoit he could reach people in Haiti by text message - if they use a particular wireless carrier.

“If you text them you can find them,’’ said Pamphile, a 35-year-old who left Haiti in 2000. “On Voila.’’

“Yes, if the person has Voila,’’ Benoit said, sighing. “But my people, they all have Digicel.’’

Pamphile was on the phone again, alternating calls to his wife in Brockton and to a friend, Ludier Jolicouer, who was on a satellite phone in Carrefour near the Haitian capital. Pamphile was trying to book a flight to the Dominican Republic, to cross over to Haiti and retrieve his mother and two young nieces, US citizens, from the devastation of their homeland. They have been sleeping in tents on a soccer field.

Pamphile passed the phone over for a brief interview, the connection crowded with static and background noise.

“There are a lot of dead bodies and they are all over the city. . . . There’s a lot of buildings collapsed, people living on the streets,’’ said Jolicouer, 30, who used to live in Medford and drive a cab. He returned to Haiti a few years ago to work for his family’s store, a bulk retailer that, like much of the country, was destroyed. “The government cannot do anything now because they don’t have the machines to remove the buildings collapsed on the people. . . . We don’t have the machines to move it. We need the help. But they say they are going to have the help.’’

Benoit, 61, from Dorchester, has spent half his life in the United States. But half his family is in Haiti. He can’t concentrate on work, he said. Pamphile, off the phone, said he, too, could not concentrate, his mind in Haiti.

“My friend just tell me, if someone has a house that got two floors on it, that means you almost die or you die, because if you have two floors, the second floor - it goes down,’’ Pamphile said, talking now with Jean Rameau, 55, who left Port-au-Prince 25 years ago. Rameau wore a parka and a scally cap, just another Bostonian in winter, but his thoughts were somewhere else. The men switched to Creole, speaking quickly and animatedly.

Near the door, Wesner Lafleur said he drove his 12-hour shift on little sleep, worried about the 25 full- and half-siblings and 86-year-old father he has been unable to reach. “You don’t know what happens. You don’t want to believe that everybody in your family died if they are not dying. So you don’t know,’’ he said, his voice deep and gravelly. “Even if you try not to think about it, you are still thinking about it.’’

Lafleur, a 50-year-old with a salt-and-pepper goatee, was headed from the taxi garage to a friend’s auto repair business nearby, where a number of Haitian and Haitian-American friends would be gathered in front of a TV for news from home.

For some, there were surprise phone calls.

“One of them just called me. I am so happy! I was so worried,’’ said James St. Paulin, 61, who has an adult daughter and son in Carrefour. On a borrowed phone, his son let him know they survived, with little time for details. “They were injured, but they are alive.’’

Passengers have been sensitive and aware, the drivers said.

“As soon as they get in the car they ask me if I’m Haitian. I say, ‘Yes.’ They say, ‘Oh, I am sorry about your country.’ They ask me if I hear from my family, and I say, ‘Not yet,’ and they tell me, ‘I hope your family is OK,’ ’’ said Serge Charles, a Dorchester resident who has been driving a cab for 20 years. He has three brothers in Port-au-Prince, and he spent the shift switching between WBZ News Radio and Haitian radio, his phone at the ready.

In an industry heavily populated with Haitians, USA Taxi stands out in particular. Of the company’s 100-plus drivers, roughly three-quarters come from Haiti, said Andrew Hebert, one of the managers. At least six drivers were in Haiti for vacation when the earthquake struck, their whereabouts still unknown last night. One of the drivers learned yesterday that his two young nephews had been killed, and that his father had buried them in the yard, said Dave Piazza, an owner and manager.

“It just breaks your heart,’’ Hebert said.

Outside, Hebert chatted with Pamphile, who was headed for home, and Yvon Celestin, just in from his shift. Celestin has been driving six days a week for nearly 23 years. He has taken thousands of people to Logan International Airport. Yesterday, he missed the exit. “I really can’t focus,’’ he said, standing near a stack of tires.

Pamphile told Hebert he may miss a workday or two next week, depending on how his mission goes. He planned to rent a motorbike in the Dominican Republic to cross to Haiti, noting which roads are passable, and then take his mother and nieces back by car. The trip, including airfare, could cost $5,000 or more.

“When I come back,’’ he said to Hebert, asking for a coveted overtime shift, “you have to give me two Saturday nights.’’ He managed a small laugh, and he got back on the phone.


Globe reporter Maria Sacchetti is in Haiti. (Globe File Photo) Globe reporter Maria Sacchetti is in Haiti.
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