Miami Stories

Miami Stories: Neighbors become family, city becomes ‘lakay’ — home

The building helped Fabienne Josaphat find neighbors that treat her like family and make Miami feel like home.
The building helped Fabienne Josaphat find neighbors that treat her like family and make Miami feel like home. Courtesy

I’ve been trying to leave Miami for a long time now.

Miami was my home after I left Haiti. Creole was in every corner, familiar faces spilled out of supermarkets and Quick Marts, and botanicas haunted every jitney bus and crowded every small church between businesses. I felt at home, lakay as we say in Haiti.

I loved the symbiosis of Haitian and Latin culture, be it Cuban or Dominican, because our food and our body language, our passion and our mannerisms, in many ways mirror each other. Miami was a pilon, a mortar and pestle, and the people under the pestle were the ingredients that brought out flavor.

Miami started to lose that flavor when I lost my job during the recession and my mortgage went under. Thirty percent of residences foreclosed in my building. My morale took a big blow and suddenly, I’d had enough. Enough of the neighbor’s 7 a.m. music displacing the art on my walls, enough of the mother and son-in-law caught in a daily soap opera of Te voy a matar next door, and enough of the sour faces that old lady made every morning down in the lobby, waiting for me to ask her how she was feeling just so she could tell me her ailments.

I was tired of the angry letters that came in the mail from our disgruntled new resident who was angry at the association for “lying about the pet policy.” The elevator hadn’t been inspected since 2007, and I was tired of having to climb seven flights of stairs. I dreaded board meetings, where one of our residents, a mustached veteran, consistently interrupted with objections and motions that always led to physical fights and, most recently, required the presence of the condo-board attorney as well as the local police.

I dreaded the woman who thought she was doing us a favor by chain-smoking in the stairwell where we carried our groceries up and down up the steps, leaving cigarette butts in her wake. When I came home, or left for work, I tried to avoid the neighbor who never spoke a word to me but sat there at the entrance, smoking by the carton and staring straight ahead even when I greeted him. He, too, was angry with the condo board, and was plotting ways to sue them by forming a coalition of residents calling themselves “the justice seekers.”

I didn’t even want to take my dogs out, for fear of having my neighbor call me from his second-floor apartment. “Hey! Pssssssst! HEY!” Every time I looked up, I saw his silhouette behind the screened patio gesturing for me to join him for a drink, and throwing his hands up in the air, exasperated, when I refused.

Drunkards were in every corner outside, downing six packs of Keystone and smashing bottles of Corona against the ground in a kind of blind rage aimed at their own condition, leaving the shards on the asphalt for dogs to cut their paws. They urinated behind trees and squatted on the embankment of the canal to relieve themselves, with no regard for mangrove crabs and iguanas, or humans for that matter.

I avoided the man who pushed his obnoxious shi-tzu around in a shopping cart because he threw eggs at other people’s cars. When my neighbor two doors down insisted on bringing my dogs chicken bones from his dinner plate, his mouth and fingers sticky with sauce, I dreaded taking them but accepted the offering with a feeble “thank you.”

When I became pregnant and gave birth to my son, I sunk even deeper into a new darkness of post-partum depression. My neighbors saw me pregnant, and when my baby spent a month in intensive care, they all wanted to know what had happened. I avoided them even more. I wouldn’t open the door for anyone.

It was when my husband and I came back home with the baby that I finally noticed a change in our neighbors. Suddenly, we were Joseph and Mary harboring baby Jesus. My neighbors were the Wise Men, come to see him bearing gifts and cards, and smiles. There were baby tubs and mobiles, even strollers and bouncy chairs at our door. Suddenly, the neighbors I felt uneasy with were friends.

No. Suddenly, my neighbors became family.

The “justice seeker” greets me happily and now opens the door for me when he sees me coming crushed under the weight of grocery bags. The mustached meeting interrupter who gave us the silent treatment now addresses my husband with a “hello.” The letter-writer hasn’t mailed us manifestos threatening to call “Help Me Howard” in a while. Now, at the end of a long day when I rush home to see my baby’s face and kiss him, part of that longing includes a yearning for a waft of that Cuban coffee from my neighbor’s kitchen right before he stops by to offer me bones.

Yes, my building is the manger, and it feels like everyone has morphed overnight into benevolent creatures full of good will.

Or is it me who changed?

Perhaps it is this new love that opened me up to them. To letting them tickle my son’s toes, to lending them aluminum foil, to handing them holiday cards and dialing their family overseas when their eyesight fails them. They are family.

I’m working now, and my baby is healthy, and I spend less time thinking of moving away. Now, at least for a while, Miami is lakay. Miami is home.

Fabienne Josaphat will be appear at the book fair on Nov. 21. For more information, visit http://miamibookfair.com/authors/.

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About Miami Stories: This project is a partnership between HistoryMiami, Miami Herald Media Co., WLRN and Michael Weiser, chairman of the National Conference on Citizenship.

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